The morning after Mom died, I woke up with several thoughts. First, I decided that sitting in bed crying was too exhausting and painful, so instead I needed to get up and start doing things, preferably physical work that would distract me, and make Mom happy. The next thought was, Well, we are all going to die, and our families and friends will die, so what's the point of doing anything? That settled in my head for about three seconds before it was replaced by (maybe Mom's voice whispering in my ear), If we only get one life and it is of unknown duration, there is simply no room for living with fear. There is so much we can not control, so we should take full advantage of the time we are given, and live it with the utmost passion and courage. This was Mom's message to me my whole life: find and embrace your passion, no matter what anyone else thinks. And if you're scared or fall down, the best response is to laugh, get back up and keep going.
After a few more days passed, I made two decisions. First, I would not immediately dive into a new job. I took time off from being a doctor to care for Mom, but also to reevaluate my direction. A job would be a convenient way to avoid frustrating and painful soul-searching, but the wrong job, to me, would be worse. I am fortunate to be able to make this choice, so I'm doing it. Second, I wanted to explore the passions and interests that have been on my back burner for years. When faced with mortality head on, I wondered why we let fear hold us back, ever.
I have found that in the wake of my grief, standing still is excruciating, but movement chosen with loving intention is productive, and even healing. So far, I have identified four primary activities that help me feel stronger and more whole, even as I struggle with the new hole in my life. There are some common elements of keeping moving, and facing my fears.
1) Running: My mom was tall, lean and athletic before she got sick. I always wanted to emulate that, and did when I used to run in high school. Also, if I'm honest with myself, I hope that the exercise may help keep me healthy and alive longer. More importantly, it's good for my brain and my mood, and I enjoy it. So I signed up for a fun run, my first race since high school, and started training.
I went for my first run about a week after Mom died, while I was in Orlando with my aunt and cousins. Unfortunately, I promptly overdid it with some of the exercises and had to stop. This was much to my husband's amusement, as it only took 15 crunches on an exercise ball to leave me in agony any time I laughed, sneezed or changed position.
I spoke with my uncle, who is a chiropractor, and asked him if there was a difference between a former and still occasional runner, and a beginner runner. I ran cross country and track for four years, see, so surely that counted for something? His answer: "Not to your body." Well damn. I am obviously more aware of my own mortality and limits these days, so while I won't accept that I can't do a thing, I do accept that it is important to respect my body and its needs. It is vulnerable and human, like the rest of me, and I know people who have been severely injured during their athletic pursuits. So I backed off, treating my body like a brand new runner, and a 32-year-old one at that. Now I can run three or four miles without feeling sore the next day, and I am slowly getting faster. My fun run was the day before Mother's Day, and it was a Color Run with volunteers throwing colored powder at the 5000 participants who passed through. It was great. Now I'm looking for my next race, and the one after that...
2) Physical work, especially around Mom and Pop's house: The day after Mom died, I was hit with the need to try to beautify the property like she did when she was healthy. She tamed the wilderness around our house through daily hard work and a talented aesthetic eye, with a weed wacker and push mower as her tools. So I got to it. We dug out and fixed up the flower bed in front of the house. Then Jarred and I spent hours weeding and raking the raised bed behind the flowers, where I subsequently planted what will hopefully become a vegetable garden. Of course, the nine barn cats thought that this was really just such a nice litter box that we built especially for them, so a week after I planted, I built a fence. It took me about four hours. Those of you who don't know anything about fences, look at this great fence I built!
Those of you who do know how to build a fence are probably shocked that this paltry thing was the result of four hours of work, and will notice a few shortcomings: The posts are uneven in height because I got the post driver (a brilliant tool that I didn't know existed) after I had already tied the chicken wire to the four corner posts. If you inspected the metal wires more closely, you would find that they are a hodge podge of ties, and my "gate" is more of an intentional opening than a gate. Regardless, it should help to keep the cats out, at least for a day or two.
Perhaps more importantly, it is a physical manifestation of Pop's belief that I need to stop studying and analyzing every little action, and just do it (a recurring theme it seems). Doing this requires letting go of my anxiety about making mistakes. It frustrated me at first, but I increasingly appreciate that this approach is aligned with not letting fear hold me back. And actually, overanalysis was part of why I was dissatisfied as a doctor, so perhaps learning this other approach will be helpful there as well?
3) Theatre: I have always loved to perform, and in fact was started out as a vocal major in college before I decided to pursue medicine and public policy. This switch was due partly to an awareness when I got to school that there were a lot of talented people in the world, so who was I to think I could compete with them? When I think back on this, I think it was the first time I let fear and failure make my dreams just a little bit smaller. And I have regretted it. Every time I go to a show, I feel this intense longing, to the extent that when Jarred and I saw Wicked in medical school, I burst into tears during the intermission.
So six weeks ago, I prepared for and went to a couple auditions, and was thrilled to get a part in a local performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Even better, three of my friends joined the show too. Rehearsals are four nights a week, which is a good anchor in my schedule. We perform in June, and I am looking forward to more shows after. It feels good to be doing something that I have wanted for so long.
4) Working with horses: This is brand new for me. Mom's friends were always surprised to learn that I knew nothing about horses. The reason is that Mom supported me finding my own interests and hobbies as adamantly as she pursued her passion. And her horses are big, and she liked them with fiery spirits. So they made me nervous sometimes when I handled them. I'm scared of getting kicked, bit, bucked or run over. I learned to ride a pony when I was little, but that was it. I just was never a horse girl. Until recently. I had decided when Jarred and I moved home that I wanted to do more horsey things with Mom, to learn from her. I was learning how to drive a horse with her in the fall, and we went for a beautiful carriage ride with one of her best friends in September.
After Mom died, I found myself wanting to work with horses to feel closer to her, and to better understand her through her passion. So I started by mucking stalls, wearing Mom's red muck boots, and am now working on getting comfortable with these 1000 pound beasts that my mother trained, bred and showed with such skill and love. The same friend who took us for the carriage ride has been teaching me.
Last week, I "longed" the same horse who took us for our carriage ride. This beautiful little black Morgan is Thumbelina and she is actually the daughter of Mom's prize stallion, Exodus (the one with the blue ribbon in the other picture above). "Longeing" (pronounced "lunge-ing") is where you stand at the center of a circle with a long line hooked to the horse and they run or walk in circles around you. You communicate with the horse through body language and voice, aiming to get to where they know what you want without you having to speak. So Thumbelina and I got to our circle, and I had her walk, trot and then "whoa" (stop). I looked at Mom's friend, and she told me to look at how the horse was looking at me. I looked back at Thumbelina.
Oh my. Thumbelina had been distracted and antsy before we started, but was now standing at the edge of the circle facing me, head relaxed, ears forward, and her eyes were looking at me with what felt like... trust, respect, or maybe happiness. It almost made me cry. It was electric and warm and, well, words don't do it justice. I had never, ever felt a connection like that with a horse before. I think it was my first glimpse into what my mom experienced in her thirty-something years of devoted horse work. So more of that to come, I hope!
My pain is still raw. But I know the pain is so deep because my relationship with my mom was so special. I think she would be excited about my latest goings ons. Maybe that is part of why I wanted to share them here. As I've been exploring these past two months, I have had the urge to call Mom many times, followed promptly by the pain of knowing I can't, a sigh, and tears. I used to tell her every detail of my life, and she would listen, ask questions, and smile. Then she would say, "Cool!" and encourage me to keep going, with her confidence that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to.
I hope that you who are reading this post may learn from her philosophy too. We are all capable of living our lives with passion and courage. There's no point in doing it any other way. That being said, a humandoctor will be exploring more of the human and doctor sides of life in coming posts. I have been nervous about discussing certain topics here, but as I have been shaking off my fear these months, it's a good time to delve into scary areas, like art, politics and *shudder* the U.S. healthcare system. I want to help make the world a better place, and I can't do that by being afraid. So I'm grabbing the reigns, and curious to find out where I end up.