A promise in a bottle

I was 19 years old when I watched my mother die.

She was only 56.

I had the rest of my life ahead of me and I thought she did, too.

She thought she had one more year on her side, at the very least.

But little did we know, 10 days in hospice home care was all it would take before my four older siblings and I were gathered by her side, her hands in ours, whispering, “It’s OK to let go.”

My mother was hospitalized frequently when I was a senior in high school. She suffered from asthma, emphysema, COPD, and in the end – lung cancer.

A guidance counselor suggested I live at home and attend classes at a local community college to spend more time with her. However, when I was accepted by FSU, my mom didn’t want me to miss out on the full college experience and encouraged me to live on campus.

As I left for move-in day, she stood on our front porch waving “goodbye” – unable to go any further because her oxygen tank often anchored her to the confines of smoke-stained walls.

She later told me she cried as my brother’s car drifted out of the driveway, hauling away the last 18 years of her life.

I often wonder if she reluctantly whispered to herself, “It’s OK to let go,” as I eagerly took off.

For the past three years, I have tried to channel my sorrow into motivation – something I’d seen my mother do numerous times throughout the years as a chronically ill single parent surviving on hope and a server’s salary.

The first anniversary of her passing was an extraordinarily warm day in February. Typically, it’s not the time of year for a perfect beach day, but a few of my siblings gathered at her place of solace, Salisbury Beach, to cast a glass bottle containing messages from loved ones out to sea.

On the following New Year’s Eve, and coincidentally, my mom’s birthday, my eldest sister awoke to an email from Sydney, a recent high school graduate from Boca Raton, Florida.

Sydney said she and friends were celebrating their graduation at Sag Harbor in the Hamptons when she was walking along the shore by herself, imagining what her life would be like after graduating. She said she was thinking about how she had changed and hoped to change when she saw something glimmering in the sand.

“Before [I] knew it, I was prying the cork open on the bottle to try and reach its contents (we actually had to break the bottle in the end to get it open). … A lot of emotions poured over me after I read the letters. Although I did not know Cindy personally, my heart goes out to all of you,” she wrote.

Sydney said she was saving the notes to return them to the ocean on the “symbolic day” of New Year’s Eve.

She ended the email, “This bottle inspired me, for I think it is a beautiful idea to let go, and also treasure life. Happy New Year’s to you all, and thank you for allowing me to experience this.”

Later that evening, she sent photos of her and her mother returning the messages in a new bottle with the label “Cindy 12/31/2017.”

It was incredibly inspiring to know that one year later, my mother was still transforming the lives of others.

Before her passing, Cindy Stocks was an adored server at Tiny’s Restaurant in Ayer for more than three decades. It’s clear she touched the hearts of many as the owners closed the restaurant for a day to host a town-wide celebration of her life. Since then, a large photo of her hangs on the dining room wall and patrons ask about her to this day.

I lost a piece of myself almost four years ago, but one year later, I vowed to honor that loss in a message in a bottle tossed out to sea.

Floating against the ocean tides, or maybe glistening in the sand on your favorite beach, there just might be a bottle containing the pledge, “Mom, I promise I will never forget the sound of your voice, your echoing laughter, your wonderful stories, or the incredible way you loved me.

“I promise I will never forget your selfless acts of altruism and how you truly touched the hearts of those who barely knew you.

“I promise I will always let my sweet memories of you continuously inspire and motivate me to be a better person, and commit acts for the goodness of others.

“I promise I will treat others with the respect and dignity you exuded, and to always stand up for myself and others in the face of injustice. … I promise I will continue to love you endlessly and carry you with me in every step I take.”

Three years ago, I privately vowed to honor my mother’s legacy as I thought my message in a bottle would go unread.

I’m now unbottling my promises as a public commitment to the values my mother spent so many years instilling in me.