By Helen Witty

I had not so much as changed a diaper when doctors placed a squalling newborn on my chest after five hours of labor. It was the spring of 1984, the age of “natural childbirth,” and I’d delivered without the benefit of epidural anesthesia.

When Helen Marie entered the world screaming, I felt overwhelmed. She screamed when the nurses cleaned her up, and she screamed when they swaddled her. She screamed as a nurse brought her to me.

Then, like a miracle, it stopped. The instant Helen Marie felt the warmth of my chest and heard my heartbeat, the crying stopped. It was like turning off a faucet. She had spent nine months next to my heart. I imagine all she knew was that she was there again.

This was my introduction to motherhood.

Over the next months and years, Helen Marie taught me what it was to be a mother. She and her brother, John, born three years later, showed me what motherhood meant.

Sixteen years later, that spirited baby had turned into a thoughtful, well-adjusted teen, and my husband and I were so proud of both our children.

In May 2000, I celebrated what would be my last Mother’s Day with both John and Helen Marie. Of course, I could not have imagined that just three weeks later, a drunk and drugged driver would end Helen Marie’s life and permanently alter ours. That for years, Mother’s Day would be marked by pain and absence.

It happened on a sunny afternoon in June. I listened as 16-year-old Helen Marie strapped on her rollerblades. She was directing a play at school the next day, and she was nervous. Rollerblading her regular route on the bike path near our home would help calm her, she told me.

Thirteen-year-old John wanted to go with her. He was already strapping on his skates when Helen Marie whispered to me, “Mom, keep him home. I want to go fast.”

My daughter was just a few blocks from home when a teen driver who’d been working off her stress with shots of tequila and marijuana lost control of her speeding car and ran onto the bike path. Helen Marie died an instant, violent death.

Twenty years later, there are still consequences of not having a daughter. While I have learned to live again – to enjoy life again – every milestone event is a reminder of what Helen Marie and our family lost by one person’s selfish decision to drive after using alcohol and drugs. Weddings. Graduations. The birth of a grandchild.

This Mother’s Day, and every day, I want to give you permission to take care of yourself. To enjoy what you can. And to protect yourself when you cannot enjoy it. As my beloved stepmother, Jane, who also experienced the loss of a child, once told me: There are no have-tos.

I will be celebrating the day with my husband and son, John, who is visiting from New York, and whose presence has brought so much life and joy into our home.

Helen Marie will be right up next to my heart.

Helen Marie and her brother, John, pose on the patio for a snapshot.

Helen Marie and her brother, John, pose on the patio for a snapshot.