The best gift my mother gave me was a sheet of paper. I found it shortly after she died a year and a half ago.
Amid the excruciating sadness of the occasion - tears, pain, disbelief - something amazing happened. I discovered my surprise inheritance, tucked away in a box of family papers at my sister's house in Phoenix. It wasn't a check, or anything of monetary value - but to me, it was priceless.
Sometime when my older sister, Kirsten, and I were young, our mother sat down and wrote us a goodbye letter, to be found and read after she was gone. She wrote these 123 simple, sweet, beautiful and wise words on a sheet of yellow lined paper:
"My darling Kirsten and Kellie,
"If you are reading these words, then something has happened that has brought an end to our time here together.
"Life will hold challenges for you, and I won't be around to say: 'But, it will be good for you.' When everything seems to be too much, hold on, and remember that you had a mother who loved you more than life itself.
"The day you were born was one of the best days of my life. Remember, you are my finest work. Make me proud. Somewhere we will meet again . . . and don't forget to eat those delicious fruits!
"Watching you grow up to be a lovely, accomplished, warm and caring person gave true meaning to my life."
She didn't sign it. We don't know exactly when she wrote it.
Reading these words was one of the most shockingly bittersweet moments of my life.
Writing a letter like this is such a quintessential Barbara Gormly thing to do. Of course, my health-conscious mother threw in an admonition to continue eating the fruit she loved pushing.
My mother was known for her kindness, gentle spirit, class, grace and beauty. My friends always loved my mom, who was both the down-to-earth, brownie-baking room mother of grade school, and the pretty, glamorous mother that girls admired.
My mother was born during World War II in Czechoslovakia and grew up in postwar Germany. She moved to the United States with my grandmother as a teenager, settling in El Paso. There, she met my father at an Officer's Club dance. They married in 1965.
More than five decades later, in what seemed like no coincidence, my parents died exactly 11 months apart - Mom on Dec. 16, 2017, and Dad on Nov. 16, 2018. Mom was only 74 when she died, but she suffered a long and excruciating journey after her diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in the early 1990s.
We believe that mom's healthy eating and exercise habits slowed the progression of her disease for many years, but eventually, the ravages of Parkinson's took their inevitable toll on her body and brain. Several years before she died, mom's mind began to slip away. Her death, while devastating emotionally, provided a welcome relief from the end stages of both Parkinson's and dementia.
And then, Mom's letter gave me a permanent reminder of the lovely, caring, upbeat woman she was - someone whose motto was "grace under pressure." She rarely complained about her illness, and handled it with such dignity. Her last words, moments before she died, were: "I'm hanging in there."
I have concrete reminders of my mother everywhere - in photos, old greeting cards, emails, gifts, pieces of her jewelry. I kept the fuzzy blue bathrobe Mom wore at her care facility in her final years, and I put it on when I crave motherly comfort.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of what many people have pointed out: the shape of Mom's eyes and cheekbones. I smile when I catch myself doing Mom things, like enthusiastically offering a bag of tangelos when I visit friends.
Hanging on the wall just to the left of my living room couch where I spend most of my sitting time is a copy of Mom's letter; my sister has the original. The yellow paper is a bit wrinkly after countless readings, but now safely preserved within a glass frame.
Whenever I am feeling sad, I sit on my couch, take down the letter from the wall and read, imagining my mother is sitting right next to me. I can just hear her distinctive voice narrating.
I have adopted my favorite sentence from her letter, made it my own, and personalized it for other people that are going through difficult times: When everything seems to be too much, hold on, and remember that you are so loved . . . or some version of that.
I share this Mother's Day story because I want to encourage all parents, both mothers and fathers, to take a moment to write their children a letter like this - something that doesn't cost a thing, and that they will cherish forever. I am sure Barbara would be honored if you used her words as a template.
Someday, most likely, you will become a memory to your children. Giving them a handwritten letter provides them a permanent reminder that they were loved, and something to cling to when times get tough.
Kellie Gormly is a freelance journalist and author in Pittsburgh.