How Do You Measure A Life?

Melanie SturmMeaning of Life

Thank God for dirty jokes, especially the two my mom insisted I tell anyone willing to listen as I motored her through a storm of diagnosis and decision-making last month.

Distracting us from the stress of uncertainty and fear, my jokes were just what doctors would order. More important, the memories and reappraisals of moments past — both bitter and sweet — that ran like movie reels through our minds were just what the rabbi would have ordered to prepare us for the spiritual Think Again of the Jewish High Holidays.

“Everyone has two lives,” Hunter Thompson famously said. “The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” That’s why mortality is life’s greatest gift, for facing death reawakens the vitality, urgency and aspiration that slumber under blankets of complacency.

The tolling of mortality is the essence of this holy season of reflection, repentance, forgiveness and renewal. The piercing sound of the shofar – the ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) — is the alarm clock for every soul praying to be inscribed for another year in the book of life, as I will do soon at my mom’s side.

It’s no joke, but a realization forged from life experience, that the only perfectly happy families are ones you don’t know well.  The truth is, there are no perfect families because there are no perfect lives. But there are imperfect people who, despite their difficulties navigating life’s tumultuous waters, strive to perfect the world by living lives of goodness – like my mom.

Known for her outgoing and commanding personality, a delightful sense of humor, and her beauty, my mom has spent her life sprinkling kindness and love on a world thirsty for both, enriching the lives of people who’ve encountered her, and the causes lucky enough to claim her devotion. Fashion-forward and magnetic, she’s been a leading light, challenging people’s better angels to follow her generous example.

Though my mom and I are profiles in contrasts, I realize how much I am her daughter. The arc of my life has been shaped and guided by her repeated encouragement – “You can do anything you want and overcome any obstacle” – a confidence that’s sustained me through life’s trials.

Like the boy in the children’s book “The Giving Tree,” I know I’ve been nourished by maternal love and sacrifice. Through the prism of my child’s mind’s eye, I recall my mom’s unwavering support as she encouraged me to surmount my youth’s biggest hurdle, the ugly back-brace I wore for scoliosis. And when diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, as my mom had been 30 years earlier, I followed her resolute example.

After bringing into focus so many unexpected memories, it’s clear how our mothers are our first and often best teachers. In learning from those who preceded, and then passing on that legacy to those who follow, parents bestow their greatest gift, an inheritance that keeps on giving, from generation to generation.

“It warms the hearts of parents to see their children’s connection to family and to know that the values and traditions you have tried to impart to the next generation have actually been caught,” writes spiritual author Ron Wolfson in his new memoir, “The Best Boy in the United States of America — Of Blessings and Kisses.”

The great challenge of life is to sustain and even grow one’s legacy. As the rabbinic sage Maimonides taught, we should think of our deeds as perfectly balanced so that our next act will tip the scales toward the good. Every day in seemingly insignificant ways, we can promote grace, beauty and goodness, helping improve the world. Even amid backsliding, we can wear our souls brightly, returning them a little better when the time comes.

As I strive in this holy season to recommit to being the person my mom believes I can be, I’m reminded of the moving theme song from the musical “Rent.” It asks this question: In the “525,600 minutes of a year, how do you measure the life of a woman or a man?”

“Measure your life in love,” it answers, “seasons of love.”

Being reawakened to life’s fragility is a blessing, for it inspires us to live our minutes with greater intensity and goodness, to continuously love, dream and create. It motivates us to take a minute when appropriate to say, “I love you,” “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry,” or to ask “ is there anything I can do to help?” It may even mean telling a joke when you’re not really up to it.

While we still have time, “Remember the love, share love, spread love,” as “Rent” exhorts, knowing we’re neither the first nor last to love, just the lucky ones to do so now.

Think Again – May the memories of cherished others, which guide our actions, inspire us to lead lives worthy of remembrance.