by Mina Simhai
“You better sit down for this,” said my brother’s voice, loud and clear through my phone. I looked around my bedroom wildly; in shocked surprise, I sunk onto my bed. “It’s Mom,” he continued. “She’s being airlifted to the hospital in Fargo. I’m not sure what happened, maybe a stroke or a heart attack. Sounds like she’s unconscious. I’m driving there now and will know more in a few hours.”
The next stretch of time was a blurry haze. I couldn’t think clearly. I was not my best self. Something about asking my husband (or probably hysterically shouting at him) to book me on the next flight to Fargo, North Dakota. I shoved some clothes into my suitcase. Some were clean; a couple outfits even matched. I stood in my closet, staring long and hard at my plainest black dress. A perfect funeral dress. I couldn’t bear to pack it, so it stayed dangling in my closet, an eerie predictor of what was to come in a few short weeks.
She never regained consciousness. As days turned into weeks, hopes were dashed, and death knocked at the door. Barged in actually, uninvited and too soon. Her shadowy face appeared nonetheless, lurking at my mom’s bedside, alternately holding my hand or trying to squeeze the air out of me even when I thought I was alone, walking outside. There was no escaping her, for her reach extended beyond the hospital walls.
My beloved father, his body crippled from Parkinson’s disease, his voice but a whisper, sometimes shaking so violently he couldn’t even hold her hand for fear her tubes would come loose, confusedly sat beside his beloved. His tender words, the heart-wrenching goodbye … It seemed like a terrible nightmare, except it was our real life. And, if you are lucky, it will be your real life, too. Perhaps it already is. The details will be different, yet losing a mother is the natural order of things. We are supposed to outlive our parents. And outliving them means witnessing their death and burying them. If we are lucky enough to love and be loved by our parents, and lucky enough to enjoy some modicum of health, this very ordinary heartbreak befalls most of us.
Tomorrow marks the five-month anniversary of mom’s death. Now there are days that I do not cry. There are moments of extreme joy. I play airplane with my daughter, she crash-lands on my tummy in a giggling heap, and I don’t even notice the hole in my heart. In August, it seemed that death would never leave me alone. But she has left. I’m largely intact.
Death returned to her lair, but she left her friend sadness to be my companion. Sometimes sadness is quiet. I sing lullabies to my son and sadness seems to be asleep in the corner. I hold my daughter’s hand in the crisp, cool winter air as the sun glints on her auburn hair, her dark, round eyes sparkle, and all feels right with the world again. In times like this, I sometimes think (or hope) that sadness has moved in with death again, living together in their mysterious lair far away. Leaving me and my family alone.
While I know the move isn’t permanent, I enjoy these breaks. When I hold on to these fleeting moments of quiet joy as well as the sadness, I find wholeness again. I live into what Maria Sirois teaches is “the genius of the and.” We can experience heartbreak and love. Grief and sadness are part of loss. And so are moments of joy, connection, and love. Now I try to remain alert for the moments of joy, noticing them and savoring them amidst the sadness.
At the end of my mom’s life, our roles were reversed. I cared for her, worried about her, and stroked her head as she passed from this world to the next. Just as, now, my kids sometimes care for me in my heartbreak. The other night, I couldn’t get through lullabies without crying. My 6-year-old son held me. “You still have us, Mommy. You have me and Rita and Daddy. And now we get to see Papa every day. It’s an opportunity.”
My tears abated a bit as I stared at my little sage in wonder. Opportunity? That had not crossed my mind. I would have never chosen this opportunity. But sometimes opportunity chooses us. How can we be awake enough to hear the gentle whisper of opportunity? The “genius of the and” helped me notice. The sadness and the joy. The heartbreak and the opportunity. Maria’s words rang in my ears: “They both exist. Where do we choose to put our attention?”
Thanks to a wise young teacher, I now see the opportunity. So I’m choosing to put my attention there. As I do, the knot in my chest loosens a bit. I know I’ve made a wise choice. One I will continue to choose, day after day.
Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.
What a moving and personal story this is. One of the most important things I learned on CiPP was the power of “and” that we can feel happy and sad, elated and tired, angry and loving all at the same time. I had always been so black and white in my thinking. When I think of my mother and father who have both been dead for some time, I smile and am happy at all that we experienced together and I am sad that they are not here to see the new me and where life is headed.
Dear Mina your blog and accounting of how you’re using the tools of positive psychology to pass through this time of heartbreak and grief with resilience and grace is elevating. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal teaching story.
What a beautiful reminder of the opportunities that are bestowed upon us, Mina. I still feel your Mom’s presence here on campus and appreciate all of the opportunities she provided us while on her journey. Hugs from North Dakota to you and your family.
I knew Simhai only a short time through our work together. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your experience. It divulges feelings I thought I had mastered control over so long ago. That time marked an era of change for me. It came slowly, but decidedly. I share my thoughts and feelings with them frequently throughout daily routines. Your expressions emanate my thoughts and feelings. It reminds me of the blessings I have. I know I am where I am supposed to be.
Barb, what power, knowing you are where you are supposed to be. I wonder if we ever master control over such intense feelings, or we just get better at dancing with them. I appreciate your comments, it’s comforting to hear from others who have also danced with loss.
Ruth, your describe “bittersweetness” perfectly. We are lucky that CiPP helped us cultivate the awareness to see the “and”. Hugs to you as you remember your parents.
Phoebe, thank you for your kind support.
It warms my heart to hear gratitude – remembering blessings and appreciation – from those my mom worked with at the college. She loved her work and was very excited to create new opportunities big and small. I hope her very cool flat green chair is getting a lot of use.
Beautiful words Mina. Wow for the insight of our young resilient children! Bless you on your journey of mourning and the opportunity to be nearer to your father.
Thank you for your blessings, Sarah. I am taking those in. Before I had kids I thought I would be the “teacher” with all the answers for them. But now I see how, in so many ways, they are my teachers. It’s much more of a 2-way street – I’m so grateful for that because they have so much wisdom that sometimes we loose as we get older and more jaded. Then positive psychology helps us uncover it again.
Mina, thank you so much for this reminder for all of us and for the sage in you reflected in your son. There is much to be grateful for in our very living and sometimes it is impossibly sad. I’m sorry to welcome you to the club of those who are grieving and warmed by the knowing that you bring with you such light and perspective and the hope engendered by your honest and kind view. Thank you!