My mother, Karen Van Auken, died recently. It was sudden and unexpected and terribly sad. My mom was a sweet, gentle person, a lover of nature who found her greatest solace in the forests of her home state of Minnesota and the mountains of Montana, my adopted home. My mom’s father was from Whitefish and his greatest material gift to our family is the cabin we all share on the border of Glacier Park. Just like me, my mom loved it there more than anywhere else.
Mom always used to take me for walks in the woods as a kid in state parks and the old family farm back in Minnesota. They were never very exciting, we just walked quietly. I can’t say they were my favorite thing as a child, but now looking back I’m so grateful to my mother for those walks. They showed me that the natural world is often the best place, that it can heal our wounds and enrich our lives if we just go there quietly with our hearts open.
My mom spent almost two months in Montana this August and September. Some of that time with my family in Missoula and some at the cabin. My wife, sons, and I normally make the three-hour drive to spend a few days at the cabin with her when she's there — she treasured those visits — but I had several deadlines this time and stayed in Missoula to work. I wanted to get up there, meant to get up there, but I had so much to do. Now I’d give anything to go back in time. I had no idea it would be my last chance to be with my Mom there, in our favorite place in the world.
If there’s anything to take from this it’s that work is never more important than family. I wish I could have done more for my mom. I wish I would have spent more time with her, supported her more, and brought her more joy. She lived alone in her last years, and I know she was sometimes lonely. But she was committed to living a simple, peaceful life, and that meant having her own quiet space to read, think, and meditate. One thing about my mom, though — if you needed help you could count on her. I heard that over and over from her many friends.
In dying, my mom taught me many lessons. Watching everyone come to see her in her final days, some from great distances, showed me that it’s the people in our lives that are most important. It makes me want to reach out to people more, to help them whenever I can, to be more compassionate and loving and kind. Life is hard. We’re all so fragile. But together we’re strong — until at some point we’re not, and then it’s the love and support of family and friends that matters most.
I was at my mother’s bedside when she died. It’s a moment — the last breath of our lives — that we will all experience. Until then, each breath we take is its own small miracle that carries us through the mystery and adventure of life. The question is what to do with the precious time we have while we’re here? How do we choose to live our lives?
My mom thought about this a lot, and though she was a beloved and devoted teacher, she never felt she found her life's true calling. I'm not sure we're born with one — more like we create it — but we all have passions. My mom's were spiritual exploration, nature, and travel. Whatever yours are, follow them. Nurture them. Devote yourself to them. Don’t wait. Passion is what makes life worth living.
While you’re at it, tell your parents you love them — you never know when it will be for the last time.