Rather than a purely financial story, today I’m sharing a much more personal one. It goes back to the last ever birthday present my mom ever gave me. Two days ago was my 37th birthday, which reminded me of this story, and how unexpected a last gift can be.
I’ve written a lot about my mom. She delivered newspapers with my dad to help save money for our first house (which I rode along asleep in the back seat). She went back and graduated from law school in her 40s. Then she passed away 2 months after I graduated college, leaving me with a $100k inheritance and me as an unexpected landlord at age 23.
The year after she passed was the hardest year of my life.
While working my first “real” job as a web programmer, I spent the entire next year driving the 2 hours from Orlando to St. Petersburg, FL every weekend. I’d head there Friday after work, leaving late into the night to avoid traffic. I’d spend weekends sorting through as many of her possessions as possible while preparing the house that I grew up in to be put on the real estate market.
Anyone who has ever had to go through a loved one’s life can understand how emotionally taxing this experience is. Every room in the house requires hundreds of decisions – “Should I keep this?”, “Should I give this away?”, “Should I throw this away?”, “Would someone else who loved her want this?”.
If you ever have a friend or loved one in this position, my advice to you is to not ask them questions. Even answering “How can I help?” was emotionally draining for me at this stage. Offer to bring over food, take them out for a dinner, or just ask them to head out somewhere together – but give them one less decision to make.
My mom passed away in August, and I started going through her house the same month. My job was nice enough to let me take 3 weeks off work – which were paid but did put into negative vacation time. I spent those weeks living there and going through her possessions from morning to night. That was not nearly enough time, and the following weekends became my new normal. Being an only-child is tough – especially when your other parent is going through a health crisis of their own.
One weekend would be spent going through the office, another weekend going through an attic, another one through the kitchen. I’d spend a lot of time moving things into various piles to box up or lug to Goodwill later.
The very last room that I decided to go through was my mom’s bedroom. Doing this first would’ve been too emotional, so I’m glad I waited until the end for it. It took until the following May, 9 months after she passed before I’d started on her room.
The weekend after my birthday I headed out to St. Pete yet again to go through more of her life, knowing I’d be tackling her bedroom during this trip.
I opened up her closet and began going through it. Having the entire house to herself, she had claimed a bigger closet in another room for clothes, leaving this closet just for suitcases and a few purses.
One reason why it had taken so long to go through her household is that it was a 2,500, 2-floor house with a 2 car garage. On top of that, I also made sure to check everything – shake out every book, open every container and explore every box. I went through the same routine with her luggage.
I pulled out her familiar large purple suitcase and began going through all the pockets. Nothing in the main storage area. Nothing in the lining. Nothing in the mesh pockets inside. Nothing in the larger outside pocket.
But…. something in the smaller outside pocket?
I fished out something and realized it was a deposit envelope from her bank – the kind you fold off at the top and drop in a nightly deposit box.
It had a little weight to it, so I knew it wasn’t empty. I turned it over in my hand and looked for any indication of what it was I was looking at. What I read floored me.
Adam to Japan Fund
That broke me. My mom and I had talked for years about heading to Japan for a trip together after I graduated college. The summer after I had gone straight to work and we hadn’t had the chance. But there it was, my mom had planned for us to go all along and had even begun saving for it.
Here I was, a few days after my first birthday since she passed and somehow she’d found a way to give me a last birthday present.
I immediately broke down in tears at the thought of my mom planning a surprise for me that required her to save for over many months. The shock of finding this gift on the same week as my first birthday after she died made it hit my heart that much harder.
When I opened the envelope I found over $1,000 in cash! She had a small ledger on the side detailing times she’d added more money in – showing it wasn’t a one-off idea but a long-term plan to surprise me.
I never got to go on this trip with her. It wasn’t until years later when I was 30 years old that Mrs. Minafi and I finally traveled outside the country. We spent our 20s traveling domestically – road trips and shorter stays in cities with family. We had the funds to travel abroad, but we were naturally frugal and hadn’t yet developed the travel bug.
A little bit later we decided to take my mom up on her offer and went on a 2-week trip to Japan, staying in Kyoto, Hakone, and Tokyo. I wrote about the trip on my personal blog (which I don’t currently post on, but used to), complete with about 1,000 photos from our time there. Here are a few of my favorites from that trip.
It was our first trip to Asia, but it wouldn’t be our last. We’ve since been back to Japan a second time and we went to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for our honeymoon. That first trip was something special though. Not just because it was the first time we experienced an entirely new culture, but because it felt like a gift that Mrs. Minafi and I were able to enjoy together, and I know my mom would have loved it.