It was the Best Worst Mother's Day Ever, and I treasure the memory of it

It’s been five years since what I like to call the Best Worst Mother’s Day Ever.

I’d seen someone die before, back in 2012. It wasn’t awful. It was almost lovely in the sense that my uncle, someone I adored, was going peacefully, comfortable in bed and surrounded by family members.

Still, this was my mother lying there taking her last breath that day before Mother’s Day 2018.

I’d flown to Kentucky to be with her. I had so many things to tell her. I wanted to hear her voice again, even though the bulk of her memories had been siphoned away by vascular dementia.

FLORIDA TODAY journalist Britt Kennerly took her mother, Helen, on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2016, the year Helen was diagnosed with vascular dementia.
FLORIDA TODAY journalist Britt Kennerly took her mother, Helen, on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2016, the year Helen was diagnosed with vascular dementia.

She became non-responsive, however, a few hours before I arrived at her bedside. She, too, died with the people she loved most in the world around her.

And as it turned out, instead of opening presents I’d brought, I was reflecting on all the gifts she'd given me over the years as her own time wound down.

More: The Long Goodbye, Part 1: After dementia sets in, mom and daughter make a few more memories

Clarity. She taught me to move forward without regrets about things I cannot change, all the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” laments she and I agreed are so useless.

Vision. She encouraged me to follow dreams still unfolding today.

And hope. Even as she struggled to find the words to express her feelings, Mommy asked me if there was something she could take to "remember things better." I carry her hope that one day, a cure for dementia will not only be available, but affordable, too. Five years later, there's news about encouraging clinical trial results in a new Alzheimer’s medication, one that slows cognitive decline. There's more research going on every day.

Yes, hope.

A woman with courage

My mother, Helen, who worked hard and loved even harder, was featured in "The Long Goodbye," a FLORIDA TODAY series about my family's journey through her dementia, in March 2018.

Two months later, just a week after making a Derby hat and a phone call in which I told her I'd be there soon, she was dead.

Since that Best Worst day in May 2018, I’ve tried to honor her memory of laughter and love every chance I get. I lean on those gifts we don't realize we're showered with when we're caught up in the catastrophes and minutiae of everyday life.

It’s clearer than ever to me that little things that used to nag at me are just that little things, best tossed aside, like the insults hurled at me as a journalist on social media.

A few years ago, those digs infuriated me, even as I laughed them off.

Now, I pity a person who spends their life holed up at a keyboard, trying to hurt someone (though I still want to tell the guy who announced it was obvious I dyed my hair: Thanks, Sherlock. That’s some super-sleuthin’ there). And as a journalist, I’m also much more likely to call naysayers out on their words when it’s dangerous misinformation and especially, when it’s directed at vulnerable children or adults.

My vision of who I am and what I hope to accomplish became even more clear to me as the pandemic exacted tolls in every aspect of life and I watched others hurt physically, emotionally, professionally, deeply. People the age of my mother and mother-in-law called me at work, day after day, begging for solid information on COVID-19 and asking for my help scheduling vaccinations. How could I refuse them?

Gifts that keep on giving

I try now to reach out more when I know others hurt. Holly, whose mother died shortly before Hurricane Ian ravaged their community. Carol, whose husband, Bruce, died of COVID-19 before a vaccination was available, and whose mother died the same month my mom passed. My friend Mary, who recently lost her husband of 41 years, Ken, to pancreatic cancer. Friends who’ve said goodbye to grandparents, children, cousins and beloved pets. As often as I can, I try to do the sort of things I used to watch my mother do, like check up on people who are sick or "just because." Help someone out with food or the money to pick up a prescription or a gas card that will carry them through to their next paycheck.

I take tangible steps to build on hope. This month, I’m walking in an Alzheimer’s Association 60 Miles in May challenge, raising funds for Alzheimer's research and programs. I’m not beating myself up about the fact that I’m only at 15 miles as I write this on May 9. I’ll make 60.

And as trite as it sounds, I try to make the most of every day, even when it’s the last thing I want to do on an ugly day when I’m tired and grouchy. And the internet is down. And a tear-jerking Mother’s Day ad comes on TV. Now, instead of crying, I jokingly shout, “Thanks a lot, Publix,” at the screen.

That’s because my mother taught me by example to celebrate a holiday, and every day, like something special even when it's hard or next to impossible even the anniversary of that Best Worst Mother's Day.

To love as openly and honestly as I can. To laugh often and loudly and in public.

To create a warm and safe place for those I love to live and thrive.

To not only get back up when I’m knocked down, but to find something creative to do with that mud while I’m down there on the ground and then to move on, into the sunlight.

These gifts, Mommy sprinkled on me throughout our years together.

Somehow, she knew that when I needed them most, they’d be just a memory away.

Britt Kennerly is education/breaking news editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Kennerly at 321-917-4744 or bkennerly@floridatoday.comTwitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: On the Best Worst Mother's Day Ever, my dying mom was the gift-giver