A Life That Mattered
Garrison Keillor once said that you spend your whole life wondering what people would say at your funeral, only to miss finding out by just a few days.
When I visited my mother in late November, only a couple of months ago, I was very apprehensive about what I could say to her. Despite the enormous support provided by Steven and Debbie and their kids, she seemed to have given up.
But then we talked about her living the life she could have for however long she had it. If she wanted to live, she could fight back against being victimised by cancer: she should do the things that made her happy, and to sort out what needed to be done. She carefully drew up a list of 18 things, from re-starting pottery to walking every day to getting some physiotherapy and consulting a lawyer. We agreed that she would do one productive thing every day. On the next day, we were having lunch and I remarked how much her life mattered, and tears started rolling down her face. She said that she had never been sure that her life mattered, and it was at that point that we agreed to title her list, “I Matter”.
The start to her life gave reason for her to feel unsafe. Her mother was loving but more than a bit crazy, and her father suffered from depression and committed suicide by jumping off a bridge when she was a teenager. I think she had to take some responsibility for her mother and for her younger sister Madge before and after her father’s death. Later, she married two men both of whom proved to be unfaithful, and her two sons moved far away, especially me to Australia.
Our father left when I was 3 and Steven was 1, and she had to survive as a single mother with no money and two young children in New York City with all the employment skills gained studying modern dance at Bennington College. Nonetheless, she was warm, strong, very intelligent and determined, and became a secretary and then later on an administrator, and finally completed a master’s of social work late in life, becoming a psychotherapist.
She lived most of her life as an independent and capable woman, never really stopping work until very near the end of her life.
It saddens me enormously to think that she never knew the impact she had on the people around her, and that she suffered such self-doubt. Even in small ways, she would go for a drive with my wife Kerry and I, go into a shop, obsess about whether to buy the “red” or the “blue” earrings, choose the red, and then get home and recriminate herself for not having chosen the blue, driving herself and us a little bit mad in the process.
So she didn’t know how much she made a difference: When Steven and I were growing up, I knew that she would give her right arm for us, and this always seemed critically important to me, even as a kid. She was just absolutely there for us, and we knew it. Her heart was huge, even though her culinary skills never rose above “if it’s Tuesday it must be meat loaf”. She had to put up with two challenging sons that often scrapped with each other, lit firecrackers in our apartment building, dropped baggies filled with water onto people from our third floor window, and generated threats from the landlord. She probably dreaded parent-teacher meetings. Nonetheless, we always knew she was proud of us, even when we would have sorely sorely tested any parent’s patience.
She mattered: Her children, her grandchildren, her daughters-in-law, all felt special with her. Even though her grandchildren (particularly in Australia) had limited time with her, they all felt a strong bond with her, and knew that she was there for them. In 2010, my daughter Caitlin travelled to New York, and my mother was ill with cancer and “chemo brain”. Diana needed help with shopping and cooking and the like. It was typical of her that, rather than ask her young, healthy granddaughter for a bit of help, her worry was that SHE couldn’t entertain CAITLIN. All the Austin grandchildren talked about how much their time with her meant to them too.
She mattered: Her friends going back more than six decades, including those here today, know what a positive, cheerful spirit she was, looking for the best in the world, and in people, and even in the difficult circumstances in which she found herself. She gave to everybody she loved, and she spent her life quietly caring for her family and her friends and the people she worked with, and, later, her patients.
She mattered: Even though she had little training, she developed a career, moving into administration in her professional life, business-like and capable and organised and looking after people and maintaining a commitment to social justice. Even later, with her patients, I have no doubt they felt cared for by her. Even though she was never a particularly sophisticated therapist, people trusted her because they knew she was there for them too.
She mattered: Her fun things were making and giving pottery, and making cards for people. Simple things that she enjoyed, and were part of her giving to the people she cared about. Even after her death, Steven and I gave a plate of hers to a friend and neighbor of hers at Renaissance, and the woman became tearful with gratitude.
This friend had called her “the little butterfly”, partially because she had shrunk to hobbit size, but more because of the lightness of her spirit and her capacity to spread joy. She maintained a childlike wonder at the real world that never faded, even though it meant that there were ways in which she was singularly lacking in practicality despite having latterly embraced the world of email.
So as her older son I see this gathering as a loving message to her, loud and clear, from all of us,to wherever she is, that this is the moment to celebrate a very special life that mattered much much more than she ever believed.