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Mar 7 2013

Confronting Mortality… and Savoring Life

By at 2:51 pm

surgery operating roomLast week, my mother had hip replacement surgery. I don’t come from a family of medical professionals–I come from a family of active imaginations. We quickly imagine the worst.

I cried in bed every night last week leading up to the surgery. My husband was unable to console me about something that hadn’t happened and would probably not happen. I was shaken to my bones with the idea that I might lose my mother: my mother, my nucleus, my magnetic north, my everything.

This past week, two pieces I’ve read have touched on the unthinkable loss, one of a mother and the other of a child.

Jacob Bernstein, son of famed writer Nora Ephron, wrote a long and loving piece about his mother and her death in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Nora Ephron’s Final Act.” An ever-hilarious woman, Bernstein writes, his mother was stymied by coming face to face with her own mortality:

The thing is, you can’t really turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story.”

He writes of calling his mothers’ close friends to tell them she was about to die:

Over and over again, they said to me, “This must be so hard for you.” But making those calls wasn’t. It was strangely beautiful. The people I called told me stories about great advice she’d given them; e-mails she’d sent that they’d loved; and occasionally, what a total pain she could be. Those were funny to hear. They were real.

The piece was beautiful overall, but for me, this part rang most true. A person
and who they are lies far beyond how they die–it lies within how they have lived.

Author Emily Rapp lost her son, Ronan, to Tay-Sachs disease after a short life–just three years. Over the course of his life, she saw him slowly degenerate in the wake of the disease, losing the use of his body with passing days. She wrote the book The Still Point of the Turning World about how parenting–something inherently defined as creating a future–became an inversion of itself as she was forced to acknowledge that her child would not have one on this earth. She wrote:

This is what parenting a child with no future has taught me: Nothing is forever. There is only now, the moment, the love you bear, the knowledge that loving is about letting go, and that the power of a person’s grief is a reflection of the depth of their love.

People love articles and stories like these: they sear their readers’ souls with
the horrible reality of mortality that we don’t want to face, for those we love or ourselves. But why do we only learn these lessons in the searing light of loss and grief, or the fear of its imminence?

When I die, eventually and hopefully a long time from now, I don’t want a beautiful eulogy. I want what Ephron’s mourners and Rapp express: the beauty of a life lived that leaves behind a residue of living love. And I want to appreciate the residue of love others have left and do leave in me, and to be grateful for it.

Nathan Glauber, the Hasidic father-to-be killed with his pregnant wife in a hit-and-run crash this week, left behind that shadow of love. He had written a letter to his parents upon his marriage which resonates with beauty and sincere gratitude. In it, he wrote:

I feel an obligation to thank you for everything you did for me since I was a small child. You did not spare time, energy and money, whether it was when I needed a private tutor to learn or an eye doctor or general encouragement. Also, later on, you helped me to succeed in my Torah studies, you sent me to yeshiva to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.

Even though I’m leaving your home (actually I’m not leaving, I’m bringing in an additional family member) I want to tell you that all the education and values you taught me I’ll–with God’s help — take along with me in my new home, and continue to plant the same education in my home and kids that God will grant me.

His death is tragic–but this letter is proof that the way he lived his life, grateful for it and for those who loved him–was full.

I call my mom approximately four times a day. We talk about nearly everything. We laugh, whether at my mother’s ability to rename stores and render them unrecognizable or at my utter disorganization. Like the Dutch master painter Vermeer, my mother has a way of infusing the ordinary with beauty and gloriousness. Everything she does is not in a frame, but everything she does is, itself, love and therefore transcendent.

I’m so glad she’s still here. From others’ losses, we reap the yearning to savor what is still ours.


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