My 92-year old cousin is dying. She’s had cancer for 15 years. No one knew; she never complained. The doctors just found out a few weeks ago when she went to the hospital for something else.
Her death isn’t a complete surprise. Not because of her age, and not because of the cancer. You see, a few months ago, she called my mom, concerned that she hadn’t heard from one of our other cousins in a while. They talked on a regular basis, and it wasn’t like him not to call. He wasn’t close to the rest of the family, so no one knew where he lived, and only one or two people had his phone number, and she wasn’t that good with her phone, so she couldn’t just give mom his number. It took a week or two and the help of a few more cousins, but we got his phone number and a rough idea of where he lived in Manhattan. I called the police. He died back in February.
People who lose purpose – a clear reason to get up in the morning – in their life tend to decline rapidly. Many teachers and police officers, for example, die soon after they stop working. My aunt died a year after my uncle – her husband of 50+ years – passed away. To the contrary, many people who live past 100 point to purpose as a reason to keep going. Centenarians interviewed in Okinawa, for example, noted regular meetings with friends to gossip and share useful community information being important to them and something they looked forward to each day. I understand that my older cousin was one of the few people my male cousin trusted. Considering how upset she was when she first called my mom, searching for him, it stands to reason she felt a strong sense of purpose in being there when he needed her.
Mom showed me a picture of her. She’s a bit smaller and grayer than the last time she visited from South Carolina. But she’s in good spirits. When mom called, she asked, “Did Dwayne bake you a cake?” Mom said no. I used to bake a lot, but it’s been a few pounds since I’ve done that on a regular basis. So I made mom a cake for my cousin.
It wasn’t my best cake. I forgot to flour the middle of the pan. Some of it got stuck. I still ate it, but the finished product wasn’t as pretty as it could’ve been. That’s okay. When Mom told her I made it, she said “Oh, good!” even though it wasn’t for her, and even though she was too far away to taste it herself.
This kind of thinking is something that everyone I’ve known who was about to pass away had in common. They all talked about relationships. When careers came up, the prestigious title or awards many strive for were always secondary to stories about what happened while they were on the job. It’s as though we live our life striving for one definition of “success” only to find another along the way.
Baking a cake your cousin won’t get to taste isn’t the kind of situation we tend to think of when we use the word “success.” We usually think of good grades, graduations, weddings, first homes, and dream jobs. But maybe we should. There’s a lot of life to live between events. We have a lot of practice dreaming big. We can also practice dreaming small.
It took me an hour to make the cake. I made two people happy. I call that success.