Three simple words — I love you — ended countless conversations between my mother and me.
She would say "Mama, I love you." And I would begrudgingly respond with "I love you too" in a tone that conveyed I halfheartedly agreed with her sentiment. Her term of endearment, "Mama," was just another reminder of our strained relationship — I was the parent and she was the child.
It wasn't until the day she died that I realized I would never hear her laugh again, I would never hear her voice of reason, I would never have her constant support, I would never have her at my beck and call. She died of atherosclerosis at the age of 42. She died alone, in a bed that was not her own, in a halfway house where she was battling her nearly lifelong addiction to crack cocaine.
It wasn't until I spoke at her wake that I truly meant those simple words: "I love you, Mom." I wanted to tell her that and so much more during my speech. If only she could hear me. I choked back my tears and held tightly to my frustrations about our relationship, the years I spent trying to save her from herself.
As I stood looking at her cold body in the coffin, I wanted to tell her that her life's struggles did not define her. I wanted her to know she was much bigger than her drug issues or the problems she had sustaining romantic relationships with her boyfriends. She made mistakes, she let people down, but she always seemed to get back up — even if it was a struggle.
Today, during those quiet times when I can feel her presence, I say "thank you" to her. I'm grateful for the challenges she put me through because they made me a better person. Of course, when I was going through it all — taking her to countless drug rehabs, standing in line to visit her in jail and prison, letting her cry on my shoulder as Child Protective Services took custody of her children — I did not feel this way.
She's been gone for almost 10 years. When I'm worried about something in my own life or when I face a challenge, I think about her and her advice. I know that whatever it is I'm going through does not compare to her struggles of loneliness, failure, being arrested, giving birth to four children, and having custody over none of them.
I whisper "thank you" to her for all of the gifts she's given me: the ability to push forward when I feel weak, to be grateful for the life I've made for myself, and to never settle.
One of the reasons I'm grateful is that I have adopted my half-brother. He is a very delicate gift, one I've vowed to forever nurture, support, and mother as if I'd given birth to him. He's like her in many ways, and unlike her in many others.
Since giving birth to my own children — twin daughters — I have a newfound understanding of the warrior I am within. I'm a better mother to my three children because of the failures of my mother.
Everyday, I say "thank you" to my own children for teaching me and making me a better human. I tell them I love them multiple times a day because I never want them to forget that those three words, spoken by me, can carry them through any difficulties they may encounter.
And, in some way, each time I say "thank you" and "I love you" to my kids, those words continue to mend my relationship with my mother. Even though she's physically gone from this world, her presence still remains.