My mother and I have been preparing for this day since I was 8 years old. As I accept my Cornell degree on graduation day, I will have the incredible opportunity to share that sense of accomplishment with her. Having battled breast cancer for the last 13 years, my mother’s earthly life has been extended so that I can fulfill my own calling. Although she may be many miles away, Vernalyn Maureen Rowe is the only reason why I came to Cornell. Remember for whom you are here.
In 2004, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer— the kind that kills people. Her only hope was to live long enough to see me grow up and turn into someone. Someone special, someone to be proud of! All the while, I was preparing for the possibility that she wouldn’t live long enough to see me grow up. I was preparing for the journey, but I knew I wouldn't get very far if she wasn't in the passenger seat beside me.
My job was to keep her alive. Keep her healthy with my prayers! Keep her happy with my grades! Keep her feeling fulfilled, even when she had all the reasons in the world to feel empty.
I've spent way more time at oncology appointments than the average Joe— or the average Kyonne, for that matter. I'd leave school early to make it to her chemotherapy appointments. I'd get home late at night from her radiation appointments. I'd miss assignments. I'd miss classes. Not because I didn't see value in my education. I just saw more value in my mother's wellbeing.
We'd cry together on the train when we got bad news from her doctors. That's to be expected. But we'd also cry together on the drive home from a parent teacher conference. Why? Because bad reviews meant that I wasn't holding up my end of the bargain. I wasn't giving her a reason to carry on. And I'd cry.
Middle school was painful. High school was even harder. I had teachers and administrators making assumptions about who I was and who I could be in this world. I had peers who made assumptions about where I'd come from and where I was going. I didn't expend much energy explaining myself. I was a fighter, not an expert in cross-cultural dialogue. But at the end of each day, I felt shackled.
I still get angry when I feel as though I'm being boxed in, because I don't think I've ever truly felt free. I still lash out when people step on my chains, because I don't know if I'll ever be fully unshackled. But in my mama, I have hope.
She's lost her hair, but never her hope. She's lost her fingernails, but never her fight. How beautiful it is to have seen highs and lows, and have the opportunity reconcile them both as blessings from God!
For whom do you cry? Last week, my mother told me she was tired— the sort of tired that pushes folks to retire. You know what we did? We cried. It's no coincidence that my mother's gearing up to retire as I am preparing to enter the workforce. She never promised me she'd be here forever. She promised she'd be around to see me become something. That time has come.
It was never about the degree. It was about the difference I could make in this world. It was never about pocket change. It was about the change I could make in the lives of others. I came to Cornell for my mother. I came to Cornell for my family. I came to Cornell for my community. Remember why you came to Cornell. I sure as hell do.
Cornell University '18