By Julia K. Agresto
I want to like May, I really do. But I just can’t. Hear me out.
May brings new life. It ushers in a tapestry of flowers and abundant sunshine and the promise of endless summer, of bonfires and warm nights. For me, the stark contrast of loss against a backdrop of such beauty has always been too much to reconcile. Beauty should be born in May. It should not die.
May 14, 1995 was Mother’s Day. I had turned eight years old two months before. I still have a framed photograph from that day of myself, my mom, and our family dog, sitting in the backyard in the sun – my mom in a brightly striped beach chair, me in the grass next to her, leaned in close and clutching on as if to say, “Don’t leave me.” In retrospect, I wonder how much I was actually able to appreciate on a day that’s all about appreciation. Did I thank my mom for all that she did for me? Did I make her a well-intentioned but less-than-impressive card by hand? Did I give her a gift? Did I say, simply, I love you?
Six days later, she did leave me.
On the night of May 18, she suddenly became ill. My sister and I had gone to bed, presumably after being tucked in by my parents, under the guise of normalcy. Sometime later, I was awoken by the sound of my mother’s cries. My father came into my bedroom, scooped me out of my bed, and transported me to my 12-year-old sister’s room, again tucking me in and explaining that mommy was sick and he needed to bring her to the hospital. At some point, they returned and again I heard my mother crying out in pain. Light spilled in through my cracked-open bedroom door, coming from my parents’ room down the short hallway, and I saw what my young brain registered as a police officer, though I know now this was likely a paramedic. The next thing I saw, through my sister’s bedroom window, was my mom being loaded into an ambulance in our driveway on a stretcher. I didn’t know what was happening; what would happen. That I would never see her again. That she would fall into a coma after uttering her final words to my father: “What about my girls?” We were the first thing on her mind always. We were the last thing on her mind before she left this earth.
My sister and I stayed with family friends down the street while my mom was in the hospital, my dad by her side. In my mind, she was coming back. I got sick all the time and I was always okay. How could it be otherwise? The thought never even occurred to me. I didn’t know that reality and the story I was building in my head were grossly mismatched.
On May 20, 1995, my father returned from the hospital and delivered the most crushing news imaginable. He sat us down and told us, “the doctors tried to fix mommy’s heart, but they couldn’t fix it.” My mom had died after an undetected adrenal tumor caused adrenaline to be mass-produced and sent to her heart, causing it to pump much too fast and essentially explode in her chest. My sister started to cry instantly. I looked from her face to his, at the ground, at the sky, unsure I understood what this meant, but knowing in the depths of me that it wasn’t good. I briefly considered getting up from the table and just running, as fast and as far as I could, to a place where the world wasn’t collapsing around me. But I didn’t run. I sat and cried with my family. I don’t think I knew just what I was crying for then, the true magnitude of this loss, the myriad ways it would dramatically change and shape the rest of my life. All I knew was that she was gone. She wasn’t coming back.
And now, as another motherless Mother’s Day and the 20th anniversary of her death have passed, I find myself wondering: how is it possible that I blinked and 20 years went by? How have I lived for so long with such a gaping hole, such an immense absence? There were days when time felt endless, and yet here I am: a grown woman but acutely aware that a part of me will always be that eight-year-old little girl whose world was broken, waiting to wake up from a bad dream that I quickly learned was reality. My mother and I didn’t have nearly enough moments or memories, and a part of me will always feel irrevocably sad for that fact, at the same time that I fight to hold close to me the ones we did share.
The sharp pain has dulled to a muted ache with time, but I know one thing to be true: my life will never be the same – both because she was in it and because she left it.
Julia K. Agresto: lover of words and motherless girl of 20 years.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.