I know the feeling of sleeping at a bus stop, I know what it feels like not to have food and beg on the streets.  I know first-hand what it feels like to be robbed and watch drugs engulf my family.

What I don’t know? I don’t know what if feels like to give up.

I’m Nealand Johnson, the funnier, more inquisitive, younger twin. This is my Crystal Stair.

The very thing that my past was supposed to strip from me is the very thing that saved my life — and that was hope.  I was stupid enough to think that my circumstances could change, be it the smallest inkling of a notion. I just knew that life couldn’t get any worse.  I grew up not knowing my father, to a mother who’d succumbed to drug addiction and illness, in a space (not a home) that had no appliances, no food, no furniture, and no hope.  When you think of a traditional ‘hood’, you probably don’t think of Colorado, right? The only thing we had in the morning when we woke up and went to bed at night…was each other. 

But despite that, there was a positivity that I couldn’t rid myself of, even if I tried to lie to myself about that positivity, it still remained. 

At the base of that positivity was my rock and my angel, my mother.  It took me 20+ years to realize how strong she was and is.  As kids, it’s much easier to blame a mother for abusing drugs and putting the health and wellbeing of her family as peripheral to her getting her fix. I found myself struggling to forgive her, but her love for us never waned.  She made it clear the choice she made, and even clearer so, was her teaching us that we (my brother and I) had a choice.  We knew the product of wrong and right choices and had the freedom to choose who we wanted to be, where we wanted to be in life, and whether or not we would let our spirits be broken by our current circumstances.

Her other lesson came later in life – when she developed multiple sclerosis, a paralytic disease that impairs motor skills, speech, and vision.  It reminded me of the fragility of our own mortality.  I often think about how life would have been different had she not been sick…but at this stage in her life, where her condition isn’t improving, I see that she still isn’t finished giving out lessons.  She continues to teach us patience and peace.  That we’ve done and continue to do everything for her is enough to make her proud and keep a smile on her face.

We love you mama, eternally.

Our last life lesson is the power of perception.  Standing at 6’3”, with light olive-colored skin (we’re Italian and black), bright green eyes and curly hair, we don’t necessarily “look” like what we’ve been through.  We’ve often found our hardships disregarded because although we were black, we weren’t black enough, and although we were fair-skinned, our disposition didn’t fit the mold of how a mixed kid should act.  Clearly, someone who looked like us couldn’t have suffered…and that was so far from our reality.

Now I can confidently say after having graduated from Idaho State University with a Bachelor Degree in Marketing and working as a Risk Analyst for the cloud-based payroll company Gusto, that life is definitely what you make it. 

It’s not the end until you say it’s the end, so keep moving forward.