When I was eight, my mother went back to work. She’d been a stay-at-home mom from the time I was born, dedicating her time and endless energy to me and my three younger siblings. But, eventually, she got antsy.
My mother was the creative type, constantly juggling one project or another. She was also a deeply social creature, energized by interaction with and attention from other people. So when Prudential offered her a gig as a corporate trainer, she jumped at it and spent the next four years flying across the country to run leadership seminars for executives and stay at posh hotels.
Mom’s job was fun, even glamorous; every few weeks, a limo would arrive before dawn to carry her off to another American metropolis. One of those mornings, she crept into the darkened living room to find my brother sitting on the couch with his blankie.
“I didn’t go to sleep,” he said. “I wanted to see you before you went away.”
Within a few months, Mom had resigned and returned to full-time motherhood.
Years later, I asked her if she regretted it. “You were making good money, you got to travel, you were respected. How could you just give that up?”
“Everyone is replaceable,” she said, “except a mother.”
At the time, I didn’t get it. I was a seventeen-year-old groomed by a culture that genuflected at the altar of fame and fortune. The highest echelon of achievement, they told me, is fame – even infamy – the key to immortality. Do great things and your name will be written indelibly into the pages of history; opt for an ordinary, colorless life, and fade into obscurity. In my view, being forgotten was more fearsome than dying. If the world wouldn’t remember me, what was the point of living in the first place?
Thing changed (somewhat) when I became a mom. At first, all I wanted was to be home with my baby, my ambition tempered by the delight I took in each one of his tiny milestones. But in the back of my mind, I compared myself to the friends from college who were producing television shows, being nominated for Emmys, or going on national book tours. The idea that all I would have to show for my life was the ability to change a diaper in less than ten seconds was unnerving. I was 27; I needed to get the show on the road.
Around this time, my mother told me she was dying of cancer and was moving to our family’s summer home in Cape Cod. My entire family moved in along with her for the last six weeks of her life. As she crept toward death, we were flooded with calls and emails from people who had known my mother: her cancer nurse from Sloan Kettering, who wrote, “You have become more than just a patient I took care of a few times; you have become someone I care so deeply about…” There was my friend from high school I hadn’t heard from in years, but who called from Beijing the minute he heard about Mom just to say he loved her. And my mother’s physical therapist, Ralph, who drove four hours from New York City just to see her, then drive home.
“That’s it?” I said as he was leaving. “You drove all this way to spend ten minutes with someone you met three months ago?”
“I love her,” he said.
The outpouring was overwhelming, but not surprising; my mother had a unique talent for making people feel loved. She was the type of person who hugged strangers, who was effusive in her praise, who made her home into a safe haven for anyone who cared to have one. Sometimes, I would visit her preschool class (she went back to teaching after my sister started high school) to watch her with the kids. She always had one of them in her arms, holding them, kissing them, tickling them, deliberately flouting the district code of “professional distance” because she knew that for some of them, it was the only affection they would get all day.
She was this way with all children – and with everyone she met.
My mother never built that invisible wall behind which most people hide from each other. Sometimes, her effusiveness would embarrass me; my instinct was to temper her so she wouldn’t make other people uncomfortable. But they weren’t. Instead, they drank her up like they were filling a deep, forgotten well inside. Mom saw how thirsty they were for some acknowledgment, a little appreciation, and they turned to her like flowers in the rain. It was a miracle, really, in a world where the most dangerous thing a person can do is show how deeply they need.
Death is a slow unpeeling of the frivolous down to the essential. Watching this happen to my mother was like waking from a dream. I discovered that reality is much simpler than we humans like to make it. Adorning ourselves with achievements gives us the illusion that we will beat death, but we won’t; everyone gets laid in a box and buried one day. A handful of us may be remembered for generations – though we’ll never know it – but most of us won’t. Our memory is not something we can force onto the world. All we can do is pass along the best of ourselves to the people around us and hope some of it makes it onward.
My mother was wiser than most. She had no illusions about what was important. We all have broken hearts, but God blesses us with fellow humans whose love and company take away the sting. My mother was one of those people for everyone she met. When she died at 55, someone said, it was “because she’d already loved enough for a lifetime.” And they were right.
In 100 years, it’s likely there will be no one left to remember my mother. But I no longer consider that a fate worse than death. She has left a powerful legacy of making people better and more whole for knowing her – the effects of which may reverberate into the future in ways I will never know. The true key to immortality, I’ve learned, is the good we bring to this world – in which case, my mother’s life, and memory are truly for a blessing.