“Maybe it’s okay
if it takes time,
to be okay.
healing is a road that is
lined with endless grace.”
– Morgan Harper Nichols
How do I begin? Usually, I’m the one other people come to when they need help figuring out what to say. But in trying to figure out what to say to you – my best friend, my first phone call, the person I miss most of all – I am utterly lost. My fingers are clumsy on my keyboard. A heavy brick sits squarely in the center of my chest.
But still, I will try. I will try because you deserve it. You deserve to know all of the things I have been thinking but haven’t been able to say.
Seven years. Seven years since I got the worst phone call of my life. Seven years since all the color bled from the world and the sky turned black and nothing would ever look the same again. Seven years since you left.
Seven is an impossible number. It is impossible for me to believe it has been seven years since I’ve seen your face, or hugged you in an airport, or heard the familiar, “Oh hi, Sar,” on the other end of the telephone.
But seven is an impossible number for another reason. It is impossible to believe how quickly the years have elapsed since you died. It seems so cruel that time has marched on, indifferent, and that I have lived and loved and struggled and succeeded and hoped and failed throughout most of my thirties without you. How unfair that the worst thing I could possibly imagine happened to me, and all I could do was survive it? How awful to learn that I not only could go on without you, but that I would go on. I would go on to become a better, braver, more compassionate person in your absence, and that better, braver, more compassionate person is someone you will never get to meet.
Damn it, it’s so unfair. And yet, it is. The unfairness of life is one of the most profound lessons I have learned from your death, Mom. As children, we are taught to believe that kindness will be rewarded and the good guys will win and that everything will work out in the end. And sometimes, those things do happen. But other times, they don’t. Other times, life shocks you with its randomness. Sometimes, terrible things happen that don’t make any sense and there’s nothing to do but accept them.
For a while, I was angry with you, Mom. I was angry with you for dying. I was angry with you for leaving me at the worst possible time. Dad was dying, and Grandma was losing her mind, and Grandpa was wheelchair-bound and depressed, and you just checked out. You left the building and left me to deal with the mess you left behind.
When you died, I was in the prime of my life. I was thirty-one, living a sun-soaked existence in Los Angeles, doing exactly as I pleased. Before you left, my biggest concerns centered around whether my agent liked my new headshots or how many auditions I was getting. And then suddenly, everything changed. Suddenly, there were a million hard decisions to make. There was probate court. There were health care directives and funerals to plan and boxes and boxes and boxes of belongings to sift through. There was a home to sell. My family home, or at least it used to be, before I watched you unravel within its walls. And then, there was Grandpa. Your sweet, heartbroken father, who could not reconcile the fact – no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him – that someone who was only sixty years old and in seemingly good health could suddenly just die.
It was relentlessly unfair, Mom. And I was not ready for any of it. In fact, for a while, I was convinced it would kill me. I was convinced that I would die. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t. Even though everything was horrible and gut-wrenching and wrong, I survived. And a funny thing happens when life deals you the worst cards you can imagine and you continue to breathe in and out. You learn something about yourself. The world is suddenly, irrevocably, different, and you are different in it. You can’t go back to the way you were, and you find you don’t want to.
I am going to say some things now that will probably sound awful, but I have to admit to them because they’re true. If both of my parents had to die, I’m glad you went first, Mom. Because my relationship with my father needed repairing and those last few months with him were a gift. I’m grateful for the dinners we had and the football games we watched and that there was nothing left unsaid between us. I’m grateful he got to plan his own funeral, and that I was able to carry his ashes down the aisle of the church, and sit in the front row with Deirdre and Dave and Matt and pretend to be the good Catholic girl he wanted me to be. If you hadn’t died, Mom, I wouldn’t have done any of that. I would have been too busy holding you up.
And even though I blamed her cruelty for causing you to turn to the bottle in the first place, I’m grateful for the daily phone calls with Grandma before Alzheimer’s erased her memory. I’m grateful for the realization that even though she was a terrible, abusive mother, she was still in pain over losing you. I’m grateful for the knowledge I learned earlier than most: that love is complicated and people are too, and most of us aren’t working with a full tool kit when it comes to matters of the heart.
I think you already know this, Mom, because I choose to believe that you see and know everything I do, but I will confess it to you anyway: I have lied about your death. I’m not sure how many times, but there is one time in particular that stands out. It was after we found out Grandpa was dying, and I was on a plane headed back to Seattle to be with him. The woman seated next to me was one of those busy body, Matriarch types, and before I knew it, I was telling her my entire life story. And when she asked me how you died, I lied and said “Cancer.”
It embarrasses me now that I did that, Mom. Why should I care what a complete stranger thinks? But at the time, I was trying to protect you. Or rather, I was trying to protect us both. I was afraid that if I told the truth, the busy body Matriarch seated next to me would think you were a terrible mother. Or I was a terrible daughter. Or there was something wrong with our family. Or – worst of all – you didn’t love me enough to stay alive.
I know that none of this is true, Mom. What is true is that for most of my life, you harbored a deep, dark sadness. A sadness I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fix. And you drank to feel better, and the alcohol worked until it didn’t. Until it killed you. But I don’t think you wanted to die, Mom. I don’t think you wanted to leave us. As one of your friends once told me, “Your mother was so tired. She just wanted to sleep.”
Shortly after you died, the man I used to be married to told me he was jealous of our relationship. He said he was jealous of how close we were, because he didn’t have that with his own mother. His words caused me to fly into a blinding rage. I was so furious at the unfairness of losing you, so devastated by the gaping hole your absence had only recently carved into my life, that I simply couldn’t hear it. But looking back, I’m glad he said it, because he only illuminated what was true. In thirty-one years, I never doubted how much you loved me, Mom. Not once. You gave me everything you could, and I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to call you my mother. Nothing will ever change that. Not even death.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in losing you, and in losing Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, is that healing is a road that runs straight through forgiveness. In order to move on, you have to let go.
It has taken me seven years to be able to say this, but here it is: I forgive you, Mom. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for leaving me at the worst possible time. I forgive you for needing to sleep.
And I forgive myself, too. I will have to say that again and again in order to believe it, so I guess I better start practicing now. I forgive myself. I forgive myself for not being able to save you. I forgive myself for every horrible, awful, selfish thing I did in the years since you died. I forgive myself for the mistakes I made, for the time and the money I wasted, and for all the ways I hurt myself. I forgive myself because I can see now that I was doing my best. I can see now that I was only trying to survive.
You stayed alive for me as long as you could, Mom. And now, it is my turn to stay alive for you. But I won’t just do that. I will do you one better. I will write the story of your life, and my life, and the story of all the ways in which our two lives are irrevocably intertwined. And as I do that, I will put this sad, seven-year season behind me and move forward into the future with a still-fragile yet hopeful heart. Because, do you want to hear something crazy? Even after everything that’s happened, I’m still an optimist. Even after all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in happy endings. I still believe that people are good, and love is real, and we will be OK. And most of all, Mom, I believe that being your daughter is the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.
Thank you for being my mother.
I love you.