I took my mom for granted. But after moving away, I realized how much she meant to me

This is a First Person column by Carolina Avendano Duque, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I have gone eight Mother’s Days without my mother. I was 17 the last time I saw her. 

In 2016, I said goodbye to my mom when my sister and I left our home country, Colombia, with my dad. My parents divorced when I was seven, and my sister and I were the only things they had in common. 

As I was finishing high school in Bogota, my father said he thought Canada would be a better place for us. He got a visa for himself, my sister and me. My sister, who was 20 at the time, dropped out of her university and I gave up my seat in the university I had worked so hard to gain admission to.

My dad bought the plane tickets and we prepared to leave everything we had known behind. My sister and I didn’t know when we would see our mother again.

A smiling woman wearing a vibrant blue and orange wool sweater holds a baby wearing a onesie with a Santa on it.
Liliana Duque holds four-month-old Carolina in her arms in this photo from December 1998. (Submitted by Carolina Avendano Duque)

Before boarding, I hugged my mom and she kissed me. Her tears wet my cheeks. Months before our trip abroad appeared in the picture, my mom had been saying she couldn’t wait for me to start university so we could commute together in the morning. Her workplace and the university I had been admitted to were conveniently close. 

I knew that leaving Colombia would spoil our plans to enjoy our mother-daughter morning  walks. I felt I was failing her. With a huge lump in my throat, I said goodbye to her. 

As a newcomer to Calgary, I was distracted by the cultural changes: the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced, the friendliness of Calgarians and the safe and almost empty streets – Bogota’s are rather crowded.

In those early days, my mom insisted on video calls. She was alone and wanted to make sure we didn’t forget her. She often said that talking with us was the highlight of her day.

But I felt our calls were endless questionnaires. What did I eat? Who did I meet? What did I learn? Recounting all the details of my day seemed tedious and trivial, and my answers were brief. 

Today, I realize her many questions were a way to keep the conversation going and to keep our close bond, even though we were countries apart.

Living without my mom was harder than I thought. My sister began to work hard to continue her university studies in Canada while I had to redo some Grade 12 classes to get my Colombian high school diploma recognized. I worked two jobs a day as a Starbucks barista by day and office receptionist in the evening to save money to pay for my tuition fees.

In addition to working and studying, now my sister and I had to clean, cook and take care of our home. We realized our mom used to do so much for us and she never complained. Perhaps we had taken her for granted.

But with so much to do, video calls with my mom soon became phone calls and then later texts. Almost every morning, I’d wake up to a text from her wishing me a good day and always followed by an “I love you.” I didn’t respond right away; I was too busy trying to make ends meet and establish my independence. 

Three times we applied for a visa for my mom to visit. Three times it was denied. Travelling back to Colombia to see her wasn’t something I could afford while also paying for school and rent on minimum wage.  

As a result, my mom missed my high school graduation, my sister’s wedding and college convocation. We video called her each time, so she felt she was still a part of our lives, but it wasn’t the same. 

Two smiling women pose for a photo. One of them is wearing a graduation cape and cap. They’re surrounded by other graduates.
Avendano Duque, right, and her sister, Camila Avendano Duque, pose for a photo after Camila’s college convocation. (Submitted by Carolina Avendano Duque)

Four years after we moved to Canada, the world shut down because of the pandemic. I was living alone at the time and going to the University of Calgary. My father lived in Edmonton. My sister lived with her husband about 15 minutes away from me, but I could not see her because of the lockdowns. In Colombia, my mom was depressed.

She would sometimes call me crying, saying she felt hopeless, and that things would be easier for her if we were by her side. Feeling helpless, I tried to remain strong for her. 

I felt isolated and was afraid to talk with anyone during those uncertain times when we knew so little about COVID-19. I kept in contact with my family, but I mostly listened. I thought they didn’t need to know what I was going through. I didn’t want to add to anyone’s burden.

I developed an eating disorder — I was afraid of even eating a whole banana, thinking it was too much sugar, and became consumed with my caloric intake. I didn’t get diagnosed and kept my obsession to myself, but I was naive to think I could hide anything from my mom. On our video calls, my mom told me my face looked thinner and thinner, but I always assured her I was fine. 

Still, she worried and her questions intensified. But this time, it was different. The more she asked, the more I felt cared for and the more I valued having her in my life. Her maternal warmth reached me even through the vast distance between us. With no one else to talk to, I began to open up to her.

I realized it was my turn to support my mother through her loneliness, so I knew I had to work on myself to be there for her again. 

Looking for a way to improve my physical and mental health, I came across the meditative practices associated with Falun Gong. This practice helped me to overcome my eating disorder and anxiety, and I learned to become less selfish and a better daughter. I started to value everyone in my family and to show up for them. 

A woman holds a smartphone that shows another woman on the screen.
Avendano Duque, left, speaks with her mother through a video call. (Submitted by Carolina Avendano Duque)

Calling my mom became less of a task and more of a joy. I realized I was lucky to have her in my life even if she wasn’t close by. I dreamed of all of the things we could do together if I ever saw her again. 

I would accompany her grocery shopping without complaining. I would learn her delicious recipes, like the Colombian arepas she made for breakfast or the sudado con pollo (chicken stew) she prepared for lunch. I would listen to all her anecdotes, even when she repeats them. I would learn the handicrafts she learned from my grandmother, such as knitting and cross-stitch. I would cut and dye her hair as often as she needed. I would carefully do her nails. She was always so proud — and so am I — that I inherited her nail shape.

I would do all of this if I could.

Three smiling women pose for a photo.
Avendano Duque, right, and her sister Camila, left, can’t wait to be reunited with their mother Liliana, centre, in Canada. This photo of them was taken in 2016 — one of the last moments they were all together. (Submitted by Carolina Avendano Duque)

Soon, I can. This Mother’s Day should be the last without her. Last year, Canada opened a permanent residence pathway for Haitians, Venezuelans and Colombians and this year my mother was approved.

At the end of the month, she will move to Canada. I can’t wait to hug her, take in her smell — the fruity, floral scent characteristic of her favourite perfume — and see how much taller I am than her.

I will hold her small hands and perhaps, this time, I will finally cry. 

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