In 1994 my mother did her Christmas shopping out of her jewelry box.
A fight with cancer — her second fight, one she knew she was losing — had weakened her enough to make leaving the house to go shopping impossible. So as an 11-year-old, I sat across the kitchen table from her as she reasoned out which relatives should get which items. She'd ask me questions like, "Do you want these earrings, or should I give them to your sister? Would you mind giving back the pink necklace? It was your grandmother's. I think your cousin should have it."
If the cancer had stricken her a few years later, she could easily have done her Christmas shopping online — and none of the presents would be worth a fraction of what her secondhand jewelry was. Sixteen Christmases later, I still wear something of my mother's almost every day.
In the spring of 1994, a doctor told my mother her cancer had returned after a year of remission. The way she lived in the wake of that diagnosis provided me with a gift I hold dear. It sounds corny, but one of the best gifts my mother left me was a lesson in creating happiness in the most depressing of situations.
She made a poster that quoted the first half of Proverbs 17:22, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine." She hung it in the kitchen and repeated the verse to anyone who called to ask how she was doing.
When her oncologist gave her care instructions for the injection site where she received her chemotherapy, she was amused to find out she wasn't allowed to get any tattoos. She put a temporary tattoo over the injection site before an appointment one day to have fun at her doctor's expense. Last year on her birthday, I got a tattoo in the same place as a tribute to her sense of humor.
I didn't understand then what she was teaching me about deliberately choosing to be happy. My sister gave my mother a journal on her final Christmas. I found it as a teenager, and as I read it I began to understand the struggles my mother was smiling through. She wrote about beginning her disability retirement, being exhausted from her chemotherapy treatments, deciding to stop taking treatment altogether, crying on her birthday because she wouldn't get to see me grow up.
Her last two entries talk about plans to write goodbye letters to me and my siblings. She writes about buying stationery, wanting to find the right words and making sure the letters "have the right flow." But she only wrote about intending to write the letters, never what she wanted to say in them.
She died in May 1995, two weeks after writing her last journal entry. When I stood at her bedside a few hours beforehand, she was too weak to talk. She had to struggle just to look at me. The life lessons of the past year were over, and whatever she had intended to tell me and my siblings in those letters was gone.
Since my mother's death, I've been careful to protect everything I have that was once hers. The plush rabbit she had as a toddler is high up on a shelf where I can display it without worrying about my chew-happy dog getting her paws on it. Her sea shell collection is packed up tightly enough to survive a magnitude-6 earthquake. I once almost had a panic attack after leaving a pair of her earrings behind at a salon.
Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking these tangible things I have of my mother's are the only connection to her I have left. I forget that those memories of her quoting Bible verses about being happy and playing practical jokes on her doctor are much more meaningful glimpses into the kind of person she was.
What I take away from my mother's life is this: The smallest details have immense significance when you associate them with someone who's important to you. Besides those few pieces of jewelry, I can't remember any gifts I got on my mother's last Christmas. But those memories of a woman who was strong enough to choose happiness have proved more valuable to me than any other gift she left me with.
Jessica Stephens is a master's candidate in the School of Journalism. She is reporter at the Missourian and an editor on the interactive copy editing desk.