Mom’s wisdom never dies
By Craig Dresang, CEO
During the summer of 2022, I crossed an invisible mile marker, reaching a more advanced age than my mom did when she died. From that scorching August day forward, I felt that every new day would be uncharted territory. Mom’s atlas for aging into each year had now ended, and the world became flat. I asked myself, “What will happen when my life meanders off the edges of the map?” Living past 60 became an extraordinary and terrifying gift that I was forced to accept.
My mom forged a path through every possible challenge for precisely 21,928 days. Even in her last week, she was clearing the ground where she knew her children would need to one day walk. Now, I wondered, “Where is the path for the 21,929th day and all the days beyond that?” On some level, living longer than she did meant that I could no longer be her Bubala. Instead, I just became an aging man-baby who still misses his mom. She never got to teach us how to walk into, and manage, all the trials and fears that come with aging into our 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.
Most days, I feel simultaneously youthful and ancient. My spirit tells me that I am still a young boy who needs a hug from his mom and who longs to hear her warm raspy voice, but when I look in the mirror, the image of my weathered balding 60-year-old dad is staring back at me.
Mom once told me that she proudly wore every year as a badge of honor. Aging is a random and mostly unearned gift that is not freely distributed to everyone. “Savor every year, and don’t leave too much inheritance,” she said. “Enjoy it while you can.” According to her, the idea is to spend your life and your wealth on people, things, and experiences that bring you and others joy. I remember her gently but firmly grabbing my chin with her hand to make direct eye contact with me and saying, “I plan on spending most of what would be an inheritance so don’t expect a windfall.”
This was a lesson she gleaned from living with cancer for two decades, and from unexpectedly losing friends who were in the prime of their lives. When I was still a toddler, my dad’s 30-year-old best friend keeled over from a heart attack playing cribbage at a card table in his living room. He was dead before the ambulance arrived. My own sister was born with a life-threatening condition and was not expected to live through her teenage years. Fortunately, however, advances in modern medicine along with a healthy dose of good fortune made it possible for her to reach an age that neither of our parents did.
Living with the reality and unpredictability of death made my mom less presumptuous about life. She frequently talked about friends who worked years at jobs that they hated. In doing so, they were building a retirement fund so that they could one day enjoy life. “Foolish,” she would tell me. “What if they don’t make it to retirement? What makes them so certain that they will live that long? They should make the life they want now.” It was a good lesson for her to teach me at a young age. Our time here can be far too brief to chain yourself to a way of life that you hate for a future that is not guaranteed. Reaching retirement is an illusion dependent on a roll of the dice.
Just weeks before mom’s death, my sister Dawn and I pulled together a last-minute surprise celebration for her 60th birthday. The idea of throwing a party began as a random inkling. But soon, our hunch morphed into an unexplainable sense of urgency. Neither one of us really understood where this drive to pull off an eleventh-hour party came from.
We invited everyone … her parents and five siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins and second cousins, lifelong pals from high school, and friends she made during her early years of raising three children. Even though we were unwilling to acknowledge or admit out loud that mom could die soon, the gathering at my sister’s house magically morphed into a final and unplanned celebration — and retelling — of her life.
The day was a living scrapbook where the characters in old photographs came to life and told stories. It was like she got to participate in her own memorial service and hear what people had to say about her. Colorful adventures and meaningful stories were re-lived with great affection and humor. Words and gestures of love were freely expressed and on full display. The humid Wisconsin summer air was filled with laughter and the smell of grilled burgers and freshly cut grass. The day was simultaneously perfect, joyful, and heartbreaking because we all sensed what it meant and what was coming.
Although mom put up a good front, we could tell that bits of her spirit and spark were disappearing, day by day. Her once strong and resilient body seemed vulnerable, and even fragile. She barely moved from her strategically placed lawn chair, and her usual and unique way of projecting light and laughter was no longer effortless. It required every bit of her energy and focus. By the end of her celebration, she was clearly tired. Even so, she was determined to not spend the night at my sister’s house.
Instead, she wanted to climb back into her sporty red Firebird and have my dad drive three hours to Galena, a scenic and historic Mississippi River town where the borders of Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa come together.
Looking back, I realize that mom understood that her time was short. The trip to Galena was her attempt to have one more adventure with her husband of 45 years. She thought it would be a mini-vacation for the two of them. It was her last hurrah. They had no advance plans or hotel reservations when they left the birthday party. Mom said they would figure things out once they got to their destination – and off they drove.
Days later, my dad told me that Galena was a bit of a bust. When they arrived, every hotel and motel in town had a “no vacancy” sign. Refusing to give up on the adventure, my mom decided they should improvise so they went to Walmart to buy pillows and a comforter. They put the seats down in the Firebird and slept in the car that night. In the morning, they returned the comforter and pillows to Walmart and then had breakfast at a downtown diner on Main Street. After coffee, runny eggs and toast, they drove past all the tourist sites and then headed toward home which was a five-hour drive north.
The party at my sister’s house would be the last time I saw my mom in her natural, free state. A few weeks later she was admitted to the hospital and never returned home. I have often shared with my sister that this last-minute out-of-the-blue party that we felt compelled to host on mom’s behalf was nothing less than the Divine whispering into our ears: “Have a party. Do it now. Surround your mom with love … and do it today. Don’t wait!”
Quite unintentionally, this gathering was our final, and most significant, gift to our mom. It was a gift that would have been missed if she had not taught us how to listen and respond when life whispers.