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Countless moments shape our lives, but a few define us.

her mother, she knew. Bessie Harris, who had asthma, had not felt well when she got home from the airport the previous day. Rather than go to the doctor, she took some medication. Her death was quick and completely unexpected.

“I had always been a very independent child, but as independent as I was, in the back of my mind I thought my mother would always be there,” Harris says. “I instantly felt different. This had never happened in my family before. None of us knew any children who’d lost their mother.”

Bessie was a devoted, no-nonsense homemaker who had the highest expectations of her children while commanding their total respect. Earlier that year, Harris’ admiration for her mother had intensified when, during the breakup of her marriage, Bessie went to cosmetology school and opened her own business. “That was a defining moment for her and for me,” Harris says. “My mother had never worked, but she just did it and I thought that was incredible.”

The fourth of five children, Harris had always been a high-achieving, forthright child. The sudden loss of her mother-her rock and primary role model-devastated and could easily have derailed her. “She was responsible for cultivating this confidence in me and now she wasn’t there,” says Harris. “I felt alone in the world.” Nonetheless, Harris became more determined than ever to excel, and on her own terms.

“When a child loses a mother, especially a girl, I think a lot of people say, ‘Well, now what’s going to happen to that girl?’ People treat you differently, they talk to you differently, they don’t know what to say or how to be with you. Surely I’d become more promiscuous, I’d become a teenaged mother, or a rebel. You could see what they were thinking on their faces. That really bothered me and made me determined to prove them wrong.”

After her mother’s funeral, Harris returned to Mexico. “I still appreciate my older brother’s asking me what I wanted to do. My parents had always been the type to just tell their children, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ It was very empowering to be asked and I wanted to go back. It allowed me to escape all that sadness.”

Harris did fine in Mexico and returned to finish high school as a standout both academically and athletically, earning a reputation for being “strong,” a label she despises. “When someone endures a great loss or disappointment, to tell them to be strong is to lay a huge burden on top of the one they already have,” she says. “Black people, and black women especially, get saddled with that a lot, and it’s unfair.

“Forget those fools who tell you to be strong. Be with your pain. Fall apart. Not doing that is completely counterintuitive to what we need emotionally.”

Harris learned that bit of wisdom firsthand. After a characteristically impressive start as a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, she was soon overcome by feelings of loss, loneliness, guilt, anger, and

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