A Secret Goodbye Letter From My Mother

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In the basement guest room, my dad and I pulled board games with most of the pieces missing from the corner of a closet and dumped them straight into the garbage. I thought of the nights my mother would pretend to send me to bed and, after my two younger sisters were tucked in and kissed good night, she’d signal for me to creep back down the dark hallway out to the living room. She and I would sit cross-legged on the floor, eating popcorn and playing Junior Monopoly — my bonus hour, just for big girls.

My sisters and I were helping to clean out the house where our mother had died a decade before, the last physical space that ever sheltered her body, the place where we’d spent years learning how to navigate a life without her. My dad was tired of the upkeep, of cleaning gutters and shoveling snow, and he was heading to an apartment across town.

He pulled out the next box, a thin plastic tote I’d never seen before.

I peeled the lid to reveal dozens of relics outlined through tissue-paper wrapping. They gave the faintest crinkle as I picked them up, the tape still undisturbed. I called for my sisters, and we crowded together to unroll each item like we were at an archaeological dig, our breath pinned to our ribs as if everything we touched was so temporary and fragile it might crumble beneath our fingertips.

Our mother had saved stiff frocks trimmed with lace, the tiniest pair of white Nike sneakers, a silver rattle in the shape of a duck, a cream-colored brush with bristles as soft as vicuna fur. Some of the packages were labeled with our names or tagged with notes about where an outfit had been worn or who had given it to us, details she must have carried with her for years. Buried toward the bottom of the box was a letter, folded once.

My mom was sick for 14 months before a brief remission, and then the return of her cancer was swift and crushing. Her health spiraled within weeks, during which she had just one mission: Move us out of our rental and into a single-family home we’d finally own. When she died, we’d lived in her dream house for only three days.

I was 11, my sisters 5 and 6, and our mom chose not to make a big affair out of the goodbye. As the years unfolded without her, I buoyed myself with the romantic thought that a letter must be waiting for me at some future milestone: Sweet 16, high school graduation, wedding day. Surely our father was holding onto something from her, deep thoughts she had penned late at night from her sickbed to share with us once she thought we’d be ready. But there was no letter.

Until there was. It wasn’t the letter I’d imagined; this note was more practical. It’s short, only three sentences in all, with a mention of how difficult it was to part with our baby clothes and a reminder to divide the items fairly — a nod toward our frequent sibling squabbles. She allowed for a sentimental moment only at the very end: “Know that I love you all dearly and that no one will ever be important to me like my three beautiful girls are.” It’s signed, “All my love, Mommy.”

That afternoon, my youngest sister confided in me that if she really reached she could recall about three memories from those early years with Mom. She didn’t name them for me, but I worked to fill in the gaps. I reminded her of our mom drawing elaborate pictures for us to color while helping me study for spelling tests, of her walking us on warm afternoons to a park down the street and teaching us how to eat honeysuckle, of the pointed way she’d laugh after delivering a comment that was particularly clever.

Later, alone, I allowed myself to think of how unfair it is that my baby sister shared a bed with our mom from the day she outgrew her crib until nearly our mother’s death, yet she can remember just three moments from their many days together. All my love, our mother had written, but the paper wasn’t enough to contain it.

We re-wrapped the items and stashed the box in storage until much later, when I was ready to pass along some of those keepsakes to my own daughters, the oldest now 5. There are nights when I lie awake with the understanding that I’m only one unfortunate accident or diagnosis away from oblivion, and the urgency of writing my girls a letter surfaces as a sharp reminder in my stomach.

But I can’t. The task feels too weighted. Still, I think of it as I lift the baby from her crib and settle her against my chest or get down on my hands and knees to construct a tent in the basement where her big sister and I will pretend to be spies or explorers or witches.

In the meantime, I use an app on my phone to jot down memories of my daughters. The hilarious things they say, their whip-smart moments of empathy or insight, the unique ways they’re able to both fill and challenge my heart. Instead of a letter, a living record.

I imagine it was too painful for my mom to think of us existing without her. The heaviness of fitting all of herself into a piece of paper we could hold onto was ridiculous. Impossible.

To compensate, she put herself to work, sorting and wrapping and labeling our baby clothes, mementos from her best and healthiest years with us. In the objects she wrapped — those delicate dresses, that tiny hairbrush — she sent us a wordless message, preserving tangible evidence of her nurturing.

She gifted us with reminders of her love that we might one day pass along to our own children, our fingers pressing into the fabric as we told them about their Nana Mo, her sharp laugh and gentle care revived in brief flickers, the way she cherished us written on the tissue paper wrappings as clearly as if they were words on a page.