“They say you should write what you know,” she offers as we sit sorting one more in an endless stream of boxes filled with papers. “Right now, this is what you know. They say no man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child. This is kind of like that.” My mother leans from her wheelchair to toss one more handful into the “burn” pile.

I had intended to write this chapter from the comfort of my home office, on my computer, with my cat on my lap, but while I was making those plans, life was happening, just like John Lennon said it would. So, instead I am writing on an old pad of paper, looking out over country fields two states away after a night disturbed by the frightened meows of a cat half feral after five months alone here. I am at my mother’s house five months after her stroke. She is just 64 years old.

While I have been thinking high thoughts, trying to select what wisdom I would offer to help you improve your life, I have been immersed in helping my mother dismantle hers. The last six months have seen a series of hospital visits and days away from home as I have been plunged into my divorced parents’ lives, as they each face life-altering health crises. Many times, I have felt anything but tall.

Considering her words, I haul another box to the fire and plunge my stick into the deepening pile of ash, fanning apart a McCall’s magazine from 1973, encouraging the flames to gain purchase. Forty-three years ago, my mother began to collect these magazines. An innocent subscription to Parents grew to include McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Better Homes and Gardens, each brimming with tips to transform her from an overwhelmed, unhappily married mother of four to a gracious, cellulite-free hostess with the right dress for every occasion, welcoming guests into a serene home adorned with timeless décor. These magazines are as familiar to me as siblings, but the promised transformation never took place. I cast another stack into the fire. The irony is not lost on me.

My mother never stopped thinking about improving her life. In fact, 101 suggestions about how to do that would have appealed to her, and she would have intended to try every one. I watch a charred page dance in the heat, wondering if one day some other daughter in some other field will cast my own suggestions into her flames.

What can I offer you that will endure? What will last after these pages have long since yellowed? What has the deconstruction of two lives taught me? Certainly there are the time-honored truths:

It is best to think twice before throwing toilet paper out the girls’ room window when there are nuns around.
Some styles should never come back, including anything from the 1980s and sky-blue sans-a-belt pants.
In a small house, keep a handy supply of room fresheners and a sense of humor.
If you all live long enough, someday, you will have to see your parents naked. Don’t panic, everyone will survive it.

These guidelines will undoubtedly help you avoid a few jams and enhance your quality of life, but they aren’t the most important principles.

Closer to the truth are words so overused as to have become cliché.

You can’t take it with you.
Tomorrow is promised to no one.
Love is all that matters.

These maxims hit closer to home the deeper one gets into middle age, but they don’t tell you how to survive the changes that inevitably come.

But let’s not talk mere survival. If you are reading this book, you want to go beyond the basics. You want to thrive. Like the authors, you intend to extract every drop of nectar from your journey, showing up fearlessly, passionately, and unflinchingly to all that life offers.
To you, I offer the most important skill I have learned: approach that which you fear.

Nothing clarifies life like death, and no one teaches more about living well than those who are dying well.

I live by the tenet that everyone in my life is a Buddha, here to teach me something essential to my path. This does not mean I enjoy every lesson, and I certainly have questioned the methods of a few instructors, but I pay attention nonetheless.

This is a difficult philosophy to adopt if one fancies oneself as “strong” and “independent.” However, if you can learn the difference between humiliation and humility, putting the ordinary needs of the ego aside, you will gain the Buddhas’ respect, and their aid will be invaluable.

I was a woman who loved people by doing things for them, finding this far easier than actually being with them. There is vulnerability in true intimacy that is too uncomfortable for many people to bear for long. Eyes lock for a moment. Moment feels too naked. Here, let me get you more coffee. Further, being with people I knew would die meant I might cry. I could appear weak if I revealed my fears. Perhaps my grief over being destined to die, surrounded by others just as mortal, would be too much for me to face head on, emotionally and spiritually, even if I could do so intellectually. Yet my commitment to living consciously never wavered. I knew showing up would mean moving into my pain.

Victoria Williams wrote, “That which you fear the most will meet you half way.” My Buddhas began to show up in droves, both the dying and the bereaved. Impending death was my daily companion. In desperation I picked the one I most feared losing, sat at his feet, and wept. “This is so much bigger than me, right now. Will you help me?”

“Will you help me?” Four words that once signified the ultimate in humiliation for me became the bravest words I ever spoke.

My Buddha said yes. In fact, they all did, and my instruction began in earnest.
The lessons I have learned so far:

When you say “this isn’t my life,” you are in denial. You are always in your life.
It is possible to embrace someone as both living and dying as soon as you give up the need to label the present moment. All you have is the present moment.
Inner beauty, grace, and dignity trump unwanted facial hair, saggy butts, and catheter bags every time.
Self-care is not something to resume once the crisis is over. Crises have a way of stacking up. A centering practice such as meditation, prayer, walking, or any mindful activity is essential.
Collapsing from exhaustion does not count as relaxation.
Time alone to reflect is critical. No one can do your processing for you.
No one will ever truly know what life and death look like through your eyes. They don’t have to. Draw your own conclusions about the journey.

Enjoy the knowledge and wisdom contained within this book. Take bite-sized pieces, and chew them well. Incorporate. Integrate. Welcome every Buddha. Your lesson plan awaits.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit http://www.selfgrowth.com/greatways2.html.

Author's Bio: 

Laura Young, MA, is the founder of Wellspring Coaching. An innovator in the field of wellness coaching, Laura draws on 25 years of experience, including extensive background in psychology, personal development coaching, pain management, martial arts, meditation, and yoga. She is a dedicated student of both Eastern and Western philosophy. She has a special interest in the transformative power of story and the uses of creative expression to promote wellness. Her Web site, http://www.wellspringcoaching.com, links to extensive writings on a number of personal development topics, including those highly relevant to mid-lifers. Private consultations and a full range of coaching services are available.