“Good times are coming—be they ever so far away!” (seen on a board outside a Dublin pub, 2010)
I would like to share an endearing trait of my late Mum with a larger audience. As the title of this piece implies, she took every opportunity to celebrate those times when life just conspires against you at the wrong time, in the wrong way and for the wrong reason. I never questioned this celebrating when I was little and see no need to do so now. In fact, I am carrying on the good work and have established more of the tradition personally. I have noticed that the most successful entrepreneurs don’t focus on their failures but ride their ‘winners’ relentlessly. Surely it is easier to let problems go when you have celebrated them correctly?
I suppose I am describing medium-sized problems that are not too dire. The re-telling of such ‘disasters’ and setbacks in our family became more and more fanciful and absurd over time. There was always plenty of laughing. Whatever the involved cost or humiliation, it seemed to be less important than the getting together to relish the moment. Better times would not be coming later—they were here now!
The confounding paradoxical approach was simple when she explained it to me. “You need cheering up when something bad happens, so you might as well have a party. And when things go really well, of course you have a party!” Her preferred drink at such times was champagne (naturally she also would be up for a glass even if neither good nor bad things were occurring). She always maintained that important decisions in time of crisis were best faced after a meal at our favourite Chinese restaurant. You didn’t pass the exam with the marks you wanted? The bank wouldn’t lend the money? The parking tickets just kept coming? Of course, some problems took more accepting than others, but we all knew what was really going to keep on coming: the acceptance and the celebrating!
Her mischevious sense of humour was naturally a pre-requisite. She could always take a joke herself. My small daughter informed her one day about effects on Mum’s appearance after years of sun-baking as a beach lover. The little one gazed carefully at the weatherbeaten face in front of her. “You have a lot of lines”, she said, “Are you going to die soon?”. Mum said, “No, I hope not, but maybe one day”. “Well,” the answer came quickly, “You look like you’re going to!” . Mum ‘dined out’ on this story thereafter.
The many dramas of family life provided many opportunities to indulge her approach. On a family boating holiday, she tried and failed to step between two boats, and gracefully plonked into the water. All we could see was bubbles, but we didn’t know that her heavy toweling dress was now saturated, and dragging her down strongly. Time passed, nobody moved. We began to feel panic. She fought back and surfaced, fighting for air. The main reason she was fighting for air was due to her hysterical laughter at her own silliness. Now we could laugh too. And celebrate in the telling over many years.
I had an inkling of her philosophy as a young father when a passing truck’s mirror clipped my elbow painfully while our family was standing at the kerb. The real problem was that I was holding my infant daughter in that arm and struggled (successfully) to keep my hold. As I regrouped, and began telling myself a semi-tragic angry story about the incident, I caught my Mum’s eye. “Nothing really happened”, she said wisely. I was struck for the second time! How right she was. Everyone was actually OK. Time to celebrate.
Her favourite movie scene was at the end of “Zorba The Greek”, where all of Zorba’s life savings disappear in a spectacular business failure, and he then slowly starts to dance. And laugh. And, despite everything, celebrate life (this moment has not yet arrived in Greece today at the time of writing although the situation is identical!). I read in the paper today that consumer confidence now is at a very low ebb after the GFC. However, Mum showed me that the measure of somebody is the way they live their life—who they are, how they love, not what they have or how they appear.
The quality of her happiness and resilience was informed by much personal difficulty. She experienced the intensity of having twins as a new mother without help, and the later pain of having her infant daughter die. Her second son had severe meningitis and was not expected to live (but did). She did know the deep despair of the dark side of marriage. Many of her classmates from her small country school lost their lives fighting the Japanese. She lived under the shadow of a huge business overdraft with the prospect of imminent financial disaster—for 25 years. A host of major health problems plagued her later decades, culminating in a 13-hour heart and aorta operation, with severe complications, at age 80. None of this had the slightest influence on her love for life and people. Her generosity of spirit extended outwards to encompass everybody, including their problems. Her speciality was melting the hard hearts of others. She modeled tolerance and acceptance. Our family life was the result.
Following that surgery and near-death experience she was confined to a soul-destroying rehabilitation hospital for a time. I visited her there and after a moment’s observation, decided to kidnap her and take her for a ride in my car. The matron was adamant that her doctor would not allow this, and that furthermore, Mum could “drop dead” at any time if I did. As a doctor, I told her that Mum was not really alive in this hospital, and that I would take responsibility because I knew she would prefer to drop dead than miss out on a ride into the real world. Mum beamed at this idea and, despite a few qualms on my part, we got going. I drove her over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into the city for a gelato. She was truly thrilled, and said it was the best thing that had happened to her for years. When I returned her intact the matron was “not happy”—despite her patient’s being alive and well. But it was a physical risk worth taking, in my Mum’s opinion. And it was my opportunity to put her positive belief into practice for her, when she was trapped.
She developed by herself the mind set of the survivor in life: the pervasive sense of humour, the careful observation of the situation, the appreciation of irony, the reality-testing, common sense wisdom, and, most importantly, the acceptance of good and bad together—without denial. In the celebrating (in good times and bad) she succeeded in letting something that happens mean what you want it to mean –and never allowing problems to define you! She also used tapping that I taught her, also in good times and bad, and in this was ahead of her generation and her time. She maintained her resilience as well as using it to help resolve problems.
Her life-affirming force meant she held on to what mattered—which, in this case, is the living itself! Living life fully is the ultimate celebration. She hasn’t ‘gone to a better place’—because every time I celebrate I feel her presence.