One year ago, so far as we knew, my mother was in perfect health. A few days ago, I watched her take her last breath. The time since her diagnosis has been very difficult, for Anne and for everyone who loved her. The road ahead looks to be difficult too for those of us left behind, our only comfort being that we had the good fortune of knowing her, and knowing she will not suffer anymore.
This is a time of great sadness and pain, and though she wouldn’t want any of us to experience these hardships, she, being the most sympathetic person I knew, would fully understand and expect us to. There is so much that is tragic about losing her, and the pain is complex. But we have all grieved for Anne, and will grieve for her in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. Today I wish to give voice to happier thoughts as well, because happiness was one of her defining qualities; happiness was a prominent part of her experience, and of the experience of people in her presence.
My mother was the happiest person I knew. She once declared, in fact, to general astonishment, that she’d “never been depressed.” She had a dazzling, ubiquitous smile and a genuine, enthusiastic laugh. Anne always thought that she had the best childhood, the best parents, the best friends and the best family. She appreciated all the good things in her life, and would always remember those good things when confronted with negative experiences. After she was diagnosed, she told me that it wasn’t so bad because we – the family – had always been so lucky. Part of this ability to be happy may have been innate, but not completely, I believe; it was part of her outlook on life, and something she worked at.
Anne took great pleasure in simple things. If she had a deck of cards, or a good novel, or was watching television, she was very happy. She loved massages and talking to people. She never let anything get to her, not because she was immune, but because she didn’t want to spend time feeling irritated. It was something she always tried to instil in us (particularly me and my father), to not be bothered by problems irrelevant or outside our power, or both. She also loved to learn and work on new and various projects or jobs. From many memories that come to mind from over the years, I recall that she tried tap dancing, making stained glass, and studying Chinese opera. She and my father took great interest in renovating the two houses I grew up in, and accomplished impressive tasks. I still can’t believe that she laid down much of our hardwood floor with professional perfection. In her life my mother had several jobs, and she excelled and took pleasure in each of them. She took what was available and made the best of it, and was so successful that you might have thought she’d chosen her paths with greater agency.
She also knew the importance of living in the moment. For most of Anne’s life, good moments were abundant, and when the bigger picture was less rosy – living under the poverty line, dealing with crazy adolescent children, losing her parents – she knew how to enjoy the simple pleasures. This was proven to be true again when the cancer came, as she could put such thoughts aside and lose herself in a card game, a good movie, a foot massage and the company of her loved ones. It was something that amazed us, the family, as well as other friends and visitors, and something that was frequently remarked upon; how could someone in her position be so happy? I recall one day in particular in the last year, a day in early May on which she received some bad news from a doctor. It was the only day in my life I’d seen her down. That night Miriam and I lay next to her and cried, saddened by the reality, and also to see our invincible mother look defeated. But I know that at some point between then and the next morning she made a conscious decision to be happy, because when we greeted each other after rising, she was smiling; and she gave me a big hug, and said good things, and she might as well have said, “I’m not going to let this thing ruin my experience.” And she didn’t.
As the cancer progressed, her good moments became fewer and farther between, but she still knew how to enjoy them. Despite all she’d been through, all the surgeries, tubes and disappointments, the constant degradation of quality of life, she was often the most positive and upbeat person in the house. It’s important to mention this because she actually kept us going.
Love and compassion
My mother had a great capacity for kindness and love, and especially for unconditional love. I find it remarkable that she never spoke or acted unkindly to me in her whole life. It wasn’t just her contagious happiness that drew people to her, but also her compassion. She was also acutely sensitive to the feelings of others. I was frequently surprised to hear her express what people in particular situations might be feeling, surprised not only by how much she thought about others, but by her profound insight on a great variety of emotional issues. It was perhaps due to her love, compassion and insight that she also had a great ability to console people in emotional distress. You always felt better after talking to Anne about your problems.
My best friend Steve Armstrong wrote something nice encapsulating these qualities: “She had this way of making everything in this world OK, and all the worries and fears, or concerns seemed to melt away with one of her smiles. I've always had some nervousness and shyness in me, ever since I was a little kid. But I can honestly say that your mom made me feel more comfortable about myself than anyone I've ever known. I still remember as a teenager the first time you brought me over, and we were eating her chick pea salad and playing with the cats. I felt so nervous and shy, and your mom was so nice to me that I almost started to cry.” These past few days, I have been enormously comforted to hear similar testimonies from many, many people.
Courage and selflessness
This was a year of intense emotional, psychological and physical challenge for Anne, a year of constant disappointment in terms of her recovery, and she survived it with courage both inspiring and poignant to behold. Her concerns remained ever for her family. From her diagnosis to her decision to leave us, she only worried about the consequences of her illness in terms of how we would be affected.
I have come to believe that a sudden death is easier on the victim and harder on the bereaved, whereas a slow death is harder on the victim and easier on the survivors – relatively speaking, of course. It’s important to those losing a loved one to feel like they had the opportunity to say everything they needed and wanted to say. It is a testament to Anne’s infinite compassion for her family that she considered this time a great gift.
If you knew Anne’s love, compassion and positive nature as a friend, you can imagine what it meant to me to be her son. She was the most important and beloved person in my life, and it is impossible for me to see the world now the way I did when she was alive. But like her, I choose to look at the good side of all this. The enormity of my grief, and of the emptiness her departure has caused, is, after all, a reflection of the vastness of her love; and for me, a lifetime of good memories. I learned so much from her, and will continue to learn from her. I choose to live, love and see life the way she did.
Please remember these things about Anne. I can’t think of a better legacy than that people follow her example in enjoying life’s small and great pleasures, making the best of situations, loving family unconditionally, and being compassionate. Also remember to smile all the time and laugh a lot. Smiling is one of the most underrated tools for happiness. If you knew my mom, picture her now – I bet she’s smiling.