by Tressa Bellows
For most of my adult life, when asked about myself, I have started off with “I am a mom, of three beautiful daughters.” Our family of five, plus one dog, one cat and countless hamsters and beta fish, was remarkable in its beautifully simple normalcy–sleepovers, soccer games, pets, little family traditions like pumpkin patch trips, snow day crafts, end-of-year pool parties and themed birthday parties.
At 3:36 a.m. on July 22, that simple normalcy was rocked and we were forever changed. The Pennsylvania State Police banged on our door to tell us that our eldest daughter, Abigael had been declared a missing person by the Lane County Sheriff’s office in Eugene, Oregon (where she resided at the time).
Abigael had been swimming with friends in the Willamette River when a bystander witnessed a powerful current sweeping her under the glacial melt waters. She did not emerge. We — my husband, Garth and two younger daughters, Eliza and Ivy — flew out to Oregon and for eight agonizing days. During those days, we waited, tried to make sense of it all, recruited and fed volunteers, vetted third-party search and rescue teams, scoured riverbanks, hung missing person signs, did interviews and… waited. Until the body of our beautiful, vivacious daughter was released by the river, and we had to face the irrefutable fact that our beloved daughter’s life was over.
I have been changed by that experience. In many ways, I died in that river as well, because the Tressa that existed on July 21 no longer does. Now, my life has been divided into the before time, and the after time. In this after time, the emotions are immense and consuming and transformative. The magnitude and force of these emotions have to manifest themselves in some way, for me, it is through words.
During Abigael’s senior photos, in which I played the very important role of “stuff carrier” and “runner to the car for other stuff” and “oooooer” and “ahhhhhhher”, our photographer grabbed this shot as I was running back from the car with some very important outfit change or prop. I could never have imagined that less than five years after her senior photos, she would be gone, pulled under on a beautiful summer day by the powerful Willamette River, just on the cusp of living her full adult life.
I loved seeing this picture when it was taken, in her senior year of high school. I found it so symbolic of our evolving relationship. As she was preparing herself to leave our home, head to college, forge her own life, and walk her own path, she was on her own, standing independently. But, there I was, in the background, which she didn’t even realize. Without her conscious awareness, I was right behind her cheering for her, encouraging her, caring for her, urging her forward. Shouting with every thought and every prayer for her, in every mundane text or call that we shared “Hey, I LOVE YOU!” I was just her very own force of love, willing her to live her most authentically beautiful life, believing in her wholly and fully.
And now. Now, my daughter has died and there are days when getting out of my bed feels like a Herculean task, when every single part of me aches, the world feels like a sharp, poky, painful place, and cringe at the idea of having to “people” or “adult.” There are days when I question my ability to take even that single step out of bed. And there’s not much that can take that edge off.
But I think of this picture, except now I imagine our roles reversed. Here I am in the forefront, unsure of where this crazy path called life is taking me. And Abigael is behind me, even though I can’t see her, urging me forward, cheering me on as I try to navigate it all, shouting with each little sign that comes my way “Hey, I still love you.” Pushing me towards seeing the beauty, and with that beauty, having the ability to truly live my most authentic life.
It’s not where I thought I’d be. But I wouldn’t be here without deep, consuming love. I wouldn’t be forced to walk this path of grief if I hadn’t gotten to love her with every ounce of me for 22 years. And love is never, ever wasted.
I still believe in my daughter. I believe that I will feel her point me in the direction of love and light. It’s a more challenging way to have a relationship with my daughter — to allow her to be the one guiding me, cheering me on and teaching me. But, I know Abigael is there behind me, just beyond the point where I am aware of her physical presence. I know this because this is the way we love each other. And not even the strongest river current on this earth can alter the course of our love, of our connection, of our relationship.
For more information about Tressa, you can check out her website.
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