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.