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Missing My Mom
Her positive values are ingrained in me
Jovani Hernandez

The youngest of six, I was always Mommy’s baby. She tried to shelter me from the world of Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects, and told me she expected the best from me. Despite growing up in a poor, single-parent household, I never felt ashamed.

“No matter where you come from, or what obstacles you face, you’ll always make it if you work hard and stay strong,” she would often say. A lot of kids in my neighborhood were in gangs and hung out on the streets at night dealing drugs. This infuriated her: “Where are these kids’ parents?”

When I was 7, I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother in tears. She told me a 12-year-old boy had been caught in crossfire just a block from our apartment and killed.

“See why I’m so protective of you? I wouldn’t know what to do if that was my child.”

Although her constant worrying about me got annoying sometimes, as I got older I realized that it wasn’t because she didn’t trust me—it was because she didn’t trust the people who lived around me. In my pre-teenage years I witnessed multiple kids who were enthusiastic about getting out of the projects but got caught up in selling drugs. They quit school and were in and out of jail. Had my mother not been such a dominant—yet loving and positive—force, I might have ended up like them.

My mother didn’t finish high school—a decision she would often tell me she regretted. Her strong work ethic came from recognizing her missed opportunities and knowing her income wasn’t a reflection of what she was capable of. She would often tell me, “Go to school, and get everything you can from it. I didn’t do that, and that’s why I’m not able to give you everything you deserve.”

My mom worked long hours and had persistent health issues, although they didn’t concern me when I was growing up. She suffered from osteoporosis and obesity. She also fell twice and had heel and knee surgeries when I was in middle school. But she never complained, and always seemed happy despite our financial struggles. Even though she visited the doctors a lot, she exuded strength and vitality to me.

Hospital Half-Truths

But last fall a new problem arose. My mom started vomiting nearly every time she ate. After a couple of weeks of this, her doctor ordered tests. He said we’d get the results in a couple of weeks.

About a week later, as soon as I walked in the house after school, my mom told me about the surgery she’d be having the following day. “The procedure is going to be minor. The doctor said they found lesions on my colon that are preventing me from digesting correctly. It’s going to be three days max, so I need you to stay strong and take care of the house while I’m gone, mijo.”

I viewed this surgery in a positive light since she’d been so sick. A three-day hospital visit seemed insignificant considering she had been through a couple of surgeries before. The only difference now would be that my older brother Luis wasn’t home, since he had recently gone away to college. I’d be on my own for the first time.

Like a Zombie

When I went to visit my mom after the surgery, she seemed like a different person. Unlike the energetic, overly hyper greeting I was used to, she was so sedated she seemed indifferent to seeing me. I assumed she’d be more like herself the next time I saw her.

But the doctors kept her sedated and the few days in the hospital stretched on for weeks. My older half-siblings were talking with the doctors and handling overall supervision of her care. My brother Luis and I rarely had anything to do with them. They offered to have me stay with them, but their offers felt insincere and I didn’t feel comfortable enough with them, so I stayed home on my own. They told me our mom was going to be OK, and I believed them.

I visited her every day after school. I’d ask, “Mommy, are you coming home soon?” I never got an answer from her; I’m not sure she even understood me. However, there were times when she would recognize me and say things such as, “Gio, I miss you so much.” These sporadic words of acknowledgment were important to me, and they made the long days of hard work in both school and my college enrichment program easier to get through.

I Longed for Her Love

The silence in my house was a constant reminder of my mother’s absence. When she was home, there was the sizzling sound from the stove and loud voices from the telenovelas she loved to watch. I felt so lonely. A few times I thought about calling Luis at college but then I’d decide not to bother him.

One Saturday morning, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, attempting to recollect the smell of eggs, toast, bacon, and home fries that circulated throughout our apartment on weekends. The streams of tears down my cheeks met my deep breaths. I missed having her cook for me, help me do my laundry, remind me to stop procrastinating, and be there to talk to. I had no one to tell I was hungry, give me a hug, tell me that my hard work in school would pay off, or even acknowledge my effort to stay strong throughout this stressful time. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone else for help.

image by YC-Art Dept

Comfort in Classwork

Even though my principal suggested I take some time off from school, I didn’t miss a day, and still went to my enrichment program on Saturdays. Teachers offered to lessen my workload if I needed, but I turned them down. I maintained a 95 average. I heard Mommy’s voice telling me to fight the urge to feel sorry for myself and not to ignore my responsibilities as a student. I didn’t realize how ingrained her values were in me until then.

My rigorous schedule was also comforting and distracting. Being able to continue to do well made me feel proud of myself.

When I visited my mother at the hospital, her heavy doses of morphine rarely wore off. When they did, she’d grab my hand and repeat, “Mijo, I miss you.” I’d hug her and tell her how much I loved her, and couldn’t wait for her to be home again. When I asked the doctors why she wasn’t recovering and when she would be discharged they told me they weren’t allowed to give me that information.

Not Much Time

Two weeks later, my half-sister Eileen’s husband Vinny called. “I’m gonna be real honest with you G, I know school is important, but you need to get to this hospital every day. You don’t got that much time left with your mother.” My heart began to pound. These words were heartbreaking, but also confusing. Eileen had told me my mom was getting better, and that her reactions—vomiting, and lack of appetite—were side effects of her medicine. I immediately hung up and called Eileen.

“What is Vinny saying to me?” I yelled.

“What do you mean?” she answered, confused.

“He just called me crying saying I have very little time left with Mom. I thought she was getting better? What is he saying, Eileen?” I began crying.

“Gio, the doctors misdiagnosed her. They thought it was minor lesions in her colon, but they discovered she has stage four liver cancer. If she can keep fighting, the doctors may be able to extend her life for another two years.”

I’m generally calm, but the screaming I did at Eileen that day came from all the built up stress. I felt betrayed because no one had been honest with me. I immediately called Luis, and my other half-sister Alexia, who didn’t even know my mother was in the hospital.

She Lives On in Me

I don’t know why Eileen kept the truth from us, but after that Alexia had me stay at her house. My last interaction with my mother was about a week later and was limited to a simple back and forth of hums mimicking “I love you” and a big hug for her before Alexia and I headed back to her house. That was the last time I was able to feel my mother’s warmth. She died the next day.

That was eight months ago.

I feel bad I didn’t have the chance to tell her I appreciate everything she did for me, and to give her one last bear hug, like the mama’s boy I was. Since she died, I’ve felt lonely. Although I currently live with my stepfather, and my brother Luis comes home from college to visit on holidays, I haven’t developed a relationship with anyone the way I did with her. I particularly miss the way she’d dote on me when I came home from my long days of school, enrichment, and my internship. Still, our memories comfort me.

A Different Life

Because she died so quickly, I now see I don’t know when my life will come to an end, and that motivates me to persist in making every day valuable and productive.

Since my mom’s death, I’ve had to learn to be more independent. Although my stepfather lives with me, he doesn’t provide the same loving support. This is not to discredit my stepfather but Mom showed me so much love and attention. In my mind, no one can ever live up to her. I’m still processing the fact that she is gone forever, and I often get emotional when I look in the mirror because I look just like her.

Although she’s gone physically, everything she’s instilled in me lives on in me. I know she’d be proud to know I’m determined to be more than just another product of my neighborhood, and I’m not scared to face my feelings of doubt and sadness.