2016 was easily the worst year of my life. It began with the unexpected end to a relationship that left me feeling like my life was over. But as the year went on, with the help of my incredible friends and family (especially my mom), I healed.
As part of the healing process, I signed up to run the NYC marathon. Although extremely daunting, it was so helpful to me to set a goal and have something to dedicate myself to throughout the spring, summer and early fall.
Ten days before the race, a package from my mom arrived containing a Tiffany key chain with the race logo, the date of the marathon and my initials engraved on it. As I opened it, tears streamed down my face because the gift was such a perfect symbol of my upcoming accomplishment, and I felt so lucky to have such a supportive family. But then four days later, I received the worst kind of phone call that is anyone’s worst nightmare – my brother from the ICU sobbing uncontrollably telling me to get on the next plane home to Cleveland, where I grew up.
My mom was unexpectedly in critical condition and it was unclear if she would remain stable. Within seconds, my co-workers booked my flight and took me in a cab to the airport. I blacked this entire experience out and remember very little of it because all I could think about was that my mom had to be okay – there was no other option.
My siblings and I were able to travel back home from all over the country and be with my mom in her last few days on this Earth. Although sedated, she nodded yes when we asked if she knew we were all there and shook her head no when we asked her if she was scared. We were all so very hopeful for her recovery, but her condition continued to get worse. In her final moments, we gathered around her bed and sang her favorite Joni Mitchell song, “The Circle Game.”
Instead of heading back to New York to run the race that I had trained so hard for, my mom’s funeral ended up being on marathon Sunday. This year on that same Sunday, I will be finally running all 26.2 miles in honor of my amazing mom and best friend, Robin Selznick Hoffman and the inspiring life that she led. The Tiffany key chain engraved with the date of her funeral, and the date I was supposed to run the marathon ― the last gift she ever gave me -– will be in my pocket the whole time.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never take anything or anyone for granted because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
The letter below is one that I wrote to my mom just two weeks after her funeral but written as if it was a year from that time. In a way, it helped me to imagine getting through that first year without her and it also held me to complete my journey to the finish line of the NYC marathon.
Time stops but spins so silently out of control all at the same time. My entire 28 years of life flash through my consciousness and you’re in every frame. You’re not in every frame just because you’re in critical condition unexpectedly and they tell us they’re just trying to keep you alive -– nope, not at all. You’re in every frame because you’ve actually been there every single step of my life, so carefully present in the most loving and supportive way.
You were always there cheering me on for all of my successes, guiding me to always see the lesson and learn from my mistakes, wiping away my tears and teaching me how to laugh and love and live “wholly.” No matter the milestone (or lack thereof), you were there, Mom.
When they told us to say our final goodbyes that awful Thursday morning, my anxiety set in –- the kind where uncontrollable sobbing takes over and each and every breath is almost forgotten. You know what I’m talking about, Mom, because you’ve coached me through these anxiety attacks for as long as my memory allows… when I refused to let you leave the pre-school classroom on my first day, when I didn’t get the lead role in my middle school play, when I was homesick my first few weeks of college, when ex-boyfriends so carelessly broke my heart and every single time in between… you helped me to rise above, guiding me always see the lesson through the anxiety and pain.
Just when I had almost given up and surrendered to near fainting on the floor of that ICU bathroom at the unimaginable thought of living the rest of my life without you, with my siblings and Daddy by my side, I heard your words echoing so clearly in my head.
“You have a choice, my sweet girl. You have a choice to allow yourself to get sick over this, or to get through it and live your life,” as you had told me so many times before. And once again, those wise words, and all of the countless others that you left us with, saved me and got me through that first day, week, month and now year without you.
There are so many moments where I honestly forget you’re gone, and for a blissful split second, everything’s back to normal. But then reality forces itself back in like a train pummeling through a tunnel at full speed right into the pit of my stomach, shattering my heart all over again in its path.
I can’t even count the times that I pick up my phone to call you before, within fractions of seconds, this train of truth reaches its destination in the depths of my soul. But even though your name is still holding its top position on my speed dial, I can’t call you anymore. No, you’re no longer at the other end of an iPhone walking the dogs or eating lunch with a friend or writing the nights away by the glow of your laptop. No, you’re not at the other end of an iPhone anymore…you’re everywhere.
I hear your voice in every song, I sense your gentle touch in every breeze, I feel your warmth in every ray of sunshine and I see your beauty in every sunset. You always said the sky looked like God took a paint brush and now you are the watercolors that span the canvas.
I gather your strength with every storm and I’m reminded of your awe of the world with every rainbow. I feel your spirit hugging me each morning and tucking me in each night, your wisdom providing clarity in my confusion and your sweet soul guiding me through each and every one of my days.
My long-time client (and master of making heartfelt, quotable commercials), Procter and Gamble, came out with a commercial that celebrated mothers of Olympic athletes the spring before you died. “It takes someone strong to make someone strong,” the spot concludes. I shared this with you on that final Mother’s Day, both of us in tears. I was struggling to get past a tough break up, and you were coaching me through.
I never dreamed that would be the last Mother’s Day I’d be able to hear your voice. But as I look back, these words ring even truer now in this last year after your death. I am strong and resilient — even when my worst nightmare of losing you becomes my reality — because I am your daughter and that’s the only way you taught me to be.
Just three days after you were gone, I was supposed to run my first marathon. You were so excited to come to New York and cheer me on. As we went through your things, we found the blank white banner you had intended to make into a sign and hold up for me to see as I completed a goal I had worked so very hard to accomplish. Instead, on that day, I ran a very different kind of marathon as we buried you.
This year, almost one full year later and with a second season of training under my belt, I will finally be running every single one of those 26.2 miles for you.
And as much as every fiber of my being so badly wishes you could be physically there at that finish line holding up your handmade sign that was just days away from being created, screaming my name through your tears (oh please, who are we kidding? We both were always going to be sobbing the whole last mile), I have no doubt you will be with me every step of this race, and every step I take for the rest of my life, just as you always have. And for that, I have always been the luckiest.
I love you bigger than the universe and will forever carry your bright light in my heart.
With all my love and gratitude for always and forever,
Special thanks to Ricki Friedman at Break the Weight for helping to share this story through her Weighed Down Series.
The Hoffman family has started a fund to honor the life of Robin Selznick Hoffman with all proceeds going towards the National Alliance for Grieving Children. You can visit the page HERE.