When There Are No Words

How does one write about the end of a life well lived?

How do I write about a person who burned more brightly than words can describe, who loved deeply and honestly, who had a zest for life that translated to anyone that was lucky enough to share a moment with her?

How do I put into words a woman who was strong and brave? For those of us who watched her journey with cancer over the past three years, we came to understand the true depth of Roberta’s strength and determination as she fought for more time with the family she loved so much.

I can tell you she was always the life of the party, with all of the dance moves. She was a woman who could make you laugh when you wanted to cry and who would be there for you all the way, a woman who loved her friends and family fiercely, deeply and honestly. Roberta was soft, gentle and kind. She wouldn’t take less than she deserved, and wouldn’t allow those around her to do so either.

How do I write about Roberta…how do I capture my friend in a way that honors such an incredible life? How do I tell you about the way Roberta loved? I can share about the way she gave the best hugs. That kind of hug is the one that my heart yearns for today. I can tell you that she had a way of pulling you in so snuggly, wrapping you in her love, leaving you with a kiss every single time, and the simple, comforting knowledge that someone in the world loves you for just the person that you are.

How do I tell you about the laughter, so much laughter and light? Roberta lit up the room with her beautiful smile and a presence that made life so much more fun. What are the words that will tell of the moments of love, kindness, humor, and understanding that are countless? Where are the words that tell of the kind of life Roberta lived, and the kind of person she was?

I can start by recounting the many blessed and loving relationships. For my mother-in-law, Roberta, there were many.

Perhaps the relationship I admire most in Roberta’s life is the 40-year marriage full of love, respect, kindness and care with her husband, Tim. I saw in my in-law’s marriage a patience for one another, the knowledge that neither individual was perfect, but together they created a perfect balance. Him reserved where she was open, her soft in the places he was tougher and vice versa. They shared a certain playfulness with one another, facing this life with a humor that made the good times even greater, and that made the difficult times a little easier to bear. Their lifetime together that began with a little tennis match would grow to include a shared passion for supporting their children and then grandchildren, and giving them a foundation of love, hard work, joy and acceptance. Over the last few years and then even more so in the past few weeks, I had the privilege of witnessing the strength of Tim and Roberta’s bond. I heard Tim say he knew Roberta was the one from that first date. I saw how blessed they were to share this life, and that they were the best thing to ever happen to each other. Their love, their deep commitment to one another, is something that continues on beyond this world, beyond this life.

Then there was the relationship with her children, the patient, tender way she loved her daughter and son, always understanding and appreciating them for the people that they are. She just “got” them in the way only a mother does. What I learned from Roberta, what I saw that made her so incredibly special as a mother, was the way she truly wanted her children to be happy in this life. Not in the easy way of happiness, not in the material things, but in the difficult way. She wanted happiness for them in the way that only comes from following your heart, sometimes away from the things others may expect from them, but towards the people God designed them to be. Roberta only asked of her children to be authentically themselves, knowing that is the only path that would lead them to a happy and fulfilled life. She accepted them, she loved them, and she celebrated them as God made them, and I only hope I can be the same kind of mom for my own children, Roberta’s grandchildren.

Roberta’s relationship with her grandkids was also a special one to watch. She came so far from the day over eleven years ago when she thought maybe she was “too young to be a grandma.” Well, she was right. Roberta was never a “grandma”. She was our one and only Mamaw Birdie and she cherished every moment with her grandchildren. She was there for all the moments, for births, birthday parties, preschool graduations, ball games and school programs, for holiday traditions, and for big celebrations. Most importantly, Mamaw Birdie was there for the small everyday moments. She was there to give love, attention and just to hold her grand babies. This is one of my last memories of Roberta. In her last days, when her legs were too weak to carry her, when her speech had failed her, when her energy was so limited, she held out her hands to hold her tiny grand baby, and she held her granddaughter tightly to her chest. I will take that moment with me forever.

There was the bond with her siblings, the laughs, the stories, a special connection that develops only after sharing a lifetime together. Every family gathering is filled with stories of childhood memories, of teenage shenanigans, of the joint learning of raising young families together. A few new stories have been laid on me this week, like the way Roberta would make her younger siblings lick the bottom of her foot as a punishment when they were little (and I can only imagine what her baby brother did to deserve that!). When life got tough for Roberta or when she had a joy to share, her brothers and sister were the first she’d want to share with. I loved watching them together, giving one another a hard time about…well about everything, and loving one another hard. My mind takes me to a place where I can only imagine what Curt and Betty witnessed as parents with this crew of rambunctious, fun and loving children. Roberta, being the oldest, was often a source of strength for her siblings. She understood what each of them needed and was there for them without hesitation. Roberta knew how to stand next to someone, to kindly hold their hand or to nudge them in the right direction when needed (gently or more directly in the “Bert” sort of way). She gave guidance throughout life’s many ups and downs. Roberta understood exactly how to be a friend.

There is nothing I could write that would capture the character of Roberta Lee Hafele. The are no words that can explain what she meant to her family and friends, to those of us that were lucky enough to love her in this life. I began this by asking how one writes about the end of a life well- lived. The answer is that I don’t. I don’t write about the end, because for a life like Roberta’s, there is no end. Roberta lives on in our hearts. She shares a part of our souls. She continues on in the stories and memories that we share. We have no doubt that Roberta is saving a seat for each of us in heaven, her favorite music playing, the dance floor cleared, ready to meet us again when it’s time. Until that day, we hold on to the abundance of love she gave during her life here on earth, and we all carry a piece of Roberta…of “Bert”…of “Otis”…or to me, of Mamaw Birdie…we carry her with us, changed for the better because she is there tucked away within our hearts.

An Open Letter to my Children 2019

I’m on a flight somewhere over the great state of Kentucky, headed to sunny San Diego. We’ve not reached cruising altitude quite yet, and a few small bumps here and there keep reminding me of my fear of flying. Can this momma get a mimosa over here?

When I think of why I fear flying the truth is that I can’t imagine not making it back home to my husband and children. I left them this morning, all in some state of morning sleepiness. We gave hugs and kisses. We said “I love yous” and “I’ll see you soons”. I stole one final look at each one of them to get me through the next five days. I let their image, their sweet little squishy faces, sear into my brain, and I didn’t allow myself to think about the treasure I was leaving behind, certain that the tears would come, and I wouldn’t make it out the door.

So while I’m in the air praying not to die, missing my kiddos, I figure this is the perfect time to think back over the past year and write them the annual “Open Letter to my Children” letters. The kiddos have actually been asking me to write this blog and asking me to read the prior years’ letters to them. My heart swells knowing this has become a tradition for us and that they truly appreciate seeing themselves through my eyes. So here we go year 2019 of motherhood. It’s been a great one.

Jace –

You are ten years old. You just finished the fourth grade, which is totally bizarre for me, because I can remember when I was in the fourth grade. And yet, somehow, I now have a fifth grader on my hands. And while in some ways I wish I could say that ten is just a number and that you’re still my little baby boy, that is not the truth. I have watched you grow and mature this year into a young man that I am extremely proud of.

You learned the value of studying and preparation this year. When your science grades came in lower than what you had hoped for, you focused and put the work in every single day until you grades reflected your good study habits. You brought your study guide to me everyday and together we covered the material, even before your teacher asked you to. That made me so proud of you.

You wrestled for the first time this year, and Bud, you were a natural. You’ve always complained about being shorter or lighter than other boys your age, but in wrestling you found that your size, mixed with your strength and speed were an absolute advantage, and you excelled. In baseball, you overcame frustration with batting and have started getting hits from the live pitcher. You have a different coach from the past few years and I’ve been impressed that you’ve been able to speak up when needed and form a relationship with him on your own. You’ve learned things like the importance of carrying your own gear to and from the field and thanking us as your parents just for getting you to the game. Your coach this year has focused on teaching respect and responsibility, and I’ve seen you take pride in those lessons.

You’ve continued to be a leader among your friends, still always concerned with others choices about things like cussing and spending too much time online, but you’ve also learned that you can’t choose for others…they have to make their own choices. I’m so proud because I understand the importance of that life lesson.

You are still a total gear head, and I now see that this passion may direct your life path. You spent hours upon hours this year rehabbing old bikes, sanding them, painting them, replacing the grips and brakes, and making them your own. While I’m not loving that we have eight bikes stored in our garage, I cherish that you have found something that you love and that is uniquely yours.

You love your family and continue to enjoy spending time at home. You love spending time with Jema and making her laugh, and you love picking on Jera and making her whine (although occasionally I see you lovingly guide her as well). You are bright, caring, loving and the most considerate person I have the pleasure of knowing, and I’m beyond grateful to call you my son.

Jera –

You are seven years old. That sentence still doesn’t seem real. I look at your beautiful little face sometimes, I see your bright, lively eyes, the freckles across your nose, your sweet and mischievous smile, and I don’t know when you grew from my cherub-faced baby into the young lady you’re becoming. It seems that time just passed when I wasn’t looking, and I suddenly have a smart, feisty, determined preteen on my hands. And my sweet Jer-Bear, you are strong-willed. I love that about you, and rather than fighting to have things my way, I’ve learned to first understand what is important and what really doesn’t matter. You love to choose your own clothes, style your own hair, do things in the order you choose and in the way that you choose, and you’ve taught me so much about embracing your ability to know just who you are and what you want, even at seven years old. I can already see the strong women you will grow into, and that makes me so proud of you. This year you found your voice at school and volunteered to do morning announcements in the gym, to lead in the classroom, and to speak up on your own behalf. You like to play shy, but I see an ability in you to step outside of your comfort zone and do any job that needs to be done. I see you shine in front of a crowd, and I think you will continue to grow and find strength in that ability.

And goodness girl, are you smart. This year I was blown away, BLOWN AWAY, by your ability to write. The stories that you wrote as a first grader are far beyond the capabilities of any child I’ve ever known. Your teacher took notice of your talent for writing and asked your dad and me to continue to encourage your gift as you grow. I really thought my head would pop right off my shoulders, I felt so overcome with pride.

You also begrudgingly agreed to play your second year of softball. Begrudgingly not because you don’t like softball, but because you just like free play time better. And although your dad and I want you to do what makes you happy, we also want to give you a foundation of involvement that gives you options as you grow. So we agreed, you needed to pick one activity, any activity, but you had to be involved with something. So softball it is. Although you weren’t excited to play, you show great potential. We sit in the stands and hear the comments on your swing, your speed, your natural ability. You tickle me because you never, and I mean not once, look in our direction during the game. I’m not sure if you’re just that focused or if you just don’t need the reassurance from us, but you’re all business when your on the field. It’s been fun to watch you, and while I’m not sure if softball is something you will dive into or leave behind in the future, we are having fun watching you grow in your abilities and make new friends for now.

Your sharp sense of humor makes you so fun to be around. You enjoy time with friends and family, but also don’t mind alone time. I’ll often find you in your room with the door closed, watching television, playing, or just relaxing on your own. I appreciate those moments that you ask for together-time so much, because those moments are a little more rare with you. You are independent, and I admire that about you.

You are also a proud big sister, and are excited to to pick out Jema’s clothes every single day. You can’t stand to see her fuss, and will pick her up any time she makes a noise and deliver her to me. You love your big brother as well, and as much as he likes to pick on you, you also love to push his buttons. It’s an interesting game the two of you play, knowing you also wouldn’t know what to do without each other. My sweet daughter, you are strong, fun, imaginative, and loving. You make every single day interesting, and you add a special spark to our family that I am so thankful for.

Jema –

You are five moths old. Wow, this is hard to believe, let alone write. The last time I wrote these letters, you were tucked away safely in my womb, and I was imagining you face and personality, excited for what was to come. And now, you are here, and you are so much more, SO MUCH MORE, than I could have ever imagined or asked for. I know that I changed with the birth of each of my children, but at 34 I had thought I had most things figured out. I was wrong. You came into my life, and yet again I was transformed. You have reminded me of the importance of family, and while my family has always been important to me, you made me realize just how quickly this time in my life is passing. You came into my life, and suddenly Jace and Jera seem so much older, and I can see that the time I have with the three of you as children is limited. So thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, because I won’t take any of these moments for granted. You have taught me that being busy, worrying about the details, being concerned with others outside of our family circle…well none of that matters….not really. What matters is Phil, Melissa, Jace, Jera AND Jema. Everything else is secondary. With that in mind, I’m enjoying…cherishing…all the moments. And you make enjoying it all so easy.

You are the best baby. The BEST. I feel a little ridiculous even telling others that you’ve slept through the night since five weeks, that you made it through your brother and sister’s ball seasons crying at only one game, that you’re content and happy, that you’re so beautiful, that your smile makes me melt into an ooey-gooey mommy puddle. How did I get this lucky? You are simply amazing, a gift in my life.

You love your brother and sister. You will spy them from across the room and you are immediately hooked, watching them and waiting for their attention. You are showered with love from your siblings, cousins, and your grandparents. I watch your dad with you, and I fall in love with him again and again, seeing his love for you, watching him connect with you.

You are getting extremely interested in food, watching our spoons as they come from our plates to our mouths, reaching out and trying to redirect our meals to your mouth. You are so interested in fact, that as soon as I return from this trip, food for Jema is one of the first stops on my itinerary. You are rolling over in every direction, trying hard to crawl, eating every two hours, smiling and blessing us with your laughter and holding up your head and upper body with no problem. You are growing fast. You are my precious baby, patient and calm, gentle and loving, and the perfect final piece to our family.

I’ve made it to Denver now and will soon hop a final flight to San Diego. I’m excited for the learning and growth that await me so far away from home. But I’m most excited for the gift that awaits me when I get back. I am blessed beyond measure, and oh so grateful.