Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: We lost Mom this week, but not before she showed me how to live

My mom loved to travel; here, she enjoys a recent trip to England. But she valued nothing more than spending time with family.
My mom loved to travel; here, she enjoys a recent trip to England. But she valued nothing more than spending time with family.

I never told anyone this, not even her, but every time I open a new Word file and begin writing I think of my mom.

She was the first person I knew who could write. Like, really write. She was the one who taught me that the rules they teach in composition classes aren’t like the rules they teach in algebra. Some can be bent. Some should be bent. It’s not that a piece of writing should or should not reflect the writer. It’s that a piece of writing, by definition, must reflect the writer.

Before she taught me these things, I assumed all writing should be like the textbooks. After she taught me these things, I have never in my life wanted to do anything but write for a living.

So, you know. Blame her.

I am sure she’d have preferred to see me become a novelist, or write about the arts, but I chose sports, so I’ve thought of my mom in empty high school gymnasiums and at ear-splitting Super Bowls.

I’ve thought of her in dark hotel rooms, and beachside breakfast spots, and over and over again in an old, kind of ugly, incredibly comfortable overstuffed green chair that serves as my “desk” at home.

A few steps from that chair is a book she made for a wedding gift. It’s full of pictures of my wife and I, from before we could walk to the day we were married. If it’s possible for an inanimate object to personify a caring, generous, worried, laughing, interested, brilliant, earnest, curious, hard-working role model of a woman, then that book is it.

Hundreds of pictures, filtered down to show versions of my wife and I doing the same things, when possible, tied together with a written narration that was sweet, funny, sharp, full of love and often weird. She spent hours on that book. Months, really, and loved every second of it.

Literally: I can’t think of a better representation of my dear mother.

My mother, like all of us, meant different things to different people. She was a daughter, a friend, a customer, a travel partner, a writer, a reader, a cook, a communications director, a board president, a cancer survivor, a boss, an employee, a cousin, a grandma, a mother-in-law, a step-mom, a wife, an ex-wife, a step-grandma, a dog lover, a music lover, a wine lover, a college basketball fan, a Cubs fan, a Kansas fan, a sort of Duke fan, and so much more.

My words are about her, as my mother.

She’d been having chest pains. A cardiologist checked her and said it was nothing to be worried about. That night, several days ago, she died in her sleep. A heart attack.

It makes no sense. She was healthy. Took great care of herself. I was sure she’d live to be 90, and every time I say that to someone who knew her, they nod their head, and say, “Me too.”

I opened this Word file an hour or two after my sister called with the news. It’s the best way I can think of to honor her, to remember her. The only way, really.

Because every word and every comma of this has some of my mom in it.


Some of the best lessons I ever learned came from my mom at her darkest. I can’t decide if she would like hearing that, but it’s true.

My parents divorced when I was 17, and my sister was in college, more than a quarter of a century building a life that she suddenly had to remap. So much of her identity was as a mother and a wife. She was rocked.

If there is a benefit to spending your senior year of high school with your mother as she goes through a divorce and midlife crisis, it’s that she no longer cares whether you’re home by 11. I actually didn’t stay out as late as I probably should have, considering what was possible, but I would come in at midnight or 1 or 2, and hear the sobbing.

At first, I did nothing. Walked past her door, and into my room. Mom could be private, and in that first moment it felt like an intrusion to knock on her door. She told me she wanted to be strong, to not put any of her pain on me. If the only time she cried was at night, and the only way I knew is that I stayed out late, then it didn’t feel fair for me to break that wall.

I don’t know how many times I walked past her door. I hope it was only once, but it may have been more. One night, I knocked. The sobbing stopped. Silence. I worried that I made a mistake, that she might feel embarrassed, and maybe she did. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I walked in, laid down next to her, and we hugged.

I have no idea how long I was in there. I wish I remembered what we said, or whether we said anything. But I do remember realizing my only mistake was not going in there the first time.

She told me she wanted to be strong, and she probably thought that crying like that in front of her son violated those words. I told her it was the most striking example of personal strength I could imagine.

It’s a lesson I think about all the time. It changed my life, and how I live. She showed me the power in welcoming the grief, because it’s the best way to get to the other side. Without pain there is no joy.

I’ve remembered that ever since. It’s how I’ve dealt with every disappointment of my adult life. I haven’t had many, but I’m proud that I’ve navigated them well.

Both sides of that sentence are true because of my mom.


Her last 20 years became a glorious testament to that lesson. Welcome the grief. It’ll work for you if you let it, or against you if you don’t. Denying its existence, or putting off the pain, only turns what’s meant to be temporary into something more permanent.

The pain will help you move on, but not before being heard.

She lived a good life. Two incredible parents of her own, a happy childhood, lifelong friends, interesting work, two kids to raise with a man she was deeply in love with.

She did love my father, too. And he loved her. Most kids with divorced parents have to make divisions in their life that mine never required. It could be awkward, obviously. But they were always decent to each other, and made it obvious in words and action that they loved my sister and me.

Even in those rough nights, just the two of us, she never said a bad word about my dad. They spent some of the best years of their lives together, and I’m so grateful they each have honored that.

My mom would compliment the parts of me I know reminded her of my father. When I called Dad to tell her that Mom passed, his first word, well, it was “Shit.” But after that, he said, “That lady and I had some wonderful times together.”

The timing of their divorce — my sister in college, me about to go — made it easier to see my mom’s life in three parts. There was her own childhood and early adulthood. Then came motherhood. And lastly, the part when my sister and I were more or less independent and she could — finally — concentrate more on herself.

The last 20 years of her life were an inspiration.

Randomly and miraculously, she reconnected with an old friend, a man named Alan, who was tall and bearded and brilliant and somehow simultaneously serious and weird. He took care of her, and she loved that. She made him laugh, and challenged him, and pushed him, and he loved that.

They made an amazing team. Together constantly, whether at a concert or play or at home watching movies. They read together, traveled together, ate together, loved together.

I love my father, and there is not a day I don’t realize I’m lucky to have him. So in the beginning, I admit, I didn’t want it to work with Alan. Didn’t want her to move away. But watching them together made me believe in love in a new way.

One year for Mother’s Day, I went to her favorite store, a little shop in downtown Lawrence that specializes in the kind of knickknacks she loved. I picked one with a picture of a ship, with the words, “To find your boat, build a dock.” I’ve never found a better gift for anyone.


My mom taught me how to listen. She taught me how to care about people, even strangers. She taught me how to be interested in things, and that there are few things better than a good meal with people you love.

She didn’t do any of this by telling me. She did it by living, modeling, showing me what it looks like.

These last few days have broken my heart. I am devastated. But I’ve been able to laugh, too. To smile. I’ve heard and read gorgeous words about my mother, said and written by a group of friends we’d all be lucky to have.

Every sentence she wrote was precise. Even short emails were well constructed, with active verbs. She gave the best book recommendations. She worried about people. She listened to every word, and remembered it, and thought about it later.

She played the guitar. I had no idea. She quoted literature, and read the comics every day. She had long straight hair when she was younger and a sort of chic comfortable style when she was older. She was beautiful. It’s weird when people say that about your mother, but not as weird when it’s true.

A few months ago, I read about someone writing down 50 things he learned from his parents, as a gift for their golden anniversary. I stole the idea, writing 70 things about my mother, to give to her for her birthday.

When I started, 70 seemed like a big number, and when I finished it didn’t seem like enough. So much of who I am and what I strive to be is on that list — the importance of saying I love you, the importance of letting your children be themselves, the importance of a stash of Cheetos.

She had planned a trip for all of us, to a rented house in the mountains for her 70th birthday. I was going to give her the list there, and I will never fully get over the sadness of not being able to do that. She deserved to hear it.

She deserved more trips to Europe with Alan, more trips to Oakland and Kansas City to see her grandkids, and more time with her incredible friends. She watched my sister and I grow up, and I know she’s proud of us, but she deserved to see those grandkids grow up, too. She should’ve had more time. That is an emptiness I expect to carry the rest of my life.

But I’m also proud that she packed a lot into her 70 years. She lived a life that will carry on through others, which is really what we should all try to do. She will be in my heart and my actions and my values, and I know the same is true for so many others who loved her.

I have cried long and often the last few days. Then I stop, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with amazement.

Because I don’t remember ever being this sad, and yet I have never been so confident that I will move on the best way possible. That is all because of her, my mother, who helped guide me away from mistakes and disappointments in life and is still with me to help through the sadness of her death.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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