THE BLOG
08/16/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

The Reality of Mortality

Lately, I've been thinking a lot more about mortality than ever before. My perception of "faith" and religion is far from concrete, and when I think about "life," it is the time we spend on earth that comes to my mind. Nothing more and nothing less.

Being the young children of two adults who definitely have faith but struggle with the concept of organized religion, my kids also don't have a clear concept of if there is or isn't an afterlife. Of course, they have heard about heaven and when our cat, Willie, died, we told them she went to "kitty heaven" as a source of comfort. All sorts of questions ensued such as, "Will we see Willie in heaven, can Willie see us from heaven, and what does it look like in heaven?" Coming from a place of not knowing, in addition to not wanting to take away the small comfort such a place as "heaven" provides, with the idea that we will all end up reunited again one day, I kept my answers brief. I usually would reply with something to the effect of, "I'm not sure," or "What do you think?"

But this isn't a post about religion or what some may construe as my lack thereof. It's about my intensified realization that we are not going to be on this earth forever and what that means for the here and now.

The other day, my 8-year-old daughter asked me a question that really touched me deeply. We got into the car to head to cheer practice, and as we were backing out of the driveway she asked, "Mommy, what are you going to say to us when we come to heaven?" My breath hitched as I realized she was acknowledging that I would die before her, and my 5-year-old piped in, "Are you going to say hi?" Before I could muster up the words to reply, my 8-year-old proceeded to ask, "Are you going to show us around?" Trying to keep it light, I replied, "Yes, of course!" But inside I was unexpectedly fighting a plethora of emotions ranging from sadness to facing the hard reality that one day, I would not be on this earth with them. I mean, that's no real surprise and basic, common sense, but we had never really addressed it in such a forthright manner. Glancing in the rear view mirror, I caught a glimpse of my oldest looking out the window in a pretty serious, contemplative manner, perhaps part of the reality of life setting in.

The subject quickly changed to something along the lines of, "Is Selena Gomez going to marry Justin Beiber?" but I was still fighting back tears, trying to inconspicuously deal with the raw emotion that just struck me. Still a bit surprised at the depth of what I was feeling, I concentrated on my breathing and continued driving, struggling to engage in their conversation.

Being in my late 30s, the concept of mortality is something I've confronted more seriously lately. Not that I think I'm going anywhere soon, but I've been thinking a lot more about what I've done, what I'm doing, and what I plan on doing. Is it meaningful? After I'm gone, is it going to matter that I was here?

Throughout my 20s and mid-30s such thoughts never crossed my mind. I started school early and was successful. I got good grades, got the right internships, got into the right schools, and got the right jobs. I always said that I would never feel "old" as long as I felt I was accomplishing goals and moving ahead.

Now, I'm lucky enough to be at home with my kids; however, my youngest has a life-threatening illness that we are fighting our hearts out against. In the last eight months we have spent 45 nights in the hospital and made 68 trips to the clinic and four trips to the ER. She has undergone surgery to insert a port into her chest and has had 10 spinal taps and three bone marrow biopsies. Not to mention the hundreds of needle pricks, IVs, and innumerable doses of disgusting medicine she has taken over this relatively short time period. And, we have 70 more weeks of this to endure. I have said on numerous occasions that getting her through this will be the most important thing we ever do. And it definitely will. But there is a part of me that feels like I am in a constant state of just trying to stay above water rather than moving ahead right now.

So much of what stay-at-home moms do immediately gets undone. Unlike the accomplishment I felt upon finishing a brief or finding a loophole in the law, something I could physically hold and say, "look at what I've accomplished," as soon as you clean the house, it is almost instantaneously dismantled. As soon as you finish the laundry (although do you ever really finish it?), it gets worn. You go to the store to buy food and it gets eaten. The list goes on. I often feel like I've gotten nothing done although, in actuality, I haven't sat down all day. Unless, of course, it was to chauffeur the kids around to an activity. The things you don't do are noticed much more than the things you actually accomplish.

I wouldn't exchange this time I have with my kids for anything in the world. Nothing. And being there for them is far more meaningful, to me than hours of research or drafting contracts ever was. There is no comparison. This is what I need to be doing now. But I am also thinking about the future and realizing that life isn't endless and we only get to do it once. The realization is striking that this is a good time to take inventory and make a list of the things I want to accomplish and experience in the future, when the time is right. Although some days feel like an eternity, the reality is that time is unrelentlessly whizzing by us, and if we aren't conscious and honest with ourselves about what we want our lives to be, chances are it won't turn out that way.

I don't know what happens after we die. But I do know that we have a responsibility to ourselves to take charge, to the best of our ability, of what happens when we live on earth. To do otherwise is selling ourselves short. Figure out what is truly important to you and create a plan to accomplish it. Make a difference in the world and engage in fulfilling tasks. Don't live in fear of life passing by, but be aware that it is and be an active participant in it. Chart your course. It's never too late to alter its direction.

For more by Erin Smith, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.