My Mentor Has Been My Rock for Years—Now It’s My Turn To Support Her

Photo: Joyline Maenzanise; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers… thank you. Here, writer Joyline Maenzanise expresses their gratitude to their mentor.

Dear Suellen,

Some people say, If you don’t love yourself, you can’t expect others to know how to love you. I used to believe this until I learned that there are people who actually love us in a way that provides a framework for how we should love ourselves. You are one of those people.

When I met your daughter, Charissa, at orientation camp just before commencing my studies in 2011, little did I know that stars were aligning in my favor.

At my university in Cape Town, South Africa, mentorship constitutes an important part of the academic curriculum. Mentors are usually professionals in various fields, meant to provide students with guidance that prepares us for the world of work. My first year, the university paired me with a mentor. But my second year, I needed to find one on my own. And, having moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe for my studies, I knew almost no one outside of my peers. I knew you, but just barely.

We had met only two months before I asked you to be my mentor, when I visited Charissa at your home. I knew little about you, but I felt an amicable aura when we chatted. I liked that; it gave me an iota of assurance that, at least, spending time with you wouldn't be dreadful. (My bar was low.) You seemed reluctant at first; maybe you were uncomfortable with the idea of starting such a relationship with someone you barely knew. But eventually you agreed, and so began a journey that would see me through challenges I couldn't foresee.

We were both busy—you with your many responsibilities and me with an ever-growing mountain of coursework—but we made the relationship work for us. And with time, our relationship budded into something wonderful; something that transcended the mentor-mentee relationship. I spent most weekends at your home, which transformed into my safe space. (Delicious home-cooked meals every now and then, a supportive mentor, and an environment conducive for studying? I was in heaven.) In you, I have had a friend and motherly figure and this has come in handy during the times I could use parental support.

You easily embraced parts of my identity that some people, including my family, couldn’t tolerate or wouldn’t understand.

You created so many special moments for me. I learned to look forward to my birthday because of how you would go out of your way to make my day memorable; this kindness showed me that, amid all the chaos in my life, maybe the universe was still looking out for me. And one of my fondest memories will always be of the particular evening when you drove to my place in the evening after I had earlier told you that I was down in the dumps. You had come from a busy day at work. You told me you’d rush to see me after doing the dishes. You wanted to give me a hug. And food. That gesture blew me and the blues away.

Your unwavering support has made the last nine years of this thing called my life bearable. You chose to love me in a way that eased my journey of coming into myself as a queer person. You easily embraced parts of my identity that some people, including my family, couldn’t tolerate or wouldn’t understand. Not once have I had to explain my sartorial choices or gender expression to you. I never had to hide my queerness from you. In fact, I never even had to “come out” to you. My attraction for women was just one of those things about me I simply let you know about.

You moved mountains and rocks for me. This is why there was no other person whose presence at my graduation ceremony mattered more than yours. Your support fueled my success and you always made an effort to celebrate my achievements. You saw in me what I had a hard time seeing because years of trauma that battered my self-esteem had created a dark veil that prevented me from seeing my strengths and what was good in or about me. I write now because you saw the writer in me. Not only that, you also made it possible for me to share my opinions and experiences with the world.

After nearly five years of being in each other’s lives, being separated from you was a hard blow. I was forced to relocate to Zimbabwe in 2016 after my unsuccessful application for a work visa. The fact that we stayed in touch via Skype and WhatsApp helped me deal with the pain of the separation and quelled my worries that the physical distance would create an emotional rift between us. Even as I found comfort in the lush trees in my new neighborhood (which reminded me of you), it was our long video calls that saw me through a difficult transition after moving back to a country I had sworn to never return to. True to your nature, you offered to pay my rent until I found my feet.

You continued to do so even after you were diagnosed with cancer in January of 2017 and had unforeseen expenses to tend to. It’s 2021 now and you’re still fighting cancer. The dynamics of our relationship have shifted; I can’t always run to you whenever I feel myself sinking into an emotional rut. This was hard at first, but I have gotten used to the change. I’ve even learned to be emotionally independent so I can be in a better place to nurture mutually supportive relationships with people like you. Now, instead of using you as the “punching bag” you once offered yourself as, I have become one of your support systems. You deserve the love you give.

Thank you, Suellen. Thank you for showing me what love should look like.

I love you.

I respect you.

I cherish you.

Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from best-selling author Layla Saad and Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin

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