My mother died when she was 41. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I remember that it was still so cold. This was Vermont, and it tended to stay chilly well into April.
I was babysitting after school when I got the call. There had been a car accident. My life changed in an instant. I struggled to make sense of it, but how do you understand something like that when you are only 16?
I decided to go right back to school the next day. I knew that life wasn’t going to stop, and I was encouraged to be around friends who understood. But they didn’t understand.
How could they? Why would they?
Thank God they didn’t.
This began my journey of trying to make sense of life and why something like this would happen.
Even now, at 44, I say that you don’t really know me unless you know this ‘thing’ about me. It is so much part of who I am, it is impossible to know ‘me’ without knowing this piece of me too. Meeting my college roommate for the first time in the student center, “Hey, just look for me, I’m blonde, short, and I’ll be wearing a bright yellow coat. Oh, and my mom died when I was 16.”
How could you identify me properly without knowing this? It was like a tattoo across my soul.
So blatantly obvious, to ignore it felt unfair.
We all have ‘our thing’. The thing that defines us and makes us who we are. Yours may be something like mine, a death of someone close, or dealing with an illness. Whatever it is, it pushes us to the edge of who we are and forces us into who we are about to become.
Milestones made me the angriest. High school graduation. Picking out my first apartment. College graduation. Getting married. Having my own daughter. It would push me toward who I was becoming, and I hated it. I didn’t want to be that person, the girl who was motherless. I wanted to be like my friends whose mom sent them care packages and cakes on their birthday.
Being pushed into this new person, the one who was so worried and needy, but desperately afraid to need anyone, made me doubt that there was any purpose out there for me at all.
It molded me and made me into something different than I would have been. And so I believe that the great thing about a terrible thing is that when the dust settles, it gives you perspective.
I have never seen the world in quite the same way as my peers, and although I hated the reason why, I appreciated the vantage point. I am all too familiar with the fact that time is precious and if you aren’t doing something you love, then you need to start working toward something that you do love. Immediately. And sometimes having to look for direction makes you notice things you may not have recognized under other circumstances.
My mother may have left my life, but the hole was replaced with the gifts I found along the way.
The gift of knowing that life is short. Not just hearing about how short it is, but truly knowing deep inside you, that life can change in an instant and rob you of your plans. With this in mind, work hard. Spend time doing things you love. Learn new things and don’t be afraid to screw up.
Doing it right isn’t what’s important, following your heart is.
“Someday I’m going to….” Do you have a ‘someday list’? Pick a thing on the list and make a date. Put it on your calendar even if it’s three years from now. Start planning and doing because life is short.
Start things even if you aren’t totally sure what the end result should look like. You can adjust things as you go.
That’s called progress.
Take action on the things you always wanted to do. Reach out to the people you wanted to forgive and don’t plan for the ‘someday’ because in the end, that’s no way to live your life.
My mom wanted to see the world. She had plans for when my sister and I grew up and went off to college. When my dad retired and they could travel the world! So she waited for that day, and mainly stayed in our small town in Vermont. Could she have fit in a little bit of adventure along the way?
What about you? Can you see things you’ve never seen? Learn something new every year. Move out of your comfort zone and become more.
The gift of knowing you can make a difference. My mom only lived until she was 41, but she showed people she cared. She volunteered at the school and spent extra time talking with kids who had it rough at home or couldn’t even live at home anymore. I know this, because in the days after she passed, kids I didn’t know called the house and stopped by to share their sorrow.
She made them feel that they had value when they weren’t finding it anywhere else. No matter how much time we have on this earth, we can impact people by how we treat them and we can change their day with our words.
How you live your life doesn’t only affect your life. It affects those around you, those you come in contact with and those who are watching. And I had been watching. Years later, I recognized the gift.
My daughter likes to compliment total strangers. When we are shopping, I have moments when I think I should pull her back, reach out and tell her not to talk to those she doesn’t know, but I know she is taking an opportunity to share kindness. In her 14 year-old way, she will tell you what beautiful celebrity you resemble, or that the color of your shirt looks amazing on you.
I do it too, although not quite as often as Olive. I know that she got it from me, and me from my mother. When I was a young girl, I watched as my mom shared her gift of making someone else feel seen. Making them feel appreciated and noticed. Her gift is now passed on to my daughter as I watch her do the same. We can all make a difference every day in very subtle ways. You don’t need to do a lot to have an incredible impact on people around you.
The gift of finding fun in the ordinary. A song comes on the radio and my 14 year old cringes. I dance across the kitchen floor, singing along with the words I make up as it goes along.
The dance. It’s my mom’s dance.
Those are her moves, and as I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection in the microwave I recognize it. This is her gift.
Olive does her best to hold back a smile, and I see myself in her expression. My 16 year old self. The gift of being able to express joy in things that others see as meaningless or silly. To find joy in the small things is what life is all about.
At night before I go to bed, I make a list of great things that happened during the day and I am surprised how often those things include silliness spent with someone else. Life is full of trials and hardship and if we fail to look for the simple things that bring us joy, we miss the point entirely.
We can’t control so much of what happens around us, but we can enjoy what we have.
The gift of knowing we are all struggling with something. I am quick to give the benefit of the doubt. My husband complains and says I’m too trusting. I think I see the best in people because I know we are all suffering from something. I have no idea what your something is, but I know it’s there. Walking down the street as a 16 year old, nobody would have known about the burden I was carrying, but their kindness on any given day would have meant something to me.
Many of the decisions I’ve made throughout my life are made with the impact my mother’s death had on me. It changed how I see the world, and what importance certain events hold for me. Knowing that sometimes I may be seen as too sensitive or emotional about things that may not make sense to a stranger, remind me that someone else’s reaction probably has a lot to do with their past too.
Knowing that they are probably struggling with something helps me to be more compassionate
The gift of knowing that nothing lasts forever. Just as winter turns to spring, bad days turn into good. I was given a gift that cold day in March. A day to compare all others so that I can find joy. Every day has something beautiful, and fun, and sad, and even painful. But nothing lasts forever, and I know that the pain will move to laughter soon enough.
My mother died when she was just a few months shy of 42. She lived for 15,193 days. I counted, and the day that I lived 15,194 days, I celebrated. It’s a good life, and I showed appreciation to those around me. My daughter and I delivered food to local fire stations, and we left one dollar bills hidden in the kid’s section at the dollar store. Then we had a fancy dinner together. We used the plates we usually save for the special occasions. Because nothing last forever and every day is really a special occasion if we are alive and happy.
On days I’m having a rough time, I am reminded that it will change and my focus should be on where I want to go, because movement forward takes vision and focus.
If I was the one to die tomorrow, wouldn’t my family rest easier knowing I lived it up, right until the end? Knowing nothing lasts forever gives a new perspective to my day.
It also makes me push for more. I want to do more, accomplish more, dream more. I don’t want to wait, and if I feel some fear, I believe that is a sign that I need to make plans to step in that direction.
What if I don’t?
What if I live to old age and I’m lying in bed and think, ‘I wish I’d tried that’.
You can’t control everything. This was her gift. You cannot always control your environment, or the things that happen. But you can control yourself. You are the one in control of your attitude and what you focus on. What you are focus on every day is what creates your life.
Living a life where you are constantly trying to control everything and everyone else is a life filled with discontent.
I realized I had no control over what happened that day, or even what happened in the months and years that followed in my family and our lives. All I could do was focus on what I wanted my life to be. Knowing I couldn’t control others, and how they chose to react, released me from the stress and obligation of trying to make everything happy.
I could make myself happy, and part of that included moving on with my life in a way that made sense to me and letting others make the decisions that made sense to them.
This lesson has been one of the biggest gifts in my life, because I feel in control and actively engaged in my own happiness instead of waiting for someone else to change or do something to make me happy. Every decision that I make helps to define my life and if I am currently unhappy with my circumstances, I know that I also have the power to change them with my choices.
It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to me.
I can’t control anything else but myself.
The gift of being grateful. My mother had knee trouble that lead to many surgeries as a child. She couldn’t do many things she wanted to, but would encourage me to do them as I could share the experience. Growing up in Vermont, I went skiing with friends, and she asked me to describe the view at the top of the mountain, looking down before I took off down the hill. I remember saying, “I wish I had a camera.” Ah, the days before cell phone cameras and the Internet. I remember, being 11 or 12, and standing at the top of that mountain and knowing this was special. I was lucky, and I felt grateful.
That was her gift. Feeling grateful at some of the most usual of experiences and knowing that you have a lucky life.
I remember this now, as I get to travel to places she never went or see art in cities she never visited. Even looking out my kitchen window and recognizing that I have an amazing kitchen window that lets in loads of light. Knowing that others may not have the same opportunities as I do reminds me of the gift to be grateful.
When you can see life in this way, you start noticing the small stuff. Things that may have seemed insignificant in years past, take on new meaning and you understand and are grateful. When that mind shift happens automatically, your attitude about your day starts to transform.
This transformation is life changing because everything isn’t always going the way you want it to but when you notice the small things you realize how much is right.
I remember all her many gifts as I make my way through this world, and I understand more now about what the plans were for me.
I’ll never understand why the accident happened or even stop wishing that it didn’t, but I can understand that everything carries lessons that mold you in the person you are to become. And if you never stop to see the gifts, you are missing life’s biggest gift of all.
Become the person you were meant to be, and that includes all of lifes ups and lifes downs.
Even if you didn’t plan for them.
“I know the plans I have for you. Plans to give you hope and a future.’ Jeremiah 29:11