LIving a Big Life

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I want to share about a special surprise for my mother and how she inspires me to live a big life.

There is a point in time, often in a doctor’s office, when life suddenly grows smaller. You realize that you can’t do many of the things that you loved and took for granted. Your body is growing older, and the life stretched out before you, which was once filled with possibilities, now seems far more plagued with problems.

Yet this point in time is coming far later today. Part of this is due to medical breakthroughs; yet I think expectations have also played a part. My grandmother was once asked to leave school so that she could care for “a woman of a certain age” as she went through “the change”. Decline was expected to come at fifty, and people seemed to relish the chance to add some drama to the process. Now we push it off as long as possible, and some of us even seem to avoid decline altogether.

This week I threw a seventieth surprise birthday party for my mother. The fact that she was actually surprised, and didn’t put two and two together until she was physically inside the banquet centre (and not just driving into to the banquet centre) is perhaps evidence that she is not as sharp as she once was. Since I pulled off something similar twenty years ago, though, I’m not sure you can attribute this to age.

Nevertheless, one of the thrilling aspects of planning the party was tracking down everyone to invite. My mother has a multitude of friends, and they are all very different. Some are young, like 16-year-old Liam who accompanied her on a missions trip to Kenya last summer; and some are much older, like the university friends she still keeps in contact with. Some she worked with; some she knits with; some she worships with. So many of the party-goers were close friends of hers, and yet they didn’t know each other because she floats through so many different circles. Her world is big.

It wasn’t always. In the early seventies, after a difficult marriage breakup, her world looked small. It was reduced to figuring out how to support a young child and keep going, day by day. In the eighties, cancer struck. And yet my mother began to see each day as a new possibility, and each person she met as a gift. When she finally retired a year or so ago, she did so because her volunteer work was taking up too much time, and she really needed more room for it. She didn’t relax; she simply went bigger. And it brought much joy.

Thinking of this reminds me of another woman I know, now in her mid-seventies, who had to quit teaching at 65. She was rather perturbed about it, because she loved teaching. When swimming at the YMCA one day, she was offered a job. So she trained for her lifeguarding qualifications, and began teaching swimming.

Bev taught my own girls when they were small; today they teach side by side with her. A few months ago when Bev recertified, she passed the timed swim again. Bev’s life didn’t get smaller; it got bigger, too.

Retirement was once thought of as a chance to give back to yourself. You could relax, and take things easy, and revel in one’s accomplishments. For many, that seems too small a dream. We search for significance, and joy, and purpose, and that does not have to end when one comes to the end of one’s career. On the contrary, for many it’s just the beginning.

Yes, one day our bodies will betray us. But until that day comes, I pray that I may live a big life. I pray that I may see each day as a new opportunity; each person as a potential friend; and each moment as a source of joy.

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