Be Our Last (Belated) Guest–In Which Shelley Talks Life and Death

Dear Lily June,

Your birthday has come and gone, and I wish, desperately, to be able to ask you, “Do you feel different, my little darling?” I remember being a child, staring into the mirror and trying to see–literally see–the ways in which I looked older. Back then, I felt cheated when I couldn’t find time’s tell-tale stamps marching over my face. (Nowadays, the gray hairs and wrinkles are discourteous enough, Lily June, to slip in when I’m not looking. Surprise!)

I do remember, though, even if I couldn’t see it, feeling a little more frightened, each year, of aging. I knew, in my anxious child logic, that the older you got, the closer to your life’s end you were, and I was scared, not of death per se, but of everything being over with. I imagined my soul as being like a cartoon character who’d stumbled out of the scene and was left alone on the animator’s canvas pad, the only color on an otherwise blank slate. I thought death meant existing on such an empty page, not being able to reach anyone or do the things you once could do in life.

This may sound like morbid talk for a one-year-old, but with every year of my life, Lily, I’ve worked harder and harder to figure it all out–life, death, and what comes after, and here’s what I’m certain of: I’m not certain of anything but love. I know that love lasts long beyond flesh and bones and can thus transcend mortality. I know that, if you’re loved, no matter where your body might be, your life is kept alive in the hearts and minds of others in their memories.

Perhaps, then, Shelley’s letter is the perfect one to end my guest post project on, as she writes to you, knowingly, of life and death. (Her letter was on time, by the way. I just ran out of time to post it to you!) She has experienced great losses, Lily, but with her descriptions of those loved ones–be they her twin boys she waits to meet and mother in Heaven or a pet bird whose soul took flight or her Grandmother who taught her much about love and life–she makes it possible for the world to meet all of these beautiful souls through the power of her heart’s words.

And Shelley, through her blog Life in My Tin Can, has an extraordinarily eloquent heart. She describes the huge, heartbreaking moment that, after holding a foster-baby while he seized against her, healing as he was, for months, from various drug withdrawals, the  child’s paternal grandmother came to claim him after all. But even her smaller stories and their simple details run deep: She came to love her grandmother’s night gown because, when her grandmother wore it barefoot, it symbolized to Shelley a kind of peace: “To me it said she wasn’t in a hurry. You could take off your shoes and stay awhile.”

I feel that way, figuratively, upon reading the small vignettes and memories on Shelley’s blog. They make me want to pause and ponder life great griefs and joys. They especially make me consider humanity’s deep capacity for love and a heart’s ability to swell and rise above when you think it might-could break. Though I’ve never met her, I feel as if–if I did–I could take off my shoes with her and stay awhile, and the two of us might laugh (or cry) over our memories of childhood bullies or relationships that ended in stony silence or the incredible trajectories our lives have taken in becoming mothers.

Her letter below is lyric and lovely, Lily, teaching, as it does, to hang on to your memories, especially of those you love the most. I know you’re not yet making memories, but that’s why, little Lily, we have these letters in the first place. They give me a place not only to share the life I had before you were in it (so you can learn from your Mother what not to do) but also to share the big events and small moments that make up your childhood and infancy. Someday, I hope though you can’t remember the moments themselves, you’ll remember the stories I tell you, for you and about you.

Below is a window into the stories that Shelley may someday share with her son, Gabe.

Happy Birthday, Lily!

Hello, my name is Shelley. I have been writing on this platform for three years now. I came across your mom’s blog about a year ago. She had written you a letter that had been Freshly Pressed. I have followed her letters to you ever since. She recently put a call out for the public to write their own letter to you for your first birthday. As I read the post, the corner of my lips reached each earlobe, the balls of my cheeks squished my eyes, and my mind was hearing tons of chatter, of memories and lessons learned.

I wish sometimes my soul could be like a feather, Lily. But it’s more like a suitcase, with many bricks. The best way to move it, Lily, would be on wheels. And Lily, it’s good to have those wheels, because even though things get heavy you will need to move them from time to time. If you need to unpack a few bricks, to make your trip lighter, that would be good, too. I do that every so often, right here.

When my grandma died, Lily, I thought she was gone forever. I took a week off of work, put my pajamas on, crawled under my covers, and rolled around like a two-year being told No, yelling, crying, kicking and  gasping for each breath. This is called grief. And we all have to confront it, we have to cry, we have to yell and scream. And people will be there to support you, but internally it will be something you will have to work out yourself.

When I was a little girl, even into my early twenties, I would spend the night with my grandma. And when I walked into her house the weight of the world would fall off my shoulders. The bullies at school, the piled up homework, the arguments with my parents– they would all disappear. We would sit down and talk about the week and tell each other our troubles, my troubles mainly. And she sat there listening, looking directly at me. And when I was finished, she would say, “You know Grandma loves you Shelley, and everything is going to be okay.”

We would watch a bit of television. She sat in her in her orange rocking chair, and I sat closest to her on the corner of her couch. I can still hear those birds chirping, the wind chimes singing, and her laughing at Rose on The Golden Girls. I can see the sheer curtains blowing up from the opened windows, and I can feel the chill slightly hitting me enough to make me grab that awful red, white, and blue afghan. I can hear her ask me if I’m warm enough or if there is anything I need. I tell her No, thank you, Grandma, and she smiles, the apples of her cheeks red and puffy, Lily. And I’m warmer than I was.

The other night I was tucking Gabe into bed. Gabe is my six-year-old son. I asked him to tell God what he was thankful for. He put one finger up. I’m thankful for mom. He put another finger up, I’m thankful for dad, another, the dog, the cat, and the bird. He met my eyes and said, The bird is gone, Mom, and I shook my head yes, and he put his hand on his heart, closed his eyes, and said, I see him, Mom, I see him, right here, and he’s flying around…

[Mom’s Note: In other words, Lily, if you love them, nothing and no one are ever really lost.]

Shelley of Life in My Tin Can

In the meantime, I can’t thank enough everyone who wrote to you for your birthday. Collecting these eighteen letters from this community taught me a valuable lesson: Sometimes when you reach out into the world, the world will reach back out to you. I’ve included, Lily, a list of some of my favorite lines below, in case you ever want to peruse their advice quickly. Once again, even though it’s late, Happy birthday, little Lily. Happy everyday.

1. “If you are happy, laugh, and if you are sad, cry. If you are angry, scream and cry, whatever makes you feel better. Just let your true feelings show; those who can’t handle your feelings don’t deserve them.” (from Nadia’s letter)

2. “Your mother is going to ask you do to a number of things, especially now that you are both mobile and communicating beyond coos, cries, and the occasional squeal. She is going to ask you to clean up your room. To put your shoes on or finish your meal. She is going to ask you to share your toys with other children. She is going to ask you to always try your best and to give back to others. She is also going to ask that you never turn your back on the victims of injustice, or ever stop asking what you might do to make this world even a fraction of a fraction little better.” (from Allie’s letter)

3. “Look beyond the labels, Lily June, and you will find people who are heads and tails above the rest. Often these labeled people have suffered and are accepting because of it, tolerant to the diversity that is humanity. They…are more often than not loyal and genuine and would give so much (that they rarely have) to help you.” (from Bits’ letter)

4. “The hardest lesson for me was accepting myself. It is freedom to let this happen. You are amazing as you. Always remember that.” (from Fancy’s letter)

5. “I want you to ask for help when you need it – because everyone needs help sometimes. I want you to help others when they need it – because everyone needs help sometimes.” (from Janey’s letter)

6. “As I have understood it, mothering (and the anxiety that goes right along with it) may as well be synonymous with loving, and you, little dumpling, clearly shall be smothered in mother love in the best way possible.” (from Whiskey Cat’s letter)

7. “So, when you are struggling with “who you are,” as you might in the years to come, perhaps during the trying times of adolescence or the years of early adulthood when you realize you are on your own and wonder what to do with that desperately hoped for, yet terrifying independence–there is a simple fact: “who you are,” is not a static thing.” (from Alex’s letter)

8. “Ignore your own doubts, ignore other people, and ignore what your own body tells you occasionally…But never ever ignore the opportunity that surrounds you every single day.” (from El’s letter)

9. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to satisfy myself. And I’ve learned that the most fulfilling thing is really to pour yourself out in favor of someone else.” (from Amy’s letter)

10. “There isn’t enough kindness in the world. Spread love and cheer as long as you’re here.” (from Sandra’s letter)

11. “Soak up the love, sweet girl. Soak it all up, and give some back. It goes around, and it comes around. In the end, it’s all there is.” (from Ellie’s letter)

12. “Pain can shape us into someone stronger and more sensitive. It can make us a better friend to someone in the future. It can give us the drive we need to be a change in the world. Don’t ever waste your suffering, Lily.” (from Lonna’s letter)

13. “There is so much to look forward to but do not rush. If you rush through life, you will miss the hidden pleasures and special moments. You have limited years to be a child and a lifetime to be an adult so treasure your childhood and let the adults in your life do the heavy lifting.” (from Patricia’s letter)

14. “…you are about the cutest little June bug I have ever seen!” (from Linda’s letter)

15. “…happiness is found within yourself and not from any outside source – not material things, not wealth, not success, and not other people who may be pillars in your life like your wonderful family members and friends. Happiness is something already inside you from day one…” (from Penny’s letter)

16. “We all carry scars whether inside or out that define us, make us different, but…it’s the differences that make us all beautiful.” (from Orchidblue’s letter)

17. “You have so much to offer the world and so much to experience. Not all of it will be good, unfortunately, but without the darkness, there can be no light. I hope that your dark times serve to more brightly illuminate the good times, and that the good times are plenty.” (from Mrs. Minion’s letter)

With Shelley writing the 18th letter above, you officially had more gifts from strangers than you’ve had months on the planet. That’s a hell of a way to start off in this world, Lily. Keep listening, and the world will keep talking to you. I can’t wait to hear, someday, what you’ll say back to it.

All my love,

Your Mommy


Picture Credits:

15 thoughts on “Be Our Last (Belated) Guest–In Which Shelley Talks Life and Death

  1. bitsfromheaven says:

    And let us not forget the gift of a mothers love…ever present, ever anxious, ever after.
    Such beautiful words from such lovely people LJ! I hope that in the years to come you and mama grow together, and love together.
    Love LJ. It’s good stuff. 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Allie P. says:

    As I am dealing with the passage this past week of my own grandmother, this particular letter proves that the lessons we shared with a one year old still apply to those of us with a few extra candles on our cake.

    I loved how you also how you braided all the letters at the end of this post. Once again, this was such a lovely gift to Miss Lily June and thank you so much for allowing me to contribute to such a wonderful group of people.

    Liked by 1 person

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