A letter to my mom, 20 years later

A letter to my mom, 20 years later

Dear Mom,

This isn’t a regular day, but I don’t need an anniversary to remind me of how irrevocably my life changed 20 years ago. For years, I could barely function on this anniversary, although I don’t know why it’s called an anniversary. I’d rather not remember that day, and 20 years have certainly helped it fade. The truth is I wasn’t there. I was on the way back, but I felt it even before I knew it, like some seismic shift in my foundation. But you were not alone.

You were never alone. People loved you; your laugh, your wit, your brave honesty. People still love you, and I think of you every day. You are my anchor. You are my constant. You are still the opinion that matters most. For every decision I’ve had to make or obstacle that’s been in my way, your voice is the one I heard inside my head.

I am lucky for this. It’s strange maybe to say lucky. What’s lucky about me, the girl whose family died? Then I think of all the love, grace and drive you gave me, much more than most get in a 100 years. So, yes, I was lucky.

Even though you prepared me well for life and its many disappoints, I have made many mistakes. I’ve fallen into black holes that consumed me for years. I’ve not always done the right thing the first or second time. I know you forgive me. I know you understand why I’ve veered off course. I did the best I could without you. Because that’s the reality of these 20 years, learning to live without you.

I never stopped writing. Without it, I don’t know where all the fear and anger and pain would have gone. It helped me save some of the memories and face the truth. No one likes uncomfortable truths, but because you always faced your truth, it helped me find mine.

And after the horrors of the last 20 years and burning down all the tragedy to ash, I’ve arrived at some kind of happy. Happiness, I’ve learned, is something that nips at our hearts in moments. And I’ve had beautiful moments, the only thing missing was you. I’ve made a life for myself, probably not the one you imagined for me. But it’s a good life with the kind of people that don’t treat me like I’m damaged, rather they see my imperfections as evidence of a good and humble character. This life includes an amazing husband, who I think you’d love because of his sweet, calming soul. Your only objection may be that he’s a Cowboys fan.

I do wonder though if you’d be disappointed that I’m not a mom. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. That wasn’t my path. It still hurts sometimes, but I look at the love and devotion I give to my animals. And it’s simply enough for me.

A million horrible and wonderful things have happened in the last 20 years, and for every one of them, you were the first person I wanted to tell. In a way I still do because I’m always talking to you. It’s the greatest language I know.

Your time as my mom helped me survive the life I’ve been living without you. It has given me a unique yet haunting perspective. It has pushed me to know very precisely how I want to leave this world; knowing I shared my stories, I worked hard, I loved fiercely and I took every adventure.

I do still think about what that parallel world would have been; the one where you live; the one where we get to be friends. Because you always told me, “I’m your mother, not your friend.”  I would have loved to have been your friend. All those moments that never happened. I won’t get over that; it can’t be mended. Glad to have finally learned that some scabs never heal, and some holes never get filled.

But I am honored to have been your daughter. It was one of the greatest parts of my life. Even though it wasn’t for long enough, and I would’ve learned so much more from you about life. I’d still choose you over and over again even though I know you’ll leave too soon.

So although this world hasn’t had you for 20 years, I know I never lost you, I carry you in my heart. That’s a place you can never leave.


My Mom Wasn’t Perfect

me and mom

Mom & Me, 1984

My mom wasn’t perfect. She was an amazing person, teacher, daughter, friend and mother. She was also human and flawed. She didn’t always make the best decisions. She made mistakes. Of course, I didn’t always see things this way. It took time to realize this and accept it. I put my mom on a pedestal for many years. She was and always will be my hero.

I think it took me longer to realize her imperfections because I never really got to have an adult relationship with my mom. We were never really equal. I come from old school parenting. My mom said to me on more than one occasion, “I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.”

Because I didn’t get the chance to become my mom’s friend, I always saw her through rose-colored glasses. I didn’t want to take off those glasses. I wanted to remember only the good things, but in the end that hurt me, something my mom wouldn’t have wanted.

I never wanted to blame her for anything that happened when I was growing up – it was easier to blame myself. I did not want to take her off that pedestal. How could she not be perfect after her courageous battle against cancer? She was so brave, never feeling sorry for herself, never letting me see how scared she was. Very few people handle anything the way my mom handled cancer – with class and dignity.

It wasn’t until over a decade after her death and years of therapy that I began to see her as regular person capable of messing her kids up like every other parent. She would have never wanted me to see her as perfect; that’s now how she saw herself.

Listen, our parents fuck us all up in one way or another, even the great ones. We all know this is true. Parents are imperfect creatures trying hard to either be like their own parents or the opposite, depending on how they were raised. Guess what parents, whether you admit it or not, you’re going to mess up your kids so just own it.

Parenting today versus when I was a kid is drastically different. My best friend asked me if I thought she was a good mom. I said, “Of course you are. You are present. You play and entertain him. Did your mom play with you?” She shook her head no.

My mom didn’t really play with me either. She played games and cards with me. She gave me plenty of attention and filled my life with activities. But she didn’t get in the floor and play with me. She bought me lots of Barbies and books so I could entertain myself. That’s just how it was. I doubt her mother ever played with her either.

I’m not bitter about any of that. I never felt lonely as a child. I never was starved for attention from her. She was absolutely always there when it mattered. But there were boundaries. She did not coddle me or say I was always right. She was honest with me. She never treated me like a kid. I don’t really remember acting like one very much either. In a way, it felt empowering because I had responsibility and could make my own decisions. In other ways, it created big worries for a little girl. I worried about my mom a lot growing up. I remember worrying about her after my dad left. She was probably sadder about the situation rather than about him. I was really young when they divorced. I have no memories of them together. And to this day, it’s hard for me to picture them as a couple.

My worries for my mom never left and only got worse. It was hard for me to ever mention my stepmother in front of my mom. If I said anything nice, she would cry. I know she didn’t mean to be emotional. And she probably didn’t understand what it did to my little mind and heart. My loyalty was to my mom, which made be less than nice to my stepmother. This in turn caused even more of a rift between my father and me. Even though my father made a lot of bad mistakes and hurt a lot of people, my mom wasn’t helping the situation. It’s really hard to write about what it felt like to be a kid in this situation. Lots of kids have divorced parents. Some handle it better than others. My parents, due to the nastiness of what occurred between them, were in no way co-parenting. My mom was the parent. My father was just somebody I saw now and then. I can’t recall that he ever did anything that would register as parental.

It would have been more ideal if my mom would not have elevated me to adult status so quickly. I was always mature for my age. Maybe I wasn’t ever really a kid. It felt really great that my mom told me things. But it informed my opinion on everything – some good, some bad. This trust made it easier for me to share everything with her. This was until around seventh grade when I hated everything and everybody. Lucky for me, my mom was a teacher at my school. This was the ultimate embarrassment. I didn’t actually have her as a teacher, but my friends did. I couldn’t do anything without her knowing. I had this boyfriend that she adored. She was so mad at me when I broke up with him. I think I did it purely because she liked him. And thus the start of my rebellion!

My rebellious behavior got worse. I was no sweet, innocent girl by any means. Yet it was always important to me that she not know. She let me do a lot and get away with a lot. She trusted me to make decisions then deal with the consequences. She let me date at 14 and spend much unsupervised time with my 18-year-old boyfriend.

Me being open about my life and feelings had ended. I never told her when I lost my virginity or when I cheated on a boyfriend. I just didn’t want her to be disappointed in me. I wanted her to always have this image of me that I was her perfect little girl. I didn’t want to burden her with my worries; she had plenty of her own.

Maybe I did start to see my mom as more human during this time. It’s hard to see your mom sick; especially my mom because she was always so active and athletic. She was six feet tall and could hold her own. Until she couldn’t. Chemo made her weak. She lost a lot of weight and most of her hair. She didn’t look like the same person. So at that point, I knew she wasn’t invincible anymore. That’s a hard thing to learn about your mom, especially at 16. I try hard not to remember her that way. It’s difficult to erase those images. They are somehow burnt into my brain as a reminder of how fragile we all really are.

I know my mom made mistakes every day as a parent. She failed to protect me. She pushed me too hard sometimes academically without really ever asking what I wanted. She let me get away with probably too much. But she loved me fiercely and without condition. I’ve made a lot of decisions based on what I think she would have wanted both during her life and after death.

I still think a lot about the impact she made on my life and what she would do. But I’m my own person now. I’m not her. We are different, very different in some ways. Yet there’s still a lot about me that is absolutely her. I love those parts. I love it when my best friend tells me I’m making a face like her or if I say something that she would have said.

In the end, I think she would be impressed with how I turned out, despite those mistakes. I had an imperfect mother. She was wonderful and beautiful. I’m so glad I had her for the time I did. If I had to do it over again, I absolutely would even though I know how it ends.