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It was a few weeks after I lost my mom, and I was silently praising myself for how well I was handling my grief. After spending two months caring for my mom with my dad and brother in Florida, I had just returned home to my husband and dogs and my normal life in Wisconsin. I missed Mom every day, but the busyness of returning to work and home life seemed to help balance my sorrow.

And then one night while I was driving home from work, *NSYNC danced into my thoughts, and my carefully crafted illusion was shattered. Yes, I blame my favorite boy band for the avalanche of guilt that began in the days after my mom—my best friend, my lifelong confidante, my soulmate—passed away.

The thought literally seemed to come out of nowhere. Did I ever apologize to Mom for making her sit by herself at that concert? It had been nearly 20 years since Mom and I had taken a road trip from Wisconsin to Louisville, Kentucky to see *NSYNC. But it suddenly occurred to me how out of place she must have felt sitting by herself in the middle of a crowd of scantily clad, hyperventilating teen and 20-something (ahem) girls.

While I had planned for the two of us to sit together and had bought a pair of pretty decent (not to mention overpriced) tickets, when I discovered I could get one seat next to the stage, I lost all common sense. The thought of being so close to JC and Justin that I could see the beads of sweat on their foreheads overruled any sense of guilt I should have had about abandoning Mom to sit by herself in boy band hysteria. And now, it was too late to apologize.

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The thing is I truly thought I would have no regrets. When we found out Mom’s cancer had returned—and returned with a vengeance, granting us only another month with her—the (extremely thin) silver lining for me was that I knew how much time I had to make sure I left nothing unsaid. I didn’t think that would be a tall order. After all, for 39 years we had told each other, almost literally, everything. (To the point where, especially when I was in college, there were probably a few things she would have preferred I didn’t tell her.) So, it was only natural that we had also always found ways to let each other know how grateful we were to have one another.

Still, when I knew time was rapidly escaping us, I decided to sit down with Mom, as she lay in her hospital bed in the living room, to tell her eloquently how much she meant to me. I wanted to tell her that I knew so many parts of my personality had come from her, from the way I always had to use my favorite Mickey Mouse glass for my water at night, to the fact that I always try to treat others with kindness. I wanted to thank her for all the amazing things she had done for me throughout my life, from watching my best friend and me perform Mickey Mouse Club songs over and over, to becoming a school bus driver so she could have summers off with my brother and me, to supporting me when I moved across the country to get married even though it meant I would be thousands of miles away.

RELATED: Even a Hundred Years Wouldn’t Be Enough Time with You

But for some reason, the words I needed became stuck somewhere between my brain and my mouth. (Looking back, I blame all the movies where people know just what to say to dying loved ones. Who can live up to that kind of pressure?) Instead, after I babbled something barely coherent about my Mickey Mouse water glass and being nice, we sat quietly holding hands.

“You are the most wonderful daughter,” Mom said.

“And you are the most wonderful mother,” I said.

Not quite Oscar-worthy, but I was hoping it covered it all. Now, I was suddenly afraid that it hadn’t. After that first thought of guilt (thanks a lot, *NSYNC), new thoughts of “Why didn’t I tell her that?” seemed to pop into my head on nearly a daily basis, dragging me into new spirals of grief.

But as the years have passed, gradually the guilt has faded, replaced by a quiet understanding. The bond we had—and always will have—is not based on single moments or perfect words. It’s based on a lifetime of perfect and imperfect moments, the laughter and squabbles and adventures that make up our shared journey. And I remember that she already knows everything I possibly could have told her. After all, that’s what soulmates do.

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Elesa Swirgsdin

Elesa Swirgsdin is a writer and editor who lives in Wisconsin and still loves *NSYNC. She also loves hanging out with her husband and dog, watching sappy Hallmark movies, reading historical fiction, and all things Mickey Mouse.

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