The last time I saw my mother was over a Skype call from my dorm room. Her name was Stacey and it was her fifty-third birthday.
My dad fixated the camera on her fragile body, limply lying on the recliner. She was staring out the window at our front yard at a hummingbird, her mouth agape and her curled fingers settled on her stomach. She was present but only in spirit. To anyone else she would have looked like a rag doll.
I said hello and told her I loved her, but I knew my words would not be reciprocated—she hadn’t been able to speak for weeks now.
It was obvious to everyone present how shaken I was to see my mother like this. Only two months before she was able to keep her eyes open for more than a moment and move her head under her own power.
The tumor in her brain was the size of an orange.
Aunts and siblings popped in and out of the frame to keep the conversation light and lively, but a violent wheeze from the background put a halt to the pretense that this was just like any other family get-together. The wheeze escalated into a coughing attack so forceful and raspy it didn’t sound human. My heart stopped.
Is it going to happen right now, right here, in front of my face?
The computer screen was like a prison. It killed me that I couldn’t squeeze her hand and urge her to stop. As if she could control it.
By the time the coughing subsided I was in tears. Later my cousin would tell me my mother’s eyes and cheeks were moist; she must have heard my sadness.
Two hours after I ended the video call, my mother was gone. She passed away a year and two months after she was diagnosed with cancer, three weeks before finishing my freshman year at the University of Oregon.
I had tolerated seven months of worry and guilt for not being by her side, and now I’d spend the rest of my life without her.
At the time, I thought being nineteen years old and capable of living on my own meant that I would be fine, no matter the circumstance. Big mistake—believe it or not, entering early adulthood doesn’t mean you acquire the power of emotional invincibility.
Losing a parent at any age is difficult. Whether it is unexpected or a slow process that one comes to accept over time, it is the end of the life of someone who gave you life. College is a brand new playing field, and one where parents are often left sitting on the sidelines. Every teen endures their adolescence in anticipation of the moment when his or her parents no longer have the home team advantage.
Many don’t realize how much they need their parents during this time in their life until one of them is unable to fulfill that need.
When Katie Whitaker’s mother Sally passed away from ovarian cancer, she and her two siblings had the support of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers in their home of Redmond, Washington. During one instance, community members handed our t-shirts at school basketball games with a blue ovarian cancer ribbon and Sally’s name printed on the back. Sally’s service was even moved to a larger location to accommodate the large number of guests who attended.
No outside support could make up for the loss of Whitaker’s mother during pivotal points in her life as a young adult.
“I think it’s more difficult to lose a parent in your teenage years or even in your twenties because it’s when your most memorable life moments happen,” says Whitaker. “My mom never got to see me finish my high school basketball season, graduate, fall in love, or even turn eighteen.”
Jennifer Mauck, now a high school teacher in Seattle, Washington, recalls losing her father during her sophomore year of college. Shock overtook her body as she sank to the ground when she received the numbing phone call.
Mauck had doubts about returning to school the following year. Only when her mother said it was what her father would have wanted did Mauck decide to continue her studies at the University of Colorado for her junior year. While she found it heartbreaking to be away from her mother and sister at such a tumultuous time, she’s glad she learned to deal with her father’s death on her own terms.
“I started to write to him in a journal,” says Mauck. “It helped me realize that he is around me all the time and I could get my feelings out as if I were speaking to him. I tried to live my life in the present and laugh a lot.”
Mauck has coped with her father’s death through journaling for thirteen years now. Although there were emotional breakdowns along the way, writing helped her nurture a positive attitude.
“You can’t let [losing a parent] break you,” Mauck says. “Let it inspire you to be better and live life in the present. It’s crucial to talk about them and reflect too—keep their memory and soul alive, even if their body is not.”
Whitaker, too, found her silver lining with the help of friends and family, but inner-strength was what nudged her to move forward.
“I keep a smile on my face and just go with where my life takes me,” Whitaker says. “My mom set me up with an excellent support system and helped me to learn to fill myself with a good heart.”
Despite support systems, the complexities of college life can bring up agonizing reminders that a parent who would have shown their child how to defrost a chicken or use the correct amount of detergent for a load of laundry is no longer there.
Matt Tyner, a University of Oregon junior and cheerleader for the Oregon Ducks football team, lost his mother when she was taken by a rare heart condition last summer. For him, it’s emotionally painful when he does activities he knows she loved when she was alive.
“I used to send her pictures of me and my friends or some of the great meals I’ve cooked,” Tyner says. “I grab my phone thinking about how I can’t wait to text her and tell her about it, and then I realize I can’t anymore.”
Being 120 miles away from his father and sister in Beaverton, Oregon compounded the situation. To cope, Tyner found comfort in those around him and in his relationship with God. He enjoys talking to friends about the great life his mother lived, and they have shown him support and understanding. Tyner says his mother’s death provided him with lessons he can share with his peers.
“Cherish all the memories you had with your parent and use it as a lesson,” Tyner says. “Realize that life on earth is not eternal. Appreciate each person, say thank you, and tell people you love them. And do what my mom demonstrated so well: Enjoy everything you have, be happy, and love life.”
My own mother’s death has intensified the whirlwind that is the college experience. Sure the papers, exams, and social scene keep me preoccupied. But I still wake up every morning knowing I will live another day without my mother.
I know I haven’t grieved properly. I haven’t cried since the funeral, and I talk about her in a tone as if she were still in our house whipping up a feast like she did every evening. Since her death, I’ve questioned whether I was stable enough to finish my education. But then I hear her voice:
“Kailan Danielle, don’t you even think about it.”
I remind myself every day that she would want me to be here.
Stacey Kalina was a giver, a caretaker, and a listener. She was a woman who could stun a whole room with just one smile. I strive to be the woman she was, but I must first tackle a phase all college students must go through: learning how to be an adult.
My mother may not be with me physically, but by carrying her in my heart, I’m one step closer to conquering the adult world and figuring out who I am.
She would be proud.