Mom and I enjoyed our daily conversations and we became very close friends after my first trip to Michigan. We enjoyed spending time together. We no longer repeated the pattern of fighting in order to keep a safe distance from each other. We had little time left and we spent it on enjoying each other. We had a few disagreements but we focused on what mattered rather than what didn’t.
The most important parts of my days were when we talked in the morning and in the evening during my commutes to and from work. We talked about memories from the past, what we had been learning, my work, her experiences with declining health, some robust political and philosophical discussions, and many conversations about God and faith.
Our relationship had deepened and I genuinely enjoyed knowing her. I had never bothered to notice that she possessed a keen insight into life, was delightful, witty, and had a great sense of humor. I had not looked for these parts of her because I always saw her as the negligent, abusive, unmotivated mom. Every time I discovered something new about her, I became more enamored with her. She had become a treasure I never knew I had.
My discovery that my mom was an amazing, wonderful woman had a downside though: I felt an increasing level of anger.
I wondered, “Why am I so angry? Everything is going great.”
Gradually, I realized that I felt ripped off.
Sure, we had wonderful times together after we reconciled but part of me resented that I had to experience 46 years of snarky mom and only had a few months of awesome mom. Why couldn’t we have had this kind of relationship sooner? Why did it take cancer for us to focus on what mattered about each other? How unfair was it that cancer brought us together and cancer would soon separate us? For the better part of forty years, we were at odds. For just a few months, we were best friends. And cancer would inevitably bring that friendship to an end.
Friends often asked me how my mom was doing and based on whatever the current news was, asked how I was handling it. I described the anger I felt about having a snarky mom instead of a friendly mom and a few friends said that I was lucky. Like me, they experienced distance in their relationships with their parents. In several cases, one or both had died before the relationships could be repaired.
Several of my friends knew that my dad had mostly been absent from my life and that he and I had resolved the past to the point where I was with him when he died and assured him that I no longer felt resentment toward him.
I heard variations of the same message: “I’d love to have with my parents what you have with yours. We can’t talk to each other without fighting. You’re really lucky to have this time with your mom.”
I didn’t consistently feel lucky, though. I felt gyped. After hearing some friends say I should feel lucky, I felt like I was being greedy by wanting to have had more closeness with my mom and dad. Feeling greedy led to feeling selfish and guilty.
I tried talking myself into a sense of gratitude but I didn’t feel thankful that I had an absent dad and a snarky mom. I was happy to have worked things out with both of them before they died but I couldn’t get past resentment for having crappy parents.
Mom and I talked about this. She regretted the lost time as well but her focus was on enjoying as much of her remaining life as possible. Every time we talked, she told me what was new to her about the things she had seen so many times before. She saw how the sun shone differently through the tall pine trees in her yard. She enjoyed how her cats, Ollie and Teddy, hunted and played in the grass. She sat on the porch and listened to the breeze. She had friends over and laughed about forgotten stories. Her intent each day was to separate herself from her suffering and enjoy what life presented to her. She had no time for regret.
Maybe because I thought I had the luxury of time or maybe because I’m a slow learner, but I couldn’t get a quick handle on my resentment. It didn’t matter what my friends did or did not have with their parents. Their perspectives were instructive but the fact that I had what they didn’t made little difference in my ability to accept 46 difficult years.
One of the best decisions I made was to be open about this with mom. She too had wished we could have worked things out sooner but, it was her knowledge that her time was short that persuaded her to spend her energy and time on thankfulness and goodness instead of rehearsing all the coulda-woulda-shoulda scenarios that, if she had just acted differently, things might have been better.
We constantly deny our inevitable death. Part of that denial is the belief that the horizon of death is far beyond our view and that time is abundant. It’s entirely different when you know for certain that your time is short. I read once that denial makes us think that we have a lot of time left but when a person becomes progressively in touch with their mortality, they think of their death every day. Not in an obsessive, fearful manner but in a way that leads them to recognize that death can come on any day in any form. Living with death as a potential part of one’s immediate horizon is what allows one to more easily set aside hard feelings and focus instead on what is good.
Isn’t that strange? You might think that you see things more clearly when you perceive that lots of time remains. It may be instead that you see life more clearly when you are pointedly aware that time is much shorter than you would like it would be.