A Life Well Lived is the Ultimate Thank You

Sometimes I do not accept the reality with which I am being confronted because it’s too damn painful. I found myself wandering around The National World War II Memorial Museum in New Orleans several weeks ago and I have been grieving ever since. 

The museum is a complicated construction of five large warehouse type buildings, chock-full of displays designed to make you feel as if you were living in the 1940’s. They have gathered thousands of images, videos, and artifacts in an attempt to recreate this unforgettable event in the history of the world, a time that changed the trajectory of our future, allowing freedom to reign. On a much smaller scale I walk through the museum of my mother’s life trying to piece together the person who gave me life.

Moving through the empty space of my mother’s home is anguishing. This was her domain, formed by promise, ambition, partnership, and hope. I run my finger across a thin layer of dust forming on the surface of a side table. I have the urge to find a rag and remove this evidence of neglect, adhering to her impossible standards, but I resist. She is no longer here but she is everywhere. 

There is no space where I can rest my eyes and not see her. When I consider all these artifacts, the beloved pieces of her life, I’m forced to acknowledge the futility of our ambitions. These things are somehow empty without her, devoid of her particular presence, and the gentle care she bestowed upon them. Life does not exist in a vacuum, it rubs up against the larger culture, this is the mold that forms our character, and moral foundation. Mom was born in 1936, depression, war, and fear were dominate forces in her early life, along with victory, unity, and hope. These forces shaped her in ways I will never fully understand. 

The order of my mother’s home speaks volumes, orderliness being next to godliness, and let me just say she was vying for sainthood. Her collection of family heirlooms from people and places go beyond the scope of my memories. They collaborate the family stories, a writing desk, a hutch, a favorite chair, but how does this history fit into my own? 

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” says George Santayana. The WWII museum has the largest gathering of voices from the past I have ever witnessed. Memories that would have been lost forever had someone not thought to record these unbelievable experiences. They spoke of heroic rescues, devastating loss, unbearable torture, fear, and loneliness, but always pride in the United States. 

I wish I had thought to record her stories, her dreams, her view of this world. I replay a message she left on my iPhone over and over again, the familiar sound of her voice, the crucible of my well-being. She had such faith in me, who will believe in me now?

I watched Tom Hanks, in Beyond All Boundaries, explain the circumstances that ushered the United States into a war they were trying to avoid. It was a lengthy and complicated situation but by the end of the film I realized it was a war we should never have won. Enemies on two fronts, a depleted supply of warships, planes, and artillery, not to mention the lack of trained pilots and soldiers for this type of combat. 

The odds were against us yet we prevailed. This is my legacy, my mother’s unspoken experience, and cultural backdrop to her life. Clearly it did one thing…it united us under a common goal. Everett Dirksen says, “When all is said and done, the real citadel of strength of any community is in the hearts and minds and desires of those who dwell there.” It was one of those rare moments in time when every person was necessary, united, and mobilized under one cause. When I hold that up to the culture today it seems as if our rich tapestry is unraveling. 

Enrique Celaya claims it is amazing that we can sustain hope against atrocities and oppression and so many horrible things…this remarkable human capacity to still think that tomorrow will be better. There is a certain wonderful thing — and also a terrifying thing, a denial of the present — that comes with hope. Our freedom was at stake and we were not about to allow Hitler, Mussolini, and Konoe to win this war. 

It is extraordinary to think I am the one they were fighting for, it was my freedom they won, and I wasn’t even born. With the enormous death tolls it seems miraculous to have been the genetic result of a lottery of survival. Our very existence is miraculous. 

Brian Greene says, “Intelligence is the ability to take in information from the world and to find patterns in that information that allow you to organize your perceptions and understand the external world.” I can’t imagine how people began to process the death and destruction of WWII. The shattering pain of grief had to leave a permanent mark on our global consciousness. How did my mother process this loss?

The entire world was grieving, coated in the blood of young men, bisected by rivers of tears. Today I feel oddly aligned with their grief. Rumi says, “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” 

My Mother found love and wisdom in her partnership with my Dad. She said to me recently, “he was a good partner for me,” Of course I  asked why? She said, “he made me a better person.” I think that is the greatest compliment one can give their lifelong partner, I am a better person because of you. 

Washington Irving says, “there is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” My love is overflowing…

George Santayana says, “There is not cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval. The dark background which death supplies brings out the tender colors of life in all their purity.” So the question that begs to be answered is what will I do with this one miraculous life I have been given? 

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer,” says Brian Greene. Aristotle says we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Maya Angelo claims when we know better we do better. 

I am going to live fully, with a generous spirit, and compassionate heart. I am going to document my journey, even if my work is never deemed worthy of preserving, I will live as if it is so. I am forever grateful for my mother’s bravery, kindness, and optimistic view of the world. I’ve come to believe a life well lived is the ultimate thank you to those who came before us. 

I bid my beloved mama an emotional adieu…

I’m Living in the Gap, drop in anytime. 

Post script: I learned so much about the world in which my mom and dad grew up by exploring the WWII museum. Was it a coincidence that I stumbled upon this exhibition just weeks before moms death? I think not. It was an illuminating gift and gave me something safe to write about. I couldn’t find the words after mom died because there are no words that adequately convey the pain of losing a loved one. It is the one thing we all hold in common…the essence of grief is love.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

  1. Honestly, we had the same feelings. It is a must see but also something you don’t really want to see.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s