We Are A Determined Household

Alexa, play "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

At some point every December when I was growing up, my mother would set down the newspaper she was reading or mute the episode of Oprah she was watching and look over at me. “Saeed, have you written your determinations yet?” she’d say.

“No, mom, not yet” I’d reply, knowing she was about to say what she said every year.

“We don’t make resolutions in this house; we make determinations.”

I’d watch her, bemused, even as I felt my teenaged skepticism giving way to her persuasive earnestness. And then she’d hit me with the closer she’d been refining for years: “We are a determined household,” she’d say. It got me every time.

My mother raised me as a single parent in the suburbs of North Dallas, sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet and pay for the heart medication she desperately needed but often had to skimp on. In especially trying times, she’d wake up two or three hours earlier than usual so that she could chant in front of her Nichiren Buddhist altar for a few hours before going to work. During those threadbare stretches, when she got home from work she’d sit back down and continue chanting until it was time for dinner. Sometimes I’d hear her chanting and softly crying as I got into bed at night.

This is why, each December, when she wrote down her list of determinations on an index card she kept near the altar and then asked about my own, I teased her, sure, but not too hard and not for too long before giving in. When she wasn’t around, I’d peek at her card. Every determination was written using the verb “will.” As in, “I will overcome my health challenges. I will travel abroad this year with my son.” Each determination would be followed by a sentence explaining why she was so determined. More times than I can bear to admit, I was the reason. My mother was determined to win so she could live long enough to see me win.

Usually, just before the last day of the year, I’d sit down and write determinations of my own before placing my index card next to hers. When I grew up and moved away, she’d call or text me every December and, eventually, I’d write down my determinations and keep the card on my desk. We went on this way for as long as we could.

A few days after my mother’s funeral in 2011, while packing up her apartment, I found her last list of determinations, some of which she had been writing over and over for years by then. “I will overcome my health challenges. I will travel abroad this year with my son.” She did not. We did not.

But know this, for the first quarter of my life, for those pivotal, transformative years during which I came of age, I watched my mother -- a black woman fighting for her life in America, fully aware of what she was up against -- summon her determination like clockwork. As an adult, I’ve come to understand that she was so consistent not in spite of life’s many plot twists but because of them. We greet each new year, hoping for the best, though – in truth — “the best” might not be in the cards for us. I watched her proudly embrace the odds and stakes as she announced her intention to win anyway. It was a profound lesson.

More than the goals she’d write down, the act of summoning her determination with clear eyes and at full-volume is what I continue to cherish and honor. I will always be her son. I will always do my best to enact what I learned from her. I will define my life not by fear, loss or scarcity, but by potential. I will always win in the way that matters most. I know this is true because we win the moment we summon the strength necessary to make a determination. We are a determined household.