Dressed in a stylish black mourning gown, Scarlett O’Hara weeps as she closes the ornate door of her empty mansion. She has just buried her young daughter, made promises at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law, and watched helplessly as her dashing husband disappeared into the morning mist. Seemingly everything she holds dear is truly Gone with the Wind. In the throes of this profound loss, she falls back on the mantra that has carried her through life’s most difficult moments. “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy.”
I’ll think about that tomorrow.
It takes her only seconds to remember what is left in the world that matters, regain her characteristic strength, and end the classic 1939 film on a hopeful note. “After all,” she says triumphantly, “tomorrow is another day!”
In the 12 years we lived together, Mom and I strived to be like Scarlett. It was almost second nature for me since Scarlett has long been my favorite fictional heroine. In one moment, she could be the flirtatious belle of the barbecue and, in the next, the determined head of a family shattered by the death and devastation of the Civil War. My bookshelf is home to English and non-English versions of this Margaret Mitchell classic and the sequels that followed decades later. I’ve bravely whittled down my prodigious collection of commemorative plates from 36 to four, but I won’t part with my copy of the typewritten script from the David O. Selznick / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production. In 1993, when Mom posed for a picture with Dracula at a Universal Studios souvenir store, I had my profile photo-shopped into a provocative still with Rhett Butler. Even my lively Springer Spaniel, Katie, bears the true first name of this strikingly beautiful, smart protagonist.
Mom and I repeated Scarlett’s “tomorrow” mantra frequently enough that it earned a place in one of Mom’s farewell cards delivered to me posthumously. Not just any card. The last one; handed to me by my sister on the day we scattered Mom’s ashes at the Oregon Coast. Time to move forward, Mom seemed to be saying.
Reading the card again just now, I am pleased to know that Mom saw in me the qualities I try hard to cultivate – optimism, hope, a grateful spirit and the courage to face life-altering challenges. Serendipitously, I needed to be reminded of that after a rather taxing week, the details of which are better left for exploration in an appropriate column on some future Sunday. Suffice to say that I am in awe of Mom’s incorporeal ability to support and uplift me from across the great divide.
To be honest (another attribute regular readers of this column know that I value), sometimes I fall from grace and neglect to count my blessings. Mom did, too. Indeed, the reason that this weekly discourse is subtitled “Nothing left unsaid” is rooted in worry. Virtually every time a doctor diagnosed or even suspected a new malady, Mom and I would immediately assume the end was near. Our indulgence in fear ushered us through an extravagant number of meaningful conversations; hence, there was nothing left unsaid between us. However, the fear also rendered us the cowards that Julius Caesar spoke of in Shakespeare’s play about the legendary Roman ruler.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
Mom and I knew that astute passage as well as any royal thespian, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves. We sometimes fretted, stewed, fussed and cogitated until we were mired in depression. I tended to rebound more quickly than Mom, but each time we eventually found our smiles again.
When I felt that familiar, unwelcome anxiety creep into my thoughts this past week, I tried to tamp it down with techniques like deep breathing, prayer, focusing on daily miracles and the many other relaxation tips one finds in the best meditative books money can buy. That didn’t do the trick, so I stopped worrying about worrying and joked that agonizing over things that may not even happen is in my DNA.
Simply acknowledging my intrinsic nature helped relieve some of the stress but, as it turns out, my wisecrack wasn’t really a laughing matter. The notion that worrying is hereditary actually is more fact than fiction. Studies have shown that a gene known as COMT predisposes us to be either warriors or worriers. Warriors are stimulated to action by battle or, more commonly in everyday life, by a great challenge. On the down side, they don’t do as well as worriers when it comes to routine productivity. Conversely, while worriers may excel on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to suffer a meltdown under high stress. A casual observation made by some of my female co-workers this past week – that women worry and men don’t – may also be true. The COMT gene controls estrogen, and worriers typically have higher estrogen levels. Hmmmm.
If you think I’m gas-lighting you (to borrow a colorful phrase from Mom’s vernacular), google “warriors vs. worriers.” You’ll find some intriguing information posted by the likes of the New York Times, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium. Trust me. As I browsed through the material, my eyebrows arched like Scarlett when she comes upon a fascinating idea.
Fascinating is also an apt description of my experience writing this column. I didn’t intend it to be therapeutic but, so far, it has been just that. By writing about the trials and tribulations of caregiving, as well as the joy of living and laughing with my mother, I am steadily working through the indescribable pain of losing her and am also ensuring that our family’s memories of her are forever catalogued. I hope that, at the same time, I am touching and helping others who are caring for or grieving for a loved one. This week, though, I sense a subtle shift. Today’s column is not about the past; it’s about the future. My future. It’s about the need to effectively cope with whatever may come, and it’s about letting go of fear.
As I said earlier, I am in awe that Mom is still able to reach out and walk with me through uncertainty. Her final farewell card reminded me of my own tenacity and strength of spirit, which I will draw upon as life marches forward. Her final words, scrawled beneath the prose of Dierdra Joi Zollar, reaffirmed that worrying today never solved a single one of tomorrow’s problems.
Mom, I hear you loud and clear. Instead of fretting when something is weighing too heavy on me, I will summon my inner Scarlett. I’ll flounce the skirt of my make-believe green velvet portiere dress, defiantly lift my chin, and willfully declare,
On second thought, I’ll think about it tomorrow.