PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – --
“Good night, love you, see you in the morning.”
I used to say that every night to my mom as I ran up the stairs to bed when I was a child. As I grew older and became a temperamental teenager, those words were said less often and then not at all as I began to notice my family wasn’t like anyone else’s.
At the time, I did not realize how important it was to have a support system. I also didn’t understand the concept that family didn’t have to be related and could be anyone who cared enough to make sure you were OK.
I strived to be everything I could be, mostly to spite a family who wasn’t as supportive as I previously thought. My father was back home on the farm, drinking his sorrows away or passed out cold somewhere in the barn. I did everything I could to be anywhere but there.
I thought if I excelled in school, if I was a student leader, if I worked hard at my after-school job, it would cancel out the negativity at home and validate my self-worth. Maybe then my dad would stop drinking; maybe he would stop shouting at me; maybe he would stop telling me I wasn’t good enough.
My mother didn’t spend much time with me either. She didn’t come to my after-school activities, help me do my hair for prom, or make sure I applied to colleges. We didn’t have a bad relationship, but it seemed non-existent to my younger self.
She just shut down and, at the time, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until years later, when I was hours away in college, that I realized the strength it took to keep her composure as well as she did.
After four and a half years of college, I graduated cum laude with my bachelor’s degree and didn’t need any help. Still, I felt compelled to be part of something larger than myself and decided to join the Air Force. I breezed through basic and technical training, where I became a photojournalist. Not long into my Air Force career, my life changed once again.
I was sexually violated. After a lengthy process set in place to ensure justice is served, the individual was acquitted and I had to learn from it and move on as best I could.
That was a major obstacle I never imagined I would have to endure. I thought I had no one to turn to and tried to pretend it never happened. I felt guilty, worthless and, most significantly, more alone than ever.
It took a coworker noticing something was wrong for me to realize I wasn’t as alone as I felt. It strengthened my conviction to do what I felt was right. As evidence was collected and interviews conducted, my peers started to judge me based on what they assumed took place, and I bared my soul for everyone to hear during the legal process.
In the midst of all that, I found out my mom had cancer.
Luckily, I finally began to understand I had wingmen on my side. My entire chain of command, from my fellow junior Airmen all the way up to wing leadership, was supportive and there for me if I ever needed anything. I realized family doesn’t necessarily mean we share the same DNA. When I raised my right hand and recited the oath of enlistment, I entered a family of brothers and sisters who had my back, no matter what fight I was in.
In an attempt to get my life back under control, I began kickboxing as often as I could. The tighter I strapped the gloves and the harder I struck the bag, the better I felt. The more I worked out, the smoother the days went and the easier the nights were.
It wasn’t long before I was working out simply because I enjoyed it. It felt good to be strong again, in every sense of the word.
The strength I felt didn’t last as long as I had hoped and life threw another hurdle at me. This time I knew I was part of a strong family and had Airmen I could look to for support – and I certainly needed it.
Just after I returned from an extended temporary duty and right before I tested for promotion, my mom’s cancer worsened. She was hospitalized and I thought that was it. I thought I was about to be a 26-year-old without parents because one decided to not be part of my life and the other lost a long, hard-fought battle with a horrible disease.
Instead, she was released from the hospital, which was good news. The downside was she went home with hospice care, which wasn’t such good news. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday because I was outside the office on a rainy afternoon and couldn’t distinguish the tears from the rain on my face. Hospice care meant there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
From my past experiences, I knew to keep leadership informed and when I did, I was immediately asked how they could help. I soon flew home to be with my brothers and mom before I missed my chance.
I spent time doing all the things that annoyed me as a moody teenager. I did my mom’s laundry, I cooked, I washed dishes and I cleaned the house, but this time I wanted to do those things. We went out for fresh air and I pushed her wheelchair wherever she wanted to go. Her fatigue and the slow deterioration of muscles was hard to see in a woman I had come to realize was strong as an oak.
For several months I sat at work wondering every day if that was the day the call would come requesting my presence back home. Each day I talked to her on the phone, I could hear the shakiness in her voice. There was fear where there used to be strength.
I felt completely helpless because there was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better or easier for her. On the good days, I talked to my mom about what Harry Potter movie she watched or the crazy things my niece and nephew were up to. On the bad days, I called my wingman and cried.
I knew I finally had a support system there for me when I needed it. I have wingmen in my close friends, coworkers and leadership. When the time came, all I had to do was reach out to my Air Force family.
When the call came, I was on the soonest flight to my mom’s side. I have never had anyone squeeze my hand so hard as when I told my mom I was there for her and not going anywhere. I watched my mom decline in front of my eyes, spent the night with her as life left her body and her grip on my hand loosened. As her breathing slowed, I caught myself holding my own breath. Then it stopped.
I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the woman who stood silently behind me, supporting me. I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the woman who taught me how to be strong through everything.
It wasn’t until I returned to Colorado that I realized even the strongest people need support sometimes and it’s OK to ask for it. My mom never asked for anything until the very end and I’m happy I was able to be there for her.
Good night, mom. I love you.