Deja Pointer wasn’t ready for the words as they escaped her father’s lips.
“Well, baby, mom’s not doing well. She can die at any minute.”
Pointer knew the circumstances — her once vibrant mother, Sonya, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year earlier and had slowly deteriorated into a frail shell of herself.
“It was heartbreaking, and I didn’t really want to think that it would come to that, but I just had to face the facts and tell her my goodbyes,” Deja said.
Coming home after an off game against rival Harker Heights, the 15-year-old Ellison sophomore left her basketball gear in the car and raced into her eerily quiet house.
Passing weeping family members huddled together in a crowded living room, Deja headed straight to her mother’s room.
Twenty-four hours prior, hospice nurses said Sonya wouldn’t last through the night.
“One of her friends said it best, ‘Sonya is a stubborn woman, and she’s not going to do anything until her mind is made up,’” said Michael Pointer, Deja’s father.
Once joking she had a voice that carried, Sonya was barely audible, communicating mostly through well-timed hand squeezes. “I kissed her and said, ‘Everybody’s here, baby, it’s OK,’” Michael said.
Her family — Michael and all four of their children, Deja, Haleigh and stepsons Kenneth and Michael Jr. — surrounded her bed.
Kneeling beside the bed, Deja grasped her mother’s hand, gave her a gentle kiss, and shared her last goodbyes: “Momma, I love you.”
“She fought it, she fought it, but I think she just wanted to make sure we were all right there, we were all together, because that was how she always wanted it,” Michael Sr. said.
Within seconds of Mike Jr.’s final kisses, the last of her four children to do so, Sonya let out a deep breath and died.
“I actually think she waited until I got home that day,” said Deja, who two years later still has to fight back her tears.
'It is what it is'
A peaceful but heavy silence held the room in a sort of stasis, as all six Pointers remained together.
Sonya lay still, covered in a homemade quilt adorned by family photos. Deja still held tightly to her mother’s hand. It wasn’t until Ellison girls basketball coach Sherry McKinnon walked in that time and reality returned.
Called there to take Deja and little sister Haleigh away so they didn’t have to witness their mother’s body being removed, McKinnon was struck by the sound of faint sobbing coming from the most unlikely source.
“That was the first time I’d seen Deja cry,” McKinnon said. “What courage, what love, (to think) outside of herself and all the pain, to wait until everybody was there and to let Deja finish her game.”
Sonya Pointer, 36-year-old mother of four, died the evening of Jan. 4, 2011, after more than a year battling cancer.
Diagnosed in December 2009 after complaining of problems breathing, Sonya continued to teach her class of second-graders at Montague Village throughout much of her monthly chemotherapy treatments — against her husband’s wishes.
“The week after (treatments) is always the worst time, but after that, she went to work,” Michael recalled.
“She let me know, in no uncertain terms, that, ‘Look, this is what I do. I don’t interfere in what you do,’ and … she didn’t really care. Her whole (mentality) was, ‘I gotta get them ready for third grade.’”
Sonya knew life wasn’t going to stop on her account, and she refused to let her sickness affect anybody else.
“She had a saying, ‘It is what it is, Mike. If God doesn’t pull me through, He’s going to take me too.’ And that’s what we went by,” Michael said. “We just enjoyed the time we had to the fullest.”
The day of her mother’s funeral, Deja stood surrounded by the entire Lady Eagles basketball team. That night, she asked McKinnon if she could join them on the road for Ellison’s game at Temple.
Although still nursing a slight leg injury, Deja sat on the bench cheering for her teammates as her mother had done so many times before.
“Just her presence — we lost, I think it was the first loss of the season that year — but we went ahead on and made it to the region semifinals, and she came back and played furious the next week,” McKinnon said. “But man, you can’t know the tug at my heart when she called and asked if she could go and be with her team.”
In her team, Deja found relief. Rather than focusing on losing her mother, she used it as an opportunity to gain new sisters and a surrogate mother in McKinnon.
Even now, there’s not a day that goes by where McKinnon doesn’t see Deja in her office at least three times a day.
“She had a choice there. She could have folded, felt like life wasn’t fair — and that wasn’t fair — but it is what it is,” McKinnon said.
A shy and quiet introvert growing up, Deja was usually found following her mother’s every step. But, since her passing, Deja has had to slowly open up and become more assertive, especially around the house.
“Instead of just moping around, being the quiet little girl, she likes to voice herself now, and make her opinion known,” Michael laughed. “… Not ‘can I?’ but ‘I think I’m going to.’ It’s sort of a question, but a statement at the same time.”
Wearing the same wide smile her mother used to flash, Deja has carried on her mother’s strength of conviction and sheer determination.
“My wife was the strongest woman that I’ve met to date,” Michael said. “Just her character in of itself. … She has that mental toughness and I can see that in Deja more and more.”
The last game
Before being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2009, Sonya was a staple at all of Deja’s basketball games, cheering loudly from “her” spot in the stands, often with chants and made-up nicknames for her and her teammates.
“I could hear her in the stands and I normally don’t hear anybody, I’m in that zone, but you could hear (Sonya),” McKinnon said.
But by the start of Deja’s sophomore season, her first on varsity, Sonya was too frail and weak to take the physical toll of traveling.
That is until a week before her death, Dec. 28, 2010.
“She was very weak, but she was like, ‘Mike, I’ve got to see my baby play,’” Michael said.
Unable to stand and straining to keep her tired head upright, Sonya still beamed with pride as Deja drained 3-pointer after 3-pointer after 3-pointer inside the Copperas Cove gymnasium.
Her baby, a wide-eyed sharpshooter brought up to varsity for her infectious smile as much as her deadly accuracy from beyond the arc, was having the game of her young career. Sinking three of her five 3-pointers in a pivotal second quarter, Deja spearheaded Ellison to a 60-44 win over rival Killeen in its opening game of the Bush’s Holiday Classic.
“Out of the corner of my eye, when I shot one of the 3s, I could see her over there with her fist up,” Deja recalled, hiding a tear behind a big smile.
“She couldn’t do much, but just her being there was a big (game) changer.”
On one particular possession, Deja held the ball at the top of the key and mother and daughter locked eyes right before she cut to the basket, snaking past several Lady Roos for a strong layup.
Sonya, with a weak, raspy voice, pumped her balled-up right fist and faintly cheered: “Yay, Deja.”
Standing in front of her mirror, the now 17-year-old senior snaps the clasp of her mother’s silver necklace and doesn’t see her reflection, but that of her mother.
Adorned with two hearts, commemorating the heart-full of love each girl had for their mother, and emblazoned with the words “I love you mom” on the back, it was a Mother’s Day present from Deja and Haleigh several years earlier.
And with it and her mother’s class ring, Deja is able to start each day with a smile — her mother’s smile.
“I think about her every day, but what I think about brings a smile to my face,” Deja said.
In the two years since her mother’s passing, Deja has shouldered a lot more responsibilities around the house without complaint, be it cooking dinner after practice or braiding Haleigh’s hair, mostly to “give (her dad) a break sometimes … sometimes.”
“A lot of things she just takes charge of and does it,” Michael said.
But while the Pointers carry on, it’s still a daily struggle to come to terms with life without the best part of them.
“(It’s) just getting used to it, because even though it’s been like two years, I’m still not quite used to it,” Deja said.
Basketball has become a saving grace for Deja and her family, as the spry senior uses each moment on the court to make her mother smile.
“When she was there, I could always feel her presence,” Deja said. “I just think about her knowing that she’s right there cheering me on. So I think about that and it’s easier to go on with the game.”
Deja leads Ellison, averaging 11.2 points and six rebounds per game, shooting 41 percent (33-of-81) from 3-point range, and has helped power the 11th-ranked Lady Eagles to a 16-3 record overall, and 3-1 in District 8-5A.
Each year, the team honors Sonya’s memory with a specially-made T-shirt, just one of the many ways Deja has kept her mother alive in the hearts of all that knew her.
“I kind of think she continues on through me,” Deja said.