It’s been seven years, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was sometime after midnight, and I was wearing an oversized blue sweater with a pair of pink Victoria’s Secret sweats that I stole from her closet. My sister and I were each clenching tight to one of her hands, while my brother sat on the couch across from us with his elbows on his knees, hunched over in disbelief but prepared accept whatever was about to come his way. He was 16. My dad sat at the end of her bed, probably rubbing her feet—she always loved when he did that—but I couldn’t tell you for sure because I didn’t have the courage to look his way in those moments.
Her breathing had slowed, but with each inhale we could hear the agonizing sound of water that had begun filling her lungs—a sign the inevitable was about to come.
And within minutes, the inevitable did come.
My mother took one final, slow breath.
My sister and I collapsed on top of her, almost in unison, and my brother sat frozen. He was 16, looking death in his mother’s eyes, until my father reached over and shut them, his voice cracking as he mumbled, “Ok, Ok, Ok. It’s Ok, sweetie. It’s Ok. Mom’s in a better place now. She’s better now.”
I still couldn’t look at him.
As the minutes dragged on, I stayed lying with my head on her stomach as my tears stained her shirt and her hand remained wrapped around mine. I truly believed she was holding onto me because she was still holding onto life, and I put every inch of my body, every cell and every second of a thought into willing her alive again.
Eventually I had to let go.
The rest is just a blur.
I know family and close friends arrived within minutes to support us and bid their farewells. But the last memory I have of my mom is watching the coroners carry her out in a black bag. Her feet were the last thing I saw before she was gone forever…The same feet that my dad was rubbing when she was still alive, just minutes before.
She always loved when he did that.
The minutes turned to hours and the hours into days, and I found myself asleep more than I was awake, wearing the same pair of pink sweatpants I had stolen out of her closet, refusing to change because her cells were still ingrained in the fabric. Perhaps they were still living, like a piece of her was still clenching to life, and I wasn’t ready to part with that idea.
Eventually I had to wake up, take them off and let go.
Those sleepy days turned into weeks, and shortly thereafter I moved back to college and began the school year believing that if I just kept busy, I’d push away the feelings that I had slept through over the last few weeks and just trudge forward.
I was wrong.
The sound of her last breath would ring through my ears at random times throughout the day—in Spanish class, during dinner, while pregaming for a college party—and it never failed to immediately break my heart all over again, tears stinging my eyes as I fought back any sign of emotion. The image of her body being carried away in a black bag would wake me in the middle of the night, my heart throbbing in pain as I wondered if it was all just a nightmare, and I’d get a call the next morning asking where the hell those pink sweatpants went.
The weeks turned into months and the months turned into years and I never got that call. The sound became piercing, the dreams got worse, and I eventually lost those pink sweatpants, only to be replaced by anger and sadness that I tried to cover up with studying and dating and drinking and dancing, letting go of everything I’d been through.
In fact, I had learned to let go so much that I eventually let go of myself.
I became volatile and stubborn and hard. On more than one occasion, I told my father—who I couldn’t even bare to look at in the seconds after my mom had died—that I wished he was the one who took his last breath that night. I fought my equally as heartbroken siblings, emotionally, verbally and physically. I’ve spit on my own brother, that same 16-year-old who once stared into his mother’s dead eyes, and I’ve punched my own sister in the face, despite having used that hand to hold my mom’s as she took her last breath. I would lash out at my best friends—the girls who had been there for me my whole life, showing up every day after my mom died and leaving me little gifts to tell me they were there because I refused to wake up. And though I had built a relationship with an amazing man—someone who’d also faced a parent’s death at a young age—I would do everything in my power to destroy anything we had created together. I broke dishes and furniture and paintings we held in our first home together, and I scratched and clawed my way out of his heart even when all he wanted to do was hold me close.
After my 23rd birthday party—three years after my mom had passed and three years of nearly destroying myself entirely—I woke up covered in my own vomit, sleeping on the floor of my dad’s hotel room in the same clothes I had worn the night before, stained equally with regrets and vodka. I realized it was time to stop letting go.
What I needed to do was start accepting.
I began that process with my dad, who deserved it more than anyone, promising him I would start going to therapy, even though I had argued against it for so long. You see, I didn’t want to seek “professional help” because I didn’t want the stigma that came along with it—despite my obvious need for help.
Once again, I was wrong.
After seeking that professional help from one of the coolest, most badass women I’ve ever met, I finally began to accept myself and all the emotions that had overcome me for so many years. I learned the tools I needed to accept my anger and understand that it was just a defense mechanism for sadness and vulnerability, and I was able to come to terms with the fact that the reason I kept pushing away the people I loved the most was due to fear—fear of losing them, just like I lost my mom.
I started to accept all the pain and the memories—her last breath, that black bag—I had been trying so hard to let go of, and slowly but surely that same pain and those same memories became the very strength I’m using to write this post today.
Letting go is the easiest thing to do when we’re heartbroken and defeated and mentally and emotionally drained. But running from my emotions was only lengthening the distance from my emotional freedom.
Accepting my heartbreak, accepting that pain and those memories and everything that’s happened after the loss of my mother has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took years of work, years of therapy and patience and practice. But that work has resulted in the woman I am today. Though I’m far from perfect and I’m still working on accepting myself, I’m more understanding, more in touch with my soul and my emotions, more empathetic and more optimistic about life. I still miss my mother with all my heart, but I’m less angry and less sad and less overwhelmed by her death and the memories that came with it.
Instead, I’m more appreciative than ever for the memories that came with calling her my mom and my best friend for 20 years. I’m even more appreciative to call her my guardian angel for the rest of my days on this planet until she eventually opens up the gates for me in heaven…or wherever we may meet in the future.
Today will undoubtedly resurface all those memories and emotions that used to torture me, but today I accept them with open arms, graciously. No more running. No more letting go.
And while I may have lost those pink sweatpants, I wrote this post wearing a pair of leopard pajamas I stole from her closet that I refuse to wash because I refuse to let go of the idea that she still lives with me every day, still holding my hand each step of the way.
ps: i love you, mom.