Playing Your Cards Right: Navigating Chaos




Behind all your stories is always your mother’s story. Because hers is where yours begin.” – Mitch Albom

I was listening to a podcast episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations which featured Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show. He was promoting his new biography and revealed that when he started writing he thought himself to be the protagonist of his story. However, he soon realized, a large chunk of his story was, actually, his mother’s. Mothers shape the narrative of their children, as early as in the womb. Research repeatedly shows that a degree of a mother’s mental, emotional and physical state is inherited by her child, grandchild and subsequent offspring. In sharing fragments of my story over the course of the last few months, I purposely excluded that of my mother’s because it was by far the hardest one for me to tell. As giving lacks substance without sacrifice, so does writing without vulnerability. One of my favorite poets gave me the courage to bring the story to life as the new year commences:

“The thing you are most afraid to write

Write that.”

-Nayyirah Waheed.

Perception is fluid. The mind operates as a kaleidoscope – every few years our perspectives shift, and we see the world in different hueues. The innocence of youth limits what we see, and as we mature, we’re exposed to increasingly complex shades. For the purpose of this story, I’ve framed my relationship with my Mamaiay around monumental stages in my life that birthed new vantage points. Throughout each of these stages, you’ll find an associated color:

I never could catch the end of the rainbow, so I built my own.

Stage 1: When Your Hero Falls

Age: Elementary School

Color: Red –  love, danger

Displacement runs in my blood. I don’t know if it’s a generational curse, or a blessing that we cannot settle. My grandparents fled Eritrea to rebuild in Ethiopia, only for my mother to flee Ethiopia in search of a better life in America. After arriving in America, my Mamaiay has never once stood still – and I, was her sidekick. My earliest childhood memories are fragmented – I remember moving homes often, as frequent as 4x a year. We left few neighborhoods in Washington uninhabited. My Mamaiay would explain that she was searching for a safe place for us to live, but I didn’t understand what it was she was trying to escape. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the adventure that came with a change of scenery and joyfully went along for the ride.

I was fortunate enough to not have to switch schools despite all the address changes. I always loved school and my Mamaiay did an incredible job fostering my desire to learn. She encouraged me to think creatively, and problem solve. She worked through my homework assignments with me up until their complexity surpassed her knowledge. She volunteered at the school events and even led art classes for students to paint the tiles that orbit the playground today. My fondest memories consist of us climbing rocks at the beach, splitting a pair of headphones as we listened to a Brittney Spears CD, her throwing me the best birthday parties (perks of being born around tax return season) and her reinforcing how smart I was.

The first time I noticed something was wrong was when I was around 7. We were living with a white church family and my mother was adamant that there was a smell coming from a kitchen. They inspected the home and did multiple deep cleans but my mom insisted it was still there. Nobody else could identify the scent and my mom deemed the home to be unsafe, so we moved immediately thereafter. A few other times, I recall her stating something similar – that there was a strong smell of sorts, or that there was a level of noisiness that nobody else could detect. The adults dismissed it as her being hypersensitive or high maintenance, but her behavior never waned. The red flags were few and far in between so I masked them as a qualm.

We had frequent visitors up until my Mamaiay’s friend came to the house and broke the news that her mother and siblings passed away in a car accident. A few weeks after that, she got news that her father passed away too. I remember her blaming herself and saying she should’ve been there to protect them and she cried endlessly. She didn’t want guests over because she felt our home was unsafe and ostracized herself as she mourned. The next day she took her LPN exam and failed by one point – and loss all desire to take it again, to do anything. She never really was the same after that, she lost her faith and ceased her prayers. I would hear her rambling to herself about how “they” killed her family, and shortly thereafter, the smells, and sounds got stronger.

Stage 2: When Roles Reverse

Age: Middle School

Color: Orange – creativity, aggression

When my Mamaiay opened the letter that stated I had gotten into Lakeside School she cried tears of joy, while I cried tears of anguish. I knew Lakeside would offer me significant opportunities, but I wanted to go to Whitman or Eckstein to be with all of my friends. The transition was difficult for me as I went from being at the top of my class at Broadview to the bottom of my class at Lakeside. In addition, the demographics of the school was a culture shock as I now attended a predominately white upper-class school whose families had millions, if not billions, in assets. My first few years at Lakeside showed me just how large the opportunity gap was, it showed me a different method of life, and more importantly, a different way of thinking. I saw pool houses larger than my home, and I chuckled at the nativity of my friends when they’d drop me off to my apartment and misinterpret that the entire complex was my abode. The dichotomy from being surrounded by wealth in the day only to go home to find you have nothing started harboring resentment within me.

I signed up for every extra-curricular possible to keep me on campus for as long as I could. The best part was that I could eat free meals at Lakeside courtesy of my scholarship; breakfast, snacks, lunch, more snacks it was all covered. Doing this, made me less of a burden and allowed our food stamps to stretch longer. I still remember the end of the month was time for creative renditions of “gourmet” ramen…we’d ration out some rice, chicken, and berbere.  During this time, my Mamaiay struggled holding down a job for longer than a few weeks. Between her sporadic working income, my dad’s monthly child support of $1,000, Section 8, and food stamps we were able to meet our most basic needs.

Our housing got compromised when my Mamaiay cut the electrical wiring of the duplex we were living in. She said she was being shocked by the electrical wires and they were dangerous. The owner must’ve noticed a few hours later because he started banging on the door with threats asking for us to open it. My Mamaiay and him exchanged words through the window all night and the next day we were served an eviction notice, and our Section 8 was revoked. I had to call off school the next day to help pack up all our shit and move it to storage, I was pissed because I loved school, it was my escape, my utopia. We checked into the YWCA shelter a few hours later – if you’re homeless with a child you’re bumped up to the top of the affordable housing list. In what would take most people 5 years to get Section 8, we got ours reinstated after 4 months.

We then moved into transitional housing in SE Everett, which was by far the weirdest neighborhood I had ever lived. All the neighbors were meth heads and the closest bus stop was a mile away with no street lights. My Mamaiay made the commute to school with me each day and back totaling about 4 hours. There was a time period where she struggled to get out of bed. I remember having missed three days’ worth of school and I was anxious about falling behind. I kept trying to shake her to take me to school, but she said she couldn’t. She had stopped cleaning the house, there wasn’t any food in the fridge, and she wasn’t returning any of her employer’s calls. When I’d ask her what was wrong she’d tell me, “they were hurting her”. We’d argue back and forth about how there isn’t a “they” and how it’s all in her head to no avail. I remember looking at her with jumbled emotions of empathy and frustration. I told her I was going to go to school on my own and slammed the door behind me. I remember walking to the bus stop listening to DMX’s “X Gonna Give It To Ya” on repeat. When I boarded the bus, the driver asked me, “Where’s your mom” and I’d say, “It’s just me today,” and go to the far back window seat. The older pervs would try to talk to me and I remember the bus driver stopping the bus and talking to me asking if I was okay and me telling him I wasn’t paying them any mind. Once we got to Aurora Village, I transferred to the 345. I rang the bell as we were approaching my stop, and as I was getting ready to step off the bus, I was greeted by my school counselor who was panting. She told me that they’d call my mom asking about my absence and she’d told them I had gone to school by myself, so my counselor has been trying to chase the bus down – so dramatic. I got in her car and she took me to the principal’s office where he scolded me that riding a bus alone at age 11 was unsafe. I apologized to the principal and said all I wanted to do was to just come to school, and I promised I’d never do it again. The next day, I had called the school putting a fake accent on impersonating my mom and changed her number to mine. Moving forward, I always caught the bus to school alone.

My Mamaiay’s outbursts gradually got worse – she’d argue with the neighbors, say people were following her, stealing things from her, complaining about smells, etc. The cops frequented our home so often we were on a first name basis and eventually they stopped showing up. Family friends framed my mom’s condition as sensitivity, the religious as a spiritual battle, and the realists as mentally ill. I never fixated on the label because regardless, shit had to get done. It was around 7th grade when our mother-daughter roles switched. I had to keep her out of trouble and inquire if she ever needed anything. When the lights cut off, I was submitting applications to charity to get them turned back on. When we ran out of food stamps – I’d be the one filling my back pack at the nearby food banks. When we were low on money, I’d be the one knocking on neighbor’s doors asking to hold. When my Mamaiay wanted to move to somewhere “safer,” I’d be the one searching online and scheduling viewings. When she would lose her job, I’d be the one editing the resume and impersonating her during phone interviews. At first, I didn’t mind, I enjoyed the challenge and helping but eventually it got draining.

The bathroom was the only place in the home with a lock. When things got really bad, I’d lock myself in there and place my pillow and blankets in the tub while waiting for the outbursts to pass until it was time to go to school. In school we were studying Asian religions and I remember wondering if I did something messed up in a past life. My Mamaiay wasn’t religious during this time, but I’d never felt closer to God. I’d pray before and after each meal, and every day when I’d wake up and before I’d go to sleep. When I’d talk to God, I’d talk about my day and how things at home were super shitty. I used to tell him that whatever lesson He was trying to teach me, that I was open to learning. That if he didn’t see it fit to change my situation, maybe than at least He’d help me become stronger. My favorite biblical verse during this time (and to this day) was Romans 8:18, “I consider our present sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us,” I was hoping God was gearing me up to be great.

Stage 3: Too Wild to Be Tamed

Age: High School

Color: Yellow – conflict, hunger

In high school, I couldn’t have been any further from graceful. I was filled with anger and fire  – I’d cuss out whoever, whenever and I had the smartest mouth. I remember I’d overhear my Mamaiay’s friends telling her how she needs to get me under control or else I’d end up in jail as an adult. My Mamaiay was so intent on “protecting” me that I felt absolutely suffocated. She thought my rebellious behavior stemmed from the “harmful forces” and whenever I’d tell her “the problem is you” she couldn’t conceptualize it. Even after moving countless times, she still didn’t consider our home to be safe and I wasn’t allowed to be home alone. I’d make spare copies of the keys to sneak in while she was away but I was always caught and got the keys confiscated. Her condition started to get worse – she had methods she was convinced would save her; putting multiple lamps on in every corner of the house, wrapping the body in saran wrap, blasting the humidifier on high. I’d lash out in anger when I’d wake up to my homework being soaked from the moisture of the humidifier and was too embarrassed to go to school without my work completed. Eventually my grades plummeted, and I was put on academic probation.

If you have lower than a 2.0 you risk losing your scholarship and being kicked out of school. As a part of the school’s rehabilitation program they have a conference with the student, their parents and all of the teachers. I don’t know how they were able to get a hold of my Mamaiay as I had changed her number a few years back. Nonetheless, we were all in the room together and I was nervous as shit. Even though my Mamaiay and I butted heads, I was still overprotective of her. When the teachers asked me what I thought was driving me to perform poorly I lied through my teeth and stated that classes were hard, I was exhausted from the long commute, or that I was scared of underperforming, so I’d rather not perform at all. Then, they asked the same question to my Mamaiay and I was looking at her thinking, “please don’t choke, give the really short answer we role-played”. Instead, she went on a huge tangent about the harmful forces that were out there. I kept trying to interject in my broken Tigrinya, “stop talking” “slow down” “stop” “that’s enough” but it was too late. My Mamaiay was crying and I looked around the room of all my professors with a poker face, like damn – she exposed herself, she exposed us.

After that incident I felt like I was always being heavily watched by my school administration. They set me up with mandatory hours with the school counselor. I didn’t mine counseling – I never shared anything, but I enjoyed sitting in a quiet room with snacks and being able to get out of class without repercussions. I used to feel bad for the counselor, she was so kind and tried everything she could to get me to talk about my personal life. I already knew that anything I disclosed would be used against me, so I’d circumvent all her questions. I told her directly, I know what it is you’re trying to do and I’m sorry but you’re not going to get anything out of me.

I remember being at school one day and my Mamaiay calling me telling me she needed to drop off my stuff to me because she had to go somewhere. I went to go meet her and asked where she was going and she said she’d explain later. When I asked when she’d get back she said she didn’t know. I asked her for the key but she said it wasn’t safe for me to stay home. Then, when I asked her where I was supposed to go, and she told me she knew I was smart and I’d figure it out – that maybe I could ask one of my friends. I told her she was embarrassing me and being a bad mom, and she told me she’d call me later. When I opened up my duffle bag all that was in there were a few pairs of socks – like what the fuck was I supposed to do with those? I went up to my favorite professor at the time and said I really needed his help, but he had to promise not to snitch. We went to my Mamaiay’s house in White Center and he hired a locksmith to help me break into my home.

It wasn’t atypical for my Mamaiay to disappear. She never carried her phone because she was fearful of being tracked. You never could get in touch with her – she could only reach you. I used to feel some type of way about this – one-way communication and it always being on her time, so I’d reject a lot of her calls. Whenever I wouldn’t hear from her for a while I’d call around to hospitals or jails just to make sure she wasn’t there. During this time, I was in my Mamaiay’s custody as much as I was out. I remember sitting in the front of a police car and the officer taking me to a station. She said I was formally out of my mom’s custody and I could either matriculate into Foster Care or a Lakeside family offered to take me in – I chose the latter and bounced between the Nathanson and Nordstrom households. I remember sitting in court when my Mamaiay was trying to gain custody back and a lawyer came up to me asking if I wanted to return to my Mamaiay’s custody and if it was safe. I thought the system was super shitty if that was there only metric and wondered how many kids slip through the cracks. I nodded yes and that I just wanted to go home. When I was in my Mamaiay’s custody – I despised being home. I stayed out as late as possible and roamed the Northend with my Bitterlake crew. I never wanted to be home, matter of fact I didn’t even want to be at school – my friends from Bitterlake were the only ones who I felt like I could connect with. We were a bunch of kids, about 10 of us, with unfavorable backgrounds and we looked after each other whether it meant splitting $10 10 ways at burger king to getting jobs together.

I felt untouchable and was fearful of nothing. My independence became my Achilles heel. I’d disregard my Mamaiays attempt to discipline me because I didn’t feel like she did the heavy lifting growing up to tell me what to do. I didn’t value her opinion of knowing what was best for me. I was determined to figure that out on my own, just like how I figured out everything else. I’d be running around Aurora until 3am, hopping in random cars for quick rides, and befriending people at the fast food spots for free food. One of my friends, Laurie, told me I was crazy and too soft to be running around the way I was, and I needed to toughen up, or at least learn how to defend myself. She’d roughhouse me all the time and yell at me to stop being so damn soft.

As high school was approaching its end, my teachers told me I wasn’t on track to graduate. I remember feeling like damn I blew an opportunity. A few days later the Nordstroms gave me an offer, come stay with them for a few weeks to get caught up on my work so I could graduate. I took them up on the offer and they had me on lock down until I was caught up. In comparison to my Mamaiay who couldn’t tame me, I was always obedient to the Nordstroms, I was terrified of letting them down. A few days before graduation I got the green light that I could walk – but I couldn’t get my diploma until I paid off an outstanding $800 balance. I wrote an angry email to the administration about how fucked up it was that I busted my ass off and they weren’t willing to dismiss that balance when they know I was on a full scholarship and didn’t have the money to pay it. I remember bumping into my friend and she asked why I looked so blue and I told her what happened. She found me towards the end of the day and told me she ended up paying for the outstanding balance. Damn, I thought, I am so lucky and didn’t deserve it. I got to walk the stage and was excited at the opportunity to go to college, more so I was excited to finally leave and have a home of my own.

Stage 4: Swallowed by Guilt

Age: Undergraduate

Color: Green – reliability, safety

My first two quarters at UW were a blast. I shared a dorm room with two awesome roommates – oddly enough we were all connected. Kidist, was a Habesha girl who was adopted by a white family in Port Angeles, WA. Her adopted family was somehow distantly related to the other roommate, Izzie. Izzie and I were connected through her family having a tie to the Nordstrom family as well. I’m not superstitious but I did think this scenario was far to strange to be coincidental given the 1,000s of other freshmen we could’ve been paired with.

I excelled academically and socially during these first two quarters. My transcript was flooded with 4.0’s and I had a diverse and large group of friends. My dorm room was the perfect balance of fun and peaceful. Food was never an issue, because I got received the highest meal plan as a part of the dorm package. I finally felt stable and at peace.

When my Mamaiay realized I was going to be leaving her to live in the dorms she was devastated. She wanted to me stay with her where it was safe, and even her friends tried to convince me to stay at home. There’s not a sum of money anyone could’ve paid me to not leave. I always told myself once I turned 18, I’d never live at home again. However, the caveat of turning 18 is that the financial assistance dries up. My mom had to relocate to a studio with Section 8, the food stamps amount reduced, and the child support stipends were cut off. I felt guilty that I was having such a great time while I knew my Mamaiay was struggling and feeling lonely, but I knew what I was doing was best for me.

I’d meet her on campus to go grocery shopping at the market with my Husky Card, and I’d give a portion of my financial aid and work study checks to her. I had an underlying tone of sadness, that even though I was really happy – I felt incredibly guilty. Guilt only harbored when we were separated. When I’d be around her for extended periods of time the guilt would dwindle, and I’d be reinforced that I did the right thing. As a way for dealing with this guilt I’d overcompensate. I’d drop what I was doing whenever she asked, but I still felt underappreciated. I felt that anytime I went above and beyond, it was as if it was expected. I used to be envious of my friends whose families supported them. It sounds fucked up, but I was resentful towards my Mamaiay in feeling like I was carrying dead weight – she was holding me down when I was trying to fly.

She used to pop up unexpectedly to my house to make sure I was safe, and it used to irritate the fuck out of me – I loved and finally had my own space, and she was invading it. I’d go on walks down the Ave and the people in front of Jack n the Box would tell me my Mamaiay was nice and ask how she was doing. I used to glare at them wondering how in the hell they knew her but I’d never ask.

Undergrad was the first time I was away from my Mamaiay for an extended period of time and she felt that void. I had to keep reiterating my availability was limited that I couldn’t always make her a priority. I was in school, I was working, I was trying to make a better life for myself and I’d tell her that maybe she should do the same. It was during this time, that a former lover of mine, and a mentor also succumbed to mental illness. I thought God was punishing me for a moment – why does this happen to the people closest to me? I thought these incidents were isolated at first but realized that there’s a high prevalence of mental health issues in the East African community…we just do a great job of sweeping it under the rug, myself included. Mental illness isn’t a “sexy” health issue, it doesn’t evoke empathy from others the way cancers, or other ailments do. It’s an isolating illness; I’d hear people tell my Mamaiay that it was all in heard and she needed to be stronger, or that she needed to pray it away. The stigma surrounding mental illness would make you think it was contagious or would cause structural damage if it was brought to the surface. Pride in our community is a double edge sword – but in the case of mental health it’s our demise.

It took me a while before I could finally graduate – about 6 years, if you count the summer quarters. When it finally came time for Black Grad my Mamaiay was nowhere to be found. I had told her I was graduating in advance but now her phone was off. I kept calling her the whole day with no response and figured she forgot or wasn’t coming. So, I hit up all my friends saying I wasn’t going to go anymore. It served no point if the person who I wanted to give me the shawl wasn’t going to be there. My Mamaiay had called me right before the ceremony was supposed to start saying she was on the bus heading there – I told her there’s no point it already started, I cancelled it and that the world doesn’t run on her time. What would’ve been considered a celebratory moment didn’t seem to be a big deal to her, so I just patted myself on the back and called it a night. Luckily, she showed up for the UW commencement the next day.

Stage 5: Swapping Resentment for Empathy

Age: Graduate School

Color: Blue – peace, loyalty

When I told my Mamaiay I had gotten into grad school she asked me when I intended on buying a house. At a certain point, you tell your parents what they want to hear to avoid a dragged out conversation so I told her in two years knowing damn well I had no desire to own one. I was winding down from my underpaying Amazon job and was house hopping between my friend’s and boyfriend’s house until I finally rented out a room from my classmate.

One of the greatest lessons I learned at Amazon was the power of grit and getting rid of the mentality that the universe, or anybody, owes you shit. This transferred over to my personal life and I got myself out of the victim-like way of thinking. With my mother particularly, I no longer harbored resentment.

Distance, whether the metric is time or yards, provides clarity that proximity blinds us to. I think as we get older, we stop expecting people to take on certain roles or giving them rights to “save us”. I realized my Mamaiay was doing the best she could. I don’t know what made me tender – it could’ve been time, space, or coming to grips that our parents are imperfect and living on borrowed time. I started finding myself missing her more and checking on her more often. Phone calls would never last long because “they” were listening, and she thought if anyone got too close to her, they’d be harmed. Nonetheless, the calls would always be filled with “I miss yous” and “I love yous”. She’d always apologize for not being able to do more and I’d reassure her she did a great job raising me. She’d shower me with praise and say “I never know what it is that you’re up to, but I just know you’re really smart and you’ll be successful in anything you do.”  I’d always say “Thanks, and I hope so too.”

Stage 6: Gratitude

Age: Post-Grad

Color: Indigo – devotion, wisdom

It took me until mid-adulthood to finally come to grips that my Mamaiay and I didn’t have the most typical relationship and embrace it. Normal is…boring. So, I swapped out “Why didn’t yous” with “You shouldn’t haves” and my expectations became overpowered by gratitude. I acknowledged that my Mamaiay always had good intentions. It took time for me to accept her for who she was, rather than try to change her to become who I thought she ought to be.

Sometimes I struggle with if I was a good daughter, if the decisions I made were optimal. If maybe I could’ve been nicer, more helpful. Sometimes other Habeshas from the community ask me why I don’t take my Mamaiay to the doctor – as if I haven’t tried. Or watch her more closely, as if she didn’t want autonomy. It’s so easy to point out what others should do when you don’t have context. In the past year these conversations have increased, I’ve been getting more phone calls from relatives and those abroad saying they’ve been hearing news about my mom – a decade too late. I listen intently to their advice and well wishes, when I know people only care to the extent it doesn’t become an inconvenience. The “right thing” has always been a fallacy to me – it’s subjective so I’ve always leaned more on “loyalty.” I don’t know if I did the “right thing” by not forcing treatment upon my mom but I didn’t want to be dead set on fixing her.  Besides, when people of color get treatment, it’s sort of like shooting in the dark – you just hope for the best. I didn’t want to take that kind of gamble.

Every now and then I’ll get a text message or call from a friend saying they bumped into my mom pulling her luggage and mumbling to herself. Sometimes she can be seen walking by Nordstroms on Pike, other times by Gelatiamo on Union, or her favorite spot – by the waterfront on Pike Place.

One of my favorite movies is called, “A Beautiful Mind,” and it’s about a Nobel Peace prize winner who struggled with Schizophrenia but chose not to endure treatment. In the film, the last lines did a great job of describing my relationship with my Mamaiay despite all the rockiness, it was irrational tenacity, optimism and love that kept us going even when all signs pointed that it made sense to quit or walk away. No matter the season, I chose her every time.

“What truly is logic? Who decides reason? My quest has taken me to the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional, and back. I have made the most important discovery of my career – the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found. I am only here because of you. You are the only reason I am. You are all my reasons. Thank you.”

Stage 7: Uncertainty

Age: Future Self

Color: Violet –  power, ambition

Watching my Mamaiay get older is scary, I feel like I’m trying to race against time and make something out of myself so she can reap the benefits. I wonder if my future self will look at the present me and scold myself to moving to DC and leaving her behind. Referencing back to Trevor Noah, he discussed something called the “Black Tax” which is the pressure the first successful black person in the family faces to make sure everyone else in the family is taken care, which inadvertently puts them in a bad position. My options were to either wither in the nest with her or leave temporarily in pursuit of bringing a worm home.

The mind fascinates me – its limits, its depths, its ability to construct what’s real and what’s not. The very thing we take for granted is the most fragile organism in the human body – it’s also the only one we don’t fully understand. Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is thank God I’m in the right state of mind. My mind is extremely important to me and I do everything I can to nurture and cultivate it, whether it’s doing mental math, reading, or learning a new skill.

In hindsight, I can recognize there were some holes I fell into, and some that I dug on my own, but I’ve been fortunate enough to get out each time. I’ve always felt that I’ve been lucky too many times to just believe in luck and wonder if the reasons will ever reveal themselves. My Mamaiay gave me the gift of tenacity and taught me that which bends cannot break. She’s given me the courage to punch above my weight class, and the wisdom to accept but not dwell when I’ve lost a fight. Most importantly, she given me the confidence that I don’t need to be conventional to be great. Should I ever make it up to Heaven’s gates and God asks me what I did during my time on Earth I hope to be able to say, “These are the cards you dealt me, and I played one hell of a hand.”

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