A former colleague appealed to his Facebook friends yesterday to offer their thoughts about an important question. Diagnosed with stage four cancer some months ago, he has transparently shared the highs and lows of his life since then through social media, with good humour, courage, and characteristic sass. Yesterday’s comments though, were uncharacteristically solemn.
He recently learned his cancer is dormant. “I got to thinking about what all this means,” he wrote, “and I believe it means that I have been given more time.” He went on to invite his friends to share their views on how he might make the best use of that gift. “Is it solely for me to carry on with all the things I hold dear? … Or is there something greater that I should do with the added time?”
I thought about whether I should respond – we were not, after all, intimates – and I wondered if I even had the right to speak into his life on such an intimate question. But he was the best boss I ever had. What made him so were simple things: his obvious love and enthusiasm for what he did, his approachability, his genuine trust in and care for the people who reported to him, and an ever-present twinkle in his eyes that said no matter what kind of chaos was erupting, everything would be alright.
So when some words came to mind that seemed fitting, I shared them. I’d read them recently while studying the life of Mother Teresa as part of the requirements for a course I’m taking.
The diminutive nun taught: “You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world … [to] make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved.”
To love and to be loved. The words resonated when I came across them, so much so that I wrote them down in a journal I keep of favourite quotations. But they make life’s aim and purpose sound so simple. Could loving and being loved really be the greatest thing? After sharing the quotation in response to my former boss’s query, I pondered that question for the rest of the day.
I was still thinking about it last night, when my 84-year-old mother came for dinner. I’d promised to help her hem a pair of pants she’d recently purchased. I admit I almost called her to reschedule, because there was a paper I needed to research for school, and I knew she’d understand. But thinking about that question prevented me from picking up the phone.
Our meal over and cleared away, my mother asked, “Am I keeping you from anything you need to do?”
I thought about that other question, the big one, before answering hers. “No mom. Not a thing.”
We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen, working with our needles and thread, each stitching one leg. For a while we chatted. For a while we stitched in silence.
As we worked, I thought about how my mother taught me to sew when I was just a girl. For a year, we both had part-time jobs doing piecework for the same company, sewing patchwork aprons, placemats, oven mitts and things. We must have spent hours back then, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on projects together. But I hit high school and developed other interests. Mom continued to sew, but it’s been years, decades even, since we’ve done anything like that together. Throughout my entire adult life (until five months ago when she sold her house and moved to town) mom lived in another city. During all those years, our times together had focussed on visiting, not projects.
So working alongside her last night felt special. The complete task lasted less than an hour, but I felt my entire spirit expand during those minutes, the way your lungs do when taking a long deep breath of fresh, cool, mountain air. I sensed it was a gift.
Pausing to re-thread her needle at one point, mom told me how much she was enjoying her evening and asked, “How long has it been since we worked side-by-side like this?”
“It’s nice for me too, mom,” I said. And it was. Really, really nice.
And in that moment I realized I’d found the answer to the question that had been rolling over in my mind all afternoon.