Do you remember Mother’s Day 2009? Because I do. I was 21 years old. While all my other friend’s were out partying, drinking, going to bars and just generally acting crazy I lived in a small two bedroom trailer with my boyfriend and his daughter.
I say his daughter, but once upon a time she was my daughter too. I often remarked on how happy I was that I had “skipped” that phase of my life, the crazy “woo-girl” party attitude. The late nights, the drinking and hangovers. That life had never appealed to me.
All I wanted was to come home to my family every night after work. I wanted to hear Derrick’s voice drift through our front door while he debated mechanics with our neighbors. I wanted to curl up with a book while our daughter sat on my lap watching “Cars” for the umpteenth thousand time. I wanted to fight with my boyfriend over who’s turn it was to do the dishes and pass along my favorite bedtime stories to the kid.
I was 21. My life was settled and that was how I liked it.
I remember Mother’s Day because Derrick took the time to make it special. Every year he would drive down to the pop-up stand down the street from our house and buy two roses: one for his mom and one for me.
“I love that you love our daughter,” He would often proclaim with a smile and a kiss on the forehead. I understood that, our daughter’s biological Mom wasn’t present in her life. I had stepped into the role of motherhood seamlessly, like it was meant for me. I loved it too.
Mother’s Day 2009 was a particularly special day for me. I remember calling Derrick after work and telling him I was giving a coworker a ride home. He seemed unusually agitated at that.
“You’ll hurry home as soon as you can, right? How soon do you think that will be?” He asked.
I huffed out a sigh, irritated. “I don’t know.” I confessed. “Twenty minutes at most.”
I hurried my coworker along after that, complaining all the while about how rude Derrick was being. I finally dropped her off and was pulling into my driveway at home. I waved at our two dogs while heading up the stairs to our house.
“You have the perfect family.” A friend had gushed to me once. “Complete with the dogs!”
I smiled and feigned modestly at her remark, but she was right. It was perfect and I was damn proud.
Once inside Derrick presented me with the usual red rose. I fussed over it appropriately and set it up in a vase next to the TV. I couldn’t stop smiling. I loved it when he brought me roses. Derrick and the kid also presented me with a piece of paper. It had an outline of the kid’s hand on it, traced with pencil. In the corner it said, “Happy Mother’s Day 2009”.
“I love it!” I proclaimed, my heart filling with warmth. And I did, it was instantly special. Nothing could have been better. “I’m going to frame it.” I pronounced. “First chance I get.”
I saw the relief in Derrick’s eyes, relief because he was on disability and poor. In his prime he had a construction accident and broke his back and neck. The doctors said he would never walk again but dammit, he wasn’t going to let any doctor tell him what to do!
I knew he worried sometimes, worried because my mother had announced he was too poor to make me happy. Worried because he was 11 years my senior and a single father.
But I didn’t see any of that. I had always been a hopeless romantic and I was young and naive. I hadn’t learned yet that you can’t fill your belly on love. But it filled my heart, and that was enough.
We spent the rest of the day out and about but I caught Derrick shooting me long, lingering looks.
“What are you looking at?” I finally asked. “Drive!”
He laughed and turned back to the road. My hand rested in his. The kid bellowed from her carseat in the back while attempting to follow the lyrics on the radio.
That day, just like all days do, wound down and came to an end. Derrick left for a bit so I would get in some quality time with our daughter. Hours later he would come home.
I was asleep by this time and woke up as he kneeled down next to our bed.
“Wake up,” he was saying.
“What is it?” I asked in a groggy voice.
Through the dark he found my hand and placed it on his face.
“Derrick!” I was awake now, and bolted upright in bed. I traced my hands along his cheeks, feeling the tears that were sliding out of his blue eyes. My boyfriend was not one to cry and after nearly two years together this was a first.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That’s how much you mean to me.” His voice was suddenly choked.
“I want to share everything with you…my life, my daughter, my cars-”
I had to laugh at that, only Derrick would think to include cars in a marriage proposal.
“I love you,” he was whispering, words floating like music in the darkness. “I never want to be without you.”
He didn’t have a ring…yet. But he would get one. He knew exactly what he wanted to give me and it held sentimental value. I waited patiently for the ring to be fixed but on the inside I was giddy.
We wanted to have another baby, hopefully a boy this time. We were going to start trying in November, after I had a chance in enroll in college. My body ached, I wanted so badly to be pregnant. To be carrying his baby.
I didn’t have long to wait. We were engaged less than two months before a car accident took his life. I never got the ring, the wedding, more babies, hell I lost the one I had. The day Derrick died was also the day I stopped being a Mom.
I won’t even try to put into words how awful and horrible that day was. I felt like glass that someone shattered into a million pieces. I felt like ash drifting away on the wind. My soul felt as brittle as an autumn leaf. Every part of my being, who I was, unraveled and shredded apart.
I was lost.
I didn’t know who I was for a long time after that. At first I was stupid and reckless, secretly hoping I would do something dumb enough to hurt myself. I wanted to hurt and it would take me almost eight years to realize that I was struggling with survivor’s guilt. Because if I loved Derrick, REALLY loved him, wouldn’t I have died too? Wouldn’t my heart have broken and I have passed on? Wasn’t my continued survival a sign of how much I didn’t love him?
Thirteen months after Derrick died I got married to a possessive alcoholic that wanted to own me. I let him, for a while. I was trying to find myself and instead of looking inside I tried building a new life resembling my old one. Because if I wasn’t a wife and mother, I didn’t know who I was. And I wasn’t interested in being anything else.
The marriage lasted less than a year, as everyone except me predicted. In the end it was a relief and a blessing, but it took me a while to see it that way.
I was single again, but this time I was stronger and better able to bear it. I was 24 now and began branching out, tentatively exploring “single hood”.
I like to joke that I lived my life in reverse. I went from a settled mother and partner to a crazy, single party girl who learned how to loosen up and have fun.
This isn’t the life that I planned for myself, but I’ve topped mountains I thought I wasn’t strong enough to climb. I walked paths I thought to bland before and found beauty. I look in the mirror now and like what I see. I found my inner strength, my inner worth as a single woman who learned to stand alone, without a crutch.
This isn’t the life I planned for myself but it’s beautiful life, because I choose to make it that way.
P.S. I love you