I inhale one of the deepest breaths I’ve ever taken, closing my eyes, hand wrapping around the familiar knob of the old wooden door to the home I’d grown up in. The dated, Victorian-styled home, yard rundown with weeds, white paint chipping away at the exterior, dry rotted wood spanning the front porch. The house that a supposed grandmother left to my mom, years ago.
She’d only been sick, like really sick for the last month or two, always plastering a fake smile over her pale pink lips when I visited, trying to come back every few weekends to help out.
Her fair blue eyes, always pleasant, proud—unwavering.
When I got the call from the visiting nurse that I should come home, that it wouldn’t be long, I’d never driven so fast in my entire life.
“The doctor said three to six months?” My voice had broken up into the phone line as I whipped my way down the coast, driving the few hours south, towards home, barely able to comprehend, as the woman spoke in a soft and sympathetic tone. The realization that it was happening made my stomach churn, made my head spin.
We knew it was coming. But that shit doesn’t matter.
It didn’t feel real.
“We can’t always know.” The nurse had explained, “It’s time. Her body put up a good fight. Your brothers have been in with her. She’s not in pain. She’s just waiting for you.”
The door creaks loudly, echoing through the front of the entryway. My youngest brother, Trenton, peering around the corner of the eerily quiet house, usually filled with the rowdy happenings that make up my brothers and me. Blue eyes filled to the brim with confusion and fear meet mine as he barrels towards me, bare feet slapping across the hardwood floor. His arms fling around my back, while his body shakes into mine with quiet sobs.
I clink my keys down onto the side table, joining the mountains of unpaid and overdue bills.
“She’s... dying.” Trent’s voice cracks with pain between the words, as my hand presses to the back of his dark and wavy hair, pulling him into me. “I don’t want her to die.” His tears already soaking the front of my navy shirt. I blink rapidly to keep my own at bay.
“It’s gonna be okay, we will be alright,” I promise him, trying to convince myself. His head nods slowly against my chest.
“Promise me.” The lines deepen on my mother’s frail face, skin almost translucent as her sunken in eyes, once filled with light and laughter, plead with me.
Covered in a heap of blankets, making her appear so tiny in the hospital bed, now taking up most of the space in the minuscule den, the smallest room in the house, the one she took.
She gave everything and took nothing.
The nurse who has been taking care of her over the last months drops a hand to my shoulder with a soft squeeze as I scoot a chair up to the bedside, propping my elbows against the soft edge of the mattress.
Clasping my hands over hers, she winces, and I immediately loosen my grip. The emotions wash over me like an uncontrollable force, destroying everything in their path. The feeling of helplessness, making me curse the entire fucking world.
This person, this one amazing woman, she’s everything to me, to the four of us. Always pushing us so hard, working tirelessly to make a better life for all of us. The type of human who should live for a thousand years. It’s not fair.
Dealt straight shitty luck with men, with deadbeat dads, but she refused to quit. She played both roles, dedicating her life to making sure my brothers and I grew into respectful humans, well, as best she could. Valuing family, and our commitments to each other above everything else.
Working any and all odd jobs she could scrounge up, her last role as a housekeeper in the neighboring town hospital had at least helped with some of the medical bills.
“Promise me you will see it through,” she repeats. “I need you to. The boys will be fine. You’re almost finished. They need to see you finish.”
She’s always been dead set on me graduating college with the highest degree. Half the kids in this area don’t even see a high school diploma, much less a doctorate’s. For me, it wasn’t an option. When I’d gotten accepted into one of the more prestigious schools in the state, she pushed, encouraged it. Telling me it would be hard but that I could do it.
And I wanted to.
I nod my head slowly, gulping down the lump of pure emotion that’s been forming in my throat since the second my phone rang. The pain rushing my body, coursing through my veins, it feels like someone is reaching in and detaching my still-beating heart from inside my chest.
A slender finger traces the side of my face. “I miss your longer hair.” She tries to form a smile on her dry and cracked lips. I can see the effort from even the simplest of movements. Covering her hand gently with mine, I hold it tight to my cheek. Soaking in every last memory of my beautiful mother.
“You always want to be the one to fix things.” Her fading voice rasps. “Finish school, you’re almost there.” Her fingertips fall from my cheek, trailing down my face as her eyes stay on mine. “I’m proud of you, Steven.”
“I love you,” I breathe out the hoarse words, a sudden darkness crawling into the room. The world will never be the same.
“Be happy.” Her eyes lock to mine as if she’s telling me a secret message.
“I am,” I reply.
“No.” I can barely hear the word as she speaks. “You deserve the world.” She stares at me with a look of adoration, a sense of peace filling the room, and that never faltering smile curved upon her lips. “I want you to really live.” Her hand cups harder against my cheek as she attempts to hide the wince from the extra movement.
I lean in to kiss the paper-thin skin of her cheek and she whispers the last words I’ll ever hear from her lips.
Words I never will forget.
In the days that followed, we’d been able to come up with enough to have her cremated. Vowing to spread her ashes along the vast ocean she loved so much.
The droves of people that came out to show their respect at her memorial was overwhelming.
Making me truly amazed at just how much one single life can impact another.