Yesterday morning, as I dressed my mother and
rubbed lotion on her chapped legs, my forearm
tattoo caught my eye. "Love You Mom," written in
my mother's bold and distinct handwriting, gave
me pause for a deep breath and minute to
reflect. Mom has been in and out of the hospital
for the past two months dealing with
complications from what should've been a routine
surgery. At minimal it has been emotional,
frustrating, and exhausting. But at that moment,
that's not what I felt. Instead I smiled,
thinking about the woman behind the big swooping
letters that branded my skin. Mom.
"If that's the worst thing that happens in
your life, well hell, that's a pretty good
life." -- Mom
The first time I remember hearing that quote was
the first time I got my heart broken: high
school. I went to Mom for comfort, and I got
that instead. Damn. Later, I would accept that
Mom was right. I would hear this same "advice"
again the first time I got fired. And the
second…and the third time. I heard it again
after my divorce. And each time the message
initially stung, but would prove to be true. As
long as I have freedom to move and air in my
lungs, I'll be alright. So even on my worst
days, I'm living a pretty good life.
"Can't never could." -- Mom
I've spoken, written, and tweeted about Mom a
lot. None of which she has ever heard or read.
It's not that she doesn't care, it's just that
she doesnt care. And I mean that in the most
loving of ways. Mom has been too busy to read my
blogs, watch all my games, listen to my
speeches, or even know what a tweet is. She's
been too busy raising eight kids alone, only
three of whom she gave birth to. Too busy
working 30 plus years on an auto-assembly line
to support those eight kids. Too busy working
overtime so she could pay for my basketball
camps or buy my track spikes. Too busy being in
everyone else's business. Too busy being a
living, breathing, hard-working example for me
and the other seven. Before Inky Johnson, there
was Bonnie Miller and "can’t" was never an
option for her, therefore it wasn't for me.
"Math is hard. I can't pass it."
"Well you better sign up for free tutoring or
get some nerdy friends to help you."
"I can't make it here. Coach hates me."
"If you can't make it in Ann Arbor, you sure as
hell can't make it in Flint so I suggest you
work harder. You're out of places to go."
She didn't have to tell me she was proud of me
the day I graduated from the University of
Michigan -- the smile on her face said it all. I
could. I did.
"What do you want? A pickle?” -- Mom
Praise didn't come cheap in the Miller home. It
was earned. You didn't get pats on the back for
meeting basic expectations. And the most basic
of expectations was to do your best. If your
best was an A, and you got an A, well then
insert fake applause. If your best was an A, and
you got a C, you're on punishment alert. Simple.
I never knew how she knew what my best was on
each occasion, but she did. And If I
underachieved on the court, track, classroom, or
in life, she let me know. In her own special
way. If I did my best, that validated mom. My
accomplishments made her feel as if her own life
wasn't in vain. My Mom didn’t plan on getting
pregnant at a young age and dropping out of high
school. That wasn't the life she intended for
herself, but it was her life. She didn't run
from it. She embraced it. And as bleak as it
probably was at times, in those moments I
excelled, the sacrifices she made for me became
"More than a handful is wasted." --
"Ain’t nobody ever gonna ask you for your feet."
This, I'm convinced, was my Mom's way of saying,
"Hey kid -- love yourself. ALL of yourself. From
your big feet to your small breasts."
My Mom knew that before I could even begin to
expect anyone else to love me -- I had to learn
to love myself. This was hard. I struggled
accepting this lesson from my Mom, a woman, whom
I witnessed being emotionally and physically
abused by her husbands.
Years later, as an adult living in St. Louis, I
passionately threw myself into volunteer work at
a center that provided support for women in
domestic violent relationships. Mom's experience
drove me. I get it now, as an adult, what I was
incapable of comprehending as a young girl. As I
became immersed in my volunteer work, supporting
women in need, I was able to truly grasp just
how tough and strong mom really was to endure
what she did. I developed a sense of compassion
and empathy. "Accept yourself. Love yourself.
Your big feet and small breasts. Your height and
your awkwardness. You don't need any more than
you already have. And people are going to love
you for you. Be strong enough to walk away, when
it's time to walk away. Because there will come
a time when you'll have to. And during that
time, you will remember what I said and what I
could not do, and that will help you."
And once again, she was right.
"One thing I can't stand and that's a liar
and a thief." -- Mom
Well actually that's two things. But she was
angry at the time and I certainly wasn't going
to correct her. Be a good person. Be an honest
person. Don't take stuff that doesn't belong to
you. Pretty simple.
"Love You Mom" -- Mom's signature
(on 99% of the graduation, birthday, Christmas,
and other occasion cards she's ever sent me)
Grammatically incorrect. Simple. Succinct. Mom.
In 2014, Mom was diagnosed with ataxia
cerebellum, a neurological disorder that will
eventually take away her motor skills. Upon
diagnosis I had this "Love You Mom"
signature tattooed on my forearm. To me, it
represents presence, gratitude, and acceptance.
So as I helped my mother get dressed yesterday
in that hospital room and brought comfort to her
dry skin, I felt contemplative and at peace. I
am not used to being the caregiver, nor the
tough one in this relationship. But as I took
care of Mom in that moment, a moment of absolute
exposure and vulnerability, I realized she had
prepared me for this … and so much more.
"Love You Mom" is not just a signature on my
forearm, but it is a full sleeve of 45-years
worth of idioms, antidotes, unsolicited advice,
and life lessons.
I have tried so hard to avoid becoming my
mother. I think many of us do. What I've come to
realize, and gratefully accept, is that I AM my
mother. I control the controllables. I take care
of my people. I feel deeply, and believe that
life is learned as you go. I know there is no
substitute for hard work, and when you
experience loss, allow yourself to grieve and
then after, keep it moving. I even sign 99% of
the cards and emails with a simple and succinct
catch phrase of my own. "Win the Day."
Mom will be OK this time around. She's too
stubborn and nosey to leave us just yet. But I
have been reminded in the last two months, that
life is unpredictable. Don't wait until a
funeral to give flowers. Dead people can't
smell. (I told you I am my mother!)
Take a moment to pause and reflect on someone
who has left an indelible impression on your
life…. and tell them.
Love YOU, Mom.