*Some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.
Sunday, 10 August 2014
I am just not a morning person. As a child my friends learned real quick not to call on me for Kick the Can until well after noon. In high school I could sleep whole days away. As a college student I regularly showed up late to my early morning classes, still in my pajamas.
These days little has changed (though it’s much harder to explain my pj bottoms to my boss). I dread the sunrise so intensely that I often delay bedtime in some desperate attempt to stall the inevitable new day. Each morning, the alarm goes off and I am paralyzed, my body heavy with hesitation. The wheels of dread kick into motion as the hamster in my brain starts his workout. He runs through all the things I have to do that day, the things I was supposed to do the day before, the endless scenarios of things I might be asked to do tomorrow. Where others start their days with quiet stretches and positive affirmations, I will myself out of bed with a routine of cracking bones and self-flagellation. I should have made time to read a story to the kids last night, I should have spoken my mind to that colleague yesterday, I’ll never get that report done by the end of the week, I was unfairly cranky with my husband before bed, how will I ever manage to fold the 17 loads of laundry exploding on the couch etc. I fixate on the mounting stresses of the week, the month, the season… never sure how I’ll get through it all without melting down or at the very least, dropping some of the many balls I attempt to keep in the air like some Cirque du Soleil flunky.
Eventually I manage to get moving and sleepwalk through the morning routine out of necessity more than intrinsic motivation. I lasso up my negativity, disguise my inner fog with eye-rejuvenating makeup and hustle the kids out the door. The neighbours must wonder, as they see this disheveled woman stumble down the street each morning clutching a coffee in one hand and Monster High lunchboxes in the other.
Our walks to the bus stop are thus, fairly quiet. The girls skip and sing as I slowly reboot my brain with caffeine and fresh air.
It was on one of these walks on a first spring-like day after a brutally long winter, that my youngest randomly piped up,
“Mommy, you know what I like about mornings?” Um no… not really. I shook my head back to earth.
“Uh...what’s that, baby?” Her answer jarred my brain awake.
“It’s that they always restart.”
Ok, reality check. Let’s be honest- it is not so hard to be perpetually optimistic at age 7. If your friend doesn’t like the bracelet you made her today, it’s highly probable that by tomorrow your entire peer group will have moved on to some other Korean-inspired McDonald’s-sponsored toy fad and the “Grazzle Dazzle Kids" charm you chose so carefully will be long forgotten. Even as adults, it’s not so hard to keep the faith when things are going relatively well. Somehow optimism gets a bit further out of reach when you’re having a genuinely crappy day. Keeping a perky attitude can take some determination when you’re scared your job is on the line, your life-long dream comes crashing down, or someone you trusted turns out to not be who you thought they were.
And what about when life throws you a curve ball so hard and fast it fairly knocks you off your feet-your relationship erodes, you face losing a loved one, your body fails you. How do you get up morning after morning? How do keep the faith when life just sucks?
My sister-in-law was a firecracker. One of nine siblings of an artistic, working class family, she was hit with no shortage of fast balls. As a young woman, she made a name for herself as a professional singer, touring with top-selling artists, and winning over audiences with her powerhouse voice and soulful energy. But under the bedazzled stage outfits, life was not easy. Personal heartache and health issues weighed heavily. She suffered from kidney disease from a young age and spent years on dialysis before undergoing not one but two transplants, her weak body having rejected the first. Only through all of this, somehow she never lost her ability to embrace each morning’s possibilities.
She was an intrinsically creative and fun woman who was forever imagining a new project, each one a little further out of the box than the last. The kind of woman who would show up to your house for coffee bearing gifts of feather boas and magic wands for her nieces, “Just because.”
Here was a woman who embodied the notion of wholehearted living, one day at a time. Despite her health issues, she was determined to live a full and fun life and was just as determined to coax others into her playful schemes. The phone would ring,
“I’m starting a new business. Imagine pies based on people’s favorite cocktail recipes. Everybody loves cocktails. Everybody loves pie!” And before you knew it you were invited to an elaborate launch in her home where you sampled “Key Limerita Pie” and “Banana Colada Crumble” until you thought your belly would burst from the rich combination of her delicious baking and her infectious optimism.
A few months later the phone rang again,
“We’re going to make a movie. I’ve written a script. It’s Cinderella with a twist. The grandkids will love it!” And within weeks she had the entire extended family organized with military precision into a strict production schedule. Parts were cast, music was recorded, and her middle-aged brothers coiffed and costumed into three remarkably ugly stepsisters. No one ever questioned her or dared to say no. No one wanted to for we all knew that no matter how it turned out, it was guaranteed to be a hell of a ride. And so instead, we spent weeks together, laughing our heads off as lines were memorized and grown men were strategically squeezed into plus size lingerie.
And then came the cancer diagnosis.
It was already advanced when it came and we all held our breath as, despite aggressive rounds of heart-wrenching treatments, it took hold of her body hard and fast.
Everyone tried to convince her to maybe take a break. There was no hurry. We could finish the movie later. We worried about her in hushed voices in the kitchen while she sat resting in a chair between “takes”. Someone finally braved the question, “Maybe we should finish here and pick it up another day. You should rest.”
But she always answered the same way.
“No. This is what we need to do today.”
Between the rounds of chemo, radiation and surgical procedures, she lost weight and stamina but her spirit would not be broken. How did she find the strength to keep going, when most of us would have just packed it all up? How did she manage to restart each morning?
Months later, still riding the high of her successful “film debut”, she called again. Her voice crackled with excitement at the other end of the line, “I’m calling a family meeting. I want to do something big.”
Her idea was to produce a benefit concert to raise funds for the local Children’s Hospital. And so once again, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland we followed her into the barn and began rallying up a roster of talent among family and friends who were just as eager to help her “put on a show”.
The night before the concert, she called me, her voice tired but resolute. She had gone through a radiation treatment just that afternoon.
“How are you feeling?” I asked tentatively. It had been a hectic week of final rehearsals and last minute preparations and I worried about the toll all the activity was taking on her. Her answer put me in my place.
“I just need to do this concert tomorrow. That’s what I need to do.”
The show was a great success. The lineup included a rousing gospel choir and a gaggle of adorable musical kids. (An unintentional stroke of emotionally manipulative genius I admit. The Grinch himself would have had a hard time resisting the general feel-good energy of the house.)
Finally it was her moment to take the stage. Someone supported her up the steps with her walker as by this time the cancer had begun to ravage her bones. Her voice was not as strong as it had once been but there was nothing weak about her spirit. She sang her heart out that night and the audience responded in kind. I rose to my feet and danced in the pew with those around me. I don’t know if they were simply moved by the music or if like me, they were acutely aware that this was her farewell performance. I was so caught up in the moment that I barely noticed the salty tears washing over my openhearted grin as I watched her. Tears of grief for what was to come mixed with tears of overwhelming gratitude and respect. Sorrow and love. Two opposing emotions that cannot live independently.
On my way out of the church I stopped to kiss her goodnight. She was sitting alone in the lobby waiting to be helped to the car. Behind the adrenaline-fueled sparkle in her eyes I could see she was feeling some pain.
I gushed, “That was so great. You did it. It was amazing.”
She gave me a tired but blissful smile, “It was a great night, wasn’t it?”
It was not long after that night that her morning restarts ran out. These days, I think of her often. Life is full of hard moments- losses, parental heartache, painful realizations. Moments so heavy it can be hard to breathe. Moments that steal your drive to restart each morning. Maybe the secret lies in pressing a finger on that hamster wheel and just focussing on what needs to be done that day, whether it’s devouring a second slice of Tequila pie, stuffing yourself into an extra-large brassiere, or shedding some tears as you dance in your seat.
I’ll never be a morning bird. It’s just not part of my genetic makeup. This morning I got up with the same “Oh crap, this again?” attitude, only this time I took a deep breath (ok, ok, several deep breaths between several snooze alarms and well yes, a couple shots of caffeine and well, ok, maybe just a little groaning, moaning and very mild cursing…) but then for real, I turned off my negativity as firmly as my alarm. I have no idea what this day might bring, but watching my daughters skip ahead to the bus-stop, I think I felt the slightest new spring in my step as I passed my burly neighbour walking his candy pink-coated dachshund (yes, reallyJ) and I impulsively shouted,