The day you let me first get my hands on your makeup is a day I still remember. I was a tiny thing, a little too lanky for an eight-year-old and as boney as I could be. My curly hair was always ratty because I never let you brush it, and my front teeth were a little too big for my small mouth.
Oh how I begged you to let me try on some purple eye shadow, maybe a pale shade of pink lipstick. No, no, no, you’d always say. Your makeup was too expensive for a little girl to be playing with for a dress up excursion.
Of course, there were times I’d sneak into your bedroom when you were at work and play with your brushes. I’d take out each precious lipstick capsule, unscrewing the lid carefully and dabbing just a little bit of color on at a time, the way I watched you do it when you got ready for an event. You always started with a perfectly sharpened pencil of eyeliner, a swift swipe of mascara and a little blush to bring life to your cheeks, and you’d finally finish with your lips, picking the perfect shade coinciding with the entire ensemble.
I ran into my bedroom and pulled out the first no-good shirt I could find in my drawer, selecting a denim button-up blouse. It did the trick. I left my bedroom without turning the light switch off for fear of not making it to the bathroom in time in case you changed your mind about our deal. But I made it there first.
I covered the vanity in wash cloths, waiting for you to arrive with your makeup. I stepped on the scale next to the cabinet, deciding to weigh my small body, but jumped when I heard you at the door. As I turned around I noticed your long black hair falling like silk waves around your shoulders. You looked stunning with a bare face, even in an old Planet Hollywood t-shirt, and I wanted to grow up to look just like you.
I watched in anticipation as you took your makeup out of the bag and spread it out along the wash cloths. The day had come for my first makeover. As I reached for a tube of hot red lipstick, you bent down and grabbed me by my boney shoulders.
“This is a special occasion,” you said to me. “My makeup is not a toy.”
“I know, Mom,” I said.
“And I want you to know you are beautiful the way you are. You don’t need makeup to make you pretty. You are beautiful already.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said.
Then we got started. When we both looked in the mirror to see the aftermath, I liked to think I resembled a Disney princess. You looked more like a clown. What a good sport you were for letting your eight-year-old daughter apply your makeup and fix your hair.
As I got older, nothing was off limits. You let me use your make up. You let me use your brushes, your curling irons and your straighteners. Just as long as I knew I didn’t need it to make me pretty. You let me go to the mall with you to pick out clothes and try on outfits. You let me stand beside you in Macy’s while you picked out your own outfits and commented on styles that were “in” right now.
You taught me ladylikeness.
Mom, the day I left home is a day I still remember. You, Dad and I packed up the car and drove seven hours down to North Carolina where my new school and new home for the next ten months awaited my arrival.
We organized my belongings in my dorm room in silence. You and Dad took me grocery shopping to make sure I had everything I needed after you’d gone, and once again, I was silent through the aisles as you picked up Gatorade boxes and waters. While you pushed the cart, I kept thinking I had my parents for another night, and it made me feel a little better.
When the next morning came, and you and Dad set out on the road, you gave me a tearful good-bye. You squeezed me tightly and told me to have fun—that this was a bright, new chapter in my life and I needed to enjoy it. I told you I didn’t want to stay and wanted to go home. Do you remember what you said?
You grabbed my still-boney shoulders, looked me in my eyes and said:
“This is a big, big world, and you were meant to do great things,” you said. “You have to follow your dreams. That’s why Dad and I work so hard; for you kids to have opportunities we didn’t. You need to chase them.”
Anything I wanted was attainable, you told me—all it depended on was how bad I needed it and how hard I was willing to work for it. Don’t ever let anyone tell me I can’t make my dreams come true, you said.
With your guidance, I strove for new heights. I’ll never forget watching your eyes swell when I told you my writing was published for the first time.
You taught me passion, drive and fearlessness.
Mom, the night Billy got sick is a night I still remember. As the selfish teenager I was, I was sulking because you wouldn’t let me go to a friend’s house to watch my favorite TV show. Instead, I waited with my two younger brothers on the couch in the living room and picked apart a small tear I found on the flowered pattern until you returned from the doctor’s office in New York City.
He could barely stand when he walked in the door, and you and Dad had to help him to the love seat. You broke the news Billy had a brain tumor. Hearing the word brain tumor had no leverage for me. I didn’t understand how bad the situation was, that there was a very real chance you’d lose your son, we’d lose our brother, and our family would forever have a gaping hole in the middle of it.
For the next two years, I watched silently as you devoured medical books, traveled up and down and across the coasts seeking out the best doctors in the country, cooking healthy meals hoping to stake out the tumor, raising the rest of the four of us like nothing was wrong.
I sat beside you while you drove the boys to swim class. I watched you go to PTA meetings and class fundraisers. I watched you try to live a normal life, secretly crumbling, dying on the inside. I watched you fight relentlessly for your son’s life because he could not fight for his own.
The day we would have our outcome, we did not say good-bye outside the operating room doors. We gathered in a circle and held hands. We prayed for Billy to make it through surgery. We picked up Joey after he fainted on the floor. We told Billy we’d see him later. We never said good-bye. That was your idea, and it worked.
Walking back to the waiting room, with tears streaming down my face, I stopped at the touch of your hands upon my boney-shoulders once more. You looked me in the eyes and told me to have faith—that God works in mysterious ways—that I would see my brother again.
That day we persevered. We looked death and fear in the face and still moved forward, kept pushing forward. We smiled through the heart wrenching pain, and something good came of it. For after the storm comes a rainbow, you said.
You taught me strength.
Mom, trying on my wedding dress is a day I still remember. You and I had so much fun driving up to the boutique, and when we opened the door, dozens upon dozens of dresses fell at our feet.
But, it only took me two. I knew right away the dress I’d choose by the expression on your face, the way you lifted your hands over your mouth and inhaled sharply like I was the most beautiful creature you’d ever seen.
I spent the next half hour trying on headpieces and veils, crowns and jewelry, dancing around in the model dress, as you watched with satisfaction and happiness in your eyes.
We embraced, and as you stood up to hug me, the touch of your fingers left a gentle imprint on my boney shoulders, like they always did. You looked me in the eyes and said you still saw your little girl dancing in her shoeglasses around the house, and I looked just as beautiful today as I did back then.
You taught me beauty and grace.
Mom, the day I had my first panic attack is a day I still remember. There were no words to describe the feelings swirling around in my heart and head. My life had just changed in a big way. I was now married and moving around the country to follow my husband’s career for the first time in my life.
This meant long days and nights spent alone on opposite parts of the country, away from my family and friends, a situation extremely hard for me since I was so close to everyone.
When I came home from Arizona, I cried a lot. I cried so much I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even know why I was crying. I didn’t know why I was so scared. I felt out of place. I felt unlike myself. I felt lost.
Somewhere in the middle of one of my meltdowns, you firmly gripped my boney shoulders, tighter than you ever had before. You told me it was normal. You told me that I was navigating my way through some big life changes, and that I’d adjust soon. You told me everything was going to be okay.
Even though I could see only darkness surrounding me, I believed you.
You taught me growth and change.
When I look back on my life so far and think of all of the defining moments in it, I can’t help but smile when I realize you were in all of them—sometimes the front runner, sometimes standing quietly off to the sidelines, letting me make my own decisions and own choices. And sometimes, when those choices didn’t work out, you were always there for me to fall back into your arms.
I write this as I sit in my Chicago apartment overlooking a breathtaking view of the city and Wrigley Field, with windows all around me. The windows remind me of you and how you say to let the light in.
You are my light.
There is no way I can repay you but to say thank for raising me to be the woman I am today. And one day, I hope to raise my future daughter the way you raised, and continue to raise, me. Because to me, that is the only justifiable reverence I can give to you. I love you.