I remember the day, 20 years ago, that my mom came home from the hospital for the last time. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer five years earlier, and it had spread to her liver, her bones, and her brain.
The doctors told us she had only a few weeks left to live, but I was not ready to hear it. I wouldn’t hear it. I held a death-grip on hope – I was hoping a miracle would cure her. I thought that if I just believed enough or hoped enough, or prayed enough or fought enough, she would be healed – as if it was a matter of will — MY will. I was desperate. Death was not an option I was willing to consider.
Never give up! Never surrender! No matter what! This was my mantra.
We wheeled her into the bedroom, and I remember saying cheerfully (& in front of the hospice nurse), “Look, Mom! It’s your recovery bed!” (I still feel a keen pang even today, remembering this.)
I remember the look on the nurse’s face when I made my “recovery bed” remark. A look of pain mixed with pity and compassion flashed across her face. She didn’t say anything right away – but spoke a few moments later. “It’s possible that your mom might take a temporary turn for the better,” she said gently, “but I have my doubts.” I think her kindness and consideration worked in me, because I finally heard, “No, she’s not going to be cured. These are her final days. I am sorry.”
She died three days before my 24th birthday. I spent the next several years reconsidering my black and white views about faith and hope. Everything I thought I understood about belief and determination and phrases like “nothing is impossible,” I started to see in a different light. I started to consider that maybe acceptance, maybe letting go, and maybe even death itself were not the enemies I had supposed them to be – and that stubbornly clinging to a specific desired outcome is not necessarily strength or wisdom. Sometimes this is foolishness. Becoming disillusioned sounds painful – and it is – but I’ve come to believe it’s a really good thing in life. I don’t want to have illusions – illusions, by definition, are misconceptions.
Maybe all those inspirational quotes we hear about following your dreams no matter what – maybe they’re really trying to teach us not to be afraid – not to let fear keep us from trying. If so, I heartily agree. I believe in perseverance and in getting up each time we fall and not giving in to despair. I just think that the part that tells us we can decide what we’re going to create or will to happen, and it will happen every single time without exception if we believe enough, can be dangerous.
A few months ago, my 9-year-old daughter and I were hiking a steep trail that leads to a network of caves in the Uinta National Forest. The paved trail winds back and forth up the face of this soaring mountain, and there are signs everywhere warning hikers to stay on the trail. Rocky cliffs and sharp drop offs are everywhere. We were about halfway up the trail when we heard a small child screaming and wailing around the bend above us. At first I thought the child was hurt – these were bloody murder shrieks of pain, and they weren’t letting up. My daughter and I looked at each other, worried. We finally saw a young family heading down around the bend. A little boy, about three years old, in a Batman outfit – cape and all – was howling his lungs out. His dad had a firm grip on his arm and we heard the boy yell “I want to jump off the rocks! I can do it!” This little boy believed, very seriously – 100% – that he could fly. He was Batman, and he was wearing the cape. He was so mad at his dad for not letting him jump off the cliff.
The dad glanced at me sheepishly. I offered an amused but pained, “good-luck-with-that” look. Who wants to tell a 3-year-old that he is not Batman, that his cape is not magical, and that he can’t fly? No one.
I don’t have any answers for when to fight on or when to surrender. No one can make formulas for such things in life.
I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about life, actually. Every opportunity holds a mystery and a potential, and we get to decide how we will address and regard it. I believe we have a lot of control over how we see the world and the meaning we give to it. But at the same time, I have come to see that we do not set life’s limits, and we do not control events or nature or life like we sometimes think we do. Those spirit-pumping, Hollywood stories where a brave soul works and toils and believes against all odds that she can accomplish something – and in the end she is right and wins a great victory –I love these stories. I want to keep hearing those stories. Because they DO happen.
But I also want to attest to the beauty and healing that can come when we let go. Sometimes courage can be the ability to surrender instead of continuing to fight. Accepting what is, letting go of what will not be, not attaching ourselves so insistently to how we think things ought to be. Sometimes surrendering is an act of love. It can be an act of love to release someone to be free.
I remember late one night, not long after we learned that my mom was dying, I said a prayer that surprised me. I heard myself saying out loud, “Please release my mom from pain. Please help her not to suffer anymore.” I was somewhat shocked. I remember thinking, “How did that bypass my brain? My brain did not approve of this message!” That prayer came from a place deep within me that listened to the truth. The truth was that wanting my mom to live at all costs was selfish. The most compassionate and selfless thing I could wish for was that my mom would be free from suffering. I had to forget about what I wanted; life wasn’t about me. Within an hour of uttering that prayer, my dad called to tell me she was gone.