[Image description: This photograph shows the author on the left and his mother on the right. The author is a young mixed-race man, with a medium skin tone and shoulder-length straightened hair, sitting on a ledge. He is wearing sunglasses, a billed beanie, and a white shirt and jeans. His mother is a Black woman with dark skin, curly black hair, a white visor, glasses, and a leather coat. This image was taken at Disneyland in late 2007 by the author’s father.]
In remembrance of my mother, Gail D. Davis-Fradet, 9/11/1956-1/22/2009
When I was 17, my mother began experiencing tremendous lower back pain, and no one in my family could quite figure out why. Due to some medical issues years prior, my mom was instructed by doctors to lose weight, and she did. She was instructed to exercise more, and she did. She was instructed to eat healthier, and she did. My mother was living as “healthy” a lifestyle as she possibly could, so why did she start experiencing such intense back pain that she missed work and couldn’t drive?
The various doctors she consulted about the pain did little to actually help her figure out the source. She was 51 at the time, and the doctors simply chalked it up to “getting old.” My mother asked her doctors to perform whatever tests they had that would help diagnose the issue, but they refused and gave her pain pills. Again, they told her to lose weight, to exercise more, to eat healthier, and she did. But even though she took the pain pills and followed the doctor’s orders, the pain didn’t subside. It actually got worse.
In March 2008, my father rushed my mother to the emergency room. She had had enough. She couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and nothing they did at home helped her — not the extra padding on the bed, not the back rest, not the topical treatments, nothing. It was upon an overnight stay in the emergency room that my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. This was the diagnosis we were all asking to see but never wanted to believe was the case.
On September 11, 1956, my mother was born in Indianapolis, IN and moved to San Diego, CA six months later. In San Diego, my mother was raised in a middle-class Black and Native American mixed-race household. Schooling was not a top priority in her family, so my mother sought jobs in the food-service industry. That is how she met my father, who was a catering manager at the restaurant where she was a hostess. They got married, moved to the suburbs, had three kids—my two sisters and myself—and my mother found her passion: helping others.
My mother would dedicate the rest of her life to helping other people in any way she could. She began running a successful daycare out of our home as a way not only to make money, but also to take care of her children. From there, my mother got her bachelor’s degree in psychology, started her career as a social worker with organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission, and still found the energy to care for my sisters and me every day. No matter what, my mother put other people ahead of herself. She understood happiness as seeing those she loved and those she helped be happy. She wanted everyone around her to love themselves so much that – just maybe – she overlooked loving herself in the process.
When she was diagnosed, my mom was working full-time with a non-profit organization that helped people with disabilities find independent living opportunities. She was also going to school full-time getting her master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology. After working eight or more hours per day, she would go straight to her evening classes nearly every day. When she wasn’t in class, she was at home reading for class—at least the readings she hadn’t already completed over session breaks to trump her dyslexia before it potentially hindered her performance in class. She was so dedicated to her program and the brighter future it promised her that, when she got the cancer diagnosis, she wanted to go right back to school.
My family eventually came to the conclusion that her lung cancer was most likely a result of three things. The first was second-hand smoke; at her last place of employment, the air vent in her office was directly connected to the air vent on the street, and people constantly (and illegally) smoked directly in front of it. On top of the constant exposure to second-hand smoke, there was a potential genetic predisposition to lung cancer on my mother’s side of the family. We knew that her mother, who had been a life-long smoker, had died of lung cancer, but we soon made the connection of my mother’s diagnosis to her mother’s father, who had also died of lung cancer but had never smoked either.
The last and most pertinent potential cause, as her doctors pointed out, was her stress level. My mother never really got to relax. When she wasn’t at work, she was at school; when she wasn’t at school, she was doing homework; when she actually got to get away from it all, she was constantly worried about her responsibilities on top of making sure my sisters and I were okay. The constant pressure she placed herself under essentially allowed the cancer to spread at a very rapid rate, especially considering the fact that, as her new doctors said, she had the internal body of a 35-year old – contrary to her other doctors who had said she was just “getting old”.
My mother is my definition of a warrior because, at every turn of her adult life, she fought for what she believed in—making sure that as many people were as happy as possible. Her warrior mentality, though, may have ultimately turned her into a martyr, representing the good in life that gets tainted and taken for granted until it gets destroyed. Her love was eternal. It was radical. It was inspiring.
After I went away to college for my first quarter, I returned for the Thanksgiving break to find out that my mother had been moved to hospice. Although her prognosis was borderline positive after she had stopped being given Percocet and was actually able to walk around on her own, the cancer had spread too much into her bones. I had seen my mom bedridden after chemo, but I had never seen her so emaciated, so hopeless, and so sad as when I first visited her in hospice right after getting off of my flight. She felt that she had failed not only herself and her body, but also her family, her friends, her coworkers, and her classmates. Knowing that she had always lived with such high ambition, she compared herself to Icarus, saying she wanted to keep flying higher and higher until it ultimately became her demise. If we are to accept the stress she always put herself under as a cause for her cancer spreading so quickly, maybe she was right. But that’s far from the way I wanted to remember her.
I visited her again on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday—just before her new idol Barack Obama’s inauguration—and she had a much different message for me as she approached her death. After spending the night on the couch in her hospice room, I was getting ready to fly back to Santa Cruz when she told me something that has always stuck with me. She asked me to lean into her, and she said into my ear, “Humanity, not tolerance.” At first, I was a bit surprised, because the “not tolerance” part initially seemed so opposite to what she had normally preached. But after giving myself some time to process those three words, I knew what she really meant. She was reminded me that, first and foremost, the most important thing we can do is treat other people with the respect and dignity they deserve, and to never deny someone their humanity. This concept of humanity goes beyond a simple notion of tolerance, as it means putting in the often complex work to ensure the happiness and safety of those who are refused such rights.
My mother died on January 22, 2009. I was devastated by her death, but I ultimately knew that her story needed to be shared with anyone who is willing to listen. I never want her story to come off as an anti-smoking PSA, or as a diatribe reflecting a lack of trust for the health care system. My purpose in telling this story is for people to understand that we have to listen to our bodies. We know our bodies better than anyone else, especially when it comes to pain, so if you feel that something is wrong, do your best to make sure it gets checked out as thoroughly as possible. Ultimately, though, I want to you all to understand the dedication my mother had to making those around her happy, despite the stress, despite the cancer. I want you all to take what my mother told me in that hospice room—“Humanity, not tolerance”—and see how those words apply to your own lives and your own dedication to radical self-love. What conversations can you start today about radical love for all people?
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[Headline image: The photograph shows a black woman with a bald head and a serious expression on her face. She is looking down and a little to the side. She has a bump on her chest and is wearing a white shirt.]