This is an open, public letter to my mom on the 5th anniversary of her passing. It was cathartic to write and I hope it’s meaningful for you to read.
In memory of Monica C. Holahan Ward
December 20, 1964 — July 4, 2014
I don’t like measuring the passage of time. In fact, I resent it. But today, I can’t ignore it. Because it’s July 4, 2019 and that marks exactly five years without you.
Five years and I still think about you every day. Your strength. Your poise. Your graciousness. Your love. The way you rocked that wig.
Today feels like a big one. It feels like I should be “over it” and have “moved on” with my life. Multiple people have told me this is the moment of closure, that five years is the final nail in the coffin. [That’s a terrible pun, I know. Forgive me.]
But it doesn’t feel like that’s possible.
The measure of a good life, I’ve learned through yours, is that it holds value even when it’s over. A good life is measured not in legacy per se (that’s more concentrated) but in the ripples it creates. You were like a boulder thrown into still water, creating tsunami-sized ripples all around. People I’ve never even met still reach out to me to tell me how much they loved you, how much they miss you, how much you impacted them.
Your death has taught me as much as your time on earth did. About you. About life. About family. About myself. Everything I thought I knew to be true has been questioned or disproved by the mere fact of your passing. Maybe that seems dramatic, but it’s true. I’ve been forced to look under the hood and figure out how this whole thing — this whole life without you — works.
There’s no denying how hard it’s been. I was an adult child when you became Angel Mom. Though I was old enough to reconcile all of it and rationalize your death, I always expected we’d have more time. I expected you’d be here. But it’s okay that we didn’t and okay that you aren’t.
Because if souls really do travel together across time, space, and lifetimes, if there is such a thing as soulmates, I know you are one of mine.
We transcended the stereotype of teenage daughters hating their mothers and mothers despising their teenage daughters. We had our struggles, sure, but when the day was done, love always came through. I wasn’t like other kids. And you sure weren’t like other moms.
And now when I think about you, I can only really see and feel love. The complexities and simplicities of it. Nothing else seems memorable enough to matter.
I know you were imperfect. You probably lied, cheated, or stole at some point in your 49 years. I know you smoked pot under the courtroom steps and dropped me on my head a few times. I like thinking about the incriminating evidence there is against your sainthood.
I’m sure you had your regrets, resentments, and sorrows, too. We all do. But you never let anyone see them unless they needed to.
Some of your friends criticized your commitment to that standard when they found out dad had been with another woman. They questioned you as much as him. Why you couldn’t reach out for help. Why you didn’t run away. Why you were afraid to be seen.
The story I like to tell myself is that you saw the world differently than most of us do. You didn’t see the world through the eyes of your own hurt, you saw it through the people you loved. And you’d damn well rather die than say or do something that deeply hurt someone you cared about. Pure selflessness.
There were many moments you almost let the story slip, but then you’d catch yourself and say, “Maybe someday I’ll tell you the story — you know, when I’m better.”
You knew you’d never tell me because you knew you’d never get better. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. Because knowing how you felt about the whole ordeal may have destroyed any hope we had of maintaining a loving relationship with dad. I know you kept silent for us.
Sometimes I think about how lonely it must have been for you though. Your husband was spending increasing amounts of time with another woman. Your young boys were just being young boys, playing video games and avoiding their homework. And I was so wrapped up in my own youthful optimism that we rarely ever spoke about the reality in front of us, though I’m not sure you were ready to either.
But I know you read the statistics. As I promised you I wouldn’t, I never did. I never realized how bleak your chances of survival really were until after you died. [Side note: when I just went to look up the statistics just now, my browser crashed and I know that was you. I guess you’re still calling the shots like you always did. You win this time.]
It took me a really long time to get with the program and realize you were dying. I always just assumed you’d keep bouncing back like the champion you’d always been. I’m sorry I wasn’t far enough along nearly quick enough to share in the realness of everything with you. I’m not sure if that was me, you, or the way we were programmed.
But you’ve shown me since that death, like life, is beautifully complicated. I’m not afraid of it anymore, though my stomach still drops when the plane shakes. The earth, too.
I still think about that time Julia and I carried you into a Barnes and Noble to pee and the stupid bathroom was all the way at the back. The employees stared as we carried you, a grown woman, across the entire store. And we almost made it. We literally made it into the handicapped stall, but then I fumbled getting you on the seat and you peed your pants (and on my shoe). We all started crying laughing.
People talk a lot about having the right to die with their dignity intact. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I get there. But to me, those moments with you weren’t a loss of your dignity. They were some of the only moments in my life where I saw you completely dignified, completely detached from what other people thought of you. You saw the humor and beauty in life itself. And that brushed off on me. I’ve never laughed or cried harder than I did in those months.
And in all the memories we have together, those are the ones I hold closest to my heart.
My only regret is that I wish I asked you more questions. You were ripe and ready to blurt out all kinds of truths during that time. I wish I’d asked you more about what it was like to lose your mom. Dad doesn’t remember much other than you struggled for a while. I just wish I knew how you did it. I wish I knew your deepest unrealized hopes and dreams. I just wish I knew more.
Grampy can’t tell me much either. He’s still the same sarcastic punk he always was, which is oddly comforting. I’m sure you know he had a heart attack a few months after you died and got all pissed at us for coming to visit him at the hospital. Laura was his ICU nurse.
The house burned down and poor Harvey went with it. But I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Jackson survived and thousands of people showed up in support of us. I know that was all because of you. Dad built a new house, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close. He sold it in March and I felt relieved.
I still go to NYC every year on your birthday. Sometimes with friends, sometimes with Julia, sometimes by myself. I go look at the Rockefeller tree, see a musical, and buy people presents. And I always go for a run in the park.
I don’t like going to your grave. It’s in a beautiful spot on the hill and at dusk, it can be an absolutely stunning view. But for whatever reason, I never feel connected to you there. I think we should have cremated your body. I’d have put you in the ocean.
Part of me would like to know if you are trying to communicate with me through mediums. There have been a few instances where people have reached out and told me you are. But here’s the truth: I’m terrified of what you might say. The omnipresence thing freaks me out.
I still have “coffee Fridays” — but I’ll admit it’s turned into a “coffee every day” thing for me. I find that I share that weird idiosyncrasy you had — where you were always trying to give up coffee or cut back.
I run now. Not as much or as fast as you. But I feel closer to you on the open road in the early hours of the day.
I got a tattoo. I’m not sure you would have liked that… But remember when I asked you if I could pierce my nose and you said only if I promised never to get a tattoo? Well, I didn’t get my nose pierced. So let’s call it even.
I lived in NYC for a year right near the East River. I did a City Year there just like I promised you I would. And that experience was exactly what I needed to get out of my pain and hurt; I’m glad you made me wait.
I live in LA now just like you always wanted to. Grampy says that I was called West “to see about myself” just like your mom was. Like I know you were, too. It’s weird to know I wouldn’t be here if you were still alive — and even weirder to know I’m grateful to be.
I still haven’t gone to London or to get that genetic testing as I promised you I would. I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with the financial or emotional reality of needing to have my womanhood removed. Yes, yes. I know you’ll have died in vain if I do nothing with that information.
Donald Trump is POTUS.
So much has changed, so much that has happened — in world affairs and in the Ward family. I wish I could catch you up on all of it, but it’s more complex than I could possibly explain in a letter.
You were worried about your sons losing sight of what mattered. You were worried about your husband going off the deep end without you. And you were worried that I’d stick around long enough to try to save the foundation from crumbling.
But the truth is, your sons are visionaries. They’ve had their fair share of struggles and they’ve gone about things differently than you would have hoped, but they are your sons — through and through. They have your optimism and your reverence for life. They believe anything is possible and they are learning. We all are.
Your husband has struggled — in more ways than one. And we’ve struggled with him. I can’t say much more than that; our relationship lacks the resolution I one day hope for. I’m working to love him unconditionally the way you did. But at the end of the day, I do know this — he misses you and, perhaps more than that, he misses the dreams you shared together.
I tried holding the family structure up like you told me not to. I don’t know — it’s just in my nature I guess. I’ve had to fight the urge to try and fill your shoes, to try to do things like you would have. At times I’ve gone so far in the other direction it doesn’t feel right either. I’m still trying to figure out how to be your daughter without being you or without denying you.
Sometimes I just want to hear you laugh or give you a hug. I want to wake up, walk downstairs into the kitchen, see you making muffins, and be greeted as if I’d just arrived home from a three-month trip.
I feel like it’s me up against the world a lot of the time. I miss you more than words and wish you were still standing in my corner. I didn’t want your passing to harden me, but in some ways, I think it has. It’s made me overthink a lot more, become a lot more cautious. But it’s also made me hungrier.
I long for the simplicity of life before you died, but I know it’s not coming back. Life is beautifully complicated. You knew that long before I did, you just shielded me from it.
More than anything though, I long for those two months I got to take care of you at the end of your life. I got the tiniest taste of what it was like for you all those years, raising three kids. Sacrificing sleep. Driving us around. Picking up food for us. Carrying us. The whole nine yards.
For the first time, my purpose in life existed so far outside of me that I could function on 2 hours of sleep per night and no food. I long to feel that way again. In my work and in my life, I’m always chasing that deep sense of meaning, struggling with the tedium.
I feel an obligation to be a mom someday because you were so damn good at it. It’d be selfish not to pass on the love and lessons. I’m sad you won’t be a grandma, nana, grammy, or whatever you’d have been. Probably nana.
For a while, after you died, I’d meet people and posture. I didn’t tell anyone about you, about losing you. I didn’t want anyone to know about our story or to pity me. I hate being pitied.
It sucks to be out here in the world meeting people that will never have the opportunity to know you, people who would have loved you so, so much. And have thought I was cooler for being your daughter.
Now, sometimes, I feel like I overshare. I write about you and talk about you to process my stuff out in the world. I want everyone to know you through me. It’s this crazy part of the human condition to want to be seen and heard, but not really want to be seen or heard at all.
But the line I always come back to is: your life and your death are the greatest blessings of my life to date.
That feels important to share because nothing rings truer. It doesn’t change or detract from the fact that life is harder without you. You were a bright light in a dark world, a solace to me and everyone else, too. Wherever you are, I think you know that.
Can I say a swear word? I think this calls for a swear word. It sucks not having you here. It fucking sucks. Cancer fucking sucks. Death fucking sucks. It all just fucking sucks.
I’ve always had peace around you dying. I know that a mother’s highest calling is to shape her sons and daughters into the best people they can become. And I like to think you realized we needed you to die to reach our highest potential. It was a call to action for us — to go forth independently and become who we were meant to become.
I’m still learning, still trying to become, still trying to doubt less and explore more. I’m still trying to love unconditionally and figure out what my priorities are. I’m still imperfect, still heartbroken, but I’m working on it.
I’ve spent five years writing this letter to you in my mind. Pieces here and pieces there. In journals, on napkins, and in Facebook posts. I hoped that it would be everything I wish I could have said and done then, everything I wish I could say and do now. It’s imperfect and open-ended though. My words are falling short. Though I know this letter must come to an end.
Your last breath created a clear divide of “before” and “after” in my life like nothing else ever has. As I let go of your hand, I began walking towards a series of catastrophes and existential crises in a world without you.
But at the end of the day, I know it’s made me a better, more empathetic person. And while I’d trade nearly everything for just one more hug, I know that’s not what’s meant to be.
I don’t want the end of this letter to feel like goodbye, but in some ways, I know it has to be. I have to say goodbye to the person I was before you died, the person I was right after, so that I can become who you made me to be.
That’s what today is about for me.
It isn’t goodbye, just see you later. See you in the small, insignificant moments. The big moments. The fireworks tonight. The serendipity. The love I feel around me. See you in my dreams being realized. In your family and friends. In the tattoo on my wrist. In the fabulous soccer moms I meet.
I’ll see you nowhere and I’ll see you everywhere.
And until then, as e.e. cummings would say, “i’ll carry your heart (i’ll carry it in mine).”