Today would have been my mother’s 60th birthday.
It’s funny how those years that end in a zero always feel like milestones for some reason.
It would have been her birthday because she died almost seven years ago from breast cancer. It’s weird how her death can feel like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at the same time. I think about her daily, but as her birthday as drawn closer, she’s been in my thoughts throughout the day more than other times of the year. Given the milestone nature of her birthday, I’ve been thinking about other milestones in her life and my own. And I’ve been thinking about her legacy. I know that my dad, brothers, and I carry that forward. At this point, if you never met her, then the only way for you to know her is through one of us.
My dad said to someone recently at my uncle’s funeral that everything that is good about my brothers and me comes from my mom. I think he’s half right because I know that I share qualities from both of my parents, who also share similar qualities with each other. But I do believe that some of my best qualities do come from her, and those are things that I hope people learn about her through me.
So, what is that I want you to know about Kathy?
For starters, she had a great sense of humor and smiled and laughed a lot. She was sassy and mischievous. She was smart and well-organized, with a strong work ethic. She was a self-starter who liked to get the job done. Oftentimes, she wanted to do it herself because Kathy liked things a certain way. These are all qualities I believe we share.
But what I really want you to know about my mother is her compassion. She loved her family fiercely and was what some might consider tenderhearted. She was kind, empathetic, and loyal to family, friends, and neighbors. She cared, she really cared. And she made you feel like she cared. You knew it. My hope is that my compassion is felt and known in the same way. And she was strong, in ways we never understood until she was gone. She wasn’t perfect because no one is. But I know she was as perfect as she could be. She wanted to be a good mother and she tried her best, even if there were times when she or I felt that she missed the mark.
I remember once asking her what she had really wanted to be as an adult given that she didn’t go to college and completed vocational courses in high school related to secretarial and office management work (which she excelled at). As a budding scientist and undergraduate student at the time, I couldn’t believe that what she was doing was what the dream had actually been. But I was wrong because it was. She told me she took the courses in high school because she really liked them and that what she really wanted to be—what she had always wanted to be—was a good mother.
As with me, her characteristic compassion and empathy was a double-edged sword. It makes you vulnerable because you feel. And when you feel, you can feel the good and bad. I think that sometimes that level of emotional intensity can magnify things, at least it can for me. What I mean to say is that she was self-effacing and, at times, self-deprecating. For example, I don’t believe she would describe herself as smart because few people ever told her that she was or made her feel that way. And I understand that aspect of her, too. It’s another quality that we share. I feel fortunate that through my education and life experiences, I’ve learned skills to help me in reframing those kinds of things when I get discouraged. And sometimes that is a skill you have to hone and practice often. As an aside I find it ironic that the kid who grew up often wondering if he was “good enough” ended up in a career in which peer review of one’s work is required. But I digress.
She was also unapologetically herself and authentic. She was, as we would say in the hills of Grayson County, just natural. She was just Kathy. Actually, it was about the time that she reached my current age that I really noticed this quality in her really coming to the fore, as evidenced by her adopting the nickname Special K around that time.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope that all of the things I got from her, that I learned from her, shine through in some way into the present. And I’ll tell you why.
Someone recently made an error in judgment and said to me, “oh, that’s right. You don’t have a mother.” I know this person meant no harm and it’s not the first time someone has said something like this to me in the past seven years. But I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I don’t believe it is accurate. I do have a mother, a great mother. Just because she’s no longer living doesn’t mean that I don’t have a mother. It feels like negating her existence.
So, it’s important to me that people know her through me—through my work, my actions, the way in which I approach my life. I don’t want to live in her shadow or do things only to suit what I think she might have wanted. But I do want people to have some inkling of who she was because if you never met her, then you missed out on someone amazing.