On October 26, 1991, a sunny autumn Saturday, we threw a small party for my mother’s 70th birthday at her modest home in Georgetown, Ky. Esophageal cancer had nearly stolen her voice, but she managed to engage with a few friends and relatives. After a short while, she retreated to her recliner in her bedroom and evidently decided she had fulfilled her earthly obligations. Sixteen days later she died.
At her funeral, during the eulogy by Rev. Bob C. Jones, her longtime pastor at the Lawrenceburg First Baptist Church, I learned that she had told him she wanted to live to be 70 years old, the length of a life as stated by King David in Psalm 90:10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” (King James version)
I remember thinking at the time that I sure wished she had shared that goal with me. As her primary caregiver, if I had realized she was committed to making it to 70, perhaps I could have planned things a little better during those last weeks, or made better decisions.
Now the 100th anniversary of her birth is nigh. And I have been thinking about her a lot.
I cannot tell you how frequently I have wished for her wisdom over the last 30 years. When I was 30, I was too young and self-absorbed to inquire about her life, her experiences, her challenges, her sorrows. By the time I was 32, she was gone.
But I learned a lot from my mother watching her die. I am grateful for that. If you’ll indulge my somewhat morbid mood, I’ll share my mother’s unspoken doctrine for a graceful exit, as divined at the time by her grief-addled daughter:
1) Leave this world as quietly as you traveled through it. Although my mother was evidently a gregarious young woman, by the time I knew her she seemed most comfortable with a good book and a glass of bourbon. She was not one to make a fuss about anything. She left us as gently and simply as she had lived. I suppose the corollary of that might also be true. If you have been inclined to make a ruckus all your life, you will probably make a ruckus as you slam the door behind you for the last time.
2) Maintain whatever dignity you can. Although sickness and dying infamously heap myriad indignities on you, hold tightly to whatever scraps of your dignity you can. If you still have your wits, treat those around you—both loved ones and medical professionals—with the kindness and the respect they deserve. Make ribald jokes to break the tension during uncomfortable moments. Encourage laughter.
3) Stay engaged with the wider world, even if that means watching Clarence Thomas insult and demean Anita Hill during Congressional hearings. Stay curious. Take interest in things outside your own sometimes harrowing situation.
4) Things really don’t matter. I was in that “acquisitive” phase when my mother died. I had already acquired a husband and a dog and a house, and I was busy acquiring all the other accoutrements of a middle-class adult existence. In her final months, I kept wanting to give her something she had always wanted, but that list for her had been empty for years. I recall that I found our contrasting attitudes jarring. I was both annoyed that I couldn’t give her something she might fleetingly treasure in her final days and ashamed that I would confer that sort of value on something I could buy.
We rarely have a choice about how this life ends. But every moment we’re still here we have a choice about how we live the one we have.
Happy birthday, Mary Marrs.