My sunflower

Markings and memories of a mother’s love

On January 22, 2013

I felt at home in Hungary.

Acres of sunflowers bobbed in the spring breeze outside the crowded tour bus. They engulfed the roadside and spilled into a wild, seemingly endless sea of yellow and brown.

I was thousands of miles away from the suburb of Buffalo, where I grew up. But in that moment, I was settled. Sometimes home is a feeling - or a certain person - more than it is a place. I closed my eyes and melted into the comfort of sacred memories, flashing back 10 years.

Dirt was caked under my tiny fingernails. The sun beat down on my mother and me as we poked our fingers into the soil and fixed sunflower seeds into the ground. Popsicle sticks with each of my family members' names printed on them marked to whom each seed belonged. This could be my summer, I eagerly told myself. I would grow the tallest sunflower.

I could have been 4, 5 or 6 - we planted those seeds every summer, until the summer my mom wasn't here anymore to plant them.

She died when I was 7.

But for a moment in Hungary, she was just as much alive as my father, who was seated next to me. When you lose someone like your mother, every day has its own struggles. You manage. You cope. But you live for the moments that bring you back to when you didn't hurt. The moments when you didn't know how much you were capable of missing another human being.

You live to remember the summers filled with sunflowers. The only thing that could hurt more than losing someone you love is misplacing the memories that are a struggle to vividly recall.

Sunflowers are synonymous with my mother, Anne Marie. They were her favorite flower. They always seem to follow me, or perhaps I'm just keen on spotting them; it's why I knew I wanted a sunflower tattoo. I think that day in Hungary, when I was 17, solidified that desire.

Someday, the bracelet of hers I wear inscribed with her name will probably break. Her death taught me how fragile fixtures in our lives can be. I wanted the reassurance that I could always have a physical reminder of everything she taught me, and in an unusual way, continues to teach me.

So I got inked in December, about a month before the 13th anniversary of her death.

My mother died from an infarction of the heart on Jan. 2, 2000. It sounds simpler than it was. It was more than just her heart stopping. She was sent home after a stint in the hospital on New Year's Eve with a misdiagnosis of the flu. A day later, my father felt compelled to rush her back to the hospital, despite reassurance from doctors she would be OK because she was 40 and healthy.

They were wrong. Her condition neared critical over night.

There was no clear diagnosis or cause. We were left with questions doctors were unable to answer. All my father was able to offer me through his weeps of disbelief was, "the angels wanted her."

One of my two older brothers sprinted to the hospital's chapel. We were broken. We sobbed ourselves sick.

The last image I have of my mother is her frail body sunken into a hospital bed in the intensive care unit. She was covered in tubes, and an oxygen mask was slung over her face. I was terrified as my father held me tight in his arms. My mother was struggling to speak. She was choking on her words. I couldn't make out what she was trying to say and burrowed my head further into my father's shoulder to hide my tears.

A nurse explained, "She's saying she loves you."

I don't like to remember my mom like that. The former first-runner-up Miss Erie County should not have been destined to the cold white walls of that hospital room.

I remembered the Anne Marie who sported Mickey Mouse overalls on her lazy days and helped me catch ladybugs, as I eased into the chair to get my tattoo on Dec. 8, 2012.

I remembered her soft laugh, petite frame and red lips as the needle began its first dig into my flesh.

The needle buzzed. My body quaked.

I remembered the way she used to sing "Good Morning Starshine" from the musical Hair to wake me up and Dean Martin's "That's Amore" when she stripped the sheets off my bed.

My eyes winced. The pain was bearable, and I felt strangely at ease.

I remembered the time I covered my entire face with her signature red lipstick. She didn't get mad. She laughed and dumped me into the tub to scrub off the mess I made of myself. She took lots of pictures first.

I felt the constant tug on my flesh, like the tug of the towel as she worked the lipstick off my cheeks. I got used to the needle's hum.

I struggled to remember her smell, though I'm certain I'd know her perfume if I'm ever to cross it again.

My hand clenched the arm of the chair in response to a sudden burst of pain. I turned my face into the headrest - in an effort to look away from the source of my discomfort - and took in the harsh smell of the long leather seat.

I don't think you appreciate the power of scent until you miss someone. Her fragrance didn't leave our house as soon as she did. It was a trace of her presence, and I clung to it for as long as I could. Even after we cleared out her clothes and packed away her things, I could still conjure up the smell in my head. I can't do that anymore.

The first few months dealing with my mother's death were the hardest. Some might say I was too young to fully understand what was going on. But I understood. I walked around like a little zombie.

I wished there was a sunflower I could plant that would grow tall enough to take me to heaven. There were no ladybugs I could blow off my hand and make wishes on - like she taught me to - that would bring her back.

The start of the tattoo hurt like hell, too. Our bodies respond to emotional and physical pain similarly. Once I settled into getting the tattoo, the intense burn dulled to a sting that was manageable. That happens with death, too. You learn how to live with that constant pain.

You get to a place where you can fall asleep at night without crying first. I didn't miss my mother any less, but I got used to the constant tug that was missing her.

You settle into a routine of missing someone. It becomes engrained in your thoughts, but you're able to function. You get back to enjoying life. You learn it's still possible to be happy.

As I sat in the chair, I was able to take the majority of the pain in stride. My brother made bets I would cry, but even the artist said I sat like a rock.

The tattoo is situated on the left side of my body between my hip and ribcage. As the artist's needle neared my ribs, the pain I was able to previously manage quickly neared excruciating.

Like the moments I realized my mother wouldn't be here to help me pick out my wedding dress, see me graduate from college or hold her grandchildren. Sometimes the intense pain sneaks up on you. I've gotten used to explaining my situation to people; it has become routine. Sometimes I feel like I'm telling someone else's story, because I still have it in my mind that something so horrible could never have actually happened.

But the pain can catch you when you don't expect it. It hits you hard. You suddenly remember just how much it hurts, and you lose it. I'm now 20.

Years later, you collapse in grief - especially when you realize you have lived nearly twice the amount of time without a person than with her.

In getting a tattoo, the sudden fits of pain and constant, dull sting subside. You know you're going to heal. The hurt is worth it. The tenderness will be gone in a week. It will get gross, scab over and basically molt off your body - but ultimately you're left with a beautiful piece of artwork.

Loss doesn't molt; it molds. It doesn't roll off you; it changes you. But while nothing like a piece of art, loss - though never desired - can breed beauty, too.

From it, I learned what it means to love. I understand what love is, and I know there is a type of love that transcends this earth. That is love we should strive to achieve in our lives.

I live to love those I care about the way I know my mother loved me. I don't know for certain I'll be here tomorrow, next month or next year. While my mother never suspected her life would end so soon, she loved people every day like it was her last day on this earth.

That's what I attempt to do, too. It should never be questioned. I want the people I care about to know how much I love them. I want them to feel it - like I feel my mother's love - if I am ever not here to tell them I love them myself.

My mother was a beautiful person. The portrait of a sunflower now on my body - a brilliant mix of yellows and oranges - is as gorgeous as she was. I don't have to wait for the sunflowers to find me; one is always with me. She is always with me.

I can rest my hand on it when I miss her. I can look at it when I need strength.

With a glance down, I can remember why it's never worth leaving a room angry. I can remember it's never too late to show someone how much you care.

I can remind myself of how fierce we are all capable of loving.

I can feel at home with everyone I love.



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