On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs. Things have never looked the same since.
The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal. With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst. Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more. We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way. It worked.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos. Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had. Three days! In what felt like the blink of an eye, Mom was gone. Poof. Just like that.
The thing was, no one – and I mean no one – could wrap their head around this turn of events. At just 43 years old, Mom had been healthy, vibrant, fierce, strong. She was the one thing our family could reliably count on. It was Dad’s health that was tenuous, not hers. Like a faithful sherpa who was devoid of complaints, Mom did all the heavy lifting for our family. It was hard to imagine life could be any other way. Now it would have to be.
So it was on that cold January day when I got this new pair of specs. I didn’t even know I needed them, and I most definitely didn’t want them. But they were mine forevermore, permanently affixed to my head. I’ve always said that my life, simplified, has only two relevant parts: 1) Before Mom died, and 2) After Mom died. Her untimely death created a tectonic shift in my life, a shift ensuring that things would never, could never be the same. “My name is Jen, and when I was sixteen my mom died.” The words spill out of me sometimes when I’m not even expecting them. It is one of the most important ways I define myself.
Clinging to me like moss on a sturdy oak, Mom’s death is a life imperfection that has been simultaneously tragic and beautiful. It took a while – a good, long painstaking whatthefuckthistotallysucks while – but eventually my new pair of specs helped me see things more clearly. What I could see was this:
Life doesn’t have a single guarantee.
Since I can’t control how much time I get in life, I will surely control the quality.
I, and only I, am in charge of my own happiness.
I will always surround myself with people who believe in me and cast all the others gently aside.
There is no such thing as too generous.
Laughter is the most important measure of my personal success.
Forgiveness of those who have wronged me is always necessary.
Forgiveness of myself is harder, but even more important.
It is wise to say no often.
It is wiser to say I love you often.
Years before my mom died, my dad was in the intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals, clinging onto his own fragile life. Mom spent her days faithfully at his side until his health was restored. One day, she took a break in the family waiting room and found a piece of paper someone had left behind that said this: “The clouds that appear darkest in the distance are the ones the wind blows away.” So moved by the lesson these words offered her in a moment of deep despair, Mom later embroidered them on a tapestry and hung it inside our front door. Hauntingly prophetic, it has been a motto for my life.
Twenty-eight years have passed, and a whole lot of things have changed. A few things have not changed, one of which is that pair of specs I got in 1986. Do I ever resent them? Sure, I suppose so. I am human after all. But what I know for sure is that without them, I’d be less wise, less loving, less me. I think I’ll keep them.