Mothers, Daughters, Heartbreak & Light

A conversation with my mom in 2009 will always be etched in my mind because she passed away three years later. Of course, we'd had many conversations before, but I seem to remember the post-terminal-cancer-diagnosis ones the most. We'd just found out that my mom, who'd been incorrectly diagnosed with a stroke, actually had a rare brain tumor called glioblastoma. One day she was negotiating national school reform agendas, the next day she had suddenly become unable to speak.

Success and Despair

My mom had achieved the status of successful c-suite corporate executive, elected official, dedicated wife, beloved grandma, mentor and trusted friend. Our impossible schedules, and the fact that we lived more than half-the-country apart, became the excuse for the two of us failing to have deeper conversations - like the apologies that should still be given even when the offenses have already been forgiven and the acknowledgements of when you didn't treat someone quite right. Sure, you can chalk it up as typical mother-daughter stuff - but these are the things that cause regret in the end. Of course no life is perfect, but I regretted the parts of our lives that we "spent" because living them together would've been so much better.

We had many great years, but I was hardly listening. It seemed like just when I'd finally arrived at an age when my mom and I were both ready to get still, stop prioritizing our climb up the ladder, and cease the hyper-focused flurry of work activity, it was too late. Suddenly all of the hurts and challenges we could've discussed seemed irredeemable and inconsequential in light of her condition. Fortunately, my mom worked to regain her speech and motion, so while we didn't have time to say everything, we had a bit more time to say most of the important things. For that, I'm forever grateful.

Heartbreak Comes with Light

Heartbreak and despair have a way of peeling back the layers and bringing out the light. Now that I was truly listening and she was truly listening, I no longer considered my mom's advice, rather I was looking for her to tell me what to do. She had a different insight, and I felt deeply that her opinions were firmer, truer and more reliable than my own. The words I hadn't adequately considered before instantly became my light.

The Conversation

Mom was in remission for about a year and a half. During that time, I called her repeatedly complaining about my job and struggling with the decision of whether to stick with it or to go back to school and get a PhD. I also wrestled with the decision to move to Houston so that I could spend more time with her. After I ranted for about 30 minutes about how stuck and stifled I felt in my career, but didn't want to spend the next five years working on my PhD, mom simply replied with the following:

  1. "So, what you want is to be free?"

  2. "Well, you have to do something for the next five years."

  3. "You can't just move here and look at me."

I did all the talking, but somehow she did the liberating with a single conversation. I remember the many times that I took for granted the woman my mom had always been: generous, intelligent, elegant, devoted, uber-professional and at times a tiny bit subdued. She was quiet but powerful. I often misunderstood what I know for sure now: she worked hard to fill her life with the family, community and career she wanted. Though she was dying, she lived free. My mom told me just days before she passed, "I've done everything that I've wanted to do with my life." Her words were pure light through the heartbreak.

The Light Illuminates What the Heart Needs

The light doesn't take away the heartbreak or the fear, but it does illuminate what the heart needs. The light reveals the things we do, or don't do, that lead to future regret and shows us how to reexamine priorities and make meaningful changes that manifest more joy and more light. What does your heart need? My mom's words illuminated for me that, above all else, my heart needed to love myself enough to follow each noble inclination and to be free to live as the authentic me. I'd no longer limit my life experience to working as a lawyer when the authentic me encompasses so many other things.

I never applied for the PhD program, but I did apply to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the adventure of the unhinged me has taken center stage ever since. While at Berklee, I started my own law practice. Soon after, I moved to Nashville, and it was here that I wrote this song about the conversation with my mom, "The Next Five Years." What can come of the next five years in spite of heartbreak and despair? Nothing, a tiny bit or everything. The last five years has been everything, for me.


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© 2021 by Shai Littlejohn