Good night, mom

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, surrounds herself with her Air Force family from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., during difficult times. Gudex didn’t have a solid support system before joining the military, but found a family in her brothers and sisters in arms. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, surrounds herself with her Air Force family from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., during difficult times. Gudex didn’t have a solid support system before joining the military, but found a family in her brothers and sisters in arms. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

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)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, relieves stress through kickboxing at a local gym in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 14, 2016. After going through some difficult situations in her life, Gudex turned to fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, relieves stress through kickboxing at a local gym in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 14, 2016. After going through some difficult situations in her life, Gudex turned to fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, relieves stress through kickboxing at a local gym in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 14, 2016. After going through some difficult situations in her life, Gudex turned to fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, relieves stress through kickboxing at a local gym in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 14, 2016. After going through some difficult situations in her life, Gudex turned to fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, wraps her hands before a kickboxing session at a local gym in Colorado Springs Sept. 14, 2016. After going through difficult situations throughout her life, Gudex turned to kickboxing and fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Senior Airman Rose Gudex, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, wraps her hands before a kickboxing session at a local gym in Colorado Springs Sept. 14, 2016. After going through difficult situations throughout her life, Gudex turned to kickboxing and fitness as a way to channel frustrations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – -- “Good night, love you, see you in the morning.”

I used to say that every night to my mom as I ran up the stairs to bed when I was a child. As I grew older and became a temperamental teenager, those words were said less often and then not at all as I began to notice my family wasn’t like anyone else’s.

At the time, I did not realize how important it was to have a support system. I also didn’t understand the concept that family didn’t have to be related and could be anyone who cared enough to make sure you were OK.

I strived to be everything I could be, mostly to spite a family who wasn’t as supportive as I previously thought. My father was back home on the farm, drinking his sorrows away or passed out cold somewhere in the barn. I did everything I could to be anywhere but there.

I thought if I excelled in school, if I was a student leader, if I worked hard at my after-school job, it would cancel out the negativity at home and validate my self-worth. Maybe then my dad would stop drinking; maybe he would stop shouting at me; maybe he would stop telling me I wasn’t good enough.

My mother didn’t spend much time with me either. She didn’t come to my after-school activities, help me do my hair for prom, or make sure I applied to colleges. We didn’t have a bad relationship, but it seemed non-existent to my younger self.

She just shut down and, at the time, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until years later, when I was hours away in college, that I realized the strength it took to keep her composure as well as she did.

After four and a half years of college, I graduated cum laude with my bachelor’s degree and didn’t need any help. Still, I felt compelled to be part of something larger than myself and decided to join the Air Force. I breezed through basic and technical training, where I became a photojournalist. Not long into my Air Force career, my life changed once again.

I was sexually violated. After a lengthy process set in place to ensure justice is served, the individual was acquitted and I had to learn from it and move on as best I could.

That was a major obstacle I never imagined I would have to endure. I thought I had no one to turn to and tried to pretend it never happened. I felt guilty, worthless and, most significantly, more alone than ever.

It took a coworker noticing something was wrong for me to realize I wasn’t as alone as I felt. It strengthened my conviction to do what I felt was right. As evidence was collected and interviews conducted, my peers started to judge me based on what they assumed took place, and I bared my soul for everyone to hear during the legal process.

In the midst of all that, I found out my mom had cancer.

Luckily, I finally began to understand I had wingmen on my side. My entire chain of command, from my fellow junior Airmen all the way up to wing leadership, was supportive and there for me if I ever needed anything. I realized family doesn’t necessarily mean we share the same DNA. When I raised my right hand and recited the oath of enlistment, I entered a family of brothers and sisters who had my back, no matter what fight I was in.

In an attempt to get my life back under control, I began kickboxing as often as I could. The tighter I strapped the gloves and the harder I struck the bag, the better I felt. The more I worked out, the smoother the days went and the easier the nights were.

It wasn’t long before I was working out simply because I enjoyed it. It felt good to be strong again, in every sense of the word.

The strength I felt didn’t last as long as I had hoped and life threw another hurdle at me. This time I knew I was part of a strong family and had Airmen I could look to for support – and I certainly needed it.

Just after I returned from an extended temporary duty and right before I tested for promotion, my mom’s cancer worsened. She was hospitalized and I thought that was it. I thought I was about to be a 26-year-old without parents because one decided to not be part of my life and the other lost a long, hard-fought battle with a horrible disease.

Instead, she was released from the hospital, which was good news. The downside was she went home with hospice care, which wasn’t such good news. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday because I was outside the office on a rainy afternoon and couldn’t distinguish the tears from the rain on my face. Hospice care meant there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

From my past experiences, I knew to keep leadership informed and when I did, I was immediately asked how they could help. I soon flew home to be with my brothers and mom before I missed my chance.

I spent time doing all the things that annoyed me as a moody teenager. I did my mom’s laundry, I cooked, I washed dishes and I cleaned the house, but this time I wanted to do those things. We went out for fresh air and I pushed her wheelchair wherever she wanted to go. Her fatigue and the slow deterioration of muscles was hard to see in a woman I had come to realize was strong as an oak.

For several months I sat at work wondering every day if that was the day the call would come requesting my presence back home. Each day I talked to her on the phone, I could hear the shakiness in her voice. There was fear where there used to be strength.

I felt completely helpless because there was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better or easier for her. On the good days, I talked to my mom about what Harry Potter movie she watched or the crazy things my niece and nephew were up to. On the bad days, I called my wingman and cried.

I knew I finally had a support system there for me when I needed it. I have wingmen in my close friends, coworkers and leadership. When the time came, all I had to do was reach out to my Air Force family.

When the call came, I was on the soonest flight to my mom’s side. I have never had anyone squeeze my hand so hard as when I told my mom I was there for her and not going anywhere. I watched my mom decline in front of my eyes, spent the night with her as life left her body and her grip on my hand loosened. As her breathing slowed, I caught myself holding my own breath. Then it stopped.

I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the woman who stood silently behind me, supporting me. I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to the woman who taught me how to be strong through everything.

It wasn’t until I returned to Colorado that I realized even the strongest people need support sometimes and it’s OK to ask for it. My mom never asked for anything until the very end and I’m happy I was able to be there for her.

Good night, mom. I love you.