An excerpt from my memoir At Close Range, the story of my journey to a reckoning over the accidental shooting death of my oldest son Jon

Like all of those other holidays since Jon’s accidental death, I feel a shortness of breath and sweaty palms long before the actual day. This day of celebration comes with an added suffering, though—I wonder how I can be considered a good mother. No matter how many cards my two surviving boys send to my heart that day, I know I will always be a mother of three.

I find myself afraid of the day’s tradition because I carry secret shame. I wasn’t there in Jon’s time of need. I was 1,100 miles away when my child died. I feel the guilt escalate with every page that comes off the calendar leading to my special Sunday. This will be another, deeper first.

I’ve been admired by my children. I keep boxes in which I store their handmade cards, decorated with colorful yarn and white paper plates with finger-painted handprints. These cards from earlier Mother’s Days carry sweet and short poems that exaggerate the praise of motherly deeds. I don’t deserve that. On this First, my guilt stays private, even to the people I love the most.

My guilt is my secret alone. Randy and the boys have managed to put this mistake on the death certificate aside. They say it’s a piece of paper that doesn’t matter. They already know the truth. I am not in that place of certainty. I am still on trial and the evidence is most personal on this Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday all my own, a day I’m supposed to feel good in a way my other family members do not. I feel different today, not special. I fear I am the one to blame the most for this First.

The day for mothers arrives too early to me. I need solitude. Fortunately Randy is a weekend golfer. The sun barely has time to rise over the fence, casting shadows in the oak trees before he kisses me good-bye.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” he says. “I’ll finish my round early so I can make brunch for everyone.” Not everyone, I think. My heart is an egg carton with one missing. One plate will be empty at that brunch.

Randy has a reputation for making the best scrambled eggs. He learned from his grandfather, something no one else in our family can duplicate. You cook scrambled eggs slowly, he says, and he adds milk and Velveeta. I wish for something I might add to enjoy this brunch. It’s joy, I guess. And it’s up to me to find that joy, after all. I will just play for the next point in this match.

While Randy is on the golf course I attend Unity Church with my mom. I have been going every week since Jon’s death. I offer prayers as some sort of atonement. Most Sundays I leave the sanctuary with a warm fuzzy feeling, but afterwards the pointlessness settles in. I sit in the pew, week by week, and am not sure what my belief is anymore.

But my mom loves Unity and no matter what I believe, I go to please her on this Mother’s Day. I drag myself to my mirror, putting on my favorite tinted lip-gloss, blush, and mascara but the reflection doesn’t lie. I realize all the make-up in world can’t hide a mother in mourning. I try to change my mood as I head out the door to meet her.

In typical Unity fashion our morning starts with a meditation. The minister tells us to picture all the mothers we can think of and surround them in a heart-space of pink, radiating a light of love. Later, there’s a sermon that praises all women of the mystics, and again the overall theme is love.

Mom pats my hands before we leave, and looks at me with her bright blue eyes. “Wasn’t that wonderful?”

I nod for the sake of not spoiling the moment, but her attention has already been redirected, because mom’s a celebrity at Unity with a congregation of friends. A group of women comment on her youthfulness, and how she looks likes my sister and not my mother. It’s a comment that can drive me nuts. But I realize it’s also a compliment.

I make my way up the aisle as she talks and I turn to look back at her. Mom has aged with grace in spite of her heartaches. She doesn’t run or hide when facing life’s difficulties, pain and uncertainty. She lost her brother to kidney failure and weathered that sorrow, and now she’s lost her grandson. I have someone to model while I feel my way through this first Mother’s Day after I’ve lost Jon. Maybe she’s put her pain aside. I walk back and notice her blush as she revels in the attention from her friends. I don’t want to stick around, so I tell her I’ll see her at the house for brunch. I kiss her cheek and walk away proud, hoping I’ll share more than her youthful complexion.

When I walk through the door, fresh flowers and cards sit on the bar that separates the kitchen from the living room. Randy’s cooking while the boys are milling around upstairs. They both lean over the stairwell shouting down, “Happy Mother’s Day Mom. Love you.”

“Thanks guys.” I smile. “Your Mimi will be here shortly.” I look at the cards, Randy’s handwriting on one, and the others from Keaton and Lance. But I can feel a piece of my heart missing. Randy walks and gently kisses my cheek.

“What’s that for?” I ask.

“You just needed it,” he says, walking back to the kitchen.

We all need love in the midst of sorrow, and I learned to make my own on Mother’s Day. I noticed my younger friends on Facebook displaying the same sappy Mother’s Day creations my children made. It hit me hard. I didn’t feel like a part of these traditions, but I wanted to show the world I was loved.

I went to my closet and opened Jon’s keepsake box and dug right down to his School Days book. Inside were pictures of him from kindergarten to middle school, and in between each grade was an envelope where I placed report cards and other icons. I had not looked in that school days book in many years.

When I pulled out the pieces from the 7th grade, I noticed a crinkled, sheet of folded white, blue-ruled paper. I unfolded his message from middle school.

Dear Mom,

Of all the millions of things I thought to give you this was my best idea. Although it is worth nothing, it’s from the heart. This is a reminder that when I am a horrible kid, you’ll remember this present, and know you’re the best mother I could ever have. I love you and always will, even if I’m my maddest at you, I hope you can forgive us for all the bad things we ever did. YOU ARE THE BEST MOM EVER! You help me when I am sad. You soothe me when I’m mad, I’ll always remember your forgiveness.

P.S. It’s a little early. Happy Mother’s Day!

As I read this something inside me changed. I’m getting a gold star like on a kindergarten report card. For so long, my hopes and dreams died with Jon, even though I had two other children who needed and loved me. I posted that letter on Facebook, not even bothering to wait for my friends to Like it. Instead, I frame it for myself.