Category Archives: Uncategorized

Emma’s Silence & My Moments from the March

On Saturday, March 24, I filled a 55-person bus with friends and their teens and we made our way from Richmond, Va., to Washington D.C. for the March for Our Lives. When our bus returned home, more than 13 hours later, I asked everyone to email me their most memorable or meaningful “March Moment.” Many moved me to tears. Here’s mine:

IMG_0421One of my most meaningful “March Moments” was when I realized I shouldn’t be holding up the end of our banner that declared “NRA: This is What a Tipping Point Looks Like.”

I’ve been holding that thing at gun violence prevention events since 2015, when my daughters and I painted it so that I might protest with friends outside NRA Headquarters on the third anniversary of the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Without anyone even saying anything, all the adults – partly out of fatigue – gradually stepped off, leaving our teens to hold the banner, along with the signs they had created. It was an unspoken, but hugely symbolic, transfer of power and trust. I realized all those kids had been raised to stand up and speak out for social justice. I looked at them – as dozens upon dozens of people stopped to photograph them – and felt, for the first time, in that vast crowd, that the “tipping point” on this issue had really, truly, been reached. And it was because of these kids.

There were so many moments that bear mention. So much inspiration. So many tears. Samantha Fuentes asking us to sing “Happy Birthday” for Nick Dworet. Fierce, little Naomi Wadler declaring herself a voice for the countless black female victims of gun violence. Edna Chavez of South L.A. showing us what leadership and our future looks like. Jackson Mittelman from Newtown who was so fed up and angry and wanted change NOW! I loved him for it.

For that matter, I loved every sign that said “Fuck” because that’s where I am right now. “Fuck Guns – All of Them” was held high by a pissed-off woman from Newtown. An old white guy in a baseball hat with a trim white beard looked like he was right out of central casting for “NRA member” yet held a sign that said, “Guns DO fucking kill people.” I wanted to kiss him. And all those clever signs contrasting gun legislation to laws that control women’s bodies. I loved every single one.

So many things… SO MANY… made me feel so ashamed. The stories and voices of the black and brown kids whose daily trauma has failed to compel me to attend vigils or March for Our Lives 3 24 18protests in their own neighborhoods. The fact that, despite five straight years of gun violence prevention efforts, I haven’t really affected meaningful change. I personally haven’t been clever enough or worked hard enough to stop this. Just restoring an assault rifle ban might have saved lives at Pulse, Las Vegas, Parkland…

Adults have failed and I felt that shame acutely and repeatedly. We have failed this generation and our nation. We have failed. And these kids are thrust into a situation where they have to take the wheel. But thank God for them.


Hope… hope… hope…

These kids are amazing. These kids are our future. We have such a bright future.

My own daughter – who turns 18 this summer and heads to Virginia Tech, a college that gun violence turned into a hashtag – was among the thousands of teens privileged to register to vote at the March. I know she will never forget that.

Finally … Emma’s silence.

Holy crap.



I will never ever forget 800,000 people going silent. (Chills… just writing that.) And then chanting “Never Again.” And then going quiet. And then weeping.

It was about then that I joined several of those around me who put their fists in the air. And that felt SO good, as though Emma Gonzalez was our own, real-life “Mockingjay.”

I looked around and silently implored everyone to put their fists up. I envisioned and longed for a movie scene with a sea of raised fists. But only a fraction held fists aloft.

Then, with my fist still in the air, I stared into Emma’s face on the Jumbotron. I watched her tears and admired the strength and character and ethnicity in her beautifully fierce face and her defiantly shaved head.

As a speechwriter, I began to wonder what she was up to. This long silence began to feel like a risk. What might her next move be?

And then, slowly, some of the fists around me began to transform into peace signs. And that makes me cry, just to write it. And a few hands that had chosen not to go up as fists now felt invited to join the other hands… in peace. And I stood there – in silence – struggling with what to do with my own hand. Fist or peace? Because I’m so damn ANGRY about this.

Fist… fist… fist… It’s all I’ve had for more than a year.

And Emma continued to just look out at us. And she needed… demanded… deserved… both anger and compassion. But, in that silence – that reverence – peace just sort of won out. After hours of listening to these tortured teens, it was so, so evident that we all just needed peace.

So my fist relaxed. And it felt a little like giving up. It felt like the right thing to do, yet it felt like a surrender, and I sort of felt like a failure. It felt as though we adults were – in that moment – relinquishing leadership responsibility to these magical kids. And as my two fingers went up, my head went down. And I gave Emma peace. And I gave the world my peace. And I cried.

IMG_2245 - Copy


Photo credit for the two images above: Kenan Potter


“Such a Gift as This”

Three weeks ago I received a gift that left me speechless.

Today I finally have some words to put to it, so here’s the story:

1402033_10202691027223727_1270148566_oIn November 2013, I randomly posted a 20-year-old photo of an antique Limbert desk and chair to my Facebook wall and wrote this:

When Todd and I were broke newlyweds, both working for nonprofits and making our ages in salary, we went to Grove Park Inn for the National Arts & Crafts Conference. A huge antiques show was part of the deal. We bought the most exquisite, perfect little desk and chair and then, walking around the show, got complete buyer’s remorse, knowing that paying for it was going to kill us. We returned to the seller to take it away and they sensed our change in mood. They said they were sure they could sell it 20 times over (in that setting) if we weren’t thrilled with the purchase. So we gratefully let them let us off the hook.

The desk sold that weekend and we snapped a picture of it as it was being packed off. Now I need a new desk in my dining area and I’m still killing myself for letting that perfect little desk get away. Look at this little desk with the exposed tenons at the bottom. Check out the chair, how simple and elegant. We blew it 20 years ago. We should have just eaten Ramen noodles for a month.


The charming Jim Ramsay — I call him “Snow”

Jim Ramsay, my writing mentor who I had the good fortune of befriending 14 years ago, commented, “Wendy May — rather like “We’re getting the band back together,” now that I have a basement again, I got my woodshop back together from its diaspora to Brooklyn, Columbus, and Cleveland. So I could build a replica of the desk fairly easily. The chair would be much harder, because of the curved shape of the back leg/uprights. Send me the dimensions, if you want to consider it.”

So it turns out Popular Woodworking publishes a book of plans for select pieces of Limbert furniture. And it turns out that Limbert Writing Desk No. 736 is in that book. And… so… from February through May of this year, Jim Ramsay built me this beautiful, fawn-like desk with his own two hands … out of gorgeous quarter sawn oak.

All along the way, he sent me updates and photos. And these winged missives flew to me at a time when I was nursing a deep sadness as well as approaching an emotional milestone in my life – the precise age my mom had been when she died.

Knowing he was making this for me – the kindness of that – was so heart healing. But it wasn’t until I drove 350 miles to pick up the desk that things became more clear to me.

Jim is the exact age my mom would be. He lives in Nyack, New York, blocks from the house where my mother was conceived and less than a mile from her high school. And he regularly lifts me up and encourages me and praises me and I don’t really even know why or what I’ve done to deserve him. But three weeks ago, driving to his home, past the cemetery where so many of my own ancestors are buried, it occurred to me that my mom, of course, placed him in my path. The coincidences are too great. His love for me is too big. And I’m so stupid to have not realized it earlier.

To be honest, this has been a hard gift to accept because it’s one that I can’t possibly return. I tried, repeatedly, to get him to keep it. I pleaded with him, in fact, to gift it to his kids as an heirloom, to find someone – anyone – more worthy of it.

pineIt’s exquisite. It took hours upon hours. He first spent months building a pine prototype to work out all the kinks before executing mine in oak.

His email about that read:

I am SO glad I decided to make the prototype first, because (I’ve probably said this ten times before) I am learning so much, and especially learning from mistakes. The prototype is filled with mistakes. Each one a puzzle to be solved. I love puzzles.

His search for quarter sawn oak went this way:

There it was, across the Bridge, seventeen minutes from my house, at Condon Co. in White Plains. Couldn’t resist. Great people. Incredible price. I’m very excited, feel like we’re really on the way. The flecking and rays almost look like Arabic writing, they’re so pronounced.  

 I couldn’t believe I found [the thinner wood needed for the shelves]. It was one 11-foot long board buried under a bunch of 10 foot long boards that were 13/16″ thick. I just tripped over it. Stone luck. Victor, the guy who surfaced the other boards, couldn’t believe I’d found it either. He said, “We NEVER have this thickness in white oak.” He cut the 11 ft. board in half for me so I could fit it in my car. It was meant to be.

 I didn’t get wood for the legs. Will go back and do that. They’ll cut and mill the blanks from 2″ thick boards. It’s amazing. They have the milling equipment right there, and they just do what you ask for, happily and perfectly. It’s a good day.  

compassThe desk’s three graceful arches required the construction of two grand,  homemade compasses. Here’s an excerpt of his email about that:

I spent the first part of the day figuring out how to draw the curve that’s cut into the bottom edge of the desk’s sides. Only you will appreciate this.  

 I went on line and asked The Oracle (what Anita and I call Google search) about chords of a circle and their relation to the circle’s radius. That’s because I figured that the side curve of the desk was a segment of a large circle, so I only had to figure out how big the circle was and I could make a really big compass and draw it.

 I knew from the plans given in the book that the bottom of the desk side was 17 inches long, front to back. And that the curve rose 1 and 1/4 inches at its highest point.  My search took me immediately to a web page that gave a formula for finding the radius of a circle given the length of a chord of the circle (our 17 inches) and the distance from the chord to the circle (our 1 1/4 inches). I did the math and found that the curve was part of a circle with a 29.52 inch radius.  

 So I built a compass 29.52 inches long with a strip of wood with blocks glued to each end.  Drilled a hole in one block and jammed a pencil through it. Pounded a long, sharp finishing nail through the block at the other end. Drew the curve. It worked.  

 … I had been thinking about how to figure out where this curve came from, and how to draw it, for about three months. It took me about 10 minutes to come up with the right circle, and (not counting the time it took the glue to dry) about 10 minutes to build the compass and draw the curve.   

 I love it when a plan comes together.

LimbertRocker3Another lovely, poetic email reads:

… I had this gestalt insight while I was fitting the parts together. Limbert established a furniture “factory” in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1800’s, then moved the factory to Holland, Michigan in the early 1900’s, but kept the show room in Grand Rapids.  

The key word here is factory. The furniture fits so beautifully (and sequentially) together. The back fits into the back legs, the sides fit into the legs, the desk top slides into grooves to the back legs, the stretchers provide their classic support. And I realized:  Limbert was the IKEA OF THE LATE 19TH AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY! That is, the designs are not only beautiful, but wonderfully functional from an assembly point of view.  

Once you have the exact measurements for one side tenon, you can make a thousand of them for 500 desks. Yes, the materials are classic — quarter sawn oak — as is the Mission/Arts & Crafts mortise/tenon/slot joinery (no screws, no metal brackets, no metal period, except maybe drawer pulls), but the way these classic materials and techniques were combined is very modern. I’m sure Limbert had milling machines that could cut 100 mortises an hour. I love that he engineered this desk to fit so simply and perfectly together, AND that the resulting piece has the feel of simplicity and elegance — to the point that it transcends furniture and become an objet d’art.  


With Jim, moments after  he introduced me to his handcrafted desk.

Just putting it all together required him to host a “gluing party” in his home. It was quite complicated to make. It’s a labor of love. And I’m not, and could never possibly be, deserving of it. The truth of that brings me to tears, just typing it.

There’s a lesson in here, no doubt, about how a person might best accept a gift of such overwhelming kindness — a gift one might never be able to repay. I don’t quite know what it is yet. But whenever I gaze upon this desk or run my hand over its surface, the phrase “such a gift as this” leaps to mind. I don’t where I’ve heard that before. Google offers no definitive solution. But it seems like a “thing” to me – age-old words from some epic story, maybe even the Bible, that describe some great, timeless gift. It’s what I think when I ponder this desk: “How ever did I come to deserve ‘such a gift as this?’”

I’ll never really know. But here are two things I know for sure: This gift says far more about its giver than it does about its recipient. And love is – without question – the greatest gift you can give or receive.


June 3

“68 days,” Siri answered the first time I asked,
“How many days until June 3?”
3 days before my birthday,

the day she was diagnosed —
dry heaves in the parking lot
as the helicopter lifted.

Morning sun raked the bed, her eyes searching mine
“Happy birthday to you,” she warbled.
That’s when everyone realized — I was 21.

She’d had 3 of us almost exactly 3 years apart­.
I wasn’t showing during the holidays, she’d smile,
not pregnant in the summer heat.

50 days a patient — a rare brain tumor.
3 surgeries — 2 went past dark.
Blood on the boots of her weary surgeon.

Shaved, stitched, punctured —
she knew.
3 days shy of her birthday,

she never made it to 48.
3 summers later I marry & follow her
blueprint — 3 babies, 3 years apart.

Vessel of her love, I pour — her into them.
27 years later: it’s June 3
& I’m wife & mother of 3.

I’m 3 days shy of 48.
Tomorrow I’ll be older than ever
she was.

IMG_2860June 3 is a really big deal for me — the day I summit the solitary mountain that has long dominated my personal landscape. My mom’s death is easily my greatest tragedy and my biggest gift. Over the last few months, I’ve pondered my mom’s last days — sometimes soberly inhabiting them in “real time.” Today I take in her final vista. It’s a huge moment. I wanted to do something meaningful to acknowledge this milestone, and this poem satisfies that need in me. 

I’m indebted to another motherless daughter, Lynda, a gentle poet who asked for a favor and then returned it almost immediately with some lovely advice on patching up this beginner effort. I won’t put her full name here lest someone searching for legitimate poetry stumble upon this mess.

In its various versions, this poem naturally occupied 27 lines, then 48, then 27. I found that so curious. In its final form, there’s one line for every year we’ve lived without her.


TEDxRVA – Improving lives (and front yards) in Richmond

In March of 2016, I was invited by the leaders of TEDxRVA to guest blog about an inspirational speaker from their 2014 event. My blog proved so popular that, just weeks later, Andy Stefanovich invited me onto the the TEDxRVA stage to give an impromptu talk. Below is the blog that published on the TEDxRVA website.

DSC_0034There’s an 800-pound slab of bluestone in our front yard, on the corner of Grove Avenue and Mulberry Street. It’s the top of a broad table – a table my family built because of something a stranger said, two years ago, at TEDxRVA.

The Table fulfilled its purpose a mere two weeks after it was constructed when – on a warm evening, as we sat with old friends under shimmering lights strung in the limbs of our enormous live oak – a friendly couple happened by. “This is fabulous!” they said. “You guys look so European!”

“Join us!” we implored. “Have a glass of wine!”

“No, no…” they laughed.

But then we explained, “We actually built this table to meet our neighbors. You should really join us. We’re serious.”

And damned if they didn’t pull up a chair. And we served them wine and ice cream. And they shared their story – Chris and Cindy, new to the neighborhood, just bought a house two blocks over. And we shared our story. And it started with TEDxRVA.

In March 2014, Dr. Danny Avula took the stage at Richmond’s second TEDxRVA. I had attended the inaugural event and learned that regional TED talks – and the glorious audience that attend them – are not to be missed. But I never dreamed how impactful his brief presentation would be. His theme? “Dependence isn’t a dirty word.”

Avula’s face glowed with kindness as he opened with memories of college friendships. He shared a beautiful tale, of successful college housemates, scattered to three continents, who ached for reconnection and collectively moved to an impoverished North Church Hill community to once again share their lives and to serve others.

“In the first month of living there, we had had more conversations with neighbors than we’d had in the previous three years in the suburban community we had moved from,” Avula said. The “warm culture of porch sitting” led to “relationships of depth and dependence [that] started to extend beyond [his] circle of friends.” And, therein, he discovered the real joy in life: Dependence.

Then Avula spoke the words that changed my perspective – and my front yard. He said, “Over the last 30 years, human beings have become the most globalized… well connected we’ve ever been, but we’ve also become some of the loneliest and most isolated people we’ve ever been.”

He spoke of the birth of America’s suburbs, saying, “These suburbs… became the new vision of utopia. But the problem with that was that these front porches, where we used to sit and connect with our neighbors, gave way to back decks with privacy fences where we could keep to ourselves.”

That was it for me.

That’s when I realized what we needed to do with our front yard – the corner just beyond our own privacy fence. We needed a community space – a community table – right there. To connect with our neighbors – to the benefit of us all.

Over the last two years, The Table has hosted countless family meals, Scout meetings and “Girls Nights.” Just being out there, steps from a busy city sidewalk, has meant we’ve met hundreds of people. But, as The Table’s story spread, it grew to be a shared space.

A few months after its completion, The Table was host to a pair of young Vietnamese immigrants. When the wife, Tuyet, purchased a used bike from me on Craigslist, I learned they had immigrated here with a very tight budget and absolutely no furniture or house wares. Within days, thanks to Facebook, The Table became the site for a surprise “Welcome to America” party where they met Richmonders of all sorts, including some of Vietnamese descent, and received truckloads of well-loved furnishings.

Two years later, The Table is going strong. “Are you hosting any cyclists?” a friend asked us last fall, during the UCI Road World Championships. “The Latvian Federation is staying in Fan.”

“I can’t feed a team,” I responded.

“We can all pitch in,” she said.

“Are you game for this?” I asked my Facebook community.

Twenty-four hours later, about 50 of us stood in my front yard, tears in our eyes, as members of the Latvian Cycling Federation, seated at The Table, rose to their feet as my friend Mary, principal flutist with the Richmond Symphony, played their national anthem. It was a remarkable night and a powerful example that “dependence isn’t a dirty word.”

“Ideas worth spreading” is much more than the TED tagline, I’ve learned. It’s the TED reality. And it’s why I always will be among the first to buy TEDxRVA tickets each and every time they go on sale. This year’s theme is “Artful” and the speaker lineup looks as passionate as ever. If I don’t see you at The Table, I hope I’ll see you there.

View my TEDxRVA talk here.


Her Speech

The speech.

I keep thinking about it.

I’m a writer and what I’m arguably best at is speechwriting. So I keep thinking about Hillary’s election night acceptance speech.

It had references to that glass ceiling. The Javits Center was picked because it had one. But the glass ceiling line wouldn’t have been the line that people remembered.

She would’ve talked about her mom Dorothy, the unique circumstance of her mother’s suffragette birthday, and how badly she wished her mom could see this.  And her voice would have cracked and we would’ve all cried. Chelsea definitely would have cried.

She would’ve named the women who inspired her. The women who paved the way. And there would have been the usual cast of characters. But she would’ve named at least one woman none of us even knew about but who we all would then know about and learn about.

She would’ve said the blah, blah, blah campaign stuff. And while it’s all critically important to us, our minds would have gone elsewhere while she was weaving through those bullet points.

But then she would have changed her tone. And she would have talked about the division in this country. All the brutal, horrible things that were said during this campaign. And she would have SWORN to try her very hardest every single day to unite us and be the very best president any of us has ever had.

And those of us who believe in her would know that she really MEANT it. This lady works HARD and she’s smart as hell.

She might have even mentioned some folks by name — like the coal miners in West Virginia who overwhelmingly voted against her. And she would have told them, PLEDGED to them, that she wanted to be THEIR president and THEIR champion. That they would NOT be forgotten in her administration. And that she would be coming soon to talk with them. Before the inauguration even.

We would’ve seen how EAGER she was to get in there and to dazzle us with all she’d learned. And she’d say something, some reference to her schooling or her former classmates, that would remind us of Hermione. And we would LOVE her SO MUCH because she’s our real-life Hermione.

Her closing would have moved the hearts of everyone, including the women watching who hadn’t voted for her but who woke up their daughters to see history being made.

It would have ended with ALL of us ladies feeling so PROUD that a WOMAN finally got this job and so EXCITED for her to knock it out of the fucking park and show the world (and our daughters) that, HELL YES, a woman could and should be the ultimate boss.

That speech is written.

Hillary practiced it.

On election night, somebody packed a paper copy of it into a briefcase or box as a stunned hotel suite was vacated.

The aide who has it will keep his or her copy someplace special. Maybe, Wednesday afternoon, he or she wrote on it, in pen, certifying that it came from that hotel suite. And the curled-up corner on the cover page will add to its authenticity.

People will look at it someday — in someone’s private library or maybe in a museum case — and think, “She held this in her hands that night.”

This 69-year-old woman. This battle-weary warrior who dragged her ass around the globe and around this nation for something far greater than just power. This lady…

And that just breaks my heart in two for her and for all of us.

And it’s why it’s 9:16 AM on Saturday morning and I’m still in bed crying.

Three Reasons Why One Mom Became an Advocate for Gun Violence Prevention

In January of 2014, my daughter and I participated in a vigil for victims of gun violence. What I witnessed at that event  deepened my resolve to reform America’s gun culture. Afterward, I was asked by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to write this for You may view the publication here

In the last year, I’ve made time to ask my representatives to take action to prevent gun violence. Here are three reasons why:

1.  Two years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, a gun was confiscated from one of her classmates. Days later, I sat on her bed, and we had a sober conversation. I’m not an alarmist, and I believe there are plenty of things kids don’t need to worry their little heads about. So I had an almost out-of-body experience as I watched some lunatic mother, who looked just like me, tell my daughter, “Honey, I’m sure it will never happen… but if you’re ever in a situation where someone is shooting, don’t run away in a straight line. Go in a zig zag. It makes it harder for them to aim at you.”

2. One year ago, I was reading an article about six-year-old Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. It said, “Connecticut Governor Malloy came to the funeral home to pay his respects. [Noah’s mom] took him by the arm and brought him to the casket. Noah’s famously long eyelashes — which she spoke about in her eulogy — rested lightly on his cheeks and a cloth covered the place where the lower half of his face had been.”

Minutes after this photo was taken, Virginia Capitol police confiscated the (potentially dangerous) stick from this girl’s American flag. Steps away, “Guns Save Lives” protestors demonstrated on Capitol grounds armed with handguns and assault weapons.

Minutes after this photo was taken, Virginia Capitol police confiscated the (potentially dangerous) stick from this girl’s American flag. Steps away, “Guns Save Lives” protestors demonstrated on Capitol grounds armed with handguns and assault weapons.

3. Last week, my 13-year-old daughter and I made our way to the Virginia Capitol to attend the 21st Annual Vigil and Advocacy Day hosted by The Virginia Center for Public Safety. In the midst of the remarks, a Capitol police officer approached my daughter and confiscated the pine dowel from her American flag. Sticks can be used as weapons and, therefore, aren’t allowed on Capitol grounds. Steps away, a dozen “Guns Save Lives” men, several armed with handguns and assault rifles, walked the Capitol grounds (and later, halls) undisturbed.

There’s something wrong here, folks.

There’s something wrong when rational mothers feel it’s appropriate to advise their middle schoolers how to flee from an active shooter.

There’s something wrong when a mentally-ill 20 year old can use military-grade weapons to blow the hand and jaw off a six-year-old boy, and similarly massacre 19 of his classmates and six of his school faculty in a matter of minutes.

As Capitol police confiscated the sticks from hand-held American flags carried by gun violence prevention advocates, armed demonstrators wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers were left undisturbed.

As Capitol police confiscated the sticks from hand-held American flags carried by gun violence prevention advocates, armed demonstrators wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers were left undisturbed.

There’s something wrong when you aren’t permitted to wave an American flag on Capitol grounds if it’s attached to a stick, but you’d be most welcome to affix it to the end of a loaded assault rifle.

Are you good with what’s going on in our country right now? Have you read what other industrialized nations say about us? How they fear visits to our country? How appalling they find us? How they pity us?

It doesn’t have to be like this. Please realize that.

Our children now participate in “lockdown drills,” preparing for armed intruders the same way they do for fires and tornadoes. We now behave like gun violence is something we can’t do anything about. But no other civilized country teaches its kids to hide in closets from the threat of assault weapons.

Every day, every death, every drill… represents another day in America without a public policy solution. Just last week in Virginia, legislators voted down a Senate bill for criminal background checks despite the fact that 92 percent of Virginians (including gun owners) favor background checks.

In the face of the powerful gun lobby, we’ve got to have legislative and moral courage. And the only way that will happen is if parents demand it. It’s time we showed our kids what freedom really looks like. If you care about this issue, it’s time you took meaningful action. Please act.

Advice to Newly Motherless Daughters… and Anyone Who Grieves

Two years ago, a good friend and admired colleague suffered the unexpected death of his wife – a vibrant, intelligent woman in her 50s. I was devastated for his entire family, but my thoughts turned to his 18-year-old daughter. I, too, lost my mom when I was in college. And, while I’d never met my colleague’s daughter, I felt compelled to share with her my learnings and advice. My friend recently asked my permission to share a copy of my note with yet  another young woman who was grieving the recent loss of a mother. In the interest of helping others more broadly, I decided to post the letter here. With the exception of the recipient’s name, little is changed.

Dear Jane,

You don’t know me but I’ve worked with and admire your dad.

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom died suddenly between my third and fourth year of college. I was 21. She was three days shy of 48. She died of complications related to a rare benign brain tumor. She was healthy her whole life. She was sick (surgeries) for about a month and a half.

When she died, she was the person I loved most in the world and the person from whom I received the most love. Like your mom, she was a rare and exceptional woman. I see my mom in pictures of yours. This summer I turn 42 and will have spent half my life without her.

Hope Edelman wrote a book called “Motherless Daughters.” It came out about three or four years after my mom died. I was given no less than four copies and, while it was an interesting read, I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Then she released this one [book was enclosed] – letters that “Motherless Daughters” had written her. And it remains the only helpful thing I ever read about joining the “Dead Mom Club.” So here’s a copy.

Here are some things I learned on my own that may be helpful to you:

  • It’s her. If you think something is your mom (a song, a butterfly, a coincidence), especially over the next few months, you are right. So don’t even question those things. It’s her.
  • Why? There is no answer to the question “Why?” It took me about a year to figure that out. Someone told me in the last year that “Why?” is a human question, not a spiritual question. I thought that was interesting and maybe you too will ponder that one day. Regardless, you will never, ever, ever be able to make sense of why this happened. Maybe it will be helpful to know that now because things become a lot more peaceful when you stop asking that question.
  • Write. You come from writers. If you don’t have a journal, get one and try writing about this. The first entry is the hardest. I found that when I wrote things down about my mom – things I would miss about her, things I wish could be different, things I wish the doctors had done, a dream I’d had about her, whatever – the buzz in my head about that particular topic would be quieted. Something about writing it down allowed me to turn that subject off in my head. It gave me great peace and it also gave me something to do at night besides sobbing when I had a roommate in the freakin’ dorm room with me. I filled two books with grief. What therapy that was. And it made me a better writer. Big time.
  • Be gentle to yourself. You have internal bleeding right now, honey. For the next year, offload needy friends, reduce the volunteer stuff, take on only a bare minimum of responsibilities. Seriously. For a year.
  • Get a therapist. This summer – about three months from now – when people stop asking you daily or weekly how you are and start to go about their lives and when all your good friends have cried with you and heard your most horrid tales of anguish, get a grief counselor or join a grief group or just talk to someone with fresh ears once a week. After two consecutive weeks of visits with that person/group where you don’t cry, you’re done with that. But as long as you are crying weekly in someone’s presence, keep going and keep crying. I learned I needed therapy when I had an anxiety attack – out of nowhere – at about three months in. Save yourself that mess and get pre-emptive help. I saw a crappy free college therapist for three months, and it was really good for me. I ditched him when he couldn’t make me cry anymore. This was the first and only time I ever used a therapist. It did me a world of good.
  • She’s there. After you cry and beg for a sign from her and hope that she will make a book fall off a shelf or turn a lightbulb on and off… after you plead for her to show you anything to demonstrate that she’s still there with you, you’ll end up bawling. And after you do, resignation and exhaustion will wash over you. That’s her, honey. She’s holding you then. That’s her. And she’ll give you peace after your tempest. So just exhale and know that she’s got her arms wrapped around you and she’s kissing your lovely cheek and wiping off your tears with the back of her finger.
  • You will be happy again. The Greeks have a great word – palimpsest. It refers to a piece of parchment (a manuscript page from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped off or erased in order that the precious paper could be used again. For the next nine months to a year, every experience you have will be written on the same parchment that documented your mother’s tragic death. So previously joyous experiences will not be joyous. And you will question, through false smiles in social settings, if you will ever experience true joy again. Please know that you will. You absolutely will. You will be soaringly happy again. But it takes time. Time is a wonderful gift. Nine months after my mom died, I was so relieved and even shocked to experience a taste of joy again – on clean parchment. Not on palimpsest. It occurred to me then that it takes nine months to bring someone into the world. Maybe it takes nine months to let them out of it.
  • She will inhabit you. After you stop wanting to call her. After you stop wanting to tell her about the childhood friend you ran into. After you almost don’t even think to miss her because you’re so used to not having her there, you gradually will realize that she inhabits you. You will see her face in the mirror. You won’t miss that she didn’t “meet” your husband or see your kids because you will have a very certain knowledge that she inhabits you. Her love never, ever leaves you, and she is part of everything you do – not watching from above, but watching from within. She’s in you, honey. The love, her love, never leaves. That deep, deep wonderful love will be with you forever. She will be a part of your life forever and ever. Sincerely. My mother is with me all day, every day. She is in me. She knows my husband, she treasures my kids, she sees everything I do, she is proud of me still. She’s in me. I don’t even miss her these days. I just adore her.
  • Don’t sweat the thank-you notes. People will understand if you don’t write them. Your mom just died.

If you ever want to talk to someone, absolutely call me. It would be an honor to speak with or correspond with you. I am so deeply sorry this happened to your lovely, exquisite mom.

(As always, I welcome comments… about this post or on this topic.)