making the most of your life – funeral edition

These things happen in threes. It’s what they say. “They” being people like my father, a man who actually owns a book of funeral home and cemetery locations. Who owns something like that? He also reads the obituaries daily. This past weekend Flora, the mother of my father’s wife, passed away. She had been living at home with 24-hr care; they knew this would happen “any day now.” On our drive to the family-only graveside burial service, I asked Phil if we had any tissues.

“For what?”
“To make hand puppets. What do you mean ‘for what?’”
“What, like you’re gonna cry?”
“Of course. Everyone’s going to cry!”
“She was in her 90′s. She lived a full life. She’s at peace now, not suffering. Believe me, Stephanie, no one is crying.”
“Listen, everyone cries when they hear ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’”
“Wrong religion, Stephanie.”
“No, it’s not! Jews totally say that.”
“Never. You’re wrong. Besides, I’ve never heard anyone read in English at a funeral. It’s always all in Hebrew.”
“You’ll see. And I bet you anything that everyone cries.”
“Oh, I’ll take that bet. No one’s crying. Except maybe for you when you realize you’ve lost the bet.”

We arrived as my step-mother, her brother, and my two step-sisters walked up to the hearse to identify the body. I was asked if I wanted to join them. Just the thought of it had me in tears. My step-sisters were crying before the ceremony began. I was rummaging in the glove compartment, left with crisp brown Starbucks napkins to sop up the emotion. People cry at funerals, I tried explaining to Phil, despite all the intellectual peace we’ve made, even if we didn’t know the person. You think of your own mortality, of the people you’ll leave behind. You play ‘what if?’ And sometimes, it’s just the energy, seeing other people grieving, saddened goodbyes, you’re pulled in.

We don’t cry for the person who has left us. We cry for the survivors, the people living and grieving, missing, wishing they had answers, second chances, reliving events and moments, wanting more. True, when you’ve had a full life, been there for the wedding of your grandchild, hung out with your great-grandchildren, it’s not a tragedy. It’s a gift. There’s less “reason” to cry, as if that makes any difference.

A tight knot of us stood squinting behind sunglasses at the cemetery as the rabbi commented on Flora’s life. “A college graduate even in her day, a teacher, concerned most with her family, and described by her daughter as ‘her best friend,’ there’s no greater life, no greater testimony or success than that. To be a mother, to teach and to give, to be a role model that shows how important family is, over work and career and money, it’s what really matters.” Family dinners. Homework. Paying attention. I felt proud and felt myself nodding. YES!

It’s impossible for me to attend a funeral without thinking of my own life, appreciating what a gift I have, that my legs both work, that I can breathe without the assistance of machines. That I can see and have a keen sense of smell and glorious taste buds that work! So, it’s only natural for me to ask, “Am I making the most of my life?”

I used to be achievement-focused, hungry to prove myself, wanting to be someone extraordinary. I was featured on the cover of newspapers, published books, sold options, wrote for TV. My middle-school self was proud, the kid who stayed up studying, striving for good grades, the best college, honors. I don’t think I have that drive anymore. It’s why my “ideal” and “dreams” have been so much harder to identify. I sometimes get a twinge of anxiety, worried that it’s some kind of race, that I’ve been slacking off and falling behind because I’ve been frolicking (watching beauty videos, testing out new recipes, cleaning and organizing, arranging art projects for the kids, planning dinners, viewing movies upon movies upon movies) in lieu of writing toward a goal, a book, a proposal, an article, a script, anything. Am I wasting a gift? Where has that drive for achievement gone? I mostly don’t feel competitive (I do sometimes). And I have to wonder if I’m on or off the right path. Are the competitive anxious feelings that occasionally swell up just old-habit me, the me who wasn’t evolved enough to know what mattered most in her life? Or do they bubble to the top as a reminder that I’m on the wrong path, that it’s time to do, not say? I need help figuring this out.

When we left the cemetery, after the rabbi read Psalm 23 (aka ‘The Lord is my shepherd’), and we were all in tears, I confided in Phil that I felt so thankful, so so fortunate for it to even be an option, felt so good about being home at 3pm for the kids, to suffer through homework, that I’d feel proud of my life if, like Flora, my kids one day considered me their best friend (just not when they’re young, because tough-love ‘I’m not your friend’ parenting is the way I try to go). It was then that he looked me in the eye and said, “You were right. I was wrong.”

To which I responded, “What’s that now?” Four or five times. Being right doesn’t happen in threes.

Like it or not, we’re all going to suffer at one time or another, and a lot of it, we can’t control. And while I don’t have my work-life-balance / career moves figured out, I know one thing for sure. Do whatever makes you feel giddy. Indulge in simple pleasures, surprise your friends, pay attention to your kids (which isn’t always pleasurable). Gaze at the stars, ride the carousel, fill your home with fresh flowers, lick your fingers, and drink cold peach sangria while you can. Most of all, love people with the kind of love that’s there win-or-lose, and you’ll always win.

Get On It (Keep On It)

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13 Responses to “making the most of your life – funeral edition”

  1. SusanC Says:

    Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about things related to your 2nd to last paragraph. With Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” getting so much publicity right now, I’m feeling all of this pressure to be this AMAZING woman. I went to a Seven Sisters college, then got an MBA at 24 and now work for a software giant in the Seattle area, but I really just want to hang out with my 2.5 year old and focus on the new baby that’s about to pop out of me in 4 weeks. I love that you post recipes and beauty tips and talk about trying to find amazing things to do with your kids. I don’t like that I feel like I’m half a woman if I DON’T want to focus on my career (which by the way is NOT curing cancer) and things that keep me in conference rooms where I am just wondering if my child is crying in the arms of some other woman at daycare. It’s not that I want to spend every second with him, but I know he needs me and I’m often not able to meet his needs because I’m not THERE because I’m being a career woman. And I hate that.

    BUT, here’s the thing, our kids are young. I was reading your blog before yours came along when you were, as you say, “achievement-focused”. It still seems like it wasn’t that long ago! You’re *still* achievement-focused, but your achievement is keeping peace within your family, yourself and raising the next generation of little achievers. For some of us, it works better to allow ourselves to shift focus. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be making beauty tutorials 8 years from now. You might be a head writer on a sitcom because your kids will be doing their own thing in middle/high school! But, I want it to be ok for us to not fret about needing the headspace to be who we need to be at the moment that we’re in. I don’t want to feel bad about going to a fancy college and getting an MBA but wanting to pin vegan recipes on Pinterest all day. My brain is so mushed up with kid issues that I simply can’t focus on the business stuff in a way that I feel good about. Perhaps you’re in the same place. And when you get to a place of feeling restless and not WANTING to test out recipes, you’ll pick up the laptop and a beautiful new novel will just pour out of you. We don’t have to be “teed up” to work every month of our lives. You’re working. You’re not wasting a gift. You’re exploring the different parts of your brain and being. You’ll get back to other focuses if and when you want to. And we should be allowed to do that, thankyouverymuch, Sheryl Sandberg.

    Sorry about the loss of your stepmother…I appreciate your thoughtfulness about the grieving we do. I haven’t ever thought about it that way. And love Phil’s response at the end. :)

    Reply

    • Laura Says:

      This is a beautiful reply to a beautiful post, SusanC. I share much of the same concerns about work/life balance and have been following with interest the debate sparked by Slaughter and Sandberg (I like Slaughter’s argument much more than Sandberg’s, by the way).

      I used to think of myself as very ambitious, I was always the best in my class and graduated summa cum laude before my classmates. After my son was born, 6 years ago, I was dismayed to realize that all I wanted was to be with him and spend hours in the kitchen, and kept wondering why I had spent so much time striving for an objective that I no longer (or maybe never) wanted.

      What I haven’t been able to figure out during this time is if the lack of interest in a career that so many women experience after they become mothers is influenced by biology or society. I would love to hear Stephanie’s thoughts on this issue.

      Reply

  2. Lisa Says:

    When Phil said, “You were right. I was wrong,” I wish you had picked up his hand, kissed his knuckles, and had a silent moment of marital connection.

    Reply

  3. cc Says:

    Phil admitted he was wrong! That is awesome, my husband just shuffles off to the store to get me a chocolate bar… lol

    I read somewhere that we are usually right where we need to be (barring self destructive tendencies/lifestyles..etc) and perhaps that is what is happening with you. You probably realize how fast the kids are growing and want to soak up all that you can. Before you know it they will be wanting to spend more time with friends and less with you (ah, pre teens..) I think there is no wasted time in what you are doing.

    Sort of off topic, but have you ever read any short stories by Alice Munro? I found her via Jonathan Franzen. He recommended her as a great writer. I love, lover her style and subtlety in writing about relationships, etc. I SO recommend you check her out, especially with the way you write I think you would relaly dig her. I’d be interested to hear what you think about her.

    Reply

  4. Tara Says:

    I think it comes down to perspective. To most people, you’re very “work successful”. Most people think they could/should write one book. You wrote more than one, published, and successful with them. But even before that, peers would say your work life was successful and driven.

    Not that you’ve retired, but you’ve done a lot. Personally and professionally. There are people who just live a lot of life. I would consider you one of those people. People with stories. A lot of them. Interesting stories. To me, that’s my measure of a successful life. Not sharing in someone else’s version of living- because actually our likes are vastly different. I wouldn’t cook with a gun to my head and I strongly dislike fresh flowers in my house for a multitude of reasons. But you’re right in saying that whatever it is you’re into, just go with it and not worry about what it says to you or anyone else about being driven or successful.

    My husband said yesterday that he may not be rich in money, but he gets to work down the street from our house and be home at a decent hour to spend time with me and our son so he’s “rich” in that way. It’s the same thing. Perspective. I sort of wrote a blog about something similar today on perspective- before I saw this. I think after what happened in Boston on Monday, we’re all thinking about perspectives.

    Reply

  5. Anon Says:

    I think you should rename this post : Stephanie is Still Keeping Score

    The mother of his wife, you mean his mother in law?

    Reply

  6. Alexandra Says:

    Ah, beautiful post Stephanie. I think what you (and I and so, so many others) still need to improve on, is to not be so terribly hard on yourself.
    And in case you haven’t read it yet, I wanted to share this article – I am going back to re-read it periodically and try to stay aware of it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying

    Reply

  7. Cyndi Says:

    From a man whose very young wife died from colon cancer before all their dreams could become reality:
    “Please, please, please cherish every single moment. Turn every meal into a banquet, every trip into a journey. Life is right here, right now. Milk it for everything you can. You’ll never regret taking the extra time to make every moment special.” ~ Chris Weaver

    Go to http://www.thumpershole.net to read their story. It will break your heart.

    Reply

  8. 3 teens' mom Says:

    There is a pageantry around death in our society. Who can grieve loudly enough – who can weep most convincingly – who sends the best flowers? Funny thing, though…we all die. Every single last one of us will die. Life is a temporary condition.

    And yet, we have these rituals and pageants and expectations.

    They’re strange, the rituals of humans. All bound up with religion, patriotism, expectations.

    This last few years, where death has been a constant specter, companion and presence, I’ve grown more accustomed to its company. I’m learning not to fear it or be terrorized by it. Instead, to welcome it when it is time.

    All that being said, with all of my distaste of drama, Amazing Grace, Silent Night, the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony and God Bless America will bring me to tears every time. And I’m not a crier!

    Reply

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