The past thirty days has been quite a journey. Along the way, I discovered a few valuable things about myself, my family, and life in general. And isn’t that what our journey through life is all about—discovery, reflection, and understanding?
On January 9th, my mother died. She was 94 years-old and until a few days before her death, she was updating her Facebook page, watching Downton Abbey, and playing solitaire on her Kindle. She sure didn’t act 94—or even 84 for that matter. In fact she commonly talked about the “old folks” in her assisted living facility yet almost everyone was younger than she was.
Socializing was my mother’s forte. Well, that and eating. Going to dinner with friends was just about the closest thing to Nirvana for her. She loved to talk. She loved to eat. And she loved to talk about eating. Towards the end of her life, even though she was less mobile, she would pop right out of her chair at the mention of going to Wendy’s for a Frosty. When she was getting physical therapy a few months before that, the therapist probably could have cut her rehab time in half by simply placing a chocolate bar at the end of the hallway. Her funeral had close to 300 attendees and it was not so much a sad event as celebratory one. And yes, chocolate bars were distributed at the reception.
What’s interesting about funerals, in general, is what we focus on. Before death, we know people by the jobs they hold or the roles in which they serve. We know where they live. We know what kind of car they drive. We even know if they have a sprinkler system for their lawn or just prefer to let the grass turn brown. But none of that is ever discussed at funerals. We occasionally acknowledge someone’s job, especially if they did a unique type of work, but typically, at funerals, we focus on who the person was and how that person made us feel.
Three qualities were brought up quite frequently at my mother’s funeral. First, it was clear that she liked people and second, it was blatantly clear that she loved to laugh. She was forever looking for ways to connect with people in her job and through social activities. And during those interactions, you would hear her laughter above everything else. When she worked as an administrative assistant at Emory and Henry College, I would often go by her office after school. If she wasn’t at her desk, I would go out into the hallway and simply listen. Within seconds, I could find her. It was as if she had a homing device embedded in her laughter. The only trouble was, she laughed at everything—including anything I said. So, I did not necessarily grow up with an ability to discern what was really funny from what was just mom funny. Hopefully, I’ve figured that out over the years (don’t tell me if I haven’t).
The third obvious quality about my mother was that she kept her mind engaged through a variety of mental activities. She typed, knitted, read hundreds of books, watched movies, played bridge and enjoyed just about any kind of board game. She loved keeping her mind occupied and I believe these activities kept her young.
Through the many cards and comments our family received, we repeatedly heard about these three qualities.
For more than 50 years, my father participated in or emceed the Abingdon Rotary Frolics. Initially the Frolics was a variety show that included local talent such as bluegrass bands, magicians, singers, etc. But more recently, the event has evolved to include dancing, singing and skits predominantly performed by Rotarians. The comedy, the singing and the acting are pretty bad—but in a good way. The locals love it. In fact, this yearly event sells out two performances at the historic Barter Theater and raises more than $35,000 for local charities. It is a beloved community event.
I’ve participated in the Rotary Frolics five or six times over the years. The first time was in high school when I simply stole Steve Martin’s act. I bought a white suit (sad but true) and did stupid magic tricks. But that’s how the Frolics works. If you don’t have any real talent, you simply borrow ideas from Saturday Night Live, YouTube, and other pop culture icons. But the directors of the Frolics have recently decided to include local talent again. This year, the audience was mesmerized by 11-year-old Presley Barker, a phenomenal bluegrass guitarist who is winning competitions all over the country—in the adult divisions.
I emceed the 67th Rotary Frolics this year and was honored to assume the role in which my father faithfully served for 37 years. I could hear his voice coming through mine at various times throughout the event. Several people even came up to me and said that I sounded just like him.
At my father’s funeral in 2008, I had a similar experience as I did at my mother’s. I heard things about my father that made me reflect on my own life. One man said that my father saved him from his alcoholism. A woman said that my father ventured out in a snow storm to help get her car out of a ditch. I heard about his love of community service and the integrity in which he led. And almost all of the nearly 400 people in attendance said that they admired him for who he was.
In addition to that, however, people acknowledged that my father was a performer. He emceed beauty pageants, talent shows and never passed up an opportunity to entertain. He loved making people laugh. And whenever he took the stage, he did so with dignity and respect for the position he was in. There was no ego and he never sought the spotlight.
Through the many cards and comments our family received after my father died, we repeatedly heard about these qualities as well.
I believe we should grow from every experience in our life. If we really pay attention, we learn about ourselves, about others, or about the way the world works. During the past month, I’ve discovered something very important about my own life—and I probably should have known it all along.
My relationship with my parents wasn’t perfect. Most family relationships aren’t perfect. But there are gems hidden in the imperfections. If we pay attention to the good, even in the midst of the not-so-good, we gain valuable insights that serve us well. Hearing about my mother’s social skills, her gift of laughter, and the way she engaged her mind reminded me of the importance of building relationships and challenging my brain as I get older. Hearing about my father’s performing skills, his love of service, and the integrity with which he held himself accountable reminded me to seek a better path in both my life and my work.
Regardless of what our path looks like, we can always learn something that will help us become better people. And becoming better, as time goes on, is our goal. One day, we will realize that our time on this planet is up. And if we’ve done our work well, we might just have a crowd of people gather at our funeral to focus not so much on what we did but rather on the substance of who we were.