"To hear you say, 'Hey, Mom' would be music to my ears."
Those are the first words Sherry Hill wrote in a poem about her son, Marquise, the late New England Patriots defensive lineman. She spoke them through tears on Saturday, the fourth anniversary of Marquise's death.
Memorial Day weekend always brings back painful memories for Sherry because that's when she lost her only child in a Jet Ski accident on Lake Pontchartrain. Marquise Hill was 24 and wasn't wearing a life vest. The loss has been excruciating for Sherry, but to tell stories about Marquise and what he means to her is therapeutic. It keeps his memory alive.
"I don't want them to forget my baby," she says. "He laid his mark down."
Marquise Hill played three seasons for the Patriots after he was selected in the second round of the 2004 draft out of Louisiana State. He contributed sparingly as a rookie, but still had a shiny Super Bowl ring to show for his behind-the-scenes efforts. He used to tell his mother about how cool it was to be teammates with players he watched as a kid, such as Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde. He listened to them talk about football and was always impressed by how much knowledge they had about the game.
Hill appeared in 13 games over three seasons, with Patriots coach Bill Belichick saying upon Hill's death that he would be remembered as a "thoughtful and caring young man who established himself as one of the year-round daily fixtures of our team."
A tribute to Hill, with his LSU-style purple shoulder pads, remained in the Patriots' locker room at the end of the 2010 season. Those types of tributes touch Sherry Hill's heart.
She calls his story the "Front Side," which is a variation of the "Blind Side" tale of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher. She feels the "Front Side" fits because, among other things, she raised Marquise by herself as a single mother.
"I was a mother who struggled with a son, but through all the obstacles, we did it through God's faith," she says. "He reached his goals in life."
Sherry is 55, still working, although she talks about a life in transition. Shortly after Marquise's death, she left the big house he built for her and now resides in Slidell, La., with her mother, for whom she helps care.
"It was such a huge house and his absence was really strong; he wasn't there anymore. We never wanted to open the door to his room," she says. "It made us start over again, kind of like a renewal-type situation. We weren't trying to forget about the past but trying to move forward in life."
Some days are easier than others. Around this time of year, it's especially difficult.
"I have more good days than bad days, but it's been really hard lately, with the anniversary of his death," says Sherry, who previously self-published a book about Marquise's life. "There is a lot of absence. Overall, with my life, it's good but it's just empty. He is irreplaceable. Nothing can fill that hole, that place, but I'm able to testify that I'm still standing."
Remarkably so, when considering some of the other tragic events she's faced, such as the death of her brother as well as her neighbor in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Sherry has started a foundation in Marquise's name, the goal to promote education and good choices. She smiled the last time she saw Marquise's son, 6-year-old Ma'shy, because he was so tall, just like Marquise.
"Don't forget my boy," she says, longing to hear the words "Hey, Mom" one more time.
"What has really helped keep me going is that I cherished every day," she says. "Cherish time with children, loved ones, like it was the last. He did the same thing for me, and that's what's important."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.