The Ides.

Dad, Wendy, and Mom - Dec 1996
Dad, Wendy, and Mom – Dec 1996

Many of you know that I lost my parents, a sister, Wendy, and her friend on March 15, 1999 – the Ides of March.

Every year since then, I have marked that day: early on, I would stay home from work and be miserable.  It was too much to try to be ‘normal’ when I was grieving so deeply.  Between late February and late March, I faced heartache on days that should have been celebrated:  February 26, my parents’ anniversary; my mother’s birthday; Wendy’s birthday; and even my birthday, which was the last time I ever saw the four of them. 

Every one of those days was tough to get through, but not as tough as the day: the 15th, the Ides of March.  For a long time, I was unable to function on that day; it was overwhelming, and I couldn’t manage much more than taking flowers to the graves, awash in tears.  After several years, I would take flowers to the graves and spend the day in quiet reflection, but I no longer took the day off from work.  I would still be overcome with the memories, preferring to keep to myself that day. 

For the last few years, the day has passed much more easily for me.  If I let myself, I can easily be swallowed up in that quicksand of sorrow, but I don’t want to do that, because it’s hard to return when you sink so low.  So I have deliberately tried to go the other direction and find some happiness in that day; it’s tough but necessary.  This year, I am happy to report that I am attending a dear friend’s wedding.

In the last fifteen years I have become a different person.  That sudden and catastrophic loss changed everything.  My heart was shattered, but in healing, it became more open and loving.  I have become more compassionate; living through those terrible times when I thought I might never recover broadened my capacity for love and understanding.  My empathy for those who are struggling is deeper than it ever was.

But I am also afraid.  I am more fearful than ever before of things I cannot control.  I worry constantly, and I can’t seem to stop.  I know my anxiety won’t change a situation or make things better; and I know that being concerned and worrying are two different things.  But no matter what I tell myself, the worries creep in.  I no longer believe that things happen ‘to other people’ – they happened to me and my family – so I keep wondering what will happen next.  It is always — always — in the back of my mind. 

My mind reels with ‘what ifs’ for every situation.  What if that driver crosses the center line and hits me?  What if this plane goes down?  What if a prowler shows up when I’m home alone?  What if something happens to my children and I am helpless to do anything?  I am mostly able to manage the worries, but some days they take over, and when they do, I am an unreasonable, agonizing mess.  Nevermind that many of the things I worry about are not going to happen; that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that once the fear arises, all reason goes out the window, and I become a frightened child. 

I have also noticed that my memory is not as reliable as it once was.  I think the trauma of that incident was a huge factor.  My recall of those first days and weeks is rather muddled, which is understandable, but even long-term recollections of my childhood and young adulthood are gone.  Wiped from my mind.  I can’t remember movies I’ve seen, books I’ve read, or things I’ve said and done.  This is one of the hardest things for me to accept.

My priorities are different now, too.  I used to envision myself having a successful career, great investments, and a busy social life.  Those things changed.  Now, I value time with my family more than I ever did.  After the crash I stopped balancing my checkbook and lost interest in building my investment portfolio; instead of hoping to maximize my profits, I only cared to have enough to pay for my sons to go to college.  I prefer gifts of time and experiences to material things, because I am always aware that time (and life) is short.

My internal turmoil during those first few years matched both the external chaos of the tragedy and the subsequent upheaval among my siblings.  It was an exceptionally difficult time for us all, and with emotions running so high, conflict was inevitable.  There was a lot of anger and pain, and I think we learned more about one another than we ever wanted to.  But that time also taught me to look deeper into people’s hearts for their motivations.  The roller coaster extremes of emotion, the irrationality, the impulsiveness, and the inertia that I experienced all taught me to take a second look at situations instead of merely reacting.  I try to see the underlying issues that make people act and react the way they do. 

Using myself as an example, I realized that stress and emotion cause people to do crazy things sometimes – things that are uncharacteristic of them.  At times, I was sure I was going crazy.  I lost interest in my life in general and sunk into depression.  I acted strangely.  I would hope that people who saw me like that realized that the crazy person wasn’t really me, but a product of what I was going through.  So I try to extend that same understanding to other people.  Who knows what their back stories might be?

Not a day has passed since March 15, 1999 that I don’t miss my parents and sister; the gaping hole in my heart is still there.  So I’m marking the day.  I’ll take flowers to the graves, but then I will go to the wedding and enjoy myself.  “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). 

I spent some time in the pit of despair, and when I crawled out, the world was different.  But I was different, too.  Not all of it was change for the better, but that is life. 

And life is still good. 

 

A Greater Miracle.

Day 13;365 {{ 10 things about ME }}

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
~ Henry David Thoreau

So opens a short video that was shared on my Facebook feed today.   It is a promo bit for Cleveland Clinic, but it shares a profound truth.  It is a series of silent vignettes of people in a medical setting: patients in a waiting room; doctors performing treatments; visitors; people sharing an elevator.  With each scene, some text emerges above the subjects: 19 year-old son on life support appears with a worried-looking couple in a hospital cafeteria; doesn’t completely understand displays above a vacant-eyed elderly woman sitting with her middle-aged son before a doctor.  In the elevator, a man worries about his wife who just had a stroke; a woman in a white coat is newly divorced; and another man just found out he will be a father.

Each bit of text leaves us with an impression of the subjects’ state of mind.  We see sorrow, uncertainty, joy, love, and worry etched on these faces, and we can empathize.  Immediately, our heart goes out to the little girl who is visiting her Dad and the woman who is in shock at the doctor’s news.  We see ourselves in the waiting area for three hours (or more).  These are actors, of course, but they represent a universal usWe are all the same.  Doctors and nurses have joy and pain just as patients do, just as the family does, just as we — I — do.

It never hurts to remember that we each have our stories.  That driver who sped recklessly through traffic may be on his way to the hospital to see his daughter who clings to life after a drunk driver hit her on the way to school.  The cashier at the grocery store who seemed to ignore you may be thinking about how to tell her children that she and her husband are divorcing.  Perhaps the reason your boss didn’t seem to be listening to your big proposal is that his wife is coming home tonight after a month-long work assignment in another city.  Your child’s teacher was just diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and that’s why she has been acting a bit ‘off.’

You just don’t know.

By the time the 4-minute video came to an end, I had tears welling up in my eyes.  Compassion is a vital virtue; a walk in someone else’s shoes may be your most valuable journey.  Too often we misread intent in others because we don’t know the back story or we misinterpret their actions.  Sometimes, it’s haste; sometimes, it’s indifference; sometimes, it’s just that we don’t see.

I recently spent the better part of two days waiting in a hospital.  I had brought plenty of reading material, as well as a tablet for surfing the web, but I passed a lot of time watching other people:  The shabbily-dressed, unkempt man sitting alone at the large cafeteria table looking only at the bag of chips he hungrily consumed.  A small knot of middle-aged women in the corner laughing heartily, drawing annoyed glances from a quieter part of the room.  The housekeeper pushing her cart from restroom to restroom, perfunctorily cleaning up after the steady stream of visitors.  The elderly couple checking their watches, anxiously watching the status board.  The gowned patient with the tube taped to her nose, noiselessly escorting her IV stand to the end of the hall.  Maybe they saw me, too, with my tote bag of crossword puzzles and bottled water.

There’s no way, of course, to know what’s in someone’s heart; we judge people by their behavior and assign our own meaning to their actions.  But just as we want people to treat us with compassion and respect, we must do the same.  We must learn to look beyond the overt, and resist the urge to ascribe our own interpretations.  We must not be so quick to assume, and instead, we must try to understand.

That short video spoke strongly to me.  It said I need to try harder.  It is far too easy for me to merely respond to the actions and not consider the reason.  What if I could step into their skin for a moment?  Would I treat people more gently and with greater kindness?

I may not see from their eyes, but I can be “a little kinder than necessary,” as Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie put it.

Watch the video.  Learn the lesson.

 

photo credit Nina Matthews Photography

I Feel Your Pain.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?

~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’

Sad

 ‘I feel your pain.’

Shortly after President Bill Clinton uttered those words in 1992, they became a catch phrase, often spoken mockingly or in jest.  Obviously, Clinton did not literally feel the pain of the AIDS activist whose comment prompted his response.  Nevertheless, it helped portray him as a compassionate person who had empathy for the common folk.

Of course, it is quite impossible to feel someone else’s pain, because we are all unique, and so are our responses to events and situations.  Two people can experience exactly the same thing but have completely different reactions.  We can sympathize by comforting and reassuring someone who is going through a rough time in her life, or, if we have also been in that situation, we can empathize, sharing our own experience with it.  Compassion, earned by shared suffering and the desire to alleviate it, is a building block of love and friendship.  It is a hallmark of caring.  You never show compassion for someone you care nothing about.

When you suffer – through injury, loss, or physical or emotional pain – you learn truths about yourself.  Among other things, you find out what you can manage; you learn to prioritize; and you attain a new perspective.  Life changes for you; you gain depth of understanding and a renewed appreciation for happiness.

Fourteen years ago, I skipped along through life like most of us do, concerned about my own situation: my husband and kids, my job, and my social circle.  I was healthy and happy, and life was good.  I did not give it a lot of thought because that is how it had always been for me.  I could not truly appreciate how fortunate I was.

In a moment, all of that changed.  Life pulled the rug out from under me, and I tumbled into another reality.  The truths of my situation changed, and I was completely overwhelmed.  My journey back to normal (whatever that is) started that day, although I did not know it then.

I stand before you today a different person than I was those fourteen years ago: a stronger person.  I now know that I can take whatever life throws at me and still come through.  My priorities reflect what really matters.  I am still on that path I started that day, but now I am counting my blessings, not the least of which is greater understanding.

photo credit Megadeth’s Girl