Recently my mom died at 76 years of age, a few weeks shy of 77. Among all the emotions that I've been going through, an unexpected one that jumps out at me is the brevity of life. Seventy-six years is a long time, and indeed my mom had me at 41, after living a whole lot. I grew up with her reminiscences of a 1950s adolescence, ten or twenty years farther back from the memories of my friends' parents. But after Mom died, sorting through her old documents, it seems like that time went by in a flash. Here is her birth certificate, her baby footprints from the Beloit Hospital. Here in three or four clippings is her 35-year career at the same textbook company. The greatest volume of documents she retained are the letters from my dad in the late 1970s, before I was born and in a tone both familiar and unknown to me, who never knew my parents when they were childless and courting. I feel this fleeting nature of Mom's life perhaps most strongly when I sing my boys to sleep with songs from the 1940s that my mother sang to me. This sensation is strongest with My Prayer, recorded in 1939 by the Ink Spots, before my mother was even born, yet with a distinctly modern jazz feel to it (even more modern, in my opinion, than the very 50s-sounding Platters version that my mother was actually more familiar with). There's something that blows my mind to think that this song I'm singing to my little guys in the 21st century, existed before my mother was even a gleam in her parents' eye. And yet here it is, and here my mom isn't, and her whole life is captured in the span between when someone wrote the song and when I'm singing it today.
At the same time I'm haunted by my mother's continued presence in most things I do. I prepare my self-evaluation for work, and all the accomplishments I'm detailing, all the things that happened this year, happened when she was alive. Everything I recount is linked to a conversation with her or a funny email or a visit my mom made to Central America. None of these interactions with my mom are recorded in my notebooks or files, but they're all that I care about now, and a lot of things that I'd tabbed as "very important" in old notebooks don't even matter anymore. I finish reading a novel (Percy Jackson) to my boys that my mom started when she was still alive, that in fact she always jokingly complained about because Sam insisted on marathon reading sessions of it. We go to Paulo's interminable Tae Kwon Do tournament in a sweltering stadium, that so pissed off my mother when she went last year. I watch DVDs that she had ordered from Netflix before she died, finish paperwork she had started, stay in her house, just as she had arranged it. My boys finish bags of jellybeans she had started to eat, we even get a Valentine letter from her three weeks after she has died. I even sometimes debut a new bedtime song that I actually learned from her in my childhood and have kept stored in my head since.
I like this permanence after death. I think the West Africans are onto something when they claim that our ancestors continue to accompany us long after their death. My boys and wife and I talk to my mom still, I write to her in my journal, she's in our dreams. I make mental notes to share funny anecdotes with her next time we talk on Skype.
For the past few years Mom was trying to get rid of her earthly possessions, which weren't many after a lifetime of minimizing purchases and engaging in frequent purges of accumulated junk. She even joked that she didn't buy the big toilet paper package from Costco anymore, since she didn't know if she had that many shits left in her.
Living without someone you love is impossible to prepare for. It is to enter a world that has never existed before, for which there is no guidebook, no hints beforehand of how it will be. Living without a parent is like traveling to a new country, but in the old days, before Google maps and the internet and even paper maps and guidebooks. These days you can get to know all about a place even before you set foot there. But in the really old days, like the Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo old days, traveling to a new place meant going in completely blind. You just had to get there and figure your way around. Even in my lifetime, it used to be that the guidebooks weren't all that comprehensive, and a lot of the actual discovering you had to do on foot once you got somewhere.
But navigating life without my mother has no guidebook. I couldn't "get a taste" of it before she died, just to prepare myself. Yeah, there are books about losing a loved one, but they're very general, and they're not the sort of thing you read about when your family member is alive. No, it's simply impossible to truly imagine what life will be like without someone. You can think it through intellectually, think, "Mom always took care of renewing my magazine subscription," or "Mom paid all the bills for her house," and of course you know that if Mom isn't around, you'll have to do those things yourself. But as to how you will actually feel, how this world will feel, once that beloved person isn't around, you just can't even begin to prepare yourself for it until it happens. And then it's too late to prepare--you just have to live it and deal with it. I've tried to apply lessons from dealing with my mom's death to anticipate and prepare for the death of other loved ones. But I can't do it, I simply can't imagine in any meaningful way living without someone that is currently a part of my world.
My mom and I didn't even talk that frequently, at least not compared to some other families I know. We lived thousands of miles apart, and I would call her maybe every few days. We would exchange short emails almost daily, but sometimes there would be a week where I wouldn't hear from her at all. She had her own life, her own things that kept her busy. So the absence in my life isn't a logistical thing, because even when she was alive, the great majority of my time was spent not talking to her directly. No, the absence is in the world, in just knowing that she's no longer out there, doing her thing. If Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai or even Kinshasa ceased to exist, I would feel like the world, my world, were poorer without them, even though I've never been to any of those places. In the same sense I feel less secure, less happy, without the knowledge that my mom is taking care of her little neighborhood in Chicago, going to her book club meetings, seeing plays, volunteering at the homeless shelter. I feel like Chicago has lost a great piece of itself.
My boys have been so noble and strong. They have cried and felt sad, but they are also very attentive to me. Particularly my middle boy Paulo is terrified by the idea of losing people, so he takes extra care of me since, according to him, I'm "not a kid anymore." I don't have my two parents, so I'm not a kid. He's more right than he imagines; there's nothing like losing your parents to make you feel adult, like you're thrown out on your own in the world.
Even my newborn son, who came to the world two months after Mom left it, is linked to her. I feel like she knew him; Mom was visiting us when Caro found out his sex, so she new he was Francisco before I did. And Mom fell in love with his 3D sonogram photo. When I see him sleeping with purpose, looking identical to me and his two brothers when we were infants, wearing my jacket from the early 80s, I feel that my mom does in fact know him.
I feel bad that I used to get so annoyed at certain things about my mom. Her willful incompetence with electronics, little catchphrases she would use, her sometimes tempestuous moods. Now that she's gone I wonder why I fussed so much about these small things, and I feel that this is yet another lesson she's teaching me. I am not good at the subtle teaching of life lessons. I'm constantly doing explicit lessons with my kids. Counting numbers and reading of course, but also pointing out injustice, inconsistencies in certain ways of thinking, the presence or absence of certain differing perspectives in the movies and books we are exposed to. I'm not good at leaving things unsaid and letting them figure stuff out for themselves. I hope this doesn't hurt them in the long-run; the wisdom of the ages has long been transmitted through indirect lessons, Mr. Miyagi-style, as opposed to just coming out and saying things, and I think there's a lot of merit to this more subtle, self-led process. As in-control and explicit as my mom was in many things, somehow she was really good at leaving me to figure out the big lessons by myself. Now in her death I feel like I'm receiving her last lessons, of tolerance, unconditional love, understanding the unfathomable depth of each person.
I hope that my mother read my love from my actions, since I wasn't too explicit or frequent in telling her how much I admire her, or what a cool person she is. But I think she did, and beyond that I think a huge lesson for me is that parents don't need too much of that explicit validation and reinforcement. Their joy is just seeing you grow up and take care of your own kids. Their joy is to see you prosper, or even just to be the asshole you are naturally, but for a parent that's validation enough, that's the most important "I love you". Mom had never expected to have a kid, so she used to tell me that every day she would wake up and thank God for this unexpected gift.
I hope too that my growing understanding of who my mom was, not just in my life but throughout hers, is also an homage and a fitting honor to her. I am realizing that she learned how to be a mom as she went along. When I was a little guy, she would joke to her friends and even to me that she wasn't much of a mother, that after forty-plus years of independent, single, professional life, she was entrusting a lot of the childrearing to my babysitter. But this wasn't really true even back then, and she became more and more adept at raising me as the years went on. She would seek out interesting stuff for me to do on the weekends, she would invite kids over from my class (both close friends and kids I didn't hang out with much, just to make sure they weren't being excluded), she would cook for and have fun with my buddies. When I was a teenager she had a bit more free time and got more involved in the parent association at my school. She seemed to perfect her arts when she became a grandmother, planning activities for my kids, making cookies, organizing birthday parties, and finding gifts and books that were just right for them. I think Mom slowly gained confidence in her own ability as a mother, and I'm thankful that in her last visit with us she finally realized how important she was to my kids.
This is a propos to my own childrearing. I too am growing and changing, learning how to be more patient, how to not just stimulate my boys intellectually but also show them love, take care of both physical and emotional needs. Most of all I am learning, thanks in no small part to my evolving relationship with my mom, how to appreciate each kid for who he is, instead of getting annoyed by what they aren't. With my sons and with others I am more and more amazed and delighted at the uniqueness of each person, and how we all make up a world that would be poorer without any one of us.
Just before my latest son was born, in a few hours that I had to go home and rest before we returned to the hospital, I had a weird quasi-dream, really more a semi-conscious reflection on the nature of life. I thought that life was fleeting and unrepeatable, so that the highest use of a life is to make your mark, to tailor it like a great musical composition with a single, relentless pursuit of a given purpose. Live out loud, don't just passively enjoy your loved ones or respond to external conditions. Strive at all times to make this one life a great one.This is the Steve Jobs model; you can be a total jerk, morally and personally incoherent, apathetic to injustice or larger social issues, even totally neglect your family relationships, as long as you do something great, some intellectual or physical or artistic or even moral accomplishment. You don't simply respond to the realities that life throws your way; you mold those realities, even deny them until they conform to the new reality that you make yourself. Don't respond to life, make life respond to you!
I was surprised, even in my half-waking state, to come to this conclusion, since I am obviously so averse to it. Lately I have been living my life in a much simpler, more family- and community-oriented way. I have tried to live more consciously and just enjoy time with my loved ones. I still try to excel in my work, and I do have grand projects that I pursue gradually, in my scarce free time, but I don't want to throw away other aspects of my life in the single-minded pursuit of some "higher" accomplishment. The dream though made me wonder if this was a cop-out, an excuse for mediocrity. Was my supposed commitment to family just a front for my fear of pursuing excellence?
Once again my mom has helped me to resolve this seeming impasse. Mom billed herself as I see myself; committed to the unglamorous but ultimately fulfilling things like doing your work well, taking care of your family, meeting with friends, helping your community (and bringing others into that community that have been shut out). She believed in high concepts of justice, of decency, of economic development and progress, of Godliness, but these were always tied very clearly for her to the "boring", everyday living of life in a coherent way. Yes, she went to marches, she volunteered with the homeless, she advocated with elected officials, but all in an unassuming way; she didn't see herself as the centerpiece of any revolution.
And the story could have ended there. She did good where she could in an unremarkable way, while Steve Jobs and his ilk are recognized for changing the world. But after Mom's death, the Chicago Sun-Times published a feature article on her that highlighted all the ways she had touched people in her community. All that incremental decency and life well-lived did in fact turn out to be rather remarkable.
So what is the answer to my dilemma of whether to live life by making your mark, or rather by responding to life's demands and living decently? My mom did one by doing the other. She made her mark by responding to the world around her, working to right wrongs where she could, and enjoy the wonderful things that do exist. Not all of us will get a feature article about us in a newspaper, but we can all copy this approach of effecting big change in a lifetime by living decently, day by day.