For better or worse, there are days and moments you never forget. Your first kiss, your college graduation, the morning of September 11, 2001. I never thought those times might include a frozen Saturday last November.
It had been a long week at City Hall, and I was spending the night in Brighton with some friends. We were drinking and playing board games like typical nerdy twenty-somethings. We had all just come back from Thanksgiving with our families, and I was still surprised how well things had gone. Good food, pleasant conversation, and actual bonding with my mother. She had kept the alcohol on the shelf, and I had kept an open mind. We were happier that day than we had been in years.
My phone buzzed as I finished my turn, my stepfather’s name flashing across the screen. It was nearly midnight, but I assumed things were fine. We both stayed up late more often than not. I had probably forgotten about some family event, and he was probably calling to remind me.
I was wrong.
“It’s your mother,” he said, “She’s in the hospital.”
Truth be told, my mother was always in the hospital. Her health had suffered for years now, with regular bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis. It hardly fazed me anymore, and I had just seen her a few days earlier at Thanksgiving. She had looked better than she had in months. How bad could it really be?
My stepfather explained that she was having breathing issues, which fit the typical medical mold. The doctors were with her now, and he said they would know more in an hour. “Alright,” I replied, “Let me know and maybe I can come down tomorrow to see how she’s doing.”
I know, I know. My mother was hospitalized, my stepfather was clearly concerned, and my first reaction was to wait and see what happened. But she was so often sick, and I had just seen her healthy, and I had spent so many nights finding midnight rides to see her at Brockton Hospital. She was always fine by morning. I had needed a night to just relax with friends, and I selfishly wanted to see it through.
So I explained the situation and went back to our game. One of my friends offered to give me a ride, but I was convinced I wouldn’t need it. We were at the far end of Brighton, as far into Boston as you could get from the highway. It would take us nearly an hour to reach the South Shore anyway, so what could I really do? Everything would work out on its own. It always did.
The second call came twenty minutes later. No greeting, no pleasantries, no medical update. I can still hear the words in my head, the words that made my blood run cold.
“You need to come home. Now.”
It was too late by the time I reached Brockton, but in truth it had been too late from the start. They had been sitting at home like any other night, lounging around and watching television. My stepfather fell asleep — not long, twenty minutes at most — and she was cold to the touch when he woke. A sudden heart attack at fifty-three. The doctors assured me that they had tried everything, and then they left.
And then we were alone, just me and the woman who had been my mother. I stood there waiting for her to sit up and say something. Everyone says that, but it’s true. I had already lost my father, I just couldn’t accept the idea that my mother had followed. Two parents dead at twenty-five.
I left the operating room and stared at the waiting area where my family had gathered. My stepfather had called everyone still living in Massachusetts, and they were all in there hugging and crying and waiting for me to join them. Instead, I went outside and sat there until my hands went numb from the cold. And then I cried, too.
For years, ever since my father died, I had tried not to think about how I would react when they both had gone. I was afraid I would never be able to forgive her like he had wanted, and I was afraid I would never grieve for her like she had feared. In the end, it hardly mattered that she had never been a perfect parent or I a perfect son. My mother was dead, and whatever differences we had lost whatever little meaning I had given them.
Her funeral came and went. My colleagues at the Boston City Council were kind enough to adjourn a meeting in her honor. I returned to my job and my friends and the rest of my life. There are days I hardly think about her, and there are long sleepless nights where she’s all that seems to matter. I thought that losing my father would have made loss easier a second time, but I was wrong. It never gets easier. And there are so many more to come.
So here we are on Mother’s Day, and I have no mother to spend it with. But like I said, there are days and moments you never forget. Your first kiss, your college graduation, and in my case the frozen morning of November 28, 2015. And now that I think about it, there’s one more time I should mention.
It was just after my father’s funeral, when everyone had gone and I was sitting alone in my room. I had wanted to get away from everyone, to go somewhere I could cry and think and cry some more. And I remember her knocking at the door to come in and sit with me.
“Your father and I both had pretty terrible lives,” she said sadly. Then she wiped her eyes and pulled me closer, with a smile I had never seen before. “We would have lived them again a thousand times as long as we got you.”
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thank you, for everything.