My mother was the poster child for gratitude. Although her life was short in years—just shy of 55—it was long in wonder, miracles and thanksgiving.
Born into the postwar prosperity of the 1950s, she came of age in the tumultuous 60s, graduated from a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, and entered the work force in the equal rights era of the 1970s. A young woman of relative privilege, my mother witnessed how challenging life was for many people and took it on as her challenge in life: how can I help others?
She found her passions in special education and mental health, dedicating her career to helping people. She would also find love, marriage, motherhood, and divorce.
As a single mother of the 1980s and 90s, my mother pursued a meaningful career, relationships, a master’s degree, and a move one state over. Just as she was settling into a remarkable balancing act, which included nurturing her budding TV newscaster/architect/trumpeter/actor/comedian son, the call came to move back home since her aging mother’s independence started to decline.
Her life now repurposed as caregiver to the generation after her and before her, my mother took the opportunity to plant a garden, join the symphony chorus, read to the blind, establish a spring art show at our church, practice yoga, make jewelry, and show her son the world.
In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, which she was proud to have caught early thanks to Katie Couric’s colonoscopy advocacy, and she proudly beat it. We celebrated with a trip to Europe, I soon graduated from high school and my mother was an empty nester.
It was my junior year of college when my mother’s cancer returned, but this time it was stage four and things were different. There seemed to be less fighting this time around and more waiting. She soon had to stop working, stop caring for my grandmother and preserve her precious energy only for what was absolutely necessary. She treasured hard laughter, combing the beaches of Cape Cod for heart-shaped rocks and the company of best friends in her final years.
It wasn’t long before the call came for me to move back home, and for me to take on the role of caregiver. I don’t think anyone can ever be prepared to care for a dying parent, but I know that I sure felt too young and way unprepared. As I sat at her bedside in those final quiet evenings, going through boxes of old records to pass the time, feeling her soft hands run through my hair, it was hard to know what to feel.
I do know there was something deep within her—a guiding light, a spiritual compass, a servant’s heart, grace beyond measure, gratitude without end—that needed to live on so that not all of her would be gone. When she did go, her arms were wide open and a journal was nearby. She had left behind some final words for me. “Be grateful,” she wrote. And I am.
Grateful for everything.