Reflections on Life and Death

By Marie Tano ‘21

Winter break 2017, my first college break, was my first time being home since moving away for college. The only thing that I remember from the break was complaining to my mom about our bare and empty refrigerator, broken heating system, and broken water heater. This winter break, I spent it planning the funerals of both my mother and my grandmother.

I have always despised returning home during breaks. As a FLI (first-generation/low-income) college student on a full-ride here, Pomona has always been like a safe-haven for me. I often forget how poor I am with access to emergency grants, a free gym, a meal plan, a minimum wage much higher than my home state and a free place to live. It was always disappointing for me to have to come home and survive on one or two meals a day while never being able to hang out with friends and relatives much since I needed to help care for my mother. Marie and her motherIronically, her death has allowed me to escape all the things that I hated about coming home in the first place. In mourning, my West African relatives have constantly prepared dishes for my sister, uncle and I, so the entire break I had a fully-stocked fridge. And, the constant stream of relatives coming in and out of my house, offering condolences, has allowed me to meet new ones and regain contact with some that I hadn’t seen in years.

While these were only two of the several blessings that have come out of my mother’s death, coming to terms with her death itself was the worst part of the break. After all, she was my best friend, confidant and spiritual therapist. I called her almost every day throughout my freshman year, with the calls only decreasing in quality last fall, when she was no longer able to hold long conversations on the phone. However, the fact that I able to see anything good coming out of her death is a testament to how much I have been able to grow at Pomona. With the plethora of lessons (from both my mother and life’s happenings) that contributed to this sense of independence, I also feel that my choice to go to a college over 2,000 miles away from my home in Georgia helped out.

Before coming to Pomona and well before the threat of cancer, I always had nightmares at the thought of my mother’s eventual death. For my whole life, I was entirely dependent on her and her presence in order to function. Marie as a baby, held by her motherHer strictness only exacerbated this relationship. I was not someone who had much freedom growing up, and, since we never had a lot of money, I was never able to experience normal teenage pastimes like concerts, or even prom. This caused me to spend a lot of time with her and relatives, and, even though I hated that aspect of my life for a very long time, I eventually grew to appreciate it—and her. She was my only and entire world, and remained so… until I matriculated into Pomona.

College affected me in both predictable and unpredictable ways. While I definitely matured in the way I think about societal issues and found interests that I am passionate about, I have also developed a great deal of assurance for my future. With all of the time I spent alone thinking about my mother and the tools that she left me, I realized that following her death was the very first time I actually felt confident in myself and the type of future that I will eventually be able to secure for my family.

After completing my third semester at Pomona, I have found that I am now able to handle a busy workload. My years of overachievement in high school are nothing compared to the five jobs, multiple extra-curricular activities, and full course-load schedule that I maintained last semester. Overextending myself is almost like muscle memory now, and I cannot handle not having something to do, and not having something to accomplish—everyday. I have been able to become more knowledgeable about subjects that I either have never considered before—such as my emotional intelligence—and in subjects that I had previously assumed to know enough about, such as the history of my people of the African Diaspora. My timidity in interacting with administrative employees and intimidating professors has diminished, as I have grown more confident in unapologetically asking for more resources, extra academic aid and necessary accommodations.

Marie with her mother at PomonaIt is very odd, when comparing this more confident and assured version of Marie to the Marie of almost two years ago, who was mostly fearful and anxious of what awaited her in her future. Pomona has provided me with a number of opportunities—including the chance to grow into the best version of myself. I know my mother is looking down at me, excited to see how Pomona will continue to enrich my life, in continuing the legacy that she left for me.