While contemplating a gift for my mother’s seventieth birthday celebration, I realized that she is the one who has given a priceless gift to us, her loved ones, throughout her life.  The gift is one that epitomizes the message of Second Firsts…teaching us how to rebuild and reclaim life.  She has inspired us by doing it several times over in the course of her seven decades.   It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention” and from Mom we have learned that “grief just might be the mother of reinvention”.

When she was in her thirties, my mother had six children. Work was scarce and my dad was an unemployed electrician.    He left home to work on the Alaskan Pipeline to support his family.   My stay-at-home mother did not even have her driver’s license.  Literally and figuratively, she had to take her first steps on the journey to take care of us.  Daily she would put her two babies in a big pram, instruct the middle two children to hold onto the sides, and  watched as the oldest two would skip or run ahead of  her on the walks to the grocery and department stores miles  from where we lived.   These walks were always adventures for us and I’m sure helped her to mentally and physically take care of all of our needs.

My mother fed her loneliness with comfort food during my dad’s absence and despite the miles she logged during this time, she gained some weight.  Eager to lose it, she walked into a diet center and boldly declared “I will lose 25 pounds in 6 weeks on your plan and then I’d like a job as a counselor.”  Her challenge was accepted and she attained her weight loss goal.  Thereafter, she gently guided others on their own weight loss journey.  For several years she maintained a healthy lifestyle and enjoyed a rewarding career in the meantime.

Her successful battle of the bulge was nothing compared to the next weighty issue she faced.  When she reached her forties, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was with her when she received the daunting news. Her only question to the doctor was “Will I see my children graduate high school?”  This was a time when there were no pink ribbons or Walks for the Cure.   Breast cancer was not a household word and I believed it to be her death sentence.  To her, it was a personal challenge. She simply wanted to see her babies get to their milestone high school graduation.

I drove my mother home from her lumpectomy with teary eyes. I will never forget her saying “I will survive this cancer, but if you don’t stop crying, we won’t survive this ride home!”  It provided some much needed comic relief for me and representative of how she got through life, one obstacle at a time, and with a sense of humor to boot. My mother bravely underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. She never complained. She plowed through the treatment and appears to have never looked back.

After getting the news that she was cancer-free, my mother took on a new test. She studied for and passed the real estate exam. She launched a new career as a real estate agent.   She began to sell her heart out and happily helped others find their dream homes!

Unfortunately, her dreams and her own home were soon shattered.  After 28 years of marriage, my father left their home and my mother was now alone.  She did not know what life would be like without her husband by her side.  After months of an empty house, she decided to do something about the quiet around her each day.  Mom started a Thursday night card game at her home and thereafter she reveled in a different kind of “full house”.   She enjoyed the games enormously with her friends “the queens” and she focused on her growing family while continuing to sell real estate. Her babies graduated high school and college and her children got married and began having their own babies.  Mom daydreamed of and spoke of painting pictures for her grandchildren’s nurseries.

Mom had been given an easel, stretched canvases, paint brushes and some paint as a gift but had put them away in the closet.  They were tucked away, but not too far from her mind. She had shelved the idea of painting while she raised her children and now, like her life ahead, there was a blank canvas that was calling out to her, but also paralyzing her with fear.

On Mother’s Day one year she delighted in a beautiful bouquet of roses.   The roses were so special to her that she even dried them out to make them last longer. Finally, she took out those paint supplies and with one small brush stroke, began an  amazing journey.   She painted the roses and her life slowly began to bloom again.

She noticed and clipped an  ad in the local newspaper about an art association. She was intimidated and feared her paintings would be laughed at. The next year she saw another ad and this time had the courage to begin classes.  And yes, she did hear a lot of laughing.  The laughter wasn’t at her paintings though.  The laughter was joyous and came from her newfound friends.  She won awards and even became the president of that Art Association.   She seemed to have mastered  the “art of reinvention”.

Last year my mother got a long distance call from her youngest daughter, who had been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Within hours, my mother dropped everything and moved out of state to care for her “baby” and her two small grandbabies.   My mother’s life was uprooted but she went the distance once again and gently guided her daughter along a familiar path she had already traveled.  She helped her on the road to recovery and assisted in the at-home day care center my sister ran. Mom became a grandmother-in-residence while her daughter underwent a year of  surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  They are now mother-daughter survivors and I dare say, thrivers!

Mom is joyously back at home.   She celebrated her 70th birthday not only with a renewed real estate license, and a new daughter-in-law and granddaughter,  but also with a renewed lease on life.    The gift I decided to give her was a week long cruise. The ocean, like life, is vast and at times seemingly insurmountable.   It just takes a little courage to get on board and set sail.  Bon Voyage to mom and all of you.