Today makes two years. It was two years ago today, on September 23rd, that I received the worst phone call of my life. It was Sunday morning and I was still in bed, my phone in the other room. I heard it ringing, distant, the musical jingle breaking through the quiet September morning. I rolled over slowly, a sense of unease already stirring in the pit of my stomach. It was too early; who could be calling? Not that early, true, but early for a Sunday. The first football game hadn’t started yet. On Fox, Terry, Howie, Jimmy and the gang were still making their predictions about which teams would win, still letting fantasy owners know which probable and questionable players were active.
I lifted myself up out of bed, crossed the room, and picked up my phone. I retrieved the voicemail, a tearful message from my Aunt Sandy, my Mom’s brother’s wife, telling me it was an emergency, telling me to call her, or my Dad, at home. I called Dad. I should have called her.
I think about that moment – that decision about who to call – often. I wish I could go back and redo it. My Aunt would have been gentler, would have been kinder when delivering the news. But it was my Dad that I wanted to talk to. My Dad, hard of hearing, elderly, gravely ill with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer. My Dad, who was incapable of softening the blow. ‘Mom’s dead,’ he said, across the line, distant, emotionless. The bottom fell out.
And so they began. Two years that would shake and stretch and shape me. Two years that would threaten to shatter me. Two years during which – at times – I struggled and fought and kicked and screamed and rebelled against circumstance, insisting upon being OK by the sheer force of my will. And two years during which – at other times – I gave in. Two years during which I almost gave up. Two years that carved a hole in my family, that carved a whole in my sense of who I thought I was.
Today, as I stand on the other side of those twenty-four months, scanning the distance between then and now, thinking about what and who I’ve lost, and what – ironically – I’ve also gained, there’s one image that’s burned in my mind.
The image I can’t escape is of the last time I saw my mother. She is standing in the driveway of my parents’ house in Olympia. Rail thin, slightly disheveled, though she had pulled it together quite significantly from her collapse of a few days prior. Pulled it together for me, I suppose. We’ve just hugged goodbye, and after providing her with a list of caretaker referrals to help with Dad, after securing a promise from her that she’ll find a counselor, that she’ll talk to someone, I board the airport shuttle. As I turn to wave goodbye one last time, there’s a look on her face that I don’t think I’ve ever seen: it’s soft, yet sorrowful, with an intensity that’s completely unfamiliar, an intensity that’s very unlike my one-hundred-miles-from-intense mother.
I’ve thought about that moment many times over the last two years. I’ve wondered if she knew then that she was dying. I’ve wondered if she knew that this would be the last time she’d see me, her only child. I’ve wondered if the reason the look was so unfamiliar, if the reason she held me in her gaze so intently, was because she knew this was it, and she was trying to memorize my face. I’ve wondered if, in that moment, she was trying to memorize my face for all eternity.
There are so many gifts that my mother gave me; she was generous to a fault. There were cherished treasures that she bestowed upon me while she was still alive, and equally valuable gifts that I could never have anticipated receiving after she was gone. In addition to the ruby and emerald rings, the gold pieces from her jewelry box, the vintage wardrobe gems like two pairs of knee high Finnish leather boots, a Chloe scarf, a pink hand-beaded Leslie Fay cocktail dress, there are other, less tangible, things I take with me. Lessons about the person I want to be, based on who she was, and who she wasn’t. There are qualities I strive to emulate – her kindness, her compassion, her generosity, her sweetness. There are things I’ll never achieve. I’ll never be as good of a chef as she was, never master her green thumb in the garden. And I’m definitely not as nice as my mother was, not as giving, not as yielding. I’m more stubborn, more argumentative, more selfish.
But many of the qualities that I admired about my mother also let her down. I can see now that she never took time for herself, never set boundaries, couldn’t say no to the demands of others, even when they were outrageous. I can see how people took advantage of her, and how she let them. I can see how she absorbed every harsh word, internalized every worry, how insecure and how fragile she was. I can see how she burned out, how she couldn’t ask for help, even when she desperately needed it.
People who knew us both tell me that we’re alike, my mother and I. We have the same smile, the same laugh, the same mischievous sense of humor. We look alike and we even sort of talk alike. I’m grateful for all of it. But (I’m sorry, Mom), I’m also grateful for the ways that we’re not alike. I’m grateful that I’m able to set boundaries in order to protect myself, in ways that you couldn’t. I’m grateful that I’m strong enough to say no when something isn’t right for me. And I grateful that, though, like you, I’m strangely resistant to asking for help when I need it, I’m beginning to overcome that. I’m starting to ask. And I’m learning that when I ask, help tends to arrive, and it really does, well, help.
So on days like today – which are often – when I’m missing my Mom so badly that it threatens to overwhelm me, I try to hold on to what I know is true: my mother loved me, she wanted my happiness above all else, and she wouldn’t want me to use something like her not being here as an excuse to give up. She would want me to keep going. She would want me to be strong in ways that she couldn’t. She would want me to embrace my life.
Today marks two years since I lost the most important person in my life. Before I know it, it may be ten, twenty. But what time, what death, what grief can never wipe away are all the beautiful, generous gifts that my mother gave me. And on this day, two years hence, I pledge this gift to you, Mom: I promise to never stop pushing. I promise to take nothing for granted. I promise to be happy in every way that I can. And I promise to do all of these things, even when it’s hard. Even on days like today. Especially on days like today.
Thank you, Mom. I love you. I’m so grateful for everything you gave me.
Until next time, friends.