My year of staying alive


In a few days, on July 21, I will be one year older than my mother was when she died.

For eight months, I worried about meeting this milestone. Then the coronavirus arrived.

I’m turning 63!


I surely didn’t feel this way when I turned 40. Mom was 60, and we were planning a trip to Ireland, the land of her ancestors. She had flown only twice before: first, with me to Virginia and then to Israel with her sister. “It’s the Holy Land, honey, with a tour guide,” she explained. “I’m not sure your kind of humor would play there.”

Mom had always wanted to visit Colonial Williamsburg, and I couldn’t stand that my opportunities kept expanding while hers, at age 55, remained the same. (First-generation college guilt is a separate life force, I’m telling you.)

So, two years before her trek to Israel, we flew from Cleveland to Virginia. Mom was a tad nervous. By the time we landed in Richmond, I had four round bruises on my right thigh from the force of her fingers squeezing it like a stress ball during takeoff and landing and the occasional moments of turbulence.

“We won’t crash from turbulence,” I told her each time, and each time, she squeezed a little harder. “My smart girl,” she said. “So, now you’re a pilot, too.”

My mother never smoked a day in her life and told her teenage daughters that if we walked around with cigarettes dangling from our lips, we were advertising to every guy in town that our milk was free. (She had a gift for mangling idioms.)

So, of course, Mom got a lung disease. I’ve learned that life often works this way, and there’s no time for resentment when it does.

Mom was diagnosed in February 1999, and we planned that Ireland trip for September. My 12-year-old daughter and our family friend Fleka would come, too. As Mom’s breathing became more labored, we arranged for a wheelchair and to rent tanks of oxygen from a fish farm. I’m not kidding. That’s where Fleka found the quickest supply.

One week before we were to board that plane, my mother’s doctor said she could not go to Ireland. She died on the day we were scheduled to leave.

Mom would not want us to dwell on that. Two weeks before she died, I asked if she was scared. She grabbed my hand and smiled. “I know things you can’t know yet. It’s not your time.”

That has stayed with me for the last 21 years.

I’ve learned a few things in the last year. It really is true that contemplating the inevitability of your death can help you live more fully in the moment. And was this a handy tutorial right before a pandemic, or what? Every day this asthmatic grandma springs out of bed, sort of, is a good day indeed.

Also, I used to say I’d never own a yappy little dog. Our Franklin is a 30-pound mix of husky, poodle and King Charles spaniel with a thick, lustrous coat of fur and hair, or so says his groomer. When his coat catches a breeze, I just want to inch away backward and give myself a buzz cut.

When Franklin turned 8 last August, I worried that he was slowing down a bit. I asked our vet if maybe a second dog would perk him up. She said yes before I could finish the sentence with, “Or am I losing my mind?”

Days later, my friend Karen called about a stray dog she found roaming the streets of Cleveland. After a massive, futile search for his owner, she brought all 8 pounds, 2 ounces of his unneutered self to our house, and we adopted him on the spot. His name is Walter. Franklin now runs around like he’s auditioning for a remake of “Dances With Wolves.” Walter spends much of his days trying to wedge closer than an eyebrow to the face of his nearest human.

So, I do love yappy little dogs. I love my family and my friends, too, and it’s getting harder to say goodbye. This year, Fleka, the shopper of oxygen tanks, was suddenly gone. Now I tell my friends who are still alive that I love them all the time. The bonus round is watching some of them try to figure out what to do with that.

It’s OK. I don’t need to hear it to know they love me.

At 63, a woman knows things.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, “The Daughters of Erietown.” Email Connie Schultz at [email protected]

By Patricia Older