There’s a story I’ve been telling for a couple months that always elicits the same reaction – a physical jolt, a look that they’re fighting back tears, and a little shaking in their voice as they explain how moved they are by my words. It’s usually followed by my apologies for getting off topic and saying something which clearly has evoked such a strong reaction.
A reaction that still catches me off guard because the story is about my mother and has mostly been told to people who never got the chance to meet her.
I’ve hesitated writing this because I’m not sure written words can be as effective as an oral conversation but the look I see in the eyes of those I’ve told makes me feel compelled to give it a shot as this clearly resonates with people and feels like something that should be shared and shared again.
The story usually starts when someone asks me about my wedding or my summer or how I’ve been since my mom passed away and I start to explain how it all came together.
I explain how having worked in the wedding industry for most of my life I wanted my own wedding to stray from tradition and be something that celebrated our lives and families coming together in a way that felt authentically like us.
I wanted our bridal party to lead our small group of guests in. I wanted to walk in with my husband to be and our parents. I wanted to start – not by being given away like a piece of property- but to spend a few minutes acknowledging our parents with love letters that thanked them for all that they had done to get us to adulthood, to make us into the perfect partner for the other, and for welcoming that partner into the family so lovingly and seamlessly.
I guess I always figured this would be something I’d write on the plane to Hawaii. The ideas rolling around my head but never quite getting perfect enough for paper.
And then with less than a week until we were due to fly to Hawaii my life began to collapse. The week I’d ingeniously planned to take off work to tend to all my wedding details the week before flying was spent in the hospital with family surrounding my mom on her deathbed.
By the end of the holiday weekend we started to come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to fly to Hawaii with us. While she was doing better her prognosis was still poor, her condition grave, and her heart broken at the idea that she was going to break my heart by not making it to our wedding.
Just thinking about it makes me weepy as there is nothing quite as hard as seeing your own tough-as-nails mother cry.
We talked about options and it became clear that there was nothing she wanted more than to be at our real wedding. We talked about using Skype to include her in the Hawaii ceremony but she really wanted to be AT the REAL wedding and, frankly, I wasn’t sure she’d live long enough to make Skype a viable solution anyway.
A quick trip to the courthouse, several calls, texts, and emails and our wedding in a windowless family room at Tacoma General Hospital came together in about 24 hours. And, thanks to a phenomenal set of friends, supportive family and generous flexibility from the amazing Seattle wedding professionals we’d already hired to come with us to Hawaii, it was perfect.
She must’ve told me it was the best day of her life and thanked me for such an incredible gift at least 50 times in the days that followed.
A week later we did it all again on the beach in Hawaii as originally planned with my mom watching via Skype from the nursing home she’d moved into while I was gone.
A month later I was having dinner with her in the hospital – watching Law and Order SVU together for the last time. (And yes, if you are wondering that IS an awkward thing to watch in a hospital with nurses coming in and out all the time…always when something really deviant is happening – but it was a show she liked and a bit of a family tradition) I don’t even remember how long I’d been there at that point – more than a day and a half but less than a full 48 hours I’m sure…but I do vividly remember that when it was finally time for me to go home she was coherent enough to laugh at my silly but true reasoning for needing to leave: “Mom, I’ll be back tomorrow but I have to go home tonight because I NEED clean underwear. And I’d like a shower.”
The doctor called me back urgently less than 12 hours later and a few hours after that I held her hand as she passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends.
And then I really learned what it meant to have my world fall apart.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help”
The first dozen times I heard this I didn’t know what to say beyond ‘thanks’ and ‘I will.’ It felt empty but at that point I’d just lost my mom, creativity was not flowing, and let’s face it – there’s not much else you can say in response. Or so I thought.
The truth is there are no words that can fully explain the sorrow and grief I’ve experienced or the tremendous sense of loss I’ve felt since my mom passed away 10 weeks ago.
As I started to think about what it is I wanted to say at her memorial service I quickly realized that while I had suffered a great and inexplicably painful loss I was actually one of the lucky ones. You see a month before she died I’d said all the things you’d ever want to say to someone you love. In front of an audience of family and friends. Photographers and cinematographers documenting the whole thing beautifully.
I mean really – how many people get to do that?
Timing, my mom often told me, is everything. It can have a huge impact on how your words make others feel. She taught me that it’s not just what you say but how you say it – and when.
As an impulsive teenager it was hard to understand the importance of timing. As I reached adulthood I really began to understand that sometimes we need to tread lightly, mull things over, and choose our words carefully so our point can be made without hurting someone we care about.
I’m now a 33 year old orphan, currently grieving the loss of my second parent, and learning firsthand the other important thing about timing: It goes both ways.
You can wait too long and think too much about the most eloquent way to express yourself and the result isn’t pretty. You can miss your chance to let someone know how you feel before they’re gone from your life – or this world – forever. I can’t even tell you what I’d give to have one more conversation with my Dad.
I’ve learned there are messages that transcend the need for grammatical perfection and literary genius. I’ve learned that if your heart is in the right place they will resonate with the person you are speaking to and to them sound like the most beautiful poetry ever written.
I’ve learned the world doesn’t slow down for any of us and no matter how hard I look I can’t find ‘someday’ or ‘later’ on my calendar. We have to make a point to make things happen or they never will. Life waits for nobody and death is even less forgiving.
And so I got up in front of a room full of people, skipped the traditional eulogy, and shared this beautiful video clip from our hospital wedding:
And then I challenged everyone to stop rushing through life and take some time to really tell the ones you love how you feel while they are still here to appreciate it.
Shouldn’t we all make a point to eulogize the living and express our appreciation while they are there to experience the joy of hearing the heartfelt words of love and gratitude from the closest people in their lives?
After the service I suddenly had the meaningful response that I longed for every time someone told me they were sorry for my loss or asked me if there was anything they could do to help.
I still thank them but now I elaborate a bit, tell this story, and explain how much comfort has come from knowing that I said what I wanted to while she was able to experience the joy of my words. And yes, there is something you can do that would totally make my day brighter: take an hour and write a similar love letter and share it with someone you love while they are still around to enjoy it.
Who are you going to write a love letter to? And when?
And who can you share this with so that we all get a little reminder to remind the ones we love most just how much they matter?
And while I have no idea how many people have actually done it/will do it I’d love to hear from anyone who has or does. Somehow just knowing this might give someone else comfort later in life makes the struggle to find the words to write this coherently and share such a personal part of my life with total strangers worth it.
To quote my mother’s last words minutes before she died, “You are all wonderful.”
And if you’ve made it this far in the novel of a blog post I have to agree.
(And I obviously cannot thank Jillian of Playfish Media enough for dropping everything to be able to film the hospital wedding and providing this clip for the memorial. To see her creative genius in action I highly recommend you take 4 minutes and watch the highlight video she made of our Hawaii wedding: http://playfishmedia.com/video/sacha-and-dave-destination-wedding/ .)