Saying goodbye to my hero


My mom loved Kenny Rogers and we saw him live 20 times together in five states and two countries. She was so excited to meet him backstage at Kleinhan’s Music Hall a few years back and get this photo.

Matt Chandler, Contributor

“I made it ma.”

In the predawn darkness, I placed my hand on my mom’s shoulder and uttered those four simple words. Today was my last day of college. It was also the last day of my mother’s life.

At 81, her body was broken, but her mind was sharp. She never earned a bachelor’s degree—no one in my family did. It was a fact she reminded me of often as she told me how proud she was of me. Most often those conversations would occur on my ride home from Buffalo State. We would talk for about 15 minutes with the same caveat – “I might lose you going down Route 5, if I do I’ll call you later.” What I wouldn’t give for one last call.

When I walk across the stage at commencement in May, she won’t be in the crowd, and that breaks my heart. She knew today was my last day of classes. We talked about it several times over the last week. And I find some small solace in thinking that although she won’t get to see the ceremony, she saw me through to the end. My last day was her last day. Her job was done, and she needed to rest.

The call came at 5:30 a.m. from her nursing home. I emailed my professors to let them know I wouldn’t be in class, and then I drove to the nursing home. The snow was falling, it was peaceful and quiet outside, and I cried.

In her room, I sat at her bedside and said my goodbyes. She looked so at peace, much more so than she had in the last 20 years. My mom was the toughest person I’ve ever met. She didn’t draw an easy hand in the game of life, but she never complained. Growing up, she never made much more than minimum wage, but she kept a roof over my head and made sure I didn’t go without. I watched as every day she walked a mile and a half each way to her job. Rain, snow, ice, wind, every day. I can’t recall her ever missing a day or work, unless it was to stay home and take care of me.

She raised me to appreciate the value of hard work, and it has been a cornerstone of my life. It’s what got me through college in my 40’s, working full-time, going to college full-time, and raising two kids.

I told her that as I sat by her bedside, although I am blessed to say I told her all of that when she was alive.

The digital clock on her nightstand read 7:00. In a few hours, I was supposed to be in my final Organizational Communication class. The semester had included working in groups, and my team, Government Affairs, was to do our final group presentation to the class. I texted my group earlier to explain that I wouldn’t be there. But as I sat there with my mom, I could hear her voice in my head: “Don’t you dare miss that because of me. You’ve worked hard, now go finish what you started.”

Barely five hours after my mother’s passing, I stood in the front of the classroom with my team, and we presented our final project. I’m not sure what I said for my part, or how coherent I sounded saying it, but I was there with my team, I finished what we started, and I know I made my mom proud. When we finished, each member of my group gave me a hug, and I departed. I had an appointment with the funeral home.

As I sat in the office of the funeral director, my phone buzzed. It was a text from one of the students in my group. She offered her condolences, and she offered some incredibly heartfelt words: “I lost my mom at 16. But you just have to be strong and in your downmtime cry. Don’t be afraid to cry because one language (whatever you believe in) understands tears.”

I’ve shed plenty of tears in the hours since I read that text. But I have also reminded myself how lucky I am to have had my mom until I was 46. Not everyone gets that opportunity. I won’t be alone in May at graduation. The arena will be scattered with stories of loss. I certainly won’t be the only student without a parent in the audience to celebrate their accomplishments. When you experience a deep loss, it feels like no one could possibly understand the depths of your pain. I guess that’s how we are wired as humans. But I found compassion on campus with my Buffalo State community. I found professors who each offered kind words and support to navigate me through the work for this final week. I found strength in my team. No, the project we presented doesn’t matter in the big picture. But not letting them down, following through, and finding the strength to do so on the saddest day of my life, is what my mom would have done. She was a fighter, and she taught me to fight.

I waited for Professor Haq outside before class started so I could let him know why I would be leaving after my presentation. He told me I didn’t have to present, not to worry. I appreciated his gesture, but I knew why I was there. I told him, “My mom waited 29 years to see me graduate college, I can’t let her down on my final day.”

As I write this, it was just 48 hours ago I was talking with my mom about my finals and being done with college. I still can’t believe I can’t call her and tell here I made it – we made it. But she knows. She held on as long as she could, she made it to my last day of college, and today she is resting.

I made it ma. And I never could have done it without you.