My Mother’s Wishes

I can’t tell you how old my mother would have been today, on her birthday, if she were still alive.

She would not have wanted me to share that detail.  My mother preferred to keep her age a secret.  I will honor her wish.

I believe my mother would have liked me to share the photo below, taken at a nightclub, with my father, when they were a young couple, and he was breaking into show business as a standup comic.   (She is seated second from right; my father is seated second from left.)  

I think my mother would have laughed if she’d heard me -- at her funeral – tell friends and family what I imagined her last words were before she died:   “Don’t tell Michael.”

I said that because my mother always wanted to shield me – from perceived danger – and even bad news.  She was an overprotective mom.

I remember having neglected to tell her I was staying late after school one day – in the 10th grade – for a journalism club.  School was walking distance from our apartment.

When I returned home and opened the apartment door around 5pm I remember her finishing up a phone call with the words:  “It’s OK, officer.  He just came home.”

That’s the truth.

And that truth could be difficult to deal with at times.

What was particularly difficult though was when our roles reversed -- when I became responsible for the safety of my parents.

It’s a big club – our club:  The children who have cared for their parents.

And, sometimes, the toughest and most necessary thing we have had to say to our parents is No.

No, you cannot live where you’ve always lived – the way you’ve always lived – not without assistance.

There is a skill and an art to presenting a No in a way that can lead to the right Yes – a Yes that benefits all parties. 

One of the world’s most esteemed practitioners and teachers of this skill and art is William Ury.

Ury is a founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.  As an author, his body of work, which includes “Getting to Yes” and “The Power of a Positive No” is treated by many lawyers and leaders as a negotiating Bible.

I raise this now, on my late mother’s birthday, because I have just returned from a long visit with Bill Ury and will be sharing my conversation with him here in the coming weeks with a big goal in mind.

I am planning to create a WAVE OF POSITIVE NOs – transferring Ury’s approach over long distances in original ways with maximum impact.

Ury’s insights could have been so valuable as I tried to protect my mother.

Like so many of our mothers, mine was a proud woman. 

She rejected the trappings of age.

She rejected the hospital bed I offered – the kind that enables you to push a button and raise or lower any section of the bed.

It could have helped her get my father up each morning when his standup comedy career ended as a result of the Parkinson’s disease that made his body too rigid to move.

It didn’t look like a hospital bed.  But it had a Button.  The Button was enough to kill the deal.

The Button we argued most about – was the “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” button.

She rejected it – no matter how I framed its potential benefits.

My mother died from a fall in her apartment seven years ago.

She died without the trappings of being an elderly woman.

Of course, I wish she’d had the Button.

But it may not have saved her.  I don’t know.

I was recently speaking with child psychologist and author Michael Thompson  about how to get my own children to stop saying No to me as often as they do.

It’s important for a child to say No, Thompson explained, because what you say No to, at any age, helps define who you are.

And so, on this, her birthday, I remember my mother saying No to the Buttons of Aging.

She insisted on defining herself – as a young woman – until the day she died.