Lydia Overton was my best friend. She was the person I called whenever something good happened, when something bad happened, whenever I was scared or lonely. She was not a sentimental sort; she didn’t utter meaningless platitudes. She wasn’t famous or educated. She was nearly deaf and utterly self-reliant. She told the truth without any sugarcoating. She was my mother.
When I reached my forties, my seemingly perfect life fell apart. I went through a lengthy divorce complicated by a brain aneurysm. Several close friends became ill and died. My daughter had a horrific accident on Rollerblades and my widowed mom broke her neck while golfing. I tried dating with markedly disastrous results. And yet Mom still managed to provide wise counsel despite her own challenges. As a result of her advice, a large part of my recovery involved writing a memoir that humorously examined the sad and silly and profound ways in which middle age had caught me unawares, but ultimately helped me grow up.
My mother’s recovery from the surgery for her broken neck was complicated by something called postoperative delirium. We came to understand it as a sign of underlying dementia. As her mind faded, I confided in her less and less. I finished my memoir, Good in a Crisis, four months before Mom passed. Ironically, she never would have approved of my saucy book. And yet I felt her hand in it — a spiritual complicity of sorts. The book was published on Valentine’s Day —Mom’s birthday — 18 months later and will be released in paperback shortly after New Year’s.
My mother was 93 when she died. Though prepared for her death, I was shocked at the extent and duration of my grief. It surprised me to feel like an orphan at my age. Her end-of-life care, as well as the care of the elderly I see in my job as a physician, makes me worry, both in a humanitarian and an economic sense. In the three years since her death, end-of-life has become the focus of my research and writing. A new book, Muscles of Empathy, has emerged in large part due to my mother’s influence and experience. I feel certain she would approve of this book, if not the last one. But writing both books helped me overcome different types of pain, and I have her to thank for that.
As the holidays approach, I think of my parents frequently. I remember my mother’s mincemeat pie, my father’s brandy ice, our tradition of reading the Christmas letters out loud. Our family has grown larger as my sisters become grandparents; my older daughter is now engaged. As difficult as it is to have Christmas without Mom around, I cherish the memories of holidays past. It occurs to me that I now have the same relationship with my daughters — friend, confidante and advisor — that my mother and I once shared. And I hope that through my memoir and our chats, my daughters will see that it’s possible to overcome adversity. “Count your blessings,” Mom used to say, before I knew what that meant. Now I count her among them.