She would have turned 65 today and I can assure you I would’ve given her a hard time about it. She was just like that, it’s how our relationship was.
On June 10, 1998 my life forever changed in a way I honestly can’t put into words whether on a screen or out of my mouth but I will try my best to do so. At the time I was 13 years old and my family and I lived in Spartanburg, SC. To say that I wasn’t fond of living there would be a massive understatement. After growing up in Central Florida I was safe, guarded and secure. Moving to Spartanburg was disastrous for me as with my social anxiety and low self-esteem, moving to a new school when I was starting 6th grade was brutal.
By the time June 10th came around, I had just finished 7th grade although I had slowly adjusted to the situation, I still didn’t really fit in such a backwards town. It always felt like they were still stuck in the 1950’s if not earlier. There was a massive racial, political, social and economic divide and I was caught in the crosshairs being an everyday, white, not-too-rich but not-too-poor outsider who ended up in this mess of a town.
None of that mattered when I was with my mom though. She was tough, brutally tough at times and as a child it was embarrassing. Nobody wants their mother storming into the principals office because of something you experienced at school that day and felt the need to share with a parent. When it came to her children she was fierce, loyal, dedicated and I cannot think for a moment when she ever let my siblings or myself down.
Along comes June 6th, or June 7th, the exact date escapes me to be honest. I’m getting back now to the beginning of summer prior to entering 8th grade. I was bored, lonely and frustrated that a week of my summer vacation had already passed and I had nothing to do. No friends, no way to get out, nothing. At the time my dad was managing a fairly nice hotel which was owned by my semi-real estate mogul great-uncle, so we lived there eliminating a house payment and I think deep down my parents also knew none of their children were happy there so they tried to put off settling down for as long as possible.
On that 6th or 7th day of June, I had about enough of being stuck in a hotel, even if I did have my own room. I begged my mom to take me to a local state park which was known to have great bike trails, hiking and other outdoorsy activities. She wasn’t having it, we had a pool, a hot tub, and even a pretty decent restaurant at the hotel so surely there was something I could do there as she just wasn’t in the mood to make the drive.
I didn’t let go of it so she agreed we’d go to the park where I would ride my bike down the trails in the woods and she would rollerblade down to the lake where we would meet for lunch. The only problem with this plan is neither of us took into account just how steep and vicious that two lane road was in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. She simply had no reason to be on that road. While she was rollerblading down to meet me at a lake where both trails met, she lost control, fell and broke her pelvis and suffered multiple contusions. I had no idea this had happened but after waiting for a good 20 minutes at the lake I was concerned something had gone wrong.
It just didn’t make sense to me, it shouldn’t have taken her that long to meet with me but I waited a little longer until I couldn’t stand it anymore and began to ride up the road in an attempt to find out what had happened. It didn’t take long, maybe a mile, two, I don’t remember to be honest. I just remember my legs feeling like jelly, burning and hardly being able to catch my breath while riding uphill. I found her on the side of the road in such pain it still causes me to shudder. A good samaritan had found her before I did though and I don’t remember her name, what she looked like, what kind of car she drove that day but I know she was there and she wanted to help. In those days cell phones weren’t in everybody’s pocket and service was sketchy at best.
But she had a cell phone an had already called for help. Most of what happened next is still a blur and I know that unfortunately our brains tend to fill in gaps, add new memories to existing ones or can simply cause you to forget things that were just too painful to experience. All I know is she didn’t want me to see her that way, she didn’t let me ride with her in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the ranger station trying to get a hold of my dad or any other employee at the hotel who could tell him what had happened.
I think the first words that came out of my mouth were something along the lines of “Mom had an accident when she was rollerblading and it’s all my fault.” In the mind of a 13 year old the logic was sound. I begged her to go to the park, I chose what we would do when we got there and the result was her accident. It made complete sense at the time.
She was taken to a local hospital where they did the x-rays, CT scans and decided that she would probably be okay to come home within a few days. She would have to use a wheel chair while she recovered but we were all thankful that was the worst of it. Or so we thought. At the time, embolism stockings were recommended just as much as they are today for patients who had sustained serious injuries like she had but according to my dad she hated them and refused to wear them.
The result was a pulmonary embolism on June 10th, 1998. The day the world lost an amazing woman who taught me about morality, what was right, what was wrong, what was expected from a gentleman and that above all else that understanding and compassion was significantly more important than brute strength, violence or intimidation. I like to hope I still carry that legacy today even though I can’t help but know in the back of my mind that my addiction and many of the decisions I made after she passed away probably would’ve killed her if the embolism hadn’t. I suppose maybe that’s why I am traveling down the path I have chosen. Psychology, helping other addicts and trying my best to help other caregivers. I do like to think that it’s not a matter of trying, it’s a matter of her being apart of me and this is simply who I am. Not just trying to make up for a mistake I made when I was a child.
I felt completely responsible for her death for over 15 years. It was agonizing seeing every Christmas, every birthday, prom, homecoming and other holidays where you want your mom to be around pass often with very little discussion about her when I was with family. I held onto so much guilt it was destroying me and I do believe ultimately led to some of the decisions I made and partially my own drug and alcohol addiction. To those who are in recovery or in active addiction, I can assume you know that many of those who use do so to escape a type of pain that can’t be described or turned into words. It simply doesn’t have weight to it, it’s empty and it’s knowing that you are so alone in the world that nobody can even begin to relate.
As I grew up I began to understand how much of that was foolishness. I was a child, she was the adult and ultimately she made the decision to take me. It wasn’t our first time there, we’d driven down that same road dozens if not hundreds of times so she should have known that it was just too much for somebody as inexperienced as her to try and navigate on rollerblades, especially by herself.
Trying to explain that to a 13 year old however or a 16, 20, or even 25 year old with the feelings of guilt created by a 13 year old that it simply wasn’t his fault just didn’t make any difference in my mind.
I drowned it out as best I could with pills, alcohol, women, food, anything and everything so that I wouldn’t have to accept the reality of the situation.
The reality that I was mad at my mom for not being there but it was just easier to hate myself for it than to feel any negativity towards her. In my mind I had made her into something bigger than life making it impossible to see the reality of what had actually happened. I was living in a hell that I had devised, created and even fostered for so long that I had just accepted it as fact. Until recently.
My dad tells me things about his life that I never knew happened, he tells me his interpretation of events that are so incredibly different than how I saw them through the eyes of a child. On June 10th of this year, we were talking about my mom and he just randomly blurted out “Man, she really hated those stockings. We all tried to convince her to wear them but she just wouldn’t.”
What? Now you’re telling me this? After over a decade of self loathing and placing the blame on myself, now you decide to tell me that there was another variable that caused her death that would have or could have offered me a small pardon in my own mind? Why now? He knew how I felt about all of it and how it had affected the outcome of my entire life. I guess cancer does that to people. Maybe not specifically cancer but the foreknowledge of your own death. Knowing your days are numbered and realizing it’s time to re-write the story. I think he too, had put her on such a high pedestal that maybe even he forgot to remember the exact chain of events. I had to turn my anger into acceptance and know that even if he did tell me earlier on, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference but I am happy to know this now.
There are times when life does seem unfair to me. I shouldn’t have had to experience such a loss at such a young age. I shouldn’t have to continue to deal with the PTSD like symptoms that still haunt me everyday. My siblings shouldn’t have lost a mother, my dad shouldn’t have lost a wife and I shouldn’t have had to carry that guilt for so long.
There are other times that I contemplate the bigger picture though. What would my life be like had she not passed away? Would I still be in a similar predicament? Still in recovery and still wishing I had made better decisions in my youth? I have to, have to consider the fact that without knowing it, she made the ultimate sacrifice of not being there because from what I have experienced I honestly feel it has given me even more capacity to help others. I know pain, I know death, I know fear; true fear more so than many people will ever have to feel. It has shaped me into what I hope is exactly the person she wanted me to be. Compassionate, understanding, sympathetic, empathetic to the needs of others. I fail at times obviously but I have to keep telling myself that I am continuing to do the work she would have done if she had not passed away at such a young age.
I suppose in just over 2,000 words here I am at a loss still. Wondering why but also accepting that fate dealt a hand I did not really have any control over. I can’t tell you whether I believe in a heaven or a hell or an afterlife but I can tell you that during most of my life when things were beyond what I felt I could handle, I do like to think she was there with me. I’ve survived more deadly accidents, overdoses and walked such a fine line between insanity and normalcy, yet typically on the further side of insanity – that I just have to remind myself that I am still here for a reason and as much as she protected me in life, she made it a point to protect me after her death. If I died, I wouldn’t be able to help spread her legacy. She had already made a sacrifice and for me to do the same mostly out of guilt from that day was just not something she could accept.
Now as a caregiver for my father while he battles cancer, I almost see it as a welcomed way to die even though it’s painful and I feel terrible even feeling it. I know that he’s mortal, he’s not bigger than life like my mother was. He’s human. I’ve seen the best and the worst of him over the past few years and I think in many ways that has been a privilege. I know exactly what his legacy is, what he wants for me and there is no question regarding that matter. There will be no sadness knowing I didn’t get to say goodbye. There will be no guilt, no shame, and no remorse for being there for him during his cancer treatments. I couldn’t save my mom and I surely can’t save my dad. Death will win in the end as it always does but this time I’ve had the opportunity to have some control over how I respond to it. I’m no longer the 13 year old wandering aimlessly in his own head trying to explain the infinite combinations of events which lead to my mothers death in order to help me understand that it wasn’t my fault.
I think maybe in a way this is fulfilling her real legacy and what she really wanted from me. To understand the complexity of life and also of death. To be relatable to others who are suffering and know I am no better and no worse than anybody else.
In closing, all I can really say is just how amazing my mother was whether or not I created some of that amazement. Every parent should be so incredible when viewed through the eyes of their own children. I can say that for 13 years of my life I had that and yes, I miss it everyday but again, it’s not a lost cause.
Whether you struggle with addiction, mental health, or you’re a caregiver, we all have one thing in common and that is the tremendous amount of weight we are constantly asked to carry and we continue to say yes, I will carry it. Be sure to unburden yourself from time to time as difficult as that is and cherish the memories that are being made right here, right now. Death comes for all of us but it doesn’t need to be so sad and so traumatic. For me in the future, I will do my best to simply see it as my father being allowed to see my mother again.