My mother died too young.
As an only child, I always felt that I lived a charmed life. Everything revolved around me at home. I had two loving, attentive parents. I had everything I needed and most of what I wanted. They were good parents. And to be fair, I was a good kid. I can only hope that my boys are as easy through their teen years. There was no drama in our home. Any “issues” we’re kept away from me. It was a nearly perfect way to grow up.
But I grew up feeling invincible. As parents we don’t like to think about allowing our children to hurt, to feel loss, to see the unpleasantness that this world can bring. At the same time, growing up completely unprepared for the ugliness this world can throw at you isn’t ideal either. There is a balance that needs to be maintained and it seems a nearly impossible thing to do. I grew up, truly believing that I’d live a long illness-free life, that I’d marry and have children and be happy. That my kids would be normal and healthy and a joy to raise. That my parents would live long enough to see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and then die peacefully after many many years. I was naïve – happily and blissfully naïve.
As an only child, my birthday was always a major event. Mom loved to throw parties and she loved to celebrate the smallest of things. So when her daughter – her only daughter would turn another year older, it was a big deal. It was always significant, always important and always fun.
I turned 31 in January of 2001. My boys at this time were three and one. My mom, “Gram” considered my boys to be the greatest gift in her life. She had always wanted grandchildren and she was an amazing fixture in their lives. I loved the happiness that the boys brought to her life and the friendship that had developed between us. There was rarely a day that I didn’t talk to her. But on that day in January, my birthday came, and went. No call, no card, no….anything. I knew something was wrong. The next day, I called her and she was devastated. There were no excuses. She forgot. But I knew.
A few weeks later, Mom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – a horrible deadly disease usually reserved for smokers or those with uncontrollable acid reflux. Mom was neither. With only a 3% survival rate, things were bleak. She would try to fight it – do everything she could to survive but we all knew the odds. We all knew what we were up against and suddenly, I didn’t feel so invincible.
It was a year filled with both intense joy and intense pain. Walking through an illness like this with someone you love is life-changing. Perspective is easier. You become less afraid of life and you become less afraid of death. Just short of a year after her diagnosis – and two days after my 32nd birthday, Mom passed away. It affected me profoundly then and the lessons I learned continue to impact me today.
If I live as long as my mother lived, I have about fourteen years left on this planet. Just fourteen years. What should I do with those fourteen years? What should I not put off? What do I want to accomplish? What if I only have slightly more than a decade to spend with the people I love? If you had 14 years to live, what would you be doing differently right now? Would you be living life differently? Would you be procrastinating less?
Mom lived a beautiful life. She was able to do most of the things she wanted to do. Her biggest regret in death was that she would not be able to see her two young grandsons grow up. She regretted that they were too young to really remember her. She regretted that she wouldn’t be a central figure in their lives. She regretted leaving my dad and left me with specific instructions to not be too hard on the “new wife” – just not to let her have my mom’s “stuff”.
A few years ago, I came across a book that Mom had given me on the day that my first son was born. At the time, I was groggy from surgery and then busy with a baby and the book was never read. But it was a book about her. – hundreds of questions about her life that she had answered openly and honestly. One of the questions was about her biggest regret with me. With tear-filled eyes, I braced myself. What did my mother leave undone where I was concerned? In what way had I been a regret? Her answer was written in her beautiful flowing handwriting. So personal I could hear her saying the words…
”I never taught you how to cook.”