Friday, August 29, 2008

"Love You and Miss You, Mommy"

I spent my morning finishing the birthday cards that will accompany the children's future birthday gifts. I bought each child a birthday gift for every birthday between now and age 18 plus a gift for their high school graduation. I stopped it there because I had to stop somewhere and 18 seemed like a natural endpoint. I still have two more gifts to wrap for Amelia, my watch and my diamond earrings. I was waiting on those in case I wanted to wear them again but I don't really need them and I'd rather have them ready just in case I get blindsided by death sooner than I expect. I have one more gift to buy for each of them and this heartbreaking task will be done.

It was hard to write the cards. As I got further away from the present I realized I was writing to people I did not know, people I would never know. I can imagine the teenagers and the adults that they might become. I can see Amelia as a mother with at least three kids who works part-time as a vet or a pediatrician. That's her current plan and I can see that in her now as a nine year old.

Aidan is a bit more of a puzzle. When I watch him build with his legos, it's hard not to imagine him as an engineer or architect. In his first grade class, the students were supposed to draw a picture of themselves in their future career. Aidan drew himself and wrote, "I don't know what I want to be when I grow up." And surrounded the figure with question marks. I think it's healthy that he is keeping his options open. And like most boys his age, he never indulges fantasies about being a husband or father. Though I suspect that someday he will be one rough-and-tumble dad.

I know the career ambitions of children morph a lot along the way. My first plan was to be a cookie. Seriously, if you asked me as a toddler what I want to be when I grew up I answered, "A cookie." I guess at some point I realized that was not an option. I remember wanting to be a special education teacher for a long time because I wanted to work with children with Down's syndrome. After I started doing community theater I wanted to be an actress but my dad made it clear that he would not pay for any college education involving a theater arts degree. I don't know why I picked nursing. It was safe, easy to get a job, practical. The problem was I hated it as my college major. I swtiched to an undeclared major for a semester and discovered economics but when I looked in the help wanted ads, there were no positions for economists. My working class view of the word got the better of me and I went back to nursing. I finished my degree and became a pediatric nurse.

My initial instincts were correct: I didn't like being a nurse. I didn't mind the patients or the families, but I hated the way many doctors assumed I lacked intelligence and was beneath them. Few recognized that the nurses often knew far more about the patients than the doctors did. I lasted two years, during which I also received my Masters in Public Health. From there I started my doctorate in Health Policy and Administration and, there, I finally found something I really enjoyed. I liked the research and teaching aspects and found the field fascinating. So, in a very round about way, I found a career that was perfect for me.

So. knowing all this, I suspect my own children may end up far from where they intend to be at the outset. Of course they may be like Bill, who has always wanted to be a doctor. In fact, he won a state science competition with his work on antibiotic resistance when he was in high school. He apparently took the direct train to his infectious disease specialty.

As I wrote the cards, I tried to think back to myself at different ages of my life and came to the conclusion that I have always been, more or less, the same person. There were years when I was a little more withdrawn and self-conscious but they were few. For the most part I have always been outgoing, friendly, honest to a fault, talkative, introspective, stubborn, and bookish. I think I have changed very little; I have merely grown older and, hopefully, wiser.

But I know it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes people change drastically. And I cannot help but wonder what an early curve ball -- like losing your mother at a tender age -- can do to someone's psyche. So I have no idea to whom I am writing: my happy go luck girl and my willful, sensitive son or two people who do not yet exist.

I wrote the cards out, explaining the gifts. Some, like a set of Encyclopedia Brown books, needed only the simple explanation of how I loved them as a kid and always wanted to figure it the solution before the mystery was revealed. But others, like watches, had a double layer of meaning. Yes, they were nice timepieces but they were also reminders of the precious nature of each moment and the finiteness of our lives. I encouraged them both to use their time wisely at jobs they loved and with people they cherished. In some cards I wondered aloud about what they were doing, "I wonder if you still play soccer? Do you still do gymnastics?" I told them I hoped they were enjoying middle school and high school. I told them I hoped they were happy but that when they were unhappy they should remember that it does not last forever. Happiness always returns, but sometimes it runs like the Italian train system, a little behind schedule.

I didn't want the cards to be sad, but in a few I told them I wished I were there to stroke their cheeks and hug them again. And I assured them that I am always with them. I signed each card, "Love you and miss you, Mommy."

I hope the gifts are the right thing to do. I picture them blowing out the candles on their cakes over the years surrounded by their friends, happy and laughing. Part of me fears that going to their little nest to pull out "Mom's gift" will actually ruin an otherwise happy day. I hope that opening them each year will not feel like ripping the scab off a fresh wound causing it to bleed again. I don't want the gifts to pull them down; I just want them to know how much I loved them and how much I wanted to be there on the day that commerorates their entry into this world.

I'll have to be sure to let them know that the choice to open the gift is theirs. They needn't feel obligated if it hurts too much. The gifts are there, whenever they need a little reminder of me to hold in their hands or whenever they need to read my script across white card stock. It doesn't have to be on their birthday if that would ruin it for them. Perhaps they never have to open the gifts if it hurts too much. Because I don't want to make their grief last any longer than necessary. I just want to still be with them someway, somehow after I'm gone. And maybe that is selfish of me ... maybe I need to let them go without trying so hard to stay behind.


Christine said...

Hello Michelle,
I wanted you to know I've enjoyed reading your blog immensely. Every day I think through your insights on life and cherishing family and children. Thank you for sharing all. I keep you and your family in my prayers,

Linda Crispell said...

What a gift for your children. My Dad died when he was just 57, he was also a professor, Nuclear Engineering at the University of Michigan. My daughter was just 1 1/2 years old at the time of his death from diabetes. I gave my daughter gifts from my Father that I knew he would have loved, favorite books and french things. We celebrate his birthday every year with his favorite french food and music. The night is filled with stories and memories.
I can't imagine where you get your strength, but your children will feel so grateful for the connection you are making to them in the future. I hope that you will be giving them all of their gifts in person every year. I send you all of my positive energy.

Bird Spot said...

Whenever I get sad and start missing my mom (who died five years ago)my 5-year old sensitive and willful son (who never met my mom)always says, "She's right here, Mommy. Your Mama is always right here with you." And she is. And you will be.

Sue R said...

My mother died in 1964, when I was 9. It was unexpected, of a brain aneurysm. I would have loved to have even one thing that reminded me that she loved me. Your letters and gifts will be precious, and will build a connection with them and an understanding of who you are that will grow over the years. The bigger pang would be for them to wonder if they really mattered to you, and have you be some mysterious unknown person. Without something concrete to hold onto, I had to work out a lot of things on my own.

My basic personality is the same: I'm bright, love to read, more introvert than extrovert, interested in the arts, with a stubbornness that can either be a great fault or a great asset. But I did lose myself for a while, before I became who I was meant to be. And I think my mother's death forced me to be more creative, self-reliant, and resourceful. There are gifts from it all. Would I love to have known her for much longer? Yes. Did her death help me grow into an interesting, empathetic, and ultimately useful person who's doing some good in the world? Also, yes.

I think you are doing exactly the right thing to help your children grow up okay.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle:

I just wanted to say you are an inspiration. I lost my dad at the age of eleven to a terminal disease and I think it is extremely courageous what you are doing. Your children are blessed to have such a wonderful mother. I read your blog today for the first time and it brought tears to my eyes. What a legacy to leave behind. I am blown away by such beautiful heart felt sentiments you are leaving them. I also have a small child and would not even know how to say goodbye, I commend your strength.

In my prayers and thoughts.


lori said...

Hello Michelle,
I've only read a few of your entries tonite--having just stumbled upon your blog, but I wanted to let you know that you are touching lives each and every day and I suspect you will touch lives long after you take your last breath!
For what it's worth, as both a human being and a social work major, I feel you are absolutely doing the right thing. Your children will cherish these gifts from you--and I can envision them tracing your writing with their fingertips, reaching out to touch you and yes, aching --but then smiling again. Always smiling again...
You are in my thoughts and prayers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle,

This is my first time reading your blog and I have to say it's amazing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and hopes with the rest of us.

Bless you, your husband and those beautiful children who are lucky to have you as their mother.


Cheryl said...

Hi Michelle,

I just found your blog tonight. I cannot think of a better gift you could give your children. I admire your spirit and sense of humor. Thanks for sharing a piece of yourself with the rest of us.

Monica K. said...

I think what you are doing is perfect! I have often thought about what I would do if I was in your situation. My Dad died one year ago (age 57)and before he was cremated they took an imprint of his thumb, which they turned into a pendant for me and my Mom. Rarely does a day go by that I don't rub it or touch it or kiss it or hug it. It may sound strange but that is (one of) my coping mechanism. May I make a suggestion? If you haven't done so already, record your voice for them. I almost had a panic attack last week when I couldn't remember what my Dad's voice sounded like. Read them a story, tell them jokes, anything, just so they can listen to you and hear you and be comforted by you. I admire you for what you are doing and the wonderful Mom you are. Thanks for sharing :o)

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle,

I just found your blog and your writings are so inspiring. You are leaving a wonderful blessing to your children!

I am leaving my comment on this particular bolg because it is also the anniversary of my son's passing. I found it a fated twist. You see, every year on my son's birthday we have a cake, I get him a card and a balloon (they were his favorite). Since I moved away, last year was the first year I wasn't at the cemetary on his birthday.

And the first Christmas without him began our new tradition...everyone gets a gift with Adam's name on it. On their birthdays, they get a gift from Adam.

Your comment about the last gifts being so difficult reminds me of the last few important things in Adam's life. When I was told he would not survive much longer, I began to see it as he was packing to go home. There were certain things I knew were important to him and each thing I remember thinking "I hope this isn't the last thing he packs".

My love and prayers are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

OK you did it. Make me cry. I cannot even fathom or imagine having to do this. I think it is an excellent idea but my God....
I know your gifts will be the ones that they treasure the most every year.

Lianne said...

A friend linked me to this blog - you're so strong!!

I think you're doing a wonderful thing. Yes, it may hurt a little to see the gifts on their birthdays, but I think they will treasure them just the same.

When my grandfather passed away three years ago, my mother picked out a "memory coffin" for him. It had a little mailbox where we all left letters for him, and on each of the 4 corners was a small replica of The Pieta. They were detachable, and my 2 little cousins, my sister, and I each received one.

I hold onto it when I miss's like having a small part of him to remember with.

Stay strong!

Misti said...

Dearest Michelle,
I just found your blog and I am so inspired. By profession I am a grief counselor and have worked with many children. I can promise you, without a doubt, your children will be excited to open the gifts and your husband will probably have to hide the gifts from them!! I dare to even say that your children will know you better than children among living parents. Your influence on them will aid in their resilience to be able to find a place in their heart...where your love and legacy will live forever. They are luck to have crossed this path, called life, with you. Your ability to speak of this in such a way is amazing. You are TRULY LIVING and finding ways to celebrate...even in the midst of a crisis. You are leaving them a legacy that will guide them and influence them in a motherly and positive way. Oh how I wish I could reach parents and help them do what you are doing for your children. It makes such a positive difference for their future. Thank you for allowing me to peak inside your world. Wishing you love, comfort, joy and peace in everything.
Misti in Florida

Anonymous said...

Oh Michelle,
This is an amazing idea. What a gift for your children. It may sting a little for them, but I can give my best guess that each present will be a gift they hold on to for all time.
Your strength is inspiring and I am glad you are willing to share it will us all.
You are teaching your kids the greatest gift and there is nothing far greater than this type of life lesson.

Christina said...


My heart goes out to you. I've enjoyed reading your blog, as my mother is dying of terminal cancer. Wow, hard for me to even type the "d" word. She was diagnosed February 13, sent home with pain medication, and to enjoy her time left with her family. She's been the only person who has been there my whole life, and she's my best friend. I cry so much everyday that it physically hurts. I'm in my early 20's, engaged to be married to a man that my mom disapproves of (but she wants to plan my wedding for me), and I'm a full-time college student when I have the strength to go to class. She was a former college professor and she instilled in me how important college is, but I fear I won't graduate in time. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing, and please email me anytime! It's nice to get a perspective from a mother's point of view in such a difficult time. You an your family are in my prayers!

Pooja said...

Hi this First time when I reading your blog or you can say that I found it........

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miss you

Unknown said...

I have been thinking of you a lot the past few days. I have been thinking of how I still learn from you even though you are no longer with me. I have been thinking about you because in 2 days I will be 18. In 2 days I will be an adult. Your son... will be an adult. I am not the same 7-year-old boy that I was all those years ago. I have experienced pain, grief, and trauma that almost broke me. But I stood back up. I was on the ground but because of your example I stood back up and kept on fighting. I fell down but instead of running away from life's pain, I ran at it head-on.
Mommy your writings have inspired me to write too. Your writing has inspired me to grow. I miss you, mommy. I love you, mommy. You are my everything.
I want you to know what being 18 means to me. I want you to see the lessons I've learned.

Today marks 18 years since I was born. I was born in Palo Alto, California on December 16th, 2000. I was born despite multiple doctors warning my mother the danger of having a child. I was born despite adversity. I was born because of the love, compassion, and desire for a family that my mother and father shared.
While I was born in California, my true home is the Bull City, Durham, North Carolina. I grew up in a community full of loving friends, neighbors, and people that I call family. I know that no matter what I will always have them behind me, just as I will always be behind them. They are my brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. For my brothers, the basketball games at midnight to the skating shirtless with fireworks, built bonds that will last for years to come. For my sisters, the guidance, the compassion, and the laughs we shared will stay with me for years to come. For the mothers who stood with me and helped me after the death of my mother I will never forget you; The examples of compassion, respect, and love that you showed me will stay with me for the rest of my life. For the father figures in my life, the men who gave me an example of how to act, I will never forget you. I will never forget the displays of class, courtesy, respect, compassion, and vectored force.
Through my life I have had many ups and downs. I have gotten expelled from some schools, I have gotten thousands of dollars in scholarships to other schools. I have been on my knees and I have been running head first into the battle that is life. I have cried and I have smiled. I have experienced a lot for an 18-year-old. In my heart, I know that I wouldn’t have been able to keep getting back up if it wasn’t for those people. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities if it wasn’t for all those who care for me.
I dedicate my 18th birthday not just to voting, driving without restriction, still being alive, and going to college. I also dedicate my 18th birthday to the people in my life that have made my successes, my recovery, my motivation, my safety, and my life possible. You all did not just ensure that I made it to 18 alive, you also made sure I made it to 18 with a crystal-clear set of principles, values, and goals. You made sure I know what the difference between right and wrong is. You have affected my life fundamentally. I will never forget the lessons, experiences, and the memories that have come from these 18 years; I will never forget you.
So, thank you, thank you all so much!