Even though I’ve been out of school for more than a year, I still carry a backpack every day. The contents shift depending on where I’m going or what I had for dinner the night before, but there’s one thing that never leaves my backpack: in the front pocket, in a plain white envelope, is a letter from my mom.
My mom died in June 2015, but before she did she asked me if I wanted her to write me a letter. Taken aback, I asked her why. She said “just so you have something to read so you know I love you.” I told her that I knew she loved me, and because I did not want her time to be any more difficult than it already was I told her she should only write me a letter if she wanted to, but shouldn’t do it for my sake. This is not the letter in my backpack; my mom never wrote that letter.
My mom wrote the letter in my backpack as part of a parent exercise in connection with freshman orientation at my college. She explained in a post-script on the back of the letter that expressing emotions verbally is not really her strong suit, but she did not want me to be the only kid who didn’t get a letter. In spite of her best efforts, she wrote a letter that continues to resonate with me. The letter-writing parents were given two prompts: (1) my dream for myself when I was 18 was ____, and (2) my dream for you as you enter college is _____. For the first question, my mom wrote that when she was a little kid, she wanted to be a mother—she reflected on the fact that this was a pretty common goal for little girls in the time when she grew up. She entered college without much of an idea of what she wanted to do, and said that even at 18, her desire to be a mother was probably her strongest desire. For the second question, she wrote that she wanted me to have friends and relationships, family, and community.
Kelly and my mom died approximately five months apart from each other. For better or worse, their fates have become inexorably intertwined in my memories of both, and it is hard for me to think of one without thinking of the other. They are alike in many ways. They are both women who faced institutional gender barriers in their chosen professions (my mom, a scientist, frequently grappled with teachers who would only speak to her male lab partners, even when they were responding to questions she had asked). They both had a passion for doing good in the world. They both have histories of cancer, my mom having first fought cancer around the time she was Kelly’s age. And for both, the sudden re-emergence of the cancer that took them was a destabilizing shock to me.
For all their similarities, there are some fundamental differences. When my mother died, she left express instructions: no obituaries, no notices. We held a memorial service that was mostly family and colleagues from work, a few of whom had only found out about the service after some of my dad’s friends insisted that he publish a notice in the newspaper for the laboratory where both of my parents worked. Nobody I interacted with on a daily basis knew my mom had passed. The internet was indifferent. I was studying for the bar at the time and found it was a good distraction. In a way, the grief was easier to compartmentalize: I could shove it into a corner and say, “not now, brain. Now it’s time for secured transactions.” And I could do this because nobody was asking me how I was doing, or offering condolences, or mourning the loss of my mother. The only people to consistently reach out to me were my dad and my sister, and in that case I was more motivated to help them grieve than to grieve myself.
When Kelly died, there was no escape. I was surrounded by people who were close to Kelly. Their grief was loud and public, and I shared in it. Though I spent a day avoiding social media, I eventually accepted that compartmentalizing would be impossible. At the end of the day, I turned on my computer and read through every single epitaph I could find. The grief overwhelmed me.
Between the time my mom died and the time Kelly died, I had thought a great deal about love: what it means, whether I take it for granted, and whether it is something I am even capable of feeling. I vowed to be kinder to the people I loved—my friends and relationships, family, and community—so that they would realize how important they were to me. In trying to mentally craft a perfect role model for this exercise, I immediately went to Kelly, who always seemed to make time for everyone, and who, in her own words, made it her mission to “spread love to everyone.” It would be unfair to say that Kelly’s sensitivity is a mere byproduct of the fact that she seemed to naturally have a knack for dealing with people, and the fact that Kelly had a personal mission statement confirms this: Kelly was deliberate in her efforts not only to love others, but to make sure they knew it. Kelly’s unflinching drive and capacity for tireless work certainly found its way into other aspects of her life for an astoundingly long period of time—as evidenced by the fact that she managed to work a rigorous job as an attorney and successfully study for the bar while grappling with the trials of her illness—but it was particularly moving to see how much it found its way into her relationships with her friends, family, and community.
It was—and still is—extremely challenging for me to express feelings to the people who are important to me, to “spread love” to anyone. Even though I told my mom I knew she loved me when she offered to write me a letter, I can’t remember the last time I told my mom I love her. It took my mom’s death for me to start saying those words on a semi-regular basis to my family. I have never said them to most of my friends, and I never said them to Kelly.
At my mom’s memorial service, we played a recording of a song called “Magic Penny”—a song that she used to sing to me and my sister when we were children. I had never really remembered the lyrics until I heard it at the service:
Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
It’s just like a magic penny;
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many,
They’ll roll all over the floor.
“Spreading love to everyone” is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely challenging. But there are two sides to the magic penny, and that was perhaps my last takeaway from my musings on love, courtesy of a childhood song: that the act of loving itself is capable of creating meaning and joy not only in the lives of those “receiving” it, but in the lives of those giving it. Kelly’s mission to spread love led her to leading a life full of love, and this is no doubt one reason why she is surrounded by friends and family who continue to celebrate her. It is also surely one reason why so many, including me, see her as a role model.
I found my mom’s letter only a few months ago, and I carry it with me both to remember her and to remember the way she lived her life: like Kelly, full of love. For my mom’s sake, and for Kelly’s, I will keep trying to live my life the same way. I love you, Mom. I love you, Kelly.