“So what advice do you have for us?” Little more than a week ago, one of my son’s friends asked us that question, during dinner on the eve of their college graduation. I think he was sincere, or maybe he was just being nice because I had plied them with steaks and brought out the good wine. “Concentrate on bringing good people into your life, especially a spouse, and stay close to your family, no matter where you end up,” I told them. “Work is important and necessary, but it won’t ultimately be the most fulfilling part of your life.”
I know, very profound for me. But just that morning, I had seen the truth of those words in action. The day before, my friend Claire had been given last rights, and I stopped by to see her on my way out of town, knowing it very well could be for the last time. Her three sons were there with their wives, gathered from three countries, and grandchildren ran outside Claire’s window. Her husband of 41 years sat at the head of the breakfast table, looking more composed that he had a right to. I sat by Claire’s side in the sunroom, trying to keep the conversation light, even making her laugh a few times with tales of some of my recent bridge-playing mishaps. She grumbled a bit that her boys were taking too much time away from their work to tend to her, but she did it with a look of love and pride in her eyes. I asked her if she was afraid. “It’s time. Being afraid won’t change it.” Ever the pragmatic Claire! Then she said, with a nod to her sons across the room, “I know they don’t want me to go, but they are ready.” My mother’s heart understood—she wasn’t talking about their careers, but about their lives. All were married to wonderful women and two had started families of their own. Claire had lived long enough (and been blessed to be well enough) to see the youngest one marry in Asia just a few months before. They had what they needed to go on without her.
Fewer than twelve hours separated me from my friend’s deathbed to that dinner in a college town on graduation eve. It felt like so many things were in flux, unsettled. Underlying the question my son’s friend asked was the uncertainty that the soon-to-be grads were facing. Interviewing, whether for jobs or for grad school, had consumed their minds in the last weeks and months of school. Throughout the weekend, talk of interviews that had been and of interviews to come consumed the conversation. Even you were pressed into service, providing my son masterful interview prep the morning after graduation. These thoughts of “what’s next” bubbled under the surface for all the young people, even as thoughts of Claire bubbled up in mine.
Two days later, we were walking around downtown Greenville, South Carolina, enjoying the beautiful afternoon and about to have another celebratory dinner for the graduate. My phone buzzed with a message from a friend. Claire had died that morning.
As my youngest starts out on his new life, I pray I have taught him to balance the important with the truly important. Yes, his career is going to be a significant part of his adult life, but the relationships he makes, and the family he creates, is going to form the ultimate fabric of his life. This uncertain journey of making a life, of finding balance, is his to make, just as it was Claire’s.
At her funeral service a week later, the truth of this was again brought home. The sight of her husband—a successful international businessman—in tears, waving goodbye as the hearse drove away with the love of his life, was heart-wrenching. And next to him, also in tears, holding each other, were her sons’ wives. When your daughters-in-law mourn your passing, you know you’ve lived life with love!
So Peter, you’ve got this. And Claire, you will be missed.