"You are not my daughter."
Six years ago, on an unseasonably warm day in September, my mother lost her mind. The condition came on suddenly and lasted only two weeks; there were no relapses. But those fourteen days had a more profound effect on me—in many ways— than the past twenty years she had spent battling the challenges of chronic-progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
For two weeks my dear, sweet mother was plagued with uncertainty, fear, and paranoid delusions. She knew who we were supposed to be but could not attach meaning to concepts like "daughter" or "love". She stared at us blankly. She barked orders when we were in the room and wailed when we left. She questioned everything: "Why can't I move?", "Why am I in so much pain?". "Who are these people (taking care of me)?" She could not believe anything we told her, repeatedly stating: "How do I know if that's true?"
I thought of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Witnessing my mother stripped of every last defense—physical, mental, emotional—broke me. For three days, I could not sleep. I barely ate. I sat in front of the computer and could not remember how to type. I had almost no thought other than, "I've lost her for good." I had spent so many years mourning the loss of the physical body I failed to celebrate the undisrupted functioning of her mind. And now it was gone.
On the fourth day I willed myself from despair. Would my mother want this for me? Would she want to see me like this? If she could talk coherently, what would she say?
She would tell me to stop the self-pity. She would tell me I had a healthy body and an ambitious mind and to appreciate everything available to me. She would say she had forty-one healthy years and that’s more than a lot of people get in a lifetime. She would say, get out there and live. I’ll be right here, and I’m fine.
My mother was my compass, but I needed a roadmap to navigate my grief. I sat down and opened my notebook. I began to write down the life values my mother had taught me. As the list grew I realized that in three short decades, my mother had taught me everything I needed to know to survive. She had armed me with skills for the real world. If she never spoke a logical thought again I could still find the strength to move forward. I could prosper and thrive. I could make myself better.
It took this life-altering event for me to take a step back and examine what truly mattered; it took my mother emotionally leaving us to achieve clarity of vision. It does not have to (and should not have to) be this way.
Today I ask you: what has your loved one taught you? What guiding principles have you gleaned from them over countless dinners, outings, ups and downs, late night kitchen table chats? Your list may be short and to the point. It may be long and meandering. Each one of us will embark on a different path throughout this exercise. Sit down and map out what you’ve learned. Establish your rules, your guiding principles. Then get out there and live them.
My “Field Notes on Life” (aka 5 Principles to Live By)
· Honor Your Parents (and Grandparents)
· Put it in a Letter
· Treat Everyone Equally
· It’s OK Not to Talk About It
· Bob Seger Heals All Wounds