The phrase “grace under pressure” first gained notoriety when Ernest Hemingway used it in a profile piece written by Dorothy Parker. Parker asked Hemingway: “Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?” Hemingway replied: “I mean, grace under pressure.”
I’ve tried my best to live my life with grace under pressure. But it took my mother to show me exactly how.
At age 89 or so, things began to go downhill. Her hearing was not good, but she refused to wear hearing aids. “Too much trouble,” she said. “Besides, I’d have to change my hair style.”
After an operation to lift her eyelids that were preventing her from seeing well, she was given the diagnosis of macular degeneration. An avid reader, she ordered large print books, rearranged the lighting in the living room, and used a magnifying class. She kept on reading and doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle with a pencil.
When her memory started to slip, she withdrew somewhat from conversations but managed to hide her loss by asking a lot of questions but not giving many answers. She fooled me for a long time, particularly during long distance phone calls.
I’m not exactly sure why her heart began to give out. She struggled with atrial fibrillation and a unique blood type shared by her brother and perhaps eleven other people in the world.
But she kept up as best she could until she finally took to her bed and never got up.
For a long time, her resolve kept her going. Even when my father worried about her decline, my mother would answer, “I’m just happy to be alive.”
When I asked her the most important life lesson she could give to me, she surprised me by saying “love.” She wasn’t the most demonstrative woman and held a lot of feelings inside. But as she lay dying, she had come full circle to the loving girl she used to be.
Connected to a ventilator with plastic tubes up her nose, she never complained. Even when speaking took too much energy, her facial expressions were calm, almost serene.
In the last days, my sister sat by my mother’s bedside and modeled how to inhale and exhale until her heart stopped and she passed away gracefully.
That was almost seven years ago. But I miss my mother still. I marvel at the way she died with grace under pressure. She set the bar high. Hemingway would have been proud. I know I am.