To me, it was no coincidence that in October, the month of Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, that just before mid-night of Saturday, October 28, 2017, my mom, Doris A.M. Thomas, quietly slipped away to “go home” to her Maker.
She had announced to me and the family, in early August of that year, that she was ready to move on because she was tired of living and had done everything that she ever wanted to do. I knew she had a serious determination, what she called her motto, “the will to live”, and I had seen this “will” many times in my life-time, so I tried to challenge her to stay. She was the rock that was stead-fast for her marriage, her family, her community, her church, her jobs, then her business she started at age 65, and her group, the Cameo Club as the founder. She went to her Ms. Senior D.C. Pagent in August, and listened as she was described as the oldest of the Ms. Senior D.C. queens, crowned in 1972, but she told me after the great program that honored her, “that this would be her last pageant. She said quite calmly with resolve, “I/ve survived cancer twice, survived the death of my husband’s brain cancer, the untimely deaths of both my sons and grandson, and a whole lot of confusion, abuse, and yes, good times too, for 53 years of marriage to your Dad – I.m. tired”. It would be many days of concern as we saw our Mom turn from a healthy senior with no serious health issues, to a shadow of herself, as she literally willed herself to die. She actually begged God to take her home. And, she was so ready....had written all of her obituary, her plans, had paid for most of her expenses, and helped my two sisters plan her "great home-going EVENT" we called it. She was 92 at her passing, and her contributions in making a better world, was a glowing testament of a life worth-lived.
One of her biggest contributions was her involvement as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society and October was “a very important” time for her. My Mom, became afflicted with breast cancer, in 1968, the year before I graduated from high school and I became part of her “care-taking team.”. My Dad found her lump, he often bragged, and despite it being a small tumor, it resulted in surgical removal of her left breast (radical mastectomy) and all of the lymph nodes under her armpit. . After undergoing 45 radiation and chemotherapy treatments, my Mom realized her deep desire to help other women who faced the same challenges. She joined the “Reach To Recovery Program” of the American Cancer Society, visiting in hospitals and homes of countless, women, supporting , praying and motivating them right after their breast cancer surgeries. Eventually she became a spokesperson, featured on radio, television, and in public advertisements on behalf of the Society, encouraging women that “there is life after cancer”. For her consistent volunteerism, she was awarded the American Cancer Society’s most prestigious recognition, The Bartlett Award, named for one of their pioneers.
Although 7 years after her breast removal, she developed cancer in her hips, and again managed radiation but also incorporated a new paradigm shift in her personal treatment. She said that I had motivated her to use more natural approaches and vegetarianism, so she stopped smoking, did lots of stretching and dance movements, attended a yoga class, and later acclaimed that she had survived cancer for over 49 years by living a wholistic life-style of increased breathing, relaxation, moving, and limited medicines!
While, I was drawn to a wholistic lifestyle as early as 1970, due in part to my Mom’s health , I remember as a young child destined to pursue this lifestyle. I was pushed into eating meat, very sensitive to the fate of animals being killed for us to eat them. I remember being terrified, watching a restaurant cook boil some crabs, while they were alive, and feeling their pain. I was really into nature, plants, talked to trees, and dis-liked violence of all kinds despite my being a tom-girl who loved to physically, tackle down my older brothers on the football field. Quite an introvert, shy, a reader, a writer of poetry, observant, and super sensitive, I felt the inter-relationships of everything, especially people and their emotions. So, I grew into adolescence, care-taking my Mom, and in some ways my Dad, who I began to notice that he would drink something that made his behavior change, and next he would be asleep at the dinner table. I would wake him up and help him into bed. Then, I was given the responsibility of helping my younger sisters, 12 and 10 years younger than myself.
So, I grew into adolescence, care-taking my Mom, and in some ways my Dad. I was “wired” to be a helper and by age 15, I declared I wanted to be a social worker.
From this framework as a helper and a care-taker, I wanted to know how my calm, always in control, underweight, Mom, attracted cancer in the first place, why did it come back and what made this imbalance stop.
I questioned the tension that I felt in my family, despite moments of love and laughter, and I really noticed tension in my body and holding my breath, whenever I was around my Dad. My Dad, during those periods when he seemed “different”, would go from being a joking, person to a person who would tease me, saying unkind things about my crooked teeth comparing me to “Mickey Mouse”. He made negative statements about my curly, frizzy hair, my dark-brown skin color, and as I grew breast, about my body. He was nice/nasty, and you never knew what to expect from him.
I clung often to my Mom, who would tell him leave me alone, but then he would turn on her with unkind words. . I believe, because my Mom had so much grace about her, with a quiet presence, she could quietly and firmly put you in place, which is often how I remember, she handled my Dad during some of his rants. You seldom heard her raise her voice, nor even show anger. One day, I saw him standing over her on the stairs to their bedroom, screaming nasty, and she actually took her cigarette out of her mouth, and without a word, put it to him arm and burned him. This truly backed him off.
When I look back at my Mom, her manner of dealing with my Dad, must have created a strained peace that went on for years, and that this internalized stress, eventually became the serious illness of cancer, that my Mom survived, ironically, with the help of my Dad.
As I matured, I decided to run away from home, to get away from my Dad, who by then, had become more verbally abusive and sexual in his language towards me and my girl friends. I was 19, and ran to Okinawa to marry my high school sweetheart who also joined the Air Force to get out of his home environment. I did pursue my dream of working with people, and went to college to become a human services professional, but saw that I was re-creating the relationship I had grown up with, watching my Dad and Mom. As drugs and drinking became the “third party” in our relationship, I too had a health scare, as my breast thickened, and test showed that I too was at risk for breast cancer. I was truly into wholistic health, and at the same time, was incongruent with self-abusive behavior with drugs and alcohol, I went to my Mom to probe deeper into her early childhood, in order to discover how the seeds of her emotions had played into journey with cancer, to better understand my body.
She shared that while born and raised in Washington, D.C., her grandparents had struggled to leave the South, Rocky Mountain, N.C. so her Mom dealt with serious poverty during the “Great Depression” of the ‘30’s. She had one brother, who was 8 years older than her. Because her Dad, left his wife, son and my Mom when she was only a year old, her brother ended up serving as her father figure. I believe, he must have been a good guy, as my Mom did gain a positive perspective about men and parenting from him. Years later, her Dad came back to the family, just as mysteriously as he left. At the end of the week of his return, he passed out while walking with my Mom, and died that evening. Mommy shared with me, that she did forgive her Dad after he died, for abandoning her Mom and she often spoke about how forgiveness had taught her one of her most valuable lessons in her life, yet she also talked about resentment that she did not know her father.
On February 14, 1943, Doris became the wife of Morrie Ignatius Thomas, Jr., my Dad. He was a neighborhood, determined young man, who saw my Mom walking down the street and went home to his mother, and told her, that he had met his future wife. Mom shared that he pursued her assertively, with a determined, "you are the one" attitude. They married on Valentine’s Day, after a whirlwind 3 months courtship and they remained together for over 53-years, until his death. From their union, five children were born and two did not come to term. I was the 3rd born of this family.
World War II interrupted their new marriage, and when my Dad returned from his post in Europe, my Mom had, like her Mom, served as Mom and Dad to their first born, who was 3 years old by the time our Dad came back stateside. Dad returned home an alcoholic, traumatized from the death, destruction and racism he faced in the war.
Doris and Morrie were uniquely different, yet, they worked together despite their differences and many challenges, providing a loving, fun, creative and always exciting family life. So while my Dad, reminded me of "Papa was a Rolling Stone", who worked diligently at his government job for over 30 years, he partied just as hard. My Mom always reminded me of the song, "I'm Every Woman" because she was so vibrantly interested in so many things and pursuits. Since their interests were so at conflict, my Dad had the good sense to NOT curtail his Doris, who was not to be contained, like women often were at that time in the 30's- 50's.
Dad would be coming home from the after-hours club, while Mom would be heading out to church. She started out at a Baptist church, but left in turmoil and became a member of her catholic church in Southeast, D.C, the working class side of the city. For 50-years, she served as a member of the solidarity and the choir. She loved her church home, but also would attend other spiritual and religious services always willing to seek “God” in many mansions. I loved that she went to a Buddhist Temple, a Mosque and services at the Nation of Islam, with me, as my spirituality expanded. My father, would only pray when encouraged over a meal, and never went to any religious services.
More often than not, my Mom went her way and my Dad his, but we saw more of their unified actions as they worked through their many ups and downs, including her serious health challenge, than his as he also succumbed to brain cancer, HBP, obesity, gout and alcoholism. She weathered his extra-marital affairs and seemed not surprised when a 13 year-old, showed up at his funeral stating she was his daughter.
Seems my Dad had been abused as a child by his parents, and hurt people tend to hurt people, so my Mom, eventually put up with a lot of abuse from him, quietly, to keep our family together.
After this deep conversation, I took myself into therapy to gain greater insight into why was I so unhappy in my home, with a man, similar to my Dad -- a good man, who was also verbally abusive, distant, and unconnected in our relationship, both of us dependent on drugs. I was also having some serious issues with allowing myself to be sexual with my husband, despite having 2 sons. The therapist asked me did I think that I had been raped or sexually abused as a child, to which I emphatically said “no”. However, he helped me face myself to deal with depression, as my mental health issue that I attempted to manage, using substances. After 9 years, I left this marriage. Changing my mind-set, my habits, and the suppressed anger that I felt from emotional abuse, I believe helped stop the thickening walls in my breast and I did not incur cancer.
But, I continued to attract other relationships, very much like the pattern I saw in my Mom and Dad and each time, I would attract a major illness. My gall bladder enlarged, almost burst and had to be removed with relationship No.2 that lasted close to 8 years; then a small tumor was found in my breast, with my 3rd relationship, to a man, I married from another state, not knowing him well and whose troubled past haunted our lives for over 6 years during the “crack-cocaine” epidemic in the District and in the Nation.
By now, I.m really into wholistic health, and have gained several certificates in various forms of “breathwork”. I realize now the correlation between emotions and health, so I do a deep dive into breathing, meditation, watch my anger, and worked with my diet. The tumor goes away, once I address how traumatized I feel chasing this man down, in “crack houses”, and being physically and verbally abused in the streets of my home-town. Then, my son Rashid is killed at age 17 (another story), and 2 years later, my Dad lay dying with brain cancer.
I.m. depressed, angry beyond rage, and can barely breathe. The walls of my breast begin to thicken again, and I.m. told that I should consider some type of invasive treatment for the issue. Instead, I take a course in a different, breathing method, called conscious –connected breathing, and get certified as a Transformational Facilitator. This training uncovered all of the stuck, suppressed and subconscious memory of trauma stored within in. After 3 sessions, in which I kicked, screamed and fought off something, the 4th session revealed that I had been fighting off my Dad.
I reclaimed the image of him coming into my bedroom after his evening work shift to touch my breasts, fondle me with hugs and kisses and put me on his private area and push me up and down. The trauma of this behavior, for an 8 year old, who silently dealt with these sexual acts, until I was almost age 13 was too much for my young mind to handle, so my mind blocked them out on the conscious level. Yet, they laid frozen in my neural pathways, showing up as numbness, anger, guilt and shame turned upon myself which lead to depression, thereby, I coped with, by drinking and drugging.
This discovery, was life-changing for me, as I felt liberated and restored from years of held trauma, and I made a commitment to myself to keep up my own personal sessions. Thank God I discovered, conscious connected breathing, along with cathartic movements, release work, journaling and disconnecting from the negative energies around me, as this work sustained me to cope effectively with a succession of deaths, starting with my own son, then my first husband now one of my best friends, his mom, my mother-in-law; his dad, my father-in-law; then the eviction from their house and eventual homelessness twice; the incarceration of my second son; and the death of my father – all within a 6 years span. I would later have to breathe through the untimely deaths of both my brothers and the divorce from my 2nd husband. By then, I was working and breathing with hundreds of thousands around the world on radio, t.v., in print and in private practice, using my own system of breath techniques that included conscious –connected breathing.
I.ve been addiction free also for over 20 years and in this time, have weathered the ups and downs of my 3rd marriage, 4th serious relationship, with my husband John. And I.ve had no more breast concerns and no major health issues.
I have also been able to forgive my Dad, who I don’t demonize, but had to be truthful to myself and to my community, that his emotional pain caused serious damage to me, and my family, as I since found out, that he also inappropriately touched and made sexual advances to other members of our family and to some of my friends.
In the last years of my Mom’s life, I shared that I had been verbally, mentally and sexually abused by my Dad, her husband, just so I could be truthful to her during a family gathering, as the issue of sexual and domestic violence was raised as the root concern of her breast cancer, my scares with breast cancer and could be affecting their health concerns. As I shared this truth, my Mom’s eyes teared up, as she admitted that she often suspected that her husband had done “terrible things” to me, and to others and she often questioned had she done enough to protect us, as she realized that 4 of her 5 children had had difficulties with some sort of self-abuse, along with relationship dysfunctions.
She apologized for not doing all that she could, and described that in those days, within African American communities, there were many “hidden secrets” of sexual abuse; emotional, physical and mental acts of domestic violence; as well as all levels of child molestation. My Mom thanked me for going public with this issue and encouraged me to continue, even if it meant exposing our Dad’s reputation.
In her name, I continue to share my story and hers, so that the truth may set us all free, not only during the October month of Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence Awareness month, but as often as I.m. able to speak up for survivors, the voiceless and those who are seeking remedies for the emotional link to their health concerns. Thank you Mom, for giving me permission to share freely, as we are still saving lives.
This link I thought on this same subject of the emotional link to breast cancer, I found very helpful, and felt that it should be shared.
Ayo Handy-Kendi is reknown as the Breath Sekou, which means in the Guinea language "a master teacher". She has worked with breath techniques for over 50 years and loves teaching "the power of the breath". She has created a system called Optimum Life Breathology (O.L.B.) which teaches 12 common breath techniques with 4 breath practices. As a Wholistic Practitioner she incorporates sound healing, laughter yoga, Reiki, healing touch, movement, behavior modification and stress management and oxygen concepts, such as water hydrotherapy, Aroma-therapy, nutrition, into her trainings.She is creating a "breath movement" to wake people up to their joy and positivenergy with the belief that when you breathe better, you live better. She is also known as Mama Ayo, when sharing cultural presentations or performing as a storyteller, actor, author or speaker. She is the founder of Black Love Day, Feb. 13, the Ritual of Reconciliation, founder/director, African American Holiday Association (AAHA) and founder/CEO, PositivEnergyWorks.