When economists model decisions made over time, we often assume that people have a good sense of how much time they have in their life and can make decisions based on that knowledge. While this makes the math work, it is, of course, is not usually the case. I found myself thinking about lately as I recalled the journey of a couple I have known all of my life.
They stood at the altar on a Sunday in May in the early 1960s, making promises that they would keep for over 50 years. He was a veteran who had returned from duty overseas that had kept him mercifully far from the conflict that raged in Korea. She was a sheltered daughter of Italian immigrants, whose father’s business depended heavily on revenue generated on Saturdays. They had therefore found the one church in the area that was willing to perform a wedding on a Sunday. They stood there and promised the congregation, God, and, most importantly, each other, to stay together “till death do we part.”
In the 1960s, no one was surprised when a baby arrived in less than one year, a daughter that they named after a deceased relative. Surely another child would join them soon. However, that child took a long time to arrive, and when she did show up, she came too early in a pregnancy and was too tiny. At the baby’s one year check up, the pediatrician taught them a new word; “Cerebral Palsy.”
It was a word that they refused to let define their younger daughter, and, before such approaches were popular, they employed techniques taught by physical and occupational therapy to help her live as typical a life as possible.
They did everything they could to do to provide a good life to both of their daughters. While they lacked bachelor’s degrees, they saved every penny so that their two children could someday attend college and earn that ticket into the better life they imagined such a degree to be. She worked in health care, and often took on extra hours that brought her to work in the wee hours of Saturday mornings, returning from work before the family was awake, so early that they scarcely knew she was gone. Although their youngest daughter struggled with physical and educational tasks, they refused to see anything but success in her future.
Their older daughter fell in love with learning, and decided to pursue a life as a college professor. They soon found themselves defending her choice to friends and relatives who still strictly equated the word “work” with strong arms and sore backs. Their younger daughter drew on her life experiences to earn a master’s degree and work with the disabled.
Once, when their oldest daughter lay in a coma, the doctors warned them that, should she ever awaken, she would most likely be severely disabled. They took a deep breath and responded with the same fidelity they had shown at their own wedding many years before, “we have dealt with disabilities before. We can do it again.” The daughter awoke to finish her dissertation and earn her Ph.D.
They lived to see both their children marry, and, when she was diagnosed with a nasty type of cancer over seventeen years ago, doctors told her she had two years to live. She disagreed, and said she wanted to live to see a grandchild. She enrolled in a clinical trial, one that shot very deadly poison through her body until, at death’s door, she was reunited with her own stem cells. Although statistics indicated that this approach was not very successful, she lived to see all three of her grandchildren, and played an important role in their lives.
Several years ago, cancer again visited the family, this time by taking the life of their precious youngest daughter. The horror of watching their baby girl lose her own battle with cancer must have encouraged cancer to return to her now aging body. Little by little, her life began to slip away. Each time there was a setback she found her way back to a new normal, but each time she did not return to the old level of health. Eventually, there would be no more room for such decline.
Recently, her older daughter arrived at the family home late in the night, with just enough time to sit by her side, read the eulogy she had written for her and say her final goodbyes. Her daughter’s words were some of the last words she heard. As dawn drew its first breath, she breathed her last, and joined her younger daughter in eternity. She left behind a life well lived and promises kept for more than fifty years.
I will miss you, mom.
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