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What My Mom’s Death From Cancer at 48 Taught Me About Living for the Moment


I have a friend who believes in living for the now. If she wants something, she gets it. If she wants to go somewhere, she goes. For her, life isn’t about waiting for the right time, it’s about making now the right time. 

Her attitude reminds me of something one of my characters says in my latest novel. “You don’t need anybody’s permission to live the life you desire…. you need only the permission of your heart.” Although fictional words, it is a philosophy I believe in, because waiting and wondering isn’t always the answer.

What My Mom’s Death Taught Me

In 1993, my beautiful mum passed away from a rare form of cancer. She was 48. From living an ordinary life as a carefree 20-something, I became a young woman facing adulthood without her mother to guide her. Life changed irrevocably, and everything has been horribly off-balance ever since. This year marked the point when I’ve been without my mum longer than I was with her. It is perhaps in recent years, since becoming a mother myself, that I’ve felt her absence most keenly, and changed my attitude to life because of this.

I’m now only a few years younger than mum was when she died, and it strikes me, more than ever, how much she had to live for, how much she didn’t get to see, or do. My mother’s generation of women was the last to really sacrifice everything for family. Now, we juggle careers and motherhood without any suggestion that we should do anything else. It is what we expect; what we do. For my mother’s generation, this was not the case. Mum gave up her job to raise her children, and I often wonder if she regretted this, regretted not fulfilling any of her own dreams and ambitions. I also wonder what she might have gone on to do in her later years, without family responsibilities to worry about. The fact that she never got the chance to really spread her wings has definitely pushed me to chase my dreams, even when they seem as impossible as becoming a published writer once did.

Writing is my second career — one I fought hard for — and one I’m fortunate to be able to combine with motherhood. That I am writing at all, is something I also owe to my mum. She instilled a love of books within me from a very early age. It was mum who took me and my sister to the local library and helped us carry back armfuls of delicious new books. It was mum who tucked me in at night, prizing a book from my hand as she turned out the light. It was mum who turned a blind eye when she saw the glow of torchlight beneath the covers as I sneakily read just one more chapter. 

Strangely, it is within the pages of my books that I can most easily confront my emotions about her death. My writing is perhaps more closely connected to my mum than I might often realize.

Spreading My Wings

I certainly draw on the history of the women in my family in my writing, and I always draw on the legacy of their tough Yorkshire spirit when things get tough. Strong determined women filled my mum’s life, just as strong determined women have filled mine: aunts, great aunts, nanas — women who lived through wars and more than their fair share of personal tragedy. Through them I’ve learned that you can survive tough times. Through their support and encouragement, I’ve learned to rely on, and trust in, myself. Whether competing in the school sports day, going to my first school disco, going on my first holiday abroad with friends, buying my first home, moving to London, moving to Australia, navigating my first attempts at writing, I have always had a small army of women beside me, encouraging me to stretch my wings, to keep trying, to find my own way.

Life has certainly thrown some big questions my way, and without the emotional support of my mum, I’ve had to answer them. And you know what? I believe I’ve been able to do that because I always had mum’s support. Gently, quietly, she taught me to only ever need the permission of my own heart and while I dearly wish she could have been there beside me all these years, in many ways, she has. 

When I see my friend heading off on a last minute trip to her beloved French Riviera, and when I think about my mum and how suddenly her life was cut short, I wonder: What if we spent less time worrying about what other people think and more time focusing on what it is we really want to do?What if we need only the permission of our own hearts? What if we chase that dream we’ve been talking about for years, trust our instincts and make the bold choices? 

If we can believe in ourselves, who knows what magic might follow.

This essay was written by Hazel Gaynor, a New York Times bestselling author who lives in County Kildare, Ireland with her husband and two children. She is the award-winning author of “The Girl Who Came Home — A Novel of the Titanic” and “A Memory of Violets,” as well as “The Cottingley Secret” (2017). Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

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