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Canada Amplify: My first lesson was strength, and I learned it from my mom

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Amplify: Shelby Blackley and her mom Stacey

The Globe and Mail

I think a lot about my first memory. For most kids, I assume it’s something fun or interesting: a trip to Walt Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time, being handed a baseball at a game with dad or a specific tune that you can still hum on command. For me, it was finding my grandmother, lifeless in her bed, and watching my mom do everything she could to resuscitate her.

I’m Shelby Blackley, a content editor at The Globe and the editor of Amplify. May 25, 1997 seemed like a good day. The sun shone on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I spent most of it playing outside. My four-year-old self was ready for a bath. We lived in a bungalow – my uncle and grandmother lived on the main level, while my parents, my brother and I occupied the basement. The bathtub was upstairs. I had to go ask Nana if I could use it. Running up the stairs, I veered into her bedroom at the end of the hall. She looked like she was asleep. I called her name. I called it again. But she didn’t move.

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Shortly after, an ambulance took her away. She was dead on arrival.

It’s a memory I can still describe in such detail that it could translate perfectly to a moment on screen. Nana had only turned 60 earlier that month. It’s hard not to miss her – she was everyone’s favourite character. My parents told me stories about how I played Super Mario with her in the rec room while she secretly fed me cookies. She was the most treasured person in my young life. My angel.

That day is hard to think about sometimes. People say I knew death before I knew happiness. But what I remember most was my mom.

While everyone’s eyes were on Nana, my mom went into saviour mode. She turned on Nana’s breathing machine and performed CPR. She ran out of the room to call 911 while shipping my brother – who had not yet celebrated his first birthday – and me to our neighbour’s house.

I think about her strength that day often. My colleague Rasha Mourtada wrote last year about the act of mothering without a mother, after losing hers at the age of 14. My mom didn’t lose her mother quite that young – she was 32 – but to navigate the majority of your mothering years without someone to fall back on is terrifying, especially when the self-doubt kicks in.

My mom often apologizes for things she didn’t do as a parent – I paid my own way through university. I never got gifts when I scored a goal in soccer or got a good grade on a test. These were things you should achieve without the expectation of an immediate reward, she would say. Yet, she always apologized. She didn’t need to, but I think it’s because she sometimes wonders how Nana would have handled these situations.

But Nana’s absence made her a stronger, more reflective mother. She relied on her own instincts to raise us. She and my dad taught us the value of respecting people older than us, telling us never to call a friend’s parent by their first name until they granted us permission. They taught us the value of communicating when you’re unhappy. They taught us the value of the dollar, and that saving money doesn’t mean you’re cheap: It means you’re smart, and some day you’ll be able to pay for anything (last year, mom yelled at me when I had a heap of money in my savings making 37 cents in interest when I should have been investing it. It has since made its way into a TFSA).

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But I think more than anything, my mom taught me to be a strong person who didn’t need rewards to feel successful. And to be kind, because you never know when the people you love most could be gone.

May is especially hard on my mom – Nana’s birthday, Mother’s Day and the anniversary of Nana’s death all happen within two weeks. Throughout the month, I know she struggles with the happiness of having two healthy children of her own, while remembering the loss of her best friend so early in her mothering years.

But the memories that followed that day are full of the love and life my mom exhibits every day – Friday nights during my preteen years at the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena, where we sat side-by-side watching the Niagara Falls Canucks. Weekends camping. Road trips to Leominster, Mass., as well as Florida and Darien Lake, N.Y. Days at beer festivals.

A few weeks ago, she stayed at my Toronto apartment for the weekend while we watched the Grand Slam of Curling Players’ Championship. It was the first time since the Christmas holidays that we’d spent time really catching up. We continued our regular antics – hours at a rink, where everything feels natural, having a few drinks and being friends. I vented to her about my life, and she gave me strength to make the right choices. I was again reminded of the unsung hero my mom has always been, even with a permanent hole in her heart.

My first memory was the death of my grandmother. But my first lesson was strength, and it came from Stacey.

What else we’re reading:

Most of my reading these days consists of whodunits and thrillers, so I’d like to share some of my favourites that are certainly worth your time on a rainy spring day. I recently finished An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, which surprised me in every possible way (a girl becomes part of a morality study that turns into a mysterious manipulative experiment). The Hunting Party is by far my favourite thriller that I’ve read this year, where a group of friends goes to the remote wilderness and one of them is killed. Others I’d recommend: The Other Woman, Then She Was Gone and Into The Water.

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