Monday, April 22, 2019

Scholarship in honor of my daddy

As many of you know, my daddy passed away in January 2017 at the age of 57 after a hard fought battle with colon cancer. His loss has been devastating for me. I’ve written about my grief and continue to process life without him. Grief will be with me forever. I’ve accepted that and have been trying to put some of my emotions into something positive that would extend my daddy’s legacy.

Back in 2014, I wrote myself a note of dreams that I didn’t show anyone. One of the dreams on that list was to establish a scholarship. 5 years later, I could have never imagined that the scholarship would be a memorial scholarship in honor of my daddy, but I’m learning that sometimes our dreams don’t manifest the way we initially imagined. Instead, God has a way of bringing our dreams into reality in far greater ways than we could have imagined. My daddy was always a strong prominent of education. He valued education and instilled that in us so, doing a scholarship aligns with something that was important to him. As well, my daddy graduated from North College Hill (NCH) High School and so did myself and 2 of my siblings. As well, all 8 of my daddy’s siblings, my grandmother, and a host of cousins and other family members graduated from NCH, which makes the scholarship being there even more special.

The Leonard A. Johnson Sr. Memorial Scholarship (under the North College Hill Scholarship Foundation) has been a labor of love. There were so many people who helped make this a reality. My husband Emmanuel got the ball rolling by contacting the school and discovering the process for setting up a scholarship. He was instrumental in getting it off the ground and doing the initial leg work. I’m so grateful for my husband who selflessly gives and wanted to help me honor my daddy in this way. I’m thankful for the administrators at NCH who made the process easy and were supportive of us getting it off the ground. I’m thankful for my friends, Laura & Steve, who graciously and patiently, helped me develop the website and create a space where people could learn more about who my daddy was, what the scholarship is about, and how to contribute to the scholarship if they felt led. I am forever grateful for their support and encouragement in making this a reality. Because family is important to me and my daddy, I wanted this to be something my siblings and I did together. Once we got the ball rolling, I invited them to be part of this scholarship and they agreed. It feels great to do something as siblings to honor my daddy. I think he’d be proud of us.

The Leonard A. Johnson Sr. Memorial Scholarship will annually award three students each a $1000 scholarship toward their college expenses. This May, we will get to award the first three students with the scholarship. My siblings, our spouses, and I have already contributed the $3000 for the students this year to receive the scholarship. Our hope moving forward is that the scholarship would be a communal effort funded by people who loved my daddy, love my siblings and I, or want to be part of continuing his legacy. Our hope is that this scholarship would go on far past any of our lives and that generations would know the man my daddy was and impact he had on me and so many others.

So for my birthday (April 22nd) this year, I’m asking that instead of folks giving me something or even saying kind words about me, that you would consider donating to the Leonard A. Sr. Memorial Scholarship, which benefits high school seniors at North College Hill High School. Any amount is greatly appreciated and it will be open all year for you to donate!  I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday this year than by honoring the man who helped give me life. I hope you’ll join me in continuing his legacy.  

Photo credit: Dr. Stephen Becker

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Grief and the Holidays

Grief has taken center stage over the last month. Grief decided that it would now take the leading role in my life; that its show would run an extra month, with encores as the norm. It’s not that grief hadn’t been a part of my life prior to the last month. It’s that this time, it took up more space, made itself at home, and decided it was comfortable staying for a longer period of time.

Grief has manifested in a myriad of ways over the past month.
Grief has looked like exhaustion, where getting out of bed in the morning is the hardest task of the day.  
Grief has looked like a lack of focus. Being sidetracked at every turn.
Grief has looked like attitude. Being irritable and impatient at all the small things.
Grief has looked like isolation. A lack of excitement of being around people, which is not normal for an extrovert like me.
Grief has looked like loneliness. Knowing the people who, unfortunately, “get it” because they’ve lost a parent, have their own grief to carry.

Grief has looked like tears.
Grief has looked like anger.
Grief has looked like sadness.
Grief has looked like frustration.
Grief has looked like jealousy.
Grief has looked messy.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why grief was more prominent recently. There hadn’t been anything that triggered these intense emotions. Then I realized that it’s because we are in the midst of the holiday season. Thanksgiving had mostly been spent with my daddy’s side of the family growing up. It was the norm to spend the holidays with him and his siblings. This year was only the second Thanksgiving without my daddy and I’ve been sad about it.
I’ve been sad that my daddy isn’t here to celebrate the holidays with us. That we’ll never enjoy his macaroni and cheese, green beans, chili, cheese and eggs, or cube steak again. I’m sad that I’ll never hear him singing along to Celine Dion’s Christmas album, which was his favorite. I’m sad that I won’t get to watch him slowly open every Christmas gift he received and be genuinely grateful for all of them. I’m just sad.

I’ve tried to will myself into being happy for the sake of those around me. To be happy for my family, friends, and colleagues, but I don’t have the emotional energy. I had a friend reach out to ask how I was doing. It’s been 3 days and I haven’t responded. Not because I’m being rude or don’t want to, but I haven’t responded because I feel bad that I’m not doing well and that’s hard to express because most people expect and are used to happy Mika.

I feel bad that my response won’t be uplifting and hopeful.
I feel bad that I’m in a hard season.
I feel bad that I feel defeated by grief.
I feel bad that I don’t have anything to give to those around me because I can barely give anything to myself.
I just feel bad.

And yet, I’ve continued to show up over the past month. I’ve continued to show up to my job, for my friends and family,  giving of myself emotionally and mentally. And I’m tired. And grief sucks. And I’m sad.

There’s no pretty bow at the end of this. No way to wrap it up and leave you all feeling hopeful and affirmed. Instead, I’ll say that if you have family or friends who have lost someone that is important to them (no matter how long ago it was or how recent), reach out and tell them you’re thinking of them. Let them know that you’re willing to listen about their loved one (only if you mean it). Send them a text and tell them you don’t know what to say but wanted to reach out anyway. Do anything except give them radio silence, because grief can be extra complicated around the holidays.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Until it happens to you

Some things you can’t fully understand until they happen to you. There have been two experiences that ring true for me in this regard.
Marriage and losing a parent.
Opposite ends of the spectrum.
Joy and pain.
Beginning and end.
Happiness and heartache.
Peace and sorrow.
Life and death.
I used to have opinions about other people’s marriages, wondering why they did things certain ways. And then I got married. And my eyes were opened. I realized that no one is in your relationship and understands why you do certain things except for you and your spouse. I realized that marriages are intimate and even with your best effort you don’t truly get that until you’re married yourself. This revelation has made me less judgmental and more supportive of the decisions people make in their marriages.
Similarly, I didn’t understand the full depth of grief one could experience when you lose a parent until my daddy died. How can one anticipate the hole that will be left in your heart? The ache that never leaves; it only fades. How can one prepare to have their life turned upside down? To have moments where you wonder how you will continue living life. How can one grasp how lonely the grief journey is? A longing that penetrates deeply; a depth of emptiness that lingers. Always feeling like something is missing.
When my daddy was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, he asked me to call and let his 8 siblings know. I remember feeling so overwhelmed and yet honored by this task. That he trusted me enough to do this and yet I wondered how I’d get through it. This memory has stuck with me. While at a conference last week, I participated in a storytelling exercise through dear world. During the exercise, I decided to write the story about finding out my daddy had cancer and sharing it with his siblings. As I worked on this and shared with one of the volunteers, the phrase that stood out to me was “Their emotion was real & I was numb”. With each phone call, my aunts and uncles expressed real emotion; sadness, anger, and shock were conveyed when hearing the news of their brother’s diagnosis. And yet after the third time sharing the news, I’d become numb. Not because I didn’t care, but because I was protecting myself. Protecting my heart and soul from the reality of the diagnosis. Protecting myself from the pain. Protecting myself from being angry at God that this happened to my daddy. Protecting.
And that’s part of the reason why I haven’t written for some time about my daddy. Not because I don’t think about him, or care about him, but because I’ve been protecting myself from feeling. Feeling the pain of grief and loss. Protecting myself from the reality that my daddy will miss seeing me hit some personal and professional milestones. Protecting myself from others. Because most people don’t have the capacity to sit with with the pain I carry. Not to heal my pain, but to just be with me and let you feel the pain. We all want a solution, an ending. But with grief, it isn’t like that. I’m not going to wake up one day and all of a sudden be done grieving my daddy. I'm on this journey forever.

Before my daddy died, I’d feel uncomfortable when people would post on social media about their dead parents or talk about their parent’s death. I never knew what to say or how to respond. Like am I supposed to like their post? Or comment? Pretend I didn’t see it? A part of me felt like they should “move on” with their life and live. And then my daddy died and I got it. I finally understood the desire to share your loved one with the world. The yearning to express what this person meant to you. The longing to keep their memory alive. I get it now. And I will always talk about my daddy. Regardless of how uncomfortable or annoyed it makes people. Because now, part of my life is keeping his legacy alive and making sure people remember more than his death, but the way he lived his life. And you’ll never understand that until it happens to you.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Stuffed Bear

I did an activity with my student staff where everyone was asked to bring an item that was meaningful and important to them, and then describe that item to the group. I always knew what item I would bring, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d say or how I’d describe it. How does one convey a love so deep? How does one communicate memories that feel distant? How does a seemingly insignificant item like a stuffed bear now represent so much? What would I say?

I wanted to say more. I wanted to convey the heartache that is as strong and dark as my morning black coffee. I wanted to communicate how grief feels like the wind; strong and invisible, coming from nowhere but seemingly always present. I wanted to explain the numbness that now resides in my body; protecting me from myself. I wanted to describe how my life now feels like it’s in a constant fog, making it difficult to see the light, though I know it exists.

15 months later and it sometimes feels taboo to talk about my daddy. Yet, I yearn to share more about him. About his life and the legacy he left behind. About what it feels like to slowly watch someone die. About what being a caregiver is like. About how I’m not as strong as people think. About how my daddy’s love of golf has slowly rubbed off on me. About my daddy’s incredible ability to cook such delicious food. About. About. About.

But I knew last night wasn’t the space. Not for all of it at least. But it was the place to say something. To share that my daddy died of colon cancer. To share that I’m nervous I will slowly forget memories of him. To share how much I miss him. The stuffed teddy bear, that my twin sister's friend graciously made, means so much to me because it’s made of some of his old clothes. His golf shirt that brings back memories of him teaching me how to golf, a sport he adored. His sweater that kept his body warm and reminds me of his warm spirit. The plaid shirt which he wore for our final family photos just weeks before he died. He was such a trooper as we posed for photos in my backyard, knowing these would be some of our last memories together. The stuffed bear reminds me of my daddy. As it sits in our living room, I’m reminded of the man he was. I’m reminded of his legacy.

When my daddy died, a piece of me died with him. A part of my soul now buried in soil too deep to find and too heavy to carry. As I lost a piece of my soul, I gained a piece of my dad’s. His soul breathes life into my heart and carries me forward as I try to live a life he’d be proud of.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Honoring my daddy's legacy

I can’t believe it’s been a year since my daddy died, and what a year it has been. There were many low points. And yet, in the midst of my grief I’ve wanted to honor my daddy’s legacy. He was a great man who taught me many things and instilled great values in me. As I seek to honor his legacy, I reflect on some of the values he instilled in me that motivate me to live my life well.

From a young age, I can remember, education was always a priority in our household. As a young kid, reading was the norm and expectation at our home. I vividly remember participating in summer reading clubs at the public library and always wanting to buy more books through the scholastic book sale at school. My daddy read with me and birthed in me this love of reading. I still carry this love with me today. I can easily find myself engrossed in a book for hours. I love books and even have a problem buying more books than I have time to read, lol! I’m so grateful that he inspired in me the desire to read and helped me see how reading can open up my imagination and provide me with new knowledge.
I’m also thankful that my daddy would come to school with us. I remember when he first starting doing this and how embarrassed I was! I didn't quite understand his motivation to willingly spend an entire day at school with us. However, as I got older, I began to understand his desire to do this and it gave me a great sense of pride. I was proud that my daddy loved and cared for me enough that he wanted to sit in my classes to see what my teachers were teaching me and to understand what my school experience was truly like. I was proud to show him off to my teachers and friends. I’m thankful for him tangibly showing how much he valued my education. That value he placed in me will never go away. It inspired me to go to college, continue on for a Master’s degree, and has motivated me to stay in my PhD program.  My daddy helped me see how education could help lead to many possibilities. The value he imparted in me is one I try to share with the students I get the privilege of serving alongside on college campuses. For that I’m so grateful.
My daddy was an AMAZING cook! As I reflect back on my childhood, no matter how tight our financial situation, we always had a good meal to eat. I am forever grateful for that. My favorite food memories are the big breakfasts he cooked for us. These included steak and gravy, cheese and eggs, grits, biscuits and orange juice. When we had these weekend breakfasts, my heart would be so happy. I still have not perfected the cheese and eggs, but hope to one day master it (hopefully my aunt Robin will share the family secret!). My daddy taught me that food is truly the way to someone’s heart and the power of food can bring people together. I have tried to honor his legacy by continuing to cook and get better at the craft. I mean I must be making some progress because I’m allowed to make the macaroni & cheese for family gatherings. In the Black community, THIS. IS. A. BIG. DEAL. I know my daddy would be proud! Being in the kitchen always makes me feel connected to him.
My daddy instilled in me the importance of family. A lot of this I learned by just observing him and his interactions with his family. The way he spent time with his family and how close he was to his siblings and cousins was inspiring.The connection and bond within the Thompson /Johnson family is unbreakable. I am so grateful for this value in my life. It has shaped the way Emmanuel and I live our life and how we prioritize family. My daddy was also dedicated to preserving our family history. I’m so grateful for the many Thompson family reunions I’ve gotten to attend and the opportunity to meet so many of my cousins (shoutout to my first pen pal, cousin Joi!). This has instilled in me a desire to keep up with our family history and ensure my future kids and grandkids know the legacy they come from. I’m thankful my daddy didn’t just say family was important, but lived that way.
My daddy’s love of poetry and ability to write poetry well has always inspired me. I love how everyone in the family always came to my daddy to write poems for other family members. It was such an honor to watch him do this. I remember the family wanted him to write a poem for Aunt Frances’ funeral, but it was his chemotherapy week & he wasn’t feeling great. He told the family he didn’t think he could do it. However, my daddy always shows up and shows out & literally finished writing the poem at viewing and was able to recite it during the funeral! He had a way with words that made it look so easy. This love of words and poetry was passed on to me. I love poetry. It is the language of my soul. It is the way I best express myself. It is my favorite genre of writing. Poetry is a part of me. I owe my love of poetry to my daddy. I’m thankful that my daddy was such a talented writer and for his willingness to share his love of writing with me. I am forever grateful for him introducing me to poetry. It has been a lifeline for me. My daddy will always be my first and favorite poet and I will honor his legacy by continuing to write poetry.

I could write a book about all my daddy has taught me. So much of who I am is because of who he was. My hope is to honor his legacy by living a great life. My daddy lived well until his dying day. My hope is that I can do the same and honor his legacy.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Living through the unimaginable

Living through the unimaginable. That’s what the past 2 years have felt like. It might seem naive, but I never thought my daddy would get cancer. It just seemed like something that would bypass him. So when we received his diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer, I was devastated. Everything moved so fast. I never imagined it to be so bad, but it was. My daddy asked me to call his 8 siblings and a few close family members to let them know the horrific news. At first I felt like a robot, going through the motions and repeating the same script each time. But as I sat outside in front of the hospital, I remember taking a breath and sitting with the gravity of the news I was sharing. It was heart wrenching. I didn’t want to believe what I knew was true. My daddy was dying.

For 9 months I gracefully cared for my daddy as he bravely fought colon cancer. I loved being his caregiver. I loved being able to take him to most of his chemotherapy appointments. I loved him living with us & spending so much time together. I loved that he was able to teach me how to golf. I loved watching Wheel of Fortune & Jeopardy with him in the evenings. I just loved being able to love him in such tangible ways.

Even as I loved all those things, watching him slowly die daily and then grieving his death has been awful. I never imagined that grief would rip my heart out. Nobody prepares you to grieve. Most people are uncomfortable even talking about death and grief. So here I am trying to navigate grief with no roadmap while still being a wife, PhD student, sibling, and friend. I’m convinced I still haven’t figured it out even though most people see me being seemingly functional. However, most people don’t see it all.

What people don’t see are the days I don’t get out of bed. The ways in which depression plagued me for most of the summer.

What people don’t see is the depth of the grief I experience. The grip of grief is so tight that at moments I feel like I can’t breathe.

What people don’t see are the many moments I’ve cried in the kitchen. As I’m preparing a meal and remember all the dishes my daddy taught me how to prepare.

What people don’t see is the fog that grief has produced in my life. The thick fog that makes me slower at every task and makes everything blurry.

What people don’t see is that my mind is never fully present. Because no matter where I’m at, something always reminds me of my daddy.

What people don’t see is that I carry my grief with me everyday. Sometimes the weight of it is too much to bear and other days it feels light. However, it’s always with me.

There are so many things people don’t see, can’t understand, and won’t experience because they thankfully have not experienced the devastating pain of losing one or both parents. Even those who have lost one or both of their parents can’t fully understand my experience because each of us are different and grieve in different ways.

So, I wrote my way out.

I wrote my out of the shame of talking about my daddy too much. I will protect his legacy. I will write about him. I will talk about him. And if that’s too much for people, then that’s their baggage to deal with, not mine.

I wrote my out of despair. Wondering what I want my life to be about, who I want to be in the world, and what I want my legacy to be.

I wrote my out of silence. Vowing to not grieve in isolation. Knowing I’m not the only one who experienced loss and that my words might empower someone else to speak their own.

I wrote my way out. Many entries no other eyes but mine will ever see.

And sometimes I couldn't write, because as the lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton, so eloquently says,There are moments that the words don't reach, there is suffering too terrible to name”. There were moments where my grief had me trapped, took my voice, and left me speechless. Because when you live through the unimaginable, there will never be enough words to describe your pain.

And yet, my faith reminds me that Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. I know Earth was never my daddy’s home. I know he is with Jesus in heaven. And even in the comfort of this truth, my heart still breaks and my soul still weeps.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


You know when your mind is racing and it won’t stop? Or when you want to shut off your brain but instead it keeps replaying moments over and over again? That’s been my last 2 weeks.

It started around Christmas, but amplified when I couldn’t fall asleep on New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sleep because I was out partying or doing anything worthwhile (I was watching a marathon of Law & Order: SVU #TeamOliviaBenson). I was wide awake because my thoughts were occupied with the last 2 weeks of my daddy’s life.

I remembered that a year ago we were driving my daddy to the emergency room because he had been in pain all day. He had been crying, squirming, and feeling miserable.

I remember sitting on the basement steps for hours while he was in pain. Giving him medicine, waiting to see if the medicine would kick in, keeping track of the intervals between doses, praying God would relieve him of his pain and bring healing to him on earth.

I remember sitting on the basement steps just watching him. Not knowing what else to do. Wondering why this had to happen to him.

I remember seeing him finally fall asleep for a few hours, while the pain subsided. I would go right above his face to make sure he was still breathing. Feeling a moment of relief because finally he was getting a reprieve from the pain, but it was only short lived before the pain returned and we did this dance over again. I didn’t realize that would be his last time in our basement.

That night at the hospital was hard to watch. I’d seen my daddy in pain before, but nothing like this. I felt like I was pleading with the nurse to hurry and administer the meds, to have the doctor come soon, to do anything to make his pain subside. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion.

And I was scared.  Scared that this was the beginning of the end. I had no clue we were so close to saying goodbye. This hospital trip was the first time the doctor mentioned hospice. I was taken aback. But you wouldn’t have known because my job as my daddy’s caregiver and POA was to be clear minded, take all the notes down to then share with my family, and advocate for my daddy. There was no time to feel. To sit with the weight of goodbye. No time  to sit with the weight of goodbye...No time  to sit with the weight of goodbye...

As I remember his last 2 weeks of life, I’m replaying every moment. Wishing I would have said more and did more. I wish I would have known we only had days not months left with my daddy.

I traveled to Chicago for work last week. I took this same work trip a year ago and sat with those memories of last year.  The day I returned from my work trip last year was when we met with the hospice folks and made the decision for him to begin hospice care. I knew my daddy wouldn't make the decision without me there. I knew this was a hard but necessary decision for him. I knew the end was getting closer and that realization was heartbreaking.

The last picture I have of my daddy alive is from the Saturday before he passed away. He’s in his hospice bed at home. He is on his phone, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. He doesn’t even know I took the picture because I’m in the dining room. It’s the quiet before the storm. Just him and I at the house before it’s filled with family saying their goodbyes. Because although he wouldn’t die for another 5 days, this day is his last true one. The last one where he was himself. Surrounded by those who loved him, my daddy being the life of the party. Just as he would want to be remembered.

That Saturday is etched in my heart forever. I remember his smile. I remember his jokes. I remember his positive attitude. But most importantly, I remember his love. His love that helps mend my broken heart. His love that helps dry my sad tears. His love that helps heal my devastated soul. I’ll forever remember my daddy.