“Wow, congratulations on making it to forty.” I had mentioned to a woman I just met up that my birthday was coming up. Her response seemed like a weird thing to have a stranger say to me. She went on to say not everyone makes it to forty and as we chatted she put some context behind those words. It resonated with me. How many times have I almost not made it to forty? Too many times, and it scares me.
The fear I carry isn’t so much about death, but dying young. For most of my life, I haven’t been able to envision myself reaching middle age. I couldn’t fathom living past thirty-nine, yet here I am. Part of this is because I lost my mom when she was forty-eight, and as Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters says, “Reaching a mother’s age at time of death is a profound turning point for a motherless woman, who often carries the fear that she’ll die at the same age.” Another reason for my short view on life is the life-limiting and sometimes life-threatening chronic illnesses I carry in my body each day.
The first time I recall truly contemplating and fearing my own mortality was after I had a stroke at the age of thirty-two. Holding the title of youngest-person-on-the-neurological unit wasn’t an honor I wanted, though the nurses would sometimes jokingly refer to me as “the kid.” I suppose I was a kid joining the wrong kind of club. The stroke didn’t put my life at risk, but it left me bed-bound and helpless for months; my girls were six and four. As they came to me for limited activities we could do while I lay in bed, I wondered what their life would be like if I wasn’t there. I hated that wondering and it made me angry.
Three years later, in 2015, I had a life-threatening infection and I came face-to-face with the possibility that I actually could die at an early age. My first thoughts were that my girls were too young. What kind of legacy would I be leaving them? That brush with death changed me. Now in 2020, I’m defying statistical odds, having survived three more infections and living in a body that, medically speaking, shouldn’t be here anymore. This fear, this apprehension, it stalks me, haunting my thoughts. Almost every night when I get into bed, my mind wanders to the thought “Will this night be my last?”
I’m in the decade of life that my mom didn’t finish. I never had an adult relationship with her, and the lack of relationship has shaped my life in a way I never would have imagined. I wish every day she were here. It’s not just in the big life events that I miss her, but in the day to day, how to bake cookies without burning them, and how I should talk to my teenager about dating. What if this is what happens to my own kids; what if they have to walk through life without me? Is this going to be our generational legacy? I cannot wish this painful loneliness on my girls even though my body aches for relief.
I don’t want to be in this body and often wish it would be made whole. Sometimes I think my mom had it easy. She didn’t have to grow old and endure the pain and loss that come with old age. I envy her and the relief she was granted at a young age through her death. Then that fear creeps back in because what I don’t envy is my life without her. And the circle continues as I fear my own girls losing me. I need to be here for them. God, help me teach them to be strong and to know they are held no matter what happens.
We are weak; our bodies are perfectly imperfect. We come from dust and to dust we will return. Somehow that is comforting in its simplicity. Our physical bodies will die, yes, and then they’ll be gloriously resurrected. Jesus only lived thirty-three years, which is so young. Yet in his death, we have hope. The hope doesn’t always ease my fear of leaving my children. But I do know sorrow coexists with joy. Sorrow looks like a body that can’t get off the couch some days or a knowing that I can’t be the mom I want to be. It’s the frustration of wanting more than what I have, not materially but physically. God’s light doesn’t diminish the shadows of loss, pain, and fear. I think as we allow his light to shine brighter, though, it brings joy.
No matter the length of my years, God will take care of my girls and give them love and resilience. I have to believe this or I will worry my days away. The psalmist implores God, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” God alone knows the number of our days. The time, place, and circumstances of our death have been known by him since the beginning.
Yesterday, I was sitting on the couch with one of my daughters. We were both on our phones and sharing Instagram stories together. My other daughter was vacuuming and laughing at herself because the vacuum cleaner is almost as big as she is. They are eleven and thirteen now. I truly enjoy spending time with them and having conversations that are more meaningful than when they were small. Today we will share tea and cookies after school using the fine china, a weekly tradition I just brought back.
God has given me grace in knowing how important this time is, not just for me but for my girls. It shouldn’t matter how long I do or don’t have. My fear hasn’t been erased. I don’t even know that I have peace with it. Coming to the end of the day I know that I have loved well. Maybe that will be our generational legacy.
Cover image by Laura Fuhrman.