Image Credit: Bailey Pennington
In that very moment—hearing the doctor strip his hands free of the latex gloves he had just used in the examination room—my worst nightmare was about to be confirmed. The news was overwhelming—leaving me with an immediate need to find a safe place in my mind, but the feelings of emptiness swallowed me whole as my imagination pulled me into the depths of the ocean’s abyss. The grey skies and ominous storm clouds muddled my mind as I fought tirelessly to keep my head above the deep blue waters as they violently churned with my every thought. My belief system was being challenged, possibly even destroyed, as I swam for my life against the crashing waves that were now pulling me under and making it harder for me to breathe. The harsh realization that I would no longer be counting down the days until my eighteenth birthday or Christmas day, but to my mother’s death began to set in.
Ever since I was a little girl my mother had always reminded me to hold my breath and count to five whenever I was feeling negative emotions, so taking her advice came naturally as I closed my eyes and began to count. The dark thoughts circling around inside my mind gave way to a constant sense of impending doom and in this moment, it occurred to me that my circumstance was different than any other—it wasn’t about receiving a poor grade on a test, or getting into an argument with my best friend; this news was different in the sense that it did not allow for any do-overs—and the pending outcome was beyond anything I could control. In the past I would get to the number four and begin to feel a sense of peace overshadow my anxiety or anger, but once again, this was a different day. This day, when I got to the number four, I was trying to convince myself that I could make my way back to the surface, that the lump in my throat and the tightness in my chest was finally coming to a halt, but that was far from the truth. Every time I searched for peace within the countless unwelcomed thoughts, I was dragged right back down—deeper into reality. Peace was not to be found. Not this day.
Trying to remain positive in the last few months of my mother’s life was like trying to keep my head above those furious waves that were continuously beating down on me. The more I tried to convince myself that, “everything happens for a reason,” or “the days that break you are the ones that make you,” the more I began to struggle. In private I found myself choking on the waterfall of constant tears that poured from my eyes and into my mother’s imagined soon-to-be grave. In public I felt like an imposter each and every time I painted a smile on my face to disguise the worry and fear that had become my existence. I felt guilty waking up to a future full of possibilities while my mother was simply surviving- possibly living vicariously through her three children, but I also knew that I needed to be strong for myself as well as for my younger sister, Everleigh.
I was a rising senior and my twin siblings, Landon and Everleigh, were about to begin their sophomore year at Oceana High School when mom was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer—one of the most aggressive, least treatable forms of cancer. Her chemo treatments had caused her golden-blonde hair to thin and fall out, so she was no longer able to throw it up in the infamously disheveled bun she wore daily—this served as a constant reminder that her days were numbered.
“Hi my-ma,” Landon joyfully sang as he entered her bedroom and gently wrapped his arms around her.
“Hi, my sweet boy,” she replied as she hugged her only son, squeezing him twice before letting go.
“Everleigh and I are headed to the beach in a few to catch some waves and to collect some sand. I promise we won’t be long.”
“Okay, honey—that sounds perfect. Enjoy yourselves and please be careful.”
Landon is mom’s favorite and everyone knows it. From what she has said, he’s a lot like our daddy—good natured, thoughtful, kind, and has the same impeccable character. As twins, he and Everleigh have always shared a special bond and that gives Mom hope that Everleigh will be okay when she’s gone. She tends to guard her emotions and seems to be in a little bit of denial. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t had a break-up with a boyfriend and she was only three when our daddy died, so she hasn’t experienced any kind of loss yet. Landon is a rare fifteen-year-old boy who discovered his faith at thirteen when he went on his first of two mission trips to Haiti. His eyes have seen loss and devastation that most people his age have not. If I’m honest, he is probably emotionally stronger than I am, despite our three-year age difference.
Being the oldest, I am the only one who remembers our father. We used to spend our weekends on the beach where they met, mom and I would play in the sand while we watched Daddy surf. His death was sudden and unexpected, just like his own father’s. When daddy died, his mom, Genevieve, who we affectionally call our “Gigi” moved in with us. She has, more or less, been Mom’s right arm for the past twelve years. Before Mom was diagnosed with cancer, she worked as an elementary physical education teacher and also coached our high school gymnastics team. She has always been unbelievably selfless—constantly focusing all of her energy on others. Not only her own three children, but also her students and gymnasts. The team has become like a second family to ours and mom cares deeply for each and every one of them- even braiding their hair and applying the perfect amount of blush to the tips of their cheek bones at the beginning of every meet. The team has won the state championships for three consecutive years and while mom is too weak to coach this year’s team, it is her goal to attend the state meet to cheer them on. We will all miss the traditional spaghetti dinner mom would host the night after every meet. Regardless of whether they won or lost, she invited the girls and their families over—slaving away in the kitchen for hours just to make sure everything was flawlessly prepared; also making sure that nobody left without one of her famous hugs- squeezing each of them tightly two times before letting go.
Mom has always loved the Zen-like tranquility the beach has to offer, so when daddy passed away, she decided to move to the beach for her own healing. For as long as I can remember, she has started her day drinking a cup of coffee on the deck while watching for a school of dolphin to swim past. She always taught us that a dolphin is a symbol of protection and that their image will bring us good luck, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when she came home with eighteen leotards- each one with a dolphin embroidered just above the heart. Mom’s freshman girls are now seniors and just in case she is not well enough to attend the state championship meet this year, she hopes this will remind them that she is there in heart. Recently, Molly, one of the senior gymnasts shared with me that mom was everyone’s favorite gym teacher in elementary school because she allowed them to pretend to be dolphins and choose their own name. It wasn’t until this day that I learned Molly’s real name was Annie. She explained that just as my mom taught her elementary students—to swim together and if any dolphin needed help or became injured, everyone must work together until the weak one reaches the surface.
Dolphins were not only significant in these girls’ lives, but also for mine and my siblings. My mother didn’t speak of dying often, but she did have one wish for her children—that we would always take care of each other. She needed to know with confidence that we would draw upon each other’s strengths—like the dolphins do.
It has been four months since mom’s diagnosis and Gigi had to call in hospice because mom was starting to have mostly bad days. She is weak and sleeps most of the time. I already miss her- even though she is still alive. I already miss the days where I walk out onto the deck to find my mom sipping coffee from her favorite Life is Good mug, quietly listening to Lauren Daigle as she watches the ocean waves gently roll in. I already miss the times when she feels my presence and, without ever releasing her gaze from the dolphins surfacing on the horizon, says, “Good morning, Gee. Aren’t they beautiful creatures?” “Gee” was my nickname. I am Gigi’s namesake, but it was Landon who first lovingly referred to me as “Gee” because he was unable to pronounce my full name, Genevieve.
“They are beautiful, mom,” I agreed. “I’ll see you after school, I love you.” I responded each morning before sliding the glass door shut.
“Landon! Everleigh! It’s time to go,” I yelled to them from the bottom of the spiral staircase. We tried our best to keep our familiar routine, although it was anything but familiar. They both knew that riding to school with me was a privilege and making me late meant taking the bus. Gone were the days when Everleigh hurriedly ran down the stairs attempting to beat Landon as he slid down the railing, calling “shotgun” as he bolted out the front door.
“Everie, you can have shotgun,” said Landon as they simultaneously approached the front passenger door. Landon is the only person allowed to call her “Everie” and that’s because he’s been calling her this since they were two and a half. Everleigh climbed into the front seat of my shiny red Jeep and stared out the window.
“Did Gigi mention to you guys that mom has been talking nonsense lately?”
“Yes, she mentioned that mom was saying how happy she was that her team had won states again” Landon sighed, “and that’s still weeks away.”
“Yeah, Gigi also mentioned that mom said the coastguard found the shark that killed daddy,” said Everleigh in disbelief, “she even saw the school of dolphins that she believed were trying to save him.”
My insides trembled hearing this news for this first time because I knew how desperately Mom wanted to attend the state meet and now a miracle would have to happen for her to live another few weeks. The gymnasts have been so good to mom- visiting her and sending pictures and plenty of texts. It wasn’t until recently that we had to begin reading them for her, but we could still see the joy in her eyes through every single correspondence.
Word must’ve gotten out that mom was approaching her final days because the outpouring of support we began to receive from friends and neighbors, coworkers, church groups, and the gymnastics community was more than usual. I can’t speak for my siblings, or my Gigi, but I found comfort in knowing that people cared and we were not alone.
It wasn’t until Mother’s passing that our daily routine strayed from its original form—I still went out on the deck, but the dolphins no longer seemed to surface as often as they once had. Arriving at school on time was no longer a priority. Everleigh took a little extra time applying the perfect amount of blush to the tips of her cheek bones and an extra layer of concealer below her eyes to hide the evidence of the previous night’s tear fest. Landon snoozed his alarm clock each time it began to chirp, covering his head with a pillow until I went into his room and ripped off the covers. I no longer cared if they made me late because I became just as guilty—sometimes they found me sitting on the back deck sipping coffee, listening to Lauren Daigle’s “Look Up Child” as the waves rolled onto shore. I began to understand why mom enjoyed her mornings out on the deck so much—it was her happy place. It allowed her to inhale the parts of life she loved so much and exhale the emotional pain of losing our father and physical pain she experienced from the cancer. She never took a sip of coffee, a song lyric, or a school of dolphin for granted and it wasn’t until she was no longer here for me to appreciate the little things in life.
The day she passed started off just like any other, the only difference was that she was no longer able to sit up in a chair, so at her request, the hospice nurse wheeled her bed onto the deck. She was facing the ocean, listening to her favorite song when I approached her, but rather than seeing the evidence of her bright pink lipstick on the rim of her coffee mug sitting on the table beside her, there was a cup filled with ice chips and our Gigi was pressing them against mom’s lips trying to keep her hydrated. In that moment I clenched my eyes, held my breath, and began to count to five.
“Mom?” My voice quivered.
She seemed to recognize me as walked towards her bed, “Allen- is that you?” she asked while lifting her arms- anticipating a hug.
“Mom, it’s me, Gee. Did you think I was Daddy?”
“Oh, Gee. Did you see him too? He was in the water surrounded by dolphins and I could hear him say that said he misses us, but he left before I could tell him that we miss him too.”
“You’ll see him again soon, Mom.” And with these words I noticed a change in her body language. It was almost as though she found peace knowing she would finally be reunited with her first and only love- like she was ready to leave the physical realm.
Gigi sensed it too and ordered me to call for the twins.
I quickly ran into the house and cried with a sense of urgency, “Landon! Everleigh! Come to the deck!” Everleigh hurriedly made her way down the steps as Landon slid down the railing with a jar of sand in his hand, and both headed towards the deck.
“Gee, what is it?” Landon gasped as he saw the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Mom thought I was Daddy a few minutes ago when I went onto the deck. Her body language seemed to change and her breathing stopped for several seconds.”
A few days ago, the hospice nurse explained to us that mom’s breathing had changed. It had been slowing down and becoming quick again for a few days, but now her breathing seemed shallow and she sometimes stopped breathing for several seconds at a time. She warned us that this it was usually happened in the final days. After this conversation we all decided that Landon would speak for the three of us in her final moments. Landon had a gift of speaking from his heart and Everleigh and I knew we would be fighting the tears too much to speak.
Landon poured some water into the jar of sand that he and Everleigh collected at the beach and began rubbing mom’s feet with it. In a thoughtful way he believed that mom might think she was taking a walk at the beach during her final moments. He instructed Everleigh and I to each hold one of her hands while our Gigi lovingly stroked her hair.
“Mom, there is a special place in heaven for people with servant hearts like you and even though it pains us greatly to see you go, we know you are being called home. We want to thank you for loving us well and leading by good example. We will miss you terribly, and though we find peace knowing that someday we will be reunited again with you and daddy- for now we promise to take good care of one another.” We held onto Mom until she took her final breath and when she peacefully slipped away, Landon pulled us together for a group hug. Not a one of us spoke a word as we held our breath and counted to five.
Sydney Stotka is currently a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University earning a bachelors degree in psychology. She just completed her first of two advanced writing courses and they may have unleashed a new passion. While writing has always been an interest of Sydney’s, she has focused most of her time and energy building her clientele towards a future in cosmetology.