November 22, 2015

Twenty-nine days

Twenty-nine days was all it took for my life to change irrevocably.

In mid-September, my maternal aunt, Professor Michelle Carr, went to the emergency room in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York with a headache.

Twenty-nine days later, on October 16, 2015 my family stood beside her and said our final goodbyes.

My aunt, affectionately known as “Aunt Michey” or my special name for her, “Aunty Wonty” passed away from a rare and highly aggressive form of brain cancer. She lived a very healthy lifestyle, but after having a terrible headache on September 17th while working on a patient, she went to the emergency room and doctors discovered there was bleeding in her skull. After a series of further testing and imaging, we learned that she had a mass in her brain.

On October 1st she had her first surgery, which was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure intended to remove a small piece of the tumor to biopsy and determine the next course of action. But, this tumor did not react as doctors predicted, and that would be a recurring theme throughout this entire ordeal.

Instead of my aunt recovering with her sister (my mother) Tracy, and her children, Courtney and Jerel, at her bedside, her life was thrown into a whirlwind. There were internal seizures and the tumor reacted violently and started to swell, which affected her speech, memory, and overall brain function. My family rallied around her and we supported her with love, affection, and respect. Her doctors worked tirelessly to find a course of action that could help her, and they decided to perform a second surgery to remove more of the tumor in the hopes that it would make room and alleviate the effects of the brain swelling.

After this surgery, things started to look up a bit. I was in constant contact with my mom, who was at Aunty’s bedside around the clock, and we were all sending positive thoughts and prayers into the atmosphere. We had plans to support Aunty through her recovery, which would be extensive, but we believed it would be manageable. We were excited for the opportunity to care for her and love on her, the same way that she had always loved on us.

But, the tumor would again react unpredictably, and Aunty started to slip away from us. The swelling wouldn’t stop, and she started having more seizures. Doctors decided to sedate her into a medically-induced coma in the hopes that her brain would have a chance to rest and recover.

How I wish that had worked.

From this point on, things were obviously difficult. Aunty lost brain function and was put on life support. I flew to New York City immediately and experienced the toughest two weeks of my life.

But, the point of this blog post isn’t to tell you all about the bad times. It is, in part, to raise awareness about brain cancer, but even more so, it’s to tell you about my aunt. She was such an amazing person that I can’t fully explain who she was within the bounds of this post, but I can try to explain who she was to me.

When I tell people that my aunt passed away, I feel as if the word “aunt” isn’t strong enough to convey the bond of our relationship and it does her a disservice. Aunty Wonty was so much more than what that word describes.

Twenty years ago, just around the time I was born, my mother dealt with an unimaginable amount of tragedy. She lost both of her parents, her brother, and a sister, all within a five-month period. Her big sister Michelle was all she had left. Aunty became her new mother. Her sister. Her best friend and her confidante. And she did it all with a grace you cannot imagine. In the same vein, Aunty was not just my aunt, but my second mother, and also the grandmother I would never have.

When I was between three and eight years old, my military parents were stationed in New Jersey, just a short drive down the turnpike from Aunty’s New York apartment. Nearly every weekend Aunty and my cousins visited us, and, as anyone in my family will gladly tell you, on Sunday when it was time for her to return home, I cried from the moment I awoke until hours later when her car pulled out of the driveway.

“Aunty don’t goooo!!!” I’d bawl, and she’d reply, “Khaliyah Mia! I’ll be back next weekend, baby!” and although I knew this was true, my five-year-old self could not bear the thought of a week without her! Looking back on this now, I think that crying when it was time for Aunty to leave was my way of showing my intense love for her when I was too young to express that emotion verbally. As I got older, Aunty and I texted and talked on the phone constantly, and our bond remained very strong.

Another story I’d like to share about Aunty is the story of “Bear”.

You may know Bear from my freshman year video during our Final Four run. Bear travels with the team and I on every trip and sleeps in my bed every night without fail. Bear was a gift from my Aunty. She sent him to me when my military dad was getting ready to deploy to Iraq when I was eight years old. I still remember my mom calling me into the room and giving me a huge white box with my name on it. Aunty sent Bear to be a source of comfort during a difficult time, and no one could have predicted how much comfort he brought me when my father went to war, and how much comfort he brings me today, now that Aunty has passed.

Because of my upbringing, I’m the kind of person who strives to do my best in everything I approach. Last season when I was experiencing some difficulties with basketball I snuggled up with Bear and confided in Aunty. With her typical sweetness she encouraged me to protect my passion for the game. She told me to play without reservation, and to be confident in my own judgment on the court, and to utilize all the basketball skills that I had worked so hard to develop. She was so happy when things turned positive for our team and we reached the Sweet Sixteen!

There are so many stories like this that I could share about my Aunty Wonty; and these are the stories and memories that get me through the days without her. I try to think of our last trip together when we went to Chicago this summer for my sister’s wedding and we had an amazing time. We slept in the same hotel room, stuffed our stomachs with the world’s fluffiest blueberry pancakes each morning, and marveled at the beauty of the Windy City. I wish that words could convey just how much I cherish these memories, and how much they keep me going during such a difficult time.

And a difficult time it has been. I won’t even do the disservice of trying to put into words the pain that I feel on a daily basis. But Aunty wouldn’t want me to be hurt. I can vividly remember her saying on multiple occasions, “Well, you know I don’t like anything making my Khaliyah-Mia sad!”

Instead of being sad, Aunty would want me to remember and cherish all of our great times together, and I hope to honor her with not only how I play on the court, but with how I continue to carry myself through this lifetime.

So, when you see me make the ASL sign for “family” whenever I hit a three point shot on the court this season, know that it is in remembrance of my Aunty. It’s my way of honoring her, and of playing basketball the way she loved to see me play: with confidence, passion, and determination.

Aunty’s funeral service was standing room only. She was only fifty-six years old and her colleagues, students, patients, and fellow dental professionals came out in droves. I heard from so many different people about how she affected their lives so positively, and they were so sad to say goodbye to her.

But I’ve decided that I didn’t say goodbye. I carry her with me. And I always will. She is with me in each and every moment of my life, and that gives me strength. I’m still grieving, and, as many people have told me, I’ll never stop. But I am doing my best to honor her memory and to live, and play basketball, in a way that would make her smile. As my mom says, “Grief is the price of love.”

Yes, there is a lot of grief, but only because there was a lot of love.

Learn more at the American Brain Tumor Association -


  1. Maria Finney11/23/2015 8:08 AM

    Beautifully written tribute to your Aunty!!! May she rest in peace!

  2. Absolutely beautiful Lili. Continued prayers for you and your entire family

  3. A lovely tribute to a special person in your life.

  4. A beautiful tribute, Lili. I know how much it hurts to loose someone you love so much. Yes, remembering and cherishing the good times helps. My best to you and Bear.

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  7. Marianne Austin12/20/2015 11:08 PM

    This is a wonderful tribute. The story of love you told is moving and memorable. Thank you for sharing.