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Why Moms -- and Their Last Words -- Matter

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"I'm sorry I can't take care of you anymore."

Those were the last words my mom said to me.

I was 14 years old and she had suddenly taken ill. It was nighttime. An ambulance came. She went to the hospital. Intensive care. The details don't really matter anymore. It was 39 years ago this week. My four older brothers and I kept vigil with our dad. She was mostly in a coma, but would occasionally wake for a few seconds.

And on one of those occasions, I was the lucky one standing next to her bed. Holding her hand when she opened her eyes.

"I'm sorry I can't take care of you anymore."

Then she closed her eyes and slipped back into sleep. Within a few days, she died.

The day after her death, I was sitting on the front porch of our home. I needed to escape the flurry of people inside, and the front porch was the best place to find some peace. As I was sitting there, arms wrapped around my knees, the high school track coach walked up. He was my brother's coach. Everyone's favorite. Coach A.

He sat next to me saying not a word. We both just stared into the unknown of the distance.

"Your mom taught you a lot," Coach A said, finally breaking the silence. "Ya gotta keep those lessons alive."

I remember looking at him, then looking away. I knew that was a good thing for him to say. But I also remember thinking I had not a clue as to what lessons I was supposed to keep alive.

Thank goodness for the clarity that comes with time. Because it has been with time that I've come to understand the gifts and lessons moms and dads bring to their children -- regardless of the constraints of time. I knew my mom for 14 years. That's about the same time span since the beginning of the new century -- 2000 to today. Seems like only yesterday, doesn't it?

So, here's to you, Mom. I thought you'd like to know that your lessons continue to sink in:

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  • You taught me that I'm no better than anyone else. We didn't live in a world filled with racial tension, sexual orientation debates or many of the polarizing realities in the world today. But you taught me to be accepting of everyone. And you made it clear that attitude must be reciprocal. It wasn't complicated. It was the right thing.
  • You showed me the importance of looking out for the underdog. We had a lot of good things in our life. Good grades. We were a happy family. A lot of goodness. But you always made sure we somehow were surrounded by people who weren't as fortunate as us. You saw the goodness in everyone. And you showed our family how to help others find their own strengths.
  • You taught me to not be selfish with my time. You certainly weren't with yours. You were the first to help. The first to volunteer. You were everyone's favorite mom because you simply made yourself available.
  • You instilled in me the importance of welcoming others. This goes beyond just being kind. You sought out new people and you encouraged us to do the same. You were keenly aware of the value in being the first to extend a hand -- and a smile -- to the new person.
  • You showed me what empathy was all about. Your funeral was filled with hundreds of people we didn't even know. They were the families you sat with every Friday at our local hospital. I never knew exactly what you did on Fridays when you left the house in your pink volunteer smock. But I know now. And I know the gift you gave to hundreds of families who were waiting for loved ones undergoing surgery. You shared your heart. With anyone who needed it.
  • You held me accountable. OMG. And I know you don't even know what that means. But trust me, you rocked this one.
  • You taught me the importance of failure. Plenty of times. And you made me fix my own mistakes. And as much as I hated it at the time, I never once felt alone.
  • You showed me what family pride felt like. Maybe to an extreme. But I liked that. A lot. I loved seeing you cheer in the stands. I loved listening to you talk on the phone to a friend about your boys. And I loved making you proud.
  • You proved the power of play. And you played often. In nearly every memory I have of you, your were smiling. Or laughing.
  • You gave outstanding back scratches. And that taught me the value of quiet moments with people I love. You'll be happy to hear that your grandsons favor foot rubs. But it's all the same, right?
  • You oozed loyalty. For your friends. For your neighbors. I always knew your word was golden. And I know mine must be, as well.
  • You taught me the importance of speaking your mind. The queen of candor you were. It was fascinating to watch you say exactly what you meant -- to anyone and everyone -- while maintaining composure and compassion.
  • And you taught me that every day, every word, every moment could be your last.

Perhaps the biggest thing you taught me is that life happens in the nooks and crannies of our days. You were always content where you were in life. And you were happy with who you were.

You lived in the moment. And you placed yourself in the moments of your children. Your presence and availability were abundantly felt.

"I'm sorry I can't take care of you anymore."

Me too, Mom. I would have loved that. But as odd as it sounds, I have no regrets.

After all, I'm the one who won the mother lottery.

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(Both photos from the author's private library)

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