“Words are important. I wish I could quote them perfectly but my memory fails me. There are a few words that come to mind from a quote that has gotten me through the worst times of my life and it goes something like this: ‘Some obstacles you can’t get over or around, you just have to go through.’ A little over a year ago, in November of 2018, I found myself faced with one of those obstacles.
The day after returning home from a Saturday conference, where I was privileged to hear the amazing, motivational, keynote address from best-selling author Jon Gordon, I was feeling renewed and refreshed. I was ready to take on the world — or maybe not the whole world, but at least another week of being an elementary school principal. I was filled with optimism and positive energy! Yet, on that Sunday morning, one phone call changed my whole life.
It was from my oldest sister, Lisa, telling me that our mother was sick and had been taken to the hospital. Though my mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and dementia for at least fifteen years, and had been hospitalized several times previously, she had always bounced back. My mother was the definition of the word ‘feisty.’ She had no limits!
However, on this particular Sunday morning, now forever etched in my mind, there was something about the tone of Lisa’s voice, the measured breaths she was taking, and the extreme calmness, that woke a fear that had been lying dormant inside of me over the last fifteen years.
Lisa is our oldest sibling. There are five of us altogether now. It was six, but my oldest brother passed away over 23 years ago. As the oldest, Lisa is the one we ALL listen to and highly respect. In many ways, she is our second mother. So when she called and stated so matter-of-factly that our mother was sick and I should come to the hospital, I knew we were nearing the dreaded turn of events that we had all collectively hoped would hold off for at least 100 more years.
Lisa knows I live an hour away from the city, wake up at 4:15 a.m. to commute to work each weekday, and that the weekends are my time to regroup and refuel for the week ahead. She knows I almost never come back down to the city unless it’s for something for my school, and of course, for my family. So I understood her request to come to the hospital immediately. I knew this time was different for my mom and, sure enough, my mother never returned home from that hospital stay.
I recall all of the details from the meetings with her healthcare providers and our family and all of the conversations in between that led us to understanding we had no choice. We had to let her go. During the months of November, December, and January, my mother was transferred between the hospital, a nursing home, and finally hospice, where she decided she had stayed with us as long as she could. It was there she would leave us and go to sleep in peace, eventually taking her last few breaths on January 20th, at 82 years of age.
There’s something about losing a mom that instantly makes you a kid again. Here I was at 42 years of age, happily married with two adult children and a teenage stepson, and yet, I felt as if I was about five years old again. I vividly remember getting lost in a department store when I was around five or six years old. I was with my mother and we were shopping in Alexander’s Department Store when, all of the sudden, I couldn’t find her! I later found out I had wandered off to another aisle, but in that moment, I felt as if the whole world had collapsed.
I started frantically screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs! There were other shoppers who were trying to come close to me to offer their help, but I was so frantic I would just scream louder and louder! Of course, my mother heard the commotion and came rushing over to me. After I calmed down, she told me that she was so proud of me! I had remembered what she taught me — if I ever needed help, to scream REAL loud and not stop screaming until a family member, trusted friend, or police officer came to help me.
In fact, she had taught all of my siblings that if we were ever faced with danger, we should scream before fear could potentially paralyze us. Well, I guess I listened. And guess what else? I never left her side to shop in another aisle by myself. That was a scary moment, but it was so comical afterwards.
That became one of my mother’s favorite stories to tell about me. She said no one would ever kidnap me with the lungs I had! It should also be noted that my siblings said that story sealed the deal; I was definitely a Drama Queen and tended to overreact to things. But not this. This experience has in no way been an act.
Losing my mother has been really traumatic, and many times now, I once again feel like that lost little girl in the department store — that the whole world has collapsed. Only this time, sadly, no amount of screaming, crying, begging, or pleading has brought her back.
My mother was our family’s ROCK. There was no feat she could not accomplish. She was a deeply spiritual woman who treasured her relationship with God and always shared her stories of love and triumphs freely with all who would listen. A consistent part of her daily ritual included reading the Bible and sharing the stories with us.
One of her favorite scriptures was, ‘God is love.’ She instilled that love into each of us and always had us look for loving things to highlight about the world. Even as we watched the news on television and listened to 1010 WINS on the radio, my mother would help us balance the sad news by having us reflect on and share good news as well.
But to be clear, we were a family that had our share of struggles. I grew up in a house that was filled with love but also a lot of noise. My mother was a single parent and she poured her heart and soul into taking care of the six of us kiddos. We were often very short on money and lacked material things. My mother stressed education as the key to living a more abundant life later on, and she made sure each of us attended school and studied hard.
Again, she emphasized balance, and even though we knew school was important, my mother allowed us to take occasional ‘mental health days’ from time-to-time to allow us a chance to disconnect, which was our adolescent version of self-care. The upside: We loved school and won many academic awards. The downside: We never won the Perfect Attendance Awards I see my students work so hard for these days.
Though my mother instilled the importance of love and family into each of us, we were by no means a perfect family. We would argue as siblings and challenge each other at times. However, my mother would always stop us from arguing and say, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ With that, she would have us go sit on the couch for at least 30 minutes to reflect in total silence (today’s fancy term for it is ‘time-out’).
Even when she was firm and disciplining us, and our friends would say, ‘Your mother is no joke,’ they still wanted what we had (especially the delicious chili she would make). It was evident that my mother was stern, but it was also evident that she acted and spoke from a place of love. Always. She used to say, ‘No matter what a child does, always leave them with their dignity.’ That reminder is one I have taken into motherhood and into school leadership, and it has paid off one hundred fold as I watch strong, positive relationships bloom where mistakes may have previously lived.
Not one day has gone by when I don’t recall something about my mother. A taste, a smell, a word, a touch. Something always reminds me. When all else fails — the begging, pleading, hoping my mom will come back — I turn to the memories. I literally cannot cry, cannot shed a single tear for my mother, without also smiling. THAT is the kind of love she left and that legacy of love is one that I will forever be proud of.
After we reached 400, my siblings and I lost count of the number of friends and family that came out to offer their condolences on the passing of our mother. The magnitude of that number still floors me. Over 400 people between a Friday night and a Saturday morning (the busiest days of the week), that took the time to share their stories and memories of our dear mother. They spoke truths about her that we knew so well.
My mother had no fear. We watched her speak to total strangers, bargain with store owners, get maintenance repairs handled, and always advocate for her children in school. She was the epitome of grace, elegance, determination, and strength. We all feel so honored to have been one of Margaret’s kids. She also stressed the importance of us getting ‘city jobs’ so we would have a stable income with a pension and be able to live comfortably in retirement. Today, all five of us work for the ‘city’ in some capacity.
It has been eleven months since her funeral and I can honestly say, there are good moments and not-so-good moments in every single day. There are days I don’t shed a single tear and then others where I cry all day. There are days when the whole world seems empty and other days when the world seems too crowded.
There’s also those unexpected reminders that catch me off guard. That moment when a memory pops up on Facebook, or I bump into someone I haven’t seen in a while on the street, or my cell phone rings and the caller ID says ‘Mom’ because one of my sisters is using the phone at her house and the number is still the same. Or maybe it was a really strong day for me and then one of my siblings call to say, ‘I was thinking about mom today,’ and all my strength unravels in that moment.
These are the hardest moments because maybe, just before they occurred, my brain was giving my heart a break by forgetting she was gone. Just for a few seconds, maybe I was feeling like my old self. You know, the adult I was before I turned back into a five year old whose world collapsed. But those unexpected reminders take on a life of their own.
I read somewhere that when you lose someone and then get an unexpected reminder, you can turn it into a joyous moment by thinking that your loved one wants you to think of them in that very moment. Well, someone should tell my mom that she doesn’t have to send those reminders because I think of her all of the time.
Learning to navigate the world without my mother has been the most humbling experience I have gone through. How do you live without someone who has always been there? How can a person be in the world without a mom? Who am I without a mom to tie myself to? These are the gut-wrenching questions that were constantly popping up when the pain was so raw, and those questions still linger today.
Yet, life continues to move forward and I am fully aware that there is some strange comfort in the knowledge that others have walked this road and are surviving. These survivors have told me whether it happened a month ago or 20 years ago, the pain remains. We share parts of the same story — especially the realization that we will never be the same person we were before a loss of this magnitude. They have told me to hold on because I will learn to function and work around this giant hole in my heart.
Among the many lessons the loss of my mother has brought, I would say the biggest learning for me has been to understand that the whole world is grieving in some way or another. We all have a story, and our days and nights are filled with those stories traveling and interacting with each other, colliding with each other and leaving marks. So the question I now ask myself is, ‘Does my interaction with someone leave them feeling better or worse than they already were?’
I am now, ever so mindful of people and their journeys, each one unique to each person. Even if I meet another person who has lost their mom, I am mindful that our experiences and resulting emotions may be very different. I have banned the words, ‘I know how you feel.’ I do not know how anyone else feels, I only know how I feel. And on many days even that’s hard to figure out.
In many ways, I am my mother. She hasn’t left me because she lives in many of the words I say and the actions I take. I like to think she’s with me as I lead my school with love, and she is proud of the way all 500+ of our students are cared for in our school community. We have teachers that travel over two hours to get back and forth from our school, and we know it is because it feels like a second home. We have an abundance of love overflowing in our little community, and we provide our students with fun and engaging experiences that include academic preparation but also allow them to just enjoy coming to school and learning with each other.
And during the sad times, when students lose their parents, I now protect them even more fiercely. I now know firsthand that this moment in their lives will forever change them. But I tell them that they will make it because of the love that continues to flow around them. I have to tell them that because the more I say it to them, the more I believe it for myself.
‘Dear Mom, it has been eleven months of missing you. Though we ache with the pain of your loss, we cherish the many memories of love you left us with. We honor you and all that you stood for through our actions each day. We haven’t been arguing. We have been sticking together, just like you told us to do, and we will never stop hoping to see you again one day. Also, secretly, I know I was your favorite, but I won’t tell the others. Please continue to sleep in peace…until we meet again. We love you!'”
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