[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter 5 days on the ice I discovered we had WiFi. Camped on the frozen expanse of Lake Winnipeg my tentmates and I sat eating dinner in the light of our headlamps. Comfortable in each other’s company we settled into the quiet routine of passing the time before bed reading or listening to music. With a steaming cup of rehydrated chili in one hand, I thumbed through a series of recent photographs on my iPhone with the other. Suddenly I realized that I had access to the cellular telephone network of Manitoba, Canada.
One by one each icon on the home screen sprang to life. A few dozen alert messages appeared as white numbers in tiny red dots. Off the grid for almost a week, I was flooded with news from home and the world outside. Email, Facebook and Twitter dumped their contents of texts and photographs in a purge of data. I quickly sifted through the junk, scanning for familiar names. Nothing seemed urgent until I saw an odd note from my sister Karen in the comments of an image I had posted to Instagram. “Jimmy, please call me.”
With that I felt a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. Throughout my life spent traveling I have but one lingering fear. What would happen if tragedy struck at home while I was on some remote project far from immediate evacuation, at a moment like this?
“Karen, got your message,” I wrote in a text message. “I only just got a WiFi connection. Is it mom?”
A few weeks earlier, I sat by mother’s bedside as she lay dying. After 87 years of passionate living her life was coming to an end. Home for Christmas I joined my four older siblings to say goodbye to our mom and spend one final day together as a family. Having left home at 17, I hadn’t lived under my parents roof for 35 years. The life made possible by my mom and dad had taken me far from the place where I grew up, but wherever in the world I happened to be I always knew she was with me, a grounding presence of love and support to keep me safe and warm. I felt that same warmth as she held my hand, before I left home for the last time. “I love you very much,” she said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Dr. Rubye Mills was born in 1930 in Texarkana, Texas. Orphaned at an early age she was raised by a woman I thought until recently was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister. But Maureen Turner, whom I called Other-mommy, was actually a family friend, no blood relation to me at all. She, with an assortment of neighbors whom I had known as aunts and uncles, took my mother in. The community of black folks that formed through the diaspora of southern migration, the oppression of Jim Crow and the Great Depression created a home for my mother. Grounded in love, support and warmth she grew up to become a highly educated professional woman, wife and mother. A dynamic force of nature with a passion for travel, literature, films and food she received her PhD in education from the University of California, Los Angeles, while raising five children.
My mother loved to eat, but she wasn’t fond of cooking. She hated the cold, but loved to ski. She raised her children to be strong and independent, but, to a point, she indulge our weaknesses. And no matter how much pain and disappointment she may have experienced in life, her first thoughts were always for the safety and comfort of those around her. Even though I don’t think she fully understood how I made a living as an outdoor professional, my mother was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. Though I too infrequently visited our home in Los Angeles after graduating from college and relocating to the Midwest, I always knew she was there for me. But then she was gone.
In the light of my iPhone I read my sister Karen’s reply to my question. My mother had passed away on January 19th.
“Yes. At 3:30 today,” she wrote. “No need to come home yet. Will let you know when.”
With those words I sat there huddled in our tent on the ice waiting for my world to collapse. In the darkness of a frigid Manitoba night I thought the burden of insufferable grief would come crashing down and sink my spirit to the very depths of despair to bottom of Lake Winnipeg. But instead, the memory of my mother’s smile and her final words to me filled my heart with hope, love and joy. I had to smile because as much as she hated the cold I knew she was there with me. She loved to ski.
In the morning as we packed our sleds and set out across the ice I felt her warmth. In my thoughts of her I knew without a doubt that to still make her proud I must go on as she would have wanted me to. In celebration of the life that she made possible for me I skied with my companions to the lakeshore and our waiting cars. As we loaded our gear for the ride home I felt profoundly bless to experience so much freedom and adventure in the world outside. I felt renewed that abiding sense of obligation and duty to do the same for others. Each day of my life I dedicate to my mother’s memory. And in her honor I will continue to do all that I can to make the wonderful life I enjoy today available and accessible to everyone.
In honor of Dr. Rubye Mills a scholarship has been established to support a new generation of students at here alma mater UCLA.
Please express your dedication to her legacy with a donation of any amount. Checks should be made payable to “UCLA Foundation” with the fund number “31555O” in the memo line and mailed to:
Attn: Alex Nguyen
Office of Scholarships
10920 Wilshire Blvd. Ste. 900
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Thank you for your kind consideration
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