Dandelions aren’t weeds: Airman’s first Mother’s Day without mom

CAMPBELLSPORT, Wis. – Karen Gudex, mother of Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., smiles as she receives a dandelion from her grandson, Avery, for Mother’s Day in May 2016. Karen passed away Aug. 25, 2016 from lunch cancer. (Courtesy photo)

CAMPBELLSPORT, Wis. – Karen Gudex, mother of Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., smiles as she receives a dandelion from her grandson, Avery, for Mother’s Day in May 2016. Karen passed away Aug. 25, 2016 from lung cancer. (Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

FOND DU LAC, Wis. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, sent a photo to her mother’s cancer treatment center to be displayed on the day she finished radiation in Fond du Lac, Wis., Sept. 18, 2015. Even though Gudex couldn’t be there for physical support, she was there in spirit as her mom rang the bell to signify a major milestone. (Courtesy photo)

FOND DU LAC, Wis. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, sent a photo to her mother’s cancer treatment center to be displayed on the day she finished radiation in Fond du Lac, Wis., Sept. 18, 2015. Even though Gudex couldn’t be there for physical support, she was there in spirit as her mom rang the bell to signify a major milestone. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Dandelions might just be annoying, yellow weeds creeping up through the cracks in sidewalks and ruining otherwise perfect lawns to the majority of people, but to me dandelions represent a significant family tradition.

Every year as far back as I can remember, my brothers and I would pick handfuls of dandelions from the front yard to give our mom for Mother’s Day. She would smell them as if they were expensive roses and smile like she was the luckiest mom in the world. Of course, then she would rub them all over our faces so we each looked like we got in the middle of a marker fight.

What happens when a major part in that tradition changes? My mom passed away in August 2016 after battling lung cancer and this will be my first Mother’s Day without her. The values she instilled in me as a child will continue to live on in the Air Force core values I live every day as an Airman.

Those values took hold when I was young, growing up on a farm in a small Wisconsin town, where we did chores every day in addition to our schoolwork. Everyone else seemed able to go to friends’ houses and got an allowance for simply taking out the trash. I got 50 cents for milking our small herd of 56 cows each night and maybe a quarter for feeding the calves.

Looking back, it wasn’t about the money, or lack thereof. I learned skills and values I believe essential to success. It didn’t matter what day of the week it was or if it was a holiday because the chores had to be completed; the cows certainly never took a day off, therefore we didn’t.

After some family trauma drove my father to alcoholism, the strength my mom displayed was admirable. For the longest time, I didn’t even realize the extent of the problem because she didn’t allow it to burden her children.

When I moved five hours away to attend college and get some space from the family drama, my mom supported me, even though she would have preferred I stay a little closer to home. After college and I chose to serve my country in the Air Force, she stood by me when others told me I would never make it.

She was supportive, strong and hardworking, something I strived to emulate. From basic training and technical school to my first base, military leaders emphasized the importance of the Air Force core values – integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. Those core values coincided with what I already practiced because that was what my mom instilled in me since I was a little girl.

Integrity First

My mom always told me to be honest and tell the truth, particularly because she told me she would find out if I lied to her anyway. After I graduated from high school and even after college when my mom would ask what I was up to, who I was with or when I would be home, I never lied. I never did understand how my friends could tell their parents one thing and do something entirely different.

Service Before Self
I started working on the farm before I began kindergarten, carrying buckets of calf pellets, or my favorite task of filling the milk bottles to feed the newborn calves. From a young age, there was always work to be done and it came before playing games or going to a friend’s house. The cows were milked and the animals all fed before we searched for candy on Easter or opened presents on Christmas.

Excellence In All We Do
My parents were strict with their rules for us and also the standards they expected us to exemplify. Not only should the chores be done to the best of our ability, but the same went for our schoolwork. My dad was harsher than he should have been with a child, asking me why my math test wasn’t an A+ when I can home with only an A-. So I tried harder. Was it the optimal way to learn an important life lesson? Probably not, but it instilled in me the drive to accept challenges and push myself to be the best version of myself.

Even before the Air Force, I lived the core values every day. The transition to the military was seamless and felt right to me. As a photojournalist, it is my duty to tell the Air Force story as best I can through photos and written words. The privilege of sharing someone else’s personal story or a mission story requires nothing less than my absolute undivided attention to ensure I tell the story accurately and do them justice.

From my first high-visibility published story to a simple news photo published around the time my mom got sick, she printed and kept every single article and photo that had my name in the byline. When your mom is reading your work, the standard is sky high.

When I found out she had cancer, there was no doubt my mom would put up a fight. She fought for a year and a half, but it just wasn’t enough. When she knew the cancer was winning, she held on and continued to demonstrate her core values. Not only did she plan her own funeral, but she refused to throw in the towel.

It wasn’t until a week before she died when I was talking to her on the phone that a small quiver in her voice revealed her fear. I flew back home and after 26 years of my mom being a pillar of strength, it was my turn to be strong for her.

Watching my mom die before my eyes was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. The day before she passed away, my office called to say I was being promoted. I shared the news with my mom and it was one final thing she could be proud of me for.

A week prior she had told me she was proud of me and always would be. Every day since, I put my best foot forward and ask myself if what I’m doing would make my mom proud.

Although the tradition will change since my mom passed, I will continue to observe Mother’s Day to honor her memory. I will still pick dandelions and put them in a vase on my kitchen table. I will video chat with my nephew and watch him continue the family tradition as he picks some dandelions to remember his grandma. I will tell stories and share memories to ensure her legacy continues.

Mother’s Day can mean different things for different families, but is a time to celebrate and thank our mothers for everything they do. Whether she is your biological mother who taught you to ride a bike, an adoptive or foster mom who helped you study for a big test, your best friend or whatever the case may be - thank her and cherish those memories.