Off the Beat: Three huge little words

When I woke up last Sunday, it wasn’t Mother’s Day. It was just another morning that seemed best spent in bed until I was awoken by a text from my mother asking if I wanted my absentee ballot mailed to me from my home in Los Angeles. I shot upright and before I could really get my bearings, I was calling my mother in an attempt to assuage the guilt that had washed over me.

“Hi, Christopher. So do you want me to mail the ballot to you? I think you’d be able to do it in time for it to count.”

“Hi, Mom. Well, yes, I’d like you to mail it if it’s not too much trouble, but, I mean, aside from that, happy mother’s day.”

“Oh, thank you.”

We went on to talk about my family’s plans for the day and were off the phone after about a minute. After I set my phone down, I just sat in bed, stunned at the brevity of the call — did I forget to tell my mother I loved her? The realization was so strange that I almost didn’t believe it, like I had just lost memory of saying it somewhere between sleeping and waking. The fact of the matter was I forgot. We’re not a very expressive family, but I couldn’t get off not saying “I love you” to her on Mother’s Day. The guilt from not calling first thing in the morning shifted to guilt over not saying those infamous three words, and I flopped myself back into bed.

That old adage about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone? Everyone knows it’s true, but the thing is, even if you know what you’ve got, it still hurts like hell when it’s not right there for you. I can usually preoccupy myself with work of some sort, but when given a chance to think about it, the reality of distance hits me like a punch to the gut.

It only got worse when I got up and saw my roommates packing so they could spend Mother’s Day at their respective homes. San Jose? Close. Sacramento? Not so far. Los Angeles? Maybe I would have gone if I wasn’t a poor college student.

Tired of dwelling on the loneliness I never acknowledge, I got into the shower, but as so often happens, the hot water only served as an incubator for my thoughts. I took stock of the other mothers in my life — my two grandmothers, both alive and 87 years old — and for the first time since I transferred in the fall, I felt the weight of my decision to move 400 miles away. I wished I could be there to help make the big pot of chow mein for dinner. Nothing says I love you like crispy egg noodles, tender bits of chicken and a mountain of vegetables. Well, except saying I love you.

A few hours later, I found myself driving to El Cerrito with my editor to speak with the parents of recently deceased sophomore Henry Treadway. We didn’t know if Henry’s parents, Chris and Diana, would feel comfortable speaking about their son, but we got the call Sunday afternoon and were on our way immediately after. I had gotten so caught up in the hustle and bustle of it all that I yet again forgot that it was Mother’s Day until we were on the road. I pointed it out to my editor. We looked at each other and spent the rest of the trip north of Berkeley mired in a thick silence.

When we got there, the Treadway household was just as quiet, though the adornments inside screamed one thing — love. Photos of Henry from every stage of his life surrounded the entryway, and several banners bore condolences signed by friends and community members. The door to Henry’s bedroom remained open, even as we sat down in the living room to talk.

Diana said that she had been surprised by the outpouring of love, especially after the vigil held on campus, but I was captivated by the emotion emanating from her and her husband. I hoped that Henry knew how much they loved him. I wondered when the last time he told them he loved them was.

We returned to the office, and while my editor went to work on the article, I decided to call my Grandma Yee’s house, where I knew everyone would be gathered. I wished both of my grandmothers a happy Mother’s Day and apologized for not being home for the summer.

Then I asked them to hand the phone to my mother.

“Christopher? Is everything OK?”

“I should have said so earlier, but I love you very much and miss you.”

“Oh, that was it? I love you, too.”

I didn’t tell her about my time spent with the Treadway family. She was eager to get back to cleaning up the aftermath of dessert, so I let her go. Before heading back to the newsdesk, I smiled and said a quick thanks for the second chance to say those words I all too often take for granted.