A Living Letter to My Mother & Others
Life doesn’t always give us the chance to say goodbye before someone dies. This is why I’ve grown to respect and appreciate my in-law’s practice of saying “I love you” each and every time we meet. It both reinforces the message and ensures that we never part ways questioning this vital fact. It is also why I love the Ho'oponopono prayer, which is a repetition of the intentions “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” It’s a simple yet profound way to heal even the most broken of relationships.
Life almost didn’t give me the chance to say goodbye to my mother when the pain of living was too much for her to bear. Instead of a telephone call or a warm embrace, her body lay as lifeless as the letter that was written to her three boys. A piece of paper that raised more questions than provided answers. A message that I’ve processed or pushed out of my psyche along with many of the feelings and emotions that accompanied that day, that year.
My Mom; My Hero
I’m writing this because that is not how I wished for her story to end. Perhaps this is selfish, but it’s also a recognition that this is not how her story began or played out from my vantage point growing up as her son.
You see up until I left for college my mother was my hero. Dare I say a superhero. No, she didn’t leap tall buildings with a single bound and no I wasn’t blind to the fact she had faced and failed at many problems in life. She had a significant battle with alcoholism. Her marriage to my father was tumultuous at best and dangerous at worst. She had had a hard upbringing and a tenuous relationship with her mother. You might think that these facts might tarnish my view of her. In fact, they did the opposite. My mother had grit; sheer stubbornness and reserves of will unmatched by anyone I’ve met before or after (although I can see the beginnings of it coming through in my daughter).
My mom was a survivor that braved the storms of pain and poverty and yet somehow managed to do everything she could to put food on the table as well as make sure that we had everything we needed to feel like we had a normal upbringing. Logically, the smart option would have been to say that her children couldn't afford to participate in after-school sports and activities and should instead seek parttime jobs to pull in some extra money for the family. Yes, I still needed to work a summer job. It was the only way we had the extra cash to buy clothes for the new school year. However, that was tiny in comparison to the sacrifices that I know my mom was making so that her kids didn’t have to make many (if any) sacrifices.
The Brighter Side
Up until now, you might think that the only thing I’m proud of was my mother’s ability to take the punches that life threw at her, but that’s just one part of the picture. She also inspired me in ways that she probably would not realize or recognize even though they had a profound impact on how I view the world. One of those qualities was how much she cared about people and (more importantly) demonstrated it through acts of thoughtfulness and intentional acts of kindness.
For those of you that don’t know about my upbringing, I grew up in Montgomery County, which is a rural area in upstate NY about 20 miles west of Albany with a population of approximately 50,000 people. I still joke that my mom knew everyone in that county. While that is realistically impossible, it never felt far from the truth. Part of it was merely the access she had based on her various occupations. As the secretary of the elementary school, she was effectively the welcoming committee for every student and their parents over the course of several decades. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: a career of approximately 30 years with 100 students per year with 1.5 parents per student result in nearly 5,000 face-to-face conversations. In addition to her primary job, she worked the ticketing booth for the yearly county fair that would bring in 1000s of people per day. She also worked the county census. She had her own second-hand store.
Suffice to say my mother was connected to the community in a big way. However, this alone wasn’t what inspired me because a teller at a bank or the DMV might also meet hundreds of people a day and yet have no lasting or meaningful interactions. My mother lived at the opposite extreme. During strawberry season, she would hand pick dozens of quarts several times a week and then proceed to deliver them to friends and colleagues as a token of appreciation. And while the strawberry season is short-lived, my mom’s gifting was an all-year event. Everything from cards to baked goods, etc. She always made it a point to catch someone in their own act of kindness and acknowledge it.
It was this mindset of loving and appreciating others that resulted in a mutual, fierce loyalty towards my mother. Years later, as she was approaching retirement, the outpouring of support that she received was overwhelming. Everyone loved Joddy because Joddy made everyone (or at least most) feel important and noticed.
There was something about her that I only learned a few years ago. My family qualified for reduced and free lunches based on our income level (a fact that seemed embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect, I am so appreciative of how much this helped reduce the financial burden on my parents). Despite not having much disposable income, kids would always approach Joddy if they forgot their money or (worse) they didn’t have any. The school didn’t have a formal way of allowing these students to “borrow” money to get lunch that day. Always the giver, my mother would lend them money out of her own pocket as long as they could pay her back eventually. It worked. This type of gesture may not mean much to you, but it makes me tear up every time I think about it. It sums up so much of my mother—willing to give what she didn’t have to people she barely knew to reduce the experiences of pain and discomfort she knew all too well. That was Joddy. That was my mom.
My mom was my hero because I almost believed she was invincible to life’s adversities. As stated before, she couldn’t leap tall buildings with a single bound, but her sheer grit and determination made me believe she could stare down any hurricane the world sent her way. This, of course, was an unfair benchmark to measure her by because she was only human. Just like me. Just like everyone. What I was so blind to was just how much alcohol and other things were used to mask the pain she endured on the inside while convincing us that everything was ok and that we could also weather any storm.
No parent is perfect. Daily, I learn this lesson as I strive and fail to be the perfect dad for my Ev bear. My actions and aspirations can feel miles apart and sometimes as if they were moving in opposite directions. And yet if we could objectively zoom out and look at ourselves with kind, compassionate eyes, we would generally see people doing their absolute best given the circumstances.
Life doesn’t always give us the chance to say goodbye. However, it is equally valid that life affords us an almost infinite number of opportunities to stop, look someone in the eye, and repeat the Ho'oponopono prayer: “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Or say or do the myriad of other things that allow us to pierce our social masks and actually see each other’s soul and connect with each others spirit.
Mom’s suicide attempt and all of life’s chaos that came after it was incredibly painful. Incredibly painful. And yet I was not only wearing many masks during this exact moment in my life. I was also on autopilot and essentially sleepwalking through some of it. Maybe I'm projecting meaning where it doesn’t belong, but this was a painful yet necessary wake up call for all involved. For that, I’m grateful that it happened despite how much it hurt. Correction: how much it still hurts when I allow myself to go there and replay the internal movie of that terrible, terrible phone call and all the ensuing moments and memories.
Lost While Living
I still love my mother unconditionally. The events of the past happened and they have forged my brothers and me into stronger sons; stronger people. However, there is something we all have to acknowledge, and that is a part of each of us died that day, and we have all struggled to discover who we now are as a result. Sure, most of our previous psyche and spirit is intact, but not so much for my mother. There are glimpses of the Joddy of old that appear now and again. They teleport me back to the day where she attended my sporting events, and we played games of Canasta with my grandmother.
Unfortunately, these glimpses are occurring less and less often. My experience has felt similar to that of watching family member experience Alzheimer's, where they begin losing aspects of memories and personalities. They still walk and talk just like the person you remembered since you first could remember, but there is someone else behind the sounds and statements. The mother I love makes brief appearances behind the mask and is gone as quickly as she appears. Given everything else, it ’s tough to adapt to this new normal because to accept this feels like I’ve already accepted the fact that she’s passed on and left me with a stranger that I’m just now getting to know. It’s hard to put into words just how difficult this is, although I’m sure many of you reading this have had to deal with a similar form of loss.
I’m writing and publishing this letter to my mother to accomplish so many things. The first is I want the record to always show how much I love her, how much I respect her, and how much I’ve been shaped and inspired by my upbringing with her. Without question, she was my hero, and I still beam with pride when I talk about my mom, the woman who literally ran the school. The woman who basically knew everyone because everyone knew and loved her. The woman that showed me how to stand her ground and stare down fear. The woman who faced and sometimes lost against many demons, serving as a warning that I too have limits. The woman that taught me that even a hero can have an Achilles heel.
Regardless of how her story ends, I will always and forever remember the best chapters because they were her defining moments. And if in some way this letter gets to her and somehow, someway reaches into the depths of her soul and finds that Joddy, that mother that I knew and know… maybe, just maybe she can come back to us. We miss her dearly.
Still, for our own sanity and health, hope must be balanced with a heavy dose of reality because we all are, after all, human.
Second, if you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope that it may serve as a reminder to make the most of the time that you have on this planet and the time you have with the people you love most dearly. You may never know when you may get that phone call notifying you that your chance to say goodbye is gone forever. I encourage you to follow the lead of my in-laws and tell those that matter that they matter every chance you get. You’ll never regret stating it for the avoidance of doubt.
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About Rick Manelius
Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.