One Year Later

It is May 7, 2019 – a Tuesday – and the four-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I start the day as I do every year since her passing, awoken by my own tumultuous sobbing, pangs of grief suffocating me as I relive every minute of that day; the reel displayed on the panorama of my mind from which I cannot turn away nor close my eyes, for they are already closed and yet, I see everything. The experience exhausts me to the point where I cannot rise from my bed for several hours. I’m empty, a shell, feeling and desiring nothing.

Knowing how this day always is for me, I am working from home, and as such, it is a pajama day. No bra or pants required. I wear a tattered tank top with boxer-like shorts that read, “Party at My Pad” on the front left leg and have a silk-screened frog across the backside. 39 years old and still crushing it. I can’t remember the last time I shaved my legs as it’s still not technically summer, and I pull on some wool socks. My hair is unwashed, I am generally unkempt, and that is how I like to spend this day of mourning. It is a sacred day on which I do not cater to anyone or anything but my grief. I honor my loss and my mother, nothing more or less.

My husband took the kids to school as he does every day and then headed to my dad’s house to assist him with some home improvement project they’d been tackling. The house is quiet when I drag myself downstairs to force fuel into my body. I must have mentioned trying to get to the cemetary that morning because I get a text from my husband around 10:30 a.m. saying my dad asked about joining me. I can’t entertain the idea of going out, so I say it’s too late for me to go now because I have to work soon. I fire up my laptop to attend to my job responsibilities.

At 2:07 p.m., my husband texts asking if I can pick up the boys from school because he is running late at the home improvement store. My kids’ dismissal time is 2:30 p.m, and I’m almost done working, so I say yes. I don’t have to change out of pajamas to go through the drive line. I do a couple more work things, and as I stand up to leave, at 2:21 p.m., my phone rings. It’s the automated messaging service for the school district. I swipe up, listening to the recording. All Highlands Ranch schools are on lockout.

It’s a true testament to my desensitization that a lockout notification produced little to no reaction out of me, but I hadn’t done a school pick up in awhile, so I call husband. “Lockout…that’s when I have to go in and sign them out, right?” He confirms as I thrust my head through the hole of a sweatshirt, grab my purse and slip on my mom’s old Merrells. They’re too big, but they were hers. I jump in the car and start the four-mile drive to my boys’ school.

2:25 p.m. – text received from a friend comes over my Bluetooth: Omg!!! Please tell me your boys are ok?!!!! I just saw the news!!!

I’m not even a mile from the house and I can’t text back, so I call her. “What’s going on? I know they’re on lockout, so I think they’re fine.”

“No, there’s an active shooter at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch.”

Time freezes in this moment, and I am suspended in air while the car drives itself.

But that’s their school. That’s their school…

Another call beeps. It’s my manager, I click over. She’s asking me if my kids are OK. I don’t know. I need to call my husband. I need to go, I have to call him…what is that loud drumming in my ears? I hang up on her. Another call is coming in, I ignore it. I have half a dozen text messages. I can’t concentrate. I come back down to Earth just in time to notice I am driving a moving vehicle that is now straddling two lanes.

“OK Google – call Husband.” It comes out as a desperate cry. The call rings and rings and rings forever, finally going to voicemail.

I crest the last hill, and as I descend toward the intersection, there is nothing but flashing lights. Ambulances, patrol cars, fire engines – roads are blocked off and I look around distraught. There is no way to get to them. My children. My babies. I cannot get to them.

“OK GOOGLE – CALL HUSBAND!” I raspingly scream into the air. Voicemail.

“ANSWER THE FUCKING PHONE!”

Home Depot. He was at Home Depot. It’s just up the road. I will go there to get myself together and find him and we will make a plan.

Husband calls back as I park, and I am frantic. I cannot put sentences together. I tell him what’s happened, where I am, and, of course this is not the same store where he was. He’s at my dad’s, he’s on his way to me, don’t move, he is coming. “This is my nightmare,” I whisper. “I know,” he stammers.

Another wave of realization settles on my body: My nephews. They are there, too. I call my sister. She answers, and before she can say anything, I bombard her. “Have you heard from your boys? Are they OK?” Yes, they called her and are OK, but what is going on? Why did they call her? Why am I calling her?

It’s 2:35 p.m. She doesn’t know. I have to tell her. While I’m talking to her, a text from my friend saying the news said the pick up point is at a nearby elementary school. I relay this information to my sister and tell her I will find her there.

I call husband back and tell him I am heading to the pick up spot right now. We decide he should go home, just in case…in case he needs to go to the hospital…in case our children have been shot…in case our children are dead.

I can’t breathe.

The turn I was going to make is clogged with cars, I go straight. I know another way. I’ll be there soon.

I pull up to the school and am stopped by an administrator. The information we received is incorrect – we’re not supposed to go to Northridge Elementary. We’re to go to Northridge Rec Center. I turn around in the school parking lot and head toward the rec center. There are cars everywhere. Parents frustrated at the slowness of traffic pull off in the neighborhood and start running. They run directly into traffic, tears streaming down their faces, fear in their eyes. I see myself in them.

2:45 p.m. – another text from my friend letting me know the news reported the incorrect muster point. I thank her and let her know they’ve diverted us. I decide to stay in my car, crawling toward the rec center, fighting the urge to do as these parents are doing, abandoning my vehicle and just running. Running toward the unknown.

As I turn onto the main road, I’ve never seen so many flashing lights in my life. I am overwhelmed with terror as the reality of this sets in. I have 0.3 miles to travel to the rec center, and it stretches away from me. The officers have split the traffic. The left lane is through traffic; the middle lane is closed; the right lane is for parents and guardians going to the muster point. An officer gestures at me to roll down my window. “Are you a STEM parent?” I nod, unable to speak for fear of my sobs overtaking me. He motions for me to pull into the right lane.

The texts, calls, and social media notifications will not cease. I am stopped waiting to enter the rec center parking lot. I open Facebook and make a public post: I do not know if my children are OK. My phone is dying as I wait to find out. Please do not call or contact me. I will update as soon as I can.

I get into the parking lot, and there are cars and people everywhere. I park and grab my essentials: purse, keys, phone. I walk briskly to the entrance of the rec center. I was just here the night before playing volleyball as I do every Monday night. I don’t recognize it; it’s completely transformed into the epicenter of this tragedy. They ask us to gather in the gym, and we are guided by rec center staff and public servants from all over the region.

3:02 p.m. – I don’t go downstairs to the gym, opting instead to stand on the upstairs track that overlooks and encircles the gym. This gives me an unimpeded view of everyone coming in so I can watch for my sister. I can hardly look into the faces around me for their grief, panic, and fear so acutley mirrors mine. If I look at them, if I make eye contact, I will certainly crack.

Not long after I settle in my spot, my sister arrives. We embrace and I am so close to breaking down, I shudder. A member of the SWAT team then addresses us to let us know where things are in the process. They will give us regular updates. He encourages us to stay hydrated, stay calm, stay connected. Lean on each other. We are all in this together.

3:13 p.m. – the names of the first students to be released are read out by a member of SWAT. My children are not among them. It has been an hour since this nightmare began and it feels like a lifetime has passed. I try to remember my children that morning as they came to say goodbye to me. What were they wearing? Did I even notice through my numbness and grief? How could this sacred day be stolen from me like this? Marred by violence and terror, it will never be mine again.

We’re updated that the incident took place in the high school portion of the school. I’m only midly appeased. My elementary-aged children wouldn’t likely have a reason to be in that part of the building, but it isn’t impossible.

3:55 p.m. – text from husband: “I know they’re still busing kids, but any news there?” They are only releasing 10 kids at a time. There are over 1,000 children in the K-12 school. This is going to take hours. Hours of waiting, hours of not knowing. And he’s at home watching this all unfold on the news. He’s seeing aerial shots of the melee, the panicked interviews with parents. He is experiencing this alone.

4:13 p.m. – they’re changing tactics. They’ll begin releasing students to parents by grade, starting with Kindergarten. Each group of kids will be put in a separate part of the rec center and parents will go to that location to be reunited. Please have your ID ready – you’ll be required to fill out reunification forms.

The process is so smooth, it’s hearbreaking. How many schools before us have experienced this to allow for such a practiced and ready response. How many debriefs and lessons learned from previous shootings. What will the takeaways be from ours.

We’re told of the victims. Seven injured and one killed. A sob escapes my lips. All victims are 15 or older. I can’t breathe for the simultaneous relief and sadness. It wasn’t my baby, but it was someone’s baby.

Someone’s baby is dead.

4:24 p.m. – 1st grade

4:28 p.m. – 2nd grade: text response from husband, “Going faster. Are the teachers with the students?” Yes, I say. All staff stayed with the students the whole time.

Every drill they ever practiced brought to life and not only did they have to manage their own fears, but they also had to manage their students’. How strong one must be to not crumble in the face of danger surrounded by eyes full of anxiety and fear.

4:35 p.m. – 3rd grade. It’s my time. My youngest, 8 years old, is in 3rd grade. I hug my sister goodbye and follow the stream of parents to the indoor pool area. We walk single file around the pool to the bleachers and as we pass the locker room, I see him. My boy. He’s sitting on a bench with two classmates who needed to use the restroom. I suppress the urge to cry out and seize him. “Keep moving!” someone yells, and all I can do is grab his hand as I shuffle by, sending our secret message by squeezing his hand twice. Squeeze squeeze

The wait on the bleachers seems interminable. A rec center employee passes out reunification forms. We are required to fill them out for each child. I ask for two. I dig a pen from my purse and shake as I try to fill it out, then share my pen with other parents who need it. We are all frightened and grateful.

4:55 p.m. – the third graders are brought into the area, holding hands creating a chain, and my heart breaks open. They are so small. So small and young to have experienced something so large.

My son is toward the end. He can’t see me in the back row of the farthest bleacher. He looks around. Everyone is yelling and waving and crying and I just want my son. Finally he sees me, and I cannot hold back the dam any longer. As I wrap my arms around him, I cry. I cry and I cry, and he cries, and I say over and over, “I’m so glad you are here. I love you so much.”

I take a selfie of us and send it to my husband. Our eyes are red-rimmed and I grimace more than smile. He texts, “There is no emoji for what I’m feeling”.

There’s no emoji because there is no one emotion. It is terror and sadness, pain and anxiety, relief and guilt, rage and gratitude.

5:07 p.m. – we are released from the pool and I ask where the 5th graders are. I have another child I must see, I must hold. I’m directed to the weight room where the 5th graders wait. There are glass walls separating us, and I scan the room looking for my mop-haired 10 year old. As I cross the threshhold and thank the teachers, I see him jump up. I run to him and put my arms around him. He’s embarrassed by my sobbing and show of affection, so I (reluctantly) pull away.

The line to exit is long as officers take our forms and check our ID’s before we leave. I have an arm around each of my children and I can’t stop staring at them, poring over every detail. The light in their eyes, the weight of them in my arms, the rythmic beat of their hearts. Needing to hold them close to me, feel the warmth of their skin constantly, I cannot and will not let them go, much to their annoyance.

5:17 p.m. – we are in the car preparing to go home. I take another picture of my older son and send it to my husband. He responds with 38 hearts. There are no more words, only love. The drive is short and long. The emergency vehicles and lights are everywhere, we have to go a different route home, and I can’t even think of anything to say to my children.

5:30 p.m. – Only three hours since I was last here, I pull into the garage that no longer looks like my garage, in the house that no longer looks like my house. In the past few hours – the longest three hours of my life – I stepped off the plane of existence I previously occupied and fell onto a completely different one. I do not recognize anything or anyone, least of all myself when I catch my reflection in the mirror.

I turn off the engine, and my children jump out. My husband appears in the door and pulls them to him, sobbing, shaking, and holding them so tight.

Our nightmare is over, but the trauma is just beginning.


As described by my sons, the alarm went off as they were winding down the last class of the day. “ATTENTION: LOCK DOWN. LOCKS. LIGHTS. OUT OF SIGHT.” Assuming it was a drill, they went through the protocol. The students got out of their seats to a part of the room away from the door and windows. The teacher locked the door and turned off the lights. And then they sat in silence waiting for the all clear. My younger son was in Chinese class at the time which had two doors. He positioned himself against the wall under a table. My older son was in his homeroom and tucked himself under a table as well, with his back up against a filing cabinet.

My older son said he knew it wasn’t a drill after the announcement and alarm didn’t stop after ten minutes. Over and over again, “ATTENTION: LOCK DOWN. LOCKS. LIGHTS. OUT OF SIGHT.” Here is the scenario described by one of his teachers:

Your children were phenomenal yesterday, and I am so proud of their behavior and strength. Please give them an extra hug from me today.

The elementary school was not involved in most of the activity yesterday, but I wanted to share with you what your children did experience so that you can help them process it. I think it will be important for them to talk about it and not bottle it up.

When we went into lockdown the kids were very appropriate, but it was obvious this lockdown was not a drill. The lockdown message that plays over the loudspeaker did not stop. We listened to it for about 45 minutes. We could hear sirens, and we could hear police activity running across the roof above us. When the police entered our classroom to release us and evacuate the room, they did so not knowing what they would find. This means four police/SWAT officers entered the classroom yelling and with rifles pointed at us. They were quickly able to ascertain we were not a threat, and students were told to quickly put their hands on their heads and exit the building. We exited the building and were awestruck at the amount of emergency vehicles since we could not see the activity while in the building.As you know, students were then bussed to Northridge where you were able to pick them.

Again, please hug your family tight and let the kids know that their teachers are thinking of them and sending love.


The Monday following the shooting, I drive to my volleyball game at the same rec center. It is the same but different. There are ribbons tied around the trees, signs of support from the community, and I vascilate between present and past. I can’t hold back my tears as I remember the state of mind I was in the last time I pulled into this parking lot. I walk in and thank every single staff member I see. When I arrive at the gym, I break again. This safe haven, my happy place, will never be the same. It will always maintain a duality – a place of respite and exertion playing the sport I love most in this world and the scene of horror and relief the day I lived my worst nightmare.


On a Tuesday night this past September, as I tuck my older son – now 11 – into bed, he asks me if we can move his dentist appointment (that is two weeks away) to the next day at 2:20 p.m. “What’s at 2:20?” I ask, full of certainty it is a test or an assignment he wants to avoid.

He covers himself in his blanket and begins to whimper. After some coaxing, he finally says, “We have a lockdown drill. I don’t want to go back into lockdown, Mom.”

He proceeds to have what I can only describe as a panic attack. He rocks back and forth, crying and breathing rapidily. He can no longer talk, so he draws me pictures.

First, a picture of other kids calling the drill a waste of time, while he is by himself, covering his ears trying to block out the loud, constant thud thud of his heartbeat.

Then a picture of a kid holding a gun while another lay bleeding on the floor. “This is what is in my head when I hear my heartbeat. I see Kendrick.”


November 1, my husband and I are at the Santa Fe Artwalk to celebrate El Día de Los Muertos. Local schools have made ofrendas honoring famous people who have passed on. I look at each of them, made with such tender care by middle school students. And then my breath is stolen from me and my vision swims. There is Kendrick. They have made an ofrenda for Kendrick. The placard reads, “He bravely gave his life to save countless lives in the Highlands Ranch STEM school shooting on May 7, 2019.” And in the middle of an art gallery, I fall into husband and sob.


The first thing people say when I share our experience is, “I cannot imagine what you are going through.” And if you find yourself thinking that right now, you’re right. You cannot imagine what it is like. I consider myself a very empathetic person, and even knowing victims or survivors in the Columbine shooting, in the Aurora shooting, in the Arapahoe shooting, in the Las Vegas shooting, nothing prepared me for this.

One cannot prepare for seeing their son on the main page of their local paper being escorted out of the building by armed officers.

One cannot prepare for seeing your child, their classmates, their teachers, your community on every news site and social media feed. Their image turned into a meme or the subject of a viral tweet.

Articles and interviews are done with the victims and their families, as they rightly should. But little attention is given to the families who have suffered a severe trauma without physical injury. There are thousands of students like my sons, families like ours, who are substantially changed because of these experiences. And one year later, we still deal with and work through our shared trauma. It does not and will not go away.

Every time a car backfires. Every time sirens blare. Every time a door slams. Every time fireworks go off. Every time there’s an unrecognizable sound. Every. Single. Time. My heart races, blood flow increases, adrenaline hurls through my cells, lighting me up, shortening my breath, synapses fire in rapid succession as my brain attempts to assess the danger. We are constantly scanning our surroundings; purposely positioning ourselves to see the entrances and exits of a room; imagining all scenarios should we need to protect ourselves or escape. No matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing, the trauma is now lodged deep within our psyche, and we adjust and adapt ourselves to accommodate it.

My children were not physically injured on that Tuesday in early May, but we are all permanently scarred. For the rest of their lives, my children will be “school shooting survivors”. This trauma has completely altered the telescope through which I view my life, and we carry it with us, always.

©Massaro Images

A Spider Named Cole

For most of my life, I was arachnophobic. I can trace it back to being five or six years old. I had always been fascinated by bugs and would let Daddy Long Legs crawl on me, but one day, my grandmother – in what I assume was an attempt to engage me with nature and the world – had me look at a spider in the bathtub through a magnifying glass. What I saw was a monster, and I became terrified of them from that point on. No matter the size, no matter the type, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with them.

Flash forward 25 years: I have two young children of my own, and the one thing I do not want to do is pass on my fear of spiders. So, I started small. I would see a spider across the room and say to the boys, “Oh look! There’s a spider. You should go look at it!” They grew curious and had no fear while I (wisely) kept my distance. Win-win.

However, over the last 11 years, this practice has led me to push my fear out of the way to make room for my own curiosity. I actually like spiders now. I will always save them and watch them as often as I can. I find their webs intricate and beautiful, and I can even say the same about them. Especially the fuzzy little jumping spiders. They are like little pets to me now.

Which leads me to yesterday. I was leaving work and noticed on the very edge of the window, a small bluish-black jumping spider. Not wanting it to get smashed when I rolled up the window nor have it blown away to wherever, I extended my finger and it jumped right on. However, I dropped it somewhere in the car, and as my interior is dark, I couldn’t find it and hoped for the best.

This morning, while driving to work, I wondered about my new little spider friend. I wondered if I might see it again. I wondered what I should name it. I wondered how it would get food. I wondered on this last bit for most of my drive. Do they eat anything other than insects? What would its food source be since it lived in the car? Had I done it a disservice by “saving” it?

As I walked back to my car to leave for the day, I mindlessly threw my bags in, organized my water, and connected the Bluetooth while the windows were down letting the steady breeze and sunshine in. Unexpectedly, a large swarm of thousands of gnats blew into my car, and I panicked and clamped my mouth closed as I rolled up the windows as fast as I could. Disgusted, I realized there were at least 30 gnats in my car, and hundreds on the exterior window.

As I drove towards the edge of the property, one of the gnats landed on a tiny stretch of web from the top of my windshield to the bottom. And from the dark edge where the dash meets the windshield, out popped my little spider friend. The gnat made its way to the glass, and that fuzzy little jumper kept an eye on it the whole time. Slowly, slowly moving until POUNCE.

And I realized: I had left 18 minutes later than I planned, but I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time for my car to get caught in a gnat storm with the windows open so a food source could be provided to my little hunter.

I excitedly called my husband to relay this amazing story and asked him to help me name it. He texted while I drove home (which I received later when I was no longer driving).

“Its name is Cole”

“As in Gnat King”

And that is how I ended up with a spider named Cole that unknowingly proved to me – once again – the universe always provides.

Cheers.

Hard Lessons

I trust too easily. I know this about myself. I trust wholly, without question, and when one does that, it tends to open you to getting hurt. It’s why people withhold love and trust, and I can see why. It sucks to be let down.

My trusting heart gets me into trouble. When someone tells me something, I invest fully in it. They always receive the benefit of the doubt. When I’m told I will be invited and included in something, and then I find out I am not, without explanation, it hurts. Badly. Particularly knowing how I am as a person – how understanding and accommodating, how loyal and trustworthy I have worked to become, how I will bend over backwards to help when asked (or not) – my expectations are to be treated the same.

Many years ago, a sibling of a friend, someone I had watched grow from a toddler into an adult, had loved and cared for as my own flesh and blood, didn’t invite me to their wedding. And it wasn’t just that they didn’t invite me; it was that they didn’t tell me I wasn’t invited. I only discovered it because at a mutual friend’s wedding, I found out their wedding was just a month away. And I’d been in enough weddings by that point (including my own) to know it wasn’t that I hadn’t yet received my invitation. It was that I wasn’t getting one.

I was devastated when I found out. I took it personally and felt I had done something wrong. It took my long-held fear of being excluded and solidified it. I, perhaps brashly, made the assumption I would be be included because of our long history, and I was wrong. My feelings were hurt.

Seven years down the road, I look back on this experience, and where I am now in my life and journey, I can let it go. They told me later it was due to headcount and apologized, and I forgave them. But I do still wish they had had the courage ahead of time to write me a note or give me a call and say, “I’m so sorry – we wanted to invite you, but we found out this family was coming and we had to make some cuts.” It still would have hurt. I still would have been disappointed. But I would have understood and appreciated the honesty.

Recently, I was confronted with another wedding I was told for over a year I would not only be witness to, but also was to assist in preparations and decor, only to see it is far too late for me to be involved let alone for an invite to make its way to me. And I would be lying if I said it didn’t break my heart.

However, it has revealed something to me which I have long tried to ignore: I cannot force anyone to include me just because I include them.

This has been revealed to me over and over again, and yet somehow, I continue to refuse to acknowledge it. If I go to a city where someone I know lives, I will do everything I can to make time for that person. Then they will come to my neck of the woods and won’t tell me they’re coming here. I see on social media they’re in town, and it hurts every time. “I always try to make time for you, and you don’t for me.” There is a pattern here, folks, and I’m finally willing to see it.

I had a milestone birthday and received incredible news regarding my career this week, but this wedding thing kept tapping me on the back of the head, wondering why they didn’t tell me. Why did they not send a quick text saying, “Hey, we had to make some hard decisions and unfortunately, we can’t include you.”? Again, it still would have hurt. I still would have felt disappointed. But I understand, and it’s better than being blindsided.

Am I as much of a coward for not saying anything directly? Perhaps. But what good does it do for me to call them out and force a wedge in between? Now I know, without anger or malice, how I viewed and approached this friendship may not be reciprocated. I write that with all the understanding and compassion. Clarity is kindness. And I can adjust my expectations and actions accordingly.

Over the last few years, I have worked to do more in the way of reciprocity. Am I the only one reaching out to make plans? Am I the only one making effort and time? I need to step back and see why that is. Give the other person an opportunity to seek me out – if I am as important to them as they say, they will make the effort. And I will meet them in the middle with reciprocity of that effort.

Here’s an example: I send a text to a friend I haven’t seen in awhile. They reply saying they’d love to get together, what’s my schedule. I reply with several dates and times I am available.

Crickets.

I follow up a week or so later, completely understanding of how busy our lives all are and things getting missed.

Crickets.

In another time, I would have stewed about that. Wondered what I had done or said to upset them. Made up stories about what they thought of me. Stayed awake at night thinking of ways to make it better, fix it. Always needing to fix it so they like me. Please, just like me.

Not anymore. I shrug to myself and accept the relationship has shifted, and if they want to spend time with me, they will let me know. No hard feelings, no righteous proclamations of severed ties. Just a shrug and we move on.

Or maybe the opposite is happening. Maybe someone is taking time, effort, and energy to connect with me, and I am not reciprocating. I need to examine this and ask myself why. Have I outgrown this relationship? Are we different people? Instead of being clear with them and setting boundaries, am I just ignoring them and allowing them to draw their own conclusions about me? I am not OK with that. I need to respect them and tell the truth about what is going on.

Having the capacity, patience, and skill to do that has taken me years of practice, and clearly, I have not perfected it. This particular situation brought up such strong feelings of rejection. It kept me up at night and forced me to the keyboard these early hours, which is my body’s signal to me that I need to get it out of my heart and head. So I can release it and move on.

But the truth is, I will keep showing up for them if they need me. I will. Because that is who I am. And that is who I want to be.

My Sober Life, Chapter 28

May 7, 2015 – It’s three days before Mother’s Day, and my mother is dead. I had a tendency for a lot of years prior to treat Mother’s Day as kind of a throwaway, Hallmark holiday. Even after I became a mother myself, no one ever made a big deal about it. But when you don’t have a mother anymore? It’s a million knives stabbing you relentlessly.

After she passed, but before the mortuary came, we took turns sitting with her body. It sounds much more morbid and gross when I write it out, but it wasn’t like that at all. It felt like we were standing guard, assuring safe passage. As she lay lifeless against the bed, she looked so small and frail, the diseases ravaged her until she was not much more than skin and bones. I lightly caressed her cheek, already cold to the touch. Life leaves the body so swiftly. It’s a shame we regularly get so caught up in the minutiae that we forget we’re all just a breath away from not being present here.

After the mortuary attendants had come and gone, my sisters and I went about her little half-room packing up her personal belongings. I couldn’t help wondering at her roommate. Did she know death had taken my mom not 10 feet away from her? Did she feel the wave as my mom’s final breath left her?

As we were going through her closet, I came upon a red cardigan sweater of hers. She’d had it for at least a decade. It was well-worn and faded, with large faux-wood buttons and two deep, front pockets. It always made me think of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I held it in my hands, staring at the label the facility had placed over the washing instructions: Carole Vega. They’d spelled her name wrong. The sweater became heavy in my hands, as though rocks were in those deep pockets. But I could not set it down. I could not place it in the bag with the rest of the clothes. I laid it over my forearm and continued working.

That sweater would not leave my hands for 48 hours. I carried it with me everywhere: to the funeral home, to the meetings, to the Corner Bakery, to the bathroom. I didn’t want to wear it – I never put it on – but I could not and would not put it down. For the next nine months, I would sleep with it every night.

The next seven days are a blur. I was able to take the week off from work and assist with the arrangements. As my mom was a practicing Roman Catholic, we were to have a rosary and wake the evening before the funeral. My brother, one of my brothers-in-law, and I worked on a song to perform at the wake. I chose a song by Indigo Girls, two of my favorite singer-songwriters, that describes death in such a way that it feels like you are releasing a bird from its cage.

I hadn’t sung in front of a lot of crowds, not since my choir days of youth. I knew the song forwards and backwards, having listened to it at least once a month since the cassette (ahem, age check) landed in my 10-year-old hands 25 years prior. So I thought it would be fine. There were already several people milling about when I arrived at the mortuary and it was easy to get caught up in the greetings and well-wishes. I needed to set down my things, though, so I went into the room which had been set aside for us. And there she lay.

We’d picked out a lovely outfit for her, accented with purple, and many flowers. The funeral director had done her makeup and painted her nails. She looked like a powdered version of herself, one hand laid over the top of the other at the waist, a rosary intertwined in them, glasses on, just as you would have remembered her. She didn’t look sickly or thin.

I needed some liquid courage, just a little something to take the edge off, so I brought a flask with me. One engraved with my initials and birthdate, a gift for my 21st, filled with freshly-made margarita with an extra shot of tequila. I stood by myself in the bathroom of the funeral home looking at my reflection. My well-fitted dress, perfectly straightened hair, precisely applied makeup, sparking jewelry, four-inch heels all mirrored back at me through the looking glass. I stared into my own eyes as I unscrewed the top and swallowed the entire contents. The tequila burned as it flowed down, warming my belly, and I thought of how I’d been dreading this for months, and now it was here. No more dress rehearsing this tragedy. I was living it. I was living in an existence without my mother.

After the rosary was completed, my dad spoke to the crowd. More than 100 people crammed into this small chapel-like room, the open casket at the fore. He spoke of my mom and her strengths as a mother and friend. He told some stories and made us all laugh and cry. Then they played a video compilation one of my sisters had made, and it’s one of those pieces of my life that is frozen in time in my memory. My mom had lived almost 77 years (she died just a month and a week shy of her birthday). She’d brought five humans into the world; she’d danced; she’d traveled all around the globe; she’d been a book and puzzle aficionado; she’d been a wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, friend. She’d dedicated her life to serving others. She took care of her children, she took care of her mother and sister, she took care, she took care, she took care…and here were the photos illustrating that care. That consideration. In many instances, the sacrifice of self for the well-being of others.

The final shot of the slideshow is a clip from a 70’s home video of my mom on a small speedboat near a dock. As the boat propels away from the shore, my mom – my youthful, beautiful, vibrant mom – sits up tall and reaches her long, lithe arm in the air, waving goodbye enthusiastically, as Lenny Kravitz’ Thinking of You fades out (lyrics below). It is an image that if I conjure it in my mind’s eye, I will instantly well with tears. (Much as I am right now as I type this on an airplane full of strangers.)

As my brothers began the rehearsed intro on their guitars, my stomach clenched. It was my cue, but I couldn’t do it. I whispered under my breath, I’m not ready.

My brother has been a musician for as long as I can remember. When he was in his early 20s, I recall a significantly loud fight between him and my dad In which my brother stormed out, jumped in his little Toyota pick-up, and drove to California to start a band. I think I was about five years old. His band’s name was No Exit, and if any of their music existed on the internet, I would share it here. I LOVED his music. When they produced an album, I wore the cassette (yep, child of the 80s) out. I still pull out the CD from time to time, because I still love the music that much. We’d go out to San Diego to see him play and once, I got to go to a rehearsal. It was in someone’s garage or back lot, and it was like an 80s movie or TV show. Girls on the couches, beers abounding, blacklights and fluorescent paint. I immediately became the little mascot. All the guys were the coolest ever.

I remember him up there on this massive stage at the Del Mar Fair in San Diego, and I was enamored. Here is a picture of me on that stage afterward (I am still looking for this picture…). Talk about a shit-eating grin. I thought I was so cool for not only knowing the band, but also getting to go on the stage.

So you’d think, musician brother, singer sister, it must be like The Partridge Family at your house. But other than some camp-side acoustic sing-alongs, my brother and I had never sung together. Not until my mom’s wake.

They began the intro again, and I placed my hand on my stomach, and breathed deep in through my nose, shakily exhaling slowly out my mouth. My cue comes again.

And I sing.

Secure yourself to heaven
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens
You have just begun

In the ink of an eye, I saw you bleed
Through the thunder, I could hear you scream
Solid to the air I breathe
Open-eyed and fast asleep
Falling softly as the rain
No footsteps ringing in your ears
Ragged down worn to the skin
Warrior raging, have no fear

Secure yourself to heaven
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens
You have just begun

I'm kneeling down with broken prayers
Hearts and bones from days of youth
Restless with an angel's wing
I dig a grave to bury you
No feet to fall, you need no ground
Allowed to glide right through the sun
Released from circles guarded tight
Now we all are chosen ones

Secure yourself to heaven
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens
You have just begun

Secure yourself to heaven
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens
You have just begun


In the ink of an eye, I saw you bleed
Through the thunder, I could hear you scream
Solid to the air I breathe
Open-eyed and fast asleep
Falling softly as the rain

(Falling)
No footsteps ringing in your ears

(No footsteps)
Ragged down worn to the skin
Warrior raging, have no fear


Secure yourself to heaven
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens
You have just begun

In the ink of an eye, I saw you bleed

(Secure yourself to heaven)
Through the thunder, I could hear you scream

(Hold on tight, the night has come)
Solid to the air I breathe

(Fasten up your earthly burdens)
Open-eyed and fast asleep

(You have just begun)
No feet to fall, you need no ground

(Secure yourself to heaven)
Allowed to glide right through the sun

(Hold on tight, the night has come)
Released from circles guarded tight

(Fasten up your earthly burdens)
Now we all are chosen ones

(You have just begun)

Secure yourself to heaven
(And now we all are chosen ones)
Hold on tight, the night has come

(Allowed to glide right through the sun)
Fasten up your earthly burdens

(Released from circles guarded tight)

Now we all are chosen ones

Thinking of You – Lenny Kravitz

Tell me mama is your life a better change ? 
And tell me mama 
Would you live your life the same 
Or come back and rearrange ?

Tell me mama how is freedom ? 
Oh I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be 
And I’m trying now

Oh I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be 
Tell me mama 
Are the colors deeper shades ?

And tell me mama 
Are there great big brass parades ? 
Does the sun shine night and day ? 
Tell me mama no more sleeping

Tell me mama no more weeping 
I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be 
And I’m trying now

Oh I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be 
And I’m trying now 
Oh I’m thinking of you

And all the things that you wanted me to be 
And I’m trying now 
Oh I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be yeah

Hey mama, hey mamama, mama 
No, no, no, no, no 
Oh no, no, no, no, no …. 
Hey

Tell me mama is it just the way they say ? 
Tell me mama 
And tell me mama are you missing me the way 
That I’m missing you today ?

Tell me mama can you hear me ? 
Oh I’m thinking of you 
And all the things that you wanted me to be 
And I’m trying now [Repeat: x 5]

Oh I’m thinking of you

Thinking of you…

My Sober Life, Chapter 27

She awakes in a panic, and the tears come swiftly. Was she dreaming? The TV is still on, and her husband is watching next to her. But she’s sobbing uncontrollably. The voice is still in her head. “Hey, Bec! It’s Mom…” Over and over on a loop. What is happening? She can’t breathe she’s crying so hard. Her husband holds her while she cries until she wears herself out and falls asleep.

The alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m. She rolls out of the bed, the hotel room pitch black. We need blackout curtains like these, she thinks. Her mind still heavy with sleepy fog, she grabs her phone and heads into the bathroom. The light flickers to life and, as per the morning routine, she checks her phone. One missed call. One new voicemail.

“Hi, Rebecca, this is Dad. Listen, I just got a call from the nurse and your mom is unresponsive…(long pause)…(deep breath)…if you can get a flight home, I think you should. And if you can get someone to come pick up the boys so I can focus on your mom…(another long pause)…ok, hon, well, just get home if you can….god bless…bye.”

She lifts her head and takes a long look at herself in the mirror. She sets the phone down and leans against the door, sliding down to the cold floor. No, there’s no time. She grabs her phone and leaves the bathroom.

As gently as she can, she wakes her husband. “My dad called. My mom is unresponsive. I need to go home.” He’s barely conscious enough to fully understand what she’s saying. She walks over to her computer and turns it on. As soon as it connects to the internet, she pulls up her itinerary and the number to call the airline. 

He finally rousts enough to ask her, “Do you really have to leave?”

She says, “Yes, I am leaving. But we have the hotel through Sunday. You have your reservations. If you want to stay, you can stay. I am leaving, but you don’t have to come.”

She gets through to an agent and explains the situation, barely keeping her voice even as the sobs threaten to burst out of her. 

He agrees to leave with her, and she relays the information to the agent. There is a 10:30 a.m. flight back to Denver, and they are both booked on it.

They pack in relative silence. She calls a friend to pick up her children from her dad; she cancels tickets to the show for that evening; she cancels the transportation back to the airport for Sunday. Winning this trip to Las Vegas turned out to be not that lucky after all.

They check out of the hotel, tears are streaming down her face, and the desk attendant is visibly uncomfortable as she tries to maintain composure. The taxi line is short, and they get to the airport with time to spare. 

The airport is a blur, security a breeze, everything that needs to happen to ensure they make this flight, happens. They get to their seats on the plane and she texts her dad.

We’re on the plane, about to take off. Tell her I’m coming. Tell her I am on my way.

She passes the time on the flight playing Plants vs. Zombies on her phone. Every so often, a shudder overtakes her and she has to catch her breath. They travel in virtual silence throughout the plane ride, then on the shuttle, then the car ride. Her husband drops her off at the hospice facility, and she walks briskly toward the door.

Is she walking briskly? Everything slows down as she makes her way to the outer door. As she inputs the code to enter. As she walks down the hall, hit with a mixture of smells: antiseptic, urine, cafeteria food, camphor rub. She can’t help herself as she thinks, This place smells like old people and death.

She strides across the hall and upon entering the shared room, she sees her family. Her father, her three sisters, her brother…her nieces and nephew…her brother-in-law. All crammed into a space not much larger than an office, surrounding the bed where her mother lies.

Her mother. She is so small, so frail and thin, on the bed. Being unresponsive that morning, the nurses put her on morphine to keep her resting in case she regains consciousness. Her breathing is heavily labored now, oxygen unable to make its way into her airways. Fifty-seven years of smoking cigarettes leading up to this moment. Oxygen tubes in her nose, as they have been for the last seven months. Her head is unnaturally turned to one side, her eyes not-quite-closed. She doesn’t really resemble her mother any more. It’s hard to look at.

Hugs are exchanged and updates given as she enters the room. The pungent scent of urine mixed with cleaning products hangs all around.

After an hour or so, her mother begins to stir. The morphine is wearing off, not enough for her to speak or move, but her eyes are open and aware. She makes eye contact with her mother and sees confusion and fear. She stands above her, holding her hand, trying to smile through her tears. She says, “It’s OK, Mom. I’m here. We’re all here. You’re safe. We’ll be OK.” She recalls her mom’s words months prior, I’m worried about that one. She’s my baby. “I’ll be OK, Mom. I love you.”

She gets her dad so he can look into the eyes of his partner of 51 years. Her mother becomes agitated, tries to talk, but the morphine has made that impossible. A nurse called, more morphine administered. And with it, her mother disappears for the last time.

Another hour goes by. Food arrives, and the family takes a break to eat in a little kitchen area down the hall, stretching their legs and enjoying some sustenance as they have no idea how long the night ahead may be.

A niece comes running in, urgency in her eyes. “You better come back in. It’s happening.”

Of course she waited until we were all out of the room. Her mother never was one to be the center of attention.

They gather around the bed, and she lays herself across her mother’s legs, tucking herself into the crook of her knees. She wraps her arms around those legs that once danced the most gorgeous ballets, feeling their warmth melt into her. Searing that warmth into her memory, feeling every time her mother had wrapped her in joy, sadness, understanding, and strength.

Her mother’s breath is choked. The air has nowhere left to go. She gulps and gasps, drowning on dry land, like a fish out of water. Mouth gaping, opening and closing, throat pulsing, chest convulsing.

Her brother cries out, “Goodbye, Mommy!” and then it’s over. They lay on her, holding her and each other as they cry, feeling her stillness below them.

She lays there for some time, until the shared warmth becomes one-sided. She slowly rises and hugs her father so fiercely, it feels as though a lifetime of sadness and pain courses through their embrace. It’s over, but it’s also just beginning.

She texts two words to her husband.

She’s gone