The doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you. David Whyte
After my father died, my then 81-year-old mother lived alone in the house I was born in until the day she died. During the last years of her life, when she fell and broke her wrist or came home from a hospital stay, she would grudgingly agree to have Alga, her caregiver and friend, stay with her. But as soon as I left to return home to Sacramento, she would tell Alga that she didn’t need to spend the night or be there all day. My mother was fiercely independent, and she loved having time to herself to draw, paint, write, read, learn. She drove until the final month of her life, running errands to Target and Trader Joe’s, going to art and memoir writing classes, meeting friends for lunch.
My mother was fearless in many ways. One December, when I was home for the holidays, she insisted on going with me while I ran at a local park, saying there had been incidents of teenagers and “hooligans” accosting joggers. She felt it was important to be there to protect me. My mother was 5’2″ and 105 pounds at her peak height and weight. I told her I would be fine. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
The park we went to had a one mile dirt loop course. My mother brought her binoculars and looked for birds while I ran four miles. As I was finishing my final mile, I stopped where she was bird watching so we could walk to the car together. Mom said that while I was on the other side of the loop, a group of teenagers had encircled her, demanding to know if she had any money. “I told them I didn’t have any money, and they should stop trying to harass an old woman and leave me alone.” Then she added in a confidential whisper, “I always tuck $5 in my binoculars case, just in case I need it, but I wasn’t going to tell them that ..”
My mother shooed away pushy salespeople, confronted aggressive teenage trick-or-treaters and summarily dismissed overly eager proselytizers who dared to ring her doorbell. My father died in 2003 so Mom spent 12 years living alone in the green corner house she loved so much. After she died, BJ, the neighbor across the street, told me that whenever her husband traveled, BJ would stay with her brother and his family. “But your mother,” she said, “taught me that I didn’t have to be afraid to stay alone in my own house. She inspired me to be brave.”
I am not as brave as my mother, especially when it comes to staying alone or confronting aggressive, pushy, demanding people. But she taught me well about the importance of opening the door to adventures and taking chances. To say yes to living in other states and other countries. To seek out new experiences. I might be nervous, fail, make a mistake, say or do something stupid, but according to her, that was simply the price of admission for the change to grow, learn something new, discover a previously unknown talent.
Whenever a door first opens, we don’t know whether we will wind up being frightened or excited. Will life shatter our sense of safety and control or invite us to lean into a new experience or opportunity? Jimmy’s diagnosis and death taught me that our worst nightmares can become a reality, and some days, I am scared a lot. But in the midst of the fear, I conjure up the “little woman in gray”, as my college roommate used to call my mom. I think of her ordinary bravery and quiet courage, the way she took chances and embraced new people and experiences. Most of all, I remember the way she would pick herself up whenever she fell and begin again.