No one’s life should be defined by their tragic death.

But that’s what happened to my Mom.

So let’s get that part out of the way:

Thirty four years old. 1974. In the passenger seat of a Chevy Vega with only a lap belt. At an intersection four miles from our Marilla home. Town Line Road and Clinton Street. Struck by what we’d now call a drunk driver who ran a stop sign. My father was driving them home from a Marriage Encounter meeting at our local Catholic church. Internal bleeding. Gone. Dad with severe orthopedic and brain injuries, in ICU for weeks, quite certain he was Evel Knievel’s best friend, fantasizing about the jump over the Snake River.

Aunt Rose and Aunt Kathy not telling my brother, 8, and me, 7, for hours, I suspect because they thought he might not make it.

Joan Margaret “Peggy” Carey. 3rd grade schoolteacher. Daughter of Polish immigrants. City girl who moved to the country. Married the best friend of her best friend’s sweetheart, a South Buffalo Irish boy. Not ideal but at least he was Catholic. She was a strong swimmer who aspired to swim across Lake Erie and taught lessons in our family’s above ground pool. An artist. A loyal and funny and irreverent friend. Possessed a bad ass work ethic. A young woman with grit, who bought her first car, in cash, a Volkswagen Beetle, and taught herself to drive the stick shift on the way home.

I once heard an interview with a celebrity who had lost his mother at a formative age. His words resonated with me:

“It defines the rest of your life.”

Such a loss, when your mother represents everything that is safety, security, home, means that the world can seem a risky place. After all, it can be gone <poof> with someone’s failure to see a stop sign.

I think this was something I felt in my bones, something as much a part of me as her DNA, but I don’t think I knew it. Not consciously. When I turned 35, the birthday shocked me. I can think of no other way of describing it. It had not occurred to me that I would live beyond 34. I somehow lived with the anticipation that I would not, could not, outlive my mother. It was as though I exhaled a mighty breath, and started a second life, one I’d shoplifted quietly, stealthily.

Life has always seemed precious to me. Something fleeting, something delicately held, something to be treasured. I think it is one of the reasons I have loved fiercely, breathed in a moment not everyone in a crowd saw for the magical moment it was, and spoken (and written) about how deeply passionate I am (perhaps pathologically) about the creatures in my life. Human, canine, equine, feline, fox squirrelean, you get it.

If you are close to me, at some point, during some particularly exquisite –and likely absolutely ordinary on paper– moment, I have said to you:

“If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, please tell everyone how happy I was/how good my life was/that I got to do everything I wanted to do.”

(Why a bus, I have no idea. I’ve lived on a dirt road in the country for the vast majority of my adult life.)

Thank you, Mom, for all the things I see in me that I know are borne of you.

Thank you, for all the moments and the people and the timing and the serendipity in my life that made me look up and whisper “thanks, Mom.” (Was it you, up there, pulling the strings, placing this object in front of that one, marionetting my best moments? I can’t be certain but I choose to believe it.)

Thank you for the moments I see you in my brother, in your sisters, in my cousins, in my nieces. It makes me remember how beautiful you were. For somehow knowing that while I really hate inheriting Grandma Sobczak’s “bingo arms” I bet you would have had them too, and we’d have enjoyed commiserating together.

Thank you for our short time together and my precious memories of bath time, and you washing my back and telling me how beautiful my skin was, for letting me sit at the dining room table and brush your long dark hair, for making me think of you and listening to the AM radio in the car every time I hear KC and The Sunshine Band.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver
The Summer Day

That’s a simple one.

I plan to LIVE.

Fiercely, gratefully, loudly and quietly, imperfectly, both slowly and at a breakneck speed.

I hug Tom a little tighter before a road trip, tell him how much I love him, how happy I am, how grateful I am for our peaceful partnership.

That is the legacy of you, Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.