For years my friends and patients have told me how surprisingly shocking the death of an elderly parent can be. We know it's inevitable yet the finality is jarring. But knowing and knowing are two different things. So her son the doctor reacted just like so many others when my mother died unexpectedly last March at 86 after falling and striking her head. I found it hard to get my arms around the idea that my mother was no longer alive.
I received an outpouring of beautiful condolence letters and contributions but have only written a handful of thank you notes. My undoubtedly overly simplistic armchair psychiatrist explanation is that if I don't write the notes then maybe she didn't die. And I'm not alone in my behavior. My 90-year-old father, married to my mother for over 66 years, asked me a few months after her death if it was ok that he was pretending she was still alive.
"Absolutely," I replied. "That's why God invented denial."
My mother lived totally in the moment. She'd start to peel an orange and would say "at this moment this orange hasn't seen the light of day." Every morning she would look out the window at our breakfast table and say, "Good morning, dogwood tree." More often than not, whatever she was experiencing was "the best ever." The best ever sunset was the one she was watching. The best ever salad was the one she ordered at our last lunch alone together a few weeks before she died. Her best ever meal was the one she had just finished. She did not want to waste a single second, as was reflected in a hilarious essay she submitted to the New York Times upon turning 75. It was rejected; but it is included, in its world premiere, below.
My wife had the idea to plant a dogwood tree at the top of the beautiful Vermont hill where we had sprinkled my mother's ashes. Yesterday, my family gathered under cloudy skies for the ceremony. One of my two sons sang a beautiful song he had composed using the lyrics of a poem called "Growing" that my mom had written when my three sisters and I were little.
Goodnight sweet baby and goodbye
I'll see you as you are no more.
For dusk has settled in the sky
And you have wondrous dreams in store.
As you sleep, a magic hand will touch you And you'll grow more wise.
Tomorrow morning you'll awaken
New and different in my eyes.
This morning my father admitted that he still finds it hard to accept she's gone and sometimes imagines that "she's just out shopping." But we're both starting to accept that we'll see her as she was no more. This afternoon I'm going to start writing thank you notes in earnest. Well, maybe tomorrow.
Elsa LaPook's submission to the New York Times:
I just celebrated my 75th birthday, and do you know what? I'm better than ever! Well, I guess you could say I'm stronger than ever. No, not in my muscles, which can be developed and maintained during regular workouts in the gym, but in my mind, which gets a daily ongoing on site workout. I now have the strength of my convictions, something I never had when I was young because in those days I always aimed to please, so that everyone would like me. I have now become much more assertive, more determined, more stubborn, and more aware of the passage of time, and as I calculate how much of it I have left, I have made a firm decision not to waste one moment of it.
With that thought in mind, here are some resolutions I've made to myself for the New Year:
1. I will not open unsolicited advertisements in the mail. This includes 10 million dollar lotteries and free trips to the Caribbean. Into the garbage they go!
2. I will not make dinner dates with boring people. This includes people who didn't used to be boring but are now.
3. I will not put off doing things that I want to do.
4. I will not attend meetings out of a feeling of obligation.
5. I will not play singles rather than doubles in tennis or play an extra hour because I'm afraid to say no.
6. I will not ride when I can walk or walk when I can ride, depending on how I feel at the time.
7. I will not take part in long phone conversations with talkative people who are boring.
8. I will not dress up to go out if I feel like wearing a shirt, sneakers and jeans.
9. I will not shop 'til I drop. I never did and I certainly won't start now.
10. I will not agree with someone unless I really do. I won't be afraid to express my opinion.
11. I will hang up instantly on phone solicitors with no apology whatsoever.
12. I will remove the tag from each and every mattress that I own with absolutely no fear of penalty of the law, and when I make the bed I won't always do hospital corners. Sorry, Mom!
13. I won't be afraid to break a date if something better comes along.
14. I plan to make a lot of money selling something on Internet. Don't know what yet.
15. I will not be intimidated by a surly maitre d' or waiter. I won't be afraid to send something back if it's not to my liking, and if the rolls aren't hot, back they'll go.
16. I'll squeeze the toothpaste from the top of the tube - so there!
17. I'll watch every Seinfeld rerun, all Frasier episodes and all Woody Allen movies.
18. I will wear white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day if I want to.
19. I will always remember that health takes priority over everything, and I will guard it carefully.
20. I will keep smelling the roses and seeing, tasting, touching and hearing the world about me for a long, long time.
Happy New Year!