Lessons from my mother

I used to think that my father was my most important teacher. After all, as an engineering professor he was able to help me master the math and science classes that I loved, the classes that helped shape my eventual college degree and career path. There’s no question that what he taught helped turn me into someone who can calmly examine a problem, weigh the evidence and suggest a solution; skills that are important in so many aspects of life.

I realize now, however, that it was my mother who taught me what really matters most. While my father would give mini-lectures while helping me with homework or at the dinner table, I never even noticed how much I was learning from my mother.

The first lesson was that “people matter”. Now, there’s the intro-level understanding, that you should treat all people with respect, but my mom went way beyond that. For instance, I went to the same doctor for 15 years. I knew his name. From his diploma, I knew where he went to school, and once had a brief conversation about the city his college was in. And that’s it. My mother, on the other hand, would have one meeting with a new doctor, and she’d tell me where they went to school, where they did their residency, whether they knew any of her other doctors, how many children they had, where their children go to school, how they ended up in Minnesota, what they think about their current practice, what they think about the ACA. Seriously. And this wasn’t just about doctors — she’d know the same sorts of details about retail sales associates, restaurant wait staff, Mah Jongg partners, manicurists, co-workers and her real estate customers.

It wasn’t just that she was better at extracting personal information than a CIA operative, she also had her own personal internal Google. “Oh, you said you just met Jane Smithers of San Francisco on your business trip? I think Jane’s a friend of your 3rd cousin twice-removed’s neighbor. You should ask her if she knows Arthur Johnson.” And when I asked, yes, invariably, she would indeed know Arthur.

She loved uncovering that network showing how we are all interconnected. And by learning everyone’s stories, she could always be ready to console anyone she met going through a hard time with an example of how someone else got through the same challenges.

I think that perspective shaped the other big lesson, “don’t dwell on bad things you can’t change”, a lesson which unfortunately she had a number of opportunities to use.

After some very difficult teen years, it looked like my brother had turned the corner, with a college degree, a good job and good friends. But at 23, he committed suicide. Of course my parents were devastated, but they never allowed that event to define their future. Although the pain was always there, my mother never used it as an excuse to not find joy and friendship.

And then, about eleven years ago at 67, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Yes, she was upset at first, but again, she refused to be defined by her misfortune. She kept working, kept moving, kept loving. She did slow down a little on the day after she received her chemo, but that was about it.

About a year ago, the cancer started resisting the chemo and she had to try different treatments that had more severe side effects. Nausea and lack of appetite lead to weight loss, which led to loss of strength and limited mobility. But she still could enjoy visits from family and friends, and constant phone calls. And that was enough, because people still mattered to her. Through it all, she kept up a positive attitude as if it were just a cold that she needed to get through, but then she’d feel better.

When she entered hospice, she knew what it meant. But even that wasn’t enough to dampen her spirits, as she continued to make friends with the nurses and aides and to welcome visitors. Even when she died, she waited until a break in the vigil my father and I had been keeping. I honestly believe that she wanted to go without us there so she wouldn’t upset us.

It’s only been a few days and I don’t think I fully appreciate just how much I’m going to miss her. But with her example, how can I not try to do my best to go on without her, to smile and laugh through the pain, to always remember that people matter?

I think it’s the best lesson there is.