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How much love fits on a Post It note? You’d be surprised

May 13, 2012 9 comments

My mom, Ann Ryan O’Connor, died 39 years ago last month. It was the Tuesday after Easter, 1973. She choked to death during an asthma attack. In the hospital. During a respiratory therapy treatment.

As the first of my family to get to the hospital (at age 15, I drove there on a learner’s permit while my hapless Aunt Bert wept and worried in the passenger seat), I remember seeing my mom’s still-warm body lying in the hospital bed. The look on her face was amazing: she was at peace – muscles relaxed, her tortured breathing finally quiet, her long battle with the disease that had robbed her of many normal things finally over. Her beautiful mouth was shaped into a tiny “O” – as if she was surprised by her sudden death. Later that day, we found out that was not the case.

That evening, as we wept and planned her funeral and dealt with annoying and overwrought relatives who were already fighting over who would take custody of the baby, our 4-year-old sister, Patty, my older brother Sean showed us something he’d found in the bottom of Mom’s purse that day. It was a set of hastily scrawled little notes in our mother’s handwriting. There was a fervent prayer on one: “God, please let me be their mother a little while longer.” The other five were individual notes addressed to each one of us.

Each one was a gift – her last  – to us. She wrote about how proud she was of each of us, how much she loved us, and how we should keep living our lives. She told Sean and Kevin that she knew they would grow up to “be the men that their father, Patrick O’Connor” was and would want them to be. She called her baby, Patty, the “gift that replaced a gift.”  We’ve kept the notes, treasured them, learned from them, and even framed them. The original set now lives in a lovely frame on Patty’s nightstand.

For a long time, I refused to look at my note. I can’t really remember when I was strong enough to read it, but eventually I did. I can’t say I have always done what she asked me to in that note, but at least I have tried. I haven’t looked at the notes in years (they always make me cry), but I don’t need to. I know what they say. I know what they mean. More importantly, I can feel the incredible depth of love and fear and courage and sadness in her heart when she wrote them, knowing somehow that she was not going to be around us much longer, yet feeling that she had to teach us one more thing, to be our mother just a little while longer.

As a mother myself now, I have a hard time imagining that I would ever have the courage to face the fact that I would not be alive long enough to raise my children to adulthood. I would have wept and screamed and tried to bargain with God and would probably have been filled with despair that I would not be around to see my children grow up. I am not sure I would have had the wherewithal to write my children love notes.

Then again, my mother was an amazing human being. She had faith. She WAS faith. She believed that everything happened for a reason, that God was good and would always be there to protect us, and that she had been given many incredible gifts in life – including the illness that eventually killed her, which she said taught her patience. She truly believed that the meaning of life was to be kind and happy and loving, and to spend our time treating others well because our real place, our real purpose, was to be with God in heaven. It was just that simple for her. And she carried that faith to the last moments of her life, I think, as evidenced by those little notes.

So, when life treated her poorly (like the day she had to remove her wedding and engagement rings because the government guy at the food stamp office denied her food stamps and  told her that the rings signified that she had enough money to feed her kids, despite being a penniless widow with no job), she did what the guy said. And later, she prayed for the man because, after all, “he was just doing  his job.”  When her husband of 15 years (only 15 years!) died suddenly and left her with four children and pregnant with a fifth, she grieved. Then, knowing the task she had before her, she trusted in God, called upon her faith, continued to laugh and sing and smile, and went on with her life as Mom, treasuring her last baby as a “gift that replaced a gift.”

She was only my mom for 15 years, but there’s not an event in my life that happens where I don’t stop and think about how Mom would have handled it. She never got to hold my babies in her arms, but she taught me how to love and teach and discipline my own children, who have grown into thoughtful, intelligent, generous, funny and sensitive people. Mom never got to see me graduate from high school and college and she never went to college herself, but she taught me how important it was to always be open to new ideas, to learning and to using the things I’ve learned in life.

I see her face every morning when I look in the mirror, even though I really don’t look like her. And while she has been gone more than twice as long as I had her with me, she is everywhere.

I see her gentle humor and her natural grace and ease with talking to people in my son Patrick, who is mature and poised and charming, easily friendly and comfortable with most people he meets. I see Mom’s beauty and her determination and her resilience against many odds in my daughter Erin, who has fought and won so many battles already in her short 18 years. I hear her joyous laugh and feel her warmth and her love of life whenever my sister Claire laughs and sings. I feel her kindness, her sense of fairness and justice and her belief that everyone deserves to be treated well no matter where they’ve come from in my brothers, Sean and Kevin, who live out those characteristics every day of their lives. And I see her pure joy at being a mom – not to mention her beautiful eyes, her soft voice and her amazing smile –  in my sister Pat. (And it’s okay, Pat, as you get frustrated with your own daughter today, even Mom lost patience with us more than once in a day!)

But even though she is always “with” me, I can’t put my arms around her on a day like today, Mother’s Day, and tell her how much I love her and miss her and am grateful for everything she did, for everything she was.

So I wrote her this note.

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