Over the last few months, as my mother’s health worsened (she had been suffering from dementia and complications for roughly the last 5 years), I’ve been thinking a lot about what her legacy has been, what her life meant to me and to our family, and what lessons she handed down to us over the years. In the days after she passed away at age 95, on July 18th, I leafed through old photographs and letters, and took some time to think about and write down some of what I’d learned.
My mom’s life was full of struggle and loss. She grew up during the depression and dropped out of school to help support her family. She cared for her aging parents, suffered the death of her beloved brother, Phil, from cancer, survived the devastating, sudden death of her husband at age 41, and through it all worked tirelessly to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table while I was growing up. Many years later, at age 83, she was struck by a car and suffered not only a broken knee, but a systemic staph infection that nearly killed her and from which it took her six months to recover. And, at age 90, she had to have a hip replacement because of severe osteo-arthritis. She was unbelievably tough, a small dynamo who just couldn’t quit.
In spite of all of these miseries, and more, she survived and even thrived. She did not let anything, or anyone, stop her, and refused to give up no matter how long the odds. She refused to be bitter or angry. She turned all those disasters around, and transformed them into a life of kindness, generosity, and, above all, love.
Mom taught me a number of valuable lessons. Over the years, I’ve realized the extent to which these lessons have shaped my life and the lives of my family, and just how wise a woman she was, in spite of her lack of formal education.
Lesson #1: Don’t give up. Mom taught me to be strong, to persevere, to never give up in the face of opposition. If things got too hard, she would take a break, and she’d always come back to what needed to be done and she’d do it. She didn’t stop until her task was done, no matter how difficult.
Lesson #2: Work hard. Mom taught me the value of work, not just to earn money, but to achieve the things that were important to me. At an early age, I saw her cleaning the house, cooking, ironing, not to mention painting our tenant’s apartment when it was vacant, working on dresses at home, and volunteering at Holy Family School with the other mothers. I would never have achieved whatever success I’ve achieved without her example.
Lesson #3: Get a good education. Mom valued education very highly, precisely because she was not able to complete hers. She knew that an education was my ticket to bigger and better things, and she strongly encouraged me to do my homework, get good grades, and go to college and beyond (although she never could quite understand why I entered the PhD program in Philosophy at Stanford after graduating from Harvard!).
Lesson #4: Aim high. Mom always encouraged me to aim high, to set big goals for myself, and to work steadily toward them. However, she also taught me not to beat myself up – to give myself a break, to take a breather when needed, and to remember that success is a marathon, not a sprint. She also taught me never to underestimate myself – if other people could accomplish great things, why not me, or anyone else, for that matter?
Lesson #5: Friends and family are important, but learn how to stand on your own two feet. Mom taught me that friends and family are important, that nobody succeeds alone. But she also taught me self-reliance, and to make sure that I could stand on my own two feet when nobody else was around to help me.
Lesson #6: Trust people. Mom believed that when you trust someone and believe in them to do the right thing, most of the time you will be rewarded – if you expect the best from people, and trust them to deliver, they will often surprise you with just what they can accomplish. She absolutely trusted me to do the right thing by her, and that made me take my responsibilities to her very seriously over the last 35 years since graduating college, and made me a better person.
Lesson #7: Learn how to make friends. Mom was an absolutely genius at making friends quickly – she could strike up a conversation with someone at a bus stop, and ten minutes later, have a devoted friend for life. She taught me to be friendly and open, a lesson that I initially struggled with. Friends are all around us if only we take the time to be aware, and to let them into our lives.
Lesson #8: Love – unconditionally. In the end, though, the most valuable lesson mom taught was love. As her mind and body were wasting away over these last few years, as everything non-essential was being taken from her, what was left was gentleness, kindness, and love – her last words to me were simply “I love you.” In the end, that was her true legacy to me and to everyone who knew and loved her; that made her life worth living, worth remembering, and worth sharing.