Celebrating my fifth birthday with my mom and uncle, William, who was photo-bombing before it was cool.

Baseball, Storms, and Intuition

“It’s not good, sweetie. It’s not good.”

Those are the words that changed my life. My grandmother spoke them to me late on the night of May 9, 2000. She didn’t look at me while she said them; instead, she held me close.

It was all she needed to say. I knew what it meant — my mother had died. She was 36. It was sudden. I didn’t know the cause yet. Why earlier in the afternoon she couldn’t breathe. Why the inhaler hadn’t worked. Or why the breathing treatment after that hadn’t worked, either.

I argued with her to let me call an ambulance to take her to the hospital. I wasn’t quite old enough to drive yet. When she wouldn’t listen to me, I called a dear family friend, a nurse with a resume to rival the best. My mom listened to her but insisted she would only go to the hospital on one condition: no ambulances.

But my mom was too short of breath to walk all the way to the car, and we had to call an ambulance anyway.

By the time the paramedics arrived, the baseball game was on. The Braves were playing the Marlins in Miami. Brad Penny was their starting pitcher that night. He didn’t know it yet, but that night was not his night. As it turned out, it wasn’t mine either.

I was jumping up and down, hollering with excitement by the time the paramedics got my mom situated on a gurney, and she asked me what was happening. We watched every Braves game together, my mom and me. And when they weren’t on TV, we listened to them on the Braves radio network.

Javy Lopez, to this day one of my favorite Braves players, had just hit a grand slam. The score was 5–0 Braves in the top of the first inning. I told her as the medics rolled her out to the ambulance.

There was a storm coming that night. My uncle, William, is scared of thunder. He has Down syndrome. My grandmother asked me to stay behind with him instead of going to the hospital with my mom. Since I wanted to watch the rest of the baseball game anyway, I agreed.

The paramedics left with my grandmother close behind, and the storms came. That’s Florida for you in the spring.

An hour or two later, the Braves chalked one up in the win column. Poor Brad Penny, it was just not his night. I opened a bag of tortilla chips and Pace picante sauce and got down to the business of wallowing in teen angst and self-pity over the terrible day I’d had at school. That’s when it dawned on me that I would never see my mom again.

I don’t know how I knew. And believe me, I tried to argue myself out of knowing. It was just an asthma attack, Jessica, don’t be silly. I was so sure that I even sent a message to a friend, who rehashed the same arguments I’d made to myself. But no matter the logic, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I just knew.

I now suspect that moment when the knowledge overcame me happened at the moment she died. I like to think that our bond was that strong, that she couldn’t leave the Earth without me feeling it.

It would be at least another hour before my grandmother got back to the house, tears streaming down her face, to quietly utter those words to me.

It would be years before I mustered the courage to return to Turner Field to watch another Braves game. And to this day, I still won’t eat Pace picante sauce.

There’s no way to prepare for an unexpected death. I’m thankful that our last words were about baseball instead of logistics for living without her. I’m thankful they were exchanged in the warmth of our house instead of a cold hospital room. And I’m thankful that somehow, despite the overwhelming grief, I had an unexpected sense of peace — I’m thankful that I knew before I was told.

It would be difficult to overstate the strength of my mother’s character. Even in death she gave me a new goal: to one day be the kind of mother who builds a bond with her children so strong that, by God’s grace, they know before they are told.

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