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The letters on the counter: a personal story

 Sheri A. Baron, at right, a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member, wrote the following essay, recollections of her late parents:

SheriBaron 200 61622

Tell people how much they mean to you – now. Tell them often, knowing that life can change without warning. Hug them, show them affection. If you are a distance away, send a text, an email or a letter. Just do it and send it, or you will have regrets. I know because I do.

I lost my mother 15 years ago. I sometimes need to  think a moment to land upon the exact date in November. My father, always a practical man, left me no excuse to forget the date – he died on my birthday five years ago.

Neither was sick before they died. Neither had been given a terrifying prognosis with a planned timetable for the months ahead. There was no warning. They just died. And every day since, I regret the fact that I didn’t tell them and show them often enough how much they meant to me.  

When my sister and I were growing up, we loved our parents, but we were kids, and kids just didn‘t tells their parents that they loved them very often. After college and settling 300 miles from my parents, I always wrote ‘I love you’ in letters and cards. By my 40s, it became the verbal postscript of every phone call and wave goodbye.

'Beautiful sentiments'

My mother and I wrote to each other a lot after I moved from New Jersey to Boston. She was a composer of beautiful sentiments (although my sister and I suspected that she occasionally borrowed from  Hallmark). We talked on the phone every week. (In those days, there was something called “long-distance.” Remember calling after 5 p.m. on Sunday nights?)

My mother moved from New Jersey to Florida in her early '70s. On a balmy October evening, her cat Romeo ran out of her apartment onto the catwalk (yes, catwalk), and she ran after him. She slipped and broke her hip. The operation was successful, but 17 days later, before our eyes, she died of respiratory failure. It was life-crushing. 

Several months earlier, I had begun writing my mother a long letter, trying to express the overwhelming love and gratitude I felt for her throughout my life. I worked on it gradually, knowing I could read and revise.

Thanks for the memories

I thanked her for making our childhood a happy one despite her rocky marriage; for trips she planned for the three of us on a meager budget after my parents divorced, for watching movies together late into the night while eating Tasty Cakes, for teaching me how to cha-cha when I was little. I told her how much it meant to me that she always made me feel better when I was feeling lost or depressed. My sister and I still hold these memories tightly and light up inside when we recall our childhood with her.

I told her how proud I was that she had pursued her love of acting over a span of 50 years, appearing in scores of amateur and dinner theater productions (she met my wonderful stepfather while acting together in “Enter Laughing.”) I told her that each time I went “home” to see her in a play, I “kvelled” (Yiddish for “bursting with pride”). I was so proud of this amazing woman.

I asked her to forgive me for not always being patient with her when she repeated stories or walked too slowly in a grocery store. I apologized for not telling her enough how brave and strong I thought she was throughout her life, a life of great joy but also deep sadness.

I poured out my love for my smart, wickedly funny mother who had loved my sister and me unconditionally throughout all of  our lives.

But I hadn’t yet sent it. It was sitting on my kitchen counter when she died.

'Emotion choked him'

My father had moved to Florida in his late 60s. He wasn’t a letter writer, but we spoke every week or so. I knew that he felt things deeply, but expressions of  emotion choked him. My grandparents were Eastern European immigrants who struggled to raise their three children. Neither of them was openly affectionate. My mother joked that the only thing that was ever uttered at a meal with her in-laws was “Pass the salt.” My father was uncomfortable talking about feelings. 

I began a letter to him in early 2017, thanking him for everything he had done for me throughout my life.

I thanked him for teaching me the value of doing things well. He showed by example the value of standing up for what I believed was right, even if it was unpopular. He reminded me often that my sister and I should always be there for each other, no matter what else was happening in our lives. He took care of family members who needed help.  

I told him  how much I admired his quest to be the best at everything he did. When his family couldn’t afford college, this intelligent, driven man put himself through trade school and became a master electrician. He opened a business  that employed 16 people for four decades. 

Single-minded sailor

When my sister and I were young, he bought three old quarter horses and trained himself to expertly ride and care for them, and then taught us. In his 50s, he taught himself celestial navigation and took off on a trip around the world on his sailboat. He had a single-minded focus for things he wanted to learn (unfortunately, he and his co-pilot had a bad falling out and he came home after passing through the Panama Canal.) 

I thanked him for putting me through college and for giving me a beautiful wedding; for helping my mother financially, even after they were divorced. I wrote the words that I could not say without becoming overly emotional.

My father was healthy throughout his life. He exercised daily. He  swam laps every day, took his catamaran out and fished for hours into his mid-80s. Although he had lost some agility as he aged, he was still physically strong and mentally sharp.

So, in early February 2017, I was shocked when my sister called from Florida – our father had collapsed at home and had been rushed to the hospital. He had suddenly, inexplicably, become extremely ill. 

I flew to Florida. Doctors couldn’t determine the cause. We took him to another hospital for a second examination and opinion. We waited for a diagnosis and prognosis, neither of which ever came. My sister slept in his room every night. We brought him back to his home on March 25. and he died early the next morning. 

This time I had already mailed the letter, but it was too late. It was on his kitchen counter. It was never opened.

Sudden onset of  illnesses and then gone -- just like that. My sister and I were grateful that neither languished in pain at the end. That is our consolation, if there is any.  

Don’t wait like I did. Don’t leave your love on the counter. 

 This personal opinion column was published Thursday, June 16, 2022.

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