Cynthia Hovey is wrestling with an unfailing and unfair truth: Children do, indeed, die before their parents.
Today is her daughter's birthday. Michele would have been 32.
Five weeks have passed since she died, and it may as well have been yesterday. Talking about Michele -- her only daughter -- is nothing short of agony, with both comfort and affliction coming to visit.
"I can't believe she's gone," Hovey said, while rocking in a porch swing at the back of her Snellville home, a pack of cigarettes in hand. "I turn around, and either see stuff she gave me, or things that we used. I mean, she's everywhere."
Hovey had hoped to repair a fractured relationship that plagued the pair for years. At the New Year, she'd written an email letter to Michelle, hoping she'd see how proud of her she was. A couple of months later, she sat at her daughter's hospital bedside, hoping prayer would save her from cancer.
And, then, time ran out.
Lesli Michele Fellers Monroe was put to rest on March 24.
"A parent should not outlive their children," Hovey said. "I can't deal with this. I don't know how."
Hovey was 23 when she had Michele, and remembers being a new mother with new pride and a bond that could not be matched.
"I didn't know you could put babies down, so I carried her all the time," she said. "We were very close, till she got to the teenage years, and then the rebellion hit hard."
Hovey raised her three children -- including two sons, Graham and Andrew -- basically by herself, she says. So, all their good traits and bad traits, Hovey accepts.
Michele, for example, was very caring -- doting on her brothers when they were children and taking in animals that needed rescue when she was older, but she could also be high-strung. It was no surprise that Michele wanted to leave home when she graduated high school.
She wanted to see the world, but she also wanted a chance at a better education -- one her mother could not afford for her. So, she decided to serve her country in the United States Air Force.
"I always raised them that they could do anything they put their mind to," Hovey said. "I signed her up, so it was all right with me."
When her first deployment to Kuwait came up in 2003, Michele made the drive up from the Charleston Air Force Base to tell her mother in person. When she returned several months later, she was full of confidence and peace.Â
Once a year, Hovey would make a trip for her birthday to visit Michele in Charleston. She remembers her daughter always making those times special with many planned activities, like seeing Keith Urban one year. They were more like friends then.
"Instead of making your birthday feel like it was just some date coming to dread, she made it like a celebration," Hovey said.Â
Before another deployment to Iraq in 2005, Hovey was proud to learn that her daughter -- who threw like her, "which wasn't very good" -- shot an M-16 almost as well as a sharpshooter.
"I never knew how she got into that because I am afraid to look at a gun, much less hold one," Hovey said.
On that final tour, Michele saw combat. She came back different, her mother says. She became distant. Then, she got angry.
Hovey recounts: "She wasn't Michelle anymore."
Eventually, Michele did leave the military. Still, she and her mother did not have much contact until she married Andy Moore in 2010. After the wedding, things dropped off again.
"We couldn't connect where we needed to be," Hovey said, sighing heavily. "I did not know how to deal with someone who had come back from Iraq."
"There was too much change that I couldn't accept," she added.
Three months ago, Hovey decided she just had to clear the air. She'd missed so much with her only daughter; she wanted to make things right again.
She sat down and typed a long email. "It was everything -- from the time she was little until now. And, I just, I just left it, and I'd been trying to reach her and get her to email me or something, and she wouldn't," Hovey said, her voice cracking slightly. "So, I just left it alone."
In mid-to-late March, Hovey did finally receive a call. It was not the call she had hoped for. Instead, Michele's mother-in-law telephoned to tell Hovey that her daughter was in an Augusta hospital with an aggressive cancer.
Hovey, and her husband Dan, where there visiting her the weekend of St. Patrick's Day, and then Michele sent them back home. The very next weekend, she was gone.
What Hovey learned about her daughter from her friends and co-workers helps lift her spirits. Even one of the worst customers, she said, brought Michele flowers to the hospital.
"She had a way about her -- all my kids -- you know when they enter a room, you just had this feeling," Hovey said. "She made you feel good. She made you laugh."
Those memories are a welcome contrast to quiet moments when Hovey is left alone to remember the funeral, ponder special days like Mother's Day, or look at things she wanted to give her -- one day.Â
She does not let regret gnaw at her about all the time she and her daughter spent apart. Children have to make their own way, she says. At some point, parents have to let go and let them.
She has small heart-shaped urn that holds some of Michele's ashes, and it's fitting for the little girl who grew up to defend her country and capture the hearts of people who barely knew her.
"It's the heart that matters; I think I taught them that," she says of her children.
And, for that, Cynthia Hovey can be proud of her daughter, and herself.