I am not a person who uses the words “teachable moments” or “life lessons” in conversations.
But I have those moments.
I am the mother of a teenage son. He is almost never in the mood for a 15-minute lecture or a request to share his feelings. So, when he and I talk heart-to-heart, I rejoice at the chance to listen and guide him, using my own experience and maturity as a compass.
Parents obsess and anticipate those rare, unplanned moments, especially with teenagers. But even if you aren't a parent, you surely know the heartwarming feeling when you have an intimate talk with someone you love, and sense the lifelong value of that conversation.
Life lessons with my son have an undeniable urgency. I have had Stage IV breast cancer for two years. The average life expectancy of someone with my diagnosis is three years. I am not yet 50, and my son is not yet 16. I will probably not live to see him at the pinnacle of his career, or even graduate from college. Chances are, I will never be a grandmother, or a mother-in-law, two things I really, really wanted to be, because I have had some exceptional role models.
Most of the time, the echoes of everyday life are louder than my thoughts of a shortened lifespan. When the blossom of a teachable moment appears, though, I feel a palpable panic. And as silly as it sounds typing it, it’s true: I try to cram a lifetime of wisdom and instruction into each teachable moment with my son. Because how many more am I going to have with him?
How long before I am too consumed by cancer to be any kind of mother, good or bad? Too weak to talk to him, too sedated to comprehend his words?
Recently, my son confided in me that he wasn't happy in his relationship with his girlfriend of 6 months. He wanted to break up with her. At the same time, he was asking questions about my relationship with his father, such as whether my parents liked him. The truth is, no, they didn't. Not in the beginning. They were understandably worried that their daughter was dating a newly separated man almost a decade older, with hair below his shoulders, and two very young sons.
I knew that I might not have another chance to talk to my son about this, ever. At the same time, I had to be careful not to let my disease turn a valuable conversation into a long, boring lecture. So with honesty and tears, I explained the complex emotional relationship between parent and child, and child and future spouse. I recounted the heated words exchanged the night before our wedding, the eventual reconciliation and later loving acceptance of my husband by my parents. It would have been a disservice to my son to gloss over the painful details. My son needed to know that I “survived” parental disapproval, and he would, too. The bitter fact is, one day my approval or disapproval won’t matter. I won’t be here. When I held my son as a newborn, I wondered if I was equipped to teach him all he needed to know to be a responsible, loving adult.
Now, I wonder how much time I have left to teach him, and to watch his life unfold. There will be things I will miss, and so, I dwell on being the best mother I can be, here and now. And not just with tearful, meaningful conversations, but also with goofy, side-aching moments of silliness.
Teachable moments teach me something, too. They assure me that even after my life is over, my influence will live on. It’s a blessing to have a son who looks to me for wisdom. I’m squeezing all the passion and life into those moments that I can.