How We Grow

17 February, 2010

Every year, when the calendar has flipped its last page and starts anew, it seems appropriate to look ahead and think of how we’ll change, what goodness we can instill in ourselves to make the new year better than the last, to take control of whatever we can grasp and be responsible for what will befall us.

And then something happens that proves it’s all entirely out of our hands.

Just a few weeks into the new year, while I was still high on promising resolutions and a quickly-fading vacation tan, one of my best friends related, via the newsreel that is Facebook, what began as an unexplained oddity and all-too-quickly spun in to a complete and utter shitstorm of chaos: her healthy and active mother was diagnosed with leukemia, placed on a respirator, and passed away – all in less than a week.

When I found this out, I choked, I felt ill; my head felt light and my stomach felt heavy. I felt an urge to run to my own mother and smother her with hugs and apologies and “I love yous.” Once I had re-combobulated myself, a few days later, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been so plagued with grief over my friend’s mother. I had never met her mother; in fact, I didn’t even know her name. There were some uncanny similarities between her and my mom – they were about the same age, taught special education and, apparently, had the patience of saints. But why was I so overwrought? I have, unfortunately, other friend’s who’ve lost parents, in one instance even more suddenly than this. And be it parents, grandparents, friends – the one uniting factor each time someone has died is that I have handled the situation terribly. I claim to be paranoid about saying and doing the wrong thing, so I say and do nothing. But in truth, I’m petrified of my own emotions, paralyzed by the fear that I will not be able to control a Niagara Falls-worthy onslaught of tears and wretched emotions.

In clinging to my attempted general resolution of self-betterment, I pledged to do my best to handle my friend’s tragedy like an adult. In reality, while I didn’t entirely shut down and essentially ignore the situation, I did my fair share of hiding – I sent her worried, supportive, loving and sympathy-ridden emails and text messages. The modern-day condolence card? Hardly. I think I was indulging myself: do not shy away, but do not directly confront the issue. Keep yourself in the safe place, that of immense inner-turmoil that stays – well, inner. I was intent on giving my friend “space” – it took me until a week after her mother’s death to actually pick up the phone and call her. I am ashamed to say how relieved I was to hear her chipper outgoing voicemail message. I left her a message trying to excuse myself from the inexcuseable sin of a being a bad friend, and assured her that – despite my behavior/cowardice – I was here for her any moment of any day. I learned that a few of her other closest friends from New York had gone up to New Hampshire for the funeral, and I felt like dirt – for as much as my schedule couldn’t have allowed it, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I continued to feel awful until I realized that it wasn’t even my place to feel badly in all of this, and then became consumed by guilt that I was hogging all of the grief for myself.

Time passed, in that strange slow/fast way it does these days. In trying to recover from my shame, I felt compelled to use my friend’s mother’s passing as an excuse to embrace the unknowable, to capture this motivation and better myself, to seize the day! – I was fueled by an inexplicable fear-inspired carpe diem, and decided that, by turning the tragedy into something proactive, even life-inspiring, I was “handling it like an adult.”

Then I got stuck. How exactly should I carpe my diems? I thought about all the things one imagines they’d do when reminded of their mortality – call up that guy from years ago and tell him how deeply you fell for him, jump out of an airplane, buy yourself something indulgent, eat rich, wonderful food, travel the world, tell off your old boss – essentially, do all the things you’re scared of every other day. (It’s not a Bucket List. It’s a Brave List. It’s a Scare You Shitless List.) But in making my list, I found myself, my over-thinking, over-rationalizing self, unable to even fathom executing any of those things. Specifically, because I was – I am – too alive.

Could any of us suffer something horrible at any moment? Sadly, yes. Might we lie there, the light in our eyes slowly fading, wishing we had done more, said more, loved more, lived more? There is no way to measure regret, remorse, rue or repentance. And now I find myself thinking that to live, to grow, is not to only cower in fear, and it’s not to only embrace fear. I believe now that to live is to exist between those two – not in the middle, but constantly fluctuating, floating between the extremes that define excess and depravity. It’s what keeps us human – the fact that we will endeavor to constantly be challenged, to search for love, to seek adrenaline, while not abandoning the fears and secrets that define who we are right now.

For the past two years, dramatic events in January (last year, the Miracle on the Hudson (for some reason), this year, my friend’s mother) have made me re-evaluate my lease on life, and seek to learn and live in a new way, in an inspired way. Hopefully this time, it’ll stick. Émile Zola once said “If you ask me what I came to do in this world … I will answer you: ‘I am here to live out loud.'” I think it’s time to start shouting.

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