Today, April 10 2016, marks the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Never has anything so recent seemed so distant. Maybe that’s because I really ‘lost my mother’ long before she died, and her death was merely a finality of that loss – a loss that I had long ago accepted.

My mother, Dena Kay, was a precious person — someone who loved her children with all her heart but had not the mental fortitude to properly care for them. Her realization of that fact was probably even worse than the reality itself. She suffered with mental illness nearly all of her life and she did it through years of failed experimental drugs and ineffective therapies. Watching her suffer with the side effects, some of them permanent, was tortuous for this daughter who wanted her mother to have the freedom to be and do more. I’m sure it was even harder for my mother. My heart has, and will, always ache for her. I can no longer  wish for my mother’s recovery; I can only hope that the energy that was her spirit has found its way into some everlasting beauty that is, at least, as precious as she was.

My mother’s final words to me were spoken 3 weeks before she died. She stroked my head and said, “Your hair is so soft and beautiful, Tavi. I love you.” Simply sweet, just like her. These were my final words for my mother, on the day she was ‘laid to rest’:

“Today, as I stand before you, I am 50 years old. My mother, whom we are here to honor, was just 67 when she died two days ago. She was only 16 years young, when she gave birth to me in the summer of 1964. I was in her womb when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in both the House and Senate; when NASA, in their race against Russia, was developing technology to put the first humans on the Moon and Jerry Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world; when the first human heart transplant was accomplished …  and when she and my father left the security of their individual high school lives, in the rolling hills of Tennessee, to take-on an off-base married Air Force life as parents, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod shore. I was in my mother’s womb.

“Hey Diddle, Diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the Moon. The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.”

My mother must have read that nursery rhyme to us a thousand times. She knew by the gleam in our eyes that we were in that moment, that we were laughing with that dog and riding that cow over the Moon. And she giggled right along with us, each and every time.

Though my mother felt much sadness throughout her life, she loved to laugh – not a loud, hearty laugh typical of so many of us, but a soft, quiet giggle, like the gentle soul that she was.

My mother also loved to dance; she was very proud of her time as a go-go dancer, clad in 60s-era red fringe, on Carolina Beach’s beloved boardwalk. And she loved music – I was the only girl in grammar school who didn’t know who Snow White was, but I could sing every word of the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and The Miracles’ “Shop Around” by the time I was 5. And I couldn’t jump a rope like the other girls, but I could “Twist” and I could “Mash” a potato or two. My mother may not have been typical, but she was always tender and she always tried to be fun.

My mother wanted desperately to be happy. She really, really tried. I grew up watching the ruthless darkness of mental illness try to steal her away, and my heart is laced with the memories of her brave struggles to be more independent and less afraid. I can never forget watching her fly away in a TWA airliner, for a job-training conference as a make-up consultant. That was a major milestone for Dena Kay – my mother – even, and especially, in those days. She longed to be a free spirit, her blonde hair blowing in the wind as she raced down a flower-laden highway, free of financial worry and mental stress. She dreamed of a loving husband and a fine house, of a closet full of the latest fashions, and afternoons in a hairdresser’s chair. That’s just who she was – full of simple, yet sadly unattainable, dreams. And she never lost hope that she’d, someday, have those simple things. But she was also a very intelligent, loving soul who taught me – by her own example, through long mother/teenaged daughter talks, and even by way of her love of literature – that we are defined by our hearts, not by the color of our skin, not by the gender we choose to be or love, not by our religion or lack-of, and certainly not by our weaknesses. She, that tiny tender quiet person, led me to the ideals by which I now try to live my own life, and it is especially she who empowered me to stand by my principles, even if it means standing alone … and I’ve done a lot of that in my 50 years.

I am most grateful to my mother for my own convictions that: we must raise our children with guidance, love, and patience – not rigidity, anger, and ultimatums; that we must never, ever use violence to settle our disputes or to relieve our own rage; and that we must all be concerned with the basic rights and freedoms of others, no matter their distance or difference. These persuasions, these gifts from mother to daughter, make Dena Kay one of the most compassionate, courageous, and conscientious persons I have ever known.

In 1964 – the year of my birth – the world was changing in big, big ways. But, for my mother – a naive teen-ager who knew not what her own world would become  – the most important event was happening in her own body. Though she was little prepared for the journey ahead, my mother embraced her new life as a young mother with love and hope. And that’s exactly the way she left this world – with unwavering love for her three daughters and an eternal hope for the days ahead.

Mom – Spring is here, the sky is blue … Bells will ring, the sun will shine … We will love you until the end of time … and you’ll never be lonely anymore … Ethan recently dreamed of you, happy and smiling with all of us gathered around in a big beautiful home … I like to think that you have finally found that rainbow after the storm.”

I love you, mom. And I miss your precious heart.