August 12, 2020

Messages from...not Beyond, but Near...the Grave

I recently wrote about an experience with my 98-year old mother that touched me deeply.

I know how lucky I am to have had her for so long. She has been a teacher and a role model for me for decades and she still is.

For the last five years, I have called her almost every day. She said I didn't have to check on her. I told her I wasn't calling to check on her. I was calling because I liked talking to her.

Here are the three things she most frequently reminds me of during our calls. They are like lighthouses keeping me off the rocks.

"Keep at it." This could be the motto for her life. She has lived through everything Life can throw at someone. Her mom died when she was two. She grew up poor, was ten years old during the depression and on government provided food and rent subsidies, never went to college, worked three jobs and she was still licking and sticking S&H green stamps into books in the 70's to get little extra things for her family. She lost a baby due to an ectopic pregnancy and almost died herself. She lived through---depending on how you count them---five wars, the political and civil unrest of the 60s and again today, interest rates of nearly 20%, and now a pandemic. Oh, and at 98, she also gets to experience and live with, as Shakespeare quipped, "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."

How did/does she do it? She just kept going. Just handled the next thing. "Next Play!" as the Duke Basketball coaches implore. No matter how difficult the situation and how tough things looked, she kept at it, and she implores me to do the same. Her "it always gets better, and it will this time too," is a good reminder to take the long view.

"What will be will be." Her Catholic faith was the foundation for the way she lived and everything she tried to teach her children. She was a big believer in hard work, accepting personal responsibility, and controlling whatever you could control.  But she also recognized that outcomes were often out of your hands and in the hands of her understanding of God.

Even though she never heard Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, she is a Stoic:  "While you can't always control the outcome, you can control your attitude." Take your lumps, deal, and "keep at it."

"Enjoy your life." This one always shakes me the most. When she says this, there is always a wistfulness in her voice. My Mom is near the end. With failing faculties, her activities are limited and her days mostly the same.

All those tough times she had? That was Life! It is not coming back and she knows it. And she would give anything to be back on the field again, winning some and losing others...just back in the battle. She reminds me to enjoy it...all of it. Don't miss Life, waiting for something better. "Just this," as they say in Zen. Just this.

I said her faculties were failing, but not all the time. She still gets on the field occasionally and swings a pretty good bat.

My 17-year old son recently got a speeding ticket and my Mom was none to happy about that, especially when she heard how fast he was going. She told him, "I have sent you money every year for your birthday, but I am not sending you any this year. I don't want my gift to you being used to pay for a speeding ticket. That's something you need to pay for yourself."

Clear on her values around personal responsibility. Check.

Unafraid to wade in on an something that she thinks is wrong, even if it means disappointing a beloved Grandson. Check.

Now you might disagree with her choice...thought she was too hard or that it was none of her business...everyone, of course, handles situations like this differently.

But I admire how her values are not just air, but backed by actions and also how she walks her talk, right to the very end.

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