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Seizing life's precious journeys

Derrick Jackson with his mother, Doris, celebrating her 72 d birthday last weekend. Derrick Jackson with his mother, Doris, celebrating her 72 d birthday last weekend.

"The next time I see you, I'm going to take you to the mall and hold your hand down the aisle." Writing about my mother on her 60th birthday in March 1995.

St. Petersburg, Florida

I STROKED my mother's short, soft hair for many minutes. Her eyes were closed. I had not seen this much peace in her still-beautiful, velvet face for many years. She sat motionless on her nursing home bed, erect as a Buddha. A fresh spring breeze whispered through the window.

I thought to myself, my mother's final journey has begun.

Her 72 d birthday was last weekend. There will be no more visits to the mall. Twelve years ago I wrote about how I held her hand in department stores until I was 15, how she drove me to high school basketball games I covered for the Milwaukee Journal and how proud I was to drop her off at junior college on my way to class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Since then, dementia erased her memory. Last weekend was her first in a nursing home after exhausting the care of assisted living and home care by my sister and brother. I smiled as I stroked. I was not sad. Mom prepared me not to be. As her own mother's memory withered away in the 1990s, Mom told me not to fret because my grandmother was traveling to a better place.

I now know what Mom meant, even though she no longer knows my name. Upon my arrival, she hugged me, softly moving her hands up and down my back. I thanked her for everything. This mother who never asked for anything in return for her sacrifice slurred out a laugh, "For what?" After an hour of incoherent garble, I told her I loved her.

She looked me in the eye, digging into her recesses. She said something her older sister says. Mom did not slur her words.

"I love you more."

I joyfully left the nursing home, acutely aware of all the amazing journeys around me. During last weekend I had dinner with Anwar Richardson, my former little brother from the Bronx Big Brothers program. We were paired when he was 8 and I was 26. He flunked out of college twice, but graduated and became a sportswriter at the Tampa Tribune. He is now 33 and I am 51.

Anwar last week earned Top 10 honors from the Associated Press Sports Editors for explanatory writing. He once told me, "After I flunked out the second time my mom said, 'I will help you when you are down, but I will not let you bring me down.' "

He now brings others up. He showed me a pee-wee football trading card of an 8-year-old boy. The boy was Anwar's Little Brother from their Big Brothers program.

I dropped down to Sarasota to see my newly retired Episcopalian minister. His ruddy face glowed of liberation. He lost 20 pounds. The last of his red hair seemed to sprout against the gray. He had a shining earring in his right ear. He recently came out as gay. As he took me to see several of his new friends, gay and straight, he was proof that one is never too old to start a journey.

One is never too young to show others the way. At our Boy Scout and Venture Crew meeting this week in Cambridge, three of the first girls ever sponsored by our Boston council for an 11-day wilderness trek at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico told the newer scouts they needed to take that journey in 2008. One Philmont girl, Ryan, who fought past altitude sickness to climb an 11,000-foot peak last year, said, "It was hard, we got sick, but we had so much fun and learned we could do anything."

A week from today, a great journey will begin. My wife, Michelle Holmes, will attempt to hike the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. In a letter to her family and friends, she wrote, "I view it as an amazing adventure in the natural world and a spiritual pilgrimage echoing the Underground Railroad to freedom."

Michelle can talk about mere echoes of the Underground Railroad because people like my mother, sitting in her Buddha state, completed their journey. For her children, she bridged the gap between segregated Mississippi and American opportunity. It is now our turn to show others how we love them more.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is