Today is my mom’s birthday; she would have been 64. Back in April when I wrote about losing her, I resolved I would write about her another time. Here goes.
One of the first things almost anyone would tell you about my mom was that she was a connector of people. She had a grace about her that put people at ease, that made her comfortable in most any company. She made friends for life, keeping in touch with people for decades (sometimes many); often just with an annual Christmas letter, but never letting someone drop from the list. She was also the hub of her extended family, the one who passed along the news, planned reunions, and chided people into attending. That grace with people – young or old, strangers or family – was probably the part of her that I most admired, that I most wish I saw more in myself.
My mom was supportive in a way that was over the top, except that it’s really hard to find support excessive when you’re on the receiving end. Once when I was in college, she drove more than 15 hours by herself to watch the first day of the conference track championships, only to miss the second day of the meet to drive home. When I hiked the PCT and CDT, she sent a care package to every. single. mail stop. Even when they were two days apart. That means packing a box that was likely full of homemade banana bread or cookies or popcorn cake, home-dried fruit, some hiker treats that she special-ordered from her buying club, and local newspapers or a magazine and getting it to the post office about twice a week for 4 months straight. It was always more than I could reasonably eat or use, and her answer was always the same, “share”. That’s a serious amount of time and effort and expenditure. It’s dedication. It’s the kind of love my mom excelled at, and I think it captures her in a lot of ways – she was capable, pragmatic, reliable, and giving.
My mom was a great traveler because she was adaptable. She was content. She was curious. She was easy-going. She liked trying new things.
My mom also aged well, partly I think because she was accepting and partly because she made a concerted effort to stay fit. When she reached that point in middle age when water skiing wasn’t a casual effort, she chose to do it more often instead of less.
Not coincidentally, if I wrote a description of the person I aspire to be, it would sound an awful lot like the above. In so many ways, she was what I was trying to grow up to become.
Don’t get me wrong – there were also big things where we differed, like religion. I resented like hell the years of her trying to quietly change my mind, the times when her religion counseled her to act in ways that were at odds with what I needed from her. But in the end, we had enough common ground to work around our differences.
It’s clear to me now even if it wasn’t at all in real time that when I was figuring out how this life worked and how I wanted to live it, my mom was the model. Not in the specifics, even some of the big ones; I knew I’d never be a mother myself. But the general outline, the part that went roughly like this: I would take care of myself and be good to people and live modestly and I could plan for a reasonably long and happy life. And I think we’d mostly agree on the definitions of “take care” and “good” and “happy”. And then things sort of fell to pieces, because my model for how this would work… she died at 61, decades too early. And she didn’t get hit by a car, and she didn’t get cancer from living with industrial toxins. She was hiking in the mountains one day, and then the next a blood vessel in her brain gave way. And for a few days it looked like a big hill to climb. But then she just start slipping farther and farther away. Her body failed her, without warning before or explanation after. And my innate trust in… life slipped, too. I don’t imagine growing old with the same confidence I did a few years ago.
I think of her every day when I see 408p on the clock, the time on my birth certificate. It’s become a little daily ritual to say hello to her and smile, to take a few seconds away from my day to tell her how I am doing or ask for the advice I need.
I hear her, too. Like many stroke patients, my mom was unable to produce speech in her final weeks. But even in the days when she was unconscious, her yawn reflex still triggered, including the verbal “ahhhh” on the exhale. I would startle a bit each time, because it sounded like she was just waking up beside me. Ever since then, I’ve noticed how I have the same involuntary habit, and I sound exactly like her. For a time it was eery, to yawn without noticing until being jarred by the sound of her voice, only to realize it had come from me, but these days it mostly makes me smile.
She is undeniably alive in me. Every day, in ways big and small. When I bake, can, knit, sew, when I kneel to plant, to weed, to harvest. She is alive in me when I reach out to a friend who has drifted, when I choose to volunteer. She is alive in me every time I choose to make more time for living and less for making a living.
I can’t help but think of this passage from Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir “Refuge”:
Let us toast twice. First to the older generation: may your days come to be many, full of comfort and understanding. May they be spent knowing that these days past have held a completeness uncommon and unknown to many, and that every detail of your beings continues in the lives of those who follow.
To the younger: may we accept these gifts, knowing that they are of this tradition, of this old-fashioned courage, of ethics, and that they can be carried along forever like rusting relics or they can be worn as wings. Let us wear them as wings.
Indeed, let me wear these gifts as wings.