So it has been just over seven weeks since the last time I posted on this blog. A few things contributed to this, but only one that I want to focus on today. About a month ago today – my mother lost her almost two year battle with cancer. More on that later, but first I want to speak to the person that my mother was and how she helped mold me into the person that I am today.
I don’t have very clear memories of much before the age of about 8 or so, but the few clear pictures that I do have in my head always involve my mother, either in the background or foreground, doing something for one of us kids, or for someone else.
This isn’t to say that my mother was a the kind of person that completely shut down her social life to “devote her entire life to her kids” – she did both. From a very young age, my mother was an amazing example of leading a balanced life. She managed to never seem put out or bothered by the many requests / demands / troubles of her three children (especially her eldest), she maintained a close circle of friends, she volunteered at our schools and she worked a part-time or full-time job throughout. She never bragged about it, or made it seem like she was stretched thin or struggling to juggle many aspects of her life, she just did it. My mother made it seem like this was just what mothers – parents – did.
It is very cliche to say that children don’t appreciate all of what their parents did for them until they themselves are adults and parents themselves, but I will speak to it anyways. When I think of the level of patience (or impatience) I have with my own children when I am busy focused on some chore or project that is ultimately not that important in the grand scheme of things, I am completely astounded at the level of grace that my mother had with all of us, all the more so when we were running our mouths as we were wont to do. If I could get close to even a small percentage of the composure that my mother had with her three children, it would be a vast improvement.
My mother spent a good deal of her life employed as a nurse – it was in nursing school where she met a good deal of her friends that she stayed close with until her last day on this Earth. In the years before I was born, she did a stint as a police officer for the city of Pittsburgh. While it is difficult to envision my mother as a police officer I do know that the F.O.P. (Fraternal Order of Police) sticker that she had on our cars got me out of a bind more than once 🙂 After her children (myself and my brother and sister) were born, she took up some part-time afternoon and night shifts as a nurse when she could to help pay the bills. When I was in high school, she had a job as a cardiovascular consultant and some well timed windfalls from that helped pay for a good chunk of my college education. Most of what one would call “blessings” or “privilege” in my life were a direct result of actions that my mother took.
When I was younger, you would have never known anything about our finances one way or the other. We spent a great deal of time at home and never wanted for anything (well no more than any kid of the 1980s occasionally watching commercial-laden cartoons did). We would go on beach vacations with extended family when we could manage it and she always smoothed the ride of my father dragging us on “historical but boring” trips (think Colonial Williamsburg, mansion tours, etc – things that would interest me now but as a kid – forget about it 🙂 )
When we went to amusement parks as a family, I had an unhealthy fear of most rides – especially roller coasters. While my mom would try to convince me to go on the rides with my dad and younger siblings, she knew when I just couldn’t be pushed anymore. She was always there to keep me company and try to talk me through my fear of riding anything more complex than “The Scrambler”.
My mom ran our families finances like a boss – she paid all of the bills on time, doled out allowances (even to my dad), and took care of everyone’s taxes… well into her childrens’ 20s. From a very early age, my mother taught me the importance of paying attention to your finances. Mind you, I didn’t always listen at first, but the lessons eventually sunk in. She was the one who convinced me to get my first credit card at the age of 19 and to pay it off every month (I did this most months). This was the foundation for my amazing credit score that has allowed me to get approved for pretty much any loan I have ever wanted and get very great interest rates to boot.
During my early 20s I had some serious problems with my pockets, money just seemed to flow out of them. After failing to launch after my college degree – my mother graciously let me move back home. Never once did she charge me rent or ask me to help out with the family finances. While putting some stipulations on my continued residency in their home may have helped me to get my act together faster, I can’t fault her as she did what she did out of a position of love.
When I needed to move back to Pittsburgh after my first son was born, she again let me (and a fiance, baby and pet ferret) live in their house for as long we needed until we could find a place of our own. While this time of our life was very stressful and we were packed in like sardines in the house – my brother had moved home from working as a teacher out of state and was living there as well – I have fond memories of everyone being around all the time.
When we moved out to a rental and eventually bought our first house a year later, we still visited pretty much every weekend. She was always willing to help out with time and money, even as we needed less of the latter and more of the former as we established ourselves. She watched our son all weekend as we moved in to our house during Snowmageddon and later as we went on our honeymoon.
Lovingly referred to as “Yayo” (when her eldest grandson, my nephew, was learning to talk he called her that as she always sang “Old McDonald” to him) by her grandchildren, she brought “spoil your grandkids” to new, yet mostly reasonable levels. When the kids had sleepovers at her house (my parents are married, but their house was always “Yayo’s house” or “Mom’s house”) there was always a cabinet full of treats, candy in all of the dishes (especially the M&Ms), donuts for the morning and movies rented for the kids to stay up late watching. These were events of epic proportions, second only to the grandeur that was any holiday or birthday party at her house. Snacks, pop (or soda for all you non-Western Pennsylvanians out there), a big meal and multiple desserts were on deck for any occasion. Along with a bedroom (and family room) stocked with toys (purchased at yard sales of course) for the kids to play with. Family gatherings at their house were a thing to look forward to – and most of that was because of the attention to detail and care that my mom put into everything that she did.
We were celebrating my mother’s birthday in July of 2016 when she told me that she had been diagnosed with stage II colon cancer, she said that she would need to have a surgery to remove it and didn’t seem to phased about the whole situation in general. She had the surgery a month later and her doctor had scheduled CT scans to check up on it. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with cancer, it cropped back up in early Spring 2017 – and after a surgery to remove what we all thought was scar tissue from the previous surgery – she was diagnosed with Stage IV. We were all floored – my mom was bulletproof, this couldn’t happen to her. While we hoped for the best, we were for the most part pragmatic about the fact that there would be a time, sooner than we liked, that we would have to say goodbye to her in this life. It didn’t make it any easier when it happened.
Over the course of the past year, she did various chemotherapies and some worked for a time. We rode the ups and the downs of every scan and blood test, every report on her numbers was either joy or devastation. Throughout this all, if you didn’t know her, you would have had no idea that anything was wrong at all. It wasn’t until the final three weeks of her time on this Earth that she even looked uncomfortable.
Eventually the pain became intense and after a trip to the hospital where we received the devastating word from the docs that her fight was over and “comfort care” was what we should concern ourselves with. Once they did all they could to get her pain meds straight, she got to come home and was lovingly taken care of by her husband, son, daughter, sister, niece and others for seven days before she went home to God.
She got to see all 7 of her grandchildren in her final days and was interested in the minutiae of everyone’s day to day lives until the almost very end.
My wife, four children and I had begrudgingly (my parents, especially my mother would hear nothing of us scrapping it) gone on a pre-planned trip to visit the five national parks in Utah and the Grand Canyon and returned home (thankfully in time).
Many of our last conversations with my mother were about what the kids did and what souvenirs they got for themselves and even to inquire on the fate of our freshwater snail that had escaped from its tank while we were gone.
The sting of loss is not new to me, but never before had it happened so close to home and in such a way. While we live further away from my folks (just over a half an hour) than my siblings do and my mom wasn’t as large a part of our daily lives as she was in theirs (because of distance not conscious choice), it still is difficult to carry on as usual as we normally did. My mother was the great communicator, she called everyone and everyone called her. I get along great with my dad and siblings, but talking to them on the phone at length is… different. We all had different priorities and schedules, but we would come together at the drop of a hat for Mom.
There are so many more things I could say about my mother, so many great memories; most that probably have no place on this blog, but I will share this:
When I first stumbled upon the idea of financial independence, and got a plan in place for my wife and I to reach that goal in a short amount of time, I remember being so excited to share this news with my mom. She had always told me “don’t let money burn a hole in your pocket, save your money” and I was finally actually doing it now that I had a goal in sight. I imagined being retired and able to take my parents on trips together or just spend the day with them, no work or meetings or chores needing to be done, just some quality time with the both of them.
Not being able to share any more time with my mother is crushing – like a weight on my chest that I can’t seem to move. I know it will get easier as time passes but it is a process. I will carry on with my life – family, friends, travel, work, planning for the future – as best as I can. I don’t want to divine a meaning or purpose from her life down to one statement but one belief that is holding strong for me now is:
Enjoy every moment, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Say the things you want to say to someone NOW. Get out of the job / situation that is holding you back from living life to the fullest NOW.