I have found that if you love life, life will love you back.
December 16 is my sister’s birthday. K would be 34 today. This is our first December 16 without her to celebrate, as she passed away in January 2008.
I could pour out all the hurt and the longing and the trauma and the whole story about her illness for you guys to read. Instead, I’ll take a moment to celebrate my sister’s life and think about the life lessons I learned from her. Some of these might be universal, some not as much.
1. Be yourself
My sister was no saint. She could be a mean big sister, saying things just right to make me feel like a useless speck on the lense of life. She could also be a wonderful listener, a warm friend, a loving role model and daughter to Mom and Dad.
At the memorial service, a lot of people stood up to share their memories of her. The one thing that everyone said was that K spoke her mind, in good and bad. She would never beat around the bush in the office, with her friends, or with the family. It was heartwarming to hear we all knew the same K. No pretense, no facades, just her bubbly, vivacious personality.
There was one stage in her life, though, when she couldn’t really be herself. She was in a relationship with someone who didn’t appreciate everything about her. As a result, she’d stifle some areas of her personality to keep the peace. The relationship eventually ended. She later talked a lot about not being herself as she was with him, and how difficult that was.
This brings up two rules of thumb for me to live by.
One, be yourself.
Truly, consistently and with everyone. Hiding your personality, interests and thoughts wears you down fast.
Two, if you feel you can’t be yourself, you’re hanging out with the wrong people.
There are, what, a hundred thousand people in your town, district or block? A few million in your country or city? Six billion in the world? If you feel stifled by someone, they’re draining your energy. Try to shift the mask and see how they react. If they accept you, it might be time to lower the defences.
If they don’t love you the way you really really are, they’re not a good person to hang out with. It’s not like they’re the only person on this planet or even in your country or city that could possibly love you even just a bit. On the contrary – chances are that if you really show your true colors to others, the right people will notice and want to hang out with you. Not with your mask, you you.
2. Have a safety net
On the surface, my sister had it all. A wonderful career in the UK, qualification studies under way, a handsome man she was living with, a beautiful home, friends in both Finland and the UK, looks, smarts, and a runner’s body.
Then, in a matter of a few months, several things happened. First, the relationship ended and she moved out. Scratch the man and the home.
A few weeks later she started to feel funny when getting up a flight of stairs and went to see a doctor. Diagnosis: cancer, inoperable but they could try chemo. Scratch running.
She thought about the options and decided to move to Finland for her treatments, since the cancer research is very good here. Scratch job and studies – she couldn’t do either while she was in another country.
Many people would have crumbled at the loss of just one.
What did she have left?
She had her parents, who took her under their roof for the entire duration of her treatments so she wouldn’t have to spend any more time in hospital than was necessary.
She had her friends, who kept in touch and kept her up to date with the office gossip and other important stuff. When she was strong enough to get around town, she’d take her friends to dinner and spend quality time with them.
She had her intelligence. She took up knitting, bead work, sudokus and other activities for the times when she was too weak to get out of the house.
This resonates with something we’ve been talking a lot about on confirmation camps:
Build your life on a solid foundation of strong values.
If your life is all about your job, and you get fired or have to stop working for other reasons, what is your safety net? If you value your health and body above all else, diligently maintaining a strict diet and exercise regime, and you get cancer or some other serious illness? If your self-esteem is directly proportional to your bank balance, and Wall Street goes bankrupt?
By strong values, I don’t necessarily mean “good” or “bad” values. Health is a wonderful value, yet you might lose it in an instant. Family is a wonderful value, but it’s also something you might lose.
3. Don’t let yourself off easy
As I mentioned, my sister worked in the UK. She first went there on an exchange program within the corporation she worked for in Finland. After a year and a half, she came back to Finland. She was then personally invited to work in the UK office. And she went. All alone. No specific education for international business.
She was good. So good, in fact, that when the company had to send someone from the UK office to a project in Asia, they sent her. The Finn. The woman, for that matter. And off she went, again. All alone.
Time passed, all the nasty stuff happened, and she came to Finland. She struggled through the chemos that didn’t really seem to do any good. Then the Finnish specialists suggested surgery, and she eagerly took up the chance.
She had her operation in March 2007. Five weeks later my band was performing at the final of a national band contest. She was there. Five weeks after an open lung surgery. It took her twenty minutes to get up the stairs to the balcony of the venue, but she was there.
A week later, Finland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. K had bought tickets in February, long before she ever knew about the surgery. Boy was she there. Two evenings, for both the semifinal show dress rehearsal and the final show dress rehearsal. I’m guessing no-one else in the audience ever knew anything was out of the ordinary.
There’s only so much you really can’t do.
After witnessing my sister do all of these things and do them with such strength and courage, I have a hard time believing people’s can’ts. I’m also very critical of my own can’ts. If you don’t want to do something or choose not to try, that’s different. But oh so many things are truly possible if you really want to do them.
K had an awesome sense of humor, and she wasn’t afraid to show it. She wasn’t one of those people who, upon hearing a funny joke, look around to see if it’s safe and cool to laugh now. No, she’d laugh until her eyes watered, and then some. She also had a contagious laughter – you couldn’t really stay serious once she got on a roll.
Especially during her illness, she was determined to find joy in her life and have something to laugh about. When faced with something as serious as a life-threatening illness, she wasn’t going to put up a serious face about things that were really quite hilarious. It was also a surival strategy.
We were out shopping one afternoon, and a salesperson at a store complimented K on the lovely job her hair colorist had done. K thanked her for the compliment, and we barely managed to avoid looking at each other so as to not burst out laughing before we got out the store – K was wearing a wig as she’d lost her hair in chemo. We contemplated how the woman would’ve reacted if K had offered her the wig for a closer look. 🙂
There are massive amounts of funny things around you every day. Relish them.
Of course, you need to consider the situation before laughing out loud about something or remarking on an absurdity. We didn’t point out to the lady at the store that she had complimented K on hair that wasn’t hers, strictly speaking. She might have felt embarrassed, shocked, or offended, depending on her own background. Besides, there was no need for that. We didn’t need an extra audience for the humor to be valid.
In a similar way, I often notice funny things as I’m listening to a speech or a lecture. I make a mental note of them, but don’t really need to tell anyone – my own private chuckle is enough. If the situation allows it, sharing funny insightings is great, of course.
5. -> and plenty of tidbit insightings
I suspect I’ll keep realizing things I’ve learned from K throughout my life. One day, maybe, I’ll also be able to look at the things I’ve learned about myself during and after her life here. I promise to get back to you on that.
Today, I’ll light a candle for K and reminisce.
Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings.
Read Full Post »