It was my mom's birthday yesterday.
Hope you’re having fun up there, mom, with mi Abuelita.
My mother was a sweet, stubborn, petite lady who always called me ‘Punky’. I have no idea why or where she got it from, I just know it was very embarrassing when said aloud in public.
My mother and my Abuelita were best friends, and the two of them raised me. When Mi Abuelita died, my mom was in the hospital simultaneously and couldn't be there with her when she passed. A few days later, I asked my mom how she dealt with that and she said, "It doesn't matter if you're there at the end Punky, what matters is the relationship that came before".
My mother was a single mom from the time I was 5 years old, and for most of my life, my mom was sick with MS and Lupus. She was a workaholic engineer who would be happy to solve your math problems or poke you with her cane. If she was going to have to walk with the damn thing, she would make it a pain in the ass for everyone else, too. She always worked under the direst circumstances, and was always trying to “keep it together.”
She loved to hear me sing and constantly asked me to sing for people, no matter where we were. She'd ask me to sing in the middle of an Olive Garden, where we ate way too much, and she taught me to always tip 20%, even if we were counting pennies. She'd also be surprisingly understanding anytime I'd get a speeding ticket because she got just as many. Like that one time in 5th grade when the super famous girl scout woke up to sirens in the back seat of my mom's v-12 Thunderbird. I knew then and there that I would have to leave popularity behind because, based on her expression, Katy White was not capable of rolling as hard as my mom and I.
As an only child with a sick mom, I had to grow up really fast. I had to be the kid who'd spring out of bed in the middle of the night and confront that weird sound with the bat. My mom couldn't defend us, her hands were full trying to combat MS and lupus.
As much as we liked each other, like any typical mom and daughter duo, we fought, but it mostly revolved around her sickness. As I got older, her sickness became harder to deal with. I was taking on extra responsibilities, which took up a lot of my time, which as a teen, was very frustrating for me. At a young age I got really good at building walls and I grew into becoming quite the fortress, aka the Rambo of the household.
Skip to 2015, I snagged an acting gig to play a reporter, reporting on the Zodiac Killer. This job was going to allow me to fully pay my rent and keep my car. I was super excited. They were putting me up in a hotel, paying me really good money on top of a daily per diem. The per diem meant I could finally buy at least 3 fried Oreos on Fremont Street and not feel guilty that I was spending $20 on something so small that i would also, deeply regret it. It also happened to be conveniently located in my hometown of Las Vegas.
A few days before this event I got a call from my aunt saying my mom was in the hospital. I could tell by the sound of my aunt's voice that this was it and I needed to be there when it happened.
At this point, my mom had already lost her ability to walk and was bedridden, which was torture for her. My mom was not one to not work, but her body eventually would not allow it. Let's just say her work ethic rubbed off on me.
So, I drove down and took one look at her and saw that she was not the same. She looked like she just wanted that endless pain out of that body. I knew that she fought for me, her only child, so it was time for me to allow her to stop fighting.
By that afternoon, she was in hospice care. It sucked and was weird seeing them clean her up basically to die, but I really wanted to be with her when she did. By that evening, friends of hers had gone and it was just me and her.
Because I knew she would like it I started to sing. She was out of it, but I knew that she could hear. So I laid there by her side and sang Traveling Soldier by the Dixie Chicks to her. At one point that night, I remember pressing my hand against her heart and just saying "It's okay, you can let go now, mom. I'll be okay." That was my moment of hopefully giving her enough comfort to finally just let go.
Eventually, it was 4 am, and I needed to get back to the hotel to get some sleep, before the big gig, because I had no other option. I was just a girl who took after her mother and went to work even under the direst circumstances.
I don't remember a lot of things, but that night on that drive, I remembered her laugh, her letting me get away with speeding tickets because she knew I got my lead foot from her, her precious moment's collection, and her banana bread that I'd get every holiday because she knew it was "Her Punky's favorite."
The next morning, as I'm walking into the convention, I got the call. "Hey Tara, I wanted to let you know your mom passed at 7:12am this morning". In that moment, it was just like it is in the movies, where time completely slowed down and I specifically remember picking up a Nature’s Bakery Fig bar at the snack stand, which is weird because I can barely remember where I parked my car most days. It was as if my body went into survival mode and was like “KEEP IT TOGETHER. Buy this fig bar, say hi to the cashier, give away nothing and just keep walking”. Then I remember quickly calling my aunt. I told her to help take care of things because I HAD TO WORK. I couldn't be homeless AND have a dead mom.
I looked at my phone at lunch and had 29 missed calls needing a confirmation from me for the morgue to take her away. I quickly called back and said, “This is Tara Erickson, her daughter, and I give you permission to take her.” I then hung up and stood looking at the buzz of life surrounding me at this convention and then, no joke, the song “Eye of the Tiger” started playing in my head. With a blank stare, I took a deep breath and I walked on.
In my life, her sickness made me resentful, but it also made me grateful because it gifted me with strength. Something I would soon come to realize was the thing we shared the most.
I remember looking up at the ceiling saying "Keep it Together, Keep it together, keep it together" and then my Rambo instincts kicked in. Not one tear was shed. I had prepared for this.
What I had not prepared for was not being there with her at the end, but as I sat there staring at the ceiling, I remembered what my mom had told me when her mom died and what I now truly believe, "It doesn't matter if you're there at the end. What matters is the relationship that came before".