LIVE BY DESIGN | Milestone of Healing: Forgetting my mother’s birthday… and remembering her last gift.

Older women holding hands with younger women

For the past 21 years, 24 February has been a day etched in my heart — a day dedicated to celebrating my mother’s birthday, honouring her memory, and connecting with her friends.

It was a ritual of remembrance, a tradition of love that I held onto dearly. However, this year, something unexpected happened. For the first time since her passing, I forgot her birthday.

The realisation crept up on me slowly, like a gentle whisper amid life’s usual hustle and bustle. There were no alarm bells, no pangs of guilt — just a subtle shift in the rhythm of my existence. At first, I was taken aback by my forgetfulness. How could I, who had always been so diligent in commemorating this day, let it slip by unnoticed?

But as the days passed, a sense of calm descended upon me. It was a feeling of liberation, of release from the weight of expectations and obligations that had accompanied this day for so long. Forgetting my mother’s birthday was not an act of disrespect or neglect; instead, it was a sign of healing, a symbol of the passage of time and the evolution of grief.

Amid this emotional journey, I impulsively booked a ticket to Durban, eager to be surrounded by family and retrace the footsteps of my mother’s life. I wanted to share this milestone with her friends, to confide in them that I had finally let go of the need to mark this day in a certain way. I wanted them to know that it was OK, that I was OK.

As I sat among her friends, sharing stories and laughter, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. The act of forgetting had not diminished my love for my mother or the memories we shared; instead, it had allowed me to embrace a new chapter in my journey of healing. It was a reminder that grief is not static; it ebbs and flows like the tides of the ocean, shaping and reshaping our relationships with those we have lost.

So here I am, 21 years later, learning to navigate the waters of grief with a lighter heart and a clearer mind. I am also eternally grateful for my mother’s last gift she bestowed on us as a family – her conversation for clarity about her wishes – which she then wrote down.

My mother’s friends are in their 80s, and I am curious about their clarity and whether they have their affairs in order. One of my mother’s friends has been in and out of the hospital over the past few months, dealing with one ailment after another. Her daughter’s unfortunate situation with job searching has meant she is the 24/7 caregiver.

I asked if the crucial conversations had taken place. With tears in her eyes, she said that only the finances around her burial are settled, and everything else is unresolved, which means she and her brother expect to be at loggerheads, potentially requiring a law enforcement intervention.

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I visited my mother’s 88-year-old friend. It is always a bittersweet experience. She holds a special place in my heart. I arrive bearing gifts that may not be advisable for someone of her age and health status, but knowing that these indulgences were shared favourites of my mother and her, I cannot refrain from bringing them along.

Our gatherings wouldn’t feel complete without their cherished foods. She greeted me with a solemn declaration that these are her final days, and she is prepared to reunite with her maker. Our conversations drifted towards her unwavering belief that my mother awaits her in the afterlife, eager to catch up on the past 21 years.

Wanting to steer our dialogue towards practical matters, I inquired about her arrangements and whether her children and grandchildren were mentally prepared for her imminent departure. Will her passing strengthen their familial bonds? Her response was stoic yet profound – she expressed confidence in the values she has instilled in them. She believes they are equipped to navigate life without her guidance.

The conversation omitted the unspoken fears and concerns, and I couldn’t shake the worry about her legacy and the impact of her absence on their lives. How will they simply “adult up and leave their best lives” if certain conversations have not happened? What about a will to guide them on how to divide her assets? But she insists that her time is up, and she is only left with the energy to die rather than to think about the fate of her children, whose youngest is 48.

I hear her words, and the weight of the unresolved now lingers in the air, leaving me to ponder the intricate layers of love, loss, and the enduring legacies we leave behind.

“It’s always too soon – and then it’s too late,” I recall these words of Ellen Goodman, American feminist Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, who was left to manage the consequences of conversations that hadn’t happened. Ellen’s suffering prompted her to co-found Boston-based The Conversation Project – a not-for-profit dedicated to supporting ordinary people to have end-of-life conversations EARLY ENOUGH.

See www.theconversationproject.com for a series of conversation guides about dementia, your doctor, a dying child, or how to choose someone to speak for you if you can’t speak for yourself.

For my mother’s friend, it’s too late – she’s clearly telling me her life force is in decline. Talking with her makes me sad that while I run LoveLegacyDignity programmes, undertake public speaking engagements and write this column, I’ve somehow missed the opportunity, closer to home, to sit earlier with my mother’s old-old friend to support her to have these critical conversations.

This is the time of year with many family gatherings and time for conversation. The 30 days of Ramadan have started, Easter is a few days away, and Pesach follows just a couple of weeks later. I urge you to have no regrets. Create opportunities to have life-affirming conversations about mortality.

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