Be Gentle


People use the word heartbroken often, but I had never actually felt it before my mom died this past August. My heart ached every hour of every day. It still does.

A few days after her passing my fear of the dark came back.

I was afraid I would see her ghost everywhere asking me why I didn’t save her and I wouldn’t know what to tell her, I wouldn’t have a reason.

When my dad passed away in 2001 it was so different. The cancer had taken so much but at least we got to say goodbye, I love you.

This, this felt violent. It felt wicked, cruel, unfair, and all the words I had always heard other people use to talk about death that I could never truly connect with.

My family would spend hours repeating the same phrases, “I didn’t know, I just didn’t know. Why didn’t she ask for help? Why didn’t she say anything?”

My sister and I spent weeks sorting through her life. We catalogued it and investigated it. We were searching desperately for an answer or a message, just something to ease the pain.

We went through her phone and looked at the photos she took, we watched the videos she made. For a few moments we could see the world as she saw it. What did she value, what did she want to remember, to save?

One of the first videos she took was in early March. The past winter in Chicago was particularly horrific and it took its toll on my mom emotionally and physically.

We pressed play.

The camera shook, the orientation kept changing. My mom was clearly trying to capture the flooding of the retention pond near our house but she couldn’t get the camera to work right.

She spoke only once.

“You stupid idiot.”

The video ended.

My sister and I sat there for a moment taking in those words. How her voice sounded, defeated and tired.

“Aww mommy no,” Heather finally said.

You rarely get to hear the way people speak to themselves in private.

This was how my mom saw herself and these were only the words she was willing to say out loud. What was it like in her head? Was this how she defined herself? I can only imagine.

I’ve not been kind to myself.

I never have been.

I can’t look in a mirror without criticizing myself. I can’t walk outside without comparing myself to those around me. I maintain a constant record of how I don’t stack up and how I never will.

I’m afraid of confidence. I’m afraid that if I have it I will become too comfortable, that I will stop trying.

I’m afraid of being satisfied with myself because that breeds complacency and I don’t want to be complacent. I don’t want to be normal, average, or just OK. There’s a part of me that feels very at home with my hatred.

Then I heard my mom call herself stupid, call herself an idiot. It stung, it jolted because it sounded so familiar.

I know that anger.

I know that disgust.

Is this what she believed others saw in her? Is this how she lived her entire life?

There was always a part of my mom that just never believed she was enough, that she ever did enough.

She couldn’t live up to her own standards.

She spent a good portion of her retirement money on my college education— not enough.

She gave up her personal dreams and ambitions to raise five kids — it wasn’t enough.

She worked her fingers until they bled — not good enough.

She watched her husband become ill. She tended to him and held his hand as he slipped away from her forever.

She recovered from a brain aneurysm, learned how to speak, walk, and drive again — it wasn’t enough.

She laughed and she loved in the most sincere way. It was full and complete. It was without reservation or condition. It still wasn’t enough.

She saw good in everyone. She saw you as you were but also saw the person you might one day become.

She was hopeful and filled with joy.

She was kind beyond words. She gave and she gave, always beyond her means — still, not enough.

But it was.

That she couldn’t save some kindness, some gentleness for herself, hurts so deeply. She deserved it more than anyone. She was so much to so many. I can only hope that somewhere, some part of her knew that.

If I could tell her anything it would be this:

Be gentle. You are more than enough. You are loved as you are in this moment, you always have been and you always will be.

Since I can’t, I will tell you instead.