Joan Jacobs (1927 – 2014), who showed us that being an optimist is not only fun – it’s powerful.
By 2013, our mother Joan was still flying around the house playing Quidditch with the grandkids and loving her twice-weekly exercise classes at the senior center. She was eighty-six now, but she was no old woman. Her mother had lived to be 102, and all signs looked like she was on the same program.
It came as a shock to all of us in November of that year to learn that Joan had stage four lung cancer. She had never smoked a cigarette in her life. In family huddles, we explored various treatment options, but the cancer was moving quickly throughout her body.She tried a few rounds of radiation. As she was leaving for her treatments, she’d give us a big smile and say, “They’re doing their best to remove the termites. Wish me luck!” Ultimately, she chose to prioritize the quality over the quantity of time she had left with us. When word spread that she was on her way out, we heard lots of great things about our mom from people who knew her well. A woman named Brenda Sweeney told us something we’d hold dear forever. “I grew up with your mother in Jamaica Plain [an old neighborhood of Boston]. I’ve known her since the 3rd grade, and she’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s never said a bad word about anybody.
Joan never wasted time denigrating others or wishing for things she didn’t have. Even as the cancer spread through her lungs, and into her spine and brain, there was grace, and her ever-consistent savoring of the little moments that made her life so rich. As her condition worsened in the weeks that followed, we took the time to sit with her and ask if there was anything she had always wanted to do, but never got the chance to experience. Someone she always wanted to meet, someone she needed to talk to, or some special place she always wanted to go? She thought for a little while, but then answered with great certainty. “I am scared about the cancer,” she admitted, “But aside from that, I’ve never been happier in my life. I’ve got everything I need right here. I just want to be surrounded by you kids and the little ones too.”
We were a bit frustrated by her answer. We wanted to be her heroes. Maybe fly her over the Grand Canyon or get her a front row seat at a Broadway show. How about a trip to Paris? We wanted to proudly grant Mom her final wish. But how could we do this if she wouldn’t ask for anything? After discussing it a few times, we realized why she didn’t need to scramble or make amends. She didn’t have anything she needed to make up for, because she had lived her life just the way she wanted to. Joan had loved with all her heart, every day of her life.
The next day we drove to Sunnyside and instead of asking her what she wanted again, we told her we understood, and we explained our theory. “That’s fine”, she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “But I did think of something.” Haaaaah! Of course she did, right? “Not while I’m alive,” she continued, “But after I go, and after the funeral, I want you to throw me a good party.” Joan loved parties.
One morning a few weeks later, the whole family got an urgent message to get to our parents’ house immediately. Joan’s health had taken a sharp downward turn. The Bear, ninety-two at this point, was sharper than ever — but it’s not often that he puts a freshly ironed shirt on. When we got to the house, the way he had shaved and dressed up was a small symbol of his love for Joan. He knew this was it.
All of us circled around the bed that day to say goodbye to our mom. She was the best mother any person could ever want. It was a special gift that she didn’t suffer long, and that we had that precious opportunity together to be with her in her final hours. We did our best to tell her what she meant to us, impossible as that was to describe in words. The grandkids told her they loved her too, and asked her not to leave. We sang – poorly as ever, but from the heart – every song we could think of that she might enjoy: “What A Wonderful World”, “Chatanooga Choo Choo”, “Lean On Me”, “Stand By Me”, “Let It Be.” It morphed at times into a roast of wandering parody songs, the silliness bubbling up to try to ease the collective pain and sorrow. We had no idea if she could hear us or not, but they say you should keep trying, because you never know.
It occurred to us that The Bear and Joan should have some private time, so we cleared out the room. They had been married for fifty years, and they had been through a lot together. We checked in on them once or twice, and he was talking with her. It’s a beautiful memory we have of him, holding her hand as she passed from this world.
Joan was the powerful optimist right to the end. In her final four months, after her initial diagnosis, she had shown us once again how to handle adversity. She channeled courage and gratitude to remain focused on the good, to celebrate and enjoy what she still had (which in her view was everything). She illustrated that a life lived authentically can end with grace and peace. And what can we say about love? Joan bathed in it and kept spreading it right to the very end. Joan was love.
Joan’s wake and funeral were followed immediately by a moving and decidedly festive celebration, we can only hope, fulfilled her one simple request. We could hear her wild laughter echoing that night – and thankfully, those who knew her always will.
The time to say goodbye to this world will come for all of us. When it does, will we need to run around to make up for love we didn’t give? Or will we sit back and smile like our mom did, and say, “Throw me a good party”?
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.