It was about 90 degrees the day I hoisted my eight months pregnant body up the stairs to our attic. Rivulets of sweat flowed down my back as I settled into the stifling space to dig through plastic tubs of photos and mementos. Sure, it probably wasn't the best idea, but I was on a mission. I knew my son would arrive in a matter of weeks, and I needed one last item to complete his nursery—a photo of my mom, taken just before I was born.
My mom died suddenly in a car crash when she was only 53 and I was a 21-year-old college student. Though I know there's no such thing as a good time to lose a parent, it felt especially cruel to have her taken from me at that point in my life. In the days, weeks, and years after her passing, I not only mourned the loss of what I no longer had but also what would never be. She would never see me graduate college, never help me choose a wedding dress, never meet her grandchildren.
So in the frantic, hormone-fueled last weeks of my pregnancy, I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to find this photo, to place it in my son's room, to have him grow up under her watchful gaze. About a half hour into my search, digging blindly into the bottom of one of the tubs, my fingers found the worn fabric cover of the album I sought. I lifted it into the light and turned the plastic-covered pages until the image of my mother's face was staring back at me—young, hopeful, and a little afraid.
Once I had my son, that framed photo became more than just a means of connecting my child with the grandmother he'd never know. Seeing her face every day reminded me how fleeting life can be—one day you're pregnant and excited, with a happy future before you. And then you're gone. It's a harsh truth, and it colors my parenting every day.
I always knew I'd be a hands-on mom. I had some difficulty getting pregnant, so when I finally got that positive test, I immediately began fantasizing about all the fun things I would do with my kid. Once he was born, my son became my little sidekick. I took him everywhere; on simple trips to Target and outings to museums, the zoo, and the beach. Each spring when I plant my garden, he's by my side with his tiny shovel and watering pail. And at Christmas, he and I team up to decorate the house and yard, and we make a mess side-by-side in the kitchen baking holiday cookies.
Even on the mundane days, I'm his go-to companion. I'm content to spend hours coloring and reading together. I don't mind crawling on the floor to help him build the perfect block tower, and love running around the backyard, playing tag or perfecting our Frisbee-throwing technique.
Admittedly, part of this is that I genuinely enjoy being a parent and spending lots of time with my child. But there's more to it for me. In the back of my mind, there's that constant worry that I might not always be here for him. Knowing that I could get in the car on a regular Saturday and not make it home—just like my mom—hangs over my head every day I spend with my child. While that sounds depressing, it's actually a reminder to make the best of every single day. I want my son's time with me to be filled with love and joy, and I want him to have a vast collection of memories to cling to when I'm not physically there.
And I want him to have more tangible reminders of my love, as well. During my childhood, my mother shied away from the camera, preferring to take the photos rather than appear in them herself. So, I have lots of pictures with my dad and sisters, but a precious few with her. Because of that, I make sure I'm in front of the lens more often. Even if it's just a selfie of us, or on days when I'm feeling less than photogenic, I know I have to get over myself. He's not going to be looking at the bags under my eyes or the cellulite on my legs—he's going to see a moment with his mom.
Above all, losing my mother has taught me to never take for granted that I will be here for my child. It has taught me to be more present, to put down my phone, and just be in the moment with my son. Her loss reminds me how lucky I am to have this time with him, to hold him close while I can, to enjoy the simple pleasure of making him laugh and drying his tears when he cries.
Would I be as good of a parent had my mom not died? Probably, but I can't say for sure. What I do know is that those of us who carry around a loss like this have an uncommon ability to see the future. We know that at some point, we'll no longer be here for our kids. And we know exactly how painful that absence will be for our child. There's nothing we can do to prevent them from feeling that sadness and loss, but we can better prepare them to navigate the despair of losing a parent by creating a foundation of love and happy memories to sustain them long after we're gone.