When I was almost 12, my mother told me a secret.
I was in the midst of collecting the well-wishes of friends in my class yearbook, when I asked my mother to add her signature. “Also,” I said, “Could you write your age?”
My mom agreed, but quickly added, “Don’t show my age to anyone.”
I remember this time well, for my father recently asked us to keep his secret, too. For his revelation, he’d disclosed his most recent medical prognosis.
He had a congenital heart defect and although he was in no immediate peril, the doctors predicted he’d only live about 20 more years. “You kids needn’t be telling anyone this,” he cautioned, which was his way of saying, “This is a secret.”
Sure enough, a little more than 20 years later, my mother called to tell me that my father no longer had a secret; he was “gone.”
Both secrets were unwittingly communicating a teaching that suggested mortality could be delayed if one kept the secret, even if the effort was about keeping the secret from oneself.
But mortality is not a secret. Death really is a part of life, but it needn’t destroy it, define it or constrain it.
Sometimes I think the problem is we run around racing as if we actually believe we have some idea how long our race will be. If we’re 30 or 40-something, we assume we’re halfway around the track. If we have a terminal condition, we tend to let the medical experts dictate how long our race will be.
Well, recently I learned a thing or two about the race from a few children who were barely out of the starting gate.
The first was from a parent whose child received a new cancer diagnosis. As we spoke in hushed tones about mortality questions, I asked the father to talk to me about his strength for the journey.
He told me he found his strength by watching his son find his own way and by giving him room to run his own race. “It’s got to be his own journey,” he told me. “I can’t take it for him.”
The second thing I picked up was from a premature baby whose lungs had not developed enough to sustain life. After only a week, I stood with the parents as they held their son for the first and last time.
As the baby boy breathed his last breath in this world and began gasping for a piece of air in the next world, his mother gave him one final hug. In a brief instant, this mother expended the thousands of hugs she was saving for the lifetime of that child — the hugs she’d have given that baby if he’d taken his first steps, boarded his first school bus, graduated from college, gotten married and fathered his own child.
The farewell kiss said in such a way to say, “Your life counted. If for nothing else, it counted for how it transformed me.”
So, whether it’s my mother, who has more than doubled her age since that day; my father, who lived his life to the doctor’s definition; or a child, whose potential is seemingly cut short, I don’t think life is meant to be lived as a race to get somewhere or be someone.
Now, let me tell you a secret I hope you won’t keep: The truth is in the end, it’s not the one who does the most laps that wins the race. It’s the one who knows that life isn’t really a race at all, it’s only part of the journey.Don’t let death destroy or define life