The first time I met you was at the apartment where Dad was living. He tried to play it off like it was his apartment, but there was girl stuff in the bathroom, and the decor didn’t really seem like his style. I don’t remember much else about that visit, except that you had beautiful hair and you seemed pretty and young and nice.
You were just 24 when you came into our lives, and us into yours. You got a package deal: Dad, two 12-year-olds, and a 5-year-old. I never really thought about what that must have been like for you. You were just a kid yourself, weren’t you? It must have been hard, but you never said an unkind word, and we never heard you complain. In fact, you went out of your way to make sure you never stood in between us and Dad, especially me, always a daddy’s girl. Your summers were beset with children, and you and Dad never had your own Christmas in those years, just trips back to Missouri to be with us. I know in those early years with you both early in your careers there must have been a financial toll, too, especially after you blessed us with our beautiful sister.
I was endlessly impressed by your many talents and accomplishments (except for cooking!). I loved the stories you told me about antics with your identical twin sister Danette, especially dating and college stories. I thought it was awesome and daring that you would eat a hamburger for breakfast, which you pronounce “brack-fast.” I have never heard anyone before or since pronounce it that way! I remember the beautiful macramé plant hangers, and how you played the guitar for me and sang “One Tin Soldier” and “Big Blue Frog.” That doesn’t make you sound at all like a child of the ’60s, eh? You learned how to carve wood, beautifully, and I know your crucifixes must still grace the walls of some of the little churches there in rural North Carolina. Later, these talents extended to cabinet-making, and a futon, a crib for one of Jessica’s babies…it seems like there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do. I never really understood your work as a fancy kind of accountant, but I know you were very good at it, and held to the highest principles, which I always admired. I hope I listened well and patiently when you tried to explain it to me.
Your faith has always been strong, and you used that and your talents and generosity and selflessness to benefit others with the creation of beautiful rosaries that would bring them peace and comfort, even when you had neither yourself. I wrote about these gifts earlier, and I treasure them now. You returned to me the prayer shawl that my mom had made you — not because you didn’t need it any more, but because you sensed I might need it more.
When you first learned you had breast cancer, you tackled it methodically and pragmatically. There was never any question that you would kick cancer’s ass, and you powered through chemo, radiation, double mastectomy, reconstruction, lymphedema as if you were on the hunt for an accounting discrepancy that you knew you would find. You were the best-prepared, most well-read self-advocate any doctor would ever see, and woe to any medical professional who didn’t give you the information you were seeking. I will never forget how proud I was of you when you started riding your bike and walking. You met your 1,000-mile goal in 2017, despite bursitis and lymphedema, and were well on your way to your 2018 goal, even completing a 40K bike ride, when metastatis reared its ugly head, everywhere … brain, bones, liver, lungs, even randomly behind your eye.
In August, when Brian and I came to visit, you had just had your first chemo the day before, yet you uncomplainingly went on a hike with us to Dave’s Falls. You asked me to bring my camera and to take some photos, as if you knew I would want to have memories of you from that day, happy and lovely. And indeed, beautiful pictures they are — of you laughing, and of you and Dad in a tender, private moment.
You never tried to take the place of my mom. We were in a strange place — not quite mother and daughter, not quite friends. Yet somewhere along the line you became both: another mom, and my friend, and I have been both grateful and fortunate to have had you these 40-some years. You were a keeper of confidences, a believer in dreams, a supporter of decisions, an advocate. You rarely said those three words — I love you — but I always knew. Since August, though, you began to make a point to tell me — first in response to my own “I love you’s,” and then, unprompted, from your entire being.
I have so much more to tell you, about how much I love you and how important you have been to me, what a good wife you have been to Dad, what a good mother and friend you have been to the four of us kids, a wonderful grandmother (even to your granddogs). Brian loves you with his whole heart, too. I wish I had told you all of this before now, but here it is, the outpouring of my heart, when it is nearly too late. When I see you next week, I will read you this letter and tell you of all the love that surrounds you, and pray that you will live out your remaining days, whether many or few, knowing how much you are loved.
Your loving daughter, Gail.