Both My Parents Knew They Would Die Before I Turned Nine

This is how they helped me prepare for life without them.

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May 16 2018, 4:00pm

Sydni Dunn

The movie theater was empty except for the two of us. As the credits rolled, we made the room into our playground: We danced in our seats, cut cartwheels down the aisles, and laughed until the lights turned on and the clean-up crew arrived.

I should have been in school that morning, but my mom insisted we take advantage of the $1 matinee down the street instead. They were featuring A Little Princess, one of my favorites. Like me, the main character was fatherless. In the end, her Dad returns; mine never did.

That might be why my mom prompted the after-movie performance, to get my mind off the plot. Or she simply wanted to have some fun with her little girl. Either way, I’m happy she did: It's one of my most cherished memories, and the afternoon remains in my mind so vivid that I can smell the popcorn and feel my belly ache from giggling.

We didn’t stop smiling until we reached our silver Nissan Altima across the lot. We strapped in, and my mom started the ignition, but we didn’t move. She turned to look over her shoulder at me, sitting in the back in my booster seat, and calmly began: “Sydni, I want you to know if something ever happens to Mommy, if Mommy goes to live with Daddy in Heaven, you will be safe.”

She continued: I would move from Texas to Louisiana to live with her sister and my two older cousins. I would have a brother and sister who could play with me. I would get to see my grandparents, who lived in the same city, as much as I wanted. My dog, Charlie, would come, too. What did I think of that plan? Did I have any questions?

The truth was I didn’t; I was certain it wasn’t going to happen. She was sick a lot, sure, but she wasn’t dying. After all, this was the same woman who moments earlier had lifted her arms over her head and tip-toed around a movie theater like a ballerina.

We would have that conversation many more times over the next few years—driving home from my softball practice, during the commercial breaks of NBC’s Thursday night lineup, connecting the tracks of the train set that circled our Christmas tree. We would have that conversation in the waiting room at her doctor’s office, at home when she was too weak to move from the bathroom floor, and snuggled in her hospital bed listening to the beeping of monitors, surrounded by a tangle of wires. And I would have that conversation one more time with my family on an April morning after waking to the news my mother had peacefully passed, in the presence of her parents and siblings, the night before.

No amount of preparation can ready a child for a parent’s death. No amount of preparation can ready a child to be an orphan by the age of eight. But my mother, who had watched her high school sweetheart and the father of her only child lose his battle with AIDS as she waged her own, did what she could to equip me with tools I would need to cope in the days, months, years, and decades following their deaths.

Rather than shelter me from tragedy, my mom encouraged me to explore it. When my father died three months short of my fourth birthday, she brought me to his funeral, allowed me to climb the wooden kneeler near his casket, like a step-stool to peer inside. She explained to me, in a way a preschooler could understand, why he wouldn’t wake up.

This didn’t stop at the cemetery. Though he was no longer physically with us, she incorporated my father into our daily activities. My Daddy would have liked my new Tweety bird sweatshirt. My Daddy would be so proud of what a smart girl I was. My Daddy was the artist behind the pink cotton-candy sunsets we admired on our evening walks. She taught me discussion was a healthy part of the grieving process and assured me that my feelings of sadness and social isolation were not only justified, but normal.

At the same time, she stimulated my independence: I chose my own outfits. I prioritized my after-school activities. I was trusted to call 9-1-1 for help if she needed it. She also exemplified strength and instilled in me a sense of self-worth. I was strong and brave. I could do anything. It was us against the world.

Most importantly, she created memories that would outlast her. We spinned ourselves dizzy in giant pastel teacups at Disney World. We thumped broom handles on the ceiling to silence the upstairs neighbor who practiced “My Heart Will Go On” on the organ. We stacked cafeteria trays with pies of every flavor at Luby’s on “Friday Pie Day,” our special tradition.

Other memories would only reveal themselves over time: After finding a stack of pre-sealed envelopes during the move to Louisiana, I learned my mom was behind the secret admirer cards that had once filled our mailbox. I discovered photographic evidence of my mother laughing, bent over a paw print stencil with a bottle of baby powder, creating Easter Bunny tracks around our home. She archived album upon album of photographs of our life, each snapshot labeled with the location and date.

My family continued these teachings when my mom no longer could. They let me select her pearly white casket and the spray of red roses that covered it, and they let me compile a playlist of Celine Dion and N*SYNC ballads for her service. They recounted stories of my parents’ childhoods, organized gatherings around birthdays and anniversaries, always acknowledged the empty seats at the holiday table. They were honest with me about my parents’ cause of death when I serendipitously became involved with AIDS advocacy in high school, understood when I was angry and heartbroken to be the last to know the truth, and attended every awareness event I organized afterward.


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My parents’ death is ingrained in my identity. I view my life in distinct chapters of before and after. I have anxiety about things I cannot control, my grief lurks behind joyous milestones like graduations, new jobs, my wedding day. But the collective efforts of my mother and my family taught me how to navigate life’s inevitable challenges from an early age, and shaped me into the woman, the wife, the friend I am today.

I am now the same age my mother was when she learned she was pregnant with me—the same age my mother was when she was learning, first-hand, what it meant to be HIV positive. I am now the same age my mother was when she started to plan, at once, the beginning and the end of the next phase of her life.

As I reflect on this fact and contemplate growing a family of my own, I can't comprehend the emotional capacity it took to do what she did. I can't imagine suffering an illness that was not only unknown, but unspoken. I can't wrap my head around why it all happened the way it did or why it happened at all.

What I can do is embrace the lessons she taught me about life and unconditional love, and replicate them one day. When I become a mother, I too will do everything in my power to provide my child a happy and healthy life. I will ensure she feels heard and valued. And I will never pass up the opportunity to dance with her in the aisles of an empty movie theater.

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