She’s everywhere I look.
At yoga, when I’m in child’s pose, I see my mama and her hazel eyes staring into my soul. With every episode of “Martin,” I hear her deep belly laughs.
I can’t even answer my phone. Because I know it’s not her.
She’s not calling to pick a fight, calling to see why I haven’t let her know I’m all right, calling to make me blow her a kiss.
Worst of all, I see her every morning when I look in the mirror. It’s taken me 36 years to see it. But my face is hers. I am hers. I’ve always been made of Eudora Althea Osterheldt, and those hugs that smell of Snickers bars and sweet tea and tobacco.
My whole life, I waited for my mama to be someone else. I waited for her to morph into Clair Huxtable. Six years ago, on her birthday, she told me she had finally grown up. “Ain’t that a shame, 55 years. But life is a learning experience. And I’ve learned what’s important to me.”
My mom told me she was too young and wild and unstable to be the mom my sister and I needed. She came to realize — through faith and wisdom — we were what mattered in her life. But it was still hard for her to see beyond herself. My whole life, I waited for my mama to put us first.
And in the end, she did. In the end, it was my mama who waited for me. She fought to breathe, she struggled to stay conscious, and she relied on bags of medicine and blood transfusions and platelets as I made my way from Kansas City to North Carolina.
A couple of months ago, her lifelong addiction to Virginia Slims cigarettes broke us all. Tests revealed small-cell lung cancer. She wasn’t healthy enough to endure an aggressive approach. Within a week of chemotherapy, she was hospitalized. She didn’t tell me or my sister.
“I’m going home in a few days,” she told me when I asked her why she had lied about where she was. “I don’t want you to worry.”
But “a few days” came and went. Doctors called me. My mom was dying. And as I flew on two planes and rented a car to drive two hours up the mountain to an Asheville hospital, I prayed God would give her the strength to stay alive long enough to let me say goodbye. I needed her to know I love her. I love her for who she is and who she isn’t and for all the amazing things she taught me.
She wasn’t perfect. But no one is. She was a hippie with a wild heart. She was a hard worker. She prayed even harder. Laughter, beaches, mountains and music were her favorite medicine. She always kept a cuddly dog and a tank full of fish in her life. She loved the wrong men over and over again.
She loved her children, too. She loved my sister so much she didn’t fight when my great-grandmother took her away to live a protected life in the country away from her toxic decisions. She loved me so much she couldn’t let go. She never could find the right place to leave me. So she dragged me from check to check, through her war of love, always reminding me about life’s choice: sink or swim.
When I was 17, she left me to figure it out on my own. Everything she was and all that she wasn’t forced me to get into formation, to be her soldier of love. The beauty in that struggle is I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for the choices she made and the love she gave.
So I ran through the hospital halls on Thursday, May 26, praying my mom was still alive. I just wanted to tell her she is my foundation. For all of the times she left me and every time she came back, she strengthened my stroke and prepared me to ride life’s waves.
The nurse’s face filled with relief when he saw me. “She’s been fighting for you,” he said. Another nurse said the same. What they didn’t know is my mom had been battling her entire life. She didn’t just wrestle cancer. She boxed with depression, she raged with heartache ever since she was a little girl.
They woke her up. She looked around like a fairy caught in a web. And then she saw me. “There’s my babygirl,” she said. She gestured for me to hold her cold hand. “You’re my babygirl.”
For 2 1/2 hours, she would be in and out of consciousness. She’d ask me about her dog, she’d ask God not to take her and she’d tell me I have to fight. To her, life was always a fight to survive, a fight to try to do right, a fight to let God and her heart lead.
“I love you,” she told me. “Don’t you forget it.”
She started to slip into sleep. Or so I thought. So I put on some music. I was going to play a bunch of her favorites, like Toni Braxton, Rascal Flatts and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. But I wanted her to hear this Coldplay song that made me think of her: “Green Eyes.”
Honey you are the sea
Upon which I float
And I came here to talk
I think you should know
Green eyes, you’re the one that I wanted to find
And anyone who tried to deny you, must be out of their mind
She opened her hazel eyes, blazing with war, and looked into mine. The start of a smile crept along her face. And my mommy was gone. You don’t have to fight anymore, darling. I’ve got it from here.