Mom, Dad and Karin in Las Vegas, 1991.
Twenty years ago today, September 21, 1999, I lost my mother, Kristin Willison. She was only 55 years old and had battled cancer multiple times throughout her life.
My mom was the strongest person I’ve ever known. I strive every day to live up to the example she set. She was a tireless fighter in every aspect of her life, and she was never afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She was a fierce advocate for disability rights and served as the chair of the Council for Community Accessibility in Bloomington, Indiana for many years. Under her leadership the council established a program that awards window decals to businesses that are accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. The program is still active today. My mom successfully lobbied to change state and city laws to improve disability accessibility, met with the governor, stood up to mayors and sleazy lawyers, and was named Bloomington’s Woman of the Year in 1998.
She enjoyed training her dog, loved to cook, and traveled all over the world, from Europe to Ecuador to Tahiti. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and she loved her husband and her daughter. She loved her daughter so much that she devoted her life to helping her succeed in the face of challenges few people could overcome. I am that daughter, and she was my mom.
The morning of her funeral, I struggled to put my feelings into words. I wanted to pay tribute to the woman to whom I owe my life, yet I knew whatever I said could never adequately express the 22 years of joys, sorrows, struggles and love we had shared. In the end, I wrote this letter. I want to share those words with you now, exactly as I wrote them in 1999, so the world will never forget my mom and all she believed in.
I always used to write you letters when I wanted to say something that I found it hard to say in person. But this is the hardest one I’ve ever had to write, and also the most important. You spent your entire life helping people, and I want to tell everyone here a little about that, if it’s OK with you, because I think they should know.
Life wasn’t easy for you from the start. You had cancer for the first time when you were just a teenager, lost your thyroid and had to take medication for the rest of your life. But you never gave up. You became a teacher because you wanted to help people. You taught children with learning disabilities, and you used to tell me stories about them.
I remember there was this little boy named Dunstin who was very special to you. None of the other teachers wanted anything to do with Dunstin. He was a problem child, very badly behaved, and none of them could teach him anything. But you took him in and you taught him to read, and even more importantly, gave him confidence in himself. I know it meant so much to you that you were able to help him, and I know because of you, he made it in the world.
Then I was born. A doctor from Harvard told you that I would never walk, never speak, and that I would be profoundly mentally disabled and should be put in an institution. You didn’t believe him. You devoted your life to helping me, one little girl who was lucky enough to be your daughter. Those are times that no one but us can ever understand. You fought doctors so I could have the right physical therapy and medical care. You told my schools it was about time they started following the laws and never gave up until they became accessible. You battled cancer two more times, but it barely slowed you down. After I went away to school you continued your work, and you changed this community’s attitude towards people with disabilities.
I wish I could talk to you about all this, Mom, about all of the people here whose lives you touched. Many of us knew you well and loved you. Some others only met you briefly, but in that short time you touched their hearts. A few probably thought you were a real pain in the neck, because you stood up for what you believed in. But you stood up for what was right, and they know that now, and they admire you for it.
I know there’s nothing I can say that could really, somehow sum up your life in only a few words. You weren’t here very long, but you accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime.
I never really got to say goodbye and that’s hard for me. I know it must be hard for you, too. I think you wish that you had, and I know you’ll find a way. You were the bravest person I’ve ever known, and I know you never gave up. Your body just wasn’t strong enough for your spirit. But you’re free now. You don’t have a body to slow you down anymore, and I know your spirit is going to continue helping people, because that was what you lived for, that is who you are. We all carry a part of you with us, and we’ll never forget you.
Finally, I just wanted to say thank you, Mom, for everything. Thank you for loving me so much that you devoted your life to helping me and other people with disabilities. Thank you for cheering me on when I accomplished things and holding me when I cried. Thank you for understanding and supporting me when I moved across the country to, as you put it, seek my fortune. Thank you for being there for my graduation and for holding on long enough to know that I have a job and apartment. Thank you for never, ever giving up on me or yourself. You were an amazing person and I will miss you more than words can express. I love you, Mom.