My mom said these words to me every day, for as long as I can remember. She would describe me as the light of her life who made the dark times feel better.
Growing up, it was just my mom and I. Between all of life’s changes – moving back and forth from Oklahoma to Arkansas and my mom developing various illnesses – we always had each other, and that’s what made our bond so tight.
When my mom started to get sick, I had to learn how to take care of her and myself. Since I was six years old, I was able to do our laundry, cook dinner on the stove, and even help my mom get out of bed on days when her arthritis was debilitating.
Despite these issues, she was determined to give me the best childhood she could. We took road trips, weekend camping trips, and even went fishing in the pond in our backyard in Arkansas. It was simple, but as a kid, it meant the world to me.
When I was in the fifth grade, we moved back to Oklahoma to be closer to family and better healthcare. That’s when my mom’s health began to steadily decline. With her Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple surgeries, it became more and more difficult for her to move around, let alone go out and run errands. The stress of her condition and a poor financial situation started to take its toll on our relationship.
There were many milestones and important high school events that she missed, including my junior and senior prom, national-level marching band competitions, and even my participation in the 2013 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As a temperamental teenager, I felt hurt and a little angry.
Although I knew her health issues made it taxing for her to be out for hours at a time, I still felt bitter about some things. I wanted her to be there in person for support and to cheer me on like the other moms. I also wanted to make her happier. Yet, it seemed like nothing I tried would work.
My stress over high school while taking care of a sick parent, and my mom’s stress from her own body fighting against her, put our relationship in a pretty bad place. We rarely talked and argued almost every day, but we still loved each other.
It was just hard sometimes.
After I graduated, I decided to join the Air Force. I’d hoped that by joining the service I’d gain new life experiences while also helping my mom out financially. My mom was determined to see me through this by going to my first meeting with the recruiter, being with me before I shipped off to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Oklahoma City, and then reuniting at my basic training graduation at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
Knowing the condition she was in when I left for training, I was ecstatic when she told me she’d be there when I finished. During that weekend, our relationship slowly started to repair. We were able to talk about our past issues without getting in to a screaming match, and it provided closure for both of us.
I then shipped out to my first base, and after almost three years at Ellsworth AFB, I got a frantic call from my aunt.
I can still hear her words to this day.
“Your mom is in the hospital again, and the doctors don't think she’s going to make it home. She’s dying.”
I immediately booked a flight and went back home. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I met my grandma and went to the hospital to see mom. They warned me she wasn’t responsive or breathing on her own, so I should be prepared. But nothing would prepare me for any of this.
I spent the next week with visiting family members as we tried to sort through mom’s house, preparing for the worst, but we also talked with different hospital agents and hospice care facilities in hopes for the best. Through all of this, I firmly believed she would walk out of the hospital.
The time finally came for me to fly back to Ellsworth AFB, and I arrived back at work obviously distracted and distressed. My fellow Airmen provided their emotional support and offered their help if I needed it, which might not sound like a whole lot to some, but it meant a lot to me.
I kept asking myself, “How could she allow herself to deteriorate this bad? It doesn’t make any sense.” I told myself I was going to talk to her after she got better, tell her that she had to get some form of exercise or proper nourishment, something to help her when I couldn’t be there.
We never had that talk.
My mom passed away on Feb. 13, 2017, four days after I arrived back in South Dakota.
After my mom’s funeral, I was left with so many feelings: regret, heartbreak, numbness. I was upset with myself that I spent more time during that first week home being angry than I did being by her side. Nothing I could do would change the fact that our last verbal conversation prior to her ending up in the hospital was an argument where she’d hung up on me before I said I love you.
I returned to work immediately after coming back from her funeral. I felt like I was walking around in a daze, going through the motions without even realizing the time of day. People in my office had taken notice of this, but knew me well enough to understand that I needed time and space to even begin to process what had happened.
From the moment we start basic training, we’re told about one of the important skills to have in order to succeed in the Air Force, as well as life: resiliency. This was a true test of mine.
Resiliency is key to a strong foundation in all aspects of life, be it emotionally, spiritually, mentally or physically. It gives a person the tools to learn how to adapt and recover from daily struggles or major obstacles, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t ever go through tough times.
As Airmen, we are provided with resources to help us maintain our resiliency. The Airman and Family Readiness Center, health and wellness programs, the base chaplains and mental health are just a few resources that are available to any Airman, regardless of rank or position.
I know my pain won’t miraculously heal with one conversation, but it makes me feel better knowing these resources are there. It’s nice knowing there are people I can talk to who won’t judge me or tell me how to feel. They’re there to listen and help.
Part of resiliency is accepting the fact that there are some things you just can’t handle on your own, and that’s okay. It took me some time to realize this, and eventually, I found my support team in my husband and fellow public affairs Airmen.
The most important thing for people to realize is that everyone grieves differently. There is no easy fix for a person’s grief, so the best thing a wingman or Airman can do is to simply be there and listen. Talking one-on-one with someone who is grieving or going through a rough patch is more beneficial than thinking you have the solution and trying to fix them.
In my experience, I didn’t need a hero with all the answers: I needed someone who’d listen.
Even to this day, I’m still coping and overcoming the loss of my mother. Those negative emotions come up every now and then and I handle them as they come, but I remember in those moments that I’m not alone, and I never will be.
I love you too, momma bear. I’ll always be your sunshine.