13 Aug The Gift of Gratitude During Profound Loss
My writing here tends to be ‘professional’ (or perhaps ‘business focused’). I stick to topics that, while important to me, are somewhat separated from my personal life. This time, I’m compelled to be far more personal than I ever have been in this arena. Forgive the sudden shift of focus, but I hope you stick with me through this post, and are able to glean something valuable to apply to your life – both personal and professional.
One month ago, we got news that my mother had been diagnosed with leukemia. One week ago, we scattered her ashes at the family farm. In between, we had one of the most remarkable experiences of our lives. I’d like to tell you a bit about it, but first a bit of family history. Don’t worry – I’ll keep it to one paragraph.
My mom, Priscilla Trommater, was born and raised in my hometown of Hart, Michigan. After high school, she moved to Elkhart, Indiana to go to business school. There, she met her first husband Jim Davis and started a family. On the night of their 10th anniversary, Jim was killed in a car accident, leaving her to raise their 3 daughters. Soon, she moved them back to Hart and met Boyd Trommater, a local farmer. After a courtship, they married and 2 years later I came along. I was the baby by 10 years. I was the only boy. I had 4 mothers. (this may go a long way in explaining my need for the spotlight, but I digress…)
Jump ahead in time 44 years to 2016. Dad died 8 years ago and since then, Mom continued to live in the house that he was born in, just one mile North of where she was raised. The same house that my great-grandfather built on land he bought from Native Americans.
My mom has always been young for her age. Though 83 and a grandmother of 4 and great-grandmother of 9, she was often mistaken to be in her early 70s. A positive mindset, great resiliency and healthy living played a big part in that. But she started getting more and more tired this past winter. I went for a visit in mid-May and persuaded her to go to the doctor. After a bunch of visits that culminated in a bone marrow biopsy, we learned on July 8 that she had terminal leukemia and should expect only 3 weeks of life.
I could have never imagined that this would turn out to be anything but a horrible, terrifying experience.
But it was.
Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it was terrifying. But it was also positive. My sisters and I, along with our spouses and the rest of the family, came together to care for Mom and support each other. Through it all, we did our best to do what Mom wanted most – for us to go on about our lives. So, we played cards, watched incredible sunsets, took long walks on the family cherry farm and ate too much pie with visiting friends and extended family.
I could write more about Mom’s last three weeks, but I think I’ll just let you read what I said when I spoke at her funeral. After that, I’ll close with a few thoughts.
When my Dad died, people said that some good would come out of his death. At the time, I was so full of grief and loss and sadness that I couldn’t conceive of how that could possibly be true. But eventually, it was Dad’s death that brought my Mom and I closer together than I ever thought would be possible.
But this time, I know exactly what good has come out of Mom’s sickness and death – the past three weeks have been a gift.
If you’re in this room, you don’t need me to tell you about my mother. You know she was special. You know that she loved you, and she knew that you love her. You each have the stories from your lives together that you’ll cherish and tell over and over, so I won’t add another story here. Instead, I want to tell you about the past three weeks, because they were truly remarkable.
We knew something was seriously wrong with Mom’s health at the beginning of July. When we got the diagnosis on July 8th, we all knew that the end would come soon. But we decided, perhaps unconsciously, to not let grief take over. We were sad, yes. Devastated even. But we knew that we’d only have a few weeks, so we decided to make the most of it. We told stories, laughed, cried and said what needed to be said – though nothing really needed to be said – we all knew everything we needed to know.
And through all of it, we went about the business of living and caring for each other. We hung out together, and watched bad TV, and talked politics, and sewed. We felt the presence of our Grama Eisenlohr as we played countless hands of cards and quadruple solitaire.
Not long after the diagnosis, someone asked her if she wanted to go out to Lake Michigan one more time.Abby even offered to fly to Italy with her. But Mom said that there was absolutely nothing on her bucket list – she had lived a life full of experiences and love and there was nothing else she needed to do, and nothing she would have changed.
She told me (and each of us) that she was so content and proud knowing that each and every one of us (and that’s 23 of us in the immediate family) are good people. We’re safe, stable (mostly), doing good work and, in her words – not in jail.
She was ready. Mom firmly believed that when she died, she would be reunited with everyone she’d loved. Of course, she was very sad that she wouldn’t be able to be with us any longer, but she was ready and raring to go on to what’s next.
I’m telling you about these past 3 weeks because I’m so grateful for them. Losing someone you love is scary. It’s surreal. And it’s absolutely terrible. But these past 3 weeks have been the most wonderful version of terrible. I can’t imagine a better way to go – to know that the end is near and face it calmly and peacefully, at home, surrounded by love and loved ones.
And through these past few weeks, even knowing the inevitable end, gratitude has been an ever-present companion. Every single day, gratitude has outweighed sadness. And that is really saying something. But I’m grateful that I could be here with her through the decline, right up through seeing her calmly take her last breath. It was a rare privilege to bond together with the family and care for her in the way that she had cared for us all of our lives. I’m grateful that I got to spend 24 hours a day with all three of my sisters – something that we haven’t done in almost 40 years. I’m grateful for spouses that supported and loved us and allowed us to put own needs first. Grateful for a family that not only loves each other, but actually likes each other. Grateful for love without question. And grateful for a mother who set an example of how to live and how to die – with strength, grace, laughter and love.
Mom was an avid reader – she always had at least one library book on the go. If life is like a book, then these past 3 weeks have been a bold exclamation mark at the end of our chapter with her.
I’ll close with something straight from Mom. She was explicit in this – we are to go on living our lives. Be good. Do good. Yes, we will hurt, and we will be sad, and we will miss her every day. But we will go on, living our lives, continuing to make her proud.
And the next day (just last Wednesday), we scattered her ashes in the cherry orchard behind the house, right on the same row where we scattered Dad’s 8 years ago. A day later, Katy and I left the farm and started to get back to the new normal in our lives. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m only starting the process.
I often think, ‘we can’t control what happens to us – we can only hope to control how we deal with what happens to us.’ When I got the news of Mom’s diagnosis, I could have spent her final weeks in denial. I could have spent them being resentful and angry. I could have allowed myself to simply wallow in sorrow and sadness (and I did all of those things to one extent or another, and I suppose that’s ok too.) But I decided to make the most out of what little time I had. I made the conscious decision to focus my energy, my attitude and my being on all the good that I could squeeze out of a really shitty situation. We all did, Mom included. And because of that, we were given a gift. A gift of a time that we’ll never forget. An experience that many people will never have. And as horrible and terrifying as that experience was, I cherish it.
Death comes to us all. If we’re lucky, we get to choose how we face it. I’m lucky to have had mother who chose to face it with a smile, content with a good life and knowing that ‘everything is unfolding as it should.’ I’m grateful for her example and that I got to choose how I approached the scariest time of my life. I’m grateful that I got to spend those 3 terrible, wonderful weeks with her, my sisters and my whole family. We should all be so lucky.
To bring this back around to daily life, it’s important to remember that we all can choose our attitude around every situation. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we can choose anger or we can choose to let it go. When funding is cut, we can choose to feel bitter or we can choose to find another way to move on. When anything happens that we don’t like, we get to choose how to deal with it. It sounds simple. And it is. Of course, ‘simple’ doesn’t always mean ‘easy’. It can be hard to shift your perspective to the positive. But I firmly believe that by doing so, we can gain access to a better, more rewarding and more satisfying way of living life.
“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”