A few days after writing one of the first articles I posted here, I flew back to Chicago to see my mom, who was sick and in the hospital with cancer. This was not a new development. After her first bout with cancer, it appeared again six short months later. At this point, she was in the hospital more than she was out of it, and things were looking worse then ever. Far worse.
It was one of those “take the next flight out” situations, and I did. About 12 hours after I arrived, she took her last breath. And that was a year ago today.
* * *
Perhaps the most striking thing in the last years of my mom’s life was her decision to earn her undergraduate degree (which she never got while young). She spent the last few years of her life in classrooms with students her childrens’ age, and at the end of those years, walked across the stage as the top student in the Communications Department.
Her first battle against cancer came shortly thereafter, but she was hardly off chemo before she was sending applications to grad schools. I was impressed and proud. Unfortunately, she was not a month into her classes when she had to email her professors to take some time off– the cancer was back.
Frankly, I have no idea what it’s like to tell your boss you’re taking time off to suffer through a life-threatening disease. She did. I have no idea what it’s like to pick out your gravesite. She knows. Designing your own tombstone? Amateur artist to the last, my mom sure did. And I’ve never thought I was going to die for more than a few minutes. To live with that specter for months requires a courage that I am boundlessly impressed to see in anyone, and deeply proud to see in the woman from whom I came.
Without anger, without fear, without depression, she lived her life to the last day. She clung to God like a toddler to his mother’s leg, and I only hope He has her now.
* * *
Having a list of life goals is a great thing. Clearly this life is temporary; it makes sense to do the most you can with it. I would choose no better way to treat yourself than to improve yourself. But still, no matter how many awesome things you accomplish for yourself, none of it can make you live forever.
One of the last conversations I had with my mom was about her plans if she survived this (second) bout with cancer. What do you think you’d do?, I asked. I didn’t necessarily mean career-wise, but that is how she interpreted the question.
I don’t want to be a writer anymore. But I don’t know what I’d do… something to help people, she suggested. Help people!? Her biggest book idea was on her struggle with cancer and what she learned from it. How did she figure that wouldn’t be enough help already?
I don’t know, and I don’t know if I can know and I don’t know if I’ll ever know. What she had gone through was not what I’ve gone through. I suspect that somewhere in the midst of a drawn-out illness, life either beats out of you your will to live, or your will to live for yourself. For my mom, it was the latter. She was purer than I could possibly comprehend. Were we all so lucky!
A few hours before she died, I remember pacing back and forth in the hospital room. I was exhausted. No endeavor seemed worthwhile. I was scaring myself. If death was so heavy on our horizon, what had meaning at all?
There are few things that do, and living for yourself isn’t one of them. Living for others is. Nothing you can possibly accomplish, no matter how hard you try and how famous you become, will ever guarantee you earthly immortality. History, heat death, and human memory wickedly conspire against us. So disdain fame. Ignore the instincts of preservation that would shove aside others. Indeed, others are the only people you can live for.
I knew from the beginning that my list of life’s goals was not the goal of my life. But I guess what I’m saying is that it never hurts to have it reiterated.
Or, truthfully, it does hurt.
But it’s worthwhile nonetheless.
And so I regret nothing.
Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine…