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A Letter to My Mom on Her 80th Birthday

Next winter, it will be 10 years since you’ve been gone, Mom. You were just 70 when that freaking brain tumor took you, and last month we marked your would-be 80th birthday. As my older son says, “Wow! 80 is OLD!”

In my eyes, Mom, you never got old. At 70, your complexion was that of a much younger woman. I am crossing my fingers that genetics and all those years watching you moisturize, moisturize, moisturize, will put me in that rarefied, “Wow — she looks so young for her age!" camp that you were a charter member of yourself.

Our paths were so very different.

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You did family first, never quite prioritizing a career, and you enjoyed your time at the local library, chatting with neighbors and offering book recommendations that they always thanked your for later. I was all about grad school and career — Career with a capital “C.” Ha. I no longer practice using the education I am still paying for. Sigh.

Even at 35, I wasn’t ready for kiddos. It wasn’t until you got sick that I switched gears. Caring for you is what showed me I did, in fact, have the skills to both pay the bills and care for little ones. I often wonder if you had never been diagnosed with cancer and I had never helped care for you that year the whole right side of your body stopped working, would I even have kids?

Your greatest gift to me was that last one — the one where you gave me the confidence I needed to care for, really care for, another and to know that it didn’t have to be a burden, but it could be a gift. Thanks, Mom. My kids thank you, too.

Sometimes, I wish the mother in me could reach out and hug the mother in you.

You died a few months before I gave birth. I missed you so much when our firstborn was an infant. So many questions, so much groping around to find my groove as a mom, so much searching for a mother source that was as wise and easy as you. You were common sense all the way, wrapped in a loving hug.

You were a really good Mom. I don’t think I ever told you that.

I know that now, deeply, in a way I wouldn’t have known if I did not mother myself. This stuff is hard. Like really hard. Relentlessly hard, while being soaringly, blindingly beautiful. Did you feel that way, too?

How on earth did you manage four of us? How on earth did you manage all those periods of unemployment Dad went through in the 1970s? I now totally get why we ate so much canned hash that one summer. And hot dogs. I marvel at the memories and now, awareness, of how much you did on your own. Holidays, presents, birthdays, meals, laundry — it was all you, Mom.

Sometimes, I wish the mother in me could reach out and hug the mother in you.

I think of you every day. It physically hurts me that you never got to meet three of your grandchildren. Lordy, how you would have loved them.

My firstborn, that babe I was pregnant with when you died, was named after you. We didn’t learn if we would have a boy or girl beforehand. When she was delivered and I held her in my arms just seconds after birth, the very first word she heard from her mother’s mouth was, “Donna.” Your name, her name.

Like you, she died of a brain tumor. I hold hope that my two Donnas are together, doing what you both loved best: reading. If you can, Mom, please love her and kiss her and tell her I ache for her and let her know that we’ll meet her there.

I hope to do this motherhood thing half as well as you did.

And my boys! Two boys! I am the mother of two boys! A few months before you died, when your brain was as compromised as your body from the tumor that grew inside it, you said, “Girls are better.” Ha! My boys might have changed your mind.

Our older son is 5 and smart as a whip. Too smart. Like you and Donna, he reads like a fiend. He can’t get enough of those books. His brain works in amazing ways. He would keep you so very entertained. I sometimes imagine how well he would fit into your lap, you reading him a book before bedtime.

Our younger son just turned 1-year-old. I sometimes hear you chuckling at the thought of me raising a newborn at 44 years old. Even better, this little guy is way more physical than the first two babies. He is a climber and a tester and a snuggler. He smiles so brightly, flashing all 10 of his teeth for the world to see. And his eyes are the shiniest, clearest blue I have ever seen.

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Maybe you know all this, Mom. Maybe these words are old news to you. Wouldn’t that be grand?

I love you. I miss you. I miss your quiet wisdom, your dry wit, your kind eyes, your easy acceptance. I hope to do this motherhood thing half as well as you did. You guide me still. Every day.

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