Expression Of Love

It wasn't easy raising to gifted sons on her own, but Sonya Carson recalls both the ups and the downs with a smile.

May 12, 2001|By SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sonya Carson sits on a cream-colored leather couch in her light-filled living room, wondering how to begin telling her life's story.

The most important part, of course, revolves around her two children, but so many people already know about her youngest son Ben - the Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon with the graceful, gifted hands who performs operations few other doctors would dare. They know of his humble beginnings on the rough streets of Detroit, his scholarship to Yale and his meteoric medical rise.

Every time his accomplishments are recounted in another magazine profile or theatrical play or book, they inspire awe: How could a boy labeled the "class dummy" soar so high? What was it that allowed him to overcome all the obstacles in his path?

Sonya Carson rests her hands on her knees, hands thick and strong from years of scrubbing other people's homes. Hands that once gripped the shoulders of her son when he asked, at the age of 8, if he could become a doctor: "It'll happen," she said, and he never doubted it would.

Her story is less glamorous than her son's, but no less astonishing.

Her two boys - Curtis, the elder, is now a successful engineer - always had her behind them, loving and nurturing and pushing them to succeed. But Sonya Carson had no one.

She barely remembers her own parents. She doesn't know how many siblings she has - 23, maybe 24. Born in Tennessee, Carson doesn't like to talk about her childhood but says she never made it past the third grade. She was bounced from foster family to foster family, and when she finally found a way out - when a handsome, charming man proposed - she leapt at it. She was 13 years old.

During those early years raising her two young sons in Detroit, she was happy.

"I often thought if we had children - a real family - I'd belong to somebody," she writes in one of Ben Carson's books, "Think Big."

The boys adored their father, who worked as a preacher and at a Cadillac plant, and for a time, life was comfortable, if not luxurious.

Things fall apart

Then came a shattering discovery: In 1959, when Ben was 8 and Curtis 10, Carson learned her husband was married to someone else.

She knew she had to leave him, but how could she support her children?

"I went to the employment office," she says, "and I could barely write my name."

She tells this story with no bitterness in her voice toward the man who raided the savings she'd set aside for her sons' education and seldom sent her money for child support. Though one might be tempted to think it's because she triumphed in the end - after all, she is the one living in the gracious in-law suite of Ben's majestic home in West Friendship, and she is the one her sons rush to praise - Carson doesn't take satisfaction in revenge.

Instead, she seems to have made peace long ago with what her ex-husband did. She talks about the poverty she and her sons endured - how she worked two and three jobs at a time, and how she wore "not only second-hand clothes, but homemade clothes" - and smiles.

Smiling is something Carson does easily, and it may be one of her greatest gifts - perhaps no less of a blessing than the innate talent that allows her son to navigate the delicate landscape of his patients' brains.

After all, staying positive - allowing herself to hope and dream, and encouraging her sons to do the same - gave them all a vision of the future that might have seemed impossible at one time.

But it wasn't always that way. During the first two years after her husband left, the pressures became too much for Carson to bear.

Occasionally, when she was near a breaking point, she would leave her sons with one of her sisters and check into a mental hospital for a few days.

Once she tried to kill herself. Her boys, she thought, would be better off in foster homes. She swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, but her sister found her and rushed her to the hospital.

That experience became a turning point: Soon afterward, she began going to a Seventh-day Adventist church. And suddenly, her life became easier, her heart lighter. Not because there was a new job or more money, but because Carson no longer felt alone.

A new lease on life

Now when she faced a parenting struggle - when Ben pleaded for new clothes she couldn't afford, or when the boys argued heatedly about helping around the house - she slipped into a closet and prayed for guidance. And the answers always came to her in what she calls a still, small voice.

Sometimes the insights were as creative as something a child psychologist might dream up: Ben wanted a fancy Italian shirt? Fine, he could buy it: He just needed to take her paycheck, pay all the bills, and use whatever was left for his clothes. Soon Ben stopped lobbying for new clothes, and to this day, he says he cares nothing for designer labels.

When the boys fought over chores, she surrendered: OK, she said, you tell me what to do. They made up lists of responsibilities and ended up working far harder than she'd ever asked.

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