Taking Care of Mom at 30: How I Traded Success-Seeking for Gratitude and Found Success Anyway
At 6:30 a.m. on a warm Los Angeles morning, I roll out of bed, rub the haze of sleep out my eyes, stumble to the kitchen to start the kettle and boot my computer. By the time the kettle whistle blows, I have already stepped into my office in Upstate New York. How did my life become surreal?
Like most, I moved to L.A. to reinvent myself. Except in my case, I was moving home. I loved my 10 years in the Northeast. I had made a real life there. I even came close to starting a family there. But part of me felt as if I had failed to thrive, that I had pigeonholed myself and the only solution was to start over. My mother had been gently inquiring for years: When would I return? My father’s studio, the first electronic music workshop in the country, lay dormant in boxes in her garage, as it had for 25 years. (He had passed away when I was a child.) I thought, perhaps I can catch a break by reviving it. So I packed a pod, shipped it, met a college friend in Brooklyn and made the trek across the country in my small pickup, GoPro affixed to the windshield the whole way. (You never know when footage like that can come in handy.) Now this is living.
Of course, reinventing yourself means that you have to start over. I kind of forgot that part. I was fortunate enough to have a job that allowed me to work remotely the majority of the time, giving me flexibility and financial stability, but they were long hours, and I hadn’t lived in L.A. since I was a teenager, so I had few friends (many had moved to New York, go figure). I found that I had little in common with those who had stayed. Moreover, untangling a mass of wires, circuit boards, magnetic tape and family history, turned out to be a bigger challenge than I had expected. I remembered the reasons those boxes were cobwebbed.
At least I had a good job. Yet I craved social interaction. I could go several days without venturing outside or seeing another soul in the flesh. I had to force myself out of the house at least once a day just so that I wouldn’t go stir-crazy or become a hermit. I hyper-communicated with coworkers, but always through a digital interface, whether via instant message (IM), email, phone or Webex, but I longed for the ease of office life — the hallway conversations, popping my head into an office to chat or going to lunch. There are many ways in which a nine-to-five office presence is easier than a digital one. I was isolated and beginning to feel depressed. Perhaps I had made the wrong decision? No. I started looking at postings for jobs in my area.
Then, in January of 2013, after a year of living in L.A., and shortly after my 30th birthday, my mother’s health began to deteriorate — rapidly. What started as a routine knee replacement ended in a stage four lung cancer diagnoses — terminal. Being the only child to a single parent, the caretaker role fell on her partner and me.
My life had officially fallen apart.
I had sought an opportunity to become bigger, bolder and more successful, but I found myself caring for my mother in the same home where my father died of the same disease. I had joined the ranks of the growing statistic: over 30 and living with mom. Wait, isn’t that the premise of a sitcom? I was despondent. My life seemed to be a patchwork of dysfunction. Death loomed large.
And then something in me broke, like a bad fever. My mind and body came to the brink. I submitted. Suddenly I was grateful. Really grateful. I was forced to heed the Serenity Prayer: to accept what was out of my control, give myself to what was in my control and abandon the endless strategizing for success. I gave up what I realized were the useless hours of worry, toil, endless revisions, second-guessing and comparing myself to the world. I no longer had the time or strength for any of it. I had to make decisions quickly and have faith in them. I would have to live with the mistakes. I counted my blessings. They were still many. I made the conscious decision to let go of the desire to be bigger and instead focused on becoming better.
I stopped looking at job postings and took advantage of the one that I had. To preserve my sanity and avoid stagnation, I more actively sought social events, preferably with an educational or civic bent. I would not let disease destroy my life too. I engaged a beautiful spiritual community. I joined a transformational Jewish-Muslim fellowship, and I began working with organizations whose missions inspired me. Somehow, despite the distress and added responsibilities, I found myself more engaged and more productive, like I had finally learned to separate the chaff from the grain.
I fell into a new routine. I spent half of the week with my mother, and the other half at my apartment. I would wake up, work until lunchtime on the East Coast, at which point I would check on her, and, if I was at her house, bring her food and drink. Then I would take off for a run, come back, shower, work for a few more hours, make lunch for us, work for another hour, and then shuttle her to doctors appointments (where I would take copious notes), pharmacies, labs, you name it. In the evenings, I would log back into work briefly to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything crucial, and then rush off to some small event or friend’s house, or collapse in a puddle on the couch in front of Netflix.
Sixteen months on… life is good! (No thanks to the schmaltzy brand slogan.) My mother is beating the odds and finding new ways to appreciate life. She is up and about, even traveling! I continue to work, help her, be social, learn and give. And I especially continue to be grateful. Adversity has caused me to fine-tune my existence. I’ve become a more efficient and effective decision-maker and doer. I have more clarity and feel less stress and anxiety, particularly about the “what ifs.” And most days I wake up thankful. The keys?
1. Exercise. I had recently discovered the wonder-drug that pharmaceutical companies pray you never find. Exercise relieved my stress and anxiety, gave me more energy, lifted me from the doldrums and gave me daily clarity. WOW. Why did it take me so long to figure that one out?!
2. Social and civic engagement. After a few days with my mother, I feel… well, as if I’ve spent a few days with my mother. My ability to give to her is oddly proportional to the number of dinner parties and discussions that I attend. I make it a priority to stay engaged outside of the home.
3. Perhaps the most important component to my psycho-spiritual and physical health is gratitude and love. Whether the day is filled with darkness or light, I take some time to thank God (despite my secular upbringing), whether via thought or prayer, for some aspect of my existence. This simple act fills me with gratitude, wonder and love for those I encounter, which often has the uncanny effect of filling those around me with the same.
4. Unplug. I spend almost every waking hour with a screen of some sort, so on Saturday I do my best to turn them off. I avoid computers like the plague, and I DO NOT CHECK EMAIL. That’s the big one. I also try to minimize texting, phone calls and television, choosing instead to focus on a flesh-and-blood person, book or paper I’ve been wanting to read, nap, eat or walk with friends, etc.
Life is great, but it’s not perfect. There’s room for improvement. The music studio boxes remain largely unpacked, but I feel that I’ve finally learned the lessons necessary to make something of them, though I no longer look to them for my big “break.” Among the great quotes that Arianna shares in her book, Thrive, is one from Mikhail Baryshnikov: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” For the first time, I can say that’s what I do too.
“Onward, upward and inward!”