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The other day I was in the elevator at a major Boston hospital heading to the 16th floor.  The elevator was full of people; visitors carryi...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't lose yourself to the details of life.



"A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born."
~~Antoine de Saint Exupery

Remember when we were kids? We thought our parents were so boring. They were always doing laundry, going grocery shopping, cleaning, going to work day in and day out. They came home, watched the news, maybe had a cocktail, cooked the dinner, then went to bed. Maybe they read for a while. And of course they nagged us all of the time. To get things done. Things that were meaningless to us.

Remember how we thought we would never be like that? That we would be more interesting, freer to express who we were? It all seemed so simple then.

But then we grew up. The details of life began to consume us. We wanted more so we worked harder. We acquired more. We moved to bigger houses with more stuff. We had kids and became involved in parenting 101, almost at a fevered pitch. We joined the TPA. We joined local community groups. We exercised. We did laundry. We grocery shopped and bought organic.

We make dinner. We clean up dishes. We nag our kids to do their homework, clean their rooms. We shuttle them to activities that we hope will enrich their lives and make them happy. We go to bed exhausted. And then we make our to-do lists for the next round of responsibilities that will need to be done tomorrow, and the next day and the next. An endless stream of tasks.

In essence, we have become lost in the details of life, just like our parents did. We have become the person we swore we would never be.

And life goes on.

Until it doesn't.

Sometimes events that we have no control over get in the way. We may be diagnosed with a life ending disease like cancer. Or ALS. Or heart disease.

We don't like to think that these things can happen. To us. We try to shut out the possibility. I know I do. But, unfortunately, I am forced to see it every time I work. People who were plodding along just like you and me are suddenly struck down with this disheartening news.

And how do they manage? Some make to do lists, just like they always did. They look at the details of the disease and try to take control of it. It begins to consume them. Just like life had.

But, occasionally, I meet someone who does not do that. They have an interesting story to tell and it is worth hearing. They step away from details and look inward.

And they are much happier.

One patient, young with three kids, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and no treatment options, so she decided to take all of her kids out of school, much to everyone's surprise. She decided to home school them. Her husband took a leave of absence for a year. They rented an RV and traveled the country. They had fun. They were together.

Yes, they let things go. They didn't always eat healthy. They didn't worry about the lawn. As a matter of fact, they let it go, much to the chagrin of their tony neighbors.

They did pay their bills and remained responsible to the important things that keeps life humming along. But they let go of the seemingly endless lists of details that used to bog them down and stifle their enjoyment of life.

"Before I had cancer, I was just an empty shell. Always busy, but busy became me. When people asked how I was doing, my answer? Busy. Sad really."

She went on. "I used to be a dancer when I was young. But my mom said that dancers can't really make any money. So I became a lawyer instead. And then a wife. And then a mom. And I lost myself somehow. I became the details of my life. I wasn't living my life, I was managing the details. Sure, from the outside, we looked great. Nice home. Pretty yard. Well mannered kids. But inside, it was empty. I was empty. I loved my life, don't get me wrong. I just got lost in the details."

"Once I got sick, I realized that this was it. I had little time left. I wanted my kids to know me. The real me, warts and all. Not just mom with the never ending Blackberry in her hand, nagging them to hurry up so we could move on to the next thing. I wanted to just be me, for them to see me. And now I had the perfect excuse. Cancer. But I wish I had realized it earlier."

This patient recently died. In her 40's. It made me cry. A lot. Not just because she was a beautiful person who had to leave this world way too soon, but because she was a terrific role model. A true inspiration. A great mom to three young kids. And a lovely human being.

I learned a lot from her. I may not be able to just pack up for a year and rent an RV, but I can take a day now and again to get in touch with myself. To leave the to-do list at home. To do things that I enjoy that other's may think are crazy. To just be me for a change.

I have also learned that nagging does not help. People hate nagging. If my daughter doesn't have her homework done, all my nagging won't make her a better student. If she fails a test or misses an assignment, she will learn the consequences of her own actions. And that is a much more important lesson that anything I can muster.

I learned from that patient, her name was Eve, that we cannot always shoulder the responsibility for everyone. We may not even be here to always do that. We have to instill in others a sense of themselves. And let them fly a bit on their own.

The last thing she said to me before she died three weeks later was this, "These past two years were great. My kids finally got to know the real me. Not the nagging parent or the lawyer or the household manager. But the real me. I danced for them. We looked at old pictures together. We looked though my yearbooks and I told them stories of how I hated so and so and liked so and so and how certain teachers made me feel bad. I told them how I hated math, hated it. And that my math teacher in High School was an idiot. That I had detention a few times. That I smoked weed. That I thought my parents were dull. I told them how I became a lawyer and thought that I would help others, but instead became part of the machine and ended up worrying more about billable hours. I told them how I met their dad. That I had sex before marriage. That I was a real person, just like them. They were astonished. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. They thought I did not have a clue as to what they were going through. And they began to see me more as person, and less as a role that I played. I am not sure it helped them in any way, but after I am gone, I want them to remember me. The real me. Not just the details I attended to. I know it shocked them a bit. But that is okay. Life is shocking. Get used to it."

God, I miss her.

“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”
~~Angela Monet

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