Just like many amazing mothers out there, my mother always taught me that I could be and do anything I wanted—I just had to work for it. Anytime I had landed a new opportunity academically or professionally, I would call my mom and rave about the possibilities that lay ahead. She was my biggest fan and supporter, my best friend. She was the type of woman who would take others under her wing and care for them in whatever way they needed. My mother was a bar manager at a local restaurant in South Florida, and she had some of the same customers for more than 10 years. She would sit and listen to them for hours and offer any advice she could. She had this way of connecting with people, even strangers on a higher level than most people ever could. Anytime we would go to the grocery store for instance, literally every other person would stop us in an aisle and say hey, because they knew and adored her. On top of that, my mother was the hardest working individual I have ever come across. After divorcing my father when I was 9, my mother worked three jobs to provide for my brother and me. She even gave me her car when I was a junior in high school to have while she rode a bike to work most days. This is just one example of how my mother put her needs aside for her children. So you could imagine my desire to become a successful adult and give her everything she gave to us—and more!
But, in my junior year of college, I experienced the greatest obstacle and worst possible thing that could have ever happened in my life. I received a Facebook message from a past neighbor I grew up with in my hometown of Pembroke Pines, Florida, explaining that our houses were on the news and that something horrible had happened. The power and speed of social media can never be underestimated, a fact that I still hold dear.
Not understanding what was going on, I immediately Googled the news organization my old neighbor had mentioned and found video footage reporting two people had been shot dead. I first wanted to confirm that I had reason to panic by looking up the news story instead of potentially worrying my mother by calling her in the middle of the night since it was around 1am at the time. Initially no names were provided in the news report, and I started to panic, only to then hear the reporter confirm the name of the establishment my mother had helped open 14 years prior as being where one of the victims worked.
Knowing no one else in our neighborhood had worked there, since I myself had hosted and waitressed at the establishment right before heading to UCF, and after getting no response from calling home or from my mother or stepfather’s mobile phones, I immediately called the local police department. Yet again, I was being denied the names of the victims, but I knew for some reason that it had to be my mother and stepfather. My mother was the type to call my brother or me back if the house phone rang and she had missed it, just to make sure we were okay. Not to mention the phone sat on the nightstand closest to the side of the bed she slept on. I didn’t know what to think, but my biological father had unexpectedly passed from a heart attack just a year and a half before, so I was hoping more than anything that my mother was okay.
About three hours later, after calling my brother, who was finishing out his graduate program in Gainesville, to explain what I thought was happening, the police department called me back and confirmed that it had been my mother who was shot in the head by my stepfather of 12 years and died on impact.
Even though my mother never actually married the man who did this to her, I had always considered him to be my stepfather. I had lived with him for 12 years, from elementary school until the day I left for college. He was an outgoing, extremely intelligent man. Even though my mother financially supported my brother and me as best she could, my stepfather would always be there to lend a helping hand. He was the type of guy I could talk to about anything and would be there to provide an open ear and comforting words.
I still don’t know exactly what happened that night, but the story goes that my mother called the police department because my stepfather seemed to have been getting physically abusive. This was unlike him; never once had he displayed such behavior. Sure, my parents had had their fair share of arguments in the past, but they were always over everyday difficulties, usually finances. It’s no secret either that my stepfather owned a gun. He legally had a license to carry it and since living in the house starting in elementary school, I never once worried or felt unsafe because of it.
The police department dispatched officers after receiving the call from my mother, and as soon as the first officer arrived he somehow made his way into the house I grew up in. Of course there is always “he said/she said,” but apparently the policeman saw a gun pointed at my mother as he entered the house and demanded my stepfather drop his weapon. As my stepfather fired the gun shot that killed my mother, the police officer fired 5 times, hitting my stepfather four times and leaving him dead as well.
Unfortunately there are no other witnesses aside from the police officer, so any pieces of the story I got were just that: pieces. To this day, I am still not sure exactly what really happened but I honestly think my stepfather had unfortunately gotten to a dark place in his life and who knows, maybe my mother was over their relationship. Again, finances had always been an issue; my mother worked six days a week with doubles on both Fridays and Sundays. She had apparently even gone on an interview the same day she died to pick up another job. Her biggest concern was always providing my brother and me everything we could ever need or want. Despite not having the nicest cars or designer clothes, I never once went without anything my entire life.
Maybe this all took place because she threatened to leave my stepfather: I heard she had gotten the job she interviewed for, so maybe this was her chance to financially support herself on her own. As much as my mother had loved my stepfather, which was very much, maybe he had been bringing her down. Again, this is all speculation.
I don’t hate him for what happened because as sad as it is to say, my story happens to children every day, losing their parents over unexplainable reasons whether self-inflicted or wrongful. I refuse to ignore the fact that he was a good man for the time I knew him; he had been more present in my life than my own father ever had and that was because my father chose not to be there.
All I knew at that point was if I gave up on everything, gave in to all the questions or fears of what lay ahead, then I knew I would have let down the most important person in my life, whether she was there to see it in person or not. I remember that night so vividly; numbing is the best word to describe it. Not only had I just found out my mother had been killed and by my stepfather who had also died but I had to be the one to call my brother and explain what happened. What I felt more than anything, my heart had been broken. There were so many thoughts in my head that it was as if there were none, and it was impossible to process any one single thought because so many were whirling around at the time. I couldn’t think, all I could do was act and so I dialed my brother’s number. You can imagine his shock and disbelief; he immediately drove down from Gainesville as soon as I called him.
Two days after receiving the news, I had the largest event of my internship to execute. My partner and I had been planning a DJ competition called King of the Beats for months to market BEATS Audio. Hundreds of people were expected to attend. Instead of going back home with my brother, I stayed in Orlando with my boyfriend and carried out a successful event. Realizing how important this event was, I had to separate myself from my emotions. I know that sounds crazy, but the one thing I have learned out of this entire ordeal is the world keeps spinning no matter your situation. Life goes on and does not pause to let you cry about it. No one could have guessed what I had just experienced because I didn’t cry once: I made sure to focus on the event and interact with people to make the time pass and keep me busy. The only people who had known what happened were my boyfriend and his five roommates, since I was at his house when I found out the news. I had asked they didn’t tell anyone because the last thing I wanted was people feeling sorry for me.
A week or so later, I attended a memorial for my mother that had been planned by my brother. Since he is the older sibling, he felt the need to handle everything at this point as his way of protecting me. Nearly 200 of my mother’s friends and customers from the community came to show their respects. You can ask any of them, she was the happiest most energetic person they knew. Everyone else’s happiness was her happiness, and that’s what mattered most to her.
After the memorial, I knew I could not just give up on school and sulk. A couple months later, I secured an internship with Victoria’s Secret PINK to be a brand rep at UCF and got a dream-worthy interview with a Manhattan-based social media marketing company to manage a nationwide Procter and Gamble campaign. If anything, I was determined to work even harder, to show the world what an amazing individual my mother produced. I got the NYC internship and moved to Manhattan that summer!
You can imagine how scary moving to NYC can be, let alone not having anyone to really support me at the drop of a dime. As much as my brother was there emotionally, he was in no position to send me money since he had just graduated with a Master’s degree. I had saved up for a year because I had plans to try and get an internship in NYC before everything happened, and even with my mother around, she too was unable to pay my way there. I luckily had Florida pre-paid to cover my tuition, and I had worked as a leasing agent to supplement my rent while going Greek and using a loan to pay for the dues. Some of the positions I held paid enough to feed myself and go out every once in a while, plus good ole Visa was there to charge anything I couldn’t afford. So with just enough money in my savings to pay for the flight, rent and food, I made my way to the city and didn’t look back.
Honestly, about half way through the summer internship, my world began to crash emotionally on me, but my boyfriend had come to the city with me for the summer, and my peers at my internship knew what happened and were there to talk if I ever needed it. That is definitely something I deal with to this day, knowing I cannot pick up a phone and call my mother, whether it’s to scream, cry or shout, but I luckily have an amazing support system of friends, loved ones and even other people’s mothers who have stepped in and been there for me when I needed it most.
I went back to Orlando to finish my senior year, worked events on the weekends sponsored by McDonalds’ media firm supplementing my grocery bills, and took out a loan for my final semester. Finally, a few weeks before graduation, I got the offer of a lifetime to manage a national marketing program for a startup called NetClarify. At NetClarify the goal is to increase the employability and college acceptance for students by showing them what employers and schools see when they search them on the Internet during the application process. We then provide them tools to take proactive measures in fixing potentially damaging content found on their social media profiles.
Social media has become a staple in my life. It was a Facebook message that changed my life forever. I realized the power of social media, and am somewhat thankful for being able to put the pieces that I did get together rather than having a complete stranger calling me suddenly to deliver the worst news possible. Despite having received such horrible news through this medium, I was also delivered amazing news since my current employer actually found me through the accomplishments I had posted to LinkedIn and contacted me through social media as well. The ability to exchange information between people instantly is groundbreaking and affects people in so many ways, good and bad. All I know is that my mother would be extremely proud, and this is just the beginning!