My mother-in-law passed away on New Year’s Eve 2016. Well, I should say, my former mother-in-law. Despite all the angst of the past two years of separation and divorce from my co-parent, he and I managed to come to an agreement: I should say good-bye to my friend.
In the days leading up to her passing, I came across The Garrison Institute. Serendipitously, I had viewed an instructional video on The Compassionate Pause Process (for painful clinical care encounters). There are seven steps in this process that are meant to bring peace and love to a situation where a medical diagnosis may bring great emotional strife to a patient — and here I was a few days later, by my friend’s bed side, saying goodbye, and implementing the process: exhaling to relax (step 3), practicing self compassion (step 5), and leaning in to her to be present in the “I” and “thou” moment (Step 6 and 7) we were sharing.
But more importantly, in that last moment, I had my lessons from Morrie to carry me through… I was able to walk into my mother-in-law’s hospital room, after not seeing her for two years, and see her now, withering away from the cancer in front of me, and not be completely broken, and completely regretful for our long separation.
You see, in the memoir Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom has allowed 16 years to pass between him and his college professor (his “Coach” as he nick-named him when he attended Brandeis University). When he finally visits Morrie in his West Newton home, Morrie is withering away from ALS. Morrie and Mitch rekindle their friendship, over a 6 month period, every Tuesday, talking about the important things in life: marriage, children, regrets, money, and so on. Mitch, to his emotional benefit, gets to say a long, meaningful, and memorable good-bye.
However, at one point in the memoir, Mitch has a harsh realization: it has been 16 years since the last time he saw Morrie walk! This is particularly painful because one joy Mitch and Morrie shared in their Brandeis days was long “life talk” walks around campus. Mitch knows he can not go back, shake his past self and say, “Hey, go visit your friend and have a ‘walk and talk’ session ! ALS will steal this ability from the two of you, and Morrie will be gone way too soon.”
Mitch, instead of letting raw regret eat at him, reminds himself of, and shares with his readers, Morrie’s advice: “You can not go backwards; you can only do what you can do now – in the present, and it is never too late – as long as there is breath and life to share.”
So, as I leaned in, I took Morrie’s advice, and I enjoyed my 71 year old friend’s breath, and her life… It went something like this:
She had no hair, but she looked beautiful, serene and I told her so. “You’re full of shit,” was her response (crass as ever!). “Do I look skinny?” she asked. “Yes, but I always saw you that way.” And I did because I saw and loved her giving heart, and her large laugh, and her ability to warm a room when she sang in the choir, or walked through our front door of our family home to share a Sunday meal with us, when we were still together as a family of five. And then, I leaned even closer, as her voice was a whisper now – destroyed by the radiation. “I’m so glad to see you,” she stated warmly. “I’m so glad to see you! I wouldn’t have not come to see you – I finally made it…I want you to know that I love you, and how grateful I am to you, because of you I have Grace, and I can never thank you enough for that–” Her follow-up statement, “You told me ‘you better not give that baby chocolate'” (Still correcting me, even after a 2 year absence – hey, I’ll happily take it!) I responded, “I’m over protective — are you still upset with me for that, because you can be.” “No.” And I informed her, “Your grand-daughter eats like crazy, loves school, and has a natural ability to make friends – much like you…What are your thoughts?” And seamlessly, even after my 2 year absence, she streamed out her thoughts, “I’m going to heaven; I am proud of my two boys; I loved walking up and down the football field watching them play; I would love to go back to Nashville (a country fan till the end)…” And it continued for several minutes, us, sharing each other’s life and breath.
And as I sit here, reflecting on how we said goodbye, I’m pretty solid on a few things. One, my mother-in-law was a really good friend (she bravely came and gave me intermuscular shots in my butt when I had fertility treatments to conceive Grace), and I’m glad I had the chance to tell her so before it was too late –whether I had six months or six minutes to do it in. Two, I will see her again — and I’m glad I got to tell her I was looking forward to our future reunion — we will have another hello.
Finally, spending time with Morrie again, as I have just done so just recently with my students, has built within me a certain unchangeable resolve: I love my friends; I love connecting with them; there is life and breath to be exchanged between us while we are here and together. I will treasure those opportune moments to do so – and try to express that pleasure in all our hellos and in all our goodbyes. Thank you, Meme. Thank you, Morrie.
With love and warmth,