Happy Birthday Mom

Dear Mom,

At home on one of your bookshelves you keep a bookmark inscribed with a quote by the 19thcentury novelist George Sand: There is only one happiness in this life. To love and be loved.

I’m sure I’ve looked at, and later thought about it, more than a hundred times. Maybe a thousand. It is surely one of the greatest truisms of all time, and if one had to choose just one guiding principal for life than I sure couldn’t imagine a better one than this.

Now, as all of your children are well aware, you know a thing or two about aphorisms, these short phrases that express some truth or principle. You were rather fond of using them.

As a kid, after one brother or another threw a punch at me I would, naturally, punch back. Then you’d break up the fight and I would explain how I had no choice but to hit back because he hit first, and that’s when you’d remind me: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

That one took me a while to figure out. It’s essentially algebraic inequality and, as you know, I wasn’t so good at math in those days.

If I got in trouble for doing something I knew I wasn’t supposed to, like eating cookies right before dinner, and justified myself by saying I did it because I saw one of my brothers do the same, you’d invariably respond with: If he jumped off a cliff would you jump off a cliff?

When I complained about something that didn’t go so well—maybe after losing my Bermuda pocket knife, or when I didn’t move fast enough to get a second helping of fried chicken—you’d brush it off with this classic: That’s just water under the bridge, Mike. Or it’s variant: That’s just water over the dam, Mike.

Sometimes when you were in a hurry or distracted it might come out That’s just water under the dam. But we always knew what you meant.

There is only one happiness in life. To love and be loved... Something dawned on me about those twelve simple words, strung together more than 150 years ago. It explains why, when people are asked to describe you, whether they’ve just met you in line at the post office or have known you their entire lives, they will invariably use the word happy. “She’s such a happy person,” they’ll say. “She’s always so happy.” “How can she be so happy all the time”, they’ll wonder.

The answer to that one is simple. Everyone on earth has to choose their priorities, and how they will spend the precious years, days and hours in their life. And you choose to spend your time not in pursuit of entertainment or wealth or praise or any such thing. You choose to spend your time in the unbending, unwavering and unstoppable pursuit of loving those around you. You choose to love. And it’s clearly made you very happy.

There is only one happiness in life. To love and be loved. That’s one you never had to tell us in words. Because you showed us. Every day.


December 7, 2013