Parenting Post-Mortem

Yesterday, discussing the death of my best friend from a brain tumor, here:,

     brought a flood of memories that intersected with one of my greatest parenting concerns. 


My daughter is 20 years old, a successful college student at a very large institution three hours from home.   Some family members and friends expressed concerns that she would be able to leave her mother for extended times.  She had grown up with me always struggling with illness, as I was diagnosed with systemic lupus when she was 4 years old.   I was divorced two years after that, so for the most part it has been the two of us.  Despite worries about her mom, she has always been independent and the first one to go spend the night (or the week) with her friends.  One trip when she was about five was from Chattanooga to Ashville, NC with her best friend’s family.  When they returned to Chattanooga after four days, she called to tell me she wasn’t ready to come home yet and that she’d let me know when to get her.  As I recall, she stayed with that family another four or five days.  I appreciated the opportunity for her to spend time with other families who could be more active.  She didn’t lack for interesting experiences, despite my limitations.


That’s not to say she didn’t express some concerns.  She asked me a few times if I was going to die, and seemed to be satisfied with my stock answer “Not any time soon, sweetie.”  She was alert to any health hazards, focusing on things like smoking (which I’ve never done) and drinking alcohol.  When she learned that alcohol could be harmful, she worried about my infrequent bottle of beer, so much so that I stopped drinking completely.  I figured that my medicated liver could do without the additional toxins, anyway.


From age 8 to age 18, she experienced something that I hadn’t anticipated and found totally at odds with my statistical expectations.  For ten years, her friends lost their mothers at a rate of one per year.  These were all women with whom she was acquainted, all of them active as parent volunteers at her various schools, some whose children were very close friends.  She had out-of-school experiences with all of the children; none were just distant schoolmates.  The women died of various causes:  one young colon cancer, a brain tumor, two breast cancers, a complication of leukemia, a stroke, a cervical cancer (in a health professional who admitted she had neglected her own Pap smears), a pulmonary embolus, and one aneurysm.  One was murdered in a terrible domestic situation.  Ten women, all within 5 years of my age, either way.  Between them, 19 children, four  of whom are my former Girl Scouts. 


My girl may have been better prepared to face these deaths than most.  From age five weeks (when I returned to my practice) to age two and a half, she stayed with her grandparents while I worked.  My parents were in their early 70s.  As with most folks in that age range, they were gradually seeing their contemporaries and more elderly friends and relatives die off.  My parents were very faithful funeral goers, and never missed an opportunity to express their condolences (mostly Daddy) and count the number of bouquets sent by mourners (mostly Mama).  Since Dayna was with them, she attended those events, too.  Like most of my family, she was quite matter-of-fact about this steady stream of death celebrations.  Actually, I didn’t give it much thought until I heard her refer to seeing an older physician friend “in the box”. 


My daughter showed her aplomb when she was vacationing with the family of one of her friends when the mother (since deceased), received her diagnosis of breast cancer.  She continued to demonstrate her security about this everyday thing called “death” by attending the majority of the funerals of the women listed above.  She is very loyal to her friends, and when they have an event, whether it’s a party or a funeral, she is there.  She has been surprised repeatedly to find that some of her friends only attended their first funerals in high school, with some of these deaths, and even more so to learn that some people are afraid to attend.


I’ve always thought my role as a parent was to raise a compassionate, productive, independent child who could see her place as a citizen of the planet, not just the town.  Had I foreseen the rash of untimely deaths of mothers she knew, I’m sure I would have talked to her more, as talk is my currency.  I would have wasted a lot of hot air explaining why loved ones die and how to cope with it, not understanding in her early years what I can’t escape now:  that she is the teacher in her world, and words don’t do it for her. 


A story often told by her father, and still relished by her, is the one about learning to tie her shoes.  Her father, seeing her awkward and rather sloppy technique, was at his gentle, tactful best:  “I’m going to show you how Daddy ties his shoes.”  He then demonstrated, ending-of course!  with 30-plus years of experience-a beautiful bow.  Her response:  “Now let me show you how I tie my shoes,” and proceeded to repeat her awkward method, ending her lop-sided bow with a flourish.  My girl, always the teacher, confident in her knowledge and her place. 







2 Responses

  1. And peace to you, my friend! You, too, have a wonderful, wise daughter.

  2. ((((hugs))))

    prayers for you all.

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