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Holding a family together

They say when a mom dies a family can fall apart. 

I’d heard this before, in movies and in real life, but I never thought it would be an issue for my family. We’ve always been so close. We always made it a priority to be together for holidays and other special occasions. But when a mother passes, the remaining souls realize it was often she who made all of this happen. 

When my mom passed away from cancer in August of 2016, the world turned upside down for my dad, sister and me. We’ve all grieved in our singular, unique ways. There’s a constant ache for what was and a longing for something that will never again be. 

Once my mom realized her death was imminent, she asked the rest of us to promise her something. She must have known she was the glue that kept us together, and she wasn’t going to sit around in heaven and watch us become detached from one another. She made us promise that every year around our birthdays, we’d make it a priority to be together. 

My dad’s birthday is Oct. 10, my sister’s is Oct. 19, and mine is Oct. 23. My mom’s suggestion was that we plan a trip together or congregate at one of our house’s every year in October to celebrate our birthdays. 

And so in her honor, that’s what we’ve done. 

With her passing being in August, this is the fifth October without her. Last weekend, my dad, sister and I got together at my sister’s house in Great Falls, Virginia, and we celebrated. This year was tricky. With COVID-19, travel is risky, and my dad is in his late 70s with early stages of COPD. He’s been living with my sister, so they’d already been in a bubble and once we got there, we stayed as safe as possible, wearing our masks, mostly staying at the house and only dining outside. 

Each October, no matter how many other family members come along, my dad, sister and I make it a point to have a lunch by ourselves. This inevitably leads to a lot of tears as we reminisce about my mom and our many adventures and memories as a family. Eventually, once we’re spent from crying, laughing and talking, we’ll make a toast in her honor. 

My dad, especially, has been strong.  He is still not dating anyone, even though we’d love for him to have a friend. He’s met a few ladies here and there but nothing too serious or committal. He says it’s strange to try and date at his age. He met my mom when he was 18 years old, so life without her has been foreign and a complete readjustment. 

I turn 41 this Friday. It’s a weird birthday. It’s not a pivotal age per se, and it’s an age that feels like it’s in another phase of life. I’m fully into the 40s now. My mom’s death hasn’t been the only change over the past four years. I also experienced a divorce, moved houses, started a new job and fell madly in love with someone. 

As a child, teenager and young adult, birthdays are paramount. I watch my own children and the other kids in my life get ultra-excited about turning 10, 12, 15, 16, 18, 21, and so on. All these birthdays hold significance in some way. But as we age, birthdays become less and less exciting. It’s a reminder that time moves forward and ages increase despite how young we continue to feel at heart. 

Loss and grief are experiences I wish on no one, but when they arrive unexpectedly, they can be great teachers. I’ve learned to be ever so thankful for the littlest moments of joy and happiness in my life. I’ve learned that drama and judgment are both wastes of time and energy. I’ve learned to let go of relationships that are toxic and hold tightly to those that bring love and light. I’ve realized that a profession is less about money and status and more about doing something you enjoy with people you respect. I now know that faith is personal to everyone and for me, quiet time by myself and with God is a lifeline. 

As I enter into my 41st year, I feel energized and alive, attuned to possibilities and opportunities. I look forward to 2021, a new year that hopefully brings a healthier, happier world. I look forward to yet another birthday celebration with my dad and sister. And most importantly, I’m full of gratitude for my mother, who even from afar, continues to hold our family together.)

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editior and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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