Christmas was her favorite holiday.
It was our one tradition: without fail, my mom and I would spend Christmas together. For us, the holiday wasn’t an elegant or lavish affair—no decking the halls with boughs of holly, no ornate Christmas tree with intricately-wrapped presents. Christmas was about family, and we had only each other. But that was all that mattered. It was, in a way, rather routine: church (and more recently, mass), a modest lunch, dinner, and chitchat about things we’d typically talk about over the phone. I was, however, home. Over the years, the days I’d spent there grew fewer and further between. There were plenty of excuses. College. Law school. Work. All that was left was Christmas. It was sacred.
This past Christmas, I decided to cut my trip home a bit short. In retrospect, I had entirely selfish reasons for doing so. Part of it was work. Work was busy, and I wasn’t sure how long I could be away. But part of it was play. (Let’s be honest. Most of it.) I’d never been away from home for New Year’s and thought a new locale would be exciting. (It wasn’t. It was cold and rainy.) “I’ll make it up to her,” I said to myself, promising to use vacation time to come see her sometime in the summer. After all, we’d spent Christmas together. Tradition was fulfilled.
To this day, I regret that decision.
Fast forward to Easter Sunday. I was sitting in a hotel room in D.C., relaxing after a busy weekend. As the Louisville-Duke Elite Eight matchup flickered in the background, I decided to take advantage of the peace and quiet by calling my mom. No answer. “Strange,” I said to myself. I shrugged it off and figured she was busy. Every half-hour or so for the next two hours, I tried again. And again. No response. I must’ve called about a dozen more times before giving up for the night. “She probably left her phone in the car or something,” I told myself. I decided to call her in the morning.
I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was simply wrong. Just after I’d drifted off to sleep sometime in the middle of the night, my iPhone started ringing. For some reason, in the stupor that I was in having just woken up, I interpreted the caller ID “Front Door” as “you’re getting a call from home.” “Finally,” I confusedly thought, “my mom’s calling back!” Turned out to be some drunk guy who lived in my apartment complex in Memphis who couldn’t find his keys and needed to be let in.
The next morning, I checked out of my hotel and headed to the airport. I was still restless and now a bit anxious. While waiting on a connecting flight, I decided to call my mom at work. I left her a slightly panicked message: “Mom, it’s me, I’m getting really worried. I’m getting on a flight, but please leave me a message just so that I know you’re okay.” I landed in Memphis. Turned on my phone. Nothing.
I called her brother. “She’s probably okay,” he said, “but I’ll check in on her anyway.” I hopped in a cab and waited for his call on the drive back. Somewhere around the halfway mark, my phone rang. “CALL 9-1-1! Your mom! She’s so cold,” my uncle yelled. After I explained to him that calling 9-1-1 from 2,000 miles away probably wouldn’t do much, he promised to call back and hung up.
I cried. Bawled, more like. She was gone. And more devastatingly, she died alone.
I don’t think a person can really be ready for the death of a parent. It probably isn’t easy at the age of 55, much less 25. And when you’re the only child of a divorcee, it only gets harder. You—yes, you—have to make difficult decisions about what happens next. Cremate or bury? Catholic mass or Protestant service? Who do you want to invite? Where’s her final resting place? I barely know what I want for lunch every day—what makes you think I’m qualified to answer any of these questions?
But you get over it. You have to. You realize that, for everyone else to have a proper chance to mourn, you have to be the source of strength that people look up to. The terrible thing about that, however, is that it stifles your own ability to grieve. You don’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye because you’re too busy making decisions. Everything becomes a blur, and you don’t have a chance to ask yourself, “Is this what she would’ve wanted?” When things get overwhelming, you realize the one person you’d turn to—the person who calmly listens to all of your frustrations and soothes all of your doubts—is no longer there. And will never be there again.
After the funeral, the hits just kept on coming. There was the cancer diagnosis that she’d kept from us. (When I’d discovered that piece of information, it was like the cab ride in Memphis all over again.) And the tedium of having to deal with the legal aftermath. Eight months after her passing, I’m still making decisions—decisions that force you to keep those nerves of steel that’s kept you together all this time. The same nerves that keep you from letting it all out.
The grief does eventually seep out, little by little. You never know when to expect it. You find yourself crying at random moments. You relive your mistakes and think about how you could’ve been a better child. How you should’ve stayed just a little longer that last Christmas. How there are a ton of future memories she’ll never get to witness or hear about. So many thoughts, regrets, emotions, it’s all just… too much.
I still take things day by day and have learned a few things along the way. It gets better, especially with the support of an amazing group of friends and family. But much like the recession before the rebound, you realize that it gets worse before it gets better. Firsts are the most difficult. First Mother’s Day. First birthday, both hers and yours. First everything.
And now, Christmas. We spent 25 Christmases together. This’ll be the first one without her. Granted, I still have a family—my dad and I are doing our best to make things right after a lukewarm relationship—and still-amazing friends to count on. I’m incredibly thankful for it. But I have never felt more alone.
Merry Christmas, Mom. All I want for Christmas is you.