The last time I saw my mom, I was angry—angry at her and angry at myself for being unable to be in her presence without lashing out. In place of reaching out and understanding the estrangement between us, I withheld love. Big mistake. A mistake I cannot undo. A mistake over which, almost three years later, I cry in the shower, where the sound of my pain is drowned by running water. A mistake that has thankfully made me a kinder human overall.
One misty morning in April, a chance encounter forever changed the way I viewed that last goodbye with my mom—a moment that would allow me to finally feel the weight of my loss, an offer of forgiveness for both myself and my mom.
On December 2, 2017, my mom suffered an aortic rupture. It was sudden and unexpected. Nobody was prepared—especially not me, her only daughter, living on the other side of the world when it happened. The world kept spinning yet I remained still, moving in slow motion, a bystander to life, as the aftermath of loss unfolded.
That Sunday morning in Manila, after hearing my husband say the words “she didn’t make it,” I began to let go of the people and things that no longer gave me a sense of peace, purpose, or positivity. I made room in my heart for people who truly mattered and work that fulfilled me. I started to focus my feature writing on people pursuing their passions—professionals, artists, and entrepreneurs working hard to make others’ lives happier, healthier, or more enjoyable. My editor gave me ample opportunity to interview people with heart, people with the inherent desire to do good and make this world a better place. Life was moving in the right direction.
On April 2018, just four months after my mom died, I was walking home after dropping my two daughters off at school. Spring had finally arrived in Ottawa where I was then living. A soft rain was a welcome change from the mountains of ice and snow that had become permanent fixtures on our street during the long winter. I looked up at the sky, and although it was grey and cloudy, I couldn’t help but smile as I breathed in the crisp, clean air. The winters in Ottawa may be long, I thought, but all is quickly forgiven when spring arrives.
As I came around the corner of our crescent, I saw an elderly woman struggling to ride her bicycle down the slight slope of the street. Keeping one eye on her while she slowly regained her balance, I took a moment to look at my phone—a reminder for a call with my editor in an hour—and then I heard it: “Ouch!” I glanced up and caught the woman in the final stages of a fall. I rushed over to her.
“Are you okay?” I asked, as I helped her to her feet.
“I left the kickstand down,” she said, sheepishly. “So stupid,” she added.
“I do that all the time,” I said with a smile.
She seemed okay. I lifted up the bike and eased her back up from the ground to a steady state. “Thank you,” she smiled.
“You’re welcome,” I replied.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
She leaned in and wrapped her long, slim arms around me, her white braid brushing against my cheek. This is not the moment I imagined would bring me to tears, the moment that would allow me if only briefly to feel the depths of sadness I’d been holding in for months. The weight of grief and the layers of life were slowly transforming me.
This woman on the bicycle was likely close to 80, 10 years older than my mother, Ruth, when she had passed away. An unexpected death is devastating—there’s no time to say goodbye or make amends. There’s no escaping the overwhelming sense of loss when that person leaves the physical world, and mementos and memories of them are all you have left.
My mom did not know I was coming back to Canada—or maybe she did, but I hadn’t told her because we hadn’t spoken since early November. Ours was not an easy relationship. I recall several occasions during one of our disagreements when I said to her, “I love you. I just don’t understand your behaviour.” Or from her, “I love you. I just don’t understand why we can’t get along.” It was a relentless circle of self-doubt and frustration, and yet no matter the distance, no matter the differences, I loved her.
As I stood on my front steps that April morning, gathering myself after this unexpected emotional encounter with a total stranger, I wasn’t so sure that my mom knew how much I loved her. Because the last time I saw her, she asked me for a hug, and I said no.
Before the pandemic hit, before the terms “self-isolation” and “social distancing” became catchphrases, and before we started to take stock of our lives and the vulnerability of it all, there were many like me who had already experienced a wake-up call. We had been doing the work, the self-reflection, a re-evaluation of values. Because, as we’re learning in the midst of this pandemic, life is fragile.
It’s now been almost three years since my mom died. Yet already it feels like a lifetime of loss. On that cool April morning, I wondered, was my encounter with the woman on the bicycle a sign? It was an undeniable yes, an important reminder that we never know where and when we may find peace or make a connection. I interpreted this experience as my chance for a final goodbye with my mom—the hug I couldn’t bring myself to give her that July afternoon, a hug that I hope brings both her and me some sense of peace.
In times of uncertainty, we find ourselves questioning what really matters, asking where do I fit in this big picture called life? It can be discomforting, but we are not yet left behind. There’s still time to make amends, smile at a stranger, quit the job that doesn’t fulfill us, and tell our loved ones how much we value them. I look at the world around me today and wonder why some people have not yet realized what a gift this time can be. Instead of looking at what we don’t have, we should be aware of the abundance and potential of what we do have: time.
In these uncertain times, be the kindness that rises from the confusion. Don’t wait. Act on it. Because one act of kindness is the good kind of contagious.