Dear Mom,

1980.

Dear Mom,

You know I don’t like to be told I can’t do something, so, this year, I’ve decided that I, too, can observe Mother’s Day, even though you have been gone almost 12 years. Since I can’t share the day with you physically, I decided I’d drop you a line and let you know how your first-born has been doing since I last saw you. I’m sure Mother’s day isn’t celebrated in Heaven—seems a little silly to think that it would, right? But it matters to me.

It seems like yesterday that I was that petulant 24-year-old, caught somewhere between the excitement, hope and possibility of young adulthood and the trauma of facing the future as a motherless child. It also feels like a million years ago at the same time; this year marks a third of my life lived without you. I’m often jolted by the realization that most of the meat of my life has happened since you left. I’ll get to that in a bit….

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately. The other morning, the topic of grandmothers came up during morning coffee with Dawn. Oh, Mom—I do wish you could’ve met her. I know you had dreams of me marrying a nice young man and while I’ve often wondered how you’d have managed letting that go, I know you’d have quickly adored her. Her gentle spirit reminded dad a little of you. She reminds me of you, too, in the ways she tries to bring peace and comfort to my life, the ways she makes my happiness a priority over her own. I digress. She posed a rhetorical question, “you know how you could just sense the love in grandmother’s food?” I paused for a moment, searching my memory for something to add to the conversation. I was uncharacteristically brief in my response: “No.” Having lost Granny at age 10, the only food I really remember her making was Rice Crispies cereal. Mom, do you know that, to this day, when I hear the snap, crackle and pop of a bowl of this cereal I think of Granny? Isn’t that amazing?

I digress again (12 years is a long time). Thinking of you as the generation in between her and me, I realize how much you must have missed her when she died. I always assumed a parent’s death was easier when you were older and “didn’t need” to be parented. Oh wow, how wrong I was about that. Sometimes I think it would be easier to navigate childhood without a parent than to try to do this adult thing as an orphan. I’m kidding. Mostly.

To be honest, I spent most of my latter 20s trying to convince myself that your death had brought liberation. I know you’d have worried too much about me when I joined the Air Force; you’d have worried yourself again when I moved to Washington. But mom, I got to do some cool things during those years. I think you’d be proud of the things I was able to accomplish. I know you’d have bragged to anyone who would listen about the first time you saw me in our country’s uniform. I know you’d have beamed if you’d watched me accept a Master’s degree as the sun bounced off the U.S. Capitol building a couple of years later—you might’ve even thought I didn’t need you anymore. You wouldn’t have known how much sweeter my successes were and how much more manageable my failures always seemed when you were “there” because at that time I was too self-absorbed to tell you how much you mattered.

In the years since your death, I’ve sometimes struggled to remember the little details that were once taken for granted. But, what remains firmly etched in my memory is the way your very presence seemed to make everything seem like it was going to be “okay.” I caught myself trying to explain this to someone the other day—the lump that formed in my throat surprised me a bit. It hit me how much I’ve needed that reassurance over the last year. I’m sure you already know how hard I’ve taken Dad’s death. I’m sure you could see how difficult this last year has been on me. I guess you know it better than anyone. With as much as I’ve missed him, I’m coming to understand that what’s been “missing” is you—you telling me that everything would be alright.

Is there memory in Heaven? If so, do you remember when I was a little girl and would talk your ear off with all my ideas and dreams for the future? Did I wear you out with my overly active imagination?! I’m sure you would’ve enjoyed taking a bath without me pulling up my little stool to discuss with you my Michael Jackson-inspired obsession with ending poverty in Africa with a massive PB&J sandwich campaign when I was 7 or the theory I had for curing cancer with cough syrup when I was 10. My ideas and theories are slightly more sophisticated these days. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could pull up a bigger stool and hash out with you the many things in my head.

While human kids were not part of my life’s dreams, you can see how much I love my fur babies. Do you laugh when I want to hide in a closet sometimes just to get “alone time” away from being needed? Ha. When you died, I didn’t fully appreciate all you did for us when we were kids. How tireless and selfless your approach to raising us really was. I’m sure you could’ve used a break, but you never asked for one. (Did you?!) You often went overboard with gifts and other “things,” but you know what, Mom? My best memories are the simplest. The time you took to be with us.

Watching old movies and eating stove-popped popcorn and The.Best.Nachos.I’ve.Ever.Had. Listening to music from the 50s and 60s and pretending I didn’t like Elvis. How you sang Bobby Vinton’s You Are My Special Angel to me when I’d crawl into your lap and how you’d insert “precious” for special when singing the same tune to Tammy.

Your humor. Do you remember how tickled we’d both get over things no one else thought was funny? Do you remember how we’d laugh until we couldn’t breathe, our faces beet red? Do you remember how I’d come into your room when I’d have a bad dream, even as a teenager, and sit on the edge of the bed? Did you know that I didn’t always wake you up? Sometimes I’d just sit there and listen to you breathing until I was calm enough to go back to bed.

Do you remember how you and Tammy always tried to get me to stay up late and play Scrabble and the time I agreed, only to spell out the word “IQuit” for my first move? I know you thought that was as hysterical as I did even though you told me to “just hush and go to bed?” Do you remember how we’d make fun of the ways Dad refused to relax on vacation and would run us to exhaustion on every trip? Um, I grew up to be that way. You believe that? I try to pack as much into a day as he did….drives Dawn as crazy as it made you.

Do you remember how I was so convinced I was adopted that it nearly ruined my 18th birthday? Your joking assurance that you “wouldn’t have picked me” was appreciated (you were joking, right?) I remember the letters you wrote to me when I was away at college and how they dripped with wisdom, unsolicited advice and thinly-veiled mothering (Don’t you be spending the night with any boys. You better not be skipping class so you can go to frat parties. Why are you using your emergency credit card at The Gap? Daddy is going to strangle you. When are you bringing Peyton Manning home for the weekend?) You won’t be surprised to learn that I still have them all. You might not know that I kept them bundled together inside a journal and could only bring myself to re-read them after Dad died.

I remember how you were the first person I called when I won a scholarship to complete an internship in DC. I am not sure which one of us was more excited about the adventure that lay ahead. I think you believed that was the beginning of my breaking away from you, of asserting true independence. It most certainly was. But it’s also true that you went with me and some of the best memories I have of being away involve our catching up during long phone calls and emails. You had no idea I was homesick, did you, that I still very much needed you even as I was learning to navigate the world on my own? For the most part, the good memories for me end there. At 22—soon after I graduated from college, cancer came to our world and life was never the same again.

I’ve wondered sometimes how things would’ve been different if you’d lived. Would we have become best friends again? (I hope so.) Would I have joined the military? (I doubt it.) Would I have left Nashville? (I hope so). Would I have pursued a different career path? (I think I’d be writing and you’d be so happy about that.) How would you have reacted to my being gay? (Would I have ever told you?) I’ve heard people say that their parents’ deaths allowed them to more fully be who they were—they no longer had to “please” anyone. I think I’d take my chances. I also wonder if your guidance would have prevented me from making some of the mistakes I’ve made in the last 12 years. You know I’ve made some doozies.

I now know what you meant when you would say how much you wished you could pick up the phone and hear Granny’s voice on the other end. What I wouldn’t give to talk to you about my life now—to hear the ways you are proud, to get your advice on those things I’m unsure of… to hear your reassurances that things are going to be alright. I know you understand how hard life is sometimes without your #1 cheerleader, the one who gave up her own hopes and dreams, even her own body to give you life—you were once a motherless child yourself.

I know you were proud of me. What you probably don’t know is that I was and am proud of you.

What you might enjoy knowing more than that: “You were right.”

With that, I’ll close this long letter (I get my challenge with brevity from you, you know) by saying Happy Mother’s Day. I’ve loved you every minute since you left.

Always,

Your Special Angel

Bobby Vinton’s Special Angel

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