I Want to Talk to You About My Mom

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It all started in Australia after the incident with Damar Hamlin. I texted my husband, Taylor, that the situation with my mom was weighing on me. When can we start talking about it? When can I tell her story, my story, my family’s story? Everyone just keeps asking me. I really need to get it off my chest.

This is a story about my mother, my family, and the past year.

In June 2022, I had just flown back to Florida from the French Open. I made the quarterfinals in singles and the finals in doubles. It was an amazing two weeks full of a lot of positives, including cracking the Top 10 in the world. A few days after I got home, I got a call around midnight (on my mom’s birthday) from my sister Kelly who was staying at my parents’ house. Something was wrong with our mom, and she was headed to the hospital in an ambulance. My mom was asleep when my dad woke up to her going into cardiac arrest and she was unresponsive for quite a while. My sister gave her CPR until the ambulance arrived. She saved her life. Even though she doesn’t like to take credit for this terrible situation, she absolutely saved her life, followed by the critical job performed by the paramedics who arrived and were able to restore a heartbeat.

Now, rewind to about three months before that. Kelly called me one day and said she was going to get her CPR certification as a requirement for a job she wanted. I said, “No way, I have been meaning to do that but haven’t gotten around to it.” She relayed to me how nervous she was about it and hoped she passed the class. I remember her telling us what she was doing in our family group chat, and my mom even responded, “Nice Kells! Now if we have a heart attack you can revive us.”

So here we are in the hospital. They figured out what was wrong, they fixed it, but the big question was how she would be when she woke up. Our concern had now moved from the cardiac arrest to a brain injury. Not to mention all the other issues that come with both of those events. Breathing, swallowing, preventing infections, there are so many things that can go wrong. The most frustrating thing about these types of injuries is that the outcome is unknown. Experts base it on how long the brain was without oxygen, and how one responds to commands at the earliest stages, but it is very difficult. It was a waiting game.

We lived in that hospital for basically two weeks. We took shifts, we brought each other food, we knew all the nurses and doctors, we even knew their schedules. We had to force my dad to go home and sleep, but most of the time he didn’t. He would go sit in his car to get away or come to my house. He didn’t want to go back to their house unless my mom was back with him. When they say one day in the hospital equals a week to recover, that is no joke. We were all mentally and physically exhausted.

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Around the second week I decided to try and practice a little. It was more just to get away from the hospital and focus my mind somewhere else. I had already decided I was missing most of the grass season, but I still wanted to play Wimbledon if I knew my mom was O.K. My dad didn’t want me to play, but I knew my mom would be upset if I skipped because of her. So, if the timeline worked out, I was going to play.

Luckily, she made small improvements, she moved out of the ICU after about a week, and into an in-patient care facility. She was aware, talking a little, but a long way from her normal self. After a long two weeks, she was in a good set-up to start her recovery which we knew would take a very, very long time. Three of my best friends are doctors and after the situation calmed down, they told me that it was a miracle she was even on her way to recovery, as did every other doctor who worked with her.

I went and played Wimbledon and won my first two rounds. I was sick with a nasty sinus infection, probably from the stress of what had happened and living in and out of a hospital for two weeks. I had to deal with a lot of speculation and questions surrounding her health, even shutting down rumors that she had died. It wasn’t necessarily the most fun Wimbledon experience I remember. I had a few good wins, and I was proud that I was able to go out and compete considering the situation.

Today, my mom is still in recovery and although it is the same answer every time someone asks me, it is true, she is improving every day. She is dealing with significant expressive aphasia and significant memory issues. She can read, write, and understand pretty well, but she has trouble finding the words to respond. It is hard to deal with and it takes a lot of patience to communicate with her, but I thank God every day that we can still communicate with her at all. The doctors continue to be blown away by her recovery, considering where she started, and her determination is the driving force of that.

My mom is the president and owner of both the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills. She loved to work. She did everything and our family constantly told her how she needs to slow down and take time for herself. She was the woman behind my dad’s success and my dad would happily admit that. She jumped into this journey with him and learned many lessons along the way, breaking a lot of barriers. She was the shift in culture, positivity, and the heartbeat of many of the employees. She gave everyone so much of her time and effort. She lived it and loved it, and it was felt by everyone she met. Now we come to the realization that all of that is most likely gone. That she won’t be able to be that person anymore.

Courtesy of Jessica Pegula

My mom always wanted me to be involved, she wanted me to learn and eventually do what she was doing. She always told me to wait until after tennis was done. I would always press her to give me more responsibility, to let me be more involved, because I wanted to help. So now here I am, with my family, trapped in discussions about her care, caretakers, doctors, therapy and that which seemed like the least important, my tennis career. All of a sudden, your world gets flipped upside down and you have no idea what the f**k is going on. Our family is involved in a lot — the sports teams, businesses, investments, and my mom liked to be very hands on with it all. Of course, what came first was that it was a family tragedy. Now add on top of that all her responsibilities and it became extremely overwhelming for everyone involved. We try to be a private family, and it is hard going through something so horrible that seemed so public. My dad had to take on a lot of her responsibilities, which was hard for him, especially because the outcome of her health was still unknown. It felt like a massive void in the organizations, and obviously in our family. Then we come to the harsh reality of everyone else involved. Employees, fans, responsibilities, and many other details that needed to be dealt with. I won’t lie, I wanted to tell everyone to leave us alone. People acting like they should be privy to all our information. Even people we knew. I wanted to tell them all that you have no right knowing what happened, but at the same time people wanted to know because they were scared. Their leader, boss, friend, co-worker, all suddenly didn’t answer her phone, or emails, and all her meetings were canceled.

Suddenly, I went from “Let’s celebrate top 10 in the world” to “Do I need to start thinking about my career after tennis a lot sooner than I thought?” “Does my dad and family need help?” “Maybe I should just go back to school and work for the family.” I am 28 and I take pride in being able to handle every situation thrown at me, but this was A LOT.

In November 2022, I was able to win my first WTA 1000 title in Guadalajara, Mexico. Before the finals, I was uncontrollably crying in the locker room. I am not a big crier, but I cried. It wasn’t even sad tears, it was almost happy, because I just had this feeling I was going to win. In my acceptance speech I dedicated it to my mom. I wanted her to know that even after a terrible six months, I still fought every day because of her. If she could fight through what she was going through, I could too. She cried during my speech and trophy ceremony. I have wanted this career since I was seven years old, before the sports teams, businesses, money, etc. My parents have helped me achieve this dream I am living. Even though we didn’t always agree, they pushed me, and I pushed back, and it got me to where I am today. My mom deserved to see me lift a trophy after what she had been through.

Then in January we came to some bizarre, messed-up, full circle moment. Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field during the Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals. My stomach sunk because it felt like the exact same thing all over again. I was sitting on the bench for a tennis event in Sydney, Australia. I wanted to throw up. I was supposed to go on for mixed doubles in 15 minutes and I remember telling one of my teammates, “I am a little freaked out right now, this is too close to home, and I feel like I am going to have a panic attack.” Again, I usually don’t get too much anxiety, but the thought of what Damar and his family were about to go through hurt my heart. I knew how important time was. I just kept thinking time, time, time, time. I hope they got him back and quick enough. The medical staff and trainers who assisted that night really saved his life and were tremendous in his recovery. I ended up going on for mixed doubles and we won.

Courtesy of Jessica Pegula

Going into the 2023 Australian Open, I decided to wear the number 3 patch to honor Damar Hamlin. Ironically, yes, I was ranked No. 3 in the world. However, it didn’t feel like it was just for him, it felt like it was for my mom as well. To see the attention it garnered in Australia, across the world, in a different country, just reminded me why I love sports and the beauty of coming together. Some of my close friends who know every detail of what has happened tell me, “I don’t know how you have made it through the year, let alone finished No. 3 in the world.” I just say I have no freaking clue. I guess one thing I learned from the past year is it can be a great year, and a bad year, both can be true.

My mom is working hard in her recovery, she is improving, but where she ends up is still unknown. Luckily, we have some amazing people around us who have been crucial in helping her and without them I am not sure where our family would be. As people have gotten to know me more on court, and through interviews, they always tell me how calm, cool, and collected I am (for most part haha). I definitely get that from my mom (sorry, Dad). I like to think that our similarities helped prime me to deal with the obstacles of the past year. I have been writing this throughout the Australian Open as a sort of therapy whenever I feel some anxiety or just the need to vent. I didn’t know what my result would be but before I left, my mom told me to “take it seriously,” which my family and I laughed about because we weren’t quite sure what she meant. But like she always told us, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.”

It has been a tough year but at the same time I feel lucky and blessed. I am thankful she is still with us when other families may not have been so lucky. That she even had a chance at recovery when the first week in the hospital seemed so dim. Thankful for the doctors that aided in her recovery. Thankful that she is now home, that she gets to watch the Bills, Sabres, and my tennis matches. She never watched my matches before, because she got too nervous. Now she watches all of them.

Thank you to the Buffalo community for your patience. I know you have wanted answers and it took us a while to get there but it finally felt like it was time. Thank you to everyone who has respected privacy and shown me and my family tremendous support throughout this ongoing journey.