My mom, Natalie, died last week, following a short ending to a lengthy illness. As family and friends came together to remember her and her life, one of the dominant themes that emerged was how critical relationships were to my mom. Several vignettes were particularly impactful to me in describing how skilled she was in forging relationships and what tremendous value emerged from those connections.
My brother Rich recalled a day when he was 7 or 8 when he accompanied my mom on some routine errands. He observed that what, for some, would have been the onerous tasks of dealing with an ill-tempered postal worker or waiting in a lengthy line in the bank before cashing a check, for my mom were opportunities to meet new people which, hopefully, would lead to ongoing relationships. A cheerful observation of how the weather was beautiful was enough to distract the postal worker from his drudgery and engage him in a brief but meaningful interaction. Both he and my mom remembered that, and her next visit for stamps prompted a smile from him- a sign that they had a real relationship. The wait in the bank line turned into an opportunity to meet the people standing in front and behind her. When she demonstrated she was willing to share with them information about herself, like where she grew up, how long she had lived in the neighborhood, her invitation for them to do the same resulted in a mutually beneficial conversation, where information might emerge that could be the foundation of a future friendship.
While she was in the hospital in her final days, she continued to form new relationships with skill and grace. As new healthcare providers introduced themselves for the first time she asked if they could show her their identification badge. She explained, "By seeing your name in addition to hearing it I’ll be better able to greet you by name when you’re here next time.” This simple request meant that she was interested in truly connecting with them as individuals- not some generic nurse/resident/therapist, but as the person with a name and a story that they really were. The day before she died was Super Bowl Sunday. My dad and I stepped out for a few minutes to grab lunch. When we returned we learned from my mom that the attendant who had delivered her lunch tray (I forget his name, but she named him by name) was a 49ers fan. She shared with him that she was rooting for the Ravens and why (my nephew Dan attends University of Delaware where Joe Flacco, the Ravens quarterback had gone). They mutually agreed they’d continue the conversation the next day, discussing how their teams fared. Think of how easy it would have been for that brief encounter to have come and gone without any real information being shared. Instead, my mom ended her life just as she had lived it: extending herself to another in an effort to begin a relationship that would continue, evolve, and provide joy and meaning for both parties. Of all the lessons I learned from my mom, the value of relationship-based living is probably the most important.