Last year, I made a quick visit home to see my parents. When the taxi cab picked me up to take me to the airport, my parents stood on the porch and waved prompting the taxi driver to talk about how much love their simple action conveyed. He seemed to be from a far away country and to understand the difficulty of distance. Implied in what he said, was a directive to make sure that I said what I needed to say and that it was never the wrong time to express to others all that they have meant to us. When strangers speak to me in this way, I assume that I am encountering an “angel unaware” and listen. In response, I wrote my mother the letter below. I am grateful that she received it and got to read it before her death. At her funeral last week, I shared it with those who came to honor her with a few additional comments. A friend advised that I share it here.
The last few times I’ve been home, I’ve heard you praying in your room, sometimes at night and, during this last visit, in the afternoon. You are often praying for me and Adam and the boys. Thank you. Your prayers help and are reassuring to me.
There are many things I would like to tell you but it is hard for both practical and intangible reasons. The decline in your hearing inhibits conversation and that must be very frustrating to you. But I don’t know whether I could say everything that I want to even if your hearing was perfect. Sometimes it is too difficult to say things verbally and in person.
Ours has not always been an easy relationship. We have different temperaments and have lived such different lives that it is sometimes hard to see eye to eye. But that does not mean that I don’t love you or value all that you have taught me. In this letter I want to tell you some of what I’ve learned from you.
Some of the best lessons are epitomized in memories. I remember shopping trips to find just the right dress with a stop for a yummy lunch or milk shake along the way. Often these trips coincided with a teenage disaster – a romance that didn’t work out, difficulties with friends, or some other such drama. From you I learned not to get too bogged down in whatever was troubling me. In telling me, “Find the right dress and get on with your life,” you were telling me to define myself versus letting others define me. It is good advice and it has stood me in good stead through many storms. Also embedded in these memories is the lesson that taking care of yourself is important, even when you feel your worst. Over the years, I’ve seen others give up on many aspects of their life in the face of difficult moments. From our shopping trips, I learned that, failure or triumph, I was important enough to invest in, whether that be through something seemingly superficial as a new dress or through something more substantive like getting a Ph.D.
Next, I remember you telling me to clean up my room. At the time, I found it torturous. I have no idea what I thought I should be doing instead but I did not like doing it. And I really didn’t like being compelled to do it. But now that I have my own home, nothing makes me happier than creating and coming home to at least a semi-orderly environment. It will never be as orderly as yours but relative to where I started, I’ve come a long way! And I’ve learned that if I can’t manage to make my bed, it is unlikely that I can organize myself to achieve other goals. Most everything I do, both personally and professionally requires some level of planning and organization. I don’t come by these skills naturally. So if you had not taught and modeled these attributes consistently, I most surely would have no capacity to organize my family, my work, or myself.
I remember you helping not only me weather life’s ups and downs, but my friends and your friends too. Someone I knew would be sad or in crisis and would turn to me for help. Not having a clue what to say or do, I would tell you about it and you would say, “Go get her and bring her here. “ I would do that and then maybe we’d make brownies or play the piano. The friend’s crisis might be discussed or not. It was the being together that was important and communicating to someone, that as a friend, you would drop everything for them if they needed help.
You also put yourself in other people’s shoes and anticipated what it might be like to be the new person in school or the person without family at a holiday. I remember many holiday meals with older friends of yours who were otherwise alone. And I remember you encouraging me to reach out to those who were newcomers and to make them feel welcome. I didn’t always do this as a young person. For kids and teens it seems “cooler” to exclude than include. But I remember the lesson and regret the times I did not heed it.
You were a fierce advocate for me and for yourself and I’m sure for others. This was difficult for me when I was young because I didn’t see other mothers standing up for themselves and for their kids in quite the same way. You were not afraid to make noise when something was not up to snuff. Over time, I have learned that being able to take a strong stand, particularly as a woman, is an important skill. I employ it judiciously but when I do, I think of your strength and fire and channel you when I need to fight for myself or someone I love.
I remember and witness still how committed you have been to your marriage. Sustaining a marriage is somewhat like building a structure. As the building goes up there are setbacks, things are more complicated than it looked like they were going to be at the start. Along the way the builders are tempted over and over again to abandon it. Perhaps, they think, it would be a better structure with different framing or a different type of sheetrock or lighting. Maybe the whole building should be scrapped and restarted with different materials. But the most important part of a building is the foundation. If it is solid, then all else can be fixed. You and Daddy had a foundation of commitment and partnership, which seems to have helped you through the spells when you wanted to tear the whole thing down. That is a powerful model for a child. Not every marriage can or should be continued. But almost every marriage contains moments where one partner or the other believes it should be discontinued. You and Daddy found ways to weather those moments. For that I am grateful.
You hate it when I go to China and I am sorry for making choices that worry you. But you should know that it is because of you that I am brave. You made me try things and encouraged me to learn by travelling. It was you who encouraged me to go to Spain during college. I didn’t know anyone else going on that seven-week course. I spoke the language in the most rudimentary way. There were no cell phones to keep in regular touch with home. I would be living with a family I didn’t know. It was a true jumping off point but you greeted it not with anxiety, but with excitement. You told me I’d never be the same after the trip and it was true. The result I’m afraid is that I’ve wanted more and more of learning about other cultures, languages, and people. My work in China is one of the greatest gifts of my life. But I would not have been brave enough to do it if you had not encouraged me to travel. Likewise, because I am adventurous, I have faith that my boys will thrive through their own adventures. Skylar in particular craves this. I will be able to let him have his adventures because you have been able to let me have mine.
You taught me the joy of books. From the soft books I had in my crib as a baby, to the “little books to put in a pocket”, to telling me about your love affair (pre-Daddy!) that featured Thomas Wolfe’s novels, through having me listen to poetry recordings, to encouraging me to write my own poems, to sending me books in college you thought I might like, you gave me a love of language and literature that is deeply a part of who I am. I love language and books because you loved them first.
You gave me faith. As I grew older and you told me about some of the deep difficulties of your own childhood, you told me how God sustained you and put people in your life to help and encourage you. Those difficulties did not characterize my life and so my faith is in some ways different. But I believe in a merciful, loving God who asks us to show the rest of the world His love because of you. If you, who suffered so much so early, can believe, then so can I.
Lastly, you taught me about cycles of life – birth and death – celebration and sorrow. Recently I facilitated one of the UNC summer reading groups for the first year college students. The book, “Being Mortal,” examines our collective experience with death and end of life choices. In the training to prepare discussion leaders, one of the facilitators was talking about how death used to be something children were taught to deal with quite naturally by their families. Yet, in the current age, parents avoid the topic. I remembered vividly Eloise’s funeral and all that you taught me through that experience. I had been to perhaps one funeral before that, Uncle David’s. But at this one I was older and you walked me through every step. We walked to the coffin together and you showed me all the details. How she was buried in the pink dress she had chosen. How she wore her wedding ring. You sat by me as we all talked with the minister about our memories of her. You showed me that, although we all wish those moments wouldn’t come, they could be faced with equanimity and grace and were more meaningful when we could summon courage to look whatever was before us straight in the face.
There is undoubtedly more to say but perhaps that’s enough for now. You have been a strong, beautiful, exasperating, and inspiring, mother. Like all mothers, there may be things you wish you’d done differently or perhaps you wish I’d made different choices. As a mother now myself, I know I question my own choices regarding the boys regularly and, of course, question theirs as well. But as we “approach the end of the road we will go together” none of that really matters. What matters is that you have given me all that I need to have a good life and that I love you with all my heart.
So that is the letter. And since she passed, I’ve been waiting for some sort of visitation. After all, if anyone’s mother were going to haunt them, it would be mine! But so far, all has been quiet. I think now I know why.
Thomas Wolfe described death saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth…”
I think my mom has found that place. And she is very busy getting everyone there sorted out.