My mother died when I was 35. She was 63 and died of a heart attack on her way to work. She probably did not know what hit her – it all happened so fast. At that point in my life, I had just started a new job and I had not really experienced the death of anyone up close and personally. I had lost my grandfather the year before but he was in a nursing home and was 93 years old. Not only was my mother’s death sudden, she was unprepared to die; she had not yet filed her taxes. We had no idea what her thoughts and wishes were and her “affairs” were a mess. Thankfully, she had a will and the estate was not too complex. I was named the executrix. She was divorced many years earlier, I lived reasonably close to her and I worked in financial services so she must have thought I could handle it. In hindsight, being the executrix may have helped me deal with the sorrow and pain of her death.
My mom was very smart, and quite funny. She was also an optimist who did not have regrets and didn’t dwell on things. I like to think I that these personality traits are some of the better ones I inherited from her.
When you experience the death of a parent, especially at a fairly young age, you begin to realize that you are next in line and that life is short. I realized it is important to enjoy every day. You never know when your time is up.
One of my favorite writers is Anna Quindlen. She also lost her mother at a young age and it colors a lot of her writing. Thank goodness I had been a long time reader of her opinion column in the New York Times at the time of my mother’s death. Some of her thoughts on life are below:
Anna Quindlen, the bestselling novelist and columnist, reflects on what it takes to “get a life”—to live deeply every day and from your own unique self, rather than merely to exist through your days. “Knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us,” I've been living with mortality for decades, since my mother died of ovarian cancer when she was forty and I was nineteen. And this is what I learned from that experience: The knowledge of our own mortality is that greatest gift God ever gives us.
It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids' eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live.
“But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
“Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money that you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.”
“All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.”
“Life is short. Remember that, too.”
“I've always known this. Or almost always”
These lessons were also my mother’s lessons. Her mother died young from cancer so she knew about the value of life as well. Anna Quindlen puts those thoughts into words in a very special way.
Having cancer is a wake up call for most people. Some people use the diagnosis to live better lives and others don’t. My wake up call was when my mother died; the cancer diagnosis was not quite as big a deal. My first vacation after my diagnosis was a trip to Northern Finland because I wanted to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) before I died. We went to a small town called Nellim and saw the Aurora in all its glory on two different nights; we also went dog sledding which was not on my “bucket list” but was a lot of fun.
In October, I will be going on a vacation to Yosemite. I love being outdoors and in my opinion, the national parks are a small slice of heaven. I also like it when I have the vacation already booked because then I can look forward to the time off.
Life is so busy. Sometimes I feel like I am playing beat the clock! As I rush through my frenzied life, I always take time off to enjoy the things I really love – family, friends and vacations. I will always take the time to see a friend for lunch, even if I am having a busy day at work. I always use my vacation time because in my opinion, that is why we work. My motto is to be grateful for life. Consider the alternative.