9: The Letter

9: The Letter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

The Letter

You learn you can do your best even when it’s hard, even when you’re tired and maybe hurting a little bit. It feels good to show some courage.

~Joe Namath

My mother died many years ago when I was only thirteen. Sometimes life before then seems like a dream. However, every now and then I remember something that Mom did, and she is right back with me as if she’d never left.

Twenty years after Mom died, I became ill. My health gradually deteriorated and after many tests, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the small intestine. I continually suffered from severe stomach pains and was unable to eat properly. My weight plummeted and I became weak and tired. I was lucky that I was given support throughout this ordeal by my husband, Peter. He helped me cope with the pain and the endless hospital appointments, but it was quite easy to feel sorry for myself.

One day, when I was sorting through some old paperwork, I found a letter from my mother. She had been seriously ill and had written to me from the hospital. I had only been eight years old at the time. It had been ages since I had read the letter, and just seeing her handwriting whisked me back to my childhood. Thinking of Mom, I could feel the tears welling up. But when I read through the letter a few times, all I could feel was guilt. Mom had been ill for most of her life, in fact since she had been a little girl. She had remained strong throughout, yet here I was giving in to my illness and I wasn’t half as sick as she had been. What on earth was wrong with me?

“I was so happy to speak to you on the phone,” she wrote. “Everybody is saying how good you’ve been, and I’m so proud of you. I know that this is all a little strange, but you’re a clever girl and you know it can’t be helped.”

Despite being ill, Mom was more concerned about how I was coping and never once mentioned how sick she was or if she was frightened of the operation she was about to face.

Mom had developed tuberculosis when she was five years old and had spent much of her childhood and teenage years in sanitariums. Due to her health problems, she was advised not to have children, but she ignored the doctors and had me.

When I was eight, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and given no more than six months to live. But she was a strong-willed woman and she survived for another five years. I have always believed that it was her determination not to leave me at such a young age that kept her going against all the odds.

“You’re such a brave and grown-up girl,” Mom said to me in hospital one day.

Mom was lying in bed waiting to have a mastectomy. It was the first of her many stays in hospital over the coming five years and I was terrified. I certainly didn’t feel grown up or brave. I knew I should be for Mom’s sake, but it was hard. I felt young and useless. It should have been me comforting her, but instead she was trying to cheer me up. She seemed more concerned about me than herself.

Mom stayed in hospital for three weeks that time and I was relieved when she came home, especially as everything went back to normal on her return. However, I wasn’t aware at that time how ill Mom really was. She never complained and even returned to work. I know now that she wanted to make my life as normal as possible.

The letter Mom wrote to me while she was in hospital all those years ago gave me the strength to cope with my illness many years after she was gone. Sometimes I was in so much pain that I could barely lift myself out of bed, but more times than not I forced myself to get up and go to work. Mom’s illnesses had been far more serious than mine, yet she never gave up and always got on with her life cheerfully. I’m sure she knew she wasn’t going to live to be an old lady, but she was determined to make the most of the time she had and to make my childhood as happy as possible. How could I just give up and not fight? Yes, some days were too bad for me to go out and try to lead a normal life, but I made sure these times were few and far between. I’m certain Mom’s letter was the reason I refused to give in to my illness. She never gave up hope, and in the end nor did I.

“I love you sweetheart; be good and pray for me please, all my love, from your mommy.”

And so the letter ended. Thankfully I haven’t had a recurrence of Crohn’s disease since an operation twenty years ago, and I’m reasonably healthy. But if I ever feel sick or sorry for myself now, I read Mom’s letter. Her words of strength and love give me the power to cope with my problems and persuade me not to give up on life.

~Irena Nieslony

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