Our kids teach us a lot about life. Doesn’t matter if they’re in-utero, a newborn, a toddler, or a teen. An obvious statement of course, but not only do our children teach us about their journey, they teach us about our own. Today it happened again, O taught me something. He reminded me about self. He reminded me about our need to be who we say we are and our need to perform at our best. When we don’t, it can unravel us.
It is our own disappointment in self that stings the most. I thought about this while reading Dr Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker piece entitled Personal Best. To me, Dr Gawande’s courageous act of getting an expert coach exceeds his desire to better himself as a surgeon and beat the national averages on complications. He wants to stay true to himself; he wants ongoing improvement and escalating precision. He doesn’t want to let himself down. If we let others down, it feels absolutely terrible. When we let ourselves down by acting against our integrity or mission, it can feel far worse. Visceral. Two things converged on me today:
One, being a parent is terrifying. Terrifying in all the ways we worry about our children, from their health to their capacity to their future. But also terrifying in the unspeakable ways. In the ways we don’t say out loud because they are simply too frightening. For example, I go through phases (on take-off on the tarmac or in the dark of night) where I spend a good deal of time thinking about how my kids will do after the day I die. I worry about dying for me, but more I worry about dying for them. Yes, I hone in on what I’ll miss and how much I want to be there, but also I think about what dying would look like to them. What it will sound like. What it will smell like. I wonder, what they would do without my singing? How will they really know how much I love them? I feel incredibly desperate when I get to that spot.
Something immutable in me is the need to ensure my children know about this ungoverned, uncontrollable, unconditional love. I want them to know this now but also in the future. Will they have enough of me in their lives to remember this love after I die? O is just about to turn 3 years old. Together, we’re intertwined, connected, co-dependent, and madly in love. But he’s not even three. If tomorrow the bus runs me over, will he remember me? How will he know forever the absolute overwhelm I have for him. Tell me, how will he know?
I’ve written the boys letters. Sometimes it helps me feel at ease. Yet somehow today, those don’t even seem to fill the bowl.
This is where I let myself down. I don’t even know how I want to die. I haven’t told those that love me what I wish for in dying. And I really should. But wait,
O woke up this AM with a wet bed, wet jammies, and wet new undies. The night before, he’d stayed dry and he had demonstrated immeasurable pride when he arose from his dry bed. When it dawned on him this morning that he didn’t do what he had hoped, he went ballistic and became overrun with anger. The anger was directed entirely at himself. At one point he simply opened his jaw and screamed. I’d never seen him become so overwhelming disappointing. In himself. A major mega-tantrum ensued. Our morning went completely off the rails. And so all this served as a very solid reminder: It really is difficult living up to our own expectations, isn’t it?
Two, I don’t have a living will. And I need one. I’ve been thinking this for about 10 years. The inconvenience of finding a lawyer, the inconvenience of having an open discussion about death, and the inconvenience of thinking about this straight on have all stood in my way. I need my family to really know how I feel about dying and what I wish for. As Alexandra Drane reminds us, and as Atul Gawande has succulently written: You only die once. We should die really well. Part of doing it well will help me care for my children. Will help me find peace. This all came together today.
So it was O who reminded me so robustly this morning, I don’t want to mess this dying thing up. Survival is key, but dying well is important, too. Doing this well will serve my family, too.
Watch this 10-minute video about the Engage With Grace movement. Find out the 5 questions you can ask of yourself, and ask your loved ones now. You don’t have to wait to make a living will. Hear a powerful story about a mom, her loving family, their defiance of the health system, and learn about the beautiful, final moment she shared with her daughter that inspired a movement. Precious, beautiful, inspiring.