To My Mother on Her 70th: the Shittiest Birthday Tribute Ever Made.

Mom and me in Clearwater, January 2006.
Mom and me in Clearwater, January 2006.


Today my mother would have turned 70.

I can imagine her at 70. She would have loved the senior discounts and taking Amtrak every opportunity she could. She would have still made long road trips, driving whatever beatup car she has at the time from her home in Clearwater to make the rounds up north. Although she hated winters in the northeast, she would have made an exception to come back for the birth of her second great-grandchild. She would have loved the historic parts of where we’re working now, in Coshocton, and made me go for breakfast at Jerry’s diner and for mid-day pie and coffee at the English Ivy.

But none of this is happening.

I’m alone today, and I’m throwing myself a huge pity party, wallowing in all the might-have-beens. Working on these sections of the book that are about my mother-daughter relationship have exacerbated the feelings. I spent much of yesterday writing and crying. I will spend much of today doing the same.

tribute grandparent death mother
Mom and her grandchildren at Sand Key Beach, 2006


Christmas in Aliquippa PA
Christmas in Aliquippa PA

When Kurt comes home and can tell it’s been one of those days, I like to say that crying is simply the body’s way of relieving the sinus passages and clearing out a lot of toxins. After all, I’ve been exercising hard and drinking lots of water. There’s nothing like a good cry to flush your system. When he calls me on my b.s., I move to the next way to avoid comfort:


I’ll get over it.


In the meantime, I’m letting these emotions have their time. I’m allowed to be sad. I’m allowed to be angry.


I’m angry at cancer, angry that she’s gone, angry that I can’t stop being angry, angry that I have nobody I’m comfortable talking with about it.


Except, apparently…all of you.

One of our many road trips in the 80's
One of our many road trips in the 80’s

Isn’t it funny how I am not able to maintain close friendships, but I can put some of the hardest stuff on a piece of paper? I think I chose writing because it does seem to be the only place I can put myself out there. Yet writing is probably the worst career choice for someone with emotional baggage, because you’re alone so much.


I’ve developed good discipline in my writing since getting my MFA. I get up, attend to my daily fitness, then write, read writing-related items and revise or edit for 6 hours.

And in doing so, I’m alone with my thoughts all day.


Mom would have called me to see how I’m doing today. She would have asked how I’m coping without her, and tried to give me ways to make the pain less, make the loneliness less.


1892 upright piano
Mom and her three children. Thanksgiving 2007

Mom wasn’t a perfect mother. I don’t think any mother is. Doesn’t each person bring their own hangups and issues into their relationship with their children, especially mothers with daughters?


But she was incredible at friendship. Sometimes I think it’s why I’m so bad at it. I watched the way she maintained her relationships with her closest friends and it looked exhausting. She was always praying for one of them, calling to talk with them about something they were going through. Someone was always coming over for coffee or advice, and she stopped her own busy life to give them her time.


And however much nagging she did, or whatever our differences, she called every day. She remembered names of my friends, dates of my miscarriages, details of so many areas of my life that felt at the time to be so intrusive.

Details that would be so welcome in these five years of loneliness since she’s been gone.


Mom and dad during the garage building. 1970
Mom and dad during the garage building. 1970

All my life I’ve had friendships come and go. Kurt is the only one I’ve let in completely. People assume because I’m so social that I have a lot of friends. I know a lot of people, have a lot of acquaintances and even have some people I call friends. But I really only have one close friend, and he’s working 10-12 hour days.


I know it’s up to me to solve this loneliness issue. There are a lot of lessons I could take from my mother. She enjoyed solitude more than anyone. Part of it was her discomfort in social situations. Part of it was just that she learned from a young age how to enjoy being alone.


I don’t want anybody to call me. I hate talking on the phone, and Mom and Kurt have been the only exceptions. I don’t want anybody to do anything, actually. I just needed a moment to vent, to wallow, to miss her, albeit poorly and publicly. And I will…get over it, or get used to it, or learn to shut up about it.

Mom, my sister and I. Christmas sometime in the late 80s or early 90s?
Mom, my sister and I. Christmas sometime in the late 80s or early 90s?


This has to be the worst birthday tribute ever. What did I learn? I was a shitty daughter? I already knew that. That I suck at friendship? I also knew that, and it hasn’t changed. I suck at loneliness and being alone. Maybe that’s improving? At least it makes for productive writing (and I don’t just mean this insipid blog).


One of our many road trips in the 80's
One of our many road trips in the 80’s

Maybe it isn’t about learning anything, but just remembering, sharing, connecting through writing in a way I can’t in person, in an email, on a phone.


Maybe all this should have been a different post. Maybe it should have been the following sentences…

Today my mother, Mary Jo (Work) Sink/Mackey would have been 70. She was an incredible friend to so many people, a dedicated teacher and one of only two people who knew me deeply enough to push beyond my bubbly exterior to the truth of me. She tried to be the first teacher in space and in hindsight we were grateful she didn’t get that ride. She was fiercely independent and instilled that in each of her children. She survived losing both her parents within a few short years while raising her own children as a single mother after her own husband left her for another woman. She didn’t have time to grieve the relationship or his death a few years later because she worked full-time as a teacher and part-time as church janitor while raising me. When she finally got to retirement age, finally got her home in the Florida sunshine, she got pancreatic cancer and died.

There’s the anger again.

There are more photos like this than I'd care to remember. She was always a good sport about them.
There are more photos like this than I’d care to remember. She was always a good sport about them.

I have no idea what the moral of this story is. That she impacted a lot of people for the better? True.

Would I trade all that positive impact to have her be here now? Yes. I would screw over every one of you that she helped so that I could have my mother again.

Because in the end, I’m selfish. I’m self-centered. I can’t see, feel or imagine beyond the pain of one moment to focus on anything else.

She wouldn’t be proud of that statement, but after criticizing me for being so childish and self-centered and arrogant, she would forgive me for it, love me for it, talk to me non-stop about how to pray over it and do something helpful for somebody else to make it better.

Some days I think my obsessive giving is the only way I know how to compensate for incessant self-absorption. But no amount of willingness to trade the positive impact she made in exchange for her being here now will make that happen.

The world spins. Time moves forward. And today sucks. I don’t want to get over it.

mother death tribute 70th birthday


32 thoughts on “To My Mother on Her 70th: the Shittiest Birthday Tribute Ever Made.

  1. I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my mother twenty-five years ago to cancer, when she was only 66. I still miss her. She sounds so much like your mother that it made me cry. The road trips, the mid-day pie and coffee, taking all her students underwing, her love of travel and history and the importance of family. A couple of days ago I was feeling sorry for myself, missing her terribly, wishing I had someone who wanted to hang my pictures on the refrigerator. I realized that I couldn’t blame my mother-inlaw for not being my mom, or at least more like her. And I had my kids, who are actually proud of me, and who do proudly hang my accomplishments somewhere in their hearts. I know I am lucky to have had her for 66 years. But we are never too old to want and need our moms. Wishing you peace.

  2. Beautifully written. You showed her to a world of strangers in this tribute. It was so well written I wish I would have met her. Good Luck on your healing. My father died 30 years ago, I am still in the process.

  3. How are you coping without her? What are you doing to make it hurt less? She’d ask those questions, not because she’d want to know the answers, but because she’d want to know that you’re doing it. And, somehow, you are. Even if you don’t answer them here, possibly write her a letter, explaining how you’re doing, what her passing has meant, and what you want her to know. If it makes you feel better, try sending it to her symbolically- attach it to a balloon, burn it, leave it in the woods. Let her know- in your heart- what you want her to know, and keep working with that place where she lives in you so you can live with her, not without her. She’s a part of you, and answering to that part of you not only can help, but reminds you that she lives on inside you.

    Loss is hard, and fuck does it make me rage and sad- but like a good book, they’re part of how you do and what you do, and you take what you can from what you’ve learned and keep it inside you, as part of the value added to your life from the people (and books!) you’ve been lucky enough to be touched by.

    I am sorry you hurt, lovely lady, and while we’re not who you want to talk to, your friends and your audience (who tend to overlap) are here for you however you need or want us. Be strong, like your mother- you do strength so well in the gym and in other matters, keep that going and rebuild yourself after the sorrow passes. If I (and others) could make your hurt go away, we’d try, but some hurts are worth feeling.

  4. This was a wonderful tribute to your mother:) I see the gift of friendship and giving you talk about IN YOU:) I see your mother in you:) Thank you for your friendship and all you have given to me, Liz, and Roland. I appreciate you and love you Cuz:)

    P.S. Roland dropped 40 points last night!! I hope you can come to a game soon:)

  5. …. Your mom is standing right beside you smiling with the pride of having you as her baby girl. {hugs}

  6. It’s funny…I read your blog at work sometimes (instead of doing work) and today it made me cry at work. I think Grandma would be very proud and pleased where we all are in life today. Her fun little back-handed comments poked at us, but we know how much she loved us. I try to explain this amazing woman to friends, but unless you actually KNEW knew her, you just can’t understand. Her eccentricities and quirks were unmatched; there will never be anyone like her. I live my life from day to day, and catch funny little habits that I do, reminiscent of her, or I have brunch with you and see the same thing, but she was her own person, through and through.

    1. I see a lot of her quirks in those of us still here. I always wonder if I never noticed them before, or if we heightened them to feel closer after she left. Yeah, I was just looking at a few videos of when you and I and Brianna were taking care of her in Florida after she got sick, and even then she was adorably dorky. I need to put those on a jump drive for you guys.
      You and I have talked about the pie and coffee choke-ups we keep having too. I don’t even like pie, but find myself wanting a piece of pie because I knew she would want to eat it. Of course, it makes this darn sugar addiction that much more difficult.
      I love you and it was so amazing to have brunch with you on the day Clara was born.

  7. I’m so sorry for your loss..she was clearly a wonderful woman and while you may not believe it, I’m sure you’re an amazing daughter who has honesty and integrity and courage. Those at least are evident in your post. Sending healing thoughts.

  8. A profound and moving tribute to a woman who gave so much to this world.We come to a place in our own timeline that life seems to take more than it gives. I just lost my father and I know that life, for me, will never be the same. Even as I grieve, I am thankful that he was my father and that I had his love…

    1. I’m so sorry about your father. There really are some holes that are never filled, but I’m starting to think they aren’t meant to be, in a good way.

  9. You brought tears to me. Not only because of the pain I feel for you but also because of the wonderful relationship you had and have with your mom, something I will never have. Cheers to Mrs Sink looking down on us until we can once again meet her.

  10. Marla I feel for you and pray that it would get easier. However we both know that it does not . I really enjoy reading your posts. Most of them I laugh at but this one was different. I cried while reading it. I can feel your pain. Makes me sad. Your mom was awesome. Make your days be brighter. 😉

    1. Thanks Tracy, I’m so glad you knew her and that the post moved you. I really appreciate your comment and I’m so glad you like the posts.

  11. I lost my mother very unexpectedly on my birthday (the day immediately following my 7th wedding anniversary) in 2005. She suffered a massive heart attack while sitting in my dying sister’s hospital room. I don’t say this to “one up” you,Marla,I say it to show you that you certainly aren’t alone in having lost one of the most important persons in your life. Approaching 7 years since that awful moment I can tell you that the hurt itself always remains,what seems to pass is the initial sting.
    Every high point in my life since then is followed by the realization that I can no longer share that moment with my mother and then the pain is remembered.

    I am sorry for the loss and the pain it brings you,Marla,but we who have outlive our loved ones must remember the good (AND the BAD) about them and how they made us feel in life because if we don’t then we truly will have lost them.

    This was a fine tribute,it showed that you love her very much and,frankly,I think that’s as much tribute as any parent could really ask for.

    1. Walter, what a beautiful and open thing to share. Thank you so much for taking the time to post that. I really relate to your words “Every high point in my life since then is followed by the realization that I can no longer share that moment with my mother and then the pain is remembered.” – that’s exactly what’s been hitting me lately, and my brother too. With these new great-grandchildren she would have, celebrating her 70th, her love of travel paired with all these wonderful towns my husband and I move to. It seems like just now life is coming to the part she would have loved so much.
      Even though I didn’t reply yesterday, all these comments were read and really helped.
      Thank you.

  12. Very nice words. Yes you are most certainly allowed to be sad and angry. No advice today, just know I’m thinking of you. All the best.

  13. A fitting tribute to mom is more what you ARE than what you SAY!

    Mom would be very proud! I am.

    1. Both your comments are really perfect, brother. I can’t thank you enough for it. It’s now Saturday and I think I’m physically cried out and maybe even dehydrated, haha. Love you.

  14. *hug*

    I say me and you get together and go on a cancer-killing spree across the nation. Also, the more I read your blog, the more I realize that you and I have much more in common than perhaps we thought. This post was particularly eerie in that sense.


    1. We are overdue for a visit. And we need to talk writing as well as life!
      I will be in Pittsburgh Friday 11th for de-Sasquatch day. Any chance you might be able to meet in the Shadyside area for coffee beforehand? I’ll message you and let you know the time when I find my appointment card. If not the 11th, I’ll be there again on the 25th. I generally don’t like to hang around afterward because of Friday afternoon rush hour starting early but we can find something that works.

      1. Yes, preeze. So long as it doesn’t snow-snow (my tires are whack), let’s make a plan. I’m excited I can somehow be a part of De-Sasquatch Day! Gimme a time and place, woman!

  15. Mom confided in me with more than I ever really wanted sometimes….she NEVER thought you were a shitty daughter.
    love you sis.

    Happy birthday mom,
    I miss you more with every grandchild!
    I love you

    1. Thank you. And I mean it when I always say how much I appreciate your blog, because there is always something to make me think outside myself. <3

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