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A Mother Reflects on her Daughter's Legacy After a Tragic Accident 

click to enlarge Mary Harris
  • Mary Harris

During her sophomore year in high school, my daughter Mary did a project for Three Democracies, her history and philosophy class. Her teacher asked students to write a paper about a virtue that was important to them. Mary wrote hers on kindness. Parents were invited to school one evening to hear the kids present their work in a public-speaking format.

As Mary stood to read her paper, panic took control of her body, and she started to cry. Heavy, uncontrollable tears rolled down her cheeks, and she ran out of the classroom. Her teacher followed, with me right behind. As I stood in the hallway, holding Mary in my arms, I could feel her pain. We're a family of seven and have a tendency to bicker with each other, as large families often do. I think seeing her father and me in front of her that evening was emotional for Mary because she had a message she wanted us to hear.

As I wiped tears from my daughter's eyes, I felt her body relax. I told her how proud of her I was. We walked back into the classroom, and I took my seat. Mary apologized to the class and began to read. She looked into my eyes during the entire speech, willing me to understand the importance of her words. I knew she was sending me a message — to be kinder, listen more and fight less.

Mary's speech read, in part:

I believe it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice, which every person has the ability to do. You have the ability to be kind, you have the ability to help others be happy, to be proud and confident, you have the ability to change someone's day, you have the ability to change someone's life through something as simple as a kind smile, a good laugh, five extra seconds to hold a door open, or give a quick compliment. Kindness is positive, positivity leads to good decisions, good decisions lead to happiness, and happiness is the best feeling in the world. So I ask you to be kind. Be compassionate. Be respectful. Be selfless. Because without kindness, what is the point?

On October 8th, 2016, six months after Mary delivered those words, her life was taken, along with the lives of four of her closest friends, by a wrong-way driver as they drove home from a concert at Higher Ground. Three hours after I found out my daughter had been killed, I was sitting in her room and reached into a pile of her important belongings. On the very top was an acrylic painting of an octopus I had made for her. Just underneath it, I found Mary's speech on kindness.

I knew the second I saw it that she had left it there for me to find that morning. I knew she would have wanted me to share it at her funeral and with all those close to us — as if to say that, in the wake of this monumental loss, we are not to lose sight of the goodness that surrounds us. That we must choose love, spread kindness and stay away from the anger that wants to seep into our souls when the tragic and unforeseeable happens.

The morning after Mary died, 200 friends and community members showed up at our house. I've received probably 100 handwritten letters from Mary's classmates, telling stories about how awesome she was. But, despite this outpouring of support, the past 14 months have been extremely hard. I still feel like Mary is going to pull in the driveway, returning home from soccer practice. At night, I cry myself to sleep. Mary would have been a high school senior; dozens of college brochures have been sent to our house in the past year. Would they stop coming, please?— I sometimes think.

Mary had plans to be a pediatric surgeon so she could save children's lives. She wished to attend the University of Vermont, because she thought it was a great school and wanted to be close to home and her family.

The most painful part of losing Mary is thinking of her smiling up at me, saying, "I love you, Mom" and hugging me. But, in my loss, I have realized that without compassion, love and kindness, what is the point? Every day, I try to think about how I can be kinder and more loving.

When people look at me, I want them to see that when bad things happen, it's possible to pick up your feet and move forward. I want to show them that even when your world is turned upside down, there is always something worth living for. I want to wake up every day and smile at the beauty of my children, laugh with them, watch them score goals, lie in bed with them and wipe their tears away when we share our memories of Mary, and smile about all the love she shared with us.

In the days after Mary's death, I created the hashtag #lovelikemary on social media. It was a way for me to say that Mary is still here in this world and to share her love with those of us left behind. A friend printed the phrase on stickers that have been plastered near and far, from school lockers to soccer team buckets to a ski lodge in Europe. When people mourn the loss of Mary and her friends, I hope these simple words help them remember Mary's smile, her zest for life and her love.

Losing Mary has made me more cautious, but not in the ways one might think. I'm not overly protective of my kids getting into a car and going out to a concert at night, but I am more conscious of their pain and more sensitive to their needs and individuality. My greatest hope as a mother is that all of my children feel my love, that they never forget how much their sister adored them and that they spread kindness as they walk through their lives. That they remember, like Mary always did, that "it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice." 

Liz Mays Harris is in the process of creating the #lovelikemary Foundation, which will host therapeutic outdoor retreats for families who have suffered trauma. She is working on a book about her family's experience.

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