I spent Mothers Day last year visiting my mother in the assisted living facility in Vermont where she and my stepfather lived. It was my first trip back to the East Coast after moving to Snohomish, Washington with my husband the previous fall.

I didn't know it then, but that was the last time I would ever see her. She died in her sleep the day after Labor Day. Those who saw her in death remarked on how beautiful and peaceful she looked. 

I miss her, but I have been missing her for a long time. Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2000 and exhibited mood swings and memory lapses severe enough to alarm the entire family for years before that. By 2015, her quality of life and her ability to communicate were both gone. She  my closest confidant, the person I could talk to about absolutely anything because we were so alike that she understood everything about me.

On Mother's Day this year, my husband and I have just signed a contract to buy a house. The two things may seem unrelated, but they're not, at least not to me. I'm fundamentally risk-averse and commitment-shy. Bill and I were together for five years before I married him; the first time he asked me if I wanted to get married, I answered that I didn't know. To his credit, he hung in there until a few more years together, combined with a moving family wedding, convinced me that -- yes -- marriage to him really was what I wanted.

Even though he really wanted it, the decision to move West came more easily to me than to Bill. We would try it, I figured. If we didn't like it, we could always move somewhere else. That's why we've been renters for the past 18 months. That, plus a local real estate market so overheated that homes are literally selling on the day they're listed. Buying in a market like this is not for the commitment-shy, and I'd have wanted to wait things out a bit longer except that our landlord has made the entirely logical decision to take advantage of this seller's market and put the house we live in on the market.

What does this have to do with Mom? She was never someone who hedged her bets the way I do. She was all-in on everything she ever did. She married quickly, which led to one annulment and two divorces before she finally settled with my stepfather, the love of her life. In one amazing lifetime she was a Philippine movie star, a theater actress, an interior designer, office manager for a large multinational holding company, and then a happy retiree who spent her last good years traveling and enjoying her family with my stepfather.

"Take a chance!" she would tell me while I endlessly debated some decision or other. Buying this house in this market, committing to be here perhaps for the rest of our lives -- that is taking a chance. That is going all in. That is seeing opportunity in the form of a rare house that we could afford and that both of us love. We found the house for the first time on the day before the owner was to review offers. We had 24 hours to decide that we either wanted it or would let it go forever. The bet-hedger in me got a real estate agent to come look at the place ASAP and render her opinion (thumbs up). The part of me that is Mom, that seeks to grab at opportunities before it's too late, signed the contract for the offer later that night. I can't ask her, but I suspect she would approve.

Mom was all-in with her emotions, too. You always knew where you stood with her, whether she was lavishly loving or, at other times epically furious. In this way, too, I'm more reserved. It takes a long time and a lot of emotion for me to say, "I love you," or "I hate you."

My stepfather, who once referred to himself and his family as "a bunch of stiff-necked Presbyterians," is much the same way. He obviously adored my mother and when she became ill, devoted decades of his life to caring for her and keeping her engaged with the world. He has always treasured me, so I believe, for my relationship with Mom and my ability to reach her in her fog of dementia when no one else except him could. I've always treasured him for how much he cared for Mom, and also for a lot of wise guidance over the years that my own father, for various reasons, could never have provided.

But never had either one of us said, "I love you," to the other, until one day last September. It had been days since Mom's death. His middle daughter, who lived nearby and saw Mom and my stepdad every day, was constantly by his side those first few days. At 102 and newly widowed, he retreated into himself and would talk to no one but her. 

Meanwhile, I called and called until I finally got him on the phone. "Are you coming here?" he asked. Yes, I answered, Bill and I had booked our tickets and we'd be seeing him in a few days. Right before we hung up, I added, "We love you."

There was a moment's silence and then he answered, "Thank you," clearly taken aback. But that was OK. It didn't matter so much to me what he answered. What mattered was that I had done it -- I'd said what I was feeling. I had taken a chance. I had gone all in. 

Wherever Mom is, I hope she was listening.

Published on: May 8, 2016
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