Passed but Present

By: Kali Newlen-Burden

Twenty-two years, one month, and 20 days. That’s how long I was blessed with my mom’s presence. I wish I had more time, but it was more than enough to collect a lifetime’s worth of love and memories. I treasure a voice recording from my 22nd birthday where she poured out her heart to me during an exhausting week of clinical trials at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. I remember sitting together in our hotel room when she shared, “Plenty of people lose their mamas early, but you’ve had more of me…” She then added with a laugh, “You’ve had too much of me!”

She was larger than life, a rare gem bursting at the seams to share her creativity and love with the world. Her vibrant personality, compassionate heart and joyful spirit made an impression on everyone she met.

Allow me to paint a picture…Kim Newlen didn’t just throw a tea party, she organized the World’s Largest Tea Party in 2005 and broke a Guinness World Record. She proudly drove all over Richmond in her dad’s 1986 Ford pickup that she had painted pink. She sent the BEST snail mail. My mom mailed me frisbees, beach balls and lint rollers while I was away at summer camp. No, they didn’t arrive in an envelope or box. Instead, she would write my name and address in sharpie right on the items and send them through USPS. Imagine all the smiles those parcels prompted from postal workers and carriers.

Whenever she would go out of town for retreats or speaking engagements, she would leave a box wrapped in smiley face wrapping paper with goodies inside on the kitchen counter. Every morning before school, I would close my eyes and choose a surprise. We would chat on the phone later and I would share what I picked out and she would share why it made her think of me. Even though we were physically apart, she wanted me to feel special. 

In fact, she wanted everyone she came into contact with to feel special. As someone who battled breast cancer twice – a decade apart – she was no stranger to hospitals. She would fill her purse with butter mints in bright yellow smiley face wrappers and hand them out to patients, doctors and nurses. No matter how she was feeling, she always set out to brighten someone else’s day. She was everyone’s friend.

While she was fighting for her life, I remember her saying to me, “you have the most incredible future and I feel at peace…the hardest thing for me is leaving you.” While it’s easy to think about all the milestones that she missed – my college graduation, first job and wedding – I know that she was with me every step of the way. She still is. As I navigate the ups and downs of life, and embrace adventures like moving back and forth across the country and marrying the love of my life, I imagine her smiling and cheering me on. 

I like to talk about her in the present tense, as if she’s just in the other room or out running an errand. Because when you lose someone so important to you, she’s always part of your present.

Seemingly ordinary things often spark memories of my amazing mom. Whether it’s a pink sunset or a penny on the ground that has fallen from heaven, I feel her with me. I have so many daily reminders of her – reading her devotionals, wearing some of her favorite accessories, drinking out of her pink mug, and finding all the sweet notes she had written me. I can’t help but dance when I hear her old ringtone “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” on the radio. My husband and I still talk about her all the time and recall the unique phrases she used to say: “Oh my rooties!” (instead of “oh my goodness”) and “I have my ‘so excited’ face on!”

On my 21st birthday, my mom gave me a beautiful painted sign that said “celebrate everything.” She wrote on the back: “We did! We do! We will!” Little did I know that just over a year later, we would be planning her celebration of life service. I miss her every day, but some days are harder than others. Christmas, her birthday, and death anniversary all fall within a six-week period. Every year on those days, I find ways to celebrate her life and do things that she would love, like enjoying a hot cup of tea or curling up and watching a Hallmark Channel holiday movie.

I find myself saying to my husband or a friend, “My mom would love this – let’s do this for her.”

This Mother’s Day, I’m spending the day with a friend who recently lost her mom to cancer. We’ll take a walk and look at all the tulips in full bloom (one of our moms’ favorite flowers). We’ll treat ourselves to pedicures, something they both loved to do. I’ll opt for bright pink polish (my mom’s favorite color). We’ll enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and “cheers” to our moms who shaped us into the women we are today. We’ll laugh and cry. We’ll reminisce, share stories and scroll through old photos. We’ll keep their memories alive.

The way I see it, those we love never really leave us. They’re here, we just have to open our hearts and look for glimmers of them. It’s up to us to keep them a part of our present.