At the tender age of nine, you see the world through the eyes of a child, never imagining that it is possible to lose your only parent, the one on whom you depend for everything — even precious life itself, to a dreaded disease. My mother, Larvenia Brock, who got pregnant with me, her only child, when she was 44 years old, was diagnosed with metastatic stomach cancer the same year I was born. The day I lost her to that deadly disease changed my life forever. It was that experience — of losing her — that taught me the importance of prevention and that inspired me to take better care of myself and to help countless others do the same.
Larvenia had an independent, entrepreneurial spirit — she owned a successful cab company in Washington, D. C., which she ran during the week, and she operated a thriving juke joint on the weekends. But she couldn’t translate her business smarts into smart health choices. Though in her younger days, she was a shapely bombshell with an hourglass figure, she didn’t lose her pregnancy weight after my birth, and she remained heavy throughout my childhood. Worse yet, healthy eating wasn’t on her radar. To be sure, my mother’s diet needed a makeover. You see, Larvenia never met a steak she didn’t like; she ate chitlin’s on holidays and downed pigs’ feet, fried chicken, greens cooked with fatback, and whiskey on weekends at the juke joint.
Though vegetables were plentiful in our house, they were usually cooked with lard or fatback and either deep-fried or slow-cooked until the nutrients were leached out. That diet finally caught up with my mother, and she became very sick. The overweight powerhouse I had known for my first nine years ended up confined to her bed, a tiny shrunken shell of her former self. During her final days she was unable to keep down even a forkful of watermelon, her favorite summer fruit. Her best friend, Rosetta Lewis, who became my guardian, would send me off for it, saying, “Run to the store as fast as your little legs will carry you.” I did, thinking if I could just make it to Safeway, get my mom’s watermelon, and race back without delay, I could somehow stop the bandit that was robbing me of my precious mother. I was wrong. Even the love and undying dedication of a 9-year old could not stop the inevitable. Finally, my mother died and the devastation of the blow crippled my spirit.
In the years since my mother’s death, I’ve learned a lot about diet and disease prevention: Abandoning the brown and beige meat and potatoes American style of eating and adopting a meal plan of colorful fruits and vegetables with small amounts of whole grains and lean protein can save your life. Chemical compounds — like phytochemicals and antioxidants — found in dark, leafy greens and brightly colored fruits and vegetables protect the body against the harmful effects of free radicals, and can thereby reduce the incidence of cancer and heart disease.
Had my mother known better, perhaps she might have lived to see more of what I would do with my life. To be sure, I feel her presence with each milestone, and I know she smiles upon each opportunity I seize to make life better for the countless others whom I serve.