I'm Here For You : Surviving Charlie
Team Charlie Lives

I'm Here For You

by Elise Normile on 10/16/16

To Angelina Mills-Mendez


Angela, this is your 2nd Grade teacher Mrs. Normile.  Today I heard that your mom passed away a few weeks ago. I am so shocked.  I am so angry.  I am so sad.  Is this how you felt when you heard about Charlie?  I remember that you were making your First Communion on the day Charlie was rushed to the hospital.  Were you looking for me as you lined up in your white dress and veil?  In all of my shock and fear and numbness in those first few scary hours with Charlie, I still thought of you and the boys and girls in our classroom and I called Mrs. Grasman to tell her to pass along to you all that I could not be with you.


And now, you’re in 8th Grade, and your mom’s gone.  And now, for the 2nd time, I wish I could’ve been with you.  In recognition that you are now a very grown up worldly 8th grader, I will use grown up words to tell you that this sucks so much. I was in shock when I heard the news.  Nothing shocks me anymore.  Not since Charlie. But, today, I felt the same.  I couldn’t even call someone to hear more details about your loss or your mom’s passing because I didn’t want to hear bad news over the telephone again… Not since Charlie.


Ok, Angelina.  This is important.  Your mom’s story in many ways has ended.  She has lived her last hour, written her last page BUT… you don’t even know all of the pages.  You don’t know all of the story.  Now, that it has ended, you will really want to hear it all or gather it all to read somewhere down the line.  I grabbed every story, every photo, every angle of my son James’ stories from him friends, classmates, teachers so that we could have as much as possible to remember him and know him by.

Angelina, you are an only child and all of your mother’s family lived in Puerto Rico so, they will have so much to share with you about your mother.  I have so much to share with you and mom’s family as well.  We spent a year together during 2nd grade.  Your mom was the most present, most involved, most concerned, most doting, most connected mother of any student in my entire career.  We spoke nearly every day in 2nd grade as she and I partnered in our care for you.  Me in the classroom, she in the home.  We spoke nearly every day. 

She was determined and unwavering in her devotion to you and what she  thought was in your best interests.  She mothered you intensely and closely.  I would encourage her to do less, stand back, allow you more independence and the chance to do things on your own.  She would leave me notes on my desk in response.  “I hear you but, I’m not changing my ways.  Do you want to go to Starbucks after school?    Yvonne”    

She was your mother.  This was her life.  You were her life and she was going to walk the distance with you.  That much was clear.

That’s cool.  Your mom handed you an entire lifetime of conversations, advice, lessons, praise, hugs, and hair brushings in your 14 years.  Easily.

 There’s a lot to tell you.  Since you were only 7 years old in 2nd grade and mom’s family was out of the country, I have stories of her that you may want to have.  I have moments and memories of the two of you together that you will want to remember.  I really do.  Do you remember when she’d take you to the church in the evenings to blowdry your hair because the fuses blew, or the GFI was tripped at home and she didn’t know how to fix it or find the fuse box?   Dad was on one of his tours or cruises and mom would wrap you in the car after your bath and take you up the church restroom to blowdry your hair…. Until she told MRS. NORMILE who promptly brought your mom into the wonderful world of google.  Answers, answers everywhere.

So, I missed your first communion and I didn’t return to school that year as I battled with and for little Charlie’s life and I didn’t return to school in the fall and I think you moved on to a new school that year… But, I saw you and mom once more.  It was on Lola’s very first birthday on her own.  Her 3rd birthday and I saw you and Mom in Chick fil A when I was getting party trays.  I was pale and sad and hollow and then I saw your mother and she grabbed me and hugged me and held me as I cried.  I needed a mother and so I got to share yours.

Angelina, it’s important to cry and express and get out the pain and anger before you heal and walk forward in life or it will damage you later, from the inside.  I have a lot to tell you about this journey you are beginning and the mother you had.

Did you know your mother cooked my first taste of Puerto Rican food?  Helped me cook my first Puerto Rican recipe and was the reason I chose Puerto Rico for our family’s first vacation to that island during your 2nd grade year.

Now, today, I rush and hurry and stay busy to avoid the noise, the memories, the grief, the loss, the boys, the sadness.  But, when I am in Puerto Rico, I am slow.  I can be alone.  I don’t need noise or television or tasks.  I avoid it all.  I love the surf, sand, music, people, food.  I have no sadness whatsoever on the island.  None.  I can plant my feet and think of both my boys straight through my heart and I feel joy.  True joy does not yet exist for me anywhere else. True, pure youthful joy is still possible when I’m there.

Your mother is the reason I went to Puerto Rico for the very first time for Spring Break of your 2nd Grade year.  She is the reason, I went to the island and was with all 5 of my babies for the very last time in paradise.  Did you remember that your Papi and Abuela had come to visit with you and mom for a month that Spring during 2nd Grade? They would come to school often and although they spoke very little English, we would hug and spend time whenever I saw them.  Gaela would stop by school sometimes and I would encourage her to practice her Spanish with them.

Well, when my family arrived in Puerto Rico, your Papi and Abuela were there on the airport sidewalk, pacing, looking, and waiting to surprise me!  Your mother had sent them to welcome me and my family and I was so surprised and spoiled.  They drove my daughter and the twins to our rental home in Old San Juan while the boys waited to get our rental car.  Your papi y abuela bought Charlie and Lola their first frozen limber (frozen juice in a cup) from an old woman’s window next door.  Lola and I buy one from her every time we go now.  We just saw the woman again in June, 5 years later.  When Papi finally left us, he handed me a bottle of rum and solemnly assured me it would come in handy since all of the island liquor stores were closed for the remainder of the day, Good Friday.

When I returned home, I told your mom how wonderful the vacation was despite the rough, rough waters of Rincon.  She waved her hand and said, “No good,  Its too far. Its too rough.  Next time you go, you will go to the west coast.  My brother has a place in Low-KEE-yo.”  I loved how she said it and I asked her several times that week how to say the name and where it was and what it was like.  I loved imagining another vacation I suppose.

Within three weeks of returning from our first trip from Puerto Rico, I lost Charlie, and my life as I knew it. I never saw you and your mother again for any real moments.  Within 11 months of Charlie, I spent the best week of my mothering years with James and the rest of my family in your uncle’s town of Low-KEE-yo, before we lost James as well.. It is the town of Luquillo that is now my 2nd home, my heart, and my happiness.  My friends.  James’ last friends.  They are beautiful people.  All from your mother.  How could you gift someone the peace I feel?  How could I have put into words my thanks?

Angelina, I have a lot to teach you and I lot I think your mother would like me to remind you about her and what she wanted for you.  If you are wondering how you will live now without her, well, I have some ideas about that also.  ((You living your life will actually be how you remain WITH her, by the way, because you were her life.  Angelina, you were her life.  You were her reason.  Her happiness. Her everything.  By you living beautifully, she will live.  I have every confidence and many great ideas for how you will live a wonderful life…  and, don’t worry, you’ll see her again.  In the eyes of your son or the hairflip of your daughter or their voices.  She won’t miss a moment of your life…

Please text me.  I’d like to take a walk and talk with you.  This will NOT be the third time that I wish I could be with you.  I can.  I will.  Let me simply sit with you.

I have a lot I can help you with.  I would like to see you.  Today has been very painful as I tried to imagine your pain.  You are the first person I have considered to have been dealt a blow has heavy as mine.  Mom was your only, and your every.  You were hers.

Your loss is the first one in my opinion that seems as large as mine. A loss just as shocking, just as big, just as difficult. 

You'll need a few days of sweatpants, tears, and ice cream before we put your shoulders back, put on some bright lipstick for your mother for a minute, and walk the walk.  We gotta walk the walk, Ang.  I’ll meet you anytime, anywhere, including anywhere on the island of Puerto Rico.   Please read and translate this for Papi and Abuela.  My heart bursts for them.  It is so very painful to lose a child. 




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