Dear Mom

My favorite memory of you was long ago, early in my teenage years. I wanted a pair of railroad crossing cross bucks. I knew of a pair in good condition at an abandoned crossing far outside the city. So you drove me in our family station wagon to this crossing, surrounded by nothing but miles of Kansas farms and wind. You parked next to the signpost and I realized for the first time these signs are much larger and taller than they appear. I stood on the roof of the station wagon and discovered I was just tall enough to almost reach the bolts holding the sign to the post. But you wouldn’t let us leave without the sign.

So we found an old rusty chain in the back of the station wagon, attached it to the hitch, and looped it around the signpost. You sat behind the wheel and slowly pressed the accelerator pedal. The tall wooden post wouldn’t budge. The station wagon’s rear tires spun a few times, but undaunted, you kept easing down on the pedal. At last, the post creaked and began to tilt. That’s when, far off in the distance, I saw a farm truck speeding our way down the country road, a line of dust swirling in the wind behind it. I called out to you and you backed the station wagon up a few feet to allow the chain to fall to the ground. As the truck approached, we sat on the tailgate and chatted, in my mind skillfully disguised as just a mom and her son inconspicuously hanging out on the side of a country road next to an abandoned railroad crossing. The farmer wore a toothy grin as he waved and slowly passed.

Ten minutes later, we had the signpost pulled to the ground. I unbolted the four foot long cross bucks, slid them into the back of the station wagon, and we were on our way. It was the first and only time you helped me commit vandalism and theft of public property. In fact, I don’t recall you even breaking the speed limit, so this was well outside the ordinary for you. Or so I thought at the time. My teenage self didn’t understand or appreciate the devoted mother who would do practically anything for her children.

You left us October 4, 2020 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. The last year of your life, this cruel and unforgiving disease stole the insatiable cheerfulness and optimism that made you legendary. You had a laugh that could be heard a mile away, and you laughed a lot—folks could always tell when you were nearby. And I rarely heard you criticize a soul. In today’s world, your brand of positivity was welcome and refreshing. If the world would have listened, you could have taught us much about kindness.

You also taught music. It was more than an occupation to you—it was a defining passion. And you had a voice that could pack a concert hall. You earned a master’s degree in music in an era when few women even went to college. But despite your talents and your education and your passion, you gave up a full time music teaching job to raise my brother and I. For most of my life I struggled to understand why you seemed so happy to have done that. I wondered if that is what parents are supposed to do—what I was supposed to do when I became a parent. Only recently have I realized that was your choice to make. It was a gift you gave to me.

You wouldn’t want to be repaid for your gifts. Instead, you would have wanted me to spread optimism and kindness so that these things wouldn’t die with you. You would want me to take advantage of the opportunities your sacrifices afforded me. You would want me to decide what unique gifts I will leave for your grandchildren.

It’s difficult to appreciate the hard work, sacrifices, and devotion of one’s parents until you become older or a parent yourself. By then, it can be too late to thank them. Except for that time we stole a road sign, it was difficult for me to appreciate your unconditional love. I was frustrated by your concern for me, by your checking in on me when I was obviously doing just fine, by your single-minded devotion to my well-being. I was too much of a free spirit to understand. Though I was desperate to break free, you simply never let me.

The last time I saw you, on my last visit to your place before you passed away, I had a few moments alone with you before I left for home. You were lying in a hospital bed under hospice care in your living room. You had been speaking mostly nonsense for the prior couple of days, but when I gave you a hug and said goodbye, you replied “I’m sorry.” You spoke strikingly clear, like you had been waiting for this, gathering all the strength and clarity you could muster. I was confused. You had nothing to apologize for. It was as if you were somehow blaming yourself for the hospice nurses invading your house several times a week, the hospital bed cluttering up the living room, or the years you gave me everything you had. I should have been the one to apologize. I should have understood so much more than I did. I should have not taken so much for granted. But this was a moment that epitomized your life—apologizing for something that wasn’t your fault, taking the blame, being the one to give.

Not this time, mom. I simply won’t let you.

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