A childhood friend of mine passed away nearly two weeks ago.
I found out that she wasn’t doing well only a week and a half prior. One minute, I was having sushi with a friend I went to graduate school with, ranting about our perpetual existential crises and life stresses, and the next, I was on the phone with my cousin, hearing the heartbreaking news on the other end of the line. After battling a life-threatening illness for three years, her body couldn’t take it anymore. My friend, Danielle, was losing the fight. Suddenly, the ranting and raving that took place only minutes before dissipated; reality struck me like a gust of cold wind that shook me to the core.
Only 11 days passed between that phone call saying she was in the hospital, and the message I got saying she had passed, and yet, time seemed to stand still between those days, as if preparing me for the gut-wrenching feeling of being paralyzed by grief.
Young death is an unfathomable tragedy that often reminds you of the brevity of life. It’s sudden, and it’s swift, and it shakes you so deeply, and with such force, that you can’t help but feel profoundly betrayed by the world that’s supposed to keep you safe and let you grow old with the people you love.
It was a rainy Tuesday morning when she passed away. The universe often works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it? That day for me was a fog. It was coasting through a short work day, and going for a drive, cursing the sky above, asking What’s the point? What’s the point in all of this? She didn’t ask for this. It was repeating to myself over and over again, She was only 27. She was only 27. She was only 27. It was somehow ending up at the grocery store with no list or plan in mind. It was walking down each aisle, angry at all of the people filling their carts with the proper fixings for a Thanksgiving meal. It was the desperate feeling of wanting everyone around me to stop what they were doing and feel even a fraction of what I was feeling. It was praying for a familiar face to come up to me and say I get it, I get it. I miss her too. This sucks so much. It’s not fair. It’ll never be fair.
It was being surrounded by strangers who couldn’t possibly know what my favorite memories are. They don’t know about the elementary school pool parties, or sneaking in bouts of laughter between getting in trouble for torturing your old neighbor together. They don’t know about the sleepovers in middle school, or the time you finally felt like you were growing up when your parents trusted you enough to go to let you go to the mall alone. They don’t know about how Ruby Tuesdays became your tradition because that was the first restaurant you spent your hard earned cash that you made at your minimum wage paying jobs at. They don’t remember what it was like to get dressed up in matching fuzzy sweaters and Kangol bucket hats (both of which I am eternally grateful faded out of style) just to take funny pictures that will forever be a part of me. They don’t know about the nights when it was just you, your cousin, and your friend, and how those quiet moments between deep breaths and tears and wishes made for the future and promises that we’d all be friends forever, laying on a blanket, talking over cups of hot chocolate, were some of the most profound moments of your life. They don’t know that those are the moments that you will hold onto when the grief gets bigger and the anniversary of her death gets further away.
And they don’t know how much you are kicking yourself over and over again for somehow allowing the last conversation that ever passed your lips between the two of you to be about hanging out soon. Soon is a concept I’ve become all too well acquainted with. I’ll get to it soon. I’ll call them back soon. Let’s hang out soon. Sometimes, soon never does come.
. . .
The holidays are trailing behind in the wake of her death. The twinkling lights and Christmas carols flowing through the airwaves are an indicator that it’s supposed to be the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, and yet the older I get, the more it feels like the Busiest Time of The Year.
This year, it feels like the Coldest Time of The Year.
The holiday season always seems to creep in, taking with it the magic of what it once used to mean. August, September, and October have notoriously been hard for me – a season of big change and crippling transition, sending me straight into a time of year that is supposed to be met with gratitude, and warmth, and cider, and reflections of Remember When?
Instead, the end of November is a less-than-subtle reminder of the things we have left to do. Did I buy everything I needed to for Christmas? Did I sent out my cards? Will the gifts I order come in time? Did I miss any parties? Do I have time to finish all of the goals I made for myself for the year in the next 31 days?
In the midst of what is supposed to be a magical time of year, it’s hard to remember to enjoy it. To stop, to breathe, and to look up. To feel the crisp air and be enveloped by the scent of peppermint. To watch those twinkling lights with the same mesmerized glow you did as a kid. To feel and express gratitude. To just be present and have that be enough.
This holiday season is a hard one. It seems that these days, all of the people in my life are hurting in some capacity. Hearts are broken all around me, even when outside our windows, there’s twinkling lights, and smiling snowmen, and kids in their bedrooms making wishes to Santa, all with hopeful hearts.
The reality in my world is this: people around me are hurting. People in my life are waking up every morning and putting on their best smile just to get through the day. People are scrambling to figure out if they can afford food, or water, or their electric bill. Christmas gifts are the last things on their mind. People get sick. People get sick so suddenly and so quickly and without so much as a warning. People pass away, even during the most magical time of the year. People forget you. They’ll forget how much of you was a part of them; you’ll see them and be reminded by a bright flash of the past of how much it all meant then, but it’ll be taken from you so quickly like you never even mattered. They’ll whisper words and promises to keep in touch, to stay friends, but they’re empty, and hopeless, and weightless.
The recurring theme in my life is one that is prominent this holiday season: stop romanticizing being busy. Stop glorifying exhaustion. Stop utilizing being busy as a symbol of status, when really, it’s a barrier and a wall built to keep you from your own reality. Spreading yourself thin isn’t admirable, in fact, that’s probably the reason I’ve been sick for over two months. Stop burning yourself into the ground for the sake of making sure that your schedule is filled up, leaving very little room to sleep, and rest, and relax.
Things happen when you’re busy. People you love get sick, and you aren’t able to be with them when they have important doctors appointments. You aren’t able to sit with them while they talk about how scared they are. You aren’t able to tell them that you’re scared too. People get hospitalized and you can’t swing missing work to go see them. People pass away and you kick yourself for never getting a chance to follow through with your unmade plans. You make empty promises of future plans with people, but you don’t always follow through. Because you’re busy. And sometimes, being busy has an expiration date.
So many people, myself included, wear busyness like a crown of honor – like we are deserving of some reward for the bags under our eyes, the exhaustion that weighs us down, and the stress that is undoubtedly affecting our health. The truth is: busyness is an illness. Busyness keeps us from facing reality. Busyness keeps us from showing up for people. Busyness keeps us from showing up for ourselves.
. . .
There is confusion and guilt that lingers in the weeks following Danielle’s death. There’s questioning how there are people existing in what seems to be happy little bubbles, so consumed by the hustle and bustle of the holidays, thriving, it seems, in a world that glorifies trivialities. There’s the constant ebb and flow of the stages of grief. Today, it’s anger at how unaware everyone seems to be at the profound loss the world just experience. There’s perspective — a lightning bolt, an electric shock, a drop of cold water on a hot day — a reminder that there are so many more important and grave things going on in the world, and that sometimes, all of the extra stuff just doesn’t matter when there are hearts broken all over.
Have you ever taken the time to genuinely look up at the night sky? We are so, so small compared to the world above us. We are tiny grains of sand — just specs of matter. Years from now, none of the extra stuff we do will mean anything. It won’t matter if we worked a 70 hour work week every year for 40 years. It won’t matter if we lost sleep over deadlines, and time frames, and progress notes left undone. It won’t matter if we hit the ground running every morning, just to come home with our gas light on E every night. It won’t matter if we dedicate our lives to cultivating a life we dreamed up, but never really living it. What will matter is heart and truth. Were you there for people? Did you show up when you were needed? Did you listen? Did you love? Did you pay attention to the people who needed you, but never asked? Did you ask for help? Did you listen to your body when it told you to slow down, take a deep breath, and be where your feet are?
Most of my life has been spent with my head straight, eyes forward. I’ve known what I’ve wanted of life for a long time, and I’ve done nothing but work tirelessly at building it from the ground up. I am dedicated, I am hard working, and I am relentless in my fight to get what I want — but these days, it’s kicking me in the ass. These days are a constant reminder that if you don’t look up every once in awhile, you’re going to miss a hell of a lot.
Sitting at the services for my friend Danielle, I noticed everyone looking up. Everyone was looking at the person we came to honor. The room was full of people who knew her in some capacity, and loved her as tremendously as the next person in the room. It was in those quiet moments, between sniffles and tears, that I realized only do we ever look up when we are forced — when there is something to look up for. When we are reminded of how very fragile and precious life is. When we are reminded of how quickly it can be taken from us.
Have you ever sat at a table surrounded by people you love and thought to yourself that this is what life is about? Christmas carols humming in the background, kids playing with toys downstairs, and a gentle buzz from the homemade spiked cider filling the air. And in those moments, you realize how full your heart is, how good this life is. I want to capture those moments. Preserve them. Remember to seek them every once in awhile. Because when you are too busy, you don’t have time to appreciate the good life, and the good people that are right there in front of you.
This month was a big, bold, painful reminder for me to start looking up. And what I would do to go back and live a life that didn’t require these kinds of life-altering reminders. Don’t be so busy that you need something this big, or this bold, or this painful to tell you to look up. Look up because life is too short to keep your eyes down. Look up because the world around you needs you — the people you love need you. Look up now.