My mom died a week ago today. So this is a time of mourning, which encompasses a great deal besides sadness. One thing that has struck me is how her death has resulted in a sudden change in my focus: from micro-attention to her daily ups and downs to expanded awareness of her life as a whole. I wrote the following poem about the vista that’s been opened to me as a result.

The last few years were mostly narrow,
so that she walked through places 
where the walls were tight, 
leaving only little alcoves where she could dress
and feed and sleep. Her step had slowed 
and sometimes going on at all took exhaustive effort.  
Long ago, most with whom she traveled trickled off 
to other paths, so few still walked with her.

At last the road choked down to nothing; 
Her walking ended and instead she flew away. 
At that the vista opened and I could see 
more than the cramped confines of final days
but a totality of life. 

Yesterday, I looked at photos taken 80 years ago
and there she is, Loie then, not mom 
or grandmother, a teen reclining on the beach,
smiling impishly, dressed in a swimsuit 
that her mother wouldn’t have approved of. 

Then she’s on a teeter-totter, floral dress flowing
off the edges of the plank, delighted to be lifted 
high, among the trees.

Here she stands in snow,
black-shrouded, squinting from the cold 
and cradling the family dog as if it were 
a plump and happy child. 
A few pages on,
her boyfriend sits back-to-back with her, 
playing his accordion. He will go to war, 
then they will wed and twine together 
more than sixty years. She’s leaning into him 
and holding up a cup as if it were at toast 
to what had been and what was then 
and what was yet to come: friends and faith 
and family, a broad and blessed life. 
Goodbye, mom,
may your spirit soar.

I’m interested in life story—the story that each of us constructs out of the circumstances and events of our life and that reveals who we are—or at least who we think we are. Psychologist Dan McAdams claims that we each develop a coherent life story in late adolescence or early adulthood and that story provides us with a sense of identity. In my life story, I am the protagonist. As with any story, each person’s life story has a setting, a plot, themes, and character development. The story we construct is selective: we don’t try to include everything we’ve done or experienced, but instead select carefully those that we think open a window on who we are (or imagine ourselves to be).

Life stories aren’t static, of course. The person I thought I was at age 20 is not the person I now think I am. That means that I tell a much different story about myself now than I did then. Of course, we experience our lives as continuous, and thus tend to think we are the same persons we were decades ago, though on reflection it is evident that we’ve changed a lot.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late '60s.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late ’60s.

In thinking about how life stories change over the decades, I decided to try to reconstruct what I would have said about my life around the time I became a novice adult. Here’s how I think I would have told my life story the summer of 1968, when I was 20.

“I grew up in the west side of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My parents are Dutch American, though there wasn’t much emphasis on our Dutch heritage, except in the area of religion. The Dutch immigrants to West Michigan were part of the Reformed tradition, and I was sent to Christian schools that taught Bible and religion along with more traditional academic subjects. I think I received a much better education than I would have had I gone to public schools. As a result I think of myself as better able than the average adult to analyze and contribute to understanding and solving important societal problems.

“I’m the oldest of three children in my family. My dad is an accountant and my mom is a housewife. Though I think my mom is too controlling sometimes and my dad can be wishy-washy, on the whole I have no complaints. My parents aren’t wealthy, but seem to be a little better off than the parents of most of the other kids I know. A big part of our family history is the swimming pool my parents had built in their backyard about ten years ago. I love swimming, and have been on high school or college swim teams for most of the last five years. It’s been good discipline for me, and has given me a place to belong.

“My parents have been able to pay private college tuition for me. I attend Calvin College, the college associated with the denomination that my parents belong to. I don’t belong to the denomination, since I’m rather skeptical about its teachings. For a while I doubted there was a God. I’ve decided that there must be one; it seems to me that human nature could only be as it is if there were some sort of divinity that made us. Still, I don’t think that anybody has a handle on who God is. Last semester I wrote a paper about the inadequacy of the Reformed views of free will and election. My prof commented that I was a real skeptic, which I took as a compliment. I do go to church services and find some sermons to be interesting, so I haven’t given up completely on religion.

“My parents and their friends are pretty conservative politically, and I started out that way. In junior high, one of my favorite teachers talked a lot about the danger of Communism. I became quite concerned about the Communist menace, and, under the influence of that teacher, was persuaded for a time that the John Birch Society had the right idea about defending our country. By the end of high school, I had changed my mind, and am now much more liberal than anybody in my family. The Viet Nam war had quite a bit to do with my changed perspective. I just don’t believe that it matters all that much to us if a little country far away is democratic or Communist. I think that the counter-culture provides a good critique of American pride, greed, and the like. Hopefully, the society will change as we young people get older and start having more influence! I’m rather proud of myself for thinking independently about social issues.

“Though I feel pretty good about my intelligence and capacity to think, I am not very confident socially. I have some good friends, but lots of people my age won’t have anything to do with me. Unfortunately, most females are included in that category! I do understand their reactions; I’m just too awkward and uncomfortable socially. Sometimes I walk in a room of people, sit down, and say nothing, knowing full well that I should say something but not knowing what to say. It’s a real problem. I’m getting better, though. I plan to live in the dorms rather than in my parents’ house next semester, and I think that will help. One of the benefits of being an introvert is that I am quite comfortable with my own company. I read a lot, and enjoy the world that I enter when I am immersed  in a book.

“As for the future, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m majoring in history, which I really enjoy, but I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’ve got a while to decide, though. On the whole, life is good and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished so far. I work hard at my studies and have worked part-time and summer jobs, so I’m not just letting my parents take care of me. Working at a produce warehouse weekends and summers has taught me a lot about how working class adults live, and that’s broadened my perspective.”

That’s who I was the summer before my junior year in college, as best as I can reconstruct it. It’s remarkable how I changed in the years that followed. Within two years, I was a Christian convert; within three, I was married; and within four I entered graduate school in psychology. A few months ago, I wrote a  five sentence life story as a way of trying to conceptualize my identity as concisely as I could. That story looks a lot different from the one above. At the same time, there are several areas of continuity—my introversion, interest in reading, and politics, for example.

Over the past few years I retired from full-time work and am spending most of my time staying with my parents, helping them. Thus, as in early adulthood, I’m currently in a period of accelerated change. As I see it, I am not so much remaking myself as being remade. I view this process as redemptive, as the work of God. That’s a view that the 20-year-old me would never have held. I’m grateful for who I was; more, for who I am; still more, for who I will be.