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Published in Sports/Biographies
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By His stripes we are healed. ---Isaiah 53:5, NKJV
My mother almost died on the day she had me: December 31, 1995. As Mom gripped the arm rails of her hospital bed in Newport News, Virginia, a doctor and nurse tripped over themselves trying to stop her from bleeding to death. No one could figure out exactly why she was hemorrhaging so badly, but they finally gave Mom a series of medications that made her blood clot. An hour later, a nurse bundled me up and placed my six-pound, five-ounce body in Mom's arms—that warm spot I've returned to a thousand times since.
Back then, cash was tight. Very tight. I'm the baby in my family, and that made me the last of four mouths to feed. Since three of those mouths arrived back to back (Mom was prego every year between 1993 and 1995, and each birth came with major complications), my mother had to be on bed rest. So Mom let go of her job as a bank teller, a position that only paid about $20,000 a year; and my father, who worked on and off at various jobs, wasn't bringing in much money. That's why my mother and father loaded up a U-Haul trailer and moved us all to Oklahoma so we could find a fresh start.
Mom had once dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But after she had Arielle in 1989, she set aside college at Norfolk State University in order to keep food on the table. A couple years later, when she was twenty-one, she met my father and they got married. As they considered a move from Virginia to Tulsa, Oklahoma, after I was born, the plan was for my mother to go to Bible school and for my dad—who already had a background in ministry—to continue his training. At the time, my parents were both part of a movement called Word of Faith, a set of teachings that involves claiming and standing by God's promises in the Bible. So Tulsa—a city filled with Word of Faith mega-churches and Bible schools—was the perfect spot.
When we rolled into Tulsa in February 1996, my family drove right into one of the worst situations we've ever survived. My mother and father had scrounged up a thousand or so bucks to cover the deposit and rent on an apartment, but because of a miscommunication between my parents and the owner, that place fell through. So rather than sinking all their money into a hotel, my parents first looked around for apartment vacancies. When they couldn't find a single rental that was in their budget, we ended up living in the only place that wouldn't cost them a cent—the floor of our blue Dodge van.
So that's how we became homeless—as in parked in a dark, damp, and rundown lot for several months. Why didn't they reach out to their families for help? Because Mom was sick and tired of asking her own parents to lend us money, so she just wanted to stick it out this time. When my mother called her mom from a pay phone— not many cell phones back then!—my grandmother kept asking, "What's your address?"
"I felt humiliated," Mom once told me when I asked her about the experience. "We removed a bucket seat from the back of the van so that we'd all have more space to lie down, huddle together, and try to sleep at night." After lifting me up to her breast to feed me, Mom would rock me in her arms. Later, after my mother had patted me on my back till I was asleep, she'd carefully spread a napkin on the floor to prepare the only daily meal our family could afford—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "And since we'd gotten to Tulsa right in the middle of winter," Mom recalls, "it felt like it was below freezing some nights."
Just to keep us warm, Mom dressed my sisters and brother in every shirt, pants, underwear, and socks she could find. With all those layers, my siblings must have looked like little stuffed animals! My sister Arielle was already six at the time, so Mom enrolled her in school by using the address of a post-office box. In between shuttling Arielle back and forth to first grade with the few drops of gas we had in our van, Mom practiced the alphabet with Joyelle, who was two, and John, who was one. For hours, our mother would entertain them with stories or let them color while my father, who worked sporadically as a day laborer, was away from the van. At just two and a half months old, I lay there next to all of them, wrapped in every blanket Mom could find.
That April, my parents' tax refund check showed up in their temporary PO Box—and that gave us enough money to move into a small room in a Super 8 hotel. But after two months of shelling out $50 a night, they'd blown through every dime of their money. In place of cash, my parents began making promises to the hotel manager that they would pay up soon—and that worked until their bill climbed to more than $300. So one afternoon when we were away from the hotel, the manager evicted us from our room and removed our few belongings. In fact, just to get our suitcases back, my grandmother had to wire some money—by this time, Mom had 'fessed up to her parents that she and Dad were flat broke. Once that money ran out, we stayed for three weeks with a newlywed couple my parents had met through a local ministry. But after awhile, we ended up back where we began—crowded together in the back of a Dodge. We spent most of our five months in Tulsa living on that hard floor.
By spring, I was a few months old — and getting smaller by the day. (I've always been tiny—don't rub it in!) Because my weight kept dropping, my parents became concerned. In fact, my mother told me that a couple of people accused her of starving me. She fed me constantly, but I threw up everything. At one point, Mom says it felt like I only weighed about four or five pounds. I'd received one round of vaccinations at birth, but because my family had no insurance, Mom hadn't taken me back to the doctor. Mom eventually received a letter from the hospital where I was born—a friend back in Virginia had forwarded the note to our PO Box. Doctors had gotten the results of the blood test they run on all newborns. They'd diagnosed me with a life-threatening disease called Branched Chain Ketoaciduria. Sounds scary, right? Basically, it's a rare blood disorder found in infants who can't process particular kinds of protein. The condition is also known as maple syrup urine disease (MSUD)— mostly because it makes a baby's pee smell just like a stack of molasses-soaked pancakes. Maybe that explains why I've always loved me some IHOP.
But all jokes aside, I was sick. Seriously sick. And in addition to the blood disease, Mom was also pretty sure I had whooping cough, because I sounded like a child she'd heard on a public service announcement on television. "I was afraid for your life," Mom recently told me. "Because we had no money and no health insurance, I was afraid to take you to the doctor. I just didn't know what to do, so I leaned on my faith." Mom prayed for me every single day as she quoted (and requoted!) a powerful Scripture, Isaiah 53:5: "But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." As it turns out, God answered Mom's prayers and came through with a miracle: By the time I was six months old, the disease had gone away. Completely. And to this day, I am healthy—even if I am only 4'11" and 94 pounds.
By the summer of 1996, my parents were so over the whole Tulsa thing— so our next stop was Texas. We moved into the two-bedroom apartment of Mom's Uncle Ben and Aunt Teresa in Irving. My uncle offered my dad job leads, and Dad eventually began working at a used car dealership; but because he didn't sell many cars, he didn't earn much money. So he quit that job. Around that time, Mom's aunt and uncle traveled to the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Years later, Mom told me that her uncle left a note with her. "In that letter, my uncle wrote that he loved me and my kids, and that we were always welcome to stay with him," Mom recalls. "He also wrote that he wouldn't support a grown man, so we had to be moved out by the time they returned from the Olympics." Arielle told me that Mom began looking for work too, since my father wasn't working. It didn't take long for Mom to land a job in the collections department at Citibank. In addition, Mom's friend—the same one who'd once forwarded the hospital's note about my blood disease—knew a young couple in Dallas. That friend asked the couple if they'd be willing to take us in temporarily, and they agreed. In the fall of 1996, Mom had saved up enough money for us to move into our own apartment in Richardson, Texas.
Later that year when Mom celebrated my first birthday, I'd already been given the nickname my whole family still calls me: Brie Baby. Since then, we've put every possible spin on that name, including Brie Cheese and Breezy. And then there's my personal favorite— Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Cover Girl. But if you ask me, none of those nicknames roll off the tongue quite as gracefully as my full name does: Gabrielle, which means "God's able-bodied one." When that blood disease almost snatched away my life, it might've seemed that I wouldn't really live up to my name. But my heavenly Father had something totally different in mind. In Texas, as I grew stronger by the month—and as my mother worked to turn our family's financial crisis into a comeback—my name's meaning became a sneak preview of all that would come next.
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