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Jennifer Wright

Searching for Life’s Deepest Meaning:
Lessons from a Dying Midlife Woman
By Jennifer Wright

In July this year I received a most distressing call from my sister-in-law, Pauli.  She had found a lump under her arm and was very concerned as she had had a mammogram a few months earlier with no sign of anything abnormal.  Though my heart was hammering, I reassured her that things would be all right.  I told her, as I always did in completing the call, that I loved her.  She had a biopsy and other tests, and was sent to an oncology “team” for an assessment.  I told my husband I was concerned, for my gut reaction was not a good one.  Pauli called a week later, shattered with the prognosis of a metastasized cancer and a five percent chance of recovery.

From that moment forward, I shared the journey with Pauli, living her experience as a sister traveler, and at times feeling as though it was my diagnosis as I had periods of depression.  In August, as her condition worsened, we decided to visit sooner, not later.  We arrived on September 1 and had the honor of spending the last weeks of her life with her.  We can surely ascertain the deeper meaning of life when witnessing a loved one losing their “life.”  This was Pauli’s gift for me.

When I think of the concept of life’s deepest meaning, I remember the profound writing of Donald Walsh in Conversations with God, Book 1.  He said that the greatest sin was to not recognize our divine spark, and not live fully with the gifts we are given: in essence, to live an “unlived life.”  This IS the tenet at the basis of life’s deepest meanings.  To live fully alive, we must live fearlessly.  In most cultures, however, women are not taught to live fearlessly.  Furthermore, our roles and responsibilities as women, especially when we were young, haven’t provided us with many chances to consider the idea of the life lived fully.  To help us along the path to the “lived life,” we can look to Pauli’s story.

Living fully through balancing love of self and others

Pauli, like many boomer women, grew up in a time when women were taught that they would be cared for forever—that being someone’s wife and someone’s mother would always occupy their time and their hands.  Pauli, like most women of our age, found out that this was only a fairy tale.  She divorced when her two children were in primary school.  She successfully raised her children as a single parent, and carved out a very successful career in the banking business as well.  Once her children became independent adults, she began to find her own voice and define new values.  She confessed that it was not easy to begin to look out for herself, and she struggled for many years before the gift of self love became “first nature” for her.

This new “love of self” was not self-serving.  She supported her children in wise ways, watching her son move overseas to follow his heart and eventually become a father.  Her daughter, a gifted textile artist, became a mother of two children.  Pauli loved her three grandchildren with all her heart, but, true to her new-found self, she created boundaries for her new roles.  Her giving nature would have made it easy for her to slip into her old ways of self-sacrifice.  Instead, she began to pursue goals she had always dreamed of, all the while being a loving grandmother.

In the five years before her death, Pauli took real adventure holidays to places she had always wanted to go.  Biking in Thailand, backpacking in Australia, and cooking classes in Vietnam all gave her opportunities to also stop in New Zealand to visit us.  She lived simply, choosing to drive an older car, shop in second-hand stores, buy less “stuff” and eat more at home, so that she could take more time off.  She let the small stuff go and focused, instead, on living life fully.

Pauli knew who she was, loved who she was, and was not affected by what the world thought of her.  This gave her life meaning.  In the weeks before her death, she never changed her way of being.  She cared for herself by eating organic foods; even when she could no longer cook for herself, she insisted that particular foods be prepared for her.  She had massages and other treatments that sometimes required intense effort on her part and she was not afraid to ask others for help.  She was in daily contact with her children, aging mother, and sister, and friends who visited.  The night before she died we had a birthday party for her mother and the house was full of celebration.

Living fully through discerning responsibilities versus compulsive activity

One of the strongest addictions of our time is that of being busy.  Since women are natural multi-taskers, we often suffer from this malady.  In Awakening at Mid-Life, Kathleen Brehony observes, By the time we reach mid-life our addiction to speed and to never living in the present is strong, automatic, and hard to break.”  However, she goes on to say that we also have the opportunity through the practice of meditation or mindfulness to come to that place of being, where “like the space between thoughts, or a rest between two notes of music…we, perhaps for the first time, can hear our inner rhythm and see our own clear reflection.”

We often tell ourselves that, although we want to spend time on the important matters of our lives, we just don’t have the time.  We midlife women have been taught to be “good girls,” to do what is right, to take responsibility, and not make a fuss.  The key is discerning what is our true responsibility, and what merely fills up our life with activity.  One of the prevalent mindsets of midlife women is that we have not been told to ask for what we want, or reject what we don’t want.  We are waiting for someone to ask us what we want or tell us it’s our turn.  It never happens.  Now is the time to step up and say what we want.  If we don’t, no one will, and we will never have the time for mindfulness.  Pauli often reminded me to ask for what I wanted.

How do we step out of our ordinary, multi-tasking activities to listen and attune to our truest, most authentic self?  Jennifer Louden, the “Comfort Queen,” says we women must learn to retreat.  “Each of us has a personal periodic, an internal tide, an instinctual cyclical rhythm that alternates between an accomplished, energetic, doing time in which you engage with the world, dig ditches, get degrees, bake your ideas, and sell them and a retreating, reflective, being time in which you detach from the world, stare out the window at the rain, plant fat spring bulbs, and breast-feed your imagination.  When we do not value or attend to the retreating cycle as much as we do the accomplishing cycle, we betray our basic rhythm and risk becoming walking zombies with no life (meaning) to speak of.

During the last weeks of Pauli’s life, I witnessed her “retreating.”  She would sit and breathe in the scents in the garden, read a story with her granddaughter, have a leisurely bath, and she even began to knit a colorful cardigan for my own grandson-to-be.

According to the wisdom of the Buddha, in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “we can actually use our lives to prepare for death.  We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us into looking at our lives.  Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown.  We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives.”

Author’s postscript:  Pauli died September 20,  with the cardigan half completed.  I had the honor of picking up her needles and completing it for Oliver, my grandson.

©Copyright 2006 Jennifer Wright, MidlifeAdventure.com. All Rights Reserved.

Jennifer Wright
Jennifer Wright, “Mid-Life Spirit of Adventure Guide for Women” coaches women globally in over-40 transitions of mid-crisis, pre-retirement, empty nest, career change, and workplace adaptations to find adventure in life overwhelm.  Trained as an occupational therapist and later as a life coach, Jenn combines the physical, emotional and spiritual elements in her coaching for women. She is a coach who walks her talk.  At the age of 47, she left her "normal, well ordered, but stressed out life and went to New Zealand to find her own inner wise woman. This process has led her to create a 10 Step Become the Heroine of your own life adventure process that she uses in her coaching, her CD series and in her real life 6 day/5  night adventures in New Zealand. This life-changing adventure was featured in TIME magazine cover story and on 60 Minutes Australia. Visit her website at www.midlifeadventure.com  and sign up for a free monthly newsletter.  Her book Getting off your fast moving train: Finding your true direction at midlife will be available in April 2007.

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