Grief-stricken Darnell Jackson collapsed onto his late mother Shawn’s bed, tears welling in his eyes.
“I lay down, smelled her sheets, moved the pillows back, and the only thing I saw was a couple words she left on a sheet of paper: ‘Please watch over my kids,’’’ said Jackson, a 24-year-old former Kansas University basketball power forward from Midwest City, Okla.
He’d hustled back from Cleveland — his NBA home of the past two years — to his mom’s three-bedroom, 800-square-foot house in the Sooner State after learning from his brother, Evan, and sister, Ebony, that Shawn had died of an apparent overdose of pain medication on March 25.
She was 41.
“I saw the pills my mother killed herself with,” said Jackson, whose inspection of Shawn’s bedroom also led him to an envelope.
In it was a letter to Darnell, written by his mother.
“I didn’t read it. I haven’t read it,” Jackson said. “If I read it now, I’d go crazy. I’ll read it some day. Then I will burn it.”
Maybe Jackson will read it today — the first Mother’s Day spent without Shawn, who apparently took her own life after enduring more than a dozen surgeries following a car crash caused by a drunken driver on May 25, 2005, in Las Vegas. That crash claimed the life of Jackson’s grandmother, Evon.
“I told somebody yesterday that I’d never, ever celebrate Mother’s Day again,” Darnell Jackson said Thursday in a 30-minute telephone interview from Milwaukee, where (after getting released by the Cavs) he finished the 2009-10 season as a member of the Bucks.
He agreed to the interview as a Mom’s Day tribute to Shawn. And perhaps as a way to get some things off his chest.
“I can’t be like that. My mom wouldn’t want me to be selfish and turn myself against the world. There are great mothers out there. My mother was one of them. It’s just hard to lose mine, the way she went out,” Jackson said.
Darnell told the Journal-World the same thing he told hundreds of Shawn Jackson mourners April 3 at Oklahoma City’s Rolfe Funeral Home — that he’s “pissed off” the way his mom “went out.”
“Every day that I think about her, I’m pissed off. I’m mad,” Jackson said. “Some days I want to blow up and go crazy. The other day I broke down while working out. It hurts. It hurts a lot because she was always there. I was the apple in her tree.
“She called me her good-luck charm. If I’d go to the casino with her and sit next to her, she’d win. She’d say, ‘See, every time I’m with you, I win.’
“I’d tell her, ‘No mom. You are MY good-luck charm. If it wasn’t for you beating me up every day, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.’”
Jackson credits his mom for some tough love during his formative years.
“My mom whupped me. She got out the belt for me not being respectful, not doing the dishes, not cleaning my room, getting in trouble.
“Nah, it didn’t hurt. I just laughed,” added Jackson, a 6-foot-9, 255-pounder who since a very young age was much bigger than his mom, who worked several jobs to support the family. Darnell’s dad was not a factor in his life and died when Darnell was in the eighth grade.
“My mother was everything to me. I thought it’d always be like that. I thought we’d grow old together,” Jackson said.
‘It was a freak accident’
Now he’s motherless and, because of his close bond with Shawn, believes he knows why.
“She never got over my grandmother’s death,” Darnell said. “She felt it was her fault that her own mother died. We’d argue about it. I’d say, ‘Mom. It was a freak (car) accident.’
“She never got over the pain. You break every bone in your body from a car wreck, it’s painful. Before she died, she called me and said the doctors would have to cut off her leg. She was hurt and tired. She was tired of fighting.”
There was only one way for Shawn to experience any relief from her physical pain.
“Pills,” Darnell said. “Pills take away the pain for half a day. You wake up in the morning, and the pain is there again. Nobody knew how much pain she was in but me.”
KU fans had a clue on March 3, 2008, when after a Senior Day victory over Texas Tech, Jackson told his mom in his postgame speech he’d “do anything” to trade bodies with her, just to make the pain go away.
“She fought it every day for five years,” Jackson said.
Looking back, he can pinpoint the moment Shawn decided she could take no more agony.
“She texted me and said, ‘Darnell, I love you. Make sure you watch over the kids.’ I was thinking it was a little motivation speech,” Jackson said of the last text message he received from his mother shortly before she died.
He has taken those words — and the words on the piece of paper under Shawn’s pillow — to heart.
Already close to Ebony, a junior at Langston (Okla.) University, and Evan, who will be a freshman at Oklahoma City University this fall, Darnell promises to be their mentors forever.
“I’ll never be their dad. I’m their brother. Their brother will be there for them, always,” said Jackson, who as the family’s big bread-winner, already has taken care of some of his siblings’ financial responsibilities.
Awaiting his NBA fate
Jackson is currently awaiting word whether the Bucks will pick up his option for next season or release him to free agency, where there’s always the possibility he could be signed by his hometown Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I’ll let my grandmother and mother take it up with God and double-team him so things will work out best for me,” said Jackson, who is also responsible for the most recent addition to his family — daughter Evonna Joie Jackson, who checked into the world at 91⁄2 pounds on April 15 in a Kansas City hospital.
“Man, she’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me. She looks just like my mother,” Darnell said proudly. “She was named after my grandmother, and her mother picked the middle name. She’s beautiful.”
Unfortunately, Shawn Jackson will never meet her granddaughter.
“The only thing she got to see was a picture of the ultrasound,” Darnell said. “She said, ‘I’m going to call her my little sugarplum.’ That’s what really hurts. She’ll never get a chance to hold her granddaughter.”
And Darnell will never again have a chance to playfully wrestle with his mom on the bed in her Midwest City home, or his bed in Milwaukee or other NBA cities yet to come.
“My mom stayed with me in Cleveland one time for four months,” Jackson recalled. “She wanted to talk to me all the time. Sometimes I’d come home from practice and try to sneak upstairs. I’d close my bedroom door, but she’d bang on the door.
“I’d say, ‘Go away. I’ve gotta go to sleep.’ She’d say, ‘Open this door now!’ She’d come in, jump on the bed and have a conversation about everything going on.
“We’d talk for a while, until she got tired. I’d have to kick her out of the room. I’d say, ‘Go to bed, mom, we’ll talk tomorrow.’’’
He’d give anything to speak with her today.
His friends and loved ones wished he could.
“Shawn was a special person. She and Darnell had a great relationship,” KU basketball coach Bill Self said. “She’s one of my favorite parents ever.
“She got on me — in a good way, a fun way — from the time Darnell got here to the time he left. She cared about her kids so much.”
Darnell a ‘mama’s boy’
Indeed ... “The core of her life would be her kids,” noted family friend Don Davis, who spoke at Shawn’s funeral. “Shawn was very strong-willed and very much a mother. She had no compunction at all about giving it to coach Self,” he added with a laugh.
“They had a great love-hate relationship. She knew the coaches were taking good care of Darnell. On the other hand, that’s her baby, and she wanted him to be especially cared for. If she didn’t like the way things were going, she could give it to them. She was always thinking like a mom.
“Darnell was very much a mama’s boy. They had what I consider to be a very sweet and tender mother/son relationship,” Davis added.
“What we had was magical,” Darnell said. “There’s something with my mom ... I’ll never have it with anybody else.”
Still, Darnell wants KU fans — who embraced him during a four-year career capped with the 2008 NCAA championship — to know he’ll be OK.
“My mom showed me there’s nothing to fear while I’m on this planet, nothing except God,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what will happen to me in my life, but this is not a final story. My story doesn’t end with my mom. My story ends when I’m gone.”