open letter to my mom

EP22: An Open Letter to My Mom

This may be the most intimate, personal thing I’ve ever shared publicly. I hope it resonates with you on some level…

Dear Mom –

Of the various themes/trends/truths that have dominated my life as long as I can remember, at or near the top of that short list – very sadly, I will be the first to admit – is “ongoing, consistent conflict with you,” mom.

Making that admission worse – and all the more painful to experience –is that I am your only child. Given that my father passed away in 2006, you have been my only immediate family for the past 13 years.

THIS WAS US

The conflict between us has been a constant, and that’s been true my entire life, dating back to my earliest memory, and even before that.

According to you, mom, the very first words I ever spoke – which I apparently uttered while watching you attempt to return a vacuum cleaner to what I thought was an incorrect storage location – were, “What are you doing? That does NOT go there!”

So, our first exchange was contentious, and that set the tone for our relationship for the vast majority of the years that have followed.

And, as you are well aware, that is a LOT of years.

At our worst – when my former career as a CPA took me to a different state, where I lived for five years – we went long stretches without speaking. I was young, lacking life experience and wisdom, and hyper focused on career, so “family” (which really meant you, mom, because you and my dad had at that time been long divorced, and he lived in a different state) took a back seat.

At one point, I recall we went many months without speaking or communicating at all (this was before email or social media, so it was easier to not communicate back then).

I could write a book on why I think we’ve had such a hard time getting along.

But I don’t really want to delve into those things, lest they detract from the real points I am attempting to make here.

Suffice it to say that, in the final analysis, I am the classic immovable object, and you are the quintessential unstoppable force.

It’s ironic that, when you really dig deep and analyze “us,” probably the easiest way to explain our historically combative relationship is this: we are simply too similar.

We are too much alike.

That said, given our respective ages, and given how long these behavioral patterns of ours have been not just established, but DEEPLY established and entrenched, for many, many years, I’ve often thought, “This is it. This is who we are. This is the level of our dysfunction. This is simply the way it’s always going to be.”

CHA-CHA-CHA-CHA-CHANGES

And then life came along and threw us a curveball.

Two, actually:

  • Your husband’s/my stepfather’s (Tim’s) health rapidly deteriorated to the point where he could no longer take care of himself, and to such an extent that he could no longer continue to live at home, and
  • As a direct result of the prior point, you ended up moving into my home, where you have now lived for a number of months.

By virtue of these two significant life events, I have come to realize that many (most?) of the judgments I’ve formed and clung to as gospel about you, mom, for all these years have been wrong.

Maybe a better way of saying that would be that I’ve come to realize that there are many things about you that I really didn’t know or fully appreciate, and that – when factoring these new realizations into my overall assessment of you – I now have a totally different macro view of who, exactly, you are.

I know, that must sound crazy.

I mean, how can I be an only child, and how can I have known you my entire life, and how can I be my age (old) and you be your age (older), and yet I’m still discovering new, significant things about you?

Honestly, I don’t know how that’s possible.

But I know that it IS possible, because I’ve lived it firsthand.

What I have experienced in the last couple of years or so – which is about how long ago I first started realizing how wrong I’ve been about you all these years – has truly shocked me.

It’s made me realize how incredibly easy it is to form and hang on to very wrong views and opinions of and about people.

So, what, exactly, happened to change my ultimate view of you?

YOU ARE A FIERCE, TENACIOUS ADVOCATE

First, with respect to the issue of Tim’s deteriorating health:

  • I’ve watched you advocate and fight for Tim, over and over and over and over and over and over again. He’s been in and out of so many emergency rooms, hospitals, nursing homes, rehab facilities, etc., that I have literally lost count. He’s been in every hospital within 20 miles of your home, from Livonia to Canton to Novi to Ypsilanti to West Bloomfield and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again.
  • And every time he checks into any of those facilities, you are the one taking him – usually all by yourself, because you hate asking anyone for help with anything – no matter what the time of day or the degree of inconvenience to you. I’ve seen you insist on taking Tim to a hospital when you were so tired and or sick yourself that you could barely function. Whenever you felt Tim was in danger, you found a way to rise to the occasion, irrespective of your circumstances.
  • Because of all the experience we have with hospitals, etc., as a result of Tim’s rapidly declining condition, we’ve both come to realize just how inept and incompetent a glaringly high percentage of the people involved in any of this so often are. While I have simply adjusted my expectations and accepted the unfortunate realities of “big health care in America, circa 2019” (because, for me, that’s the only option available, other than going insane, which I’m trying to avoid, as I have plenty of other reasons to do that), you have consistently refused to adjust yours.
  • When Tim doesn’t receive the level of care you think he should receive, you are as bold as a lion and super aggressive in terms of dealing with medical staff and or their superiors. While I won’t deny that I have occasionally bristled at your methods in such scenarios, I have never had any issue with respect to your motives: you want your husband to have the absolute best care possible, no matter what, period. I have nothing but respect for how aggressively and tenaciously you’ve fought for Tim.
  • Not only that, but – no matter how bad Tim has gotten, and how many different times he’s been through the cycle of “emergency room/hospital/rehab/assisted living” (and, as we are both keenly aware, that cycle has been repeated many, many times) – you continue to believe that Tim is going to get better, and recover to a level of health he hasn’t experienced in quite a while.
  • Whereas I look at Tim’s condition and see an overall downward trend that can only have one obvious end conclusion – and I’ve been actively preparing myself for that eventuality – you refuse to think like that, leveraging positivity and optimism not only to help keep yourself going, but also to lift Tim’s spirits, which I have seen you do so many times I’ve lost count. The sheer emotional strength it takes to keep that positive vibe, when there are so many factors, facts and reasons not to, is incredible. Again, I have nothing but respect for how you have refused to give up or give in, and how consistently and powerfully you have worked to keep Tim’s attitude positive in the face of his rapidly deteriorating quality of life.
  • And as significant as everything I ‘ve written in this section already is, I still haven’t mentioned the most incredible thing of all within this context, which is that you have literally saved Tim’s life. And not just once, but on several occasions. You’ve done this by noticing Tim’s symptoms (e.g., super low blood pressure, not being responsive, etc.) and knowing what those symptoms represent, and by refusing to accept the (incorrect on several key occasions) diagnoses from various incompetent nurses and doctors.I’ve watched you go to war over this on at least two occasions within this context, and, in both cases, subsequent events have proven you were correct, and that – had you not insisted and intervened when you were told Tim was fine when in fact he was not – he might not still be with us today.

In summary, the support and advocacy you’ve unwaveringly demonstrated for your husband is humbling to behold.

YOUR STAMINA IS NOT OF THIS WORLD

Second, with respect to the sheer amount of time that you have invested in supporting and caring for Tim:

  • As this is personally the first time I have been close to anyone needing the level of support that Tim has come to require in recent months, I had no idea what was involved. For a long time, I felt good about the level of support I was providing, visiting him what felt like often, particularly when he was hospitalized.
  • That said, even at my best, the amount of time I was investing in supporting Tim was a tiny fraction of the amount of time you were investing. And as this process has dragged on, the amount of time I’ve invested has started dropping, simply out of emotional, physical, mental, psychological and spiritual fatigue. The process simply wears you out. It makes you numb, and it desensitizes you to the situation. I think there is something in many of us that tends to tune out seriously unpleasant situations just as a self-preservation mechanism. I know this is certainly true for me.
  • You, on the other hand, have never wavered in terms of the support you’ve provided for Tim. And you have not become less sensitive to Tim or his situation over time. If anything, your sensitivity has increased, which seems almost superhuman to me. The only things that have slowed you, at all, are your own health issues. And those issues, I am certain, are at least in part the result of your burning the candle at both ends, day after day, week after week, month after month, working more than full time selling real estate, and then rushing to be with Tim every moment you possibly can. And then dealing with the ineptitude inherent in all of that, which is a massive task in and of itself.
  • On the fairly rare occasions when I’ve spent a significant amount of time with Tim on any given day, I come home from that experience absolutely wiped out and completely drained. I have no energy to do anything more than maybe getting myself something to eat, and then crawling into bed.
  • You, on the other hand, spend literally almost every single night you can with Tim, staying consistently until 8 or 9 PM. And then you come home and act as if it was nothing, almost always with a smile on your face and an upbeat, positive, optimistic attitude.
  • And, for the year prior to moving Tim to his current facility, which was done recently, you lived with him in an assisted living facility, spending every night with him, in a small one-room unit. As a result, because of the constant care Tim came to require during that period, and because he almost never sleeps through the night, you frequently went days, and sometimes weeks, with little or no sleep. And you just kept going, never wavering in your commitment or the degree of your diligence and advocacy. I was frequently exhausted just observing what you were doing.
  • Day after day, I marvel at your ability to make this significant sacrifice, and to not only make that sacrifice, but to act as if it’s no big deal. That you have the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual strength to keep doing this, day after day, week after week, and month after month, is truly humbling. I’m nearly 30 years younger than you, and there is no way I could do what you’ve done – and continue to do – in this respect.
  • And the prior point doesn’t contemplate all the time you’ve spent taking Tim to and from various doctor’s appointments, all over Metro Detroit. Because Tim is so physically incapacitated at this point, just getting him into or out of a car is a major issue and a real physical and mental challenge. On two different occasions – once picking Tim up off the floor after he had fallen, and once when helping him down the steps at my home on the most recent Super Bowl Sunday – I have injured my back in situations no more challenging that simply getting him in and out of a car. And yet, somehow, you – and you’re actually OLDER than Tim! – have done this, over and over again, never complaining, and never recognizing that what you are doing is so extraordinary.

Ergo, your ability to keep showing up and doing the right things – day after day after day after day – is like nothing I’ve ever seen anyone else do in this life in even remotely similar circumstances.

THIS IS US

Third, with respect to what it’s been like having you move in with me:

  • Given our life-long tendency to fight and not get along very well, I know we both approached the idea of your moving into my home with a healthy degree of caution and skepticism. We both knew that, if that did not go well, it could be a real setback for us. As we had been getting along relatively well in recent months, to risk that positive trend by having that experience go bad had real potential to mar and stain our larger perceptions of our relationship… and, maybe, do so for the rest of our lives.
  • That said, I think we’ve both been very pleasantly surprised at how well things have gone, and how quickly and easily we adapted to what really was a radical change for both of us.
  • You have shown me a level of respect that I haven’t always felt from you. You allow me to make the small decisions that go into the running of a household without second guessing me. You are so sensitive to how your presence might affect my plans on any given day. You do a lot of little things I don’t ask you to do, and that is very appreciated. And, because you have shown me what feels like a new and higher level of courtesy and respect, I think I have returned the favor, or at least I’ve tried to.
  • Because we’ve spent so much time together – in reality, probably more in the last seven or eight months than we had in the prior 30 years, combined, truth be told –we have finally gotten to really, truly and honestly know each other. Prior to your moving in, in retrospect, I think it’s fairly clear that we really did not know each other nearly as well as we thought we did, and nowhere near as well as we do now. I now deal with you like I do my closest friends. I’m no longer spinning or modifying stories to make them “mom-appropriate.” I’m now communicating with you as “me,” as opposed to as “your son.” Wow, does that feel great.
  • As a result of the prior points, for the first time ever, we are actually, openly, obviously enjoying one another’s company. Given that, not that long ago and for all the years before that, I had sort of resigned myself to the fact that we were simply never going to have a close, intimate relationship like I know we had both hoped for since the day I was born, this feels like winning a lottery I didn’t even realize I had entered. We’ve talked about this several times recently, and I cannot express how amazing it feels to have all the angst, anger, disappointment and pent-up negative emotions quickly melt away as we began to break through all our old bad habits and relationship issues. Truly, it has been miraculous, wonderful and life-changing.

What I’ve mentioned so far are only the new observations and revelations about you that I’ve made and experienced within the last year or so.

In addition to those things, there are all the other things I’ve always known, respected and loved about you, most of which I’ve never fully expressed to you appropriately (or, even if I have, I haven’t done that nearly enough, and or with enough force, conviction and appreciation).

YOUR LOVE OF PEOPLE AND OF LIFE

There is your incredible passion for other people, and your unusual zest and zeal for life itself:

  • I have always marveled at your love for people in general. I have so much respect for how you have always been the champion of the downtrodden, the less privileged and the forgotten. And for how you have helped so many different people in so many different ways for so many years.
  • I could share so many stories within this context, but I’ll just mention one: how you have stayed in contact with, and helped support financially, a former girlfriend of mine I haven’t spoken with since probably 1995. That is 24 years ago, and you still communicate with this person today, and on a fairly consistent basis.
  • And you never even told me about this. The only way I found out was because you asked me to look through your email one time for some work-related reason, and I just happened to see a recent email exchange you had with this person in which you were wiring her money because she had been abandoned by her boyfriend in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, literally, and she was stranded, with no money, no transportation and no way to get back to where she needed to go. That you would do that and never mention it to me is truly extraordinary.
  • As a sidebar, it sort of freaked me out that, on the evening of the day I wrote the vast majority of this letter, while we were enjoying our typical nightly game of hyper-competitive Scrabble, you happened to mention the person I referenced in the prior point. I found it beyond coincidence that you would mention that ex-girlfriend – whom we hadn’t discussed at all since I discovered you were still in contact with her a couple of years ago – on the very day I wrote about her in this letter.
  • You’ve never worked out a day in your life. Your diet isn’t great. You drink Coca- Cola, which I honestly believe is a toxin, consistently. You run yourself ragged as a rule, and you always have. I, on the other hand, have taken over 500 yoga classes in the past three years. I go to the gym with the consistency of a metronome, and carefully manage my schedule to ensure I can maintain my workout schedule exactly as I want it to be. My diet is way better than average. And, again, I am nearly 30 years younger than you. And yet, you consistently have more energy than I do. This has perplexed me for decades, wondering how you can keep pushing the way you always do, given your complete inattention to exercise and diet. You are truly amazing in this respect. (And I know the actual reason you have been able to do this: your unshakable, unwavering faith in God; more on that below.)
  • You have a much more active social life than I do. You have LIVED life, whereas I have for the most part been as much an observer of life as I’ve been an actual participant. You are constantly on the phone with friends and family members, very often encouraging and lifting them up, and just as often praying for them. You love it when people drop in and visit, with or without prior notice. Almost all of your real estate clients end up becoming close, personal friends. You simply love being with, helping and supporting other people.
  • You have enjoyed significant professional success, and yet you have never spent any of your earnings selfishly. You drive a modest car, and you are legitimately happy and thrilled to have that car. At Christmas, you are the person who always makes sure to buy a gift for everyone in your life, no matter what. Your first instinct is always to help others in any and every way that you can, rather than enjoy the fruits of your labor yourself. When you have invested your earnings, you have done so wisely, and earned good returns on things.
  • You express so much gratitude, every single day. You have no way of knowing this, because you don’t have your finger on the pulse of this part of our culture, but “gratitude” is a really hot topic right now. I’ll skip further analysis of that other than to say you have known and leveraged the power of gratitude your entire life. You are so appreciative and so thankful for everything you have, and you are so outspoken about that, and on such a consistent basis.
  • In a world that has become so full of entitlement, and so overrun with people – children and adults alike – who have everything, and yet appreciate almost nothing, your perspective on thankfulness, and taking absolutely nothing for granted, is so refreshing. So many times, without your even knowing it, I’ve heard you say, out loud, “Thank you, God, for X.” This has happened literally hundreds of times. And that leads perfectly to my next point…

Again, I am humbled by the massive gap between your approach to life and my own.

YOUR PERSONAL ETHIC

 There is your amazing combination of personal traits and characteristics that are so uniquely you:

  • Your work ethic is unmatched. You have always been a worker, and a doer of things. You almost never relax. You are always doing something positive and constructive. That you are still working (more than) full-time, at your age, while handling everything else you are handling, is truly mind-bending.
  • You are a person of absolute integrity. Another major life lesson I learned from you is that our word and our reputation are everything. So many times I have seen you make decisions and take positions that were not in your personal best interest… simply because you were doing what was in someone else’s best interest. I have seen you walk away from situations that could have profited you handsomely (giving up your right to $40K–$50K+ real estate commissions, for example, which I’ve seen you do on a number of occasions) because you didn’t feel right about the situation for some reason.
  • I’ve sort of already covered this, but it’s worth noting again: you have always valued relationships over money. Even when people have wronged you – sometimes, even when they did so maliciously – you have always turned the other cheek and been incredibly quick to forgive and forget.
  • You have a childlike sense of innocence and wonder. I have never known any person even remotely near your age that is like you in this respect. Playing a game with you – like euchre or Scrabble, for instance – is like playing with a child (in a good way). Your love of competition, and of the sheer fun of play itself, is so unique, and so very refreshing in a world that has grown so dark and so full of cynicism.

That is to say, there is only one you. God broke the mold, for sure.

 YOUR LOVE OF GOD

There is your incredible, immovable, unshakable faith in the God of the Christian Bible:

  • From my earliest memory, you have been a faithful, outspoken, unashamed believer in God. Because of you, I was raised in the church. If I had to pick the number one topic I’ve learned the most about from you, it would have to be the Bible, which you quote all the time. And you’ve been doing that consistently my entire life.
  • Earlier, I mentioned how amazed I am that you have so much energy and accomplish so much. I know the reason: because of your faith in the Word of God and what it promises us. To underscore that point, following is an excerpt from an email I sent you nearly two years ago, which included an excerpt from the prayer journal entry I wrote that morning:

This morning, I have a special request for you: that you would be with my mother, right now. I know that you are with her always. I have observed how you have honored your Word and your promises with her time and time and time again throughout the course of her life. 

She is a perfect example of what your Word says at Psalm 1:1-3: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.”

And she is also a perfect example what you promise at Jeremiah 17:7-8: “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

There is no greater illustration and manifestation of what it means to “have faith” than my mother. She has been an inspiration and a help to more people than I could ever count or remember. She has been an incredible example of what it means to believe and never doubt to hundreds, if not thousands. She has been a great ambassador of your Kingdom, and for that I am certain she will be richly rewarded when she reaches your heavenly gates. 

  • I wrote those words back on September 27, 2017, and they are just as true today as they were then. I know that God has rewarded you for your faith and your faithfulness, and for your incredible reliance and dependence on Him – for everything. He has provided you energy when you had no real reason to have energy, and allowed you to persevere when almost anyone else would have given up. He has provided for you and met your every need, every step of the way.
  • Because of the outspokenness of your faith, and because He has provided for you so faithfully your entire life (and because you’re always so quick to boldly proclaim your faith and share your experiences ­– and your faith – with others), you have provided an incredible illustration to countless people in your life of what it means to be a Christian – and how God so consistently and unwaveringly remains true to His promises.
  • As the Bible says at Proverbs 22:6, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” As already noted, you have been teaching me about the Bible, and the power of God’s promises therein, from my earliest memory. And THAT is the greatest gift anyone has every given me. Have I been a good son? No, I haven’t. At least not for the vast majority of my life. And at times, I have been an absolutely terrible son, more times than I care to admit or remember. But that has changed in recent years, and I now – at least occasionally – can look myself in the mirror and not feel awful about how I have behaved as your son. That I have been able to change, so late in life, is, in my opinion, a direct result of the point that scripture is making. Sometimes, it takes a LONG time for the seeds that we plant to actually germinate and start to produce fruit. You’ve always understood that, and you’ve acted accordingly, never losing hope that, one day, the effort you put into raising me right would one day begin to produce dividends.

To bring this point to a conclusion, allow me to say this: When I think of the expression “God-fearing,” I think of you. And we both know I cannot give you any higher compliment than that.

DEAR WORLD, I’D LIKE YOU TO MEET MY MOM

Finally, you may be asking yourself, “Why did you embarrass me by writing this publicly?”

That is a good – and fair – question. I suppose I could have easily just handed you this letter, and let you read it.

However, that just didn’t feel like enough for me.

I sincerely want the world to know who you are, and how amazing and extraordinary you are.

Further, that this is coming from me – the one person who has been, by far, your biggest, loudest and most consistent critic – should make what I have said herein that much more impactful, which is obviously what I’m hoping for.

Finally, I honestly don’t feel as if I wrote a word of this.

As so often happens with me, much of what I express in writing feels as if it’s coming from some other source, rather than from me. I wrote almost all of this in one sitting, when I had absolutely no prior plan to do so. I just felt an overwhelming urge, which I would describe as, “I cannot explain this, but I have to stop what I am doing, and sit down and write “An Open Letter to My Mom.””

And that is exactly what I did.

This letter is what came out of me.

With much love, gratitude, admiration and respect, your son,
Michael

POST SCRIPT THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

What I wrote above is the actual letter I shared with my mom on November 4, 2019. I wanted to add a few additional comments for anyone else that may read this, to amplify a few things, and also to share some takeaways that occurred to me after the fact.

First, that I could have been so wrong, for so long, about a person who is my only close family member rocked my world. If I could have been so wrong about her, I could certainly be wrong about anyone.

Or – maybe (gulp) – everyone.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, as well as the implications of such a massive revelation.

At a minimum, this experience has made me revisit and reconsider many judgments and conclusions I’ve reached about a whole host of people in my past. Who else have I been completely wrong about? Who else have I written off based on erroneous observations and conclusions?

I have to be honest: these are sobering thoughts.

Very sobering thoughts.

Second, it’s never too late to repair or improve a relationship. My mom and I had lived a relationship that was quite unhealthy for a very, very long time. And it was consistently unhealthy. We were both so stubborn, and so set in our ways, and so quick to escalate pretty much everything, that I had given up hope of ever having a healthy, happy, organically positive relationship with her, ever.

And then, in a matter of just a few months, we’re in an entirely different place, with a radically improved relationship.

If this can happen to us, it can happen to anyone, including you.

Third, I am so thankful for the fact that life circumstances forced me to consider the idea of inviting my mom to move into my home. Long story short, it was the obvious and correct thing for me to do. While part of me honestly wanted it to happen, another part of me was acting out or duty or obligation. That this one decision was the very thing that needed to happen for us to experience the amazing breakthrough that we’ve experienced is awesome.

The point: sometimes, just doing the right thing can set off a chain reaction that leads to something so much bigger and better and different than what we expected. And that is very cool.

Fourth, I now value and treasure every moment I spend with my mom. I know, that probably sounds totally normal and ordinary, but you have to understand that that was not the norm for me up until very recently.

So, for me to be able to actually experience this now, and on a consistent basis – after many decades of not feeling this way very often at all – is nothing short of miraculous.

I’ll end with this: never give up on trying to fix broken relationships.

Never.

Ever.

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