Dear Shirley Ann Baniewicz,

I’m not rich. I can’t buy you your own Red Corvette yet, so I’m going to do the best I can. Without spending a dime, I can tell the rest of the world about how much I love you, and why they should love you too.

First off, I want to be a better man just to make you proud. It’s the least I can do for the best mother in the world.

You were the first person in your family tree to go to college. You paved that road with your own sweat, but you never patted yourself on the back. Your own mother, Georgia Vanek, was a strong woman, and she passed that trait on to you. She’s gone now, which makes you the strongest woman I know. You might not feel that way anymore, but the woman you are taught me how to be a man.

With three young kids, you worked to put my father through medical school. Failure wasn’t an option, and you broke your back to put us all in a better position. You were the calm in every storm imaginable. The older I get, the more I appreciate you.

You taught me that happiness is a choice, whether you realize it or not.

We moved a lot as a family. Every three years or so growing up, I dealt with relocation. Thanks to you, it was always a fun new adventure. You could make Egg Drop noodle soup sound like a meal fit for a king, but I didn’t realize it was because all of our bowls were in a box moving to a foreign part of the country. I never had time to worry about what was next because you were always there to assure me that things were fine. Thanks to you, when my feet landed in a new place, I always felt they would be on greener grass.

You were always there for me, in every sense of the phrase. It’s more than just putting bandages on scraped knees and making sure I had crackers, cheese and pepperoni in the lunch bag (because I didn’t like sandwiches).

You talked to me about falling in love, then wiped my tears when my heart was eventually broken for the first time. You cheered me on at football games, even though you worried every time the ball was snapped that my spine would snap with it. You drove me to countless dates, taught me how to shave (with a pink Venus razor), watched late night basketball games with me on TNT and taught me about life.

Of all the experiences we shared, I always go back to that same mud hole in Ashtabula, Ohio.

We thought it would be a good idea to take your brother Mick’s 4-wheeler out for a spin through the woods. You gave your genetic confidence to me, and it ended up turning into hubris in one of our more comedic dramas.

Riding through the forest, dodging branches that tried to hit us in the face, we were completely alone. The ride out was great, but we didn’t plan for the ride back. It’s always the things you don’t plan for that you learn from the most. I learned that from you.

After ranging out far and wide, it was time to make our way back to your childhood home, the house your father built with his own hands. The only problem was, there was a mudhole and an incline that tried to keep us out in the woods forever. There was no going around the uphill sludge, so we had to hunker down and figure out a solution. Instead of shouting, cursing or getting angry, you turned it into a game.

We started looking for branches. In order to get the 4-wheeler out of the muck, we had to give the tires something to grab onto. We snapped limps off trees, rocking the vehicle back and forth to stack the branches underneath. After about an hour of work, we finally got out of our jam. We were covered in mud and bug bites, on the brink of exhaustion, and the sun was setting.

It was at that exact moment that I looked down at the handlebars and saw the switch to change it from 2-wheel drive to 4-wheel drive. That was all we needed the whole time, and it was like the world pointed it out to me after watching us both struggle. I passed on my epiphany to you, and we howled with laughter, in the middle of the forest, with nobody around. After that, we drove back in with smiles on our faces, and nobody else ever knew…until now.

The reason I’ve held onto that story for the rest of my life is simple: life is what you make of it.

Without you as a mother, I couldn’t roll with the punches. When I see storm clouds, the first thing I look for are the silver linings or the rainbows that are sure to be peaking out behind the gray. Life is a game to be won, not a burden to bare. You taught me that. It’s why I smile when I wake up in the morning.

You’re better than any professor, mentor or sage. You’re my mother, and I’m the luckiest man ever to be called your son.

I love you.