What should I do with my life?

“What should I do with my life?” Mom, who’s 96 and frail, who has significant cognitive loss, asked this question of my brother Al three times when he recently visited her at her Saskatchewan nursing home.

I had to smile. How often I heard similar questions when we lived near one another in Winnipeg. “What do I do now? I need to plan for my future.” This at 92. I would smile then too and say something about not needing to do anything, you can rest now, you’ve done enough. In other words, I dismissed what she was asking instead of taking it seriously.

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Tina Doerksen, photo by Al Doerksen

I was gently corrected about all this, however, that same year, by Gerhard Friesen, who’d worked for many years as a chaplain to seniors and was thus a good interpreter of them. Older people, he told me, often have unfinished business. Many women, he went on, have felt unfinished in their development or giftedness and when the mind gets weaker, this comes to the fore. It emerges as “what should I do?”

This surely fits my mother’s generation of women, but I submit that perhaps it’s true for all of us as we age. I often ask myself versions of it. I think it’s our sense while alive that we’re never quite finished. Simply being human involves poking about and moving forward from “what should I do with my life?” As Victor Frankl put it, it’s not life that answers to us but we who answer to life.

My brother’s response when Mom asked? “Say something nice to someone each day!” I think that’s as good as it gets. And, if you’re interested in how GF worked at this with Mom, please see the Addendum below. (Because I’m at my self-imposed limit of 300 words per post!)

 

ADDENDUM:

The following is taken from my 2014 journal, set down as closely as I could recall afterwards. The story begins with Mom telling me that she’d talked with Victor Adrian (a Mennonite educator), though I knew she meant Gerhard Friesen, who led a weekly Bible study with some nursing home residents, and when I supplied his name, it was, oh yes, yes. I gathered they’d talked about her “purpose” and something about reading. She pointed at one of her theological books, a kind of overview of the Bible or doctrine by R.A. Torrey, I think it was. Later GF and I had a phone conversation about this and he filled in the gaps. She’d been pressing him with questions similar to the ones she’d been asking me: what to do now, what about her future? When he came to her room in response to her repeated entreaties, she immediately said, “I’d like to know where I am in my studies.” He had to think on his feet, he said, but this was a clue to ask about her education. High school: had she finished? Yes. College? Yes, she’d done some studies at Bible college and also graduated from teacher’s college. An “info chart” about her life on the wall of her room verified this information. He noticed she had books in the room. Or maybe she pointed them out, the culled favourites of those collected earlier. She loved to read. So GF encouraged — no, I would say, he blessed and instructed — her to read in her theological books. Torrey seems completely “old-fashioned” by now, at least to me, but he was an important figure in the education of my parents, and Gerhard knew that so he encouraged her to re-read it and see if it brought back what she learned at college. It would “refresh” her. The advice and interaction seemed to satisfy her.

GF and I talked about Mom having been a minister’s wife, beside but also behind him, as it were. He wondered if maybe she felt her gifts hadn’t been used enough. I can recall that we children sometimes remarked, in reference to some little “talk” Mom had given somewhere, that she was a better preacher than our father.

I’m still moved by the insight GF gave me that day, to affirm my mother’s gifts, to recognize the key “bent” of her being, her deep love of reading (yes, how proud she has always been that she’s a reader!), no matter the limitations of her latter years. I’m moved that he urged her to fill it up, even in her 90s. I hope, if it comes so far, someone does the same for me.

17 thoughts on “What should I do with my life?

  1. Dear Dora, Once again I was very moved by what you wrote, including your journal entry, and give thanks for your stories in this blog post as well as the deep understanding & wisdom of GF who is clearly an amazing chaplain. Like you, I too hope that if/when I enter the valley of limitations & experience that almost inevitable memory loss, that someone like GF will take the time to pay attention to the essence & sum of my life & being, recognizing that I’m still in there at some level (after all, our history is written into our very bodies,/minds at some level, isn’t it?) & continue to walk alongside me, taking my sometimes “none-sense” (my Mom’s word during that time) questions seriously, as I enter more deeply into an increasingly imponderable future, while at heart, still wanting to understand & find meaning & joy in living as the end draws near. Leona

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  2. This is a wonderful blog, Dora. i often hear older people (and some not so old people) ask exactly the same question. Thank you for the reminder never to dismiss these sorts of questions put to us by an older person. Your post speaks to the importance of actually knowing a person if we hope to enter into this question with them in even a small way. . Sometimes i think we are reluctant because knowing takes a lot of time and a willingness to enter into the land of questions which may not have clear or permanent answers.

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    • Thank you Clara, so much wisdom in what you say. It takes knowing, which takes time and willingness. And there may not be “clear and permanent answers.” Your encouragement, as I hear it, is to stay invested in the relationship.

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  3. Really enjoyed this post,Dora. I’m reminded of some advice Gerhard Friesen gave me when my dad was on his deathbed. We were all around him at the hospital for three days, and he kept lingering on. When I talked to Gerhard about it he told me we needed to let him go. He needed to be by himself when he died. My brother was upset when I told him this, as he didn’t think he should be left to die alone. However we took the advice. He passed away shortly after. There were two people in the room but they were talking quietly to each other and not paying attention to him. I was sorry to have missed it, but happy for him to have gone so peacefully!

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    • Interesting, Elfrieda. GF must have known somehow that this was who your father was, and that this was what he needed. Perhaps others need people around. But very perceptive.

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  4. Dora, this is beautiful. How little we understand about what our parents experience at this life stage until we ourselves face that reality. And, we never quite catch up! In those growing up years, I remember your mom’s open house, open mind and open heart. She was attentive and reminds me more of Mary than Martha. I don’t ever remember her fussing about the housework 😉

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  5. This was a satisfying read for me, Dora, perhaps because I saw you in person for some hours yesterday — but also because, even at 68 I’m asking similar questions to your mom in her 90’s. I really appreciate your insights . . . and your dear Mom; she still “speaks,” even in her 90’s!

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    • And I’ve been reflecting on our time together, excited by your project (perhaps easy to be when it’s someone else’s hard work ahead!), yes, completely convinced that you must go to R. and write about that and look back at the years and work there, a significant period of your history which overlapped with a significant period of their history.

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