By David LaBelle
My dear friend Bryan Farley asked me to contact a high school student whose mother died in April, one month before his graduation.
Veronica Flores left this world on April 6 at the age of 47, leaving four men to care for themselves.
Talking with Flores’ oldest son, 18-year-old Ivan, I realized the young man and I had some things in common.
Like Ivan, I was a senior in high school when my mother died.
Both of us came from small towns in California.
Both of us love photography.
And both us lost the one person we felt closest to and safest with.
My eyes filled as I listened to the young man speak so lovingly about his mother. It was like hearing my younger self 45 years ago.
“It isn’t that I am not close with my father or brothers, but my relationship with my mother was different, “ he said. “I would come home from school and could tell her anything.”
He found that his high school graduation ceremony earlier this month was one of the hardest of days of his young life. “She wanted to make it long enough to see my graduate,” he said.
The graduating senior said he “feels a life purpose” after his mother’s death that he didn’t have before.
“I want to make my life count, to do something for others and to make her proud.”
He is starting college next month and studying law enforcement so he can help others.
With Ivan’s permission, I am sharing this brief open letter to him.
I thank God for connecting us, perhaps for a purpose greater than either of us know.
Our stories are similar.
Your mother died (April 6) three days before my youngest son’s birthday, and four days before my mother’s birthday.
I, too, was a senior in high school the last time I saw my mother. I had siblings – an older sister, younger sister and two younger brothers – who would be raised without their mother.
Like you, I felt a hollow sadness the day I graduated from high school without the person who believed in me and supported me most.
Ivan, there may be times when it feels like she is there with you, invisibly guiding you. And you may even swear you saw her face through the glass of a bus window or lost in a crowd. In the years following my mother’s death, I was sure I saw her face many times.
There may come times when you feel angry or even cheated because she isn’t there. Sometimes when we miss people, we get irrationally angry with them for not being with us when we need them.
And sometimes you will have to accept that there are no words for your feelings.
During these times, I have learned that only God truly knows the deep and complicated thoughts of my heart.
My friend, you will have times when you will hunger for your mother’s comforting touch, to have her hold you again, like she did when you were a little boy. Truth is we never get too old to miss our parents.
There will be things you wish you had told her, important things you forgot to share. And as you age, you will ache for the questions you wished you’d asked. I would willingly and happily trade every single earthly possession for just one more hour with my mother. It would hardly be a sacrifice.
And if you are like most of us who have lost loved ones, you will miss her at different times. Holidays and celebrations, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, graduations, weddings or births have always been the hardest for me. And I wish my mother could have known my wife, my children, and her grandchildren. I see flashes of her personality in each of them.
Don’t be afraid to cry; it is one of God’s great cleansing gifts. There is a time for everything, including a time to grieve. But there is also a time to dry our tears and smile and be thankful for the numerous wonderful memories.
Ivan, I admire your resolve to do something meaningful with your life, as a way of honoring your dear mother. And I admire your desire to be strong for your family and be a sober guide to your younger brother. Such is a mature resolve.
But I caution you not to try to live your life just for others, to fulfill their expectations or live out their dreams. It is a noble thing to live our life in a way that honors others and makes them proud, but if our dreams are not authentic, they will usually wither into bitter burdens. I am reminded of one of my students, a bright young lady who wanted more than anything to be a photojournalist. But to please her parents, she went to medical school and became a doctor. Watching her internal struggle saddened me. She was so torn between wanting to be what her parents wanted her to be and following her own heart. I have often wondered what happened to her.
I am not saying that we should not listen to our parents or even dedicate our lives to serving others. On the contrary, in giving to others, we often find ourselves.
I have also observed that when something precious or someone special is taken from us, often something precious is given. Sometimes the gift is empathy. My mother’s death opened my eyes and my heart to the grief of others, and heightened my sensitivity to those struggling.
Finally, my new friend, live every day with thanksgiving. Be thankful for the time you had with your mother. You were blessed to have her care and guidance. She had much to do with shaping the spirit within you and will always live on in you, as she does in your brothers. I remind you, as I also have need to remind myself, to cherish the time you have with your father and brothers. Make time for your father; he needs you, and is also a part of you.
I thank God He has brought us together, and I pray we will help each other live meaningful lives overflowing with gratitude.
Your new friend,