I spent the day today making my little corner of the world just a little prettier. Lillies and impatiens in the planter on my deck (with a pink flamingo, just for fun). Herbs and strawberry plants in big pots on my kitchen patio. Fresh water in the bird bath and fresh food in the bird feeder. Patio furniture scrubbed, paths swept, and tiny lawn mowed. A new rosebush planted outside my bedroom window in honor of my aunt, with pink blooms that perfectly match the lipstick shade she wore every day of her adult life.
My girls and I finished our spring cleaning yesterday by tackling Sabrina’s closet, which had become so unwieldy, it was like a scene from a film where you open the door and everything rains down on your head. No exaggeration. But our little home is all neat and tidy and sparkling clean now, inside and out.
A few weeks ago, these chores would have rested heavily and uncomfortably on my shoulders. I would have felt dismal and overburdened by them. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, I was feeling that life was a somewhat monotonous repetition of obligations, chores, and responsibilities. I awoke in the mornings despairing of another busy day of nothing to look forward to, and climbed into bed each evening feeling frustrated, sad, and lonely in my life. I plodded through everything quietly and determinedly, weighted down by a silent melancholy and pessimism born of a fear that I would always feel that way.
And then, my only aunt died last week.
And that changed everything.
When I received the news on Monday night that she was in the hospital, in debilitating pain, and not expected to survive the week, I was devastated. Her death Tuesday afternoon contained as much relief (in freeing her from her suffering) as it did grief. The text informing me of her passing came from my young cousin, her grandson. It reached me just as I was convening a very important meeting at work. It said, simply, “Grandma went to heaven at 12:45 PM. I love you.” I’ve no clear memory of the subsequent two-hour meeting, although I’m told by colleagues that it went well. Thank God for auto-pilot.
I spent most of Tuesday evening talking to my cousins and my mom, allowing them to hurl themselves into their grief and find some solace in our shared memories of my aunt. Then later, an ex-boyfriend provided the same sounding board for me: letting me remember all the best of my aunt and celebrate her life by sharing her with someone who’d never met her. All last week, friends checked in and provided support and love in beautiful, small ways.
Last weekend, before receiving the news of my aunt, I’d enjoyed a four-day weekend and an amazing, soul-drenching visit from a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. My friend, “Kathryn,” is someone who truly sees life as a glass half-full. Not in the annoying Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy! way that makes me want to smack some people, but in a quiet, consistent way that makes me ashamed of my own tendency to host pity parties. Whether it’s a rocky divorce, a professional set-back, or a romantic relationship with some pretty daunting challenges, she tackles them all with a cheerfulness and gratitude toward her life that is inspiring.
We spent the whole weekend talking, eating, reconnecting and rediscovering all the things we have in common. We played tourist and exchanged advice and walked my dog and just marinated in the comfort of female friendship. It was wonderful.
When I dropped her at the airport, I was sad, but buoyed by our time together. My head was spinning with all that had been said and I could feel something dormant in me re-awakening… And then my mom called with the news of my aunt.
But rather than undermining those good feelings from Kathryn’s visit, my aunt’s death actually built upon them. In fact, the cascade of tears that I cried for my aunt this past week washed away all the negativity and melancholy I’d been carrying around. It is as if my grief broke through some emotional levee and allowed a torrent of frustration and sadness and fear unrelated to my aunt’s death to be carried away along with my grief over her passing. To my great surprise, I have emerged from my utter sadness over losing her more contented and peaceful and optimistic than I have been in many, many months.
It is a watershed.
I have stopped looking backward. I have accepted where I am at this moment and am embracing it with a joyful and hearty hug. I am mindful and aware of all the small, perfect things in my life right now — the softness of my sheets, the sweetness of waking up to dogs licking my hands, the way the aspens are leafing out on my drive up the canyon each morning, the softly tanning skin of my daughters, the amazing people that are my friends. Each of these things is perfect, and I had stopped seeing them.
The irony here is that my aunt was also a glass half-full kind of person. She saw everyone and every situation in the most flattering light. She genuinely believed and lived by the adage that if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. When life threw her a curve ball (and some of her curve balls were mind-blowingly unfair by any measure), she never asked “Why me?” but rather “Why not me?” When offered sympathy, she would shrug and say “That’s life,” and typically recount some friend’s circumstance that was worse than her own to justify her sense of gratitude in the face of misfortune. I’ll be honest, at times it was maddening to face her perpetual positivity, but this week I’ve remembered that she was the wiser of the two of us. Cynicism and pessimism and anger and fear are greedy houseguests. They leave no room or sustenance for contentment or optimism or happiness. Being perpetually vigilant about what might next befall you or spending all your energy counting the ways that life is unfair will keep you busy, but not happy. Definitely not happy.
Watershed moments are one of life’s small little miracles packaged as struggle or pain. Sometimes they come in the form of job loss, or divorce, or hitting bottom with an addiction, or, as in my case, an actual death. But regardless of the form they take, they have the capacity to shock us out of complacency or denial or fear and blow our world wide open. Sometimes the destruction is an opportunity to create something new and better; the watershed acts as a catalyst to gently resume the forward motion toward our dreams. Other times we are incapable of seeing the opportunity before us, so busy we are staring at the closed door behind us.
I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Kathryn visited right before my aunt passed away. I believe that life was slapping me out of my melancholy and frustration. I believe that it provided me with two very strong, very stark reminders of all I was missing. I believe that each of us makes a choice how to see the world around us, and that sometimes we get lost and can’t figure out how to get back to equanimity. And I believe that when we’re lost, life will always show us the way, if we let it.
And I believe that my aunt would agree that my new rose bush is simply perfect.