A birthday letter

I process nearly everything by running and writing. So when I can’t run today because I’m saving up my run days for my trip out west later this week, you’re left with my words. Today would have been my mom’s 68th birthday. Any new readers, she passed away from a three-year battle with ALS on September 22nd, 2011, a few days after we celebrated my 22nd birthday in the hospice.


I shared that experience recently at Janji’s storytelling night and a few people said that I was so strong for talking about something so personal. I’m never sure how to respond when I hear things like that because when I talk about what happened to her, to me, and to our family, it feels like another life. It’s almost as if I’m stepping outside the experience and observing it from afar. I’m not sure if that’s just a product of time passing or if it’s some defense mechanism so I don’t have to feel the pain again and again with each telling.

I know she wants me to be happy and wouldn’t like seeing me open up old wounds over and over again, but sometimes I worry that I’m losing our connection if I don’t feel intense grief every time I talk about her. Like that’s disrespecting her or might make her feel like I don’t care. Or that I don’t think of her every single day. Which is probably why anniversaries stress me out. I put pressure on myself to do something meaningful to honor her on her birthday, the day she passed, or Mothers Day. I feel guilty that when friends ask me how I’m doing on these days, I say that I’m ok and I truly mean it.

But the truth is I feel her loss more intensely in day-to-day moments that we all experience. I feel it when I get an invitation to a wedding and don’t understand what “black tie optional” means. Or when I’m treating myself to the occasional manicure, something we did together all the time. Or when I’m trying to find a pair of jeans and hear a teenage girl snap at her mom that she “just doesn’t get it.” (And when I want to scream at said teenage girl how lucky she is to have a mother.) Or when I achieve something I chased for years.


I feel it when I’m sick and just want someone to make me mashed potatoes and run their fingers through my hair. I feel it when I get my heart broken, and as much as my dad gives his all to be both parents, only a mother can understand heartbreak in the way I felt it. I feel it when I think about all the major life events I have yet to live. I wonder who will cry when I walk out in the dress, who will hold my other hand when I walk down the aisle, who will tell me “don’t worry, it’s normal” when my body does crazy things if I’m pregnant one day, and who will spoil my kids with chocolate chip cookies and ridiculous knit hats.

These are the things that feel like a sucker punch. It’s not a day on a calendar. It’s all the moments in between and it’s the guilt that I feel when I’m not responding the way I’m “meant to” on anniversaries. But it’s a guilt that goes back way before today. Mostly it goes back to one night at the hospice.

My dad was spending every night with her so I insisted he get some rest at home and I’d take care of her. She wasn’t able to communicate at this point beyond making some sounds, and she was always uncomfortable because she didn’t have control over any part of her body. She woke me up every hour that night so I could adjust her legs. After about the fifth time that she asked, I snapped. I don’t remember what I said, but I’ve never been able to let it go that I was mean to her on one of our last nights together. It kills me that maybe, in just that instant, she questioned how much I loved her.

So, let’s pretend she has excellent vision from heaven and can read this: I’m sorry. I love you. I think of you every single day. I hope I’m making you proud. And since many people I love today were never lucky enough to meet you, I’m going to share some of my favorite things about you. Plus, I inherited your love for letters and I write sappy birthday cards to my friends listing out all the reasons why they’re special. Here’s yours:

  • You made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. Dad thought it was a “secret recipe” but I always knew it was the recipe on the back of the Nestle chocolate chip bags. Don’t worry, I make it for him every time I’m home.
  • You always told Dad “We saved so much money today!” when we came home from bargain shopping trips. And you always hid some of the bags in the car.
  • You showed up, no matter what. I never wondered if you’d pick me up on time, if you’d be at my soccer games, or if you’d drive me to my friends’ houses across the county because you’d do anything for your family.
  • You kept your friends close. You didn’t have a big circle but you didn’t seem to care because your relationships were so deep. I try to do that now and you’d love the people who have become my second family today.


  • You numbered our Christmas presents and kept a list of each present so we’d open them in the proper order. And then you lost that list every single year.
  • You were selfless. When I told you that I wanted to stay in Maryland after college, you asked me why I wasn’t moving back to Boston. You knew how happy this city made me, and you’d love the life I created for myself here.


  • You were the silliest dancer. I have a hard time believing that you were a dance aerobics instructor because I mostly remember you bopping around with zero rhythm and loving every moment.
  • You were my favorite beach bum. I don’t understand how we sat for 8 hours reading in silence on the beach nearly every day in the summer, but those are some of my favorite memories.

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  • You loved Chardonnay, peanut M&Ms, and McDonald’s ice cream cones even though you claimed Dad was the one with a sweet tooth. I loved that you ate birthday cake every day towards the end, and it’s something I do on your birthday now because I know how much you looked forward to it.
  • You were stubborn, spoke your mind, fought loudly, and loved harder. You weren’t perfect – you held grudges a little too long and you cared too much about what people thought of you – but you felt everything. You showed me that imperfection is real and beautiful.

So, my wonderful readers, that’s my mom. That’s my reality of living without her and those are some of the things that keep me up every now and then. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. I hope that we can all live a little more like her – feel all the feelings, eat the damn birthday cake, love your people, and bring joy into your life and everyone around you however you can.

That’s it for today. I’m off for Portland and LA tomorrow so I’ll be back next week with some West Coast adventures. Have an awesome week.

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