The Important Lesson I’ve Learned From An Unsuspecting Mentor

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As a child, I remembered the time I had a lip-sync battle with my Aunt Niecy.

She was seventeen or eighteen, and I was six. Her bedroom became the stage. The song “Grooveline” by Heatwave thumped through the stereophonic speakers while posters displayed the 1970s era on the walls. A small incense cone burned the sweet aroma of frankincense as my aunt used a hairbrush as a microphone. She twirled and gyrated her hips among the tempo. And little ole’ me admired her spunk before I understood what “spunk” meant. I saw the radiance shining behind her smile and wishing I had a least of an ounce of vibrancy as she did.

Our grand diva moment closed with the finale of the song, and we were giddy. Panting as we share congratulatory grins, I watched her plop on the edge of the bed, expressing a performance well-done. Even at a young age, I was fascinated by the upbeat vibe she exuded. And I decided to echo the sentiment by sitting beside her. We didn’t exchange words — just continued the bond during the next song selection, thinking I wished that moment would not end. Fortunately, there were a few. The mimicking of young performers never occurred again, however.

At nineteen, Aunt Niecy was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) that also affects the immune system, attacking the protective sheath (myelin), which covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems.

Some don’t exhibit all symptoms, but my aunt did. Over time, her body succumbed to what had been documented by health professionals of MS’s adverse effects. She lost her legs’ use and later could not perform the requirements to care for herself, such as feeding and bathing. She relied on much of everything through someone else’s hands.

I watched the vibrancy I wanted to emulate wither like a flower. But I also witnessed a quiet spirit raging within the shadows of her daily struggles. Every step she made amid the disease’s infancy was a task, even making it from one chair to another. Then, the MS progression forced my aunt to rely on a wheelchair as her primary need of mobility. It broke her heart. It hurt mine and anyone close to Niecy.

But her spirit — that unwavering spirit began to peek from the shadows, and she fought.

The warrior emerged from her soul, and she wanted to see the world. She traveled, dined in restaurants with assistance, and went to the hairdresser for a bi-weekly new-do. I remembered she went to the movie theater to catch the latest drama with her boyfriend. And, yes, she had a boyfriend. Despite her physical challenges, Niecy had it going on.

One day, she and I were in her newer bedroom, relocated downstairs to make it convenient for my grandmother and other home health aides to attend to my aunt’s needs. Soft R&B music became a soothing ambiance to set the mood as we quietly enjoyed the peace behind the lyrics. At that time, we were going through our battles. The MS had virtually taken her ability to speak while my life spiraled out of control, dealing with a plague of issues. Yet, it seemed, at that moment, our souls needed each other.

As I sat between the nightstand and her queen-size bed, Niecy made a startling revelation. “You know what?” she wondered. “No one will remember me when I die.”

Perplexed, I sat upright to absorb her poignant words. Our eyes locked and the music, becoming an instant soundtrack for the piteous confession.

“But, Niecy,” I replied. “Why would you believe that? You have family and friends everywhere, and we’ll be hurt if something happens to you”.

“That’s not what I mean,’ she shook her head. “I’m thirty-four with no children. I still live at home. Some of my friends from school stopped coming around. Some of our relatives did, too. I feel as though I have no future, no anything. Face it; I’m a lost cause.”

The music ceased, stopping on cue for a dramatic pause. So, I moved forward to the edge of the chair to gaze at my aunt’s somber tone. Words were hard to formulate for my usual pep talk. Nothing would transfer from my brain to mouth. Instead, my thoughts dwelled above the next song selection, wondering on the right reply. And it hit me.

“Someday, Niecy,” I said. “The world is going to know who you are and your story. You’re going to touch a lot of people”.

She scoffed and shook her head.

“Yeah, right.”

“No, seriously. The world is going to know your story.”

She laughed under her breath and returned the focus on the music. And I followed suit. We were quiet again and allowed the R&B classics to take the stage. I had, however, wondered what possessed me to state an impossible feat. I promised Niecy the world, filled with billions and billions of people to know her story. I barely had anything to my name. Nor understood what my purpose was, then. So, who was I to believe I could achieve such a goal?

My answer came years later after that conversation. Long after, I’ve overcome my chaos, long after my children grew into fine adults, and long after Niecy’s untimely death.

On Father’s Day in 2003, she joined our ancestors on a warm Sunday afternoon at forty-four. The skies were clear, almost in perfect stillness, and her old bedroom where our concerts had taken place turned into a shrine of memories. A comfy chair and a Chester of drawers replaced the old record-player. And the sweet incenses that used to burn were now home to classic perfumes. The earthy scents wafted the air, letting me or everyone know, “grandmomma” resided in the room — her babygirl’s room.

And me, well, I discovered lots of things about myself: talents, healing, and purpose. Funny, I found all of those after Niecy’s passing.

My only regret is not finding them while she lived her best life.

Although she had no use of her limbs, she faced her challenges and kept going. Niecy got up at the same time every day, got washed and dressed by the aides or my grandmother, got fed, and went about her day. Rain or shine, my aunt kept the routine until she was called “home.”

She may not have realized it, but she taught me the lessons on life. Precious wisdom coming from someone who thought her life had no meaning.

The conversation we had, and sometimes, not have; Niecy’s demeanor was a lesson itself. Stay grateful regardless of the circumstances. Be kind no matter how the world treats you, and love yourself under the turmoil of emotions.

It’s easy to think less of who you are. But it takes strength to empower from the pain and the clouded uncertainty to find your rainbow. The great poet and author, Dr. Maya Angelou, said it best, “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”

Aunt Niecy was my rainbow and an unsuspecting mentor. Fundamentally, I mimic her tenacity toward my goals. I’ve written two books, lost weight, and established a publishing brand called Pink Noire. However, I’ve had situations where I almost quit on my dreams, thought low on myself, and wondered if my life had any meaning. Sound familiar? Yeah, me too. But it’s a slap to Niecy’s memory.

I may not be where I want to be today, but at least I have a warm place to stay, and I’m healthy with a sound mind to implement creative ideas — valuable lessons on gratitude and persistence.

Another profound lesson she taught me months before departing from this realm was appreciating the smaller and simpler things in life. A gentle breeze made Niecy’s day, laughing at silly jokes and taking a moment to enjoy the sunshine.

I asked one day, “Why do you want the blinds open, and all you’ll see is the white siding of the neighbors’ house?”

She giggled as if my question had amused her and replied, “I just want the sun to touch my face. You never know, I might not be here next year”.

A few months later, she wasn’t.

Rest well, Niecy, and thank you. My company will now bear your name, carrying your philosophy of life as a companion. Let the legacy live on forever.