DUNEDIN — They hear it all the time. A stranger approaches to say, I watched you grow up in the photos from your mother's dental chair. How's Florida State? She's so proud of you.
Debbie O'Shea talked about, and to, her four children every day. She routinely called each of them during her lunch hour. Then she called them again after work. They never had to tell her how they were feeling. She knew by their voices right away. "My heart is your heart," she told them.
Today is their first Mother's Day without her. They're still waiting for her to walk in the door, to find her swimming laps in the pool. Two days ago, the O'Shea children, now adult orphans, buried the mother they called the heart of the family.
The loss is so deep, so familiar. It was the second life-changing family tragedy in a year. Last May their father, Jim, died at age 67 of kidney disease.
They remember their mom as a loving woman who taught them about personal sacrifice. The one who came home from work and put braces on her aching arms.
"She'd work until she was 100 years old, 12 hours a day to make ends meet for us," said her oldest son Robert, 24.
Mrs. O'Shea, a dental hygienist, died May 3 after complications during a scuba diving trip in South Florida. She was born in Rhode Island and was days shy of her 54th birthday. Authorities in Palm Beach County say determining a cause of death could take 30 to 90 days.
Mother's Day has forever changed for Mykal, 21, a nursing student, her "peanut" and "mini-me"; Rob, a law student; Joe, 22, a Rhodes Scholar who graduated in April; and Jesse, 18, pre-med, whom she would hold and still call her baby. All are Florida State University Seminoles.
Jesse usually bought a turkey tray, a fancy spatula or some other obscure Mother's Day gift she ended up loving. Mykal gave clothes to the mom who always took her shopping but didn't buy anything for herself.
They call her cooking oh-my-God good. Every weekend, they woke up to the smell of poached eggs, bacon and hash browns. When Jesse came home from college, there was a meal waiting of twice-baked potatoes and filet mignon with marsala sauce — his favorite. She picked from their plates but rarely made one for herself.
Last year when her husband was ill and in the hospital, she came home to cook dinner for Jesse before going back to the hospital to spend the night. She did that for 66 nights.
She met Jim O'Shea when he came in for a dental cleaning. His blue eyes stared up at her while she worked. Two weeks later, he booked another cleaning. They were married in 1982. She was 28, he was 43. He had two children from a previous marriage, Christopher Cash O'Shea and Deborah O'Shea Lindbergh.
She made sure she learned to text message. She took pictures with her camera phone and sent photos of the new patio furniture. Before a law exam, at 7:15 a.m. April 23, she sent a text message to Rob:
"You can do it! Good luck, Rob! Dad is with you & God always, my son!"
She was a devout Christian who attended the North Bay Community Church in Clearwater and raised her family in faith. She leaves behind a support network of extended family.
She bragged, often. As she worked on her patients, she talked about her children. The most recent family portrait was always displayed.
"I know all my kids are way smarter than me, but you know why I truly admire them?" she told a family friend. "Through everything, they have never lost heart or the motivation to accomplish their highest goals. Their strength, even Mykal's, just overwhelms me. I love how they have stuck together and are so supportive of one another. I couldn't be more proud of each one of them."
There were no curfews in the O'Shea house. No grounding. The punishment for breaking trust was disappointment.
She didn't always get her way. After two years, she still hadn't been able to get Joe to clean out his closet.
The kitchen remains torn up. She had started fixing up the house for her step-grandchildren and for her future grandkids. She couldn't wait to spoil them rotten.
She taught her children that family is everything, and to raise their own families with trust.
"Can you feel my arms around you?" she would tell Mykal on the phone. "I'm right there."
Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at (727)445-4181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.