I miss her more than ever.
I was in Amsterdam on business for less than five hours when I checked my voicemail. There was a garbled message from Bernadette, one of my mother's best friends. She told me to call her right away. I knew something was wrong. Something terrible and bad and scary. My hand shook as I dialed. I thought something had happened to my brother Matthew as I had just spoken to my mother a few hours earlier.
Bernadette, crying now, told me my mother had died. I was 26 years old.
My world became a blur. It was like I was looking at an out-of-focus picture of my life. I felt like I had been told to pack and that I was being dropped off in a place I had never heard of.
Childhood sunshine and smiles
My mother, Kathleen Connelly, was born in Quincy, Massachusetts to William, a police officer, and Nancy, a schoolteacher. She and her brother, William Jr., or "Buzz" as everyone calls him, enjoyed skating on frozen ponds in the winter and spending summers at the Cape with extended family in the summer. My mother studied Art at Emmanuel, an all-female college outside Boston. While teaching high-school drawing and painting, met my father, Robert Lynch, a native San Franciscan, as he was in business school at Harvard.
They married and moved to San Francisco where I was born in 1975 and my brother Matthew, in 1978.
When I think of my childhood, I remember the sun always shining. I remember spending days at sandy parks, my mother smiling at us, wearing her signature, oversized tortoise shell glasses, and of course, her mauvy-pink lipstick. We ran around in Osh-Kosh overalls, danced with sparklers in the backyard at Cape on the 4th of July, ate Mexican food and laughed until we cried. We spent long summer nights on the deck in Tahoe, talking to our parents while we swatted mosquitoes; the smell of Coppertone mixed with Cutter bug spray filling the air. We celebrated birthdays and holidays, but more than anything, we celebrated our lives.
And then, when I heard Bernadette utter those awful words, in an instant, the color photograph of my childhood became black and white.
As my mom used to refer to it, she and my father raised us, "by hand." That meant being thoroughly involved in all aspects of our lives, from driving us to all of our games and activities, staying up late to make cookies for our classes, sewing Halloween costumes, teaching us how to draw, reading us stories, rubbing our backs to help us fall asleep, helping write papers, being the shoulder to cry on when we broke up with boyfriends and girlfriends, and teaching us the importance of thank you notes, good manners, and the old adage, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."
They taught us how to cook, warned us of the dangers of the world and how to tackle obstacles that came our way. They helped us with college applications, taught us how to parallel park, and how to have faith in ourselves and never give up.
They were proud, they were fun, they were fair, they could be silly and serious, they were loving and supportive, and then they were both gone.
When I was 22, my father, suffering from terrible depression, made the decision to take his own life. I found him at our house one night in February 1998. He was 57 years old. But that is a different story for a different day.
And then we were three
After my father died, the three of us became our own little gang. The darkness of his depression had loomed like a cloud for a few years, but then we began to see the light again. My mom and I traveled; she and my brother became even closer. She was painting beautiful watercolors of flowers and showing her work, baking her signature frosted sugar cookies, and having quiet dinners with girlfriends.
And then our re-built life came crashing down again when I lost my mother.
I had only been dating my then boyfriend, Matt, now my husband, for four months when she died. It was such an awkward feeling. Here I was - shaking uncontrollably, unable to eat, crying throughout the days that followed her death and, unexpectedly, in the months to follow. It was a time in our relationship when I wasn't ready for him to see a vulnerable side of me. When I was trying to revel in the "newness" of our relationship, I was sideswiped by my loss and left feeling naked and exposed. Throughout the whole experience, he stood by me, held my hand, hugged me when I needed it, and knew exactly what to say, or what not to say, when I sought a shoulder to cry on. In a way, I think my mom left this world knowing I would be taken care of. Matt was put in place in a time in my life to be there for me when I would need him more than anyone else. I knew then he was the right person for me.
They say that "girls marry their fathers," but I definitely married my mother. In that sense, I'm lucky that I have so much of the familiar in my day-to-day life. My mom, like Matt, loved bacon double cheeseburgers, baseball and a cup of coffee in the morning before anything else. They share a sense of calm, a sense of peace and faith, spontaneity and the optimism to see the good in every situation. I feel so sad that they didn't get to know each other.
This past fall was particularly difficult for me. Matt and I were talking about starting a family and that familiar ache, that burn inside like I have a hole in my soul was back. My mother loved children. She would hand-paint dresses for my friends who were expecting girls and had a special twinkle in her eye when it came to kids. And knowing that she wouldn't be here to finger paint with them and let them make scrambled eggs was more than I could bear.
A bright path ahead
They say that "God only gives you as much as you can handle" and I can tell you that my emotional backpack is full. My mother had a heart attack in her sleep the morning of January 13th, 2002. And like anyone who has lost a loved one, the pain never really goes away but fades and takes on a different form. You never get over it and the loss can still be so raw even as the years pass. Every once in a while, a moment or memory will catch you off guard and stop you in your tracks. It's being able to close your eyes, take a deep breath and continue on your personal journey. Our loved ones never really leave us--they're there, watching over and always available when we need to silently speak to them.
Today, I see my mother in the beauty of simple, every day things: a child's smile, a beautiful flower, a perfect photograph captured as the sun goes down and I grin when I find myself seeking out the familiar shade of lipstick that will forever remind me of her.