This morning dawned perfectly cool and clear, one of those promising spring days when the brown trees transition to displaying just a little bit of green as the day warms. Birds are chirping, people are exposing their pale skin to the bright sun for the first time in months, lawn mowers are starting up in the distance, river traffic is picking up, and I am confused why this all makes me feel sad. Then it hits me… It’s Mom’s birthday tomorrow. And five days after that is the anniversary of Dad’s death. Up until five years ago Dad still reminded me, “you know what day it is?” And I would reply, “Yes, Dad, it’s Mom’s birthday.” And we would share a moment of remembrance.
Anyone following my blog from the start probably knows this year is very significant to me, with several meaningful anniversaries. In February, I wrote a letter to my daughter on her birthday. Today, I write a letter to my mother on hers.
Wow, another birthday. I wish I could be with you for it. You remember that book that I was writing about my experience with cancer while I was pregnant with Gwynne? Well, it’s finally getting published! It’s about time, don’t you think? You were all for it. I think you would like it. Your support meant so much to me at the time. And my own inability to help you just a few years later was so heartbreaking. I remember sitting at the end of your hospital bed rubbing your feet. That always made you feel better, but it felt so insignificant in the face of your terminal cancer.
This birthday of yours is significant to me not so much because of the age you would be, but because your birthday always started my countdown to mine, exactly four weeks after yours. This year I will become the age you were when you died. This year I start outliving you.
I can’t begin to relate how much you have influenced my life. You were so warm, so generous, so joyous, so full of life, so adventurous. When I was a teenager I (mostly) thought you and dad were cool. You were young when you had us and I always expected I’d have you both around for a long time because of that. It would have been hard to lose you at any age, but it seems doubly unfair that both of you were uncommonly young when you died.
What I wouldn’t give for a typical spring day like this one with you: after bounding out of bed and going for a horseback ride, then playing an hour of tennis, then coming home and weeding the rock garden, you would clean out and float in your little wading pool to cool off, relax in the dappled shade on the deck with your latest book and a cat on your lap, and finally we would sit around the kitchen table with a cup of tea and just chat, smiling at each other over the rims of our cups, before you started making the dinner you had planned. How in the world did you have the energy for all of that? Maybe you just used up a lifetime’s worth in the short time you had on earth?
You were always so positive. You said good things about us that I knew were untrue, like that I had a good memory for numbers. You were the peacemaker when any of the rest of us quarreled. You had endless empathy, especially for kids who had a rough start in life, like Dad or the foster kids we had staying with us on occasion. You were really smart. I remember being set straight by one of the other graduate students in your PhD program when I made a comment that something you did was dumb. He told me my mother was one of the smartest people he knew. Sometimes it takes an external viewpoint to be able to see what is directly in front of you. Another person who served on a board with you told me you were the best advertisement for feminism by quietly and effectively getting things done. You weren’t only joyful, nice, and smart, though. When you wanted something, you doggedly went after it until you got it, like finding a house in the suburbs where you could keep horses, or earning a PhD while at the same time taking care of school age kids and making sure they felt special and attended to.
What I remember most is feeling calm around you. When I went through that horrible time of cancer and losing Gwynne, you kept me calm. I wonder what that cost you, now that I have kids that I worry about. I know I could do the same for them, but I wouldn’t know where to put my own anxiety for them. When I think of you I see vignettes: helping you grade papers when you were in graduate school; making things like macrame and quilts together; going to the Smoky Mountains to ride horses or go tubing; chatting over tea; sharing the Ladies’ Home Journal on the couch – each sitting on an end with our feet toward each other, absently rubbing each others’ feet while reading, Dad in his favorite chair nearby with the newspaper and occasionally fiddling with the stereo to find just the right music; smiles and hugs; making a big deal of each birthday; Christmas and Easter breakfast with the traditional bread; Saint Nicholas bashes laughing till we cried at the outrageous poems we wrote for each other; sailing the little Sunfish in the river with the dog on deck; going whitewater rafting; camping; skiing; traveling.
You took us to visit a friend one day while we were back in Holland on vacation. It was a warm summer day, probably my 8th summer. You and your friends were sitting on the dock having wine and gossiping. We kids were wearing swim-vests and jumping into the water – I’m thinking it was the Ringvaart but I have no idea if that is accurate. I leaped into the water (“kids, try not to splash us, okay?”) and turned around to look at you and your friends silhouetted in the setting sun, enjoying your wine under the umbrella while I was held up by my flotation vest. “This,” I thought, “is the way life should be.”
I imagine if you could be with me today you would appreciate that I inherited your dogged determination and made my life as close to that as I possibly could. (I just took a break from writing to go sit on the dock and watch the sun set with a glass of wine.) I know you would be proud of me for the things I’ve done since your death. I had the weight loss surgery you suggested and maintained an 85 pound loss for over a decade. I started rowing at the age of forty and I can easily imagine dragging you along and getting you hooked too. It would have been so much fun to go rowing on the river together! You would tell people about my medals and I would roll my eyes while secretly lapping up the praise. You would celebrate the publication of my book. And, you would most definitely be having a glass of wine with me on the dock while watching the sunset.
I miss your warmth, I miss your calm, I miss having fun with you, I miss talking to you and really being heard. I wish you were here. But you’re not, and if I learned anything from you it’s that life is to be enjoyed. So here I am, watching the sun set over the water, making my life the way I want it to be, and doing my best to treat the people I’m around now the way you always treated people. Thank you for the life you’ve given me.