I spend a lot of time talking to leaders today about the importance of being authentic, and saying what needs to be said. I know how difficult that can be. Still, I’ve learned on a personal level that it is truly worth it to keep trying.
I think of the time not long ago when I got the chance to say something really important to my mom. It was just before she passed away from Leukemia, and the worst kind.
Earlier in my journey, this would have been a missed opportunity.
Our relationship was a complex one, and I often felt very conflicted about it throughout my life. As the youngest of six, and the only boy, I was called “King David” as a child and well into my 30s. Most birthday pictures are of me in front of a candle-filled, frosted cake with a gold crown on my head.
I had a serious sweet tooth – so much so that at one point growing up I only could have candy on Tuesdays. Not really sure how Tuesday was picked, and why just one day. No matter – I would show my mom – you should have seen how much candy I ate on Tuesdays!
I also loved frosting of any kind, especially the get-a-cavity-as-you-eat-it kind. The sweeter, the better. I recall one early birthday where my cake request was replaced by carrot cake, which was Mom’s favorite, and I balled when she brought it out with candles on it, singing to me as she did. It looked like it was my birthday, but that day and so many others didn’t end up being about me and my needs at all. The focus was more on outside appearances in my family, and I grew up not feeling seen or heard a lot unless it was in someone else’s best interest.
My dad wasn’t around much growing up, and my mom’s love came with strings attached since there was a certain way to be, and an image that must be projected – happy. The feelings then that I allowed myself to have as a child were only happy feelings. The rest I buried into a deep, dark, black hole, never to be discovered or talked about.
My Last Days With Mom
The last years of my life with Mom were significantly different, as a result of my journey of authenticity. I figured out how to access a rainbow of feelings, and finally came to a realization that brought me peace: My parents did the best they could with the tools they had. I realized that my mom wasn’t going to change, and I accepted her for who she was. Likewise, she became more in tune with accepting and appreciating the real me. It’s then that I began to see her not just as my mom, but as a person with strengths and weaknesses and foibles and frailties, like everyone else. How far we both had come on our journeys!
I knew she was in a lot of pain at the end yet she chose not to talk about it. At one visit when I knew the illness was winning, we said our typical warm-hearted goodbye and I headed to the car to leave. I was cognizant that the future was uncertain and I would always check myself: “Have I said everything I wanted to say?”
Outside, I paused as something inside me told me to go back in. There was one last big thing I needed to muster quiet courage to say.
Mom was in her bedroom, lying down. As I came back in she asked, “Everything okay?” She sat up and patted on the best seat in the house – right next to her. As we sat on the bed together, I held her hand. It was so reminiscent of her holding mine as a child, yet this time it was me who grasped her hands.
"There's something I want to tell you," I said as tears started to flow. I paused, and she allowed me the space I needed to speak. This was my mom, who used to fill in sentences for me, and answer for me.
"You did a really good job with me," I told her.
She started to cry, and I hugged her as we sat in silence together. How wonderful it was to “be” with her. “Being” was still new to me so I had some self-talk going, “Be present. Feel. Stay in this moment. Breathe.”
We cried together and I was overwhelmed and wholly embraced a range of emotions, which was followed by a great feeling of peace and contentment. I sense she felt the same. Learning to be present – even at such a tough time with many raw emotions – was one of the many final gifts my mom gave to me.
Turned out, that was my goodbye to the Mom I knew, as she passed away two days later.
I’m so incredibly grateful to have been her son.
How might you muster quiet courage now to say what you need to say, and do it in a way that others can hear you?