I’ve been trying to think about whether to write about my mother’s recent death in this blog, and decided I would share some thoughts with my readers, whom I am coming to think of as long-distance friends. Death, of course, makes you think about what is important in life.
For my mother, the tragedy was that she had many dreams that she had put off until after she retired from her job – one she had really loved. She retired in her mid-50s, and six months later was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She had an aggressive form of the disease, and it impacted her every day thereafter (almost 15 years) until she died.
As many of you know, I am a big believer that life can suddenly send you off in a completely unexpected direction. Most of the time when we think of sudden changes we think of them as a result of tragedy or something negative, such as a car accident, the death of a spouse, or a sudden job change that uproots a happily ensconced family. Or perhaps it is the shock of discovering your spouse is having an affair…something that forever changes the lens through which you see things.
But I like to think that moving in an unexpected direction can also be positive. The sudden job change provides an opportunity to start fresh. The car accident can focus your attention on the life you live. Life moves in unexpected ways, but we do have a choice to direct our lives, just as my husband and I did a couple of years ago when we both decided to change our lives for the better. (You knew I would get back to marriage soon enough, right?!) Yes, we had an affair staring us in the face which did provide a jolt to our then-miserable lives. But while the affair ensured that our direction would take a sudden turn from what we had expected, it did not dictate exactly in which direction we would end up going. We could have chosen further acrimony and divorce, or we could have listened to the cry for affection that that affair represented and move ahead.
I remember wondering within a few hours of finding out about my husband’s affair, as I did at my mother’s deathbed, why we don’t spend more time talking with each other about what is really important. I think we assume that we have forever to figure it out – or perhaps at least a few more years to get it right. In retrospect, I spent way too many years feeling that it was important that George understand that I was right about how much his ADD had disrupted our lives. We wasted a lot of time while I tried to prove something that didn’t matter (and didn’t take into account my own participation in our deterioration. Lest anyone misunderstand me here, I was NOT right...it wasn't just George, it was both of us). No, what was really important was trying to love each other, and ACTING upon that love. That is the only way to have happy days together more often than not. We knew how to do that – we had done it when we dated, and we are doing it again now. But for almost 10 years in the middle we forgot that life is short and we got caught up in the conflict. We allowed anger and blame to make itself the center of our lives. Until the affair was uncovered, that is, when we both stood back and asked “is this really what we want – this mess?” It was then that we remembered what is important - that you cherish what you have, understand that no one is perfect, and live today and tomorrow with love and forgiveness in your heart and in your actions. Friends and family alike (as well has my husband’s mistress) were shocked to see how quickly we were able to change the direction of our lives once we both decided that anger, blame and hurt had no place in our relationship (and, yes, it does take effort, it doesn’t just happen…but knowing that love and forgiveness are the most important elements does a lot to steer you in the right direction).
I think a lot of people say “yes, I love my partner” and then turn around and find themselves angry all the time. I was a great example of this. It all seemed rational at the time, but in fact, it’s not. Love is “active”, not “passive”. In the ways of the world’s great religions, love is repeated acts of forgiveness and acceptance. It’s putting yourself and your partner into a position where you are both able and motivated to work things out. It's actively creating special connections between you. It’s loving yourself, too.
Forgive me if this all sounds a bit heavy – death will do that to you and I promise to move on to my more normal ground soon. My mother taught me many things over the years, and I know that I have taken away lessons about what is important that she would never have expected as I watched her last year of struggle with her deteriorating health. Yet even knowing she was getting sicker, I fell prey to the “you have lots of time” trap and didn’t ask her opinion about what she had learned. The bottom line is this: we don’t have lots of time…none of us. I wish I had recognized this sooner and plumbed her wisdom more – for I’m confident she would have provided me with good perspective and insight, particularly after her own struggles.
Have you reflected – and acted - upon what’s really important lately?