09 Jan 2014, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 11 Comments.
I didn’t pick a “word of the year” at the start of 2013, but one picked me. Illness, of varieties both large and small, was a runaway train that barreled through my life, providing uncanny bookends to the year. It started January 3 with a trip to the emergency room and a brush with my own mortality. Then one, or two, or – during the worst weeks – all three of us were constantly sick throughout the winter and early spring, a merry-go-round that we couldn’t seem to stop. Just as we were coming out of the haze my mother-in-law fell ill, and her quick decline and eventual death would consume us all throughout the summer and fall. When I thought 2013 had finally released its grip, Abra fell ill right before Christmas, and we spent nearly three weeks holed up inside our house, ringing in the New Year with antibiotics, a nasty cough, and an early bedtime.
Needless to say, after a year like this one, I just wanted to survive to see the bright light of 2014. More than once in the waning days of 2013 I found myself holding my breath, wondering if something catastrophic would happen, a final punch to the gut. Although the start of a new year usually feels more symbolic than literal, the sense of turning over a new leaf was palpable when January 1 finally came. Some years are worse than others, and I realized upon reading this post that, in my zeal to just be done with it, I hadn’t really stopped to think about what the year had taught me. For even the worst years, and the worst experiences, have something to teach us.
The biggest lesson for me was the acceptance that my path is one marked by early mother-loss. I’m not yet sure what is means in the larger, overarching theme of my life story, but I now know that it is an essential truth. It is here to teach me and, I suspect, to teach others. Of course I wish this wasn’t so, and I’ve spent a lot of years lamenting my sad circumstances, fighting it, being angry about it, even, at times, ignoring it. (In fact, just before Cecilia got sick, I had been working on an idea for a memoir about mother-loss, and had convinced myself that it was a narrative I needed to move on from.) But I am finally coming to realize that mother-loss is a vital part of my journey, an immovable object around which the rest of the stream of my life flows. I am learning that part of living wholeheartedly in the here and now means integrating the past with your current story, even the difficult parts you’d rather deny.
While my family was convalescing over the holidays I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub reading Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, a beautiful book about the decline and loss of her parents. Amongst the many kernels of truth and wisdom she offers up about dying (and living) better, one of my favorites, a quote from poet Jane Hirshfield, is, “Some griefs augment the heart, enlarge. Some stunt.” My mother’s death was a stunting experience; Cecilia’s death was enlarging, one that has left me almost awkwardly open, in difficult but beautiful ways. In a stunning essay about parent-loss that a friend sent me this week, author Mark Slouka, in speaking about the death of his father, says, “My heart feels overfull, vulnerable, and part of me, nursing grief as a tribute, prefers it that way.” I think about my frequent tears since Cecilia died, which seem to spring from moments that bring me closer to the flow of life, rather than grief itself, and I wonder if my heart is simply overfull, rendered so expansive that tears can’t be contained. And so I have learned that grief and loss, while devastating, have the power to transform, to provide a shining glimpse of the soft underbelly of life.
This year taught me a tremendous amount about friendship. Someone once told me, “Death has a way of rewriting your address book,” and I learned once again that people surprise you in the crucible. I have learned, in often painful ways, not to expect all friends – nay, all people – to meet all of your needs. To expect otherwise is unfair; part of being a good friend is recognizing our mutual limitations as well as our strengths. I also learned that, when someone is hurting, there is no greater gift than to turn with them towards their pain, to recognize it, validate it, make it real. I learned to lean hard and heavy on those soul friends who proved themselves capable of that, for it was what I needed most this year, and to not be too hard on those that couldn’t. I learned how to be a better friend through witnessing the acts of kindness and generosity that the family who sheltered us in Seattle during the months of Cecilia’s decline and death showed us. As I told them through a flood of tears in their driveway as we prepared to drive back to New Mexico at the end of July, “You made an impossible situation merely very difficult.” I still can’t talk about their big-heartedness without crying; their selflessness touched something deep inside of me that I will never forget as long as I live, and I hope one day I can repay the favor in kind – if not to them directly, to someone else in dire straits.
In thinking about my “word of the year” for 2014, you might think I’d pick the opposite of “illness,” which I suppose would be “wellness.” Instead, I’ve chosen the word that I need to practice most right now, ease, of which I hope wellness will be a byproduct. Inspired by this post, I am already seeing ease manifest itself in small ways during the past week and guide my decisions. “How can I choose ease in this moment?” I ask myself. It’s easy to mistake ease for acquiescence, but I’m quickly discovering that ease flows from “choosing your battles,” carefully selecting the important times in which you are going to stand your ground and committing to letting the rest go. It’s following my curiosity about a meditation workshop with “ease” in its title. Allowing room in my schedule for things to unfold as they may. Not getting spun up when plans change at the last minute, providing the space for even better ones to emerge. Letting Abra’s art supplies litter the kitchen all day, knowing they can be cleaned up later. Allowing a walk to be a meander. Not getting upset when things don’t go my way or people don’t behave as I’d wish. Like the night when Abra was lurking outside our door after her bedtime, crawling guerrilla-style through a pile of clean laundry with a pair of My Little Pony underwear on her head. Rather than barking “get back to bed!” as I normally would, I paused long enough to laugh, to grab my camera and snap a few photos, before gently carrying her back to her bedroom. It was a fleeting moment, one I probably would have missed had “ease” not been on my mind. But I’m glad it was.
Here’s to giving 2013 the send-off it deserves and fully embracing 2014. And, I’d love to hear your “word of the year” if you have one.
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