The Gift of Wisdom

“Age before beauty?” Or something like that.

I’m neither beautiful nor old, but I’m wise enough now to appreciate how much my mother taught me after she suffered a stroke. Before then, she was just “Mom.” That should’ve been enough, right? But that mother/daughter angst grew with every birthday I celebrated, so by the time I turned 40, Mom was more a nuisance than anything. Sure, I loved her–I always loved her–but it wasn’t until I thought she was dead that I realized I needed her in my life more than I could have imagined.

In October, 2002, I stood just outside her apartment, waiting for a cop to bust down her door. From the hallway, I knew something was terribly wrong. She hadn’t answered her phone at all that day, and from the crack beneath her door, I could tell it was pitch black in there save the light from a TV, and the smell of urine blasted into the hall. She was dead, I was sure of it, and my heart and soul were filled with a deep sorrow for having squandered the meaningful relationship we could have had if only I’d let her into my life a little more.

In  my memoir, I reflect on our final journey together, the one where I was cast as my mother’s caregiver for nineteen months before she died from lung cancer. It was a life-changing journey, one where I finally appreciated her for the imperfect woman she was and not the perfect mother I’d always expected her to be. She exuberated strength and acceptance of her dreadful condition then. But she’d always been a strong woman whose faith carried her through a rough life that was chock-full of challenges; I’d just never appreciated it before then.

Although her stroke virtually muted her memory and voice, she imparted a special wisdom I absorbed throughout those nineteen months. She became my teacher in the classroom of hospitals and nursing homes, where I spent so much time with her then. She taught me the true meaning of resilience and wisdom, virtues that can only come about as part of the aging process.

And so I leave you with these “Papal Pearls of Wisdom” on this Good Friday.

  • “It’s beautiful to be old. … The quality of a society, I’d say of a civilization, is judged by how well it treats its elderly.”  —Benedict XVI (served from 2005 to 2013), speaking to a group of elderly residents of Rome in November 2012
  • “It is within the family that the elderly ought to find their first field of action. Their wisdom and experience are a treasure to the young married fold who, in the difficulties of early married life, can find in aged parents agreeable counselors and confidants, while the children will find in the example and affectionate care of their grandparents something which will compensate for the absences of the parents, which, for various reasons, are so frequent today.” —John Paul II (1978-2005), in a May 1982 message
  • “Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society.” —John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, Oct. 1, 1999
  • “While speaking of older people, I would also say a word to the young, to invite them to remain close to the elderly. … I urge you to do this with great love and generosity. Older people can give you much more than you can imagine.” —John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, Oct. 1, 1999
  • “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” —Paul VI ( 1963-1978)
  • “The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune.” —Paul VI
  • “We have arrived at the start of our 82nd year. Will we arrive at the end of it? We are not excessively concerned.”  —John XXIII (1958-1963), in an address at a celebration of his 81st birthday in November 1962
  • “When the body gets worn out, the soul gets in shape.” —John XXIII

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