[In memoriam: Debbra M. Ream]

Dear Mom,

I’m so sorry you’re never going to see this letter in person. That’s the hardest thing about losing you — knowing you’re not going to read these words, laugh, smile, look into my or anyone else’s eyes, say you love me, give me the sweetest hug, listen to music with me, take us to the mall, wake us up when it’s still dark and drive us to Michigan, take us to the lakefront or Dunkin’ Donuts or Kopp’s or Village Inn or Pig ‘n’ Whistle or Six Corners or Country Kitchen (or McDonalds or Burger King or even Hardee’s, but never Wendy’s) or Cedarburg or outer space. Or anywhere. You won’t tuck me in when I’m sad and scared and hold my hand and say it’ll get better. You won’t rub my shoulders, or tickle me till it hurts, or spank me with a flyswatter or a wooden spoon until it breaks. You won’t buy me any more school clothes or baseball cards or candy bars or paperback books. You won’t buy us countless Christmas gifts and give credit to Santa. You won’t take us to meet Santa or the Easter Bunny at Boston Store or Grand Avenue or Capitol Court or Northridge or Mayfair or Bayshore. You won’t ask me to get you a cup of cinnamon stick tea with honey or coffee with cream and sugar. That’s all over here in this corporeal reality. No more Summerfest or Irish Fest or anything else down by the lakefront. And you won’t go to England. You’ll never get back to San Francisco with Rich. I knew last summer was our last chance and I was so sad to get that call from him that you’d gone to the ER with vision issues instead. You were scared and on some level knew you wouldn’t be able to handle a trip out here, which broke all of our hearts. I stood on the porch and in the front office at PFT and my heart broke because I was sure you wouldn’t see Marley and Boris again. I’m sure you watched travel shows as long as you were able to find them, but that just doesn’t feel like enough. I showed you those videos from Princess Cruises in those last few days that showed a bit of what it was like to cruise to Hawaii and Alaska because I knew you’d never be able to go with me and Dawn on a cruise and I just wanted to share the experience with you.

You’ll never go back to North Carolina and see your granddaughters and how they’re growing up probably like you in some ways (I imagine that Ruthie has your practicality and stubbornness, Emmy has your wit and flair for the dramatic, and Susan has your silliness and tomboyish sense of adventure — and they all love their sisters) — and no doubt unlike you in so many ways as well.

Because there will never be another Debbie Williamson who goes fishing with her grandpa and doodles on her record covers and sticks her name on in embossing tape and tries to be invisible in her house and fearless everywhere else; another Debbra M. Gohlke who writes poetry and songs, and makes her way through the world with conversation and a smile, and struggles to understand why her marriage is broken, and loves her children more than anything and tells them so every chance she gets, sometimes many times a day, and enrolls them in Montessori school, and fights for them to have the best teachers who treat them with the respect they deserve, and is so proud of them and has the highest hopes and dreams (and anxieties) for them and encourages them and, knowing they won’t be children forever, tries so hard to give them what they need to grow up into handsome, intelligent, independent, and sensitive men, and succeeds beyond her dreams in teaching them how to be that and more, and works temp jobs after the divorce to help make ends meet, and befriends the neighbor kids, and marries the hard-working, funny, devoted man who they introduce her to (their racquetball-playing medical-equipment-repairing stepdad); or another Deb Ream who loves her cats (if they can, they always come back) and hosts exchange students after her kids move out and goes to visit her sons on opposite coasts and sits at the kitchen table and talks about anything and everything over coffee and cigarettes and CDs and really gets into the Bristol Renaissance Festival and makes new friends and still loves to party and tells stories out of turn and drives her aunts to her niece’s wedding and misses her family while maybe still remembering all the reasons she left home and smokes one pack of Virginia Slims Menthol Lights after another to the very end. And calls her sons when she thinks of it and breaks her leg three times in eight years and stops thinking about the bad things (she is less and less able to, which is in itself a blessing) and is just herself, though just a little less so each year. And can’t drive to the doctor’s office anymore or even to George Webb’s or the grocery store—just three miles away—like she had so many times before, and one time accidentally drives all the way to Sheboygan when she loses her way.

It breaks my fucking heart.

So many lives in one life. Finding her way to happiness however she can. Always with a new dream. Not always making it, but having fun trying—or least doing it on her own terms, as long as she could. She was more a Paul fan than a John fan, but she understood that life was what happened while you were busy making other plans. And she rolled with it. No England, but Vancouver and Galena. And Brazil. And the Bahamas, and northern Wisconsin, and San Francisco. And Fairmont, Minnesota.

She left boxes and boxes and albums of photos, and a few paintings and drawings, and drawers full of notebooks with her poems and writings from all along the way. And a powerful and profound example of how to love and trust and find joy and beauty everywhere, despite how ugly the world and other people can sometimes be. And a house full of stuff, but without her.

Mom, where did you go?

Where are you now?

I know you’re in us, and all around us. But I think there’s more of you left to go around. You believed that you’d see your loved ones in heaven again, and that you had been here before and might come back as someone else. Would that I get to meet your loving soul again in another go-around. I would take that for sure.

You are in everything we do and say. You literally gave me and Jared life. We are the two luckiest boys and I hope we told you that enough. I know you knew we knew that.

Your laugh and smile and hugs and kisses were everything.

There will never be another Debbra Marguerite Williamson Gohlke Ream again.

You’d probably say, “Good! No one should ever have to go through all of that. That stuff at the end — that was just cruel. One trial after another. Can we rewrite it?” with a laugh, bravely shrugging it off.

I’d say, “No, Mom,” with a wry smirk. “I wish.”

Oh how I wish.

The last five… ten… maybe twelve years or so had been hard for you. Harder than even I knew at times. Selfishly, I’m glad to have had more time with you. But would you have been better off? Was twelve more sometimes bad years the best way for it to go? The question is moot and pointless since it went the way it went. And there was definitely more joy. You found it differently than you might have expected. There were nieces, and granddaughters, and Ren Fest, and email and social media for a while, and new friends.

And your son’s wedding. My wedding. Five and a half years ago. Ten days after gall bladder surgery.

You recounted it something like this. You told the doctors afterwards, “I’m going to my son’s wedding on the 17th.”

“Where is it?” they asked.

“California,” you answered. You said they just laughed.

But you showed them! You made it, and you made a speech, and danced with your sons, and enjoyed that day to the absolute fullest. And no one who didn’t know had any idea you had been in the hospital so soon before.

(It was the best day in my life to that point and one that has led to and will continue to lead to more best days. And you and Rich, and Dad and Carol, were part of it, and Dawn and I will forever be grateful for that.)

The most fundamental reasons I can enjoy all of these days are the gifts you gave me and contributed to. My life. My sense of humor and intelligence. My dogged determination and steadiness. My loyalty. Not to mention a few “what not to dos.”

There’s so much more, Mom. I just had a blinding realization that, no matter that you’re “actually” gone (whatever that means), I will keep talking to you. You can’t get rid of us that easily. (“I never wanted to get rid of you!” you’d protest. “You were the most wanted sons in the world.” “We always knew, Mom. And we’re eternally grateful.”)

I will always be able to get a word in edgewise now. Yet I will always be grateful at how much I listened, because there won’t be any more new words. I can’t wait to read some of the old words from my current perspective–and put them out in the world. I know you’d want that. I know you would.

“Put the coffee on first. Then talk,” I imagine her saying to me from my kitchen chair as I tap this out on my phone, standing next to the coffee pot, instead of getting on with my activities of daily living.

“Okay, Mom.”

“Go get ready for work. You don’t want to be late.”

Your voice is still there. It will always be with me.

We did our best to honor you sixteen days ago. A lot of people came, people I hadn’t seen in years, some in decades, some in at least 30 years. We reconnected, we sang together, we told our stories, we prayed, we sang again, we said our long Midwestern goodbyes, we slid on icy sidewalks, and we all laughed and talked over a long, wonderful meal on Milwaukee’s east side (where the 43 years I was part of your story began) amid liberal refills of coffee and ice water.

And then we went back to our lives. Some slowly, some right away. Jared and Dawn and I were such a tight unit for that week, the days before and after we got together and celebrated your life. I will always be so grateful for my brother and my wife for their immense love for me, and mine for them.

While we live, we will do our best to honor your life, and your immense love for us, with ours.

And we will go on, until we don’t, just like you (just like everyone).

And we will love you forever.