A cancer diagnosis on May 5th. Surgery on May 16th to remove a mass from her abdomen. Intubated on May 21st because lungs weakened from tuberculosis (TB) were filling with fluid. Coming off the ventilator on May 23rd and rallying for my brother Steve’s birthday. Deteriorating throughout the day on May 24th then refusing any additional mechanical intervention when offered on the morning of May 25th.
We all understood that likely meant her remaining time would be measured in hours, but there was no changing her mind. So in keeping with her wishes, we made the phone calls to the people she wanted to see. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon, she somehow found enough breath and voice to say her good-byes and deliver whatever private messages she wanted to the people who came single file to her bedside in the intensive care unit.
There were two messages for me. First, she told me, remember, I will be with you always. Second, there was the sign that she would send from the ‘other side’: Roses – One red. One white. Many of you will already know that story. If you don’t, you can read it here.
Ultimately, there were no other messages she needed to give me, on this, her final day – she’d already imparted countless lessons that would not willingly be forgotten. So to honor her memory on this ninth anniversary, I share nine of these mother-daughter teachings… and my memories of how they manifested so powerfully in her daily life.
One. Remember what’s important.
My mother had a saying that expressed this teaching in an especially powerful way. Better gone than a leg or an arm, she would say, when one of us broke something, or something was damaged or lost. No matter how precious or valuable the item, no matter how difficult the situation… as long as everyone was fine… as long as we were healthy and in one piece… well that’s what really mattered. It was all about remembering what was truly important. And giving thanks the situation wasn’t worse.
Two. Take pride in appearance.
Born in the late 1920s, the global backdrop for my mother’s childhood and early adult years included the aftermath of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. She studied nursing in the days of crisp white uniforms, white hats with black bands, and the beautiful blue capes lined with red. She was married in the era of beautiful tailored suits and hats. Women of her generation were expected to succumb to ‘middle-age spread’ and adopt a matronly hairstyle. They were not, in Newfoundland at least, expected to be chic.
My mother never thought herself a beauty –– the opposite in fact. Her sisters were the beautiful ones, especially Margaret, Trix, and Sheila. But she dressed to accentuate her positives and mask any perceived flaws. She hated and refused to wear the tight velour track suits that became so popular in the 70s, or leave the house wearing those pink sponge curlers in her hair, as so many of her contemporaries would. She paid attention to fabric, to details, to accessories. Whether in her uniform or ‘street clothes’ (as she called her non-working attire), she was stylish, imminently tasteful, classy.
But taking pride in appearance wasn’t just about how she looked. As I wrote in a previous post, taking pride in appearance was about pride in self, about strength and confidence, about meeting the expectations she set for herself, and about being and doing the best she possibly could.
Three. Tackle the less pleasant tasks first.
I never recall my mother complaining that she needed more time for herself, even though she had very few hours that could be categorized as such. She did enjoy shopping, though, and when I was growing up one of our treats was “going to town” on Saturday morning to browse and bargain hunt. If a trip to the mall or downtown was being planned, it meant the weekly housework had to be completed on Friday night, because the thought of having to go home after shopping to do housework would significantly dampen the morning’s pleasure. I’ve admittedly tried to shake this particular mindset… so that when life makes it impossible to get the less pleasant tasks done before the more enjoyable ones, those I enjoy most aren’t somehow ruined… but I’ve never quite managed to do so. And my mother was right of course.
Four. Make education a priority.
My mother’s early learning took place in a small school in Ferryland, Newfoundland in the days when all the grades were together in one room, when nuns imparted severe discipline, and when students did their sums and practiced their letters on chalkboards roughly the size of today’s iPads. Nan and Pop Morry, her parents, had endeavoured to instill in their children the importance of education, and when she finished high school she went to St. John’s to study nursing. If she’d been able, she would have gone to university, but that was not an option at that point in her life. For her children though, university was assumed. It was our best chance at having a successful career and a good life, and she wanted only the best for us. She advised me to finish my education – i.e. get my Master’s degree – before marrying or becoming a mother. She knew from experience it would be so much harder to find the time afterwards. She worked for years on a university degree in psychology. A course a semester or if that couldn’t be managed, a course every year or so… The demands of home and career, and then my father’s illness, meant she was never able to finish it. But she never stopped learning.
Five. Have faith.
I grew up in a Catholic family. We attended church every week, wearing our Sunday best. We entered the same pew in the same order every week – my mother first, followed by me, my two brothers, and my father. But having faith wasn’t just about going to church each week, or doing the stations of the cross during Lent, or saying the rosary as we all knelt on the linoleum floor around my parents’ bed. Having faith was knowing she could ask St. Anthony to help find a lost wedding ring and it would be located… knowing that St. Thérèse, introduced to us after my bone-cancer diagnosis when I was 14, answered our prayers with roses. Having faith was even knowing and understanding that sometimes prayers would not be answered… that things we could never understand would happen, but there was always a reason, and sometime, in this life or the aftermath, we would understand why.
Six. Both the thought, and the action, count.
If my mother was still alive, I would go into my office on Wednesday morning this week knowing that there would be a voicemail waiting for me. After logging in and entering my passcode, I would start my workday with the sound of her voice singing Happy Birthday. If my mother was still alive, on any given day someone she knew would receive what she called a ‘happy day gift’. There would be one of her much-loved chocolate cakes sitting in her freezer because someone had said they were wishing for a piece. There would be hours spent chatting on the phone with someone who needed to talk, whatever she had planned to do taking a back seat.
They say it is the thought that counts, and this, of course, is true. But as my mother’s life taught, it’s the action too.
Seven. Never give a friend or a loved one the gift of hand gloves.
I realize this may seem an odd teaching in light of the others shared so far, but it is actually quite serious. She’d seen the results too many times – a gift of gloves followed by a falling out or loss. If a relationship is important to you, treasure it. And don’t risk it by giving, or accepting, a gift of gloves.
Eight. Give everything you possibly can.
One of the things my mother had to do when she was a nursing instructor was schedule the shifts for her students. This was the kind of tedious and time-consuming task that should have been done during regular work hours, but there was never enough time, so it inevitably was tackled at home, late in the evenings, after all the other home and family demands had been taken care of. She would sit in the living room, surrounded by papers. The nights that are especially vivid in my memory are the ones when she sat up into the wee hours, toiling over the paper, despite the raging migraine she was dealing with. There had to be nothing left when she finally laid her head on the pillow, nothing at all. She had to be in the most excruciating pain. But she would give everything she had to complete the job required of her.
My mother was also the person everyone turned to in time of crisis, such as a serious illness or death in the family. She would stay up all night and then work all day. She seemed to have an endless capacity to keep going, to be the calm in the midst of the chaos. She didn’t, of course. She was human. And what most people didn’t see was the inevitable crash that occurred when the crisis was over. She had to know it was coming; even as a child I knew it was. But that never stopped her. She gave everything she possibly could.
Nine. Don’t waste a single moment.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis when she was a nursing student, my mother spent a year in the sanatorium in St. John’s with her lung collapsed, hoping that rest would allow it to heal. She didn’t know if she would ever leave the San alive when she entered; she’d already lost a brother to the disease. And we never discussed the apparent connection between the year she’d lost and how she lived the rest of her life. I don’t think we needed to. It’s simple really: when you’re given back a life you expect to lose, you know that if there’s any way you can get out of bed in the morning, you do that. Because life is a gift, and you can’t take even a single moment for granted.
It’s been nine years since my mother’s last day, but now as much as ever, I know that she made the most of every moment she was given, and that my moments – and those of all my family’s moments – have been somehow shaped by her life.
For that I will always be grateful.