How to live like you’re dying

Dear Daughter,

This past weekend, one of my co-workers passed away from complications following surgery. Just a few weeks ago, she was walking around like normal, not aware that her days were coming to an end. And now she’s gone.

Similarly, a long-time family friend recently was told she has an aggressive form of cancer in her liver and has only four to six months to live.

The stories of these two women have been a bit of a wake-up call for me. A reminder that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Everyone imagines they’ll die when they’re old and feeble, and somehow that makes death less scary. But sometimes the Lord takes us earlier. Sometimes He takes us suddenly. We have to be prepared for either possibility.

The thought of death is frightening. Overwhelming. It can make us go into denial or live in a perpetual state of fear. But it’s important to think about death in a healthy way. There are two things we can learn from death:

Life means more. Sometimes life is fun, flashy and fulfilling. Most of the time, however, it’s boring, slow and unsatisfactory. But imagine you knew you were going to die soon. Suddenly, everything would seem much more significant. Even a trip to the grocery store would have greater purpose and meaning. When we take our life for granted, when we feel like we’ll live forever, we’re more inclined to complain, procrastinate, hold grudges… But if we were to treat every day as if it’s our last, all of the things we complain about would seem so silly. We don’t have time to get hung up on every petty little detail. We need to focus on what’s good and beautiful and meaningful. We need to find the good and beautiful and meaningful in even the smallest of tasks and in even the most difficult people.

People mean more. While it’s challenging to think about our own death, it’s far more difficult to imagine the death of a loved one. As your mother, I sometimes think about the bad things that could potentially happen to you and it drives me to a state of panic. I can come to terms with my own death. I can’t bear to even think about yours. But the people we love WILL die one day. Hopefully not for a long, long time, but it could possibly be today. Knowing this makes our loved ones that much more precious. Yes, people are complicated. And sometimes annoying. But they are put into our lives for a reason and must be treated as such. When you’re fighting with a friend or family member, think about how you would feel if suddenly they weren’t here anymore. Your attitude will shift, I’m sure.

Death seems like a negative thing, but really it’s a positive. If it makes you hug your loved ones a little tighter, treat them a little more kindly, it’s a good thing. If it makes you savor even the most menial task, if it makes you appreciate even the rainiest of days, it’s a good thing.

Death is good because it reminds us that life is good.

Love,
Mom

Why parenting is awful but incredible

Dear Daughter,

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. One of my favorite holidays! It’s nice that there’s a whole day dedicated to the most important job in the world.

A friend of mine, who is in a long-term relationship but not yet married, has said recently that she doesn’t know if she could be a mom. She hears the stories of kids throwing temper tantrums, pooping or peeing in places they shouldn’t be, monopolizing their parents’ time—and their sleep!—and she thinks, “I don’t want that!” Based on that information alone, I don’t blame her.

So much of parenting is unglamorous, sure. But it’s what’s on the other side that makes it worthwhile. In the movie The Back-up Plan, a man describes parenting like this:

Comical, yes, but the most accurate summation of parenting I’ve heard. I don’t want you to worry about the “awful” moments. Because the incredible moments somehow make those disappear.

I love being your mother because I love seeing your smile of delight when you learn something new. I love when you curl up next to me on the couch. I love hearing your belly laugh. I love the silly pranks you pull, and the thoughtful gestures you do that take my breath away. I love seeing your talents develop. I love watching you grow into a beautiful young woman…

I could go on and on.

I’m so proud that you’re my daughter, Daughter. Thanks for making me a mom.

Love,
Mom

Pain passes…

Dear Daughter,

A few minutes ago, I swung my legs up from the floor onto the couch (which is the cozy spot where I write these letters). When I made that move, I thought about how difficult it would have been to do that just three months ago, when I was recovering from my c-section surgery. At that time, moving at all was painful, let alone anything requiring ab muscles. Raising my feet from the ground to the couch or bed was a slow process that involved a lot of cringing, wincing and even some tears. I remember thinking at that time that it would never get better, that the pain would never go away.

But it did.

This got me thinking about pain, both physical and emotional. When you’re hurting, it permeates your entire sense of being. You can’t think about anything else because the pain is so intense it’s crippling. What once seemed like an effortless, involuntary task can now feel like the most difficult thing in the world. Relief seems like light years away. You begin to wonder if this is your new reality, if you’re going to have to hurt for the rest of your life.

I think about the times I’ve been dumped by a boy, which is arguably one of the most painful experiences one can go through. They call it a “broken” heart for a reason. During those breakups, I couldn’t eat or sleep or write my name without thinking about the rejection. I would wake up and hope that it was just a bad dream. But it wasn’t. It was real. So I had to live another day dealing with this weight of grief.

Wounds do heal, though, slowly but surely. They start to scab, to toughen, so that after awhile they’re not so tender anymore. After every breakup, I made it through each day a little better than the last, and before long, the good moments outweighed the bad. I didn’t forget about the pain completely. I’m still always aware of what caused it so that I can try to keep it from happening again. But even though the memory is still there, the heartache is long gone.

Daughter, both your body and your heart will be hurt many times throughout your life. When you’re going through that pain, remember that it WILL get better. The pain WILL fade away and before long you’ll be swinging your legs up onto the couch like it’s the easiest thing in the world. You will survive this, and you’ll be a better, stronger person because of it.

Love,
Mom

This is how Time works

Dear Daughter,

I don’t care what anyone tells you… Time is not a measure, it is a being. A living, breathing, bipolar being. I swear it has a personality. Multiple, actually. One minute, Time can be your best friend and another? Your worst enemy. It likes to mess with you too, that Time. It makes you think you’ll have lots of it and then, out of nowhere, it’s gone. And yet, it’s always there. It’s enough to drive a grown woman mad.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about Time through the years:

1) Time really does fly when you’re having fun. It’s one of life’s cruelest realities, right up there with the fact that healthy food tastes bad and unhealthy food tastes good. Say you’re in Aruba for your honeymoon. At first you think five days in Aruba is a long time. But the bright and sunny days pass by as quickly as the waves of the Aruban shore. And before you know it, you’re gripping onto your beach chair for dear life, forcing your husband to pry your fingers from it and tell you to get moving already so you don’t miss your flight. This is strictly hypothetical, of course.

2) It also flies when you have things to do. I always, always underestimate the amount of time it will take me to do my Saturday chores (cleaning the house, grocery shopping, laundry, etc.) Throughout the week, I tend to put things off until the weekend because I think I’ll have all the Time in the world. But when you lump it all into one day, it’s like Time speeds up just to mess with you. You end up accomplishing two out of the eight things on your to-do list, which makes you feel like a big whopping failure. Depressing, I know. The point here is to have low expectations. I normally would  never recommend that but in this case, it seems to be the only way to end the day not wanting to punish yourself.

3) It does NOT fly when you’re at work or school. I think when we’re in situations where we’re bored, we’re just more aware of time. So we look at the clock more often, only to see that just two minutes have passed, not the 30 minutes we were hoping for. This can be fixed, at work anyway, by referring to #2 above. If you make sure you have a lot of work to do, Time will pass more quickly, and before you know it you’ll be on your way home, singing “Forget You” at the top of your lungs and contemplating whether or not to cook that healthy chicken dish tonight or just pick up a junior cheeseburger deluxe from Wendys. Once again: hypothetical.

4) Sometimes it stands still. These moments are rare, and they can be good or bad. It could happen when you see a loved one who’s been gone for a long time, or during an accident when your life flashes before your eyes. Whenever it does happen, take note and etch it into your memory. When time stands still, it’s because your life is about to change.

The bottom line is to make the most of Time. There are 24 hours in a day—always has been, always will be. Knowing that, and knowing the four rules above, get ahead of Time. Don’t let it control you. Know what to expect and plan accordingly. Spend your Time on things that matter. (For the record, sometimes what matters is alone time and family time. Just saying you don’t always have to be productive.) And as much as Time will drive you crazy, it really is precious. Don’t waste it.

Love,
Mom

The proliferation of sex

Dear Daughter,

Sex is everywhere.

It’s on TV, magazine covers, in movies, music… you can’t be in touch with the outside world and NOT see or hear something about sex, really. In just the past few years, it’s become one of the most (if not THE most) prolific topics in our culture.

It’s difficult for parents to know how to handle this. We need to be more vigilant than ever to monitor what you’re seeing and hearing. But sometimes our vigilance falls short, or we’re not cautious enough. Other times we’re straight-up paranoid. If we don’t make it to the radio dial in time to keep you from hearing Jessie J belt out, “I’m feeling sexy and free,” we worry that you’ll be messed up for life. Like you’ll be lying around a crack house someday saying, “If only I didn’t hear the ‘S’ word in that song Domino when I was 9, my life could have been different…”

So yeah, sometimes we parents go overboard in trying to shelter you. But for the most part, I don’t think we do enough. I know for a fact that I don’t do enough. I sometimes take for granted that you’re a kid and you don’t even notice that half the stuff you see and hear is inappropriate. I cling to the fact that you haven’t had the life experience to know whether or not something is wrong. But my denial is foolish. Because there are plenty of other times when you DO hear the “S” word and look at me to see if I noticed it too. Or you cover your eyes when you see a young couple kissing passionately on a TV show commercial (many of which are shown on ABC Family. “Family,” really? That station is one of the worst for playing adult-themed shows/films.)

The thing is, I can’t shelter you from the proliferation of sex completely, unless I were to take away TV, movies, music… school. It’s everywhere and really can’t be avoided. And it shouldn’t be avoided altogether because you need to learn how to make good decisions despite all the junk being thrown in your face. It IS my responsibility as a parent, however, to teach you the good from the bad. To try to keep the bad away while you are young and innocent, but also to establish a foundation of purity, self-esteem and confidence in you so that, when the bad does leak through, you won’t be deterred by it.

Sex is everywhere. And our culture likes to make you think it’s everything. But it doesn’t have to be, and it’s my job to teach you that.

Love,
Mom

An exercise in gratitude

Dear Daughter,

A while back, I wrote about how to be grateful even when you’re not. Today I’d like to expand on that, by introducing some exercises to keep gratefulness top of mind.

My friend Cary recently started writing a blog called Unrequited Bob, where he lists three things for which he is grateful, plus a brief description of a positive experience he had that day. He also is intentional about committing at least one random act of kindness every day and he writes about that as well. His blog has been an inspiration for me. As a reader, it’s been cool to see how Cary always manages to find things to be grateful for, even on what would normally be considered a bad day.

Cary’s blog reminds me of the gratitude journal I used to keep. My mom learned from Oprah that keeping such a journal does wonders for one’s mental health, so she bought me and my sister journals, where we wrote five things for which we were grateful every day. It wasn’t overly time-consuming. I usually just wrote one sentence for each item. (“I’m grateful that I had pizza for dinner.”) But it turns out ol’ Oprah was right, as usual (*eye roll*). I began searching for things throughout the day that I could add to my journal and was surprised at how easy it was. Oftentimes I listed more than five! Sometimes the items were basic (aka, the aforementioned pizza) and others were true breakthroughs for me. Most of them were things I might not have noticed if I weren’t keeping the journal.

Tangible exercises like Cary’s blog and my gratitude journal really change the way you look at your day. Instead of brooding about the few bad things that may have happened, you focus instead on the many blessings in your daily life. And once you realize just how blessed you are, it changes your whole perspective on life. Plus, gratitude is contagious. Other people will notice a change in you, and they’ll want that for themselves.

Whether it’s a blog like Cary’s or a gratitude journal like mine or some other variation, I hope you’ll be intentional about searching for the goodness in your life and documenting that goodness in some way. It’ll benefit you in more ways than you can imagine. And for that, you can be grateful.

Love,
Mom

How to stay when you want to go

Dear Daughter,

This past weekend, you went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. (Back in the day they were known as “slumber parties,” which sounds way more fun than “sleepover,” but somewhere along the line the terms have changed. Such a shame.) You were having a blast until it came time to go to bed, at which point you called me three times, begging me to come get you and bring you home. So finally, because I love you and can’t stand to hear you cry, I crawled out of bed at two in the morning to pick you up.

The other reason I caved is because I’ve been there. I remember being at a friend’s house and having fun, and then suddenly having an overwhelming desire to be in my own bed, near my own parents, in my own cozy home. I know what it’s like to be so homesick that nothing could change my mind about wanting to leave.

The thing is, though, sometimes you won’t be able to leave, or you shouldn’t, even if given the chance. Sometimes you’re going to be in uncomfortable situations that will make you feel lonely and miserable, and the best thing to do, the strongest thing to do, is just to stick it out and stay. The ability to do so will benefit you greatly in the long run.

It may seem silly, but this incidence—we’ll call it the Sleepover Conundrum—can be compared to what you’ll go through with exercise, work, friendship, marriage… anything that you might want to quit but shouldn’t. (Of course there are exceptions but we’ll deal with that another time.) Choosing not to quit, even when you’re scared, will make you a better person and will actually make life easier. It will help you practice commitment, discipline, perseverance and flexibility. And the more you stick through the tough times, the less scary they will appear over time.

Another tip: when you’re in the midst of a Sleepover Conundrum moment, try to focus on all of the good things about the situation. When you’re exercising and it hurts, imagine how great you’re going to look and feel afterwards. If you’re tempted to unfriend someone who’s upset you, remember all of the good things she’s done for you. When you’re at a sleepover and suddenly desire to go home, focus on the fact that you get to stay up late hanging out with your closest friends. There’s a positive spin to every circumstance, and honing in on those positives makes quitting seem less desirable.

Let’s say goodbye to conundrum and hello to commitment.

Love,
Mom

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