Those of you who have read my blog for awhile know that my dad died in a mountaineering accident in August 2009. It was a horrible shock, and our family struggled to come to terms with his sudden passing. We faced another shock when my mom died on December 23rd. She had not been sick, and we all expected her to live into her 90s, as her own mother did. Our only real consolation is that the doctors tell us she died quickly and without pain.
On Christmas morning, I flew out to Montana where my mom and brother live and spent this past week planning her funeral and figuring out what we needed to do to put her affairs in order. As you can guess, I’m feeling tired and empty and hollowed out. But I wanted to share some of what I wrote for my mom’s obituary and spoke about at her memorial service.
My mom grew up in a fun household. Just last year, my mom was telling me how, when she was growing up, her parents would not decorate at all in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, after my mom and her brother went to bed, her parents would transform the house into a Christmas fantasy land—decorating the tree and house and putting out presents. My mom told me how magical it was when they woke up and found the house transformed. She did the same for my brothers and I growing up (though not all in one night). In fact, my brother reminded me this week how one year she had three rooms of presents for us.
During high school, my mom was very involved and popular. She was a majorette, acted in the school plays and I think she might have even been a prom princess. As a young girl, I remember looking at her high school yearbooks and being so impressed. In college, she studied to become a teacher and taught in various forms throughout her life. When I got my first job, we had a good laugh when we realized that her first teaching job and my first job were in the same small town.
One summer, my mom worked in an unemployment office and met my dad, who was a shy young medical student at the time. I once asked my mom and dad to tell me the story of how they met and decided to marry. My dad was socially awkward and didn’t necessarily communicate all his feelings and intentions. Although they went on a few dates, the dates were separated by months—so much so that my mom never really considered that they were dating exclusively or seriously. However, my dad thought differently and had decided they would one day be married. Both of them talked about this one night they talked late into the night about their goals and visions for their lives—and both of them said that this conversation was what “sealed the deal” for both of them. So, a year or so later, when my dad turned up again after living in Montana for a summer, he asked my mom to marry him and she accepted. She told me that when she called her girlfriends to tell them she had gotten engaged, her girlfriends all said “To who???” When I asked my mom why she agreed to marry my dad, she just said “I just felt like he was the one.”
You might think that such an odd courtship might not have lasted, but my mom and dad were married for 42 years—with my dad dying just a few days before their 43rd wedding anniversary. My mom did amazing things for my dad—living in Japan when I was newborn and being left alone for long stretches while my dad was on his Navy ship; returning from Japan while 8 months pregnant with my brother and accompanied only by my toddler self; and moving across the country to live in Montana so my dad could fulfill his dreams of living out West. She also tolerated the stresses of being a physician’s wife—the struggle to pay off medical school debt, the uncertainties as my dad developed his career, and late nights, weekends and holidays on call.
My mom was “technically” a stay-at-home mom for most of our childhood. Once I became a mom, I realized just how amazing she was and how she expanded the boundaries of what “staying at home” meant. We had home-cooked meals every night (including salads) and she kept a clean home, but our mom was always intensely involved in our activities and school. When we went to a school that didn’t have a gifted program, my mom volunteered and created one. She was my Girl Scout troop leader for years. She was always volunteering in various capacities in our church. In the 1970s, she and my dad did marriage counseling (and got in trouble for once advocating birth control). She often helped troubled women. I know that as children, we often complained about the hours she spent on “other people.” But now, I am filled with pride and humbled by my mom’s boundless energy, generosity and empathy for others. It humbles me to think of what she managed to do, and how I struggle to raise one child, get dinner on the table (which is not anywhere near as elaborate as what she made), and rarely volunteer at my son’s school. It is like comparing yourself to Superwoman.
Once all of us kids were out of the house, my mom got “serious” about her volunteer work. She was heavily involved with various organizations in our Montana town—leading youth retreats, counseling battered women, organizing parenting programs, working with grandparents raising grandchildren and many others. She devoted thousands and thousands of hours to our community—organizing and starting all kinds of programs that are still in place today. At her funeral, so many people spoke of the various ways they worked with my mom, and many of them she never mentioned to me. It boggles my mind all that she managed to do and how many lives she touched with her work.
My mom was also an amazing grandmother. When she visited this summer, she sat for hours on the floor with my Little One playing with his toy soldiers. She’d jump right in to battle with light sabers, build with Legos, and tell stories. My son was very possessive of her and didn’t like if he had to “share” her with me. When he’d get home from school, he’d say “You’ve had grandma all day so now it is my time” and they’d go off and have adventures together. It was really neat to see.
My mom had a ton of interests. Her whole life, she was amazingly artistic and creative. She made us elaborate Halloween costumes, taught us how to make pysanky eggs, and had recently taken up crocheting. She loved the beach and amassed a collection of seashells from both coasts. She always reading a book and ready to discuss it. (It wasn’t just from my dad that I got my love of reading!) She was a fearless traveler, recently driving across country accompanied only by her beloved dachshund Maddie. She practiced yoga and tai chi, was a talented tennis player, and loved irises, sunflowers and daffodils.
My mom was a truly amazing woman. In many ways, I’ve spent my entire life trying to live up to her and feeling that I was failing. It can be difficult to be the daughter of a woman like my mom. I am tremendously honored to have been her daughter, and I cannot even wrap my mind around the fact that she is not here anymore. I discussed every aspect of my life with my mom—often disliking what she had to tell me but knowing that she was challenging me because she loved me. I don’t care how old you are … I don’t think you’re ever ready to lose your mother.
As I did with my father, I’m working on a way to honor her memory and maintain a connection with her spirit. She was working her way through Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach this year, and she had been sharing bits of it with me during our recent phone conversations. I took her copy home with me, and I plan on reading it each day as a way of connecting with her. I think this daily reminder of my mom and following the same path that she was exploring is a positive and comforting way for me to come to grips with losing her so suddenly.
So, as this new year begins, I urge you to remember that life is short and you never know when it may come to end. My mom’s death reminds me how important it is to fill our days with love, laughter and creativity so, when the end comes, we know that we lived a good, full life. I know my mom made the most of her time here on earth, and I’m sure she and my dad are thrilled to be together again.