My mom calls her terminal pancreatic cancer her constant companion. It’s an acknowledgment that it’s a part of her identity now, and it got me thinking about her full identity, all the things that make her who she is. And I realized that “teacher,” her profession for forty years, hasn’t been a topic of conversation in a long time. My mom was told she had just a few months to live in February, and since then, she hasn’t talked about her work at all.
Whether we are alone lounging at home, or having meals with family, or attending Mass on Sunday together, she doesn’t talk about her past work life. Here we have a person who is facing the end of her life and who was a remarkable teacher. She taught first grade all the way up to college level over the course of a forty-year career and made a difference in so many lives. But as she looks back on her life, embraces the beauty of the present, and faces the inevitable, she doesn’t talk about the job she went to every day. I find it fascinating because she was very passionate about her career, loved her work, and was a master at it. She lived out her professional calling and left a lasting legacy through her work. It has also jolted me given we live in a culture that places great emphasis on defining ourselves by our work.
As my mom faces the end of life, she is not defining herself or her self-worth through her work. She is defining herself and her life by her family, her values, and her experiences.
She talks about her childhood in Santa Fe, both the difficulties of being the oldest of three daughters to an incredible woman (my grandmother) who, for her safety and that of her children, had to separate from her husband – unheard of in those days in a Catholic community – and also the joys of living surrounded by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and the beautiful scenery and seasons at 10,000 feet. She talks about experiences: taking trips to Spain, Italy, Portugal, New Mexico, California, New York, and Hawaii; attending symphonies; visiting museums. She talks about food: recipes she likes, the best meals she ever ate, the pleasure of eating whatever she wants now. She talks about books and poetry she has read in the past and books she’s reading now. She talks about philosophy, spirituality, classical music, the arts, politics, interior design, fashion, jewelry, and makeup. She talks about faith in eternal life and angels that protect us. She talks a lot about Game of Thrones! She is determined to make it through season 6!
Most importantly, she talks about people: us – her immediate family and grandchildren – her sisters, her friends – lifelong and new – and her hospice team. This is the only time she talks about her profession, in the context of the people, particularly the students she felt she impacted or who had an impact on her. She doesn’t talk about the day-to-day, or the accolades and promotions she received, or how underpaid she was, or how hard she worked, or cranky coworkers, or the pain of grading. She definitely doesn’t say she wishes she had worked more or harder.
Nearing the end of life, my mom knows that she was not her job. Her legacy lies in her 52-year marriage, her children, her grandchildren, the people she nurtured and touched and who nurtured and touched her, the values she stood for and instilled in others, and the experiences she cherishes and that serve as a beautiful reminder of a life well-lived. She is a whole person, not just a teacher.
This is such an important lesson and it is one that we KNOW. Yet it is one we forget every single day. We forget it every time we meet someone and the first thing we ask is “So, what do you do?” We forget it every time we lose sleep over petty work issues. We forget it every time we fail at work. We forget it every time we feel anxious about losing a job.
So, bookmark this post and refer to it when you’re feeling defined by your profession. You are not your job.