I keep telling my friends I’m waiting for my life to return to normal. I thought that going back to Miami would feel normal. Then I thought that coming back to Cambridge would feel normal. My two spheres, my two safe havens; neither one is normal any longer. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.
When my mom passed away on May 1st of 2017, toward the end of my sophomore spring semester, I felt an uneasy wave of calmness flood into my life. I didn’t feel guilty for my feelings, because in no way did I feel thankful that she was gone—the complete opposite in fact. Rather, I was grateful that she was at peace, because toward the end, I don’t think she was. I mean, who would be?
The night it happened, I’m pretty sure I was in shock. It was something I had replayed over and over in my mind months before it happened, in fear, and it was something that I sat thinking about in her bed when I FaceTimed my best friends to break the news. The words dripped slowly out of my numb mouth, and it wasn’t until I could see the shock and despair on their faces that I knew it was real. My best friend, biggest supporter, and brightest inspiration was gone.
The night it happened, I remember not being able to look at myself in the mirror, and not just because I’m an ugly crier. At the time, I couldn’t really understand why I was shying away from my own reflection. A few days later, I was at an intimate family gathering to celebrate my mother’s life, a place in which I had the opportunity to meet old friends of hers. It was there that I realized why I couldn’t look at myself that night; it’s because I look so much like her. I don’t think I could come to grips with seeing a face like hers stare back at me on the night I found out I lost her. It wasn’t until I had people blatantly staring at me at this gathering, whispering about how I looked just like her, that I realized this was the case. Sure, it freaked me out for a bit, realizing that other people looked at me and saw someone else. But then I realized how much of a gift that was. The ability to look in the mirror and see not only who I’ve become, but who I came from: my mother, a bombshell blonde with a bod, brain, and bountiful love for others.
Two nights after it happened, I was sitting outside on my front porch around midnight. Formerly terrified of the dark, so much so that I usually had to jump on my bed as soon as I turned off the lights at night to avoid any hypothetical creature snatching my ankles from below my mattress, I laid there in the grass, calmly, and finally at peace. It took me a few moments to understand why I felt at home in the dark, and then I realized that it was because I was no longer alone. I know people always say that when those you love pass, they’re always watching, guiding, and loving you from above. But that is exactly how I felt in that moment, and how I’ve felt every day since.
For those of you who knew my mother, you knew her as a pillar of light, integrity, creativity, wit, brilliance, rhythm, and love. You knew how much she lived her life for me and my sister, and how active she was in our lives every day of her twenty-six years as a mother. I can only imagine what you must be thinking. How you must be feeling for me, and for my family. How you must be wondering: How can one move on in life without her best friend?
When it happened, I received an outpouring of love, even from the most unexpected places. From the women at her blow dry bar, who were each independently touched by her and her ability to give advice in any situation, to all of my college friends who had the pleasure of meeting her, and simply realizing how important she was to me. One friend told me that she had never met my mother, but she vividly remembered ringing in my 20th birthday with me this past March on the left ledge of Widener library. It was cold and slightly rainy, but all my friends still came out to celebrate. As soon as it hit midnight and the champagne was popped, someone handed me my ringing cellphone - of course, Sandy was the first to call and wish me a happy birthday at the stroke of midnight, on the first year she wasn’t there to say it in person. This friend told me how she remembers seeing my face light up when I saw the caller ID. This friend reminded me of how my mother managed to make even simplest moments memorable.
As I sit here, pouring over the thoughts that have been swirling in my mind for the past month, but haven’t yet had a moment to quietly parse through, the song “Mama Said” by the Shirelles comes up on shuffle. Naturally, I cry. I cry from the primal reaction of missing my mom and yearning for her touch. Yet, more importantly, I cry happy tears of gratitude, thinking about how lucky I am for how much she has loved me throughout my entire life, and how much I want to pay that love forward to others. I am now reminded about this poem by Nayyirah Waheed:
"If you are softer
have been loved."
I have been so loved. And I continue to feel it. I appreciate everyone who sends me their love, and who, out of love, tells me that I will probably always feel the pain of losing my mother. Yet, I don’t think so. My mother was truly larger than life. I always knew she was with me, even when she wasn’t physically present. And now, completely believing that she is somewhere in some form in the Universe, I feel her all the time and in every situation. I feel her when I try to make decisions and shy away from saying how I feel, knowing that if I could pick up the phone and ask her what I should do, she’d say, “Go with your gut, Chuchu.” So, I do. I feel her when I wake up with the melody of a song she wrote for me on my lips, one she sang throughout my childhood, and one I hope to sing to my own children one day. I feel her when the weight of her hooped earrings tug on my ears, and I am reminded that though her physical presence is outside of my realm of reach, her spiritual presence is closer than it has ever been.
Home doesn’t feel entirely like home anymore, which isn’t all that surprising, but I feel at home in surprising new places. I always knew I liked the Harvard Art Museums. I even remember telling my boss that I liked the jingle of the locker keys (a twinkling sound others often found to be a nuisance), because it sounded like the clang of the bangles my mom wore. Because of that comforting chime, I feel more at home there than before. I feel at home walking through these cobblestone paths in Cambridge because I think of how proud she was—and is—of me for being here at Harvard, at a school she always dreamt of attending herself. I feel at home with the friends that I’ve made, knowing that the twenty years of her teaching me how to discern genuine souls from those more disingenuous has finally come to fruition. And now I feel at home with myself, alone, at night, and in the dark, because I know she’s holding my hand along the way, shining down her light for me, forever and always.