The author, Andrea Lee, and her parents circa 1985. Photo courtesy of the author.

Letting Go

Remembering my mother and our long journey together.

I’ve often likened my relationship with my mother to a marathon.  I am a serious runner.  I was not an athlete in high school.  I ran my first 5K in 2009 in order to keep the trains in my head running right.  I’ve run five marathons in my life, and though each race was extremely difficult, at the end, the feeling of finishing well is unmatched.  

I am also a very private person.  I’ve had to be strong for both my parents for a very long time.  I stopped crying when I was about eight and over the years have been shut down emotionally.  These final few miles with my mother have allowed God to begin the healing process in me.  I’ve literally been crying every day since she passed away last week at the age of 87.  The sadness and pain from this long journey have finally broken through. 

adopted daughter
Andrea Lee, 1983.

All of my life, minus the first five months before my adoption, my mother and I have been on a journey together. To most people, my mother was unknown, so I am glad to have a chance to share a bit of her life.  

My mother grew up in Sheboygan, WI, in a rural section where there were few nearby neighbors.  At age 21, unlike most of her peers, she moved to Los Angeles where she did not know anyone in order to start a new life.  

Eventually, she returned to the midwest and attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, which launched her into a four year assignment as a  missionary in Southeast Asia. Upon returning to the states, she met my father at church, they married, and adopted me. My childhood family was a unit of three until my father died about a decade ago. Then it was just us two.

My mother worked most of her career as an administrative secretary for an engineering firm in Skokie, IL. In her younger years she wished she could have gone to art school and become an artist, but she felt her talent was not strong enough.

My mother loved her family and her many cats.  On most days, her cat ranked higher than the rest of us–especially her current cat–a very spunky Bengal named Amber, who both drove her crazy and kept her sane at the same time.  Every morning, Amber would sit on my mother’s lap as she read the latest news stories on her computer. But she’d keep a spray bottle of water nearby for when Amber decided to get feisty and try to bite her on the leg.  

adoptive mother
The author’s mother, Joanne Fry, 2009.

My mother became an avid news junkie only in her retirement.  She could never understand why people didn’t know what was happening in Afghanistan, Liberia, China, or many other places around the world.  She would follow news stories for years, long after everyone else had moved on with their lives. 

Do you remember the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014?  My mother did and would periodically Google search to see if any of those girls had been released or found.  Even this year, she’d give me updates and report that she was still praying for them.  This is just one of many stories that she’d follow for years and remember in prayer.

My mother’s grit and steely determination kept her by my side all of these years.  In 2002, she had a very serious car accident and almost died.  Her pelvis was shattered, and she had to remain motionless on her back for four months.  This was one of the six times where my mother had to relearn to walk.  

The day before she died, at a physical therapy assessment appointment, my mother stood by pulling herself up by a wall bar.  She had every intention of relearning how to  walk again using a walker.  Her goal was to go back to a semi-independent life in assisted living and be reunited with her beloved cat Amber.

My father passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s, and for the last year of his life, he was bedridden and non-verbal. But he never saw the inside of a nursing home, because she cared for him at home until the very end.

adopted daughter and parents
The author and her parents, 2005.

Since her accident in 2002, I have called my mother a minimum of twice a day to check on her and stave off loneliness.  That’s just under 14,000 calls.  She both called and emailed me numerous times a day as well.  

The middle miles of any race are often the hardest, because they feel like they will last forever.  But now that the end has come, and I can finally stop running and calling, I feel lost.  

I am certain, however, of many things.  She loved me and my husband Phil.  She loved her grandchildren, Lauren and Daniel, and asked about them every day.  She stayed caught up on Daniel’s tennis career, his dating life, and the status of his hair–did he get a haircut yet?  She asked about Lauren’s life in college, her jobs, and what crafts she’d been making lately. 

Coupons and saving money were my mother’s love language–and let’s face it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Everyone who knows me knows that’s my love language too.  My mother was a very frugal person.  She was a saver and only rarely spent her money on herself or others.   But what she bought, she kept. When she moved to Minnesota from her single family home in Round Lake, she wanted to take everything with her or put it in storage.  Now, as she was on the verge of moving into long term care, her only concern was…would people who need them be able to get her things? 

All my life, I have been praying and waiting for certain things in my mother to change and heal.  Finally, after my father died,  I stopped waiting and accepted that I wouldn’t see transformation until we met again in heaven. But I was wrong.  My mother did change over the last few months of her life.  She trusted me fully to make decisions for her, she expressed her love openly and without judgement or expectations for our family–especially for her grandchildren.  

The ending miles of any marathon are absolutely the hardest.  There is something called the wall that most marathoners experience around mile 20.  It is very real and is no joke.  The last 6.2 miles are when a runner finds out who she is, how well she prepared for the end, and the depth of her strength and character.  My mother ran her last miles with so much courage in those final miles…

She let go of her husband, Roy after 39 years of marriage.

She let go of her home in Round Lake, IL.

She let go of her independence.

She let go of her beloved cat, Amber.  

She let go of her ability to walk.  

She let go of being able to get out of bed without a mechanical lift.  

She let go of her possessions.  

She let go of Phil, Lauren, and Daniel.

And finally, she let go of me.  

One by one, she and the Lord cut the strings that held her to this earth, until finally she was free to rise and be with Him forever.

In this life, we can choose to treat people as we think they deserve based on their behavior.  We can choose to shut people out, because they are dysfunctional, abusive, or drive us crazy. There are many times I did want to run away from what, in the end, I see as one of the major callings of my life: being a true friend and daughter to my mother. 

I’ve never really spoken about my mother publically.  In writing about her, I have already experienced some healing. I can look back and see that she was an amazing mother who did her best despite the ways in which she was broken.  That’s all I can hope for with my own children…to do my best despite the cracks and failures of my own life.

The road has been long and hard, and I often wondered how this marathon with my mother would end.  I feared the worst, but God gave me the best.  He gave me a few months with my mother without conflict, with time for me to care for her physically and spend time with her every day.  He gave me a glimpse of the mother she will be in heaven when I see her again.

Andrea Lee is the Executive Director of Operations at the Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis. She is married to Phillip Lee and has two amazing teens, Lauren and Daniel.  She is an avid runner, pickle baller, and intense word game player.

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