Gilbert Arenas's mother lost her dreams before losing her life

Mary Francis Robinson, above, died on March 13 after her liver gave out earlier this month and she was taken off life support.
Mary Francis Robinson, above, died on March 13 after her liver gave out earlier this month and she was taken off life support. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 28, 2010

In the heat of a West Tampa spring, a long-limbed girl of 16 glided around the Jefferson High asphalt track. Such grace and elan in her stride, she churned fast around the curve of her best event, the 220-yard dash.

Mary Francis Robinson played basketball, too, mostly because her girlfriends went out for the team. She also was pretty, which the goofy adolescent boys waiting for their turn in the gym noticed.

One of the boys, a junior, heard the girl everyone called "Francis" had a crush on him.

So one night he rolled up to her house in his '69 baby-blue Mercury Cougar, which was just about the coolest ride a guy at Jefferson could drive some 30 years ago.

And that was that.

Within 18 months, she had a baby boy. She could have been a college athlete, like the boy she fell for, who ended up getting a scholarship to play baseball for his uncle a few hours away. She could have been a teacher. She could have been a lot of things.

But Francis was head strong, stubborn as a motor-oil stain, determined to do it her way. She dropped out and decided to raise the child by herself. Hearing the Jefferson band play the alma mater, she cried the day her classmates graduated without her down the street from the cramped apartment where she lived with her toddler.

Unsure whether she and the boy's father would work things out, she took up with another man. And this one unfortunately sold tiny white balls of hardened chemicals, which people began lighting inside baby-food jars in the mid-1980s and inhaling -- until the rock cocaine rushed through them, piercing their senses like 1,000 dental drills at once. He gave Francis another child at 19 years old but he stole from her all the hope she had gliding around that track in high school. One night, about a month before her second boy was born, the man was gunned down. He bled to death in her arms.

After a while, Francis just stopped caring. "I lost the strong side of me," she said.

The mother of the man who died in her arms was so traumatized by her son's death she moved her family from Tampa to Miami. She asked Francis to come.

There were drugs, alcohol, aliases, arrests and more aliases after that. And children. Francis knew she wasn't much of a maternal figure. She still inexplicably had four more boys and two girls.

Every one of her eight kids, all of whom Francis said she loved, ended up being raised by one of the four men who fathered them or one of the men's family members.

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