Look Up Now

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.

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And Melodies in the air, Singin’ Life Just Ain’t Fair.

I used to think I was lucky to grow up without grandparents.

I promise it didn’t start out that way. When I was in elementary school, I envied my friends who spent their Christmas break baking cookies and decorating gingerbread houses with their grandma, and Easter’s looking for pastel colored eggs with their grandpa. I often found myself profoundly jealous over not having grandparents to share with me the stories of their life — the stories of their hardships and what it took to overcome them — stories of trials turned to triumph. I spent a lot of time wishing I had a home away from home — grandparents to be my ears when I needed someone to listen or to offer me sage advice. Someone older and wiser to remind me that this too, shall pass. But when I got older and saw my friends reeling over the deaths of their grandparents, I dubbed myself lucky.

I say lucky loosely. Lucky, because for a long time, I was largely untouched by the heavy cloak of death. Lucky, because I never had to mourn the loss of a grandparent. Lucky, because it was four less people I would have to say goodbye to.

I don’t consider myself lucky anymore.

Before really understanding the permanence of death, I had a taste of what happens when you lose someone. I was eight when my aunt passed away from bone cancer. It was ugly and brutal. I struggle sometimes with the minor details — like how she felt when she was diagnosed; did she have any last wishes or regrets? Did she live a life she was proud of? Did she want more? But what I do remember is the quick and painful way she slipped away from us. How she was here one day — healthy, and happily feeding my then two-year-old brother cheesecake off her finger, and suddenly sick, frail, and then gone. All within the span of six months. And despite being old enough to have a general understanding of death, despite living just around the corner from her, despite watching this horrible disease take my beautiful aunt away from me, I never understood the weight of death until it came back to me at 19, and then at 20. And then over and over and over again.

I suppose that in comparison to many, I am still largely untouched by death. But death keeps making her way back into my life, and each time she visits, she steals a little bit of my heart with her.

Yesterday was the six year anniversary of the death of a dear childhood friend of mine.

Six years is a long time. Six years is more than half of my sister’s lifetime. Six years is the age of a first grader. Six years is how long it’s been since I was a college sophomore. Six years of grief, of growth, of change, of birthdays passing, of life. Six years, and the weight on my heart is still the same. Six years down, but a lifetime more to go. Yesterday was heavier than the last six years have been. Perhaps because the anniversary of Pat’s death fell on a Saturday — the same day he died, showing us that time still moves even when he doesn’t get to come along for the ride. Perhaps also because I found myself driving home from work on the parkway with the same urgency I had that day six years ago, when I drove home from my college down the parkway shortly after hearing about his accident. In a weird twist of deja vu, my heart was heavier as I remembered one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known. I think about him a lot. On a windy day, like the day of his funeral, I swear it’s him looking down on us and roughing us up. Reminding us that a little turbulence can’t ever hurt us. I think about him when I drive past his house. When I think about my first few years working at Auntie Anne’s. When I think about the icy Valentine’s Day we were both stuck working and spent the night making heart-shaped pretzels. When I think about being in elementary school and starting martial arts and him telling me how cool it was that I did Tae Kwon Do. Seriously, when you’re a tiny nine year old girl, nothing is cool about doing martial arts. Pat always reassured me. And even though I think about him all the time, and even though it’s been six years, it still seems unfathomable to me that he’s gone.

That’s the hardest part about death. That the earth still turns, and you’re still here, and the person you love is simply gone.

There is something so surreal about the concept that the people in our lives can just disappear. Like my neighbor — the healthiest, strongest, most physically fit man I’ve ever known — who was fighting with everything in him to beat his cancer. He was here one day, telling me to keep working hard at school and to, as soon as I got the chance, finally watch Groundhogs Day — a movie I’d promised I would watch when I was 15 years old. His illness claimed his body in the blink of an eye. One moment, he was here in his entirety. The next, he was hospitalized after having a stroke. And in the weeks between that stroke and his death, I watched the rapid transition and watched as his body grew tired from fighting.

I witnessed my neighbor’s fight. I can still feel the very moment I got the phone call telling me Pat died. I remember the agony of my aunt passing away — and yet the concept that death takes these people away from us permanently is still so hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes.

I still imagine that as life moves on, as the world turns and shifts and changes, as I change along with it, the people in my life will still be doing the same. That my aunt in Vietnam, who passed away last year, is still living her life and running her little convenience store. That on the next sunny day, I can look out my window and see my neighbor with his Red Sox baseball cap sitting on his lawn chair at the top of his driveway. That I can arrange for all of my old Auntie Anne’s coworkers to get together for drinks and that Pat would be sitting right along side us. That although we are apart, we are still living and growing together.

And then other days, I am so paralyzed by the transience of it all — often to the point of anger towards those who don’t realize the same. Some days, when I am scrolling through Facebook and reading complaint after complaint, or on days like yesterday, when I am reminded that this is it. This is all we get. Just this one shot at life. I want to shake the people complaining about non-important things. I want to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this is all temporary. Don’t you realize that? In the grand scheme of things, your problems are so small. People lose who they love every single day. We can love with all our might, but in just the blink of an eye, it could all be gone.” 

But I’ve never said any of that, because I would be a hypocrite for not living life the same way. For not seizing every single moment and making it all count. But I really, whole-heartedly, want to make this count. 

I think the problem is that we’re waiting for this big awakening. We’re waiting for purpose. For meaning. For someone to kick us over and scream this is why you’re here. This is what you’re living for. And until then, we travel blindly on this winding road with little or no significance. But what if that epiphany never comes? Maybe, instead of wishing to live in these big moments and be these big people, we need to see what we have when we have it.

In the last year, I have been trying to live better. To do better. I’ve been trying to live fully and intentionally. But most importantly, I have been trying to be grateful for even the smallest of things. In 2014, I did a gratitude jar. I wrote down one “good thing” every single day and at the end of the year, I looked through fondly at some of the memories — spending the day in Atlantis, Bahamas, lazy snow days watching Netflix, getting a gift from a friend in the mail because I was having a rough time, spending my first Memorial Day Weekend not in retail with my friends at the racetrack, treating myself to a Starbucks Frappucino, getting out of work early.

When I think about making this all count, I think of only two things: gratitude and love. I think life begins and ends with love. And I think if you practice gratitude, if you make yourself aware of the little things, you’ll find that there is so much to love about this life — even in spite of all the bad things that often come our way.

When I am at the end of my life, whenever that time may be, I want it to be known that I loved as hard as I could. That’s what I need to remind myself when I feel my blood pressure raising over petty Facebook statuses and Tweets. When we are at the end of the road, that stuff won’t matter. No one will care about how much college loan debt you’re in, or how many bills you’ve paid for the month, or how stressed you were studying for that exam. At the end of all of this, two things will matter: gratitude and love.

Remember that. Practice that. Live in that.

“What are you going to do with your life?” In one way or another it seemed that people had been asking her this forever; teachers, her parents, friends at three in the morning, but the question had never seemed this pressing and still she was no nearer an answer… “Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to be good and courageous and bold and to make difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”
-David Nichols, “One Day

 The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘View From Heaven‘ by Yellowcard.