03 January 2012

Mothers, memories and matters of the heart

Christmas 2011 is in the books, and a new year awaits us, full of promise and possibilities. The season of celebration brings joy and merriment, as well as the comfort and companionship of family and friends although, for many of us, there are people whose absence is keenly felt.

My mother died 14 years ago, and 15 holiday seasons have come and gone since her unexpected passing. A victim of a tragic accident, she left us far too soon. Suddenly, my five siblings and I were motherless, our worlds whirling with so many emotions and wondering how to navigate them without her.

When I learned of my mother’s accident, I was living in Boise, and I immediately booked a flight to Chicago to be with her and the rest of my family. After packing for the trip and making travel arrangements, I decided to go for a run, as exercise has always been my primary coping strategy. I was wracked with grief, and waiting for my flight was making me crazy, so I dealt with my mounting anxiety in the best way I knew how—to run. After strapping on my running shoes, I grabbed my headphones and charged out the door with my running companion, our beloved yellow Lab, Mack. But something strange happened very quickly.

Mack and I were only a block or two from home when I found myself unable to breathe. My chest felt tight, and I couldn’t get a deep breath, much less run for miles. My profound worry and sadness were manifested in my respiratory system, so I walked home to begin my life as a member of a sisterhood to which none of us wish to belong—children of lost parents. Later that day, when I arrived at Mother’s bedside, she was clinging to life, attached to life-support and surrounded by people who loved her. Her death was imminent. The stunning and breath-taking pain of losing her would become a familiar companion for all who loved this dear woman.

My mother taught me many important life lessons, chief among them the power and generosity of extending unconditional love. She loved all of us—and everybody—seeing and extolling the goodness in each person. She taught us loyalty, to love deeply and to share whatever we had with others.

We grew up in a middle-class home, a large Irish Catholic family where Dad’s paycheck needed to stretch pretty far. Yet, we always made room at the table for anyone who happened to be in our home at mealtime. My mother was a pro at stretching a dollar as well as a meal. At Christmastime, our home was decorated in colorful and festive ways, but the centerpiece of her skillful adornment was her reverence for the “true meaning of Christmas”—to love and to serve, to live to leave the world a better place than we found it.

She instilled in us an appreciation for standing for what’s good and right. She loved children and volunteered at a children’s crisis center, where she worked in the nursery and cared for abused and neglected infants. My mother also loved animals, and her passion for furry creatures was passed on to us. But, most importantly, my mother lived what she believed—that we must consider the legacy by which we hope to be remembered. What difference will we make in the world? What ignites our passion, and how is that passion sustained? I am convinced that we each make a difference by doing, on a daily basis, the small or simple things in life that add value and improve the lives of the people around us.

As we embark on the new year and consider our resolutions, let’s keep in mind the power of the simple things in life that bring joy to others. Smile more, love deeper and pass it on. Find your passion, use it to enrich the world around you and make a promise to inspire others to do the same.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.