Not long before her death, my mother apologized to me for getting cancer. She'd wanted so badly to be around for my daughter, she told me. I was speechless.

My mom died when the Little Girl was nearly 4, so my daughter has a hard time remembering her. I share photos and stories, and I work to keep something in the child's head about a woman who loved her with a tender ferocity that I could never adequately describe.

When the Little Girl first came from Guatemala, my mother summoned the extended family to a party at a restaurant. Everyone in the room was related by blood or marriage. My mom wanted them all to know that by her declaration, this child was family, too.

Even as a toddler, my daughter understood the power the woman wielded. I once scolded the Little Girl for a minor offense in my mother's house. Staring directly at me, my daughter marched directly into my mother's arms, nearly disappearing in her apron and housedress. Then the little one peered at me, smirking, as the Queen's arms slipped around her, protecting her like Patton's army. The look on my mom's face said that the issue was ended.

"I was just thinking about her," my mom would begin phone conversations with me. "Tell me what she did today." It'd be around the time that she was signing off when she'd remember to ask, "By the way, how are you?"

These days, when I have to make a decision about my daughter, I swear – I absolutely swear – that I can hear my mom's voice in my head, telling me the right thing to do.

I expect that my daughter and I will be hearing from my mom for a lot of years to come. With Italian-American mothers, death is only the beginning of the conversation.