Living My Mother’s Legacy

by Kayla Adanalian

Latest photoPain in life is a given; it’s absolutely unavoidable. Whether you like it or not, you are a casualty of grief. Whether you’ve fallen victim to it in the past, have yet to be stricken, or are to become the source of someone else’s grief, the pain life inflicts make interaction with grief inevitable. Sometimes pain is so unbearable that you cannot fathom how you can possibly endure it and carry on. If we’re lucky, somewhere deep down inside of us, we muster an unimaginable strength to pick ourselves up in the most devastating of times. Each day, we wake up and fight the ghosts of our past that relentlessly try to undermine our happiness. But we can choose to be strong; we can choose to persevere and continue with life in the best way we can.

As children, we sit and dream about the fairytale that we hope our lives to become. For some, the fairytale will become reality. For others, the fairytale will be trampled by tragedy. Tragedy in life is constant; your attitude and the way you choose to cope with that tragedy is the variable. No matter how dark things get, no matter how unbearable the pain, you DO have a choice—a choice to take the pain and turn it into a better version of yourself, a version that other people strive to emulate. While it’s easy for us to say we want to turn our wounds into wisdom, the process itself can be exhausting and prolonged—but let me be the first to tell you, it can yield some of the greatest rewards. In my darkest days, I attempt to remind myself that, although my life hasn’t necessarily turned out like the fairytale I had once dreamt of, the tragedy that is my story is nothing more than my fairytale with an alternate ending…

The events of February 11, 2000 fell like dominoes; one thing happened, and then another and then again, another. It was a chilly night in downtown Fresno, California. My youngest sister Kylie had just turned two the day before and to celebrate, the four of us and my mom went to Disney’s, “The Little Mermaid on Ice” at the Saroyan Theater across the street from our family church. As soon as we managed our way out of the crowded arena, we started the long journey back to our car. We had arrived fifteen minutes late to the show, which meant there was no way of finding parking closer than a mile away. After walking for less than two minutes, Kylie had become progressively irritable. So, for the benefit of myself and two other siblings, my mother scooped Kylie up and cradled her in her arms in order to make our trek a little more bearable. Before long, we came upon a crosswalk across the street from our church. As we waited for the light to change, I gazed up at the structure of that old Armenian Church and thought it strange to be standing outside that place for any other reason than my weekly Sunday school attendance. As the red hand transformed into the walking body, we quickly assembled, and ran across. Upon reaching the opposite end of the street, my mom stopped. She looked as if she were about to burst into tears. Quickly, she set Kylie down, drifted over to the steps of the church, and sat on the third step from the bottom.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked, frustrated that we weren’t
already in the car on our way home.
“Honey, its’ okay, just let me rest; I need to catch my breath.”

After a few minutes of patiently waiting by her side, I noticed she was having more and more trouble breathing. She moved down the steps, one by one, until she reached the one at the very bottom, laid her head on it, closed her eyes and did her best to breathe. As soon as I saw this, my heart sank. I bolted up and asked her what was going on. I received no answer. I sat back down, fought back my tears, and swallowed the lump in my throat. I scooted over toward her and wrapped my arms around her neck, squeezing as tight as my arms allowed. She opened her eyes and pulling my arms off of her said, “Please Kayla, stop it. I can’t breathe. Go get some help.”

Being that I was just seven years old, I was at a loss. I had no idea what to do or where to turn for help. It was late and I wasn’t sure who and if anyone would even help us at all but I knew I had to do something. So, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, I screamed. I screamed with everything I had. I screamed for as long and as loud as my lungs would let me; nothing. I ran around to the side of the church and pounded on the door as hard as I could; nothing. I was helpless. Never have I felt as desperate and alone as I did in that moment and I probably never will again. I immediately ran back to where she was. As I turned the corner, I saw two strangers standing over my mother, and one kneeling by her side. One man acknowledged me, walked over, and gently told me that an ambulance was on its way. At that second I gave into all of my feelings of fear, anxiety, and relief and burst into tears right there in front of someone who I’d never even met before. I thought, finally, everything is fine. The paramedics will come, do what they’re trained to do and bring this lifeless woman back to the healthy, vivacious, beautiful mother of four that I knew her to be; I was wrong.

That beautiful and vivacious mother of four died that night.

We didn’t all make it home together like we were supposed to. She didn’t tuck me in that night, whisper into my ear how much she loved me, and watch me drift off to sleep. Instead, I held my baby sister as I watched them load her onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance. I would’ve never guessed that this would be the last time I saw her or that the next time I would be standing on the steps of that church wouldn’t be for Sunday school that week, but instead; on that day I would be the one watching her be put to rest.

Losing a parent at any age is devastating, but losing a parent as a child has different effects than losing your parent as an adult. A child’s mind is like a sponge; absorbing everything surrounding it and expelling the contents when needed. Childhood is a time for learning—a time for growing; physically, mentally, and emotionally. Experiencing a loss of such magnitude at an early age, to me, was just another thing that had to be learned. Much like riding a bike, once you know how, it’s hard to forget. At this stage in my life, everything was happening for the first time and no matter how momentous it was, I learned to cope. At first, I coped by numbing myself to the effects of the situation I still couldn’t believe I had been catapulted into. It took me a long time to realize that I would be living the rest of my life motherless. For years, when the situation presented itself, I could not bring myself to utter the words, “She’s dead.” It was just too raw; too real. Admitting to someone else that she had died just brought truth to the fact that she was gone and, even worse, that she wouldn’t be coming back. If I were to have said it, it would have eliminated any hope I had that she would be coming back someday. I knew if I had uttered those very words, my deepest fear would be set in stone—the one person I wanted, the one person I needed, was the one person who I was never going to see again.

For years I wasn’t strong enough to believe it—so I didn’t. I lived in a shadow of denial for much too long and I regret it every day. Living in denial is like living half-heartedly. I lived as in a way that let me coast through life, doing the bare minimum I needed to get by just waiting for her to come back and pick up where she had left off. Anything I did was just something to fill the time until she returned. I used to lie awake at night and tell myself she’d be back soon.

“This is a trick. It’s a joke! She’s not gone. She can’t be! Only adults lose their parents… I’m just a kid! I need her, so that means she’ll be back. She’s just gone for a little while. Everyone is just lying to me so I won’t beg for her to come back, but they can’t fool me, I know she’ll be back for me. She loves me too much.”

The shock of her death left very little room for the closure I was in such desperate need of. If I could have just had ten last minutes with her, knowing her fate and mine, I would have been spared a few sleepless nights just knowing she left this world aware of the kind of mark that she had left on it. If I had known what was to come, I would’ve asked God to let her see the look of grief in my eyes before she went so she would understand the enormity of my love for her that would leave such immense agony in my heart for years to come. Although I live with regret every day, I know that if I had lived my whole life without this kind adversity, I would never have learned what it means to appreciate the things that matter most.

In life, we grow complacent with the things and people who shape us into the person we are and it isn’t until they are about to be taken away from us, do we realize how much we need them, how much we love them. I wake up every day fighting the self-pitying side of me not to have the age-old “Why me?” conversation with myself over my morning cup of coffee. My selfish side wants nothing more than to sit down, throw in the towel, and dwell on what I don’t have rather than all of the things I have been so abundantly blessed with. It would be a blatant lie to say self-pity never triumphs and that I’m completely healed, and to be honest, I don’t think I ever will be. Actually, I am confident that I don’t possess the capability to ever overcome this kind of loss, but I’ll be damned if I don’t live every day fighting as if I did. It’s inevitable though; we all have those days no matter what curveball life hurls at us. And you know what? We’re entitled to those days. They’re what keep us going in the long run. Wars are fought in battles. You take each battle as it comes in the hope you can eventually win the war. However, the hardest battle is fighting the temptation to let those few days consume you and become your every day.

For years after my mom was gone, I was sure I would never escape the grip that my grief had on me. Gradually, the years passed, one after another until finally 10 had come and gone and I still had yet to figure out why I was stuck living the life I was living. I woke up each morning asking myself, “Where’s my motivation? Is there a reason that I’m here right now? There is no purpose to my life. So, why am I here?”

At this point, there really was nowhere to go but up. Sitting in my room day after day wishing other people could feel the way I felt; feeling like no one else in the world had ever felt pain like this before. And it wasn’t just that I was missing my mom, but I was missing everyone. I had either distanced myself from everyone, or everyone was distancing themselves from me. To this day, I still don’t know. Regardless, there was no one around to tell me they were proud, to notice something was wrong after a bad day or even for something as small as a hug. Oh, a hug. Oh, what I would have given for just a meager hug. Let me tell you, never underestimate the power of a hug. On the surface, it’s such an insignificant act, but deep down it could change somebody’s entire world. To you it may sound trivial and meaningless, but to me it would have been everything. If this wasn’t rock bottom, it was the closest I’d come to hitting it. However, what my misery was clouding me from seeing was the simple fact that when something is taken away, something else is given in return.

When I lost my mom, I didn’t just lose her, but my entire family as well. I found myself standing alone in the darkness, empty and hollow. In times like these, I told myself it was time to either sink or swim. In order to keep my head above the surface, I taught myself the importance in taking solace in my true friends. A true friend is like the delicacy of life—you don’t find one very often, but once you do, you can’t understand how you’ve made it that far in life without them. Your best friend will keep you laughing in the times you don’t think you have it in you to even crack a smile. Laughter with a friend supplies oxygen to the soul; for each time we find laughter in something, it offers a ray of hope that was previously unseen. Your best friend is the one you confuse for family. I’ve found that the stain of grief is something you can spot on a person before you even known them. When you meet someone who’s been inflicted with the sting of adversity, it’s as if there is automatically an unspoken bond between warriors who’ve fought and survived similar battles. Your family is your rock and will always be there for you when you truly need them. Your friends, on the other hand, are the family that you have chosen for yourself. By no means is it mandatory that they be the shoulder you cry on, the hand you hold, or the ones who stand by your side even during the times that they don’t know exactly how you’re feeling. That is how you know you’ve found a true and lifelong friend—when you’ve found someone who chooses to be your family.

Today, with the help of the ones that I hold closest, I’m finally starting to realize that we don’t always know what our purpose is in life, and that’s okay, for now. We have plenty of time to figure it out. Sometimes it’s important to step back and remind ourselves that the important thing is not always why we’re here, but rather that we are here and we must defy the plan that grief has mapped out for us, and rewrite our own plan—one that will mold and transform us into the strong and independent people that we are destined to be.

My mom was a beautiful woman on the inside and out and one who lead by example. She rarely taught me anything, rather showed me instead. Even on her worst days, she was more inspiring than most. Other moms were always envious of the relationship she managed to share with me. She was a stern dictator, but my best friend at the same time. She taught me the invaluable importance of a simple “please” and “thank you.” She showed me that, no matter how entitled you may feel, you must treat others with the same respect that you imagine you should receive for yourself. Most importantly, she showed me the satisfaction that lies in being grateful—in being thankful for what you have, despite what you don’t. At times, driving around downtown Fresno, she would go out of her way to make contact with the disheveled man on the corner holding an old piece cardboard in his hand. She’d pull up right next to him and pull a $5 bill from her wallet and hand it to him with a smile so warm that it was contagious to even the coldest of hearts. Each time, without fail, she would roll the window back up and ask me, “Did you see that man, Kayla?” “Yes, Mom.” I’d reply. “He has a story. He had a mommy and daddy at one time, just like you do now. He was a little boy with all the opportunity in the world. Something happened to him that put him in the position he’s in today. Now, he sits here day after day, relying on strangers for his next meal. Do you want to be like that someday? Would you switch places with him?” “No, Mom.” I’d reply again. “Good. Then promise me you will work hard every day. Work hard in school and then in whatever you choose to do after that and you make sure you don’t let anyone make you think you can’t because no matter what happens, you can and will be whatever you want to be as long as you are willing to work hard and remain humble. Remember to appreciate everything you have because, like that man, you never know when you will lose it all. And remember that no matter where I am or what happens, you make me proud and you are going to do amazing things in your life. I love you more than life itself, Kayla Michelle. So, promise me no matter what happens, you will never give up and you will make the best of what you’re given? Will you promise me that?” “I promise, Mom. I promise. I love you.”

Some may say this is a precursor to what was to come on that cold February night, but to me, it’s just a testament to the kind of parent she was. In just seven short years, she taught me the ability to lose her and still function at the same time. Is there a purer form of selflessness than that? Most mothers would give anything for their children to mindlessly cling to them up until the day they are ready to leave the nest; but not mine. I lucked out. Mine taught me how love without being helpless, yet to be independent without isolating myself.

I’d do anything to bring my mom back, if not for good, just for a minute. Nevertheless, I realize that this has taught me to appreciate everything I do have, rather than dwell on what I don’t have. The last thirteen years have truly transformed me into the woman I am today and taught me lessons that I will use for the rest of my life. I know to cherish who God has blessed me with because they can be taken away in, literally, a heartbeat. I’ve learned that if someone doesn’t want you in their life, sometimes it’s okay to let them go, because the people you need in your life will need you just as much as you need them. I live every day so that when I’m gone, my friends and family will look back on my life, just as they do my mom’s and say that it was well lived—that I made an impact. I want people know that no matter the degree of grief or sadness, I strive to see the positive in everything because a life well-loved is a life well lived, no matter the circumstances.

About the Author: Kayla Adanalian grew up in Little Armenia or Fresno, California and is the oldest of four siblings. She played golf, basketball, and softball throughout high school. She moved to West Point, NY at the age of 17 to live with my aunt and uncle for three years. She is currently a sophomore secondary education major at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA where she is the center fielder for the DeSales Bulldogs softball team.