For many of us, in any given day, there is not enough time to start what we want to finish, much less finish what we’ve already started. Between the desires and demands we have of ourselves, and the needs, wants and expectations of others, life can sometimes feel like one big To-Do list. At times, the adrenaline rush from all that busyness can feel exhilarating, purposeful and focused. However, prolonged times of actual crisis can feel completely exhausting.
There is a thin, pliable membrane that runs between life and death. It is both fierce and fragile. When we are healthy, most of us don’t ever think of that delicate proximity. We are too busy living to consider dying, except, perhaps, in the abstract and generally in regards to someone else’s life, not our own.
Caregiving is an ongoing endurance triathlon: swimming in dark, choppy waters, cycling a twisted, rutted road that ends in a cliff hanger, and running in every direction simultaneously. In the beginning, adrenaline and a sense of intensely focused purpose will get you a long way. But as you settle into the nearly completely unpredictable new normal of your life, you may find your energy, patience, resilience and sense of humor more difficult to rally. You may feel exhausted, sad, scared and alone.
If you’re going into this new year with the same old resolutions you’ve made and broken for too many years--get more exercise, lose the first 20 pounds, swear off potato chips, stop dating people who don’t really like the real you, finally quit that job, gym, relationship—it’s time to make another plan. This plan is made up of two simple parts: The first is the present moment and the second is your willingness to show up for it every, single day.
If we are lucky, we come into the world with healthy hearts that pump essential nutrients to our bodies and our brains for the duration of our lives. The heart is one of the most essential organs of our bodies and so intrinsically connected to who we are that it is also an iconic symbol of all that we love, long for, lose and recover throughout life. When we are worried, we call it heartsick, when we are grief-stricken, we call it heartbroken, when we recover life or rediscover it anew, we call it heartening.
We ask the people we love, we ask the people who matter to us professionally, and on a broader level, we ask the people we encounter as we go about our everyday lives: the cashier who takes your coffee order, the jogging neighbor you wave to from the car on the way to work, the elderly woman sitting across from you on the train.
The four questions rarely get asked with words, just as they're rarely answered with words.
Life, as my mother used to say, is “the whole damn glorious story.” She was right. Pared down to the bare bones, there are three sure things in that damn glorious story of life: we are born, we live, and we die. Whatever the actual time we each have, within those years there is a lifetime of learning and yearning ahead of us. And if we dare to risk our hearts, there is a fourth certainty.
Closely-following events give us extraordinary opportunities to see the world, and each other, with new eyes. The eclipse reminded us of how small we are in relation to the universe, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remind us how integral we are to each other in the wake of disaster on the home planet.
The ability to spring back from life’s setbacks, losses, tragedies and heartbreak is quite possibly the most essential skill for living a full, happy and healthy life. The acquiring of this skill can take a lifetime, but its acquisition is what makes life radiant on the best days and bearable on the worst.
My mother, Imogene, is learning how to flex old muscles and live in a new world.
“Look at me!” she shouts this morning, executing a single perfect bicep curl with a 2-pound, fuchsia-pink dumbbell.
I’m standing in the doorway of the physical therapy room of the nursing home where my mother is showing off for her therapist. He’s handsome and sweet and worth the effort. The broad smile that fills his face when any of his patients accomplish even the smallest tasks works its magic. They keep trying and they recover, sometimes inch by inch, the lost ground that brought them here.
I came into the world old. By that, I don’t mean an old, wise soul. I mean a child who was, from the beginning, overly familiar with death. By the time that I, the youngest child of a second marriage was born, my old father was on his way to dying and my young mother was in the deep end of the ocean caring for him.
We wait for the better thing that is just beyond our reach, that great good thing that will finally make us happy and whole. We are more than willing to wait for it, even though it take a lifetime. The thing is, waiting to fully live until the right set of circumstances comes along is like waiting for a pie to cook without ever turning on the oven. It takes some heat to get the gold, on a pie or in a life.
Loss is a natural part of life. Intellectually, we know this, but emotionally, not so much. If we’re lucky, we have gentle losses when we’re kids that prepare us for the larger losses the lie ahead. And still, as practiced as we may believe we are with our manageable losses, nothing can adequately prepare us for the big ones, the ones that buckle our knees and take our breath away. Getting back on our feet and learning how to breathe again is a process that is neither linear nor won and done.
Finding a way is a powerful mantra for the times we live in, with people divided on nearly every major issue that confronts humanity, from whether or not climate change is real, (really?), to whether or not it’s a good idea to build a wall between people (ask Germany).
Instead of building a wall between people, families and countries, what if we found a way to enough peace of mind that we could all sanely speak our minds without screaming, ranting, bashing or crashing?
Some moments in life shake you to your core and take your breath away. In these moments, the only way out is to find a path through. If you’re a hiker, then you know if you ever find yourself lost in the woods, you should almost always seek to take the path of least resistance to conserve energy and strength. This means stepping over, not up, walking around and not scaling whatever obstacles you encounter.
Chances are, if you are deeply connected to the people in your life, you may find yourself in the role of a caregiver someday. It’s part of the “all-in, for better or worse” deal that we choose to make with our partners, kids, parents, siblings and friends. It can be the deep end of a seemingly endless, dark sea of physical, emotional and, often, financial support for someone whose future is uncertain. Recognize that caregiving can be one of the sweetest, most meaningful experiences of your life, or leave you gutted and bone dry. In reality, if you take that role on, it will likely do both, sometimes in the same hour.