The Long Tail Of Gratitude

What our parents leave “in” us.

Marcia and her mother Marianne

Early last December, I attended a holiday luncheon where each guest was asked to consider the question, “What is your hope for the 2016?”

The comments of this group of strong, influential women were without exception others-focused and community minded. When my turn came, I expressed gratitude for my mother and the hope for continued meaningful conversations in 2016.

Two women in the group were leaders with the Center for Practical Bioethics. The Center delves into the complex ethical issues relating to end of life topics.

There was no hint of end of life with my mother. However, I was keenly aware the time I had with my mother was a gift and I treated it as such. My dad had passed away two years before and I became her primary pal, care monitor and driver.

While we were always close, this focused time together began 15 months before that luncheon when my mother was in a rehabilitation facility after a hospital stay. She was in good health except she had limited mobility in her left leg.

This period gave me a rare opportunity to come to know Mother as an indomitable spirit, not only as my kindhearted and loving mother. My personal gains from this experience and conversations outpaced the stock market tenfold.

While her focus was intensive physical therapy, she saw herself as an active contributor from sharing recipes with the chef to boosting other patients’ spirits. One day as we were visiting she said, “Honey, maybe the reason all this happened was so we could help make this a better place for others.”

I had long been aware of the Center for Practical Bioethics’ Caring Conversations initiative to facilitate dialog with loved ones about end of life. Fortunately, my parents had a rock solid faith and had openly shared their wishes long before any encountering health challenges.

Parents of mid-schoolers often remark they learn the most from their children in the everyday, riding in the car or while they are standing with the refrigerator door open; such is true with our aging parents.

Each morning at 6:30am, I brought “good” coffee and visited about our schedules for the day. Mother often had a list of assignments for me from picking up a new lipstick to scheduling manicure appointments and dinner reservations. One day she asked if I would select a pretty Hallmark card for a nurse’s birthday.

When I returned that evening for dinner, I asked whom the card was for. Mother responded “Angie the overnight nurse.” Puzzled I asked, “The one that is not nice?” Mother confidently continued, “Yes, I am going to keep it under my pillow and when she comes to check on me I will give it to her.”

With a roll of my eyes and a smile inside, I placed the signed card under her pillow. The next morning as I walked in, Mother cheerfully reported Angie choked up remarking no one had ever done anything like that for her. That was classic Mother; she always saw a way that she could be a quiet conduit of care.

Last December as I shared my words at that holiday luncheon, I did not know that 10 short weeks later, on an ordinary Thursday morning, those meaningful conversations and my time with my mother would end quite unexpectedly.

What I also did not realize in those everyday conversations was the ripple effect of the anecdotal stories that I shared about Mother would become the critical foundation for information in a moment of crisis — a moment that came far too soon.

My dear friend and mentor was my next call after unsuccessful attempts to reach family. She helped guide me through the gut-wrenching decision to stop life-saving interventions for Mother. Over a couple of decades, she had learned much about my parents and their values. After a series of her laser-like, thoughtful questions, she, in about four minutes, tenderly lead me back to what I likely already knew — it was time to let Mother go.

The heartbreak was profound, what made it tolerable was the rich context of countless conversations before that unforeseen life-changing moment.

I think about Mother and Dad every day. The gifts of those ordinary conversations as I cared for Mother and equally instructive — seeing her care in action for others over my lifetime were invaluable guideposts for what was to be right around the corner.

Not long after Mother died, I became more mindful of her gift for reaching out to those often taken for granted. In that spirit, I wrote a thank you note to the lead paramedic that was with me when she died. I know that mother would have so appreciated his gentle presence and thoughtful manner in that bewildering circumstance.

I always wanted my dad’s engineering mind and my mother’s elegance and sense of humor. That was clearly not meant to be. Instead, I am the humble recipient of a lifetime of caring conversations and beneficiary of my parents’ long tail of gratitude.


Originally published at blog.coffeelunchcoffee.com on November 23, 2016.

Introduction from Alana Muller: In this season of gratitude, I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of gratitude and how it is manifested. To help give some context, I called on (OK, begged) my dear friend, Marcia McMullen. Some of you will recall that I first introduced Marcia to the CLC Community back in January 2015. Marcia is an amazing, multi-talented person who is an expert in mentoring on which she has published two books: Because You Believed In Me: Mentors and Protégés Who Shaped Our World and Because You Believed In Me: Contemporary Mentoring Stories.

On a personal note, Marcia is one of the strongest people I know. She has a capacity for support and compassion unmatched by most humans. In particular, many of us were beyond moved at the way she oversaw the comings and goings of her mother in her final couple of years. Marcia made it possible for her mother to live to the fullest and to express unparalleled kindness and appreciation to the professional caregivers and physicians who assisted her during that time. And, in fact, even after her mother’s passing, Marcia extended that appreciation by sending personal letters and special gifts to them to thank them for the way they looked after her mom. Indeed, the long tail of gratitude. It has helped me to think about the way I express appreciation; it will get you thinking, too.