Thankfulness Within the Pain – My Mom’s Last Breath and Her Life That Said “I Love You, Too.”

In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken writes of the “heights and the depths,” the great sorrows and great joys we must experience in this life, and how they are intrinsically tied to one another. I remember reading this a few months before I started dating my husband, Michael. I was seventeen and we wouldn’t get married for another five years, but I knew that I wanted my life to be filled with the kind of deep love to which sorrow was naturally tied.

I’ve found that great love in my husband, but what I didn’t know back then, was that I had already found it in other great loves in my life, one of them being my mom—one of my very best friends—and the one in which the idea of the “heights and the depths” has become so very real to me. Her life will forever be my first great height and my first great depth.

It was March of 2015 when my mom was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. I cried on my roommate’s leg in our Manhattan apartment. Blood ran from my nose from what I think was shock, and my life would never be the same.

For days, I couldn’t eat or sleep. When I did manage to fall asleep, I would wake up crying. It was as if she died that day in March.

But she didn’t. The summer came and our family was smiling, my mom was responding to treatment, and we went on frequent hikes and walks near our home in Colorado. It was as if we were trying to soak up as much life as possible, while still hoping that maybe the word “terminal” didn’t apply. But still a grey cloud hung over us.

August came and I went back to New York for my senior year of college. My mom’s treatment stopped working and her body began failing her at a faster pace. I was coming home for Thanksgiving break, knowing it might be the last time I would see my mom—my first great “height.” My plane landed and I turned on my phone to find that my dad had called several times. I called him back and he told me to get down from Denver as soon as possible, that my mom was becoming incoherent, and that she might be leaving us soon.

It went on like this for a week. A week of mostly incoherent thoughts, of helping my dad carry her to the bathroom, of encouraging her to eat and drink. A week of roles being switched—the mom who always cared for and supported me, now needing me in such basic ways.

And then there were the heights, even in the midst of the great, dark depths – some of the sweetest “I love you’s,” the gentlest hand squeezes, the pouring out of love in response to years of sacrifice and encouragement. I’ve never loved someone so deeply than in those moments.

And as much as I wish I never needed to have those moments, I felt a strong sense of thankfulness within the pain—the recognition that this type of deep grief could only be in response to a love so great.

Two days after Thanksgiving, and coincidentally, two days after Michael proposed to me, I watched my mom take her last breath here on earth.

I held her hand in my parent’s dimly lit bedroom, suddenly alone and with a new heavy weight on my life. In that moment, I took it all in—the warmth of her chest when I felt sad, our coffee dates and walks around the neighborhood, her prayers and back scratches, the glow of our home around Christmas time, her voice singing lullabies to my nephew, her gasp and grins when the beauty of the world was too much to hold in. 

It was shattering, it was humbling, but most of all, it was life-changing.

Of course it was life-changing in the most basic sense. The hole that my mom left in the lives of me and my sisters is massive and will likely never be filled. But that moment there on the bed, and the nine months preceding it, changed my life in fundamental ways as well.

Most importantly, it forced me to seriously consider my impact on the world and those around me.

At my mom’s memorial service and the days surrounding her death, I heard about the legacy she left in the lives of so many different people—her sisters from her sorority back in Mississippi, the men and women she met on Guam when she was just out of college, her friends from her time in Tokyo, the young moms she led in Bible studies. The list goes on.

What struck me was that none of these people remembered my mom for her physical beauty (though she was very beautiful), her well-decorated house or angelic singing voice, or really any of her “worldly” accomplishments.

Everyone remembered her for the ways in which she loved and sacrificed for them. The words of light she would speak during times of darkness. The ways she listened without judgement or critique. The meals she brought during times of mourning.

I started to see that she was not just an amazing mother, but a supportive wife, a loving friend, a fun grandma, a thoughtful daughter, a playful sister.

With each of these relationships she brought with her a love of all things beautiful. She went to school for interior design, she was talented with almost any medium, and she was eloquent with words. And while all of these things left their own marks on the world and the people in it, she would easily say that her greatest masterpiece was us—her three girls.

My mom’s last words to me were, “I love you, too.” And while it was almost cinematic, it didn’t really need to be. My mom’s entire life—the way she spoke and hugged and laughed—said, “I love you, too.”

Without her choice to step into motherhood, I wouldn’t be here. And without her choice to step into life both bravely and vigorously, I would be very little of who I am today.

So here’s to mothers around the world who are, to so many, the first great “height.”


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