Francine “Frankie” Lons, R&B singer Keyshia Cole’s biological mother, died of an overdose on July 18, 2021—her 61st birthday.
The world was introduced to Frankie on the reality show Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is in 2006. She later starred in other reality shows, including Frankie and Neffe that gave its audience a front-row seat into the family’s life. Over the years, the shows documented Frankie’s ongoing struggle with drug addiction; Frankie’s complicated relationship with Keyshia and her other children; and the impacts of Frankie’s years of being an absentee mother. Frankie was so relatable because many of us have Frankies in our own families.
When I looked at Frankie, I saw my mother. Like Frankie, my mother Cheryl struggled with a decades-long drug addiction that prevented her from raising my younger brother and me. Like Frankie, my mother recently passed away at age 61. Although metastatic breast cancer was the cause of my mother’s death, her almost 40-year crack cocaine addiction plagued her up to the end—always threatening to ruin her good times, always her comfort in bad times. She’d been in numerous inpatient and outpatient drug treatment programs over the years. Although some bouts of sobriety were longer than others, she’d eventually relapse. Much like grief, loving my mother was an exercise in hope, disappointment, anger, and finally acceptance.
Cheryl taught me that addicts are not reliable, even when they love you. They can’t be counted on to show up or stay put. I only saw her when Granny and I went to Florida during the holidays and summers. Even then, my mother was usually MIA and we never spent extended periods of time together.
I remember a time when I finally had my mother to myself. She came to the local YWCA, where my Aunt Lil was the executive director. When my mother stopped by, she was frailer than usual. Her limbs looked like thin sticks. Black keloid-like sores covered her arms and the back of her neck. She once told me she’d gotten the sores because of the filth she often lived in.
“Sometimes I be so shame to come around the family cus of how I look,” she said.
I still loved my mother—through her sores and emaciation and disappearing acts. That day at the Y, she wanted to sleep. I wanted to be next to her, so I followed her to a dark room near the front of the building. We laid together on a small, child’s cot—my mother with her back against the wall, spooning me as I lay facing the doorway across from us.
“Don’t leave while I’m sleeping,” I told her.
“I won’t,” she promised.
When I awoke, she was gone.
The only birthday card I remember ever receiving from my mother is the one she sent me from jail for my 14th birthday, a few weeks after I started high school in 1992. She had made it herself by folding a piece of white paper in half.
On the front, she used a black pen to draw an intricate, calligraphy-like rose with thorns. She did not color it in, but drew a red ribbon wrapped around the white rose. Beside it, she wrote in big graffiti letters, “Happy 14th Birthday Jodi.” She wrote a message for me on the inside.
I wish I could be with you on your special day. You will be in my thoughts and prayers. Happy Birthday!
Your Mother Cheryl
That birthday card hung on my bedroom wall until I was thirty-two years old. When I finally took it down, I took a picture of it and saved it on my phone. But sometimes I take the three-dimensional card out to remember the imperfect love of the woman whose hands crafted it.
In my twenties, my mother was sentenced to three years in a Florida prison and completed a portion of that time in a work-release program. When she was about to be discharged from the program, she asked to come live with Granny and me in New York.
“I can help you take care of momma,” my mother would tell me.
At the time, I was a few years out of law school and overwhelmed with work and being the sole caregiver for Granny, who had Alzheimer’s disease. I certainly could’ve used help caring for Granny. It would’ve also been a chance for me, my mother, and Granny to start anew—three generations of women reunited and living under one roof. As enticing as this sounded, however, I knew it was pure fantasy. My mother had never taken care of anyone in her life. Her rap sheet and crack cocaine addiction were almost as old as me. Not to mention that my Brooklyn neighborhood had its fair share of drug dealers. It would take more than hope to keep my mother clean. The wisdom of my choice didn’t stop me from being angry at my mother. Once again, I had to be the responsible adult while she struggled to hold her life together.
Our tenuous relationship began to crumble after I decided not to allow Cheryl to move in with Granny and me. It was a clear declaration: I choose Granny over you. I choose myself over you. Sometimes “no” is the best way to save yourself.
About six years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Am I going to see you before I die?” she asked me on the phone while laughing.
“Chile, I don’t know,” I responded.
We had not spoken or seen each other since Granny’s funeral in 2011. Although she laughed and sounded light-hearted, I knew her question really meant, I don’t know how much time I have left. We need to make things right. When your mother summons you, you answer. I flew to Florida shortly after that conversation.
We hugged when she met me at the airport. She wore jeans and a matching jean jacket. Most prominent was the flatness where her left breast used to be, and her thick, false eyelashes.
“I love ya lashes, miss thang,” I said to her.
“Thank you. I did ‘em for you,” she replied.
“Well, I sure do appreciate it,” I said.
Ever the fashionista, my mother was a connoisseur of lace front wigs, false eyelashes, fresh manicures, and designer glasses.
We spent a lot of time together during my trip. As we sat on my aunt and uncle’s front porch, we talked about things we’d never uttered to each other or anyone else. I asked her hard questions that made her nervous.
“I’m sorry for not being there for you. For everything,” my mother told me.
I had long forgiven her for not being the mother I needed her to be.
“Now that I’ve seen you, I’m ready to die,” my mother said.
After I found a lump in my left breast on October 7, 2020, my mother was one of the first people I called. By that time, her breast cancer had progressed to stage 4. I was afraid and she was the only person I knew who would understand what I was going through. She called and texted me incessantly to make sure I scheduled my mammogram and to find out the results of my biopsy. After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, we talked regularly throughout the months of my surgery and treatment. It was the most we’d talked in my forty-two years, the closest we’d ever been. But even then, her addiction was always lurking. Whenever we didn’t speak for an extended time, I knew she was out getting high. Still, it felt good to be mothered when I needed my mother most.
Cheryl called me early on the morning of March 10, 2021, as I shook off sleep and stumbled to the bathroom.
“Jodi, can you help me write a book about my life?”
She had launched right into her request without any salutations or small talk. She was amped up, energized as if she had been awake for hours. There was a sense of urgency in her voice.
“You wanna write a book?” I asked.
She had never expressed an interest in writing. I once sent her links to essays I’d written. But I doubt she read them because she never mentioned them after that day.
“Yea. I think my story could really help a lot of women. My addiction, my cancer, my hooking, things I been through.”
And then we got cut off. I figured it was her ghetto phone acting up again. It had a tendency of hanging up without warning. I had just finished five and a half weeks of daily radiation treatments a couple of days prior and was relieved to not have to wake up so early. I crawled back into bed, thinking I’d just talk to Cheryl later.
Later that day, she asked my brother for some of the money he’d been holding for her. She told him she needed the money because she wanted to open a bank account. With money in hand, Cheryl left my brother’s house and got high.
When I spoke to her several days later, I didn’t bother to ask why she had gone in search of drugs. I knew why. The pull of her addiction was stronger than her willpower. Because she usually relapsed at the two-month sobriety mark. Because she’d been an addict for over forty years. Asking an addict why she got high is like asking why I keep drinking Coca-Cola or why a runner hits the pavement. I wasn’t looking for an explanation about why she hadn’t or couldn’t make better choices. I was just glad she was safe and wanted her to know I loved her.
“Well, at least you were only gone for a couple of days. Your binges usually last weeks at a time,” I told her.
“I guess you’re right. Progress, not perfection,” she said.
My mother summoned me for a second time, this time on the evening of March 20th. When I answered the phone, my cousin started speaking.
“Cheryl is real sick, but she wants to talk to you. Hold on,” he said.
My mother got on the phone.
“Jodi, I need to see your face. I don’t wanna die alone in a motel room. I need to see your face. I don’t wanna die alone in a motel room,” she kept repeating while crying and gasping for air.
She’d been staying in a motel since leaving my brother’s house. Her high-pitched, reedy voice sounded so thin, like it might snap and disappear at any moment. My cousin and I tried to console her.
“I got her,” my cousin told me. “I’ma take her to the hospital. I’ll call you when she gets settled.”
After my cousin took Cheryl to the emergency room, she was placed in hospice. I arrived in Florida a week later to see my mother for the last time.
It’s easy to look at women like Frankie and Cheryl and just see drug addiction, pain, and wasted potential. But our Frankies and Cheryls are so much more than their addictions. Cheryl was hilarious, was the life of any room she entered, and never bit her tongue. She loved and doted on my brother’s three children. She believed in dressing up, even when she didn’t feel well. Cheryl had a beautiful soprano voice she used in choirs as a child and in her final months whenever I asked her to sing for me. She had the courage to be honest, vulnerable, and afraid. She was brave enough to live and die on her own terms—even when others didn’t agree.
“Despite Cheryl’s life of addiction, she’s left a good legacy. Look at the two of you,” the hospice social worker said to my brother and me.
A friend recently told me I had inherited my mother’s strength, courage, and bubbly disposition under even the toughest circumstances.
These are the memories I’ll cherish.
I mourn the loss of my mother. I mourn the loss of the relationship we were developing and the years we spent estranged. I mourn the lost hope of a sober life for her. But I am grateful for all the in-between times. The times in between her drug binges. The good times. May we remember and continue to love our Frankies and Cheryls. They were here.
They loved and they were loved.
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