I can’t really remember the last time I wrote you a letter. You’ve been gone so very long now, more than twelve years. Have I even written you a letter since you died? How long had it been since I’d written you a letter before you died? You were a big fan of letters—I hope somewhere in some boxes full of my old stuff, I have some of them. The only one I can put my hands on right now is in the top of my jewelry box.
Just now, as I thought of that letter, I went upstairs to read it. I had no recollection of its contents whatsoever, nor can I recall the last time I read it. I read it and wept. And wept. And wept. Not because it makes me miss you, although it does, but because it spoke so very directly to the very thing that I just sat down here to write to you about, after not having written you a letter in who knows how many years. I have been having this conversation with you in my head all week, waiting for a moment to write it all down. And then I sit down to write this letter, think spontaneously of your letter, and then read your letter, written during the summer of 1997 when I was traveling in Kenya—and stunningly and inexplicably, it was almost as if you were speaking directly back to me. How is that possible?
What I sat down to write to you about is this. There have been many, many moments since the day you died, that I have wanted to pick up the phone and call you, or write you a letter, or, as technology progressed, share something with you on Facebook or text a picture of your grandchildren to you or pass along something funny one of them said or did. When I got my scholarship to go to law school just weeks after you died, the first thing I wanted to do was pick up the phone and call you. When I fell in love with Ed. When he asked me to marry him. When I found out I was pregnant. The many times I needed your advice when I was a first-time mom. When Hudson got sick. All during my pregnancy with Jackson when I was absolutely terrified that something would go wrong. When I found out I had cancer. When I found out I was in remission. When I found out I was pregnant with Ada. All during Ada’s early months when I thought I would go crazy from all the crying. There have been so many times that I have needed you, so many things I have wished I could celebrate with you.
But one day early this week, I found myself thinking more about you, and in a deeper and more sustained way, than I have since the first weeks and months after you died. Back in January, I submitted a piece of writing to audition for a live show of essays about motherhood called “Listen to Your Mother.” I was honored and excited to be chosen to participate, even as I grappled with uneasiness about receiving attention or accolades for writing that never would have come to be if my child hadn’t died. My essay was about Hudson, of course, and throughout the process of rehearsing and preparing for the show, all of the emotional energy I sank into it was focused on her.
Until this week. And not because it’s the week before Mother’s Day. Of course, Hudson became ill on Mother’s Day and died four days later, so her death brought a new depth of sorrow to Mother’s Day, a day that I’d already endured without you for eight years before she died.
No, the reason I’ve been thinking about you so much is because of the show itself. As our opening night approached, several of the cast members posted on Facebook that their mothers were coming to town to see them. One mentioned that her mother had brought her a new dress to wear. Amazingly, that was the first time it occurred to me to even think about you in relation to the show. And once I did, it was like a light went on. Not just a light—a lighthouse. It was like the giant beam of a lighthouse shining directly into my eyes. How could I possibly have missed it all before?
One cast member’s essay is about caring for her ailing mother, just like I cared for you before you died. You were much younger at the time, as was I, so I just never made the connection. Another cast member’s essay is about how so many friends and family members took care of her child when she couldn’t, while another essay is by a mother who took care of someone else’s child when his mother couldn’t. It hit me that so many, many people did the same for you, long after you were gone, how many people took care of me when you couldn’t, first when I lost my own child and later when I faced a frightening illness, without the comfort and care of my own mother. Yet another essay is about a mother learning that her young daughter is pregnant, and it never even occurred to me to connect that experience to your own when my older sister told you that she was pregnant at only 18. Still another essay is about a mother finding the right words to tell her children that she has cancer—I’ll never forget the day I called you after you had a CT scan (one that I was certain would reveal just what we suspected: that you needed to get your gall bladder out), and knowing just as soon as you said, “Let’s talk about it after you go home, honey,” that you had cancer, because you were never one to mince words. Seconds later, as the panic rose in my throat as I pressed you for an answer, you said, resignedly, “I have cancer, honey.”
And really, how did I fail to miss the connection between you and my own essay, which is about the illusion of control over what happens to our children, an illusion that fools all mothers? I think about how many times, even as an adult, that I thought your anxiety over where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, and what might happen to me, was completely and totally insane. Yet now that I have my own children, I look back now and marvel at how you were able to let me go in so many incredibly important ways, ways that seem almost impossible to me right now as I look ahead to the future with my kids. I can only imagine how hard it was for you to send me off alone in my car to drive myself all the way to California where I would live alone for the summer when I was only 20. Or the courage it must have taken you to let me fly halfway around the world to live in a hut in the middle of Kenya for two months. Or how worried you must have been, how incredibly hard it must have been to bite your tongue when I was 26 and told you that my first husband had moved out of our house and that I did not want to talk about it, “so PLEASE DON’T ASK.”
How on earth did you survive these things? I can only assume that somewhere along the way, you came to the same conclusion that I am still muddling my way through after Hudson’s death—that you had only so much control over what could or would happen to me, and that at some point, you just had to make your peace with that reality. I wish so much that I could ask you about it now.
But really, more than the content of these beautiful essays from these amazing women, how is it that I failed to miss the biggest, brightest, loudest connection to you of all to emerge from my participation in this show?
I’m a writer, Mom. Just like you.
It’s not that I’ve failed to notice that very obvious connection during these last several years since I began writing in earnest, but this is different. This time, I took a piece of writing and put it out there in the world, a world beyond my blog, which is read by a handful of people who know me well and another handful of amazing souls who don’t know me at all but have followed my journey kindly and faithfully since it began. This time, I put my writing out there to be judged. I risked failing. I risked having someone say it wasn’t good enough.
And this is something that I know you struggled ever to do. What a gifted writer you were, Mom. I still struggle to understand what prevented you from sharing it, but I can only assume that it was fear. In your own eyes, in your family of origin, you were only ever a failure. I think you were so afraid of failing at something again that you just couldn’t risk it. Oh, how very sorry I am that you felt such a burden. Oh, how much worse off the world is without your gift.
What a gifted writer you were. I know in the very depths of my soul that of all the many ways I am like you, this one is the most important. This is the most important gift you gave me, Mom. And I have been afraid, too. In these four years since Hudson died, I have wondered, “Am I only a writer because my child died? Would I have anything to say if she hadn’t? And if not, what business have I to be writing now? Can I write about anything other than sorrow? And if I can, would anyone else want to read that?” I have been fiddling around with a book about my grief for over a year now, and I have yet to truly commit to it. Because I have been terrified. Terrified of failing, mostly, but also terrified of succeeding, because what would success with such a book mean? How can I have stumbled upon the work of my life in the wake of my child’s death?
And then I got up on stage last night with thirteen extraordinary women. And alongside them, in front of hundreds of people, I told my story. I told Hudson’s story. And it took my own breath away. In my blog, I can hide. I can be anonymous. I can read people’s comments. Or not. I can hide behind my fear of failing by just not writing at all. But on stage, I couldn’t hide. And once I got up there, I didn’t want to. I wanted to tell our story. Because I understand, really for the first time, that I have a gift. A gift that you had, too. A gift that you realized and understood yourself but that you were ultimately unable to share with the rest of us, to our great loss. A gift that you gave me. A gift that I want to share. For you. For me. For Hudson.
So I sat down to write this letter, this very long letter (oh, how very much I am like you, Mom), to try and explain all of this to you, how Listen To Your Mother has been prying at this crack that’s been sitting in my soul just waiting for the right crowbar, how much I have come to understand just in the last four days.
I sat down to write this letter, and then I spontaneously went to read the only letter from you that I can put my hands on right now. It’s four pages long, in your very recognizable handwriting, and it flows from the deep sense of relationship you had with God (oh, how very disappointed you’d probably be with your now-agnostic daughter). I was reading, reading, reading, in disbelief at how much you were speaking to me right now, in this very moment, until I reached the paragraph that blew open, irrevocably, that crack in my soul:
Wherever you go, you will make friends. . . because you carry peace with you, and love. This does not mean always bowing and scraping and humbly stepping back—although there are moments when God may call us to do those things—but boldly walking in the light of that peace and that love, allowing it to illuminate the darkness that will always rush at us in a broken world. Some people do this better than others, and I believe that you are at the top of the heap. That could be a heavy burden, but it needn’t be if you trust where it comes from and always seek wisdom in allocating that precious light.
Oh, Mom. There’s certainly no way you could have known then how dark and broken my own world would become. But somehow, even then, you knew just what I would need you to say to me 17 years later when I am still feeling confused, still feeling scared, still trying to understand it all.
You knew just what I would need to hear.
So I’m listening, Mom. I’m really listening. Thank you. I love you.