Nope, not the title of a movie, but of my life this week. Actually, that’s the short version of the title. The long version would be something like: Three Funerals, a Baptism, an Anniversary, Three Deadlines, Six Meetings, Two Classes and a Dozen Errands.
My most frequently uttered inner-thought this week was, “This is too much. There’s too much on my mind. All these feelings are too big for me”. We often think and talk about balance during our PhD careers. I think the hardest part about our PhD is probably that we pursue it at a time in our lives where we are old enough for really big things to happen to us, and young enough to still feel unsure, unbalanced, inexperienced and afraid. I’ve realized lately that finding this balance is not only about devoting time to other activities outside of your work, but also devoting a part of yourself, your thoughts and your feelings, to the stuff going on in your life outside of work. It is about getting to know yourself and your needs, and being kind enough to yourself to make meeting those needs a priority. It is about being okay with setting aside time to process things, to have a slow-going morning once in a while, to stare blankly at a wall, to wallow and brood, to enjoy some peace with yourself, your love, your family, and to celebrate.
So this week was clearly going to be one of those weeks which shake you up, knock you off your feet and totally bewilder you, forcing you to adopt a new strategy to make it to the weekend, to keep your head above water and your lungs still filled with air. I spent many sleepless nights this week staring at the ceiling, feeling my heart race in my chest, and feeling scared of loss, of fire, of bad news, and of not being able to complete my work properly because I was too darn distracted. But being surrounded by incredibly wise and supportive friends pushed me to actively try and cope with this week, somehow.
I asked for extensions on my course papers that were due. It’s OK, I thought. Instead of making ambitious work-related to-do lists this week, I devised a new kind of to-do list with four quadrants (academic, errands, communications, family) and realized immediately how unbalanced my lists were, with far too little written down in the “academic” and “communications” boxes, and tons of items crammed into the “errands” and “family” boxes. It’s OK. I alternated between eating too much and eating too little. I skipped class when I really should have gone, and bit my lip out of guilt all the way home. I spent some evenings feeling completely spaced out and doing absolutely nothing productive, even fell asleep at 9pm. It’s OK, I kept thinking. I need it. I have no choice. I had no pieces of myself left at the end of the day, but that was just the way this week had to be. And it was ok.
We all deal with life events in different ways, with differing degrees of sentimentality and introspectiveness. Only we can decide for ourselves what we are feeling and what is needed. We just have to trust our gut and take the time and space we need, despite what others say about “snapping out of it” or moving on. We have to do what feels right, without feeling badly about it. But we can’t wallow and analyze for too long either — the time comes to lift our chin up again, gain strength and move forward. It’s not to say that we should forget our past troubles and how difficult times were, but to make an effort not to be brought down by them anymore.
The funerals didn’t bring much closure or comfort, but they really did make me stop everything else and focus on these special people, on family, and on life. One was 90, one was 44 and one was 14. One died in peacefully, surrounded by family, and the other two died tragically, trapped together in a violent house-fire. All three died without warning. All three left this world and their loved-ones behind. And all three are beautifully remembered, with moving eulogies written about them, and about how they touched peoples’ lives during the (short or long) time they spent on earth. The prayers didn’t bring enough consolation, but spending time with family definitely helped. Just being in their proximity, whether we talked about these events, shared our memories of these sweet people, or didn’t talk at all. I was so relieved to have cast everything else aside – work, deadlines, emails, everything – in order to make it my priority to hold onto my family, and have them hold onto me.
This Saturday afternoon was also my baby nephew’s baptism. Earlier that same Saturday was the burial of the two fire victims. Two polar opposite emotions, two complete ends of the spectrum. I didn’t know if it’s cruel for Life to throw such events together in the same week, or whether this is a beautiful irony, symbolic of how life’s ups and downs (thankfully) balance out, in the end. When I found out about this closeness in timing, I couldn’t help but let out a sarcastic, disbelieving laugh. A choice to make, yet again, as it always is the case, in life. How could I possibly go, suffer and cry, and come back with red eyes to be the Godmother at my nephew’s christening? I decided that it was important for me to be there for my nephew, my sister and her husband, fully and happily, without a heavy heart.
We mourned endings and now it was time to celebrate a new beginning. My little nephew was on his best behavior in church and he brought wide, giddy smiles to everyone’s faces. This little man has no idea how he has changed our family, and what immeasurable and indescribable joy he has brought to our lives. My poor sister and her husband go unnoticed for a good two minutes anytime they enter a room with the baby. All eyes are on him. Everything he does is fascinating, even if he puts his giraffe to his lips and goes “broooouhhh”. We all giggle, shout with glee, and our voices hit registers and pitches that I never expected to hear (especially not from my father, for example). It’s truly amazing and it pleasantly baffles me time and again. The grandparents are proud and the great-grandmothers are extremely touched. Having four generations in the same room moves me. And scares me. I stubbornly never want it to change.
During the baptism, my nephew lifted our hearts and made us feel blessed to witness such innocence and purity. He looked like a little cherub when he was bathed and wrapped in a white towel, his tiny feet and pea-sized toes peeking through from underneath. We all looked at each other, beaming, feeling a collective family unity once more, but this time brought together by intense joy rather than intense pain. The Priest talked directly to him, a wide smile across his face as well, and he marveled at how calm and peaceful the baby was, how he seemed to be listening attentively to everything he had to say, and all the blessings he had to give him. He said that such childhood openness and innocence is what we should keep with us, in our lives. He wished him a long life, a life filled with countless blessings and purity. I stood at the altar with them, a proud Godmother to the cutest cherub around, and wished the same for him. A long life, filled with everything that is good.
After the church ceremony, we had a party at a restaurant, with family and friends. A few had been to the funerals earlier this week, and I could see a glimpse of their lingering sadness. I wondered if mine was also obvious in my eyes. It remained at the back of my mind all night, the thought of how I would lose each one of these people, eventually. It is inevitable. It is life.
Somewhere between the main course and the cake, I decided it was not cruel for Life to have us deal with the two opposite ends of the spectrum in the same week. No, it was beautiful, and it was much needed. It made me count my blessings and made me get back into close touch with all the people who form my life, who give it meaning. All the people I am not ready to lose and, for this reason, have to stay close to everyday, even when my PhD barely allows for it.
“When will you finish your studies?”, everyone kept on asking me, as I mingled with everyone and moved from table to table throughout the evening. “Two years”, I said to the first few. “Three years AT THE MOST,” I insisted to the next few. “About three years, but I am fine if it’s taking long,” I finally settled on. It’s not a rush. It’s not critical. What’s critical is that my life is full, in the meantime, and that I give myself time and energy to feel, to shut down, to live, to cry, to celebrate, to love and to spend time with all the people who make up my world.
“It’s all transient and temporary,” my Mom said to me during the night when I confessed to her how conflicted I had felt all evening (and all week) about loving and losing, crying at funerals and then laughing with my little nephew. It is all amenable to loss. It is often painful. But it is still so, so beautiful.
In the end, all I did this week was celebrate life. Celebrate lives that ended much too soon, lives that were full and long, and a life that barely began five months ago. I celebrated my own freedom to choose what I do with my feelings, how much of myself I devote to work and to family, and above all, I celebrated hope over fear — hope that the families of the deceased will find strength again and dry their eyes soon, hope that my nephew’s life will be as full and happy as possible, and hope that all these major players in my life will stay on the stage for a long, long time to come. (Of course, hope that I finish my PhD on time, goes without saying).