My best friend Mike has traveled home to Rhode Island to bury his mother, Barbara Ricci. She was a strong willed woman, born in the early 1930s. She was proud of her Irish stock and a mother of five boys. One had died in infancy, the other four all accomplished, proud men. In many ways, she left on her own terms and after a long hospital stay. She also left behind her husband of 55 years, Pete. Her husband worked to provide shelter and food. It was Barbara’s ‘job’ to convert the house into a home and the food into a lifetime of memories, lessons, and celebrations. She was really accomplished at that. If you needed to be strong to raise four boys, she was like steel. Sharp wit and on occasion a sharper tongue, she knew who and what she was. When she was angry she was loud, but then just like a passing thunderstorm, it passed. Then the sun came out and the rainbow appeared. Barbara was one of those rare constants in life: always there when you needed her, direct, candid, caring, and brusque. I, personally owe her a great debt of gratitude because gave me a great life gift, a best friend, Mike.

Her son is eleven years younger than I am. We met swimming. We became friends and I had the privilege of ‘mentoring’ Mike. Despite his Mom objections and concerns, with a significant amount of encouragement and support from me, Mike went West and created a new life for himself in Boulder Colorado. He built a successful triathlon coaching company, D3 Multisport; married Melanie; and had a daughter, Hope. His mother, who always said she wanted to make sure “Michael” was settled, before she passed, saw that and more. Hope is the perfect name for her granddaughter.

As with all great friendships, each person ends up with more than they contribute. It is the best example of the whole being so much more than the sum of the parts. Mike has been a great listener and sounding board for me for years. Through his direction, I was able to train injury free and complete an Ironman. (My Boston Marathon time was only 10 minutes faster than my Ironman Marathon time—he knew my capabilities much better than I.) Each time we talk or see each other, I am reminded how great a life gift he is. Thanks Barbara!

After Barbara’s funeral Mike was helping his brothers, organize his mother and fathers things. She had as most children of the great depression, saved quarters, one from each state for each of her sons. She was a woman who was not owned by things, but rather owned a life of rich memories. The few special personal possessions were clearly marked as to whom would enjoy them next. What she leaves behind is amazing.

Mike found a drawer in her desk. In it were four letters and a fax. These were written witnesses to who she was and what she meant to the people who loved her. Each was delivered at a life ‘fork in the road.’ The first was from her son Kevin when he left Rhode Island to move to Maryland. It was a thank you letter and an explanation. She saved it. The fax was from her son Kevin announcing the arrival of her first grand daughter, noteworthy given Barbara’s five sons and six grandsons. (The story is that it was sent to her place of work, and one of her co-workers told her what the fax said before she saw. It did not matter to Barbara, she was a proud grandmother). The third letter was a letter from my friend Mike when he left for Colorado. He told his mother, that he would always be her son, regardless of geography. While he was leaving Rhode Island, the memories of home were warm and wonderful. He had learned unconditional love from his parents. He had also learned choices have costs. He had learned to be a man. He particularly wanted his mother to know that he was traveling to discover his life. He was not leaving to leave, but rather to explore. Barbara knew already, but the thank you obviously meant a lot.

The third letter was from me. In some ways it was an apology, as I had really challenged Mike to seek his future. His mother was not impressed. How can you go West without a job, a home, etc? “You do not know anyone.” It had been my suggestion that this was an experiment. He had no responsibilities and this might be the only time in life that he could just go. If it did not work, Mike could come home, but he needed to do this. It would be sad to be an old man and look back and say: “I had a chance, but did not take it.” I also shared with her how much I had learned from her son. What was striking and a great life lesson, is that he taught me that people younger than I could teach many great life lessons. In short, I thanked her for raising a special person and a great friend. I also told her not to worry.

The fourth letter was from her daughter-in law after she and Barbara’s son had divorced. It was a great thank you to Barbara for being a great mother-in-law and a great grandmother. It was a special thing to do, and a lesson. Divorce changes many relationships, but it not required that divorce end relationships. The marriage may end, but the family can still be a family.

There is a larger message in this story: Take the time to celebrate the gift of each other. Take time to thank those people who we live with and see everyday. It is important to appreciate friends and family, and it is important to be appreciated. Finally, you do not know how much a simple phone call or a short thank you note will mean to another person. It is an honor to be a witness to a great mom. It is an honor to be a friend of her son. It is an honor to have known Barbara Ricci!