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I was seven years old when my mom told me that she was the only person in the world who wanted me and I needed to prove that I was worth keeping. Sitting on my daybed amongst a zoo of stuffed animals I learned that life is unfair. She explained that she had gotten pregnant too young, as a teenager at a Catholic high school no less, and that I was the baby who should have been put up for adoption.
She chose to keep me because she loved me. She was telling me this because I “deserved to know the truth.” And this was my chance—no, my obligation—to be better than her. I had to be good. I had to work hard. I had to prove to everyone that I would not be just like her. I remember wondering, what would I have to do to prove myself to my dad, my grandparents, and my family? They didn’t want me? Then, I cried.
My mom grabbed my chin firmly. “Look at me,” she said as she pulled my head up. Her intense blue eyes focused on mine. Her full red lips pursed together as she waited for me to meet her stare. Tears streamed down my cheeks. “Christa, life is unfair,” she said. “And if you want to make anything of yourself you have to work hard. Do you think this was the life I wanted? No. I had dreams, but I work hard every day, for you, for your brothers. No one is going to make life easy for you. It may even be harder for you. But that’s life and that’s just the way it is.”
She let go of my chin. She hugged me hard. It hurt a little. I wiped away my tears, but her words left a stain, one that would never wash out or fade. I knew I would never be good enough, but I would damn well try.
Dutiful daughter that I was, I spent the next eleven years trying to survive the life she made for me and live in opposition to what she had become. She was a mom of five kids who was addicted to meth. She often worked two jobs under the table, so she could still receive welfare and food stamps to feed us. She was married to my stepdad, but they often fought and spent time apart. I was an excellent student, an athlete, a caring older sister, and a member of student government. I never did drugs, or even smoked a cigarette.
I tried to be the contrary force to her habitual chaos. When she was loud, I got quiet. When she was wild, I became calm. When she broke down, I helped build her up again. When she was gone for days, I stayed home. I did everything I could, but it never seemed to be enough to help her. Her addiction to meth, her bipolar tendencies, and her tumultuous relationship with my stepdad persisted.
She left a wake stronger than a riptide off the coast where we lived in Northern California. They’d use. They’d come down. They’d fight. She’d steal. One of them would go to jail. I tried to smile my way through it. Keep my head above water. Be a team player. Turn in a more elaborate school project. Write a better paper. Be the girl everyone liked. Yet she was still disappointed in me. She was still an addict. We still had no money. And she was still unhappy.
Then, one day while cooking breakfast, they were fighting again. I tried to keep my brothers from hearing their fight. I locked them in the bathroom with me and turned on the shower. Her shouts turned to screams and then my stepdad banged on the door. Did he hurt her? She usually just tried to hurt him. She was claiming he did. He needed his car keys to take her to the hospital. She made me hide them earlier that morning so he couldn’t leave us again. I looked in his eyes. He was scared. He didn’t do it. He loved her too much to hurt her. She had sliced open her own hand. Had it been slick with bacon grease? Was it intentional? This was not the first time she had hurt herself.
There had been many fights like these, but for some reason, this fight cut me open too. I had tried to protect my brothers from their screams and the sight of her blood, but the damage was done. My little brothers were screaming and crying because she was so upset. I was trying to console them. The neighbors had called the police. I had called my grandma.
When the police arrived, I lost it. As they put my mom and stepdad in the police car, I had my first panic attack. Rage washed over me as I lost control of myself in my grandmother’s arms. Everything I’d always wanted to say exploded out of me as my mom watched from inside the cop car holding her bloodstained dishtowel. After that, I moved out.
My new goal wasn’t to prove I was worthy of my mom’s sacrifices. Now, I would be good so I could get out of there, get out of town, and get a new life. What I didn’t realize is that everything I had already been doing was helping me achieve that goal already. Two years later, I was accepted to UC Berkeley.
After graduating from high school, I came into my own. I started believing that I could do anything and be anything I wanted. My mom and I had even reached a new place of mutual respect. She was clean. I was off to college. We spoke regularly. She even came to visit me. And for the first time ever, she seemed proud of me. Life had become good. Except, as my mom once told me, “Life is unfair.”
The day my life changed forever was an unusually hot day in Berkeley. I’d just moved into my first apartment and I was rushing home to meet the cable guy. I was getting cable! I had finished my first day of summer school classes after freshman year when I got a call as I rode a crowded 51 bus down College Avenue.
My friend from high school was calling. Her husband was an EMT and they lived back home in Gualala. She was upset. She didn’t want to be the one to tell me. Why hadn’t my grandma called me? Were my brothers ok? How could I have left them alone with my mom and stepdad? I should be there.
She asked if I was sitting down. I lied to her as I burst outside of the bus through the side doors onto the sidewalk to hear her better. My mom was dead. She died from a car accident. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and her car crushed her on the side of the road. Alone.
I couldn’t breathe. My body melted down to the cement. I sobbed on the side of the road, alone. On the cold ground, I felt I would seep down into the cracks of the sidewalk. Without my mom, I was nothing.
I cried more as I held my phone and dialed my mom’s number over and over again. Maybe it wasn’t true, if I could just get my mom to pick up. I called and called, but she didn’t answer. I called my grandma. She did not answer. I called my stepdad. No answer. I called my dad (would he know?). He did not answer. I sat on the sidewalk crying—with no answers.
Somehow, I finished walking home to my apartment. My dad was waiting for me. When I saw the tears in his eyes I knew it was true. He had been waiting to tell me. The cable guy was there too. He gave me free HBO. He said it was the least he could do.
After I went home to attend my mom’s memorial service, the pain from my mom’s death became more pronounced. But my family was falling apart without her, so I couldn’t seem weak. After seeing her dead body, I became haunted by the violence of her death. Though the funeral home had done their best to repair her, I saw the damage to her skull and body. I saw her wrecked car. The trauma was too much, but it wasn’t until I was safely back home in my apartment that I let myself feel it fully. The thought of her death drove me to the bathroom floor repeatedly. I’d sit in front of the toilet ready to vomit even though nothing would come out.
I’d been in pain before, but this was different. I couldn’t just bury myself in schoolwork like I used to. I couldn’t isolate myself and emerge with thorough school projects and detailed papers, and all of my feelings stuffed safely inside my gut like an emotional ulcer. Without her, I had no wall to bounce back from; I was on my own. There was no one to take care of, or to take care of me. I’d always been the moon to my mom’s bright shining sun. How do you live without the sun? I had to find a new way to exist without my mom. But how could I do that when the sadness was a physical pain in my chest?
I tried going to my classes. I tried to workout and make plans with friends; but then one day, I just stopped functioning. I had to withdraw from summer school. Going outside gave me severe anxiety. As I stood on the corner with my groceries, I would imagine getting hit by a car. I saw my brains splattering across the asphalt in front of the 7-11 across the street. I found myself creating reasons to stay home. One morning I woke up and felt trapped inside my apartment. I immediately called the Student Health Center.
After meeting with two therapists, I found one I liked in the third. Her name was Sasha. For the first time in my life I had someone that could handle hearing everything I had to say—all that I felt, and anything I had experienced. Nothing I could tell her would hurt or offend. I would never have to feel guilty, scared, or embarrassed by what I had experienced. She helped me work through my grief so I could function again.
I focused on taking care of myself and living life for me. I had school, a part-time job, and my new day-to-day goals. Healing was work, with incremental improvements that sometimes seem to backslide. Mother’s Day, her “deatherversary,” her birthday, and Christmas, were the hardest days that followed. But the pain I experienced began to lessen with time. Soon, I began to feel happy more often. Then, after years of therapy and taking time to heal from my past experiences, the pain of my mom’s death was no longer unbearable; it became a tender scar, reminding me that my mom was once here.
Now, I’m getting close to the age she was when she died, and I feel that scar a bit more. I miss her every day and often wonder what she would say now. I have two kids of my own and they will grow up knowing they are wanted, but I also hope to teach them how to persevere when life doesn’t go as planned. I still do my best to be good and live my life in opposition to how my mother lived hers, but I know what it means to believe in myself, to work hard, and to love unconditionally—the way she would have wanted—even though life is unfair.
Christa Fletcher is a professional writer and editor who lives in Redondo Beach, California with her husband and two daughters. Christa received her Master's in Journalism from New York University and has had her writing published by Marie Claire, TINT, Fox Business, and other women's sites. She's currently working on her memoir. You can find more of her work at ChristaFletcher.com.