top of page

The Cost of Loving; How I Lost My Mama

It was 6pm on a Monday in early April. I was working late in my shop, steaming the new items that had arrived that day. I had interviewed a new girl earlier that afternoon, and was anxious to get done so that I could call my mom on my way home, as I always did, to tell her about it. The businesses around me were already closed for the day. My phone rang, and it was my stepdad. I answered immediately with, "Larry, I got it!" thinking he was calling to see if I'd received the package he'd mailed. "Good, Cort, I have to tell you something, I'm gonna give the phone to your Aunt Robin," his voice breaking. I knew. Mom. She said, "Cortney, your mom's had a stroke, her voice just as broken." Everything inside of me collapsed as my body did too. "Aunt Robin, is she going to die?" I cried. "I don't know," she replied. My phone was passed to my cousin, "Karey, no!" I remember pleading. She was as calm as she could be as she tried to help me figure out how I was going to get to Indiana from Georgia. We hung up and I proceeded to wail into my shop window from the floor, "Mama, no, Mama, no! My Mama!" I was completely frozen. I could not breathe. I could not stand. I had no idea what to do next. My sister called. She had just landed in Mexico for her family"s Spring Break. Both of us crying. "No, she said, this is not how our story goes, I know it. We don't suffer from this kind of tragedy. She grows old with us. I've seen it." She instructed me to close my shop, get myself and my dog home, pack, try somehow to sleep, and leave first thing in the morning. There was no way I was going to be able to deal with airports and lines, all the while not knowing whether my mom was going to live or die.

And so I did just that. I went home. I packed. I would not pack a black dress. I was not going to plan for that. My aunt had informed me that they were keeping her intubated overnight while they drained the fluid from her brain in hopes to relieve the pressure and be able to assess the damage. It was a hemorrhagic stroke. They would know more by morning. Once packed I poured a whiskey and began to call everyone I could think of, and I don't know why, I just needed to hear peoples' voices. "My mom had a stroke." I'd leave on voicemails.

I talked to her the whole time. "Mama, I'm coming okay? I'll be right there, don't you worry I'm on my way my Mama, my Mama!" I wept in my bed, knowing that sleep would not come.

At 6am I left my house. Fifteen minutes into my drive I realized that the most beautiful songs were playing. Songs I'd never heard before. So I created a playlist, "Mama." By the end of the drive it was over 4 hours of beauty. I had no idea at the time that I was compiling her funeral's playlist... I hit a traffic jam in Tennessee that nearly sent me. I stopped two times during the nine hour drive. I dropped my pup and sped to the ICU.

They wanted my ID at check-in, and that's when I realized I'd driven 400 miles without my license as it was nowhere to be found. I got out of the elevator and walked with shaking legs to my family who were all in the waiting area. I hugged my Aunt Gerry, "Don't forget to breathe." She whispered into our embrace. No one had really given me any definitive updates while on my drive, and deep down I knew why. It wasn't good. It wasn't what they were hoping for.

They walked me to my mom's room. I had just seen my dad all hooked up from his triple bypass just three weeks prior, so I was somewhat prepared. But. No one is ever prepared to see their mama - not like that. I held myself together knowing she could hear me. "Okay mama I am here, I am here. Let's get you better." I watched as they did their tests without ideal reactions. I missed the doctor's rounds earlier that day so I had not gotten the facts. They would come the next day.

Visiting hours were over at 7, so I drove to my childhood home, to a house without her in it. It all felt like a dream. I pulled my name tag and tossed it in my bedroom's waste basket, noticing it falling atop all of the tags from my dad's time in the hospital three weeks ago. "What in the actual fuck is this? How? Not my mom, surely not mine..."

I kept talking to her. I did not sleep.

My sister was working on her way back from Mexico. She would depart the next day getting into Indianapolis around 1am. The plan was for me to retrieve her and take her to our mom. The night nurses were going to allow it given the circumstances.

That next day was the longest day of my life. Day 2 for me in the ICU felt endless. The rest of the days would too, but this one, without my sister, this one aged me 20 years.

It was on this day that I would hear from the neurological surgeon that there was nothing more for him to do. The fluid had been drained, yet the pressure had not subsided. Then the primary physician, the one we referred to as Dr. Blunt made his round. With a team around him he informed my aunt, my stepdad, and myself that there had been too much damage. That my 66 year old mom was essentially, brain dead. My mom. He very much believed that she would not wake up. My head dropped into my hands. I had no idea how or why or how this could be happening. The doctors left the room as I cried tears onto the floor. "WHY? I know so many people with shitty moms, why on earth would mine get taken like this?!" My aunt and I made our way to the bathrooms where upon walking out of them we each collapsed in our own separate spaces to violently sob into an empty hallway.

I called my sister as she was embarking upon her journey. I did my best. I tiptoed around the real words I'd received, but did not want to lie to her. Hearing my sister cry will be the most heart breaking sound I'll ever hear. I did not want this for her. I felt protective because she was so far away and I knew what that felt like. She had so much to go through before finally getting here, to us. So I tried to fill the space with hope. "She's not gone. Anything could happen. Miracles happen, we just have to believe. I'll be there. I'll take you to her, just focus on one step, then the next, until you're here."

At 1:30am I drove my sister and I to the hospital, so that my mom could have her girls. Upon seeing her, my big sister broke, which broke me too. We sat on each side of her lap, where we would be for the following two days, and spoke to her. My sister told her that it was okay that she was resting but tomorrow she would have to fight. We kissed her goodbye and at 3am got home.

We were back at 7.

We played all of her favorite songs. We replayed all of the videos of my nieces singing in their sweet baby voices. We began to paint her nails with the red polish I so happened to have in my purse. She loved red nails, and her pedi was not the freshest, which she'd never be okay with, so my sister painted them perfectly.

This day my sister would hear the same devastating news I'd heard. It was Thursday. My grandparents had also made it from their Florida home. My 93 year old grandmother told the doctors that we weren't giving up, that we wouldn't take her off support, although that is what he'd advised. My sister and I knew what our mom would want. She'd made the decision for us before we would be the ones who would have to. After my grandmother's protest I held her hands and said, "Grandma, we can't keep her like this. She would not want it." She agreed, but asked that we give it one more day, but by the end of it my sister and I were sure we had to make the call. We also needed to get our 82 year old stepdad to be okay with it. How could he, after 37 years of marriage to our mom, give us the permission to let her go? And yet, he did, reluctantly. He knew. It would be what she would want. And so it was decided. We would set her free the next day, Good Friday.

"We have to let her go." I typed eleven separate times to my friends who had been checking on me. Attempting to somehow make it real by stating the words.

One year later it still does not seem real.

On the way to the hospital on Friday morning, my mom was already starting to come through to my sister. It was the most beautiful sunrise. She spoke to her. She did not want to leave us. This we already could feel. She was trying the whole time to get back to us. Her body just wouldn't allow it. We knew that if there was any possible way our mom would find it. She would have done anything for us - our whole lives.

We each took a turn alone with her.

I'd been holding up, somehow. I was strong with her. I didn't cry my eyes out, but spoke very clearly about how grateful I was to have had such an amazing mama. How I owed absolutely everything to her. How I would never stop missing her. I did question my ability to do life without her, but knew she'd already given me the tools to do so. She'd say, "you will, because you have to." I told her to send me signs, and that I would be looking for her everywhere. I wanted to send her with peace. I wanted her to know that it was okay for her to go, that we would all take care of one another. I also asked that she not be mad at me when I did fall apart, because I knew it was coming. I thanked her for my life, my high standards, my confidence in this world, my ability to be completely dismantled by life, yet find a way to reassemble - my relentless resilience. She gave me all of it. It was hers to begin with and it would live on in me. I held her soft hand and said "goodbye mama, I love you so much, I'll always be your baby girl. Look after us."

They sent us away while they unhooked her. As we began the walk to the waiting room, the floor started to come up to meet me. My stepsister caught me, held me up and walked me through the doors, where once through I slipped into a panic attack. I could not find my breath. I was bent over gasping when my grandmother bent down with me. I can still smell her perfume. My sister made space, held me and said, "She just needs you for a few more moments, you have to be strong for her." I looked up to see the machines being taken through the door. The machines that had kept my mom alive being taken down the hall. The same machines I had decided to turn off.

We went back in. We had been told that it wouldn't be long. They didn't know my mom. For three hours she continued to breathe. I believe, to fight until finally her very last breath. I will not tell you that this was a beautiful moment. It was far from it. It appeared violent, and I don't know when I will be able to overcome the images that haunt me, but I know that I will, because I have to... Until - she let go. We watched her spirit leave her body. It was 4:00. We thought it was over, but the nurse came in to reveal her heart was still beating, and it continued to do so for forty-five more minutes. My mama. Her heart still refusing to stop for us.

At 4:45 the nurse came back in to tell us that she was gone. She removed her index finger from keeping her pulse so that my sister could finish the job of painting her remaining red nail.

Once my sister and I got into my car to leave the hospital my Spotify came on to play the song, Angels by the xx, a song that was not previously saved in my library. We knew.

That previous Monday morning we had our mom, and by Friday she was gone. In one week my whole world had vanished. She was my heart, my soul, my home. I was lost and would live the darkest year of my life.

As I write this, with the Mama playlist softly surrounding me, it is three days away from the second Mother's Day without her. I have thought of writing this story for one whole year now, afraid to as I knew it would mean reliving the worst week of my life. Yet, at the same time, I knew that if I didn't release it, I would remain trapped. My hope is that this brings healing - to myself, yes, but also to anyone else out there who has had to navigate such a devastating experience. With deep, debilitating pain, comes profound awakening - to the irreplaceable gifts bestowed upon us in this beautifully heartbreaking life.

The fragility of it all.

She is the love.

The loss.

Of my life.


One year before we lost her, she watched her baby girl be honored at the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame. The champion she made and never stopped championing...


bottom of page