My mom’s last bit of advice for me

Matt Brown is a sportswriter for SB Nation. His mother passed away last week. Matt wrote this for Mothers’ Day.

Around this time last year, I wrote about a lot of the difficult feelings I have around Father’s Day, given the very complicated relationship I had with my old man. Mother’s Day, by comparison, has always been super easy. My mom is an amazing woman, and we’ve almost always had a very strong relationship.

This year has been a bit different. My mom is dying. After battling with breast cancer for two and a half years, and shattering every prognosis along the way, she is now bedridden, unable to do virtually anything by herself, just playing out the proverbial string. She’s been in this condition for months now.

Slowly losing a parent to cancer is never a good thing, but compared to the very sudden death of my father, this method does have its advantages. For one, it’s given us plenty of time to talk. A few months ago, while my mom was still much more in control of her mental faculties, she called me over to give me some last parental advice.

My mom’s given me plenty of good advice over the years, from the practical to the spiritual. After touching on a wide variety of topics (buy some life insurance you big dummy, accept the fact that you’re going to move to the suburbs some day, etc), she continued to return to one in particular over the course of the entire visit: the importance of keeping a constantly grateful heart.

She drove this home late one evening when she told me, with tears in her eyes, that remaining constantly grateful had literally kept her alive. And now, even at this dreadful hour, she told me that she had learned to be grateful for all of her trials and experiences, even “this one.”

I’ve heard this line in church many times, both from speakers at General Conference, to folks at Testimony Meetings, and elsewhere, and I’ve always rolled my eyes to it. It’s one thing, after the benefit of years of reflection, to look back at horrible experiences and decide that they also produced some element of personal growth. But to actually be out and out grateful for them seemed preposterous. I felt like the only people who could say that were those that were putting on some level of public performance, so others would notice how virtuous they are, or individuals who simply never had anything really bad happen to them.

That would not describe my mother.

My mom immigrated from Brazil to Cleveland (perhaps the most un-Brazil place on earth) when she was in elementary school. She was the first in the family to learn English, and had to handle everything that comes with that. They dealt with poverty, like, real, capital P type poverty. Shortly after the move to America, her parents split up. She lived alone by the time she was 14.

Then, somehow, she climbed out and was accepted to NYU, only to drop out thanks to a lack of money (and also to marry my dad). Three kids and a move back to Ohio later, she decided to finish her Bachelors degree, while working. She never stopped, moving all the way to a PhD, collecting three different Masters degrees along the way. During this time, she also worked: as a middle school teacher, then principal, then a leader in online schools.

After battling racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, a marriage that crumbled after her spouse succumbed to mental illness, AND a previous battle with breast cancer, my mom has beaten it all, and finally emerged as an academic. She accepted an assistant professorship at East Carolina University, where she would study and teach educational leadership, training would-be professors in high-poverty districts in North Carolina. It was a triumphant victory.

And then, weeks after moving to Greenville, her cancer returned and all of that was ripped away from her. If ANYBODY had a license to be bitter, it was this woman. Her life was like Job’s, had Job decided to pursue higher education.

But she isn’t bitter. Like, legitimately isn’t bitter. Naturally, she isn’t thrilled about these particular challenges. Like all of us, she understood that none of this was fair. But hey, not wanting to undergo trials is pretty standard. Even Jesus felt that way.

But recognizing how a horrible a situation is and being able to suss out a few positives are not, apparently, incongruous actions. My mom is grateful that she’s had sufficient notice to prepare her affairs. She’s grateful that she’s had plenty of time to tell her children, and grandchildren, that she loves them. And she’s grateful for the opportunity to be reminded just how many people truly love her.

Am I at that point? Hell no. There is no gratitude in my heart for the fact that my daughter will have no grandparents on my side, or that I will lose both of my parents before I turn 30. There is no gratitude that my mom’s professional ambitions, which were solely to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden in our society, have been cut short. There is no gratitude in my heart that a proud and righteous woman has been denied even a dignified exit to her life’s journey. That’s all bullshit, in my opinion.

I am embittered. And that has helped rot me from the inside, damaging my relationships with others, weakening my ability to properly deal with the other challenges that life offers, and has completely insulated me from the ability to properly help anybody else. How can I be of actual service to another human being, when I can’t get out of my own head and my own goddamn problems?

This, I think, is an easy trap for anybody to fall into, even without a hugely traumatic event like the death of a parent. It’s certainly not the only time in my life I’ve felt that way.

It was not an easy process for my mom to avoid that trap. It required a lot of prayer, of scripture study, and of humility. It required some difficult internal conversations, especially after her first painful bouts with chemo, which started just a few weeks after her husband died. But as that thinking led to other service opportunities, or gave additional strength, she said it got easier.

As my mom lay nearly helpless on her bed, after her lamenting that she would not get to see her grandbabies grow up, or her research fully published and executed, she lamented that she wasn’t really able to be of service to anybody anymore. More than anybody I have ever met, my mom embodied the spirit that King Benjamin preached of in Mosiah 2. From verse 17,

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

She eventually helped create a feedback loop. By training herself to be thankful for whatever came her way, she became more compassionate, and more attuned to the needs of others, providing service opportunities, which fed into more gratitude, which continued the cycle. Eventually, this helped to allow her to function, even in the face of such horrendous misfortunes that befell her.

That doesn’t mean she’s perfect (she isn’t). That grateful heart didn’t mean she is passive either (she VERY much isn’t that). Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, it doesn’t give any sugar or water to make lemonade with. But you can learn to appreciate the fact that said lemons mean you won’t die of scurvy, and they might make that putrid fish that life will throw out you next go down a little bit easier. And when you train yourself to think like that, there’s little you won’t be able to handle.

I’m not there yet. Maybe I won’t ever get there. I can’t say I’m grateful for this particular trial. I wish it wasn’t happening, not just for her sake, but also for mine. It is not fair, and whenever somebody at church says, even well-meaningly, that “well, everything happens for a reason”, it takes every ounce of my self control to not just punch them in the goddamn throat.

But I can say that I am grateful for the example that I received from my tough, brave, intellectual, Christ-like mom. I can say that I am grateful for the slew of positive, happy memories I’ve had with her, and that I’ve had a chance to revisit over these last few months.

Maybe that’s a start. I’ll have the rest of my life to figure out the best way to put my mom’s advice into practice.

Speaking of that, shoot. I should probably buy some life insurance this week too.

Comments

  1. There are few more idiotic phrases non-judiciosly circulated than “Everything happens for a reason.” Meanwhile, it is patently false. No child has ever been molested for a ‘Reason.’ My own inadequate rendering of a similar phrase is, “Sometimes, things happen for a reason, sometimes they don’t.”

    I am so sorry for your pain and suffering and thank you for sharing your wonderful Mother’s sermon on gratitude. I too am nowhere near her unconditional gratitude and for me, just me, I believe you shared this for a reason. You know one of those ‘Sometimes.’ With all my heart I wish the largest amount of peace available to you.

  2. “Everything happens for a reason” is a deepity. It is literally true, but meaningless because it is true only in the sense that everything is caused by something. But it does not follow that the cause of everything that happens is meaningful or comforting. Sometimes the “reason” that something bad happens might be that God wants you to learn something, but just as often, the “reason” is that you made a dumb decision, or failed to plan, or that someone else hurt you out of malice, neglect, or indifference. Everything happens for a reason is one of those things that superficially sounds comforting, but if you actually think about it, it’s pretty meaningless.

  3. peterllc says:

    My mom died a miserable death due to the effects of cancer a couple of years ago too, and for me the gospel isn’t at its best in providing answers to why bad things happen–the “everything happens for a reason” line is a radioactive spiritual twinkie in my humble estimation–but it does provide a framework for developing more or less productive responses to suffering. Sounds like your mother was good at that, and that is quite the legacy.

  4. Sometimes, perhaps most often, there is no meaning in what happens. Events are a function of the biological and natural world. Trying to divine a “Reason” for which “everything” happens is a fools errand. At least right now. The most we can hope is that we can assign a meaning to each event on an ad hoc basis, once we reach some state of being in which we can observe from some kind of distance or buffer with some degree of clarity and contemplate what happened to us, what we did to others, and what we did with what chaos and the natural world shaped of our biologies and lives. At that future time, we can create a “meaning” for each horrible experience in mortality. As for now, we would do well to move away from comforting though entirely empty deepities such as “everything happens for a reason.”

  5. Bless you if you can learn gratitude without pain and suffering. It’s a lesson most learn the hard way.

  6. Jared vdH says:

    This touched me deeply. Thank you.

  7. This piece resonated with me because I can feel myself doing the same thing, the turning inward, the bitterness, the darkness that grows as you watch “everyone else” have happy, un stressful, “easy” lives.

    I started to write a diatribe on how and what things have helped, but I think I would rather say this: Yes, it is all Bullshit. It’s bullshit that your amazing mother is passing and it’s bullshit that you have to deal with that already.
    *hugs*
    Thank you for writing this and sharing. I needed to read it.

    Ally

  8. There’s an old man dying in our ward. He’s always been such a positive, cheerful guy, very grateful for his fantastic children (and they really are), and just a great guy to have around. As often happens with severe physical suffering, it seems to have stripped away his layers to reveal his basic self, and his basic self is still cheerful, optimistic, and grateful. Ever time I encounter such people, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a genetic component to it. I wish my basic self were so beautiful.

  9. Sounds like you and your mom had a beautiful relationship.

  10. eponymous says:

    I am struggling with a similar scenario with my Dad. I don’t understand it and right now thanks to you I can’t stop my eyes from tearing up either. Thank you. I needed to read this. I hope you find peace.

  11. Thrown away says:

    This was really beautiful, thank you so much for sharing. I lost my dad a couple of years ago to a miserable cancer death that he certainly did not deserve . He somehow remained his sweet self until the end.

  12. I have an acute absence of gratitude today, and this was a most gentle and positive way for me to see what I lack, and feel that it within my power to change. Your mom is still helping people. God bless her, and you.

    And best of luck on your self-control with those whose eyes are not yet open.

  13. I’m so sorry for your loss. Last week I taught Mosiah 18 in Gospel Doctrine and hopped up on my soapbox about how we as a culture (both LDS and American) are so very uncomfortable with mourning. Yet there it is in our scripture: mourn with those who mourn, which means not tossing empty platitudes at those who clearly need to mourn. Thank you for writing and sharing this. Perhaps if more of us call out life’s injustices for what they are–unfair and inexplicable–we will approach learning how to mourn with others.

  14. Thank you all very much for reading, and for your comments. I very much enjoyed reading them and learning from them today.

  15. The “EHFAR” phrase is really just place filler and not at all good way to help someone in pain. It *is* a great shortcut to make that pained person feel ignored even as they talk with someone. No one needs that isolation, especially while mourning. If you don’t know what to say, stick with silence – silence won’t hurt. Offer specific help. Don’t tell someone that the person they’re mourning is looking down or in on them or similar unless you know whereof you speak AND know that it’s going to be received well. That kind of platitude is painful to the bone.