A Mother-Less Mother’s Day

It is their first mother-less Mother’s Day. No one verbalizes it, but each of us is thinking it.

It feels wrong. Unnatural.

A ten-year-old and a five-year-old should not be facing this.

They look like two normal little girls, swimming with their friends on just another ordinary afternoon. Their blue eyes do not indicate sorrow. Their squeals and giggles do not warn us of any hidden pain.

We are on guard, ready for the merited tears or questions, but the girls seem okay.

I wonder if children are as resilient as people profess. And what does that saying even mean anyway? Resilience is “the ability to return to original form.”  Is it feasible to return to “normal” after losing your mother?  Is resiliency forgetting the tragedy and the people who didn’t survive it? Because if so, I don’t want that. I don’t want them to ever forget their mom.

I certainly can’t.

And I don’t want to.

Sure, I’d like to rewrite the past. Warn her not to get in that car. Or stall her for fifteen seconds. That’s all it would have taken. A few seconds. I’d remove her black Chevy Tahoe, a vehicle carefully selected for its safety features and comfort less than a year earlier, from that stretch of road. An old two-lane country road, a piece you can see about a mile stretch of, with a modest bend in the middle.  Just enough curve for a distracted driver to cross the yellow line and end both of their lives.

I drive by that bend sometimes now, unable to decipher where the Tahoe came to a stop, facing the opposite direction she had been traveling that day. Springtime flowers and weeds have covered the deep grooves in the bank. It doesn’t seem possible that someone so full of life could have taken her last breath there.

I think back to that day. The phone call that turned our world upside down, confirming the worst. The questions, some that would never be answered. The yelling, the crying, so many tears that day and still. The gasping for breath, astounded that I could still be breathing while she was not. Trying to find the words to explain to a four-year-old that Dead is not a vacation destination from which her mom will soon return, souvenirs in hand. Dead is forever, and at four, forever is a really long time.

These memories are still, nine months later, vivid and raw. I typically try to avoid them. Recalling those days hurts. Yet if erasing the heartache would mean deleting her memory completely, I’m not interested.

Is that what it means to be resilient? To move on and, in the moving, to forget?

I can’t forget.

I watch her children splash in the pool. Their laugh is her laugh. Cassi’s eyes radiate the same spunk that hers did. Her hair is long and dark, like her momma’s. Cassi’s body has changed drastically in the months her mother has been gone. Unlike my daughter, who is just six months younger, Cassi’s legs have become teenager legs. Almost overnight, she’s grown up, towering nearly a foot over my Gracie. Her baby fat is gone, replaced by broader shoulders and the hint of curves.

Cassi will miss her mom most deeply in the coming years when her own body feels foreign. Although she is blessed with a dedicated, supportive daddy, even he will struggle to explain those impending changes. There will be awkwardness and confusion only a mom could soothe. Teenage years are hard for all of us.  Even when we were rebelling, flaunting our newfound independence, we needed our moms more than we’d ever have admitted back then.

Because no one else understands a teenage girl like her own mother.

I remember Cassi as a toddler, defying her parents at every opportunity. Misty Lei was protective of her, as most new mommies are. It seemed that with each rule Misty Lei established, Cassi challenged it. If there was a line, Cassi didn’t just poke her toe over it; she ran full force and hurdled it, making sure to stick the landing.

We, as onlookers, took a little bit of pleasure in Cassi’s rebellion.   After all, her mom was the queen of it. We joked that Misty Lei was “getting payback” with Cassi –as Misty Lei certainly had been no cake walk as a teenager or a college student or even an adult. She was headstrong and stubborn, qualities that caused conflicts, but that also made her immensely successful in her career.

As I look at Cassi, it occurs to me that Misty Lei is getting out of those dreaded years when her daughters will reside in the shells of horrible teenagers. She’ll escape arguments over homework and tears over boys.

But she’ll also miss proms and graduations and weddings and babies.

And she’s missing watching her own baby learn to swim.

Lexi has been trying to master this skill, wearing “floaties” on her arms and “swimming” between her grandma and the pool steps much of the afternoon. She’s feeling confident. With the floaties, she thinks she can swim.

On the outside, this scene is almost identical to the one this time last year. Misty Lei’s daughters, my daughters and my sister’s daughter jumping into the pool. My sister lying on a lounge chair, soaking up the sunrays, while I hide under the poolhouse porch, preferring the shade. Misty Lei had brought her girls to play while she went to dinner with a friend.

I recall envying her. She looked stunning as always. A tan dress with white polka dots, a thin belt at her size 2 waist, and close-toe taupe heels. Pearls, her favorite accessory, adorned her neck. Her platinum blonde accentuated her flawless make-up. She was the picture of the classic mom. She stood at the steps, her heels out of place with our barefeet, and crouched down to snap a picture of her girls in the pool.

Misty Lei took a lot of pictures. I sorted thousands on her phone in preparation for her viewing. Unlike me, she was comfortable with the selfie, a characteristic that created an abundance of photos, bringing her family comfort when she was gone.

But I’d imagine there are never enough photos to compensate for someone’s absence.

As she snapped that picture last year, I distinctly remember thinking that Misty Lei finally had it all together.   She’d never looked more beautiful. For a little over a year, she had become obsessed with fitness, working out and practicing clean eating almost daily. She was a runner, competing in 5Ks and Mud Runs, and was taking up mountain biking. She seemed confident and content.

It had been a curvy road to that contentment. Marriages and divorces. Sharing custody of children with ex-spouses. Moving in and out of houses. Working her butt off in her career. Many of her ups and downs had coincidently coincided with mine. Seeing her finally in a happy place in her life gave me hope for my own.

Perching precariously in those heels, she leaned over the pool and kissed her daughters goodbye. At the reminding of their grandma, they shouted “Happy Mother’s Day!” and Misty Lei told them she loved them.

As she walked to her car, blowing the girls kisses on the way, I remember feeling proud of her, the way a big sister would. I’d watched her grow up and into this beautiful person, inside and out.

We had no idea it would be her last Mother’s Day. She was 34.

I’m brought back to reality by my four-year-old’s frantic screams.

“Lexi, stop! You’re pulling me under!”

I look up, and somehow even with my Lyme brain fog, I immediately recognize fear. Feeling confident, Lexi had removed her floaties. She’d swam out, just a few feet from the steps to where her grandma had been, but once there, she was stuck. Panic consumed her, and she had latched hold of Izzi to stay afloat.

The problem is Izzi’s floaties aren’t enough to keep them both above water.

Immediately, an adult jumps into the pool and lifts Lexi up. Her eyes are wide with alarm. She chokes and cries, unhurt but frightened. She is clutched and comforted, and within minutes, she returns the floaties to her tiny arms and is back in the pool, splashing and laughing. The fear is gone, replaced with normal childhood joys.

She is resilient.

But the memory of those few minutes of panic will last. She won’t risk swimming without those floaties for a long time.

And I think maybe resiliency isn’t forgetting after all.

Maybe resiliency is fighting on. Rebounding, even after going under. Learning to swim, with floaties, then eventually without. Being rescued and reassured by those who love us. Living in spite of fear and, sometimes, because of it.

Lexi will not forget that sense of security.

She will not forget her mom.

To someone driving by, the scene would appear as just the average Mother’s Day cookout, with cheeseburgers on the grill and thriving little girls playing in the pool, but we know it will always feel off. We know this is not the way we’d pictured it. It feels wrong. There is a hurt, an ache. But we refuse to discontinue these traditions because in the hurt there is remembering.

And I refuse to forget.

I will hold a place in my heart for her on this Mother’s Day, loving the little girls who made her Mommy and loving the woman who Misty Lei got to call Mom.

I will move forward, practicing resiliency, learning it from her children.

I will embrace the ache.

It means Misty Lei is still loved.

Misty Lei & Cassi
Misty Lei & Cassi
Misty Lei & Lexi
Misty Lei & Lexi
Misty Lei Tombin Feb 19, 1980 to Aug 6, 2014
Misty Lei Tombin
Feb 19, 1980 to Aug 6, 2014

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