Many years ago I hosted a music challenge on my blog. One of the questions was, “What song most reminds you of your mother?” The answer was No One Else on Earth by Wynonna Judd. And it still is.

When I was a child my family was a typical Christian family. We went to church every Sunday. My brothers and I went to Catholic school. We went to CCD. We were all baptized, received first communion in 2nd grade, and we were all alter boys…without abusive priests.

During those years mom was a substitute teacher. She taught Sunday school. She volunteered several hours a week at our church. She was great friends with all of the priests. We spent our summers at the church participating in Bible camp and helping mom prep for the annual variety show the church hosted.

Life, it seemed, was great.

In 1989 my dad was transferred by his company to a suburb outside of Atlanta. My mother, brothers, and I were ripped away from the life we had built over a seven year period, and separated from friends we spent time with almost daily.

This broke my mother.

Not long after we moved to Georgia the stress of having been removed from everything she loved, along with a lifetime of small abuses and hidden demons, drove her into a mental hospital.

I don’t know what things happened to her while she was there. I know she made friends there who were nothing like the Christian folks she would normally associate with. She was roomed with women who’d been raped, lesbians who’d been bullied, and at least one with a severe psychotic diagnosis which I can no longer remember.

The woman I knew before she was hospitalized was not the same woman who emerged some weeks later. The woman I’d known my whole life was gone. The proper, religious girl who never uttered a foul word and listened to nothing but Christian music (helloooooo Amy Grant) had morphed into a woman who stood up for herself, listened to country music, and no longer let the expectations of others define who she was.

The balls and chains she’d been shackled by her entire life had been left behind.

The mother who returned to me was brutally honest. She smoked. She occasionally drank. She laughed more than I knew she was capable of. We had candid conversations about everything. She told me of her struggles. She confided her marital problems. She told me about things that happened to her as a child. 

She was free.

The Wynonna Judd hit seemed to be the anthem of her newfound freedom. Wherever we went in her red ’91 Escort we had the windows down and that song blaring. We’d both belt out the lyrics in our semi-melodious voices, and when the song was over I’d hit the rewind button (yes, cassette tapes were the medium of choice back then) and we’d do it all over again. Sometimes we’d just hop in the car and drive to nowhere in particular just so we could do this. 

I had always loved my mother unconditionally even though she probably didn’t realize this because how much of an asshole I was as a child, but somehow, I loved her more after this transformation. She was no longer the perfect housewife who stayed home and raised her kids. Now she was human. She was real. She was a person.

Mom had been diagnosed as bipolar, or manic depression as they called it back then. She would spend the next 30 years on antidepressants. During that time she’d be used by her second husband, diagnosed with heart disease and diabetes, have a triple bypass, and develop a sometimes debilitating anxiety problem. 

Yet somehow she smiled through it all. 

On July 21 I received the call I’d been dreading for more years than I care to remember. My mom had been found dead in her apartment while I was out of town. Sudden cardiac arrest. I was, and still am, devastated. My mother is the human I most aspire to be like. Flaws and all. 

My children had a grandmother who was just as excited as I was to learn of their existence. They had a grandmother who seemed insulted any time I asked her to babysit (Of COURSE she would watch them! Why was I even asking???). Her smile blossomed any time she saw them; even the twins, who grew less and less cute as they aged into their upper teens (sorry, kiddos, it happens to us all). 

Mom was just as honest with my boys as she was with me. When the twins were diagnosed with depression and anxiety she was more than happy to discuss her struggles with them so they’d feel a little less alone in their battles. I can’t ever thank her enough for everything she did for me and my children in the time she had with us. 

I’ve been meaning to write this for weeks, but have kept putting it off because this hurts. I’m not going to lie. In the last couple of years my mom drove me nuts. She had stopped caring for herself like she should have. It was extremely frustrating. She wasn’t adhering to the diabetic diet her doctor had prescribed. I don’t know if this was just fatigue from having lived a diabetic life for 20 years or if she was slowly succumbing to the demons in her mind. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. 

She lost. 

In the past three and a half weeks I’ve shed more tears than I knew my tear ducts could muster. In some respects, it still hasn’t sunk in. Gathering with her siblings without her present has been a completely disconcerting experience. Listening to the kind words shared from people who knew her have broken my heart into smaller pieces with every subsequent syllable spoken. I’ve blankly stared into pictures of her with her grandchildren for minutes uncounted, and usually look away only when tears have blurred my vision. Sometimes it feels like this was all inevitable, but often times it just feels unreal.

I feel like mom is in a better place now. A place where demons no longer haunt her. A place where her diseases no longer control her. A place of comfort from where she can watch as her grandchildren grow into men (and a woman) of character. A place from which she can laugh at their shenanigans and enjoy the times my children do to me what I did to her (and they do).

I love you, mommy. I hope you know that no one else on Earth could ever love me like you. No one. Ever.