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This I Believe

KUHF-Houston Public Radio’s “This I Believe” with John Hardegree

John is a native of Tampa, Florida but he has lived in Houston for the last decade with his wife, who is a native Houstonian.  John’s essay is about a personal loss that involves a unique and defining memory.


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John lost his mother to breast cancer more than 20 years ago, but her memory is still very much alive.  His appreciation for her has grown with time, especially watching his own children mature.  John was just a young man when his mother died and her final days remain a powerful memory all these years later.  John created a web-based tribute page to his mother, who is the focus of his essay for KUHF’s This I Believe.

“I believe in the power of root beer.

I better explain.

I never really liked root beer, but my mother sure did.  I was always tickled by her child-like enthusiasm for it.

As a widow raising four children, my mother’s life was difficult.  But she kept us healthy and happy; taught us to be honest and hardworking; identified and praised the unique talents in each of us; and sometimes, allowed us a little glimpse of her shy, root beer-craving inner child.

I was fourteen when Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was only forty-three.  She fought cancer for nine years, with amazing strength and determination.  And somehow, she still found the time and strength to take great care of us while working full-time.

In Mom’s final year, her surgeon tearfully told us that all hope was lost.

Still, the battle continued for nine months.  Near the end morphine made her reasonably comfortable, but her mind returned to her childhood.

I was with her one night when she began stubbornly insisting she was thirsty, but refused to drink anything the nurses gave her.

Eventually, I thought of root beer.

I had to drive to a nearby store to get some but the result was magical.  When Mom tasted it she paused to smack her lips, smiled radiantly, and drained the cup dry.  Then she closed her eyes and slipped into a peaceful sleep and then, over the next few hours, into a coma.

She died a few days later and that little foam cup of root beer is the last thing she ever tasted.  But I always smile remembering how much she enjoyed it.

My mother loved me, cared for me and instilled in me a deep belief in goodness, honesty, kindness, courtesy, and responsibility.  She helped me understand that a man can cry and still be strong and that joy comes from helping others.  I miss her so much.  Losing her was a tragedy that still, after twenty-two years, sometimes feels unbearable.

But I kept that half-full bottle of root beer, the humble beverage that accessed my mother’s inner child and infused joy into devastating heartbreak. 

Grief and heartbreak are unavoidable.  I can’t escape them, but I can endure them, by collecting and treasuring the joy that is often revealed in small but powerful things—like root beer.

This, with all of my heart, I believe.”

Here’s a personal note John sent to This I Believe about his experience.

My wife and her family never knew my mother.  I didn’t grow up in Texas and none of my siblings live here so I find that the part of my life that coincided with my mother’s life can often feel like a dream or a story that happened to someone else.

My life is in turmoil right now.  I’ve been laid off from my job, my kids are grown and have moved to a different state and my wife and I are in the process of selling our house and moving into a smaller one.

Writing the “root beer” essay helped me renew my sense of connection to my past and provided a way for me to document, and thereby preserve an incident that deeply influenced my personal development.  It also served to remind me of my own strength and my demonstrated ability to endure hardship.  This has helped me to put the challenges I currently face into perspective.

Writing the essay was easy; editing it down to five hundred words was hard and at first, very frustrating—I didn’t want to leave out anything!  But I soon realized that editing my essay was even more therapeutic to me than writing the initial draft had been.  It forced me to carefully evaluate the events and feelings I was writing about and distill from them the essence of what it was that made those events so important to me.

A gem cutter understands the inherent value in the raw stone he is working with but is able to increase its value by carefully cutting it to enhance its clarity.  After many hours of work, I’m satisfied that The Power of Root Beer is well worth the effort needed to create it.

John Hardegree