The everlasting love of a mother

The following is the third part in a recurring series of stories about the death of my parents and my struggle to remember them. If you’d like to, you can read the first part and the second part here on Medium. Thanks for reading.

In 43 days, it will have been an entire year — March 10th, 2015 — since my mother, Tracey Ann Andersen, took her own life in an empty, vacant house in Scotts Valley, California. She did not leave a note, a message, or an explanation. She did not tell anyone what she was going to do or why she was going to do it. Instead, she was found lying in her bed with a plastic bag over her head.

All that remained in her room were bags of clothes labeled “Goodwill”, her collection of books including a Bible, her cell phone, and a wooden pet urn labeled “For Dylan”.

This is the story of the most incredible woman that I have ever or will ever meet — my mom.

I was never the biggest fan of my mom growing up. Like most adolescent boys, I abhorred many of the restrictions and rules that were placed on me. In fact, I tended to ignore those orders and it got myself into trouble on more than one occasion. But, as I grew older, I started to realize how incredible of a woman my mom was. Why did it take so long to understand that what was being required of me was actually in my best interest? I can’t say. I’d like to think it was pure ignorance or arrogance, but recently I’ve started to believe that it may just be how we are raised in America. Hate your parents for a brief — sometimes extended — period, and you’ll eventually grow to appreciate them.

But I never hated my mom. I never despised her. Sure, I would get so angry that I would yell and spout hateful remarks at her at times during my teenage years, but I never truly hated her. When my parents divorced around the time that I graduated high school, I felt immensely betrayed that they would split up and move away. Like in most Hollywood movies, I was furious that my parents couldn’t figure their relationship and just make it work. Now that I’m a 29-year-old man, I understand what they were likely going through. The arguments, disagreements, and fundamental philosophical differences were likely too much for them to just “work out”. Marriage counseling clearly didn’t work, so like most American couples, they filed for divorce and went their separate ways.

I’d like to say that it was then that I truly started to appreciate my mom, but unfortunately, I’m not sure when that happened. It surely didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t just wake up one day and proclaim that my mom was the best mom ever. No, it happened over time. Over a long period of time.

My mom in the backyard of her first house in San Jose, California.

I moved out on my own a few years after I graduated high school. My dad was living in Canada and eventually in the state of Washington, with my mom residing back in my hometown of Morgan Hill, California. They weren’t on speaking terms once I entered my 20s, and it remained that way for many years. My mom would tell me that my dad was her “one true love” and she would “never be able to love again”. At first, I thought it was a way for her to cope with losing him but when he died of a heart attack in 2012, I realized it was true.

When my dad passed away in 2012, my mom changed in a very real way. She wasn’t the same woman who raised me. She was now a less focused but still loving mother. She still got me a birthday gift every year and took me out to dinner for the holidays, but she clearly wasn’t the same. I was 25 when my dad passed away, so I wasn’t even sure how to console her. I did the little that I could with my words, but it was never enough. My mom was forever changed when she lost my dad. They had been divorced for almost ten years and she still felt like her own husband had died. I felt so bad for her, but I could do very little since I myself was busy dealing with my dad’s death internally. I knew it was hard for my mom — it was hard for everyone. But as time passed, I felt like she eventually got back on the right track.

My mom worked full-time for the United States Attorney’s Office in a position that she loved so much that I never once caught her saying she didn’t like her job or that it was upsetting her. She loved that job. She was loved by her co-workers so much so that over 100 of them came to her funeral proceedings. She was a popular lady. She clearly made a huge impact on so many of them and it showed. Big time.

Unbeknownst to her, my mom had — as all great moms do — the most significant impact on me, her son. She taught me to love, to cherish, and to help others. Without her guidance and affection, I would not be where I am today. I owe her everything.

My mom making sure I wasn’t making too much of a mess at The Flying Lady in Morgan Hill, California.

During the last phone call I had with my mom on March 1st, 2015, she repeated a phrase that I had heard from her many times over the years since my dad had left:

“I’m sorry I was not a great mom to you guys. I’m sorry I didn’t do a good enough job.”

I immediately rebutted her claims with exclamations of her incorrectness and I tried to assure her that she did in fact do a tremendous job raising both my brother and I. It would be the same back-and-forth conversation we had had many times before. I would chop it up over the years to her just trying to fish for compliments. I did not think she ever truly believed that she was a bad mom. But, when she took her own life nine days after that phone call, it was hard for me to think otherwise. Maybe my mom did think she was a bad mom. Maybe, just maybe, she felt she had failed as a mom. But, how could that be true? How could she have failed as a mom when both of her sons are successful and upstanding members of society? It boggled my mind.

I thought back to my childhood. I had an incredible childhood. My mom made sure that every summer, our family took a vacation to somewhere beautiful. We never went anywhere extravagant, but we went to some amazing places. Gold Beach, Ore., Fort Bragg, Calif., and even Morro Bay, Calif. were places that I was able to visit several times as a child. It might not seem like much, but getting to go to the beach for weeks at a time during the summer is a true privilege, and one that my mom bestowed upon my brother and I. She taught me how lucky I am to live next to the beach and to grow up in such a wonderful state like California. My mom’s love for the beach and the sea affected me so deeply that I chose to go to college in San Francisco and Long Beach — arguably two of the most incredible cities in the world. I know many people who grew up in landlocked states that never got the opportunities that I did. What a lucky kid I was. What a lucky man I am.

And I owe it all to my mom. She bent over backwards for my family and did more for me than I could ever understand. But it took me until my mid to late 20s to realize this. Why had it taken me so long? I just don’t know. But, I made it a point to tell her constantly how much I appreciated her as a mother as often as I could. On Valentine’s Day 2015, less than a month before her death, I sent her flowers with a message. When I retrieved my mom’s cell phone from the coroner’s office after her death, I looked through the photos she had taken with her camera, and stumbled across this.

I wasn’t pandering. I wasn’t trying to score points with her. I just truly wanted to let her know I was thinking about her and how much I loved her. I know she needed it. When I looked through her text messages later on, I noticed she had sent that same photo to a few of her friends and coworkers. She felt so loved. A silly bundle of flowers with a typewritten letter from 1-800-Flowers made my mom feel loved. My mom, who was internally fighting for her life, felt loved.

Three weeks later, my mom would be dead at 54 years old.

When I went to the room she was renting to gather her belongings in the days following her death, I noticed the pet urn that said “For Dylan” on it. It was the urn of my Mom’s late dog, Buddy. Buddy was a pure-bred beagle and one of the most incredible dogs you would have ever met. He died a couple of months before my mom, and his passing — due to complications with pneumonia — clearly had a profoundly troubling effect on my mom.

Buddy the beagle, my mom’s best friend.

She had him cremated and placed in a wooden urn with his name emblazoned on a nameplate that sat front and center on the urn. When I went to pick it up, it was hard to fight back the tears. Here was the remains of my mom’s best friend for many years with a label on it saying “For Dylan”. What did she want me to do with it? Keep it? I didn’t want to. It didn’t feel right. Instead, I decided to spread the remains of Buddy along with the remains of my mom — right next to my dad’s final resting place in the place we would retreat to during the summers — Morro Bay, Calif.

My mom’s only “note” after her death was a direction to me, an order if you will. She subtly was telling me that she wanted to be with her best friend, Buddy, and her “one true love”: my dad. So, I granted her wish and left her in the one place she loved more than anything: the sea.

So, my mom was finally laid to rest. We had celebrated her life and memory at her funeral with her co-workers, family, and loved ones. I felt like I had honored my mom in the best way that I knew how. Why then did I still feel like I wasn’t finished?

I felt like there was an underlying message or lesson to everything. Even in the midst of my very private grieving process, I felt as if I was missing something. As I went through my mom’s possessions in the month after her death, I stumbled once again across her cell phone. She had saved all of her text messages. I went through and read each and every one of them. I came away with tears running down my face. But these were tears of pride, of happiness.

A mother is a very complex and ethereal role. A mother gives birth to you, raises you, and gives you what you need to become an adult. It all sounds so simple and so basic, but it — as we all know by now — is so much more than that. When your mom tells you, “I love you”, she isn’t just telling you three words that sound appealing. She is telling you that in her heart, in her body, she truly loves you. A mother’s love is actually so esoteric that only a mother can understand what it really means and what it entails. I would be remiss if I assumed that I understood how my mom felt for me. I can only attempt to understand that she cared for me so deeply that it was beyond my own comprehension. What a chilling feeling to know that something like the love of your mother is something that you are physically incapable of understanding.

But it’s not just how much a mother loves that is of intense interest to me. It’s how we treat them. I’ll be the first to say that I certainly was no wonder child growing up. In fact, there were times that I drove my mom so crazy that it’s hard to comprehend that she put up with me all those years. Similarly, I know many of my friends who admittedly have said that they weren’t the best sons, either. Luckily, there’s always time to send flowers, a gift, or even just a hug to tell your mom you appreciate them, you love them, and you will always be there for them.

What are you waiting for?

The house I grew up in — in Jackson Oaks, Morgan Hill, California.

Over the past year that I’ve lived without my mom in my life, I’ve had plenty of time to think about how devastated I am without her around. I’ve had plenty of time to reminisce about the incredible childhood that I had. I’ve even had plenty of time to remember the times where she had made me so upset that I would lock myself in my room and utter the words that make up the phrases that every parent will inevitably hear at some point:

I hate you, Mom! I don’t ever want to see you again!

I remember saying this so often to my mom as a child — and even as an adolescent — that I can only cringe when thinking back on it. I don’t know why I was so upset those times, probably just adolescent angst and teenage rebellion, I guess. But, whatever the reason, I used to lock myself in my room and look out the window of my home in Morgan Hill, California and think about how bad I had it. My mom was the source of all my problems and issues, and there I was — stuck on the top of this hill, a 15-minute car ride from civilization. If only I knew what I knew now, back then. I would have saved myself — and my parents — from so much discomfort.

When my parents met one another in the East Bay back in the early 80s, I don’t think they had any clue what they had set in motion. They likely didn’t know they’d give birth and become great parents to two young boys who would grow up to be wonderful men. My mom was ten years younger than my father and was likely enamored by the idea of moving in with an older man and starting a life of her own. When my parents got their first house together in San Jose, California, they gave birth to my brother in 1984 and to myself in 1986. Nearly thirty years after I was born, it finally hit me: man, am I lucky.

My parents deciding to raise my brother and I in the Bay Area was likely a under-the-radar decision for them, but it’s clear now that it has had immense implications in our lives.

One of the last photos taken of my mom by her sister, Becky, in March 2015.

My mom loved California so much that she decided to spend her entire life in the state. Who wouldn’t? California is arguably the most desirable state to live in out of all 50 of the states in this country. Millions come here a year to experience the majesty that this state has to offer. Sure, tons more leave each year because of the insanely high cost-of-living, but it isn’t without its benefits.

How lucky am I to have grown up in this state? How lucky am I to have lived in San Jose, San Francisco, and in various places in Southern California? I wouldn’t have been able to make it a day in this state if it wasn’t for my mom raising me here and instilling in me the values that I needed to stay afloat in this expensive-but-beautiful state. Don’t get me wrong — I would have been just as happy in any other state but I am absolutely privileged and grateful to have been raised here. And I owe all that to my mom.

One of the last texts on my Mom’s phone was of her texting someone saying something that really struck me.

I don’t want to leave Santa Cruz. I love it here. I can’t live anywhere else.

My mom loved where she lived. She loved the beach and the forest and the mountains. She loved that it was all within arms reach of one another. She knew how lucky she was and she wanted to stay there for as long as she could.

I know that living in California is not just a fluke. My parents — like many other parents — had to work extremely hard to make sure they could stay here. Same goes for other parents in other states. They worked hard for us to make sure that we could have a life “better than they did”. We’ve heard it so many times. They wanted a life for us that was better than the one they had.

Mom, I think you succeeded. If only I could show you.

My presentation of the pilot study for my thesis project in February 2015.

When my mom left this world, she left two sons, her brothers and sisters, and her friends behind. She was in such immense physical, mental, and emotional pain that the only way out that she could think of was through taking her own life. She was wrong. The way out was through her sons, her family, and her friends. The people that had been there all along were the answer.

Sure, I could sit here for years beating myself up about how I didn’t “do enough” or how I could have “done more”. We can always have done more. We can always have made other decisions that may have led to different outcomes.

But when someone is in that kind of pain and hides it for so long, it’s extremely difficult to do anything about it. And when someone is too busy putting the needs of her friends and family before her own needs, it’s difficult to change them. It’s difficult to change someone’s mind about their own life when they spend it being so selfless to the point that they become selfish. My mom did just that. She turned her own selflessness into selfishness.

I don’t think I ever really understood how selfless my mom was until I met one of her coworkers at her service in March. After I conducted the service and paid tribute to the most amazing woman I will ever know, I stood outside the reception room behind the chapel and greeted all of the service attendees one-by-one. I made sure to shake each of their hands and tell them thank you for coming — just as my mom would have demanded of me. One woman in particular was waiting in line to meet and greet me and I could see her from the corner of my eye sobbing uncontrollably. When she finally reached me, I didn’t even get a word out before she started talking to me.

I am so sorry, Dylan. I am so sorry. Your mom was a good person. She was great, in fact. She stopped me from committing suicide last year. She talked me out of it and brought me back where I needed to be. If only she had listened to her own damn advice.

She then walked away, skipping the reception altogether. I met the rest of the people in line and then began mingling with my family and her coworkers, sharing stories of my mom’s life.

But what that woman said that day will live with me forever. Yes, it’s ironic and sad what she said, but it was more than just that. The last thing she said, when analyzed by itself, meant the most.

If only she had listened to her own damn advice.

It was so chillingly true. How could someone that would literally drop everything to be there for someone else — even if just for a moment — do something like this? How could Tracey Andersen, who many regarded as a true friend and wonderful human, become selfish through her own selflessness?

I don’t attempt to answer that last question. I just don’t. It hurts me too much and attempting to find an answer seems wholly futile.

My mom and my brother at her first house in San Jose, California.

I’m sure if our parents could admit to us what they wanted most from us as children, they’d probably all say the same thing: to learn from their mistakes. It’s a universal condition. Our parents do not want us to make the same mistakes they did.

But how can you learn from your parents’ mistakes when it’s hard enough to even recognize what mistakes they made and how to avoid them in the future? That’s the difficult part.

I implicitly learned from my parents what not to do over many years of being raised by them and hearing from them about how they screwed up again and again. I had to make some judgment calls about what was right and wrong, sure, but for the most part, they had it down pat. Don’t do this, don’t do that.

My mom’s selflessness may seem like a mistake or a quality that ultimately attributed to her own depression and downward spiral, but it isn’t any of those things. Her selflessness was what defined her as a woman and as a true friend.

I’ve learned over the years to be selfless. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot harder than my mom made it out to be, but she clearly took years to perfect the skill and turn it into a full-blown character trait. I’m in the process of doing that as we speak. I’m trying, I really am.

I will not let selflessness turn into selfishness, as impossible as it may seem. I will make sure that I put others before me and I will make absolutely sure to honor the legacy of my mom. I will make sure to express my gratitude at all times, open the door for people behind me, and drop what I’m doing if someone needs my help. Other people come before me. I know that now. Thank you for that, mom.

In the end, we’re all left to our own devices. It’s up to us to make the most out of the life we have. It’s up to us to make sure our friends and loved ones are happy — even when they’ve maybe treated us like shit or have become distant. Reach out to them for a change, put aside all the bad blood, and maybe let them know you’re thinking about them.

My mom would text me often saying things like, “I love you, Dylan! Thinking about you.” It would make my whole week, or even my month. I would write back once in a while with, “Thanks, love you too”. I never called though. I should’ve called. I never repaid her the love and attention she gave to me.

Reach out to your mom. Don’t wait until Mother’s Day. Do it on a Tuesday evening after dinnertime, or on a Friday morning. She’ll appreciate it. It doesn’t have to be a ten minute phone call — just a few minutes will do.

Like I said earlier, I can’t fathom or begin to comprehend what the love of a mother is like. All I know is that it is everlasting and it is a force to reckoned with. My mom is no longer on this Earth, nor will she return. But I still live each day in memory of her and do my absolute best to honor her legacy and message.

I love you, mom. Thank you endlessly. See you sooner rather than later.

The last photo my Mom and I took together in September 2014 in North Hollywood, California.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone, remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt, and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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