Life experiences help to heal the grief

If Alexis Mootoo, 49, a doctorate student in government and adjunct professor at the University of South Florida, could give her younger self some wisdom or advice, she would tell her 20-year-old self one thing: people love you.

One fleeting glance in her spacious office reveals a lot about the woman behind the instructor. Colors of gold and brown adorn the various ornaments in the room. On the top part of the wall facing her back is a painting, “No Man Band”, by Leroy Campbell.

She spoke of her love for jazz music after the death of her father. The music helped her deal with the grief. She used to drive to the record store to listen to the music, particularly from the Harlem Renaissance age.

Mootoo left the United States at a very young age with her parents to go live in Bordeaux, France. Of the 10 years that she lived there, she remembers how it felt to be a part of a community. She remembers how kind people were, the food, the neighbor she sometimes stayed with when her parents were at school.

She remembers how close she was to her teacher, to the point that she refused to leave and started to cry when her father told her it was time to move again. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of how different her experience would be when they moved to the Republic of Congo.

Life in the Congo could not have been anymore different from France. Gone was the feeling of love and belonging. Gone was her nurtured yet ill-fated love for reading at least two books a week.

She was enrolled in a public school, and the experience was shocking to say the least.

“I looked different from everyone. It was much more striking than in France, maybe because of my hair being long and my complexion being different,” she said.

The difference extended to how everyone treated her as well. Teachers and students alike did not warm up to her.

She looks back at the experience now, and she wisely notes what it all meant. She realized that it was not about who she was as an individual, but what she represented.

“To them, I was supposed to be a rich person who didn’t need to be in a public school, but at the time I didn’t know the difference. It was a difficult time, and I was very upset,” she said.

Last year, Mootoo’s life came to a standstill when her mother died.

Even though she does not go to church, it gives her a sense of peace to know that her mother and father are finally together in heaven. In a way, she feels better knowing that her mother did not suffer that long through the cancer battle.

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Mootoo’s interests are as extensive as they can get. She smiles sheepishly and admits one of her guilty pleasures is watching all “The Real Housewives” franchises at the end of the day. A proud look replaced her smile when she said that she also loves crocheting. Her phone is full of pictures of all the things she has recently made, including a sweater for her son, Harrison, who will be attending a university in Colorado.

Her face lights up when she talks of Harrison. She is amazed by how charismatic and talented he is. The courage she sees in her son is reflected by the comparison she makes of what she wishes she could do.

“I wish I could sing and dance and be as charismatic as my kid. It’s amazing how he’s able to do that,” she said. “I wish I could stand up in front of people and belt out a song, but I could never do that. I’d throw up.”

When she was asked what some of her failures in life had been, she said she does not want to view them as failures, but more of things that needed to happen. She recognized the difficulties she had of being a single mother and of not having a degree.

“I believe that my humility has to do with all these things that I thought were failures, but in fact were just life experiences,” Mootoo said.

Two rooms before Mootoo’s office is one of her colleagues, Saviya Jean-Baptiste. They have known each other for more than five years.

Jean-Baptiste credits Mootoo to showing her the beautiful and yet-to-be discovered spots in Tampa.

“She had a dinner party for the Super Bowl. It wasn’t anything fancy, but just the bursts of laughter that we had was completely different. It was goofy and comfortable,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Both Jean-Baptiste and Mariela Noles Cotito, a graduate assistant at the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean at USF, have one thing in common. They are in awe of the person that is Alexis Mootoo. Her story from studying for her bachelor’s degree all the way currently to her doctorate at a later age, and constantly breaking down social barriers as a black woman impresses the two to be inspired by her each day.

“She’s a great human being. We email back and forth sometimes and she uses this expression ‘cool beans’. Now that I know she’s older, it’s funnier to me,” Cotito said.

Video: For Thelma Thompson, family is top priority

Thelma Thompson has demonstrated during the past three decades that family is the most important thing in her life.

Without hesitation, the Temple Terrace resident has seemingly always put her needs aside to help the ones she loves.

It started, Thompson said, after realizing her two grandchildren were not being cared for properly. Thompson — along with her late husband — decided to take on the challenging task of raising them.

But it wasn’t easy.

In 1985, when her husband became paralyzed from the neck down, Thompson faced the difficult reality that she would have to be the sole provider for the family in addition to raising the two children and caring for her husband.

“A lot of worry went through my mind,” Thompson recalled. “How was I going to take care of him? How was I going to meet my bills, since his pay was no longer there? How was I going to take of these two babies? But it all seemed to work out.”

Despite the struggles she faced, Thompson continued to help those in need. Her loving demeanor also drew in several troubled children outside her family.

Thompson received financial and physical aid from her daughter and son-in-law.

“I’ve always taken in kids who seemed to have problems. … ” Thompson said. “I guess it turned out to be between five and 10 kids that I have taken care of that were not mine in any shape or form.”

Nikki James, Thompson’s granddaughter, said she and her younger brother could have potentially lived drastically different lives if it weren’t for Thompson’s generosity.

“They (Thompson and her husband) were always there, and they took me in when the younger parents couldn’t handle the responsibility, and they have made a huge difference in my life,” James said.

Though there were plenty of hardships along the way, Thompson, now 80, said she always remained upbeat.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.