5 Lessons from my Mother’s Life

From my last post, you will remember my Mom passed away last year. As the sharpest edges of mourning lessen even slightly, I’ve had some opportunity to reflect about my Mom and things I’ve learned from her. This post will likely grow over time as I have time and energy to look through the past in a meaningful way. Here is eight months worth of reflection.

Live your priorities

My Mom wanted everyone around her to reach their full potential, and she was willing to sacrifice to help. Sacrifice can take many forms. In some cases it was monetary. She and Dad didn’t always have the newest car. They bought new and drove it for 10+ years before trading in. However, she invested in my education. That was more important to her than creature comforts.

One very simple exercise we did in graduate school was to make a top 10 sort of list of what we valued most. Then we logged our activities for a week. It’s amazing that I wrote that exercising and reading was a big priority, but that I spent way more time watching TV than exercising or reading. We got rid of cable that month.

How you spend your time and money will show what you value more than what you say or think your priorities are. Don’t go through life fooling yourself.

Be courageous enough to give honest feedback and hold people accountable for their best

My Mom also sacrificed the “easy” path. She was willing to take on hard topics even when it would’ve been easier to let them slide. She held those she cared about accountable for their actions when they were against their stated goals. This is not to say she was an inscrutable nit-picker (although it sure felt like it when I was 18). She just wanted everyone to reach their full potential and where she had influence she would let you know if you were on or off that path.

My Mom had extremely high standards for me. I can remember when I dreaded going home with a “B” on a report card (and this means I faced a fair amount of dread). But, Mom knew what I was capable of, and she held me accountable for it.

This was also evidenced in making peace between those for whom she cared. I worked with my Dad in his electrical and general contracting business summers in high school. I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it now, but back then it was a rough go for me and my Dad. Sometimes we would argue, but usually about the time we pulled into the neighborhood we would reach a cease fire agreement so we wouldn’t get Mom involved. Mind you, we were still mad, but we thought we could fake Mom out. Um. Yeah. Right.

Typically, she was on to us in about 5 seconds. Dad and I tried to sweep things under the carpet, but she had none of that. We dealt with the core issue, and then peace and understanding were real.

In the work environment, I’ve observed and inherited staff and organizations that had done a lot of sweeping under the carpet. It was easier for a manager to ignore a problem and work around an individual than to address the challenge. I can’t and won’t claim 100% success rate with identifying and correcting this serious organizational problem, but I can say that I worked diligently at it and never turned a blind eye to an ongoing problem of which I became aware. From my experience, you can’t have a high performing team or organization if there is a lack of uniform expectations and accountability.

Praise people when they get it right, encourage them when they slip

This seems pretty obvious but is often overlooked. When people do right things, let them know it. It will give them the right kind of pride, and it will reinforce what success looks like. Many people slog through life attempting “success” without really knowing what it looks or feels like.

Show ’em. Tell ’em. Put the spotlight on it.

In a work or team environment, praising helps others see how things should be too. Again, be uniform, because uneven praise can give a sense of unfairness, and nobody likes that.

But all of us– the average and the excellent–will make a bad choice here or there or have a slump season. Encourage their way out of that. In the Sacred Hoops book by Phil Jackson, he discussed when a player missed a key shot, their teams philosophy was to give that player the ball more not less. If you goof something, then avoid it, there are some serious mental calculus happening that will create an artificial obstacle to success. If you are a parent, manager, or coach, then get your person in the game again quickly. If they were good enough to get hired or make the team, then they have the potential. If you’re a parent, then it’s your DNA and conditioning you are seeing before you.

My Mom always made it clear to me when I was doing something right, and I enjoyed that praise. When I fell short, there were consequences, but overall there was assistance getting back to a a right place.

Control what you can control, accept what you can’t

The above lessons are positive and places where my Mom got things mostly right in my opinion. Here we take a different turn, and look at where I saw my Mom struggle. Basically, my Mom for most of her life had the Serenity Prayer backwards. Here it is if you’ve never heard it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My Mom worried if a strange bruise might be leukemia; she never flew because she thought the plane would go down; she thought that a sniffle was pneumonia.

And yet…she didn’t exercise. She didn’t control her diet. She missed out on things and didn’t feel her best while she was alive

We went round and round about this. And, it’s pretty painful to write about this after she is gone, but if anyone can benefit from this perspective, it is worth my reflective pain. I can also proudly add that in the last couple of years of her life, she got this right.

She didn’t die in a plane crash nor was the bruise leukemia. She died from a freak, out-of-the-blue autoimmune disease that attacked her lungs. She had no control over this. So, all that worry meant that she missed out on things and not controlling some things that would’ve given her a better quality of life while she was living.

There is a great Bible verse that hits this. Regardless of your religious background, there is wisdom here.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

Psalms 90:12

Life is in itself a mortal condition. Spend your life living it wisely rather than worrying about dieing.

Help others, but look after yourself too

My Mom lived to help my Dad and me shine, almost to a fault. Even now we discover little areas where Mom smoothed things over that we had no idea that she was doing and yet took for granted. Some may argue that this is part of being a mom and wife (and it’s an equally corresponding part of being a dad and a husband, but this post is about my Mom).

When I left high school and was a nascent adult, I thought my Mom was too much in my business. I, rather harshly, told her she needed a hobby, and it shouldn’t be me. Now that I have kids, I realize how silly that is. They will never be too old or too secure for me not to spend time worrying or caring about their lives. And, while I am an involved Dad and love my children more than I could have ever realized, it is my opinion– based on no fact– that a mother’s love is just different than a dad’s love. Not better or worse. Just different. So it’s easy to see how that selfless love could come at personal neglect.

My first comment about prioritizing lives and driving old cars to spend the money elsewhere is not what I’m talking about here. There is a level of personal investment that, again in my opinion, one should never give up. Continue finding areas to personally grow and where you can retain a sense of self.

As you feel that pride of accomplishment and reaching your own potential, it gives you energy to also give out to others. I must face the reality that, while my Mom helped me reach my potential, she never quite reached her full potential. When she was diagnosed with her condition of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she took back some of her life. She dieted; she exercised; she bought new clothes; she went out and had fun. She faced her fear of the computer and got on Facebook. She learned to Skype (to see the grand kids). She lived well, and she would always say that 2010 was the best year of her life.

My Mom spent her life trying to give me the tools and opportunity to be the best person I could be, and I think she would be happy that she is still able to provide those tools even after she is gone. Thank you, Mom.


Cratered lives: a black hole and a ray of sunshine

It is far too long since I have committed any thoughts to this blog. In fairness, much has happened since my last post. Some good, some devastating.

Casey, Eva, Preston, and I left my beloved Miami University and southwest Ohio in April so that I could take a CIO job at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, GA (my hometown). We were set to have a wonderful family time where my Mom and Dad could be a direct part of the twin’s lives as they grew up. This was not to be.

A delighted Grandcí in March 2011 holding her beloved grandchildren, Eva and Preston.

For about 2 months we lived at my parents’ home. Mom and Dad offered  us to stay as long as we wanted. I was tempted to stay there and hoard cash; however, Casey felt no such temptation. Somehow living above the garage (even though it is really nice) isn’t the life she imagined, even though I’m sure Dave Ramsey would be on my side.
Three weeks in to our stay, Mom wasn’t feeling well and it was showing. She had been diagnosed about 3 years earlier with a lung condition. The original diagnosis was Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), which has a 90% five year mortality rate. However, upon further review the diagnosis was changed to Nonspecific Interstitial Pnumonia (NSIP) which was much better than the original diagnosis. Essentially, this is an autoimmune disorder in which her body was attacking her lung tissues. The attacks cause scarring in the lungs which meant that she getting progressively less and less oxygen (O2) during respiration.

When she was diagnosed with NSIP she was given good odds for a 20yr survival rate. She became a new person. She dieted, exercised, and was more vibrant that I’d seen her in a long time. She responded well to treatment, and things looked good.

But, the disease accelerated, and she went into the hospital on May 4, 2012. Initially, things were hopeful as she once again responded to the treatments. The doctors kicked in high doses (1000mg/day) of prednisone to try to stop any progression of autoimmune based attacks. She was doing well enough that she needed to go to the long term care place in the hospital to get weaned off of the high pressure O2 she was on.

She worked at it hard and rallied. We saw the O2 pressure and concentrations go down, and hope grew. We just knew she was coming home to resume the happy life that was waiting outside of the hospital.

There were fun moments. The hospital had these cupcakes that were so good they had NO business being in a hospital. I’d swing by the cafeteria after work, and Mom and I would talk about the day and our future plans as we ate a delicious cupcake. We talked about how good it was for Casey, the twins, and me to be home. We talked about the decision to buy a house, and then which house, and then the things we would do to fix up the house we selected. We spoke of co-hosting Thanksgiving in the new house.  We talked about seeing Eva and Preston in front of a Christmas tree. We talked about Grandcí and Bobboo (their grandparent names) spending the night at our house. Those moments are irreplaceable to me.

Progress slowed, and it became apparent that things were moving in a direction that we none wanted to think about. Concentration and pressures of 02 increased again. Her O2 saturation would dip low for simple things like going to the bathroom. It took some time for the external O2 to help her catch up. During that time the panic of not being able to breathe would kick in. Breathing is one part physiological (the mechanics of gas exchange) and one part psychological (think how watching a movie about a submarine with folks trapped underwater elicits that breathless panic even when you are in a room full of O2). Both of these aspects impacted my Mom. So, she would need meds to help her relax and mute the panic reflex.

I sneaked the kids into the hospital to see her. It was a good visit, and we captured it on video. It’s a good thing too. It would be their last visit. I can still see Mom playing “peek a boo” with the cannula in her nose and Eva, as she was worried that it may frighten the her. As they were going away, indelibly in my head is the image of Mom reaching out for Preston’s curls.

Each day brought a heavier realization that, outside of a miracle, Mom would not be coming home. There were tears, oh so many tears. There was comfort in Mom’s faith, and there was hope. She said all the time, “I’m want to get better. After all, I have every reason to want to live.” The cycles of O2 desaturation/panic increased in frequency, and more time was spent on sedating meds. Still, she was lucid and talking about the future.

She let me and Dad know that she was prepared to die. She wasn’t worried about after death, just the transition. Her faith in Christ sustained her to the end. She was worried that it would be painful. Particularly, she worried about dieing while feeling suffocated (that mental part of breathing). We promised her we would do everything we could to keep that from happening.

I would give Dad a break so he could go home, shower, and eat. During our times Mom spoke of her wishes; we spoke of good memories; and she was actively engaged in giving opinions and ideas for the house Casey and I decided to buy. She loved looking at the “Houzz” app on my iPad. She enjoyed looking at Facebook. Eva and Preston videos delighted her. She actually got to hear Preston say “Grandcí.”

She was worried that Eva and Preston wouldn’t remember her. That hurt her as those grandkids were so much a part of her life. I promised her I would not let her memory fade from them.

Family came to visit. Mom was tired with the visitors, and it took a lot out of her. She was gracious and shared a laugh with each person. At the end of it, she said that she knew they were coming to say goodbye. Casey came up, and they had a great moment that was filled with love and tears.

I can’t and won’t go into all of the conversations, but I have written many of them down in a private journal. Those memories will have to sustain me.  The machines were on 100% saturation and 100% pressure. There was nothing more we could do. A transplant was not an option. No stem cell therapy. No clinical trials. We were out of options. Science let us down. God let us down. We were out of hope.

Dad called me early Sunday morning on May 20th. I could hear a night of tears and quiet desperation in his voice as he told me that she had panicked all night and was only okay sedated and that he wouldn’t let her suffer another night. We conferred on the phone, and decided that to honor Mom’s wishes, today was the day we would be sending her home to heaven.

Out of the promise to not let her feel suffocated, she was fairly sedated when I arrived. I told her I loved her as I walked in the room. She rallied a bit. And with a strained voice she told me she loved me, and lifted heavy arms to reach for me. That was the last hug from my Mom. She said she knew that today was the day, and she was at peace.

Close family gathered around. Casey had to be with the twins and so was not there. Dad was on her right side holding her hand. I was on her left side holding her hand. Her sisters, nieces and nephews, and a cousin were in the room. We all told her we loved her, and I read her favorite scriptures out loud. The xanax, valium, and morphine were increased to make sure there was no suffering as we tapered the O2 down. As she was a fighter, Dad and I gave her permission to die.

Even against this terrible backdrop, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had this secret hope that as the machines were turned off that we would get one of those miracles. This did not happen. She lay there and took what looked like sips of air with her mouth, my Dad and I felt her squeeze our hands, and she was gone.

Gone. The woman who had loved me unconditionally for 40 years; who I talked with at least once a day; who was a confidant; a counselor who pushed me to be the best person I could be was gone. The lack of ability to do the simple gas exchange of C02 and O2 that we each do about 28,000 times per day is what caused my Mom’s death.

Grief is somewhat a self-centered thing. I mourn the loss of our daily interaction and the overall guiding presence. There are far too few people who are in our corner, and I have one less. Mom had chronicled my life, and I lost that connection to my childhood. I lost that bridge who would tell stories to my kids about me as a child. I lost love in its purest form for me and my kids.

My Dad and I have always been close and now even closer. He will be with us, and we will be a family. They were married 43 years, and his pain is unthinkable and unceasing. All I have asked of him is to honor Mom by being the best version of himself he can be and to help me let the kids know who Mom was.

This is the picture my Mom asked to put on her Facebook account as her “going home” shot. She was 59 years old when she died. Far too young.

The pain and sorrow have been unimaginable. Casey has been my source of strength, and the kids my source of joy. Dad and I have leaned on each other and are surviving the cratered life we now live.

In June 2012 Casey and I found out that we are having –quite unexpectedly– another little one due in March 2013. Just a few weeks ago we found that it was a little girl. Her name will be Ella Cynthia Sue Howard.

“Ella,” which means “bright light” because she is bright light in a time of darkness and sorrow (also a family name on my side from the 1700’s). “Cynthia” to honor my Mom, and “Sue” to honor Casey’s Mom.

It’s hard to think of this little one coming into a world where she will never know the direct love of Grandcí. Stories and pictures will have to do.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and Mom is still co-hosting the event. Her presence is missed, but her legacy will live on.

I will find ways to honor my Mom for the rest of my life. Since her death I’ve run a half marathon to honor her and will spend the rest of my life helping people reach their full potential…because that’s really what Mom was about. And this is a good way to spend a life.

Mom, I love you. Thank you for loving me and guiding me. If there is anything good about me, it is because of you and Dad. Love, Friz