Sometime between her son’s first nap on her chest in the hospital and the concern over a threatening infection in his eye at four months, motherhood took over for Delatron Johnson.
Sure, there are still tears, often without warning or explanation. There are lingering feelings about those who inhabit her dreams of childhood gone wrong.
But, rather than boarding the same cycle of abuse those before her had ridden, Del Johnson became her own woman: college graduate, homeowner, comforter, author.
The mother of three appreciated, achieving children.
“God is the only reason I’m not crazy. I could be in prison. I could be on drugs. I could be walking the streets talking to animals,” she said. “Being normal was my next best option, so I had to go about being normal.”
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Today, Johnson lives where she’s always lived, in Cocoa. But that’s about all that’s recognizable from a childhood of being sexually abused, battered and moved from home to home.
This Mother’s Day, she will have her three sons around her, including two who still live at home.
Brandon, who will enter eighth grade in the fall, is the academic overachiever. Because of the life he’s been provided, his biggest question isn’t about how he’ll get to school but whether he’ll chose to be a doctor or an engineer.
Byron, days away from turning 11, shows the same promise his oldest brother demonstrated in sports. Middle school coaches already covet his services.
The oldest, born four days before Johnson turned 18, is Chauncey Gardner Jr., whom Del and husband Brian Johnson delivered to Gainesville in January. That trip came days after he played in a national all-star football game sponsored by Under Armour.
Gardner went to Gainesville to study and play football on scholarship for the University of Florida, an early graduate of Cocoa High who has already turned heads in spring practice despite his fellow Tigers not yet having walked across the graduation stage. He is the only player in the 11-year career of Cocoa football coach John Wilkinson to start every game for four years.
It was his nap on her chest, moments after he let out a cry and was cleaned up in the delivery room, that helped Johnson turn from thoughts of suicide or running away under an assumed name. She has written about all of it in her book, Fighting to Win, published in 2014.
The book details her life roughly from age 9 through 14, when a crack-addicted mother offered little of what Del and her younger sister needed from a mom.
Rather than the supportive and stable family she and Brian now offer for their children, the addicts and dealers who engulfed the life of her mother created an atmosphere where Del found no safe space except during hours of hiding in a closet.
Even then, her life was plagued by the need to prepare meals for her sister and herself, days spent at school wondering what awaited her back home. She experienced sexual abuse at the hands of crack dealers, watched her mother crawl across the floor looking for anything white that might be grains of crack cocaine and got into fights at school as a reaction to what she learned at home.
“All I knew was to hit,” Johnson said. “That’s why I used to fight all the time.”
It was after slapping Chauncey’s bottom in his early years that she realized what it felt like to regret physical contact.
“I’ll never forget that look on his face,” she said.
Even years into an 18-year relationship that now includes 13 years of marriage, Johnson wasn’t sure how to accept physical affection from her husband.
“I just had to adjust to her,” Brian said. “I had to let her come to grips with what she was dealing with.”
Now, Del is a residential director of a home for foster kids for Friends of Children and Families. For the last three years, she has organized volunteers to feed homeless people around the county, collecting food and preparing meals leading up to the holiday.
But Johnson made time to follow the decorated high school career of Gardner, a 100- and 200-meter state champion on the track and versatile star of the Cocoa football team. He was FLORIDA TODAY Player of the Year in two sports, now a member of the Gators football team.
In her own school days, she ran the hurdles and long-jumped. She played basketball, too, and after being kneed in the side during a game, she was taken to the hospital and learned she was only months away from becoming a mom herself.
It wasn’t something she was prepared for in any way.
“I had to learn how to tell my child I love him,” Johnson said. “They thought I had post-partem depression. He would cry and I didn’t know what to do.
“Once I learned how to love, it is an amazing feeling. I’m still learning.”
When her own mother went to Miami for drug rehabilitation, she and sister LaShawn spent a too-brief time with a caring aunt and uncle before a social worker took her to live with her grandmother and her own older sister, Dequerio.
In time, the physical and mental abuse returned there, to the point that she returned to thoughts of suicide and running away.
“I would always pray and say, ‘God, if you just get me out of this house, I will be the best person on Earth,’ ” she said.
Even after going to live with her real dad in 10th grade, where she found a more stable environment, she was on the cusp of changing her name and finding somewhere to start over before that mysterious knot in her stomach changed her life and, eventually, her view of it.
It doesn’t mean she never cries, even to the point of losing an evening or a whole day, but she is certain she is no longer a real threat to end her own life or to abandon people she has learned to love and protect.
“Emotionally, I am in a good place,” she said. “For my health, for my family’s sake, I’ve got to stay here.”
Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or email@example.com. Follow @Brian_McCallum on Twitter and facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum.