The first time I went to New York was one of the best weeks of my life.
Yet one of this trip’s most memorable moments happened in New Jersey, inside Newark Airport where I was kneeling on a seat, arms rested on a window sill and eyes fixated on Manhattan, visible from beyond the Hudson River.
I had a lump in my throat and I was gutted to be flying back to Manchester. That lump remains to this day, only remedied whenever I head back to the Big Apple.
I had been obsessed with going to New York City ever since I was really small. I’d seen it on all of the movies and television shows, and it just looked like an incredible place to be. The towering buildings, the bright lights, the big food. It’s always been a place of fascination for me.
It’s that type of exposure that’s also helped the USA become a significant part of my generation’s cultural makeup and somewhere that I had desired to be for years.
When I turned 18, I asked my parents for a trip to New York as a present for my birthday. Fair play to them, they obliged, and ended up spending their hard-earned money to make one of my dreams come true.
I had high expectations and they were by far exceeded. It simply blew me away. I loved the pace and energy that New York has, it’s somewhere I always want to be. New York City is unlike any other place on Earth.
And so we were dazzled by the lights of Times Square, we took in the breathtaking views from the top of Rockerfeller Centre, I went to my first Yankees game and did quite a lot of shopping to boot. It was the perfect week.
But I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it, the two people who I travelled with did too – my Nana had a great time, and so did my Mum.
Although not as obsessive, my Mum was like me. She loved the city, enough to want to go back at some point. At the time she was in a great place, she’d recently lost a lot of weight and was in good health, and we’d had an amazing time away.
But a little less than a year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I remember the day I found out. It was a non-descript Tuesday evening and I’d just finished work. My Dad picked me up and we stopped off at a supermarket on the way home.
In that moment, I was only concerned about what I was going to have for my dinner; fixated on food. So, when my Dad parked up I expected to get straight out the car and head straight into the store for some groceries.
But that didn’t happen. He told me not to get out of the car, then gently broke the news to me. It was bad, obviously, but not once did I get sad or scared. I knew my Mum would get through it.
And that’s what she did.
After a few months of treatment, involving operations and chemotherapy, the cancer had gone, she was able to get back to work and start living life as normal.
Yet it didn’t stay away for long, and a couple of years later the cancer returned, it spread and, eventually, she passed away in January last year.
The two of us were never the affectionate type, but in the days leading up to her death I was able to give her a hug and a kiss, and I told her how much I love her.
Understandably, I was devastated, but above all else I was grateful. Just like I took a positive approach to when she was first diagnosed, I decided to do the same again.
I was fortunate enough to know my Mum for 22 years, some people barely get a fraction of that, and she’d given me the opportunity and platform to not only live a life I enjoy, but one my parents would be proud of, too.
I can always attribute my favourite time of year to her – Christmas. It’s always been a special time in our family, not because of the religious connotations (I’m not a religious person anyway), but because it’s a period of time dedicated family, festivities and food!
My Mum’s birthday is on Christmas Eve and my Nana’s on Boxing Day, and sandwiched in between that is Christmas itself. We’d have those three consecutive days each year where we would get together, celebrate and feast. I loved it and will always do so.
About a month before she died she turned 53 and for her birthday I decided not to get her a present.
Not because I was mean-spirited, or couldn’t afford it, but because I wanted to give her something to look forward to.
The previous October I had booked for me and my Dad to go away to Brussels in Belgium. The country had always appealed to him, but he’d never been, and I thought he deserved a treat and a break, and so that’s what he got.
I would have loved to do the same for my Mum, but she was too ill to go anywhere at the time. So, instead, I decided to open up my laptop, load Microsoft Word and type her a letter saying that, when she got better, I would take her away on a trip. It was something for her to look forward to, and a present with legitimate intention.
I never thought my Mum would die, even when she was extremely ill. I’m a very positive person and I always thought she would get better. That stand-in present she got for her birthday wasn’t a threat – it was a promise.
Yet, as it turned out, it was not meant to be.
She never got that present, but I’d like to think that, somewhere in her mind, she knew we would go away together again.
But there was one way I could give her that gift. It seemed impossible at first, yet when I found out that she was going to be cremated, it gave me an idea.
Early in 2016 my Dad had paid for me and my brother to go to New York for a week the following February. He was turning 18 in December and, obviously, he wanted the same present I got to celebrate his milestone.
When funeral plans were being discussed, I requested that some of my Mum’s ashes be retained so that I could take them along with me. I didn’t know if it was legally possible or allowed at all. But I thought it was one way I could honour my commitment.
As it turned out, it was, and I was able to take a little box with some of her ashes in, accompanied by a letter from the funeral director to show to customs officials if necessary.
When we arrived in New York it was cold. The previous two times I’d been there it was quite the opposite, so this was a new experience.
On one of the afternoons we were there, we took the box down to Central Park. The lakes were frozen and there was some snow on the ground. It wasn’t quite as green as I’d remembered it, and there was certainly less foliage, but the park still retained its signature charm.
The first time I was here, I was with my Mum, and now she was here with me. Although in a different capacity, I’m sure she felt at home.
Me and Matt, my brother, walked around for a little while until we could find a semi-secluded and picturesque spot, and we found one at the foot of the pond with Gapstow Bridge providing a backdrop.
It was at this moment I took the box out from my bag, and we both took it in turns to scatter the ashes on the ground, sprinkling some into the pond through the cracks in the ice sheet for good measure.
After that I sat on a rock and took some time to reflect. It may not have been quite how I had planned it, but I had, in a way, fulfilled my birthday promise and my Mum had finally returned to New York City.
I looked up at the buildings surrounding the park, occasionally clouded by the steam created by my breath.
Here I was, in Central Park, New York, USA, saying a final goodbye to one of two people that made this visit possible for me.
It was kind of surreal, but fitting at the same time. I was on my third visit to NYC, something that not a lot of people get to say. I’d just come off the back of a year where I had visited 25 countries and graduated, and I was just starting the second semester of my master’s degree.
The fact that I was even in that position is a testament to the hard work and effort my parents have put in raising me and my brother, and the amazing fortune that I’ve had to be their son.
On that afternoon a sombre mood lingered, but what shone through was a feeling of hope and optimism for my future, and the chance to capitalise on the amazing start to life that I’d been given.
I looked around once more and remembered where I was.
I’ve always loved New York City, and now I love it a little more knowing that a part of my Mum will always be there.