“This is a love story, and it happened because of a simple, handwritten love note to a stranger. Oh… and it happened because of freaking cancer! My whole life changed in an instant when my mother (my best friend!) was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—an incurable, albeit treatable, form of cancer. She was just weeks into her retirement when the disease struck from out of the blue, and suddenly, life as we knew it was never the same. Her name was Esperanza, which means ‘hope’ in Spanish. If you knew her, you’d agree the name was a fitting handle for such a small, but fiercely good woman. Not only was she my best friend, but she was my finest example of a lady, of a mother and, more importantly, of a human being. The thought of losing her was unbearable.
Over the next several months, I went into survival mode. There were doctor appointments, chemotherapy treatments and, after awhile, the occasional kick in the teeth when mom would buck the system and resist both. I was in the business of bargaining with my mother, doing exactly what she had done with me, her only daughter, my whole life—pushing me to be a better woman. Our roles had reversed and it was unnerving, to say the least. I cannot put into words how uncomfortable (Read: Impossible!) it is to see the strongest woman you know give up hope. However, I knew if the shoe had been on the other foot, and she had been the one caring for me, she never would have let that happen—not in a million years.
Mom was living with me, and in order to be there for her as best I could, I quit my job at Arizona State University and started substitute teaching part-time. I needed more flexibility in my schedule to care for her properly. I was a divorced empty-nester. My boys were grown and out of the house. It was just mom and me. There were days when I would curl up on my couch, contemplating my life… all the while wondering if my ship had somehow sailed without me. I felt trapped and troubled, and because of that (and the fact I was raised Catholic) I felt guilty. This was my mother; caring for her was the least I could do.
On Valentine’s Day 2016, Mom was in a full-blown depression. She wasn’t eating. She wouldn’t come out of her room. At that point, I was catering to her every whim. That is to say, I was spoiling her rotten, treating her like a princess. I was running to the store for fudgesicles, bathing her, rubbing her down with lavender lotion at night, and doing my damnedest to give her hope. The chemotherapy was a light dose. She hadn’t lost her hair, but she was losing steam and fast. While I hate to admit it, I was losing patience. As I mentioned, it was Valentine’s Day. I was terminally single and nearly in tears. There was simply no chance for romance. The love of my life was dying of cancer, and there was nothing I could do about it.
In that moment, it occurred to me I was not acting like the woman my mother raised me to be. I was acting like a victim, succumbing to my own fears and worries and disappointments. So, I took a deep breath and stood to my feet. I marched into her bedroom and demanded she get dressed and meet me at the kitchen table. To be honest, I didn’t think she would, but she did. I then spilled a large pile of blank thank you cards onto my pub-style table—cute notes I had always intended on writing, but never did.
Over the next couple of hours, we wrote 50 thank yous to veterans and first responders. It opened up a conversation that led straight to my life’s purpose, and I haven’t looked back since. The next thing I knew, we were loaded up in my Jeep. For the next three hours, we drove around town looking for these individuals: veterans, firefighters, and police officers. When we’d find them, we’d pull over and leave the note on their car, or we’d stop them in their tracks and personally hand them the note.
That was my favorite part because it opened up conversations with these heroes, our community. By the time Mom and I returned home that day, we were both smiling and laughing and connecting with life and each other again. So, we started writing thank you notes every day, as well as handing them out. We called them ‘Love Notes,’ and those love notes gave us both a purpose outside of the battle we were fighting. That purpose was a game-changer.
One of the first interactions I had with a United States Army veteran convinced me we were on to something special. We had been handing out Love Notes for a few months. I was coming out of the grocery store when I saw a truck with veteran plates parked in front of the store. With my arms loaded down with groceries, I rifled through my purse and pulled out a Love Note. Not realizing the veteran, himself, and his pregnant wife were standing nearby, I placed the note beneath the windshield wiper of the truck and walked away. In a loud, angry, salty voice, I heard the veteran exclaim, ‘What in the hell did she leave on my truck?’
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I didn’t even bother looking back. I just booked it back to my mom’s car. As I began putting the groceries in the trunk, I looked up and saw this big, muscle-bound man barreling towards me. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was reduced to a deer in the headlights. By the time he got to me, his blue eyes were wet. He grabbed me up into a great big, bear hug and said, ‘Thank you! I just had the worst day.’
As it turned out, this veteran suffers from PTSD brought on by an ambush in Iraq—nightmares, headaches, trust issues, you name it. And this little love note turned his day (and his life) around. His name is JD and, to this day, he, his wife, and their young son are like family to me. They both travel to speak with me on the power of gratitude. I can’t tell you how many grown men have been brought to tears because of a simple handwritten Love Note—Marines, cops, firefighters, and soldiers from just about every war. Who would have thought something so simple could have such a profound effect on people’s lives?
On her deathbed, my mother made me promise I would continue on this Love Note writing journey. She recognized the value in it. We both did. It changed everything for the two of us, to say nothing of those heroes we’ve connected with over the years. One day, she smiled and said, ‘This is a good thing, Natalie, but you may be single for a long while. There is not a man alive who is going to understand what it is you do… writing love notes to hero types.’
Me, being the hopeless romantic I am, disagreed wholeheartedly. As her only daughter, it was practically my job to put up an argument. ‘Oh, don’t you worry!’ I said confidently, even though I had no idea who or where he was. ‘There’s a man out there for me.’
‘I’m not worried,’ she whispered. ‘I know there is someone out there for you, someone who is going to take good care of you, and it won’t be who you expect.’
I was comforted by her confidence, because the truth was, I was scared. I was losing my mother, my voice of reason. My boys were grown and out of the nest. I would soon be alone in a house, and in a life, for that matter, that no longer fit. The truth was, I was terrified. But, I am nothing if not a woman of great faith, so I never let on that I wouldn’t be okay without her.
My mom passed away on October 11, 2017, just more than two years from the day she was diagnosed. She died on her own terms—gracefully, just as she had lived. Having been at her bedside, I no longer fear death. The thing I fear most of all is not living my best life, not doing as much as I can to add value to this life and to the people in it. So, I pushed the envelope—literally and figuratively. I continued handwriting Love Notes and hand-delivering them to our nation’s best and bravest, no matter how much my heart hurt. I encouraged others to jump on board. It was my goal to make it a movement. Suddenly, after 20,000+ Love Notes, respectively and collectively, I was well-connected in my community.
I was invited to ride along with local police and fire. I was invited to speak at schools and to role play for SWAT and police trainings. I was invited to fundraising events, high school football games, and welcomed into the arms of some of my greatest allies—police wives and first responders. I was even asked to fry chicken at a fire station for firefighters!
That was nerve-wrecking. The media caught wind of my movement, and the idea of Love Notes was catching fire. I had come a long way since that day I was feeling sorry for myself on the couch. I was giving and receiving in ways I never could have imagined. None of that would have happened if I had stayed stuck on that couch. My only wish was my mother could have seen how it all turned out, especially when the man I’d been praying for, the man she said did not exist, showed up.
He literally and, quite unassumingly, I might add, walked into my life wearing boots, a tee shirt, and blue jeans. I never even saw him coming. We met through a mutual friend. She brought him to one of my events—a high school football game where I had been named honorary team captain for First Responder Night. His name is Christopher. He’s a retired street cop. I gave him a Love Note that night, and a few months later we crossed paths again at another event.
We got to talking about a book he had written, tales from his 20+ years in law enforcement and a gunfight that took the life of a fellow officer and pretty much ended his career. Being a writer myself, I offered to help him get published. Somewhere in those pages (and in the time we spent together), we fell in love and moved to California to live out our days at the ocean’s edge. I am amazed at how neatly our purposes in life tie together and how happy we are to have found each other. Make no mistake, it wasn’t an accident. After everything that has come to pass because of a handwritten Love Note to a stranger, I no longer believe in accidents. Chris and I were destined to meet.
He looks at me like I’m magical. He calls me his unicorn, but he is mine. Mom said men like him didn’t exist, but he has proven her wrong—and that is hard to do. Chris is a good, strong, protective, and loving man. She would have definitely approved. As a matter of fact, being that she is my angel, I’m not convinced she didn’t have something to do with his presence in my life. I know, for a fact, a little Love Note had something to do with it.
On top of which, last October, because of all the Love Notes written for our local law enforcement, I was invited to be a guest at the Police Officers’ Ball by a good cop and his gorgeous wife. This was my quintessential Cinderella moment, the pièce de résistance. It was a symbol my life’s purpose was, indeed, on point. And it was proof when you keep your chin up throughout life’s toughest times, and you focus on all that is good, dreams do come true. A life of gratitude is the greatest fairy godmother of all time!”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Natalie June Reilly of Oceanside, CA. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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