I first met Penwah at Thanksgiving. A mutual friend invited me and my family to her Jersey home. I remember her place being freezing cold, even though the fireplace was burning, thank God the food was delicious and she was the warmest person ever. She talked about hosting her own cooking show and I could totally see that happening. She can throw down in the kitchen and has personality to burn.
Resting over the fireplace I saw a picture of actress Michelle Thomas, known mostly for her role as Theo Huxtable’s girlfriend on The Cosby Show (she also dated Malcolm in real life), and a reoccurring role on the hit show Family Matters. I remember how gorgeous Michelle was with her mega-watt smile that would light up the TV screen. What I didn’t know was that she was an accomplished singer who was actually in the studio when the unthinkable occurred, she was stricken with cancer and passed away short after. Who knows, with her pedigree, maybe she would have followed in the footsteps of her father, Dennis Thomas, an original member of the legendary R&B group Kool and the Gang.
Last month I learned September 23rd was Michelle’s birthday when Penwah shared a collage of photos on her Facebook page. She’s been gone 17 years. Wow. Where did the time go? The pictures brought to life so many questions that I had always had like, How exactly did she die? and being a mother myself, I wanted to know how a mom survives such a devastating loss.
I reached out to Penwah recently and she was gracious enough to speak to me about her late daughter and grieving the loss of a child.
Tell us about your daughter, Michelle.
Penwah: They found a rare cancer in my daughter called desmoplastic small round, which at the time had only been found in adolescent Caucasian boys. They diagnosed her in November 1998 and she was gone that Christmas eve. She had just turned 30. My daughter was a vegan, so they’d give her a sedation that was supposed to put her out for 20 minutes and she’d be asleep for four days. Her body couldn’t take it.
What impact did her passing have on your life?
Penwah: Everything I experienced from my childhood – the death of my friends, the people who went to Vietnam, the drive-bys – prepared me for Michelle moving on. Once I realized that the world wasn’t so horrible and the universe wasn’t against me, because you go through that, I thanked God for helping to build a thicker skin and a spiritual consciousness. I became gracious. Michelle’s not dead we just can’t see her. Her spirit is so alive.
Is that how you got over it?
Penwah: You never get over it. She was my best friend, my buddy, my confidant. People would say, “Five years from now it’ll be okay,” that’s not true. You gotta go through it, and unless it happens to you, you won’t have the capacity to understand. There’s no handbook. But I can always tell a mother who has buried her child. It’s something that you just know.
What would you tell someone else about the grieving process?
Penwah: No one can tell you how to grieve. I still keep some of her outfits in the closet, some folded t-shirts in the dresser, and a pair of her shoes in the hallway. It gives me comfort.
Can you look forward to any peace or joy after losing a child?
Penwah: Absolutely, when I talk about this I get emotional because I am overwhelmed that God loved me enough to entrust me with such an angel. I had her when I was a tween. My father had arranged for me to have an abortion and I couldn’t do it. I only get sad when I forget that Michelle was God’s child, and I was only babysitting. She went back to him.
What do you get asked the most about your daughter’s passing?
Penwah: People don’t ask me sh*t. I wish they would. They don’t know what to say. It’s almost like a disease that people think they’re going to catch. Or sometimes, because Michelle was a public figure and people feel like they know her, I’ll get someone come up to me and ask how she’s doing lately because they haven’t seen her in a long time.
Do you keep in touch with any of her friends?
Penwah: Yes, Donna, Lisa, Leigh, who were her friends outside of the business, a few who are in the business, and Malcolm [Jamal Warner]. He just called recently to check on me. I don’t speak to him all the time, but when we talk we pick right back up where we left off. I’ve also built relationships with a couple of her friends she went to school with on Facebook.
What are you doing today?
Penwah: I’m an artist. This is what I do! I write, act, sing and do comedy. Some people who don’t know me have tried to act like I’m exploiting my daughter’s success to get work, but it’s not true. I was one of the kids in “Porgy and Bess,” I was in “Hair” with Donna Summer. I’m classically trained; I have been doing this a long, long time. I trained Michelle. Everyday I work on my craft. I coach, I mentor young actors and I groom and encourage them.
I just co-produced, single-handedly cast and acted in a film for a brilliant screenwriter that I’m so excited about called Steps . It’s a healing film that you can bring your whole family to. It’s the type of movie I stand for as an artist, a mother and human being. We have a responsibility to groom our youth. These girls wanna show their vaginas before they even know what it is. Michelle respected herself. God has left me here for a reason and it’s to help pave the road.
Though it would take a book to adequately capture all the fascinating nuances of Penwah’s life, I wanna thank her for sharing part of her journey here with us. May Michelle rest in peace.
To learn more about click here Penwah.
This article first appeared on Madamenoire 10/26/15