Dear Mom,

Today marks what would have been your 63rd birthday and instead it’s the 1-month anniversary since you’ve left us.

I’ll be honest, telling you that I’m heartbroken that you’re gone is a bit of an understatement. Okay, okay, I said honest: it’s a huge understatement. I’m absolutely devastated. My heart is heavy and some days feel impossible. It still feels so surreal whenever I have that jolt of realization that you’re really and truly gone. That we never will share another text message thread, that I will never hear your voice again, or have hour plus long conversations on the phone with you, that you will never come to visit me again, or we won’t travel together again. And today was your birthday, so no more birthday wishes or birthday celebrations, either. It pained me to look at the birthday card aisle and the huge display of “For Mom” cards and gifts just one aisle over.

You were one of my closest friends in my adult life. I have other close friends, but there was something unique and special about our relationship that I really cherished. You were also an exceptional mother: You knew all of my friends’ names, how I met them, if they were married or had partners, if they had kids, what their kids names are, and you always made it a point to follow up on them if I had mentioned a hardship or exciting news. I felt safe confiding in you, I shared my biggest hardships with you. I could count on you to cheer me on, help me pick myself up after I fell, and encourage me to keep going. We had this ebb and flow to life and our relationship, and there is this absence now, this… void that has settled into the bottom of my heart and pit of my stomach. This void that I know will never truly go away, a void that will grow and shrink as the grief grows and shrinks. It is my constant reminder that our love was deep and true and real, and that the hurt I’m feeling and the loss I’m experiencing only validates how beautiful our relationship really was… is.

Sometimes, it’s “easy” to “forget” that you’re gone because life has a way of moving on whether or not you are ready to move on. Being in my house, where your presence was only as a visitor, my mind and body slipped into autopilot. I could let go and let my body and mind function on habit alone, going through the motions of life, while my heart cried out. I found a new rhythm, one that was a little irregular, and I hate to say, that I’ve relied on it to get me through the absolute hardest of days.

People ask how I’m doing, and it takes me an extra long moment to reflect before I can respond. Answering “I’m fine.” is dismissive of the raging battle in my head and heart. Instead, I answer with this almost boilerplate answer: I have my good days and bad days. It’s mostly true: some days are definitely worse than others. If I were being completely honest with myself and those around me, I’d say that most days are bad days. And it’d be more accurate to say I have bad days and worse days. As time moves on, I feel like those bad days will become my good days, as I learn to navigate life without you. I’ll learn that life is still good and that my days are still good, once that shadow of grief starts to lift into a misty rainbow of beautiful memories.

Each time someone asks me how I’m doing, I remember you. I remember your smile. I remember your vibrancy. I remember your love of life and the people and villages with whom you had surrounded yourself. I think about all of the memories we’ve had, both recent and old. It’s a beautiful thing. You were so humble in life that I never realized just how many people you’ve truly touched. At least, I never realized until I was suddenly in a room filled to capacity with those people that you believed in and hear that those same people loved you so fiercely back. You believed in people, you believed in life (God), and you believed in me. I know that you were proud of me, and proud of the life that I’ve managed to build for myself. I know (now) that you were so proud that you shared all of my accomplishments, heartaches, and my strange “children” with anyone who cared to listen. And they did listen, because so many people came up to me to tell me how proud you were of me, how much you loved me… and I had never met them before that moment.

I remember the stories that were shared with me, and then I remember the moments we’ve shared together. This is how you did life: you created moments and experiences. You taught me and showed everyone that the greatest gifts were shared experiences and shared moments. You could have nothing, and still be joyful. I am so fucking (sorry, I know you hate that I use that word) grateful that we were able to share so many beautiful experiences together. My childhood was filled with long road trips, camping in that little popup in nature, and a multitude of experiences at every place we visited that even if I am unable to remember exact details, I’m left with this feeling of awe and excitement. An awe and excitement that has absolutely followed me into my adult life. I’ve carried on this tradition of creating lasting experiences and moments over the finite nature of things. Michael and I celebrate each other’s birthdays and our anniversaries with experiences. We are content with what we have, and strive to live abundant lives through experiencing the world and each other together. I have you to thank for these teachings.

And last year, we were able to recreate that awe and excitement as adults. As friends. We caravanned out west together, chattering on our walk-talkies, and simply enjoying the time together. Michael and I stayed in our gigantic home-away-from-home tent and you and dad in those cute little KOA camping cabins. We visited Mt. Rushmore, hiked the Grand Tetons, and took a long day-trip out to Yellowstone to see the sulphur pools. We shared meals together, enjoyed roaring campfires, and we basked in the simplicity of that togetherness while enjoying s’mores. This togetherness is what creates these lasting shared moments and experiences.

Granted, no trip is without its dark sides. We fought, too. Some. We fought a bit about sharing a hotel room, which you fully believed that the reason we wanted our own was because of your and Dad’s snoring habits. And we fought about hiking with or without bear spray (you won, of course) AND you had the perfect “told you so” moment that you never reveled in, because your only concern was our safety and wellbeing. I still have that can of bear spray; it’ll come with us the next time we’re in bear country. If it’s expired by then, we’ll buy a new one. Promise. Scouts honor, there.

I have to thank you for leading me by example. We, Michael and I, are so blessed to have a role model in you. Showing us that life is more than what it seems. Believing in us to do great things. You always joked that when you grew old that you wanted us to “take care of you in a manner to which you could become accustomed.” I never forgot that. You were gone before I could really make that reality come true, and gosh darn it I certainly tried. Two weeks before you left us, you and dad came over for the weekend. We were to see Book of Mormon and I did my best to dote on you that weekend: I wouldn’t let you do any cooking, or any prepping for the cooking I was doing, and I would do my best to not let you do any of the cleanup, too! All I wanted was for you to think of it as a true respite and vacation from the battle your body was having with itself. I hope I succeeded. A little haven and island of shared memories that you were able to revel in even after you went home… despite the fact that the humor of Book of Mormon was really not our kind of humor.

Gosh mom. When life threw you punches, you took the punch, embraced it, and then soldiered on. I saw it over and over again. Life had a way of giving you the middle finger, presenting you with struggle after struggle, and I watched the grace in which you handled them. Beautiful, elegant grace. Your death was the biggest punch that life could ever throw at me, and I took the punch and went down hard. I’m learning to embrace it now, with the grace you exhibited so much through life’s struggles. As life moves on, I will soldier on and carry with me: the vibrancy for life you had and with the love you shared with those around you.

Happy Birthday, mom. I miss you dearly.