My mom died yesterday, December 20, 2011. Ruthie and I were there holding her hands, telling her that we loved her. Telling her that she was the best possible mom.
She died the way I wish I could go when my time comes. Fearlessly. Painlessly. In love with the people around her. She had straightened out as many of life’s complex affairs as she possibly could, giving away a great many of her possessions, making sure she had a living will, making sure her beloved house in the mountains was closed up and safe.
She said no to any additional tests, chemotherapy or transfusions, knowing that they would do nothing but prolong a very uncomfortable life. She took nothing for pain besides Tylenol until the day before she died.
The very last words I heard her say were, “I love you,” before she could talk no more. She was more concerned for those around her than for her own personal comfort. She was modest until the very end, declining my help in getting her into the bathroom when she could barely walk.
“Don’t cry,” she told me recently. “You can’t be sad.” But she herself did cry sometimes. She worried about all that she would miss; graduations, family relationships, the happiness and accomplishments of others, seeing her grandkids grow up. Several times in the last month, when it was clear that she didn’t have much time left, on the rare occasion when she allowed herself to be sad, she said, “I just want to know how it all turns out.”
But it never really turns out, does it? Life is just so complicated; families and friends just keep spinning out and out. Life is a process, a journey. It builds in complexity until the end.
You could never say good-bye to everyone you want to, make sure that all life’s accounts are closed, every possession is passed on. But she came close. She worked at it.
And until right before she left us, she laughed and reminisced, loved and received love. I am a better man for having known this remarkable woman. All of us who knew her are better off. As I write this, hovering over my writer’s notebook, somewhere between Albuquerque, New Mexico and my South Carolina home, many of my mom’s lessons are coming to me.
Here is a list of some simple truths and bits of wisdom that she passed on through her words and actions. There is no order here. I am too sad for order. But my sadness is softened by the knowledge that she left this world a better place.
My mom, ever the teacher, did more than teach me how to live a good life. Through her grace and humility, her courage and her openness, she even taught me how to die.
I could write for the rest of my life and never capture her essence, and if I have any good qualities, I learned them from her. While this is the saddest time I have known, I am grateful to have had this strong, simply good woman in my life for 54 years.
Lessons From My Mother
· Be thrifty. Our blessings can be more efficiently shared if we are careful with our resources
· Be generous
· Find your causes and follow through with them
· Give a lot – not just money but time and energy
· Find new friends wherever you are
· Remember to stay in touch with old friends
· Love nature. Spend time in the woods and near water
· Leave a small carbon footprint
· Recycle everything you can
· Walk a lot
· Write real letters with pen and paper
· Don’t collect too much stuff
· Find reasons to laugh
· Love a lot of people
· Keep up with current events
· Have an informed opinion about social issues and politics
· Be active politically
· Be honest and sincere
· Forgive easily
· Work to make the changes you want to see in this world
· Stand up for those whose voice has been silenced
· Keep your hands busy doing things for others
· Don’t waste time on sadness, but cry when you need to
· Read constantly
· Don’t give a book you haven’t read
· Don’t hold on to a book if you have read it
· Discuss books that move you
· Appreciate music and all of the arts
· Be creative
· Never stop learning or teaching
· Understand that a person’s worth is directly related to their willingness to serve others
· Tidy up after yourself – don’t leave a mess for others to clean up
· Say “I love you” often and mean it
· When something bad happens move on to the next chapter
· Listen carefully when someone is speaking to you
· Appreciate life’s simple pleasures
· Enjoy spending time with children
· Be modest and self-deprecating
· Have a strong work ethic
· Wake up early – some of the best conversations happen before sunrise