My mom never got the chance to be “Better After 50” because a week after her fiftieth birthday she died. And although Mom didn’t have a chance to fulfill that next phase of her life, her death spurred me, at age 22, to do something better with mine.
Here is an adaptation of part of my memoir Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid (October 15, 2013) where I talk about how my mother’s early death inspired me to pursue an entirely different career and lead a bolder and more meaningful life than the one I was charting.
My mom always defied exhaustion and illness. When we were kids she would burst through the front door after work and yell in a singsong eruption through the house, “Hello! Kids! It’s Mom! I’m home!” She could make even the most mundane tasks fun—whether it was taking out the trash or learning the state capitals before a social studies test—there was always an accompanying song or dance move. But at age 45, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Eventually, the usual peppy face and bubbly voice from my blonde beauty Supermom was eroded by longer and longer stretches in the hospital and in bed.
No one says cure when they talk about cancer— at least they never did to my mom— and even during her healthy stretches, there was always a pestering voice in the back of everyone’s head. This may not be the end of it.
One night, while cuddling in her hospital bed watching a movie, Mom turned to me and said, “There are just so many things I want to tell you. I have so much I need to say to you. To all of you.” She was crying.
“Mom, it’s OK. You’ll have time to tell us everything.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. My dad died when I was sixteen. And I don’t remember him. Of course, I remember what he looked like, but the details, his personality, who he was . . . I can’t remember. I can’t remember my own father! You guys, my children, you aren’t going to be able to remember me.”
I guess I expected it to be like in a movie. Music would swell and I’d be able to say to my mother all the things I had been meaning to say for so long. Tell her that I loved her, tell her everything that I admired her for, thank her for my life. But it was nothing like that. I held her hand silently, unable to speak. The only thing swelling was the lump in my throat, which choked off anything profound I might have said. I gathered myself together and made a pitiful attempt at a response: “Of course, we’ll remember you. But we won’t have to. You’re coming home.” But that wasn’t to be.
A few weeks later, although her cancer was officially in remission, the treatment had so debilitated her that a slight infection turned into full-blown pneumonia overnight. Her body was too weak to fight it. The lighthouse of my life switched off.
Sometimes I still can’t believe how much my mother has missed, how much she doesn’t know. She never listened to music on an iPod. She wasn’t here to see witness George Bush elected president (twice!). She wasn’t alive for September 11. Even trivial things could give me pause. I’d be watching American Idol and all of a sudden the thought would appear in my mind: Mom never knew what reality TV was. And Mom never knew who I had become, either.
When she died, I was fresh out of college, working at a marketing firm and leading focus groups about Sunny Delight and managing accounts for Totinos Pizza Bagels. After mom’s death I realized that if I could die at age fifty, I wanted a more meaningful profession. I had inherited Mom’s vivacity, her can-do spirit, and the memory of her strength emboldened me with newfound nerve. I wanted to live life to the fullest, and that meant breaking the conventional course that I was charting. Impulsively, I quit the marketing firm without another job in the wings. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I also didn’t care.
I decided to go to Central America— alone. It was my first time traveling by myself, and my first encounter with such foreign conditions: I jammed inside buses filled with people and chickens. I got welts on my arms and legs from insects living inside my mattress. I bartered for fruit at the market in a language I barely spoke. During that trip, something clicked. I was for the first time encountering inequality close up—visiting towns where there was no running water and where treatable diseases went untreated. Where living until fifty was considered a long time. I saw something out there far bigger than my own New York existence, and I wanted to be a part of it. I returned home determined to pursue aid work.
At the time, I’m not sure I understood what I was getting into. Even now, it’s hard for me to distill my feelings into a single, succinct motive. Part of me was enticed by the idea of traveling to foreign places and being part of a global community. I imagined my life abroad would be filled with adventure and rewarding, intellectually intriguing work. Another side of me was looking for a way to dodge the painful repercussions of my mom’s death. A career that would bring me to the most extreme places on earth could do just that. I would be distracted, for a time, from the grief that still lingered at home, and inside me. There was other suffering out in the world, and I wanted to touch it. Whatever my intentions, subconscious or not, they led me to the conclusion that the traditional grind could wait: I was young and free and animated by a newfound sense of possibility— the urge to move out into the world, and to be moved by it.
Thirteen years since Mom’s death I’ve worked in some of the most troubled parts of the world: in post-genocide Rwanda, at the frontlines of the Darfur crisis where I managed a 24,000-person displaced person camp. I worked along the coasts of tsunami-ravaged South East Asia–my research about child soldiers in Sierra Leone was used as expert testimony in the case against Charles Taylor. I lived amongst the rubble of a post-earthquake Haiti and in a flooded Pakistan.
And although I can still remember my mother, I know now she had been right that night she cried to me at the hospital, admitting that she couldn’t remember her father and worrying we would forget her. It’s true that the details are lost. I can’t recall her voice or the subtlety of her movements. I still have a shirt of hers that I never washed because it smells like her. I open my drawer every so often to get a whiff of her, but even that smell has faded into a musty memory. My brothers and I watch home videos and look through photo albums, and those help a bit, but they were from when we were children. Mom never knew me as an adult.
In 2007 Dad came to visit me when I lived in Sierra Leone. One day we took a boat ride down a river near the coast. “I wish Mom was here,” I had said to him then, and he had tapped me gently on my shoulder. “I picture her sitting right here everywhere you go.”
I think of that now, wanting to tell her how much I have changed since she died, and all about what I chose to do and why. It was her death, after all, that had set me on the path to this career. I wish I could talk to her about what the work had been like and who it had made me. What idealism still remains within me and what has been chipped away. I want to talk to her about everywhere I have been, so she can imagine me there— imagine me living a life she never would have envisioned for me when she was alive. But maybe Dad was right. Maybe she already knew.
Adapted from CHASING CHAOS Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Alexander. To be published by Broadway Books,a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.