When her mother told her to be ready for the day she wouldn’t be around, Lorena Hernandez brushed it aside.
To Lorena and her six siblings, their mom was their rock – her Bradenton home the gathering spot for big meals and bonfires.
Since Lorena’s childhood, her mother encouraged her to reach for goals. She was Lorena’s greatest source of support.
That was especially true after Lorena met a boy at a family picnic and later became a teenage mom.
“Stay in school,” her mother told Lorena, offering to watch the baby and drive her to class. To her mother, a former fieldworker, Lorena’s path was clear: college and a shot at a professional life.
But Lorena didn’t listen. Instead, she dropped out.
It is something she thinks about now, at 27, close to losing her housing. Without her mother here to give her advice.
A confidante and friend
After the birth of her first child, Juan, Lorena helped her mother clean houses.
At first, she and her new husband lived with her mom. After the birth of their second son, Gino, they found an apartment close by.
Her mother remained a daily part of their lives. She babysat while they worked. She cooked big breakfasts of tortillas, beans and eggs, then homemade enchiladas for dinner. She was still Lorena’s closest confidante.
“We always talked about everything,” Lorena said.
By the time their third son, Ethan, was born in 2019, Lorena took some time off to focus on caring for the kids while her husband worked roofing jobs.
Later Lorena became a home health aide, like her mom. She considered going back to school for nursing. But then she needed those skills close to home.
In early 2021, her mother grew sick with complications from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Lorena knew it must be bad if her mother, the hardest worker she knew, was too ill to go back to her jobs.
Lorena stopped working to take care of her, driving her back and forth to doctor’s appointments and staying with her all day until her stepfather got home. She bought a whiteboard with a calendar to keep track of appointments and important dates.
Around the same time, her husband’s roofing hours started to get cut.
Times were tight. But when her mother needed money for medicine, even when they could barely afford food Lorena’s husband would tell her, “Use whatever you have.”
She was like a mother to him, too.
Though Lorena carried plenty of her own problems trying to make ends meet, they seemed to dissolve in her mom’s presence.
“Just by talking to her, it was less stressful,” she said.
Her mother’s house was still the fun place – where some of the 20-plus grandkids would gather to make marshmallows in the fire pit out back.
But as 2021 progressed, her mother grew weak.
One night in July, as Lorena was packing up the kids to get ready to head home, her mother grabbed her hand.
“You have to be strong and keep going,” she told Lorena. This time, Lorena recalled, her mother looked sad.
Two days later, her mom passed away in the middle of the night.
When Lorena got the call from her stepdad before sunrise, she sped over in her car, barefoot and in her pajamas.
In the months ahead – bereft, depressed, angry and numb – Lorena tried to move forward, just as her mother advised.
But without her mom, challenges felt monumental. Their fourth child, Kamila, was born. And then her husband’s hours were cut again.
To bring in more money and cope with her grief, Lorena returned to work outside the house, this time on the overnight shift at Walmart.
But through 2022, late bills were racking up. Close to the holidays, the water and electricity at their apartment were shut off.
Overwhelmed, Lorena didn’t know where to turn. Her rock was gone.
After her stepfather agreed to let them stay at the house for a while, Lorena scrambled to find help with the utilities.
“I was so stressed out, calling everywhere,” she said. If they had to move, given the current housing crisis, she had no idea where they’d go or how they would afford another place.
Eventually, she was referred to Step Up Suncoast, which applied to Season of Sharing to pay more than $1,700 in water and electric bills to get the utilities turned back on, said Heather Nicklaus, director of client services.
"Being able to provide assistance for utilities doesn't fix things, but it does reduce the stress a little bit so they can manage the other areas of their lives," Nicklaus said about many working families like Lorena's dealing with everything from lost work hours to inflation and personal grief.
"With the rent increases and lack of available affordable housing," Nicklaus added, "oftentimes families are stuck in their situations."
The assistance gave Lorena and her husband some breathing room.
She still hopes to be placed on a payment plan for the rent, to get ahead on that, too.
“My mom said if I don’t have anywhere to go, come here,” she said, sitting in her mom’s and stepdad’s dining room, where photos of her mother line the wall.
But things are different now. She wants to respect her stepfather’s space, realizing she needs another plan.
Beyond that, at 27, she is ready for major change.
“I feel like I’m living like a zombie and not doing anything for myself or my kids,” she said.
She's thinking ahead long term, of the impact of her mother on her life – smiling at times at the memory, as tears slide down her face.
Maybe she will wait two years until Kamila, the youngest, is in school. Then she will go after her goal, to pursue an education in nursing.
She thinks that’s what her mother would advise her to do.
See this story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 26, 2023, here.