In 2006, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer; she died on Christmas Day of 2008 at the age of 55, when I was 32. While she was ill, I kept assuring myself I would write her a letter to say all the things I'd never said about how much I loved her and why. I never got around to writing that letter. But I still find myself thinking about the small things I want to say to her—practical and goofy, minor and major.

"How did you get the pie dough to be so elastic?"
Mine always crumbles and breaks so that the apples poke through. Your pies were famous among our family and friends—we did taste tests, comparing them to Junior's in Brooklyn—and your crust was perfectly tender, just a bit flakey. I foolishly assumed I could follow your recipe and make it come out the same way. I can't.

"I'm sorry I lied to you when you found cigarettes in the pocket of my J. Crew barn jacket in high school."
I said, "I'm not that stupid, Mom. They're Claire's." But I was stupid, and you knew it. I even miss the way you rolled your eyes at me and shamed me into stopping.

"I'm glad you were my junior high school principal."
At the time, I was terrified I'd be sent to your office and then get home and learn that I'd been grounded. But it's a privilege to have memories of what you were like at work. I teach a college seminar now, and at crisis moments I think about what you would say or do.

"I understand why you made me take care of my little brother."
When I was 13, it seemed unfair to have to take care of a toddler when you had meetings at school. But I'm glad I had some practice. Although he was 21 when you died—and now is even taller than when you last saw him. But now and then he still wanted advice and help with job applications and a home-cooked dinner.

"Do you remember the time you picked me up from summer camp in Massachusetts?"
On our way to Vermont, you were going five miles over the speed limit, as usual, when a state trooper flashed his lights. You looked at me and said, "It's two miles to the state border. Should I floor it?" "Mom!" I said. "No." I was 12 and embarrassed. Today I wish we had just done it.

"Okay, you were right."
I used to get annoyed when you routinely chided me. "Lighten up, Meg," you'd say. Now I whisper that refrain to myself since you can't.

"I never said thank you enough."
That's all.

"I bought a 1940s-style fake leopard-spotted coat." 
I loved resting my head on the shoulder of the one you had when I was a little girl. That thigh-length coat seemed like the only kind of coat a grown-up woman should own.

"Rise and shine!"
Even when I was visiting home in my 20s, you'd wake me up by saying, "Meg? Seven a.m. It's time to rise and shine." I used to hate that "rise and shine," but I loved the way your voice said my name. How I wish I could say it back.

"I love you to death."
You said this to me every night. I feel the same way. No: I love you beyond death.

"I still hate merging."
I know, I know: Speed up on the ramp; don't slow down.

"I'm sorry I didn't write that letter."
It's impossible to summarize love. There's no way to do it. Even though I knew you were dying I couldn't possibly say goodbye enough, couldn't look at you enough; you seemed so beautiful even though you were disappearing, aging before my eyes. I just wanted to touch every eyelash around your eyes, to keep you in my sight, and I had no words for that.

Meghan O'Rourke is the author ofThe Long Goodbye(Riverhead).

Next: 10 things Caitlin Shetterly's mom always says to her


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