I had dinner on Saturday night with my friend Jen. We’ve known each other since we were kids, our parents were friends and our lives would intersect every couple of years. We both live in Cape Town now and try get together a couple times a month. She lost her Mother (the inimitable and hilarious Cynthia) a few years ago and our recent bullet dodging exercise with my dad has brought back a lot of emotions for her, from that time. Jen was pretty much alone in trying to manage her mom’s care. It never occurred to her that her mom wouldn’t make it out of hospital.
We talked about the emotional impact of being responsible for making big decisions for a parent. And then Jen said something that stayed with me long after dinner: “I realised at the end of last year, that I am pretty much alone here. If I was to drop a piece of paper on the floor at home, it would stay there. No-one would know, no-one would pick it up unless I did.”
I knew immediately what she meant. It was more than a bit of litter: it was about recognising the price of self-reliance and the vulnerability that brings. My mother is a redoubtable woman, entirely able to manage most things in life. And the thought of her having to go it alone through the two-week process of managing my dad’s brain bleed had impacted me. But she didn’t have to make all of the decisions associated with his meds, hospitalisation and care alone. We were there, the wider family rallied, her friends stayed in touch: she was connected.
There’s another side to self-reliance… Jen works like I do: “have to get it done, have to get it right, have to meet deadline..” And that has tired her emotionally, too. I found myself getting anxious on the plane back from Jo’burg – I am “two weeks behind, I have so much to do, how am I going to manage…?” Same old same old.
Jen decided to buy a ticket for one of the coldest cities in America and go visit her brother and his family. It was a chancy move, he can be prickly and previous holidays had proven fraught. But she went anyway. She made a deliberate investment in connection and her gamble paid off. But, she knows there is still work to be done.
Jasper gave me a most excellent gift for Christmas. I had told him months before that I wanted to see “Silver Linings Playbook”, and he spent his holiday in Jo’burg hunting down a copy. Which, he proudly told me: “I bought with my own money”. The Nans and I watched it in McGregor. Jasper is a huge Jennifer Lawrence fan – and the girls are always up for some entertainment. McG doesn’t have a TV, and nor will it any time soon, so we sat on the old and much-loved sofa, peering at my computer screen: close together.
The story charts the progress and love story of two people who are living with bi-polar disorder. Both have suffered severe losses and been set adrift by grief. Both have made mistakes that have cost them and their families. Both need to start again. They find each other, and that connection begins the healing process. For them all – even though not everyone realises it.
At one point Bradley Cooper’s character asks his family: “Have you ever thought that people like us might know something about living that people like you don’t?” He has decided to say what needs to be said … when it needs saying, to focus on “excelsior” – which he interprets as being optimistic and pro-active. He does not linger on his breakdown, he has no apologies or explanations. He is moving forward. He makes amends. He knows he needs other people to survive. And that takes work.
In the ebb of last year I wrote about my new year’s intentions. I’m calling time on one of them* and adding a new third:
- Keep it simple. Everything.
- Practice Yoga every day.
- Stay connected.
I want to notice if my friends or family have paper on the floor they need picking up. And let them know if I do, too.
Happy new New Year.
(Note: I have taken the Poopenstance book out of the mix. To borrow a line from Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook: “If it’s me reading the signs” …. the moment has passed – and, funnily … my mother said the same, using those exact words. So I am not going to force myself to finish something that may have stalled. That’s not to say I won’t revisit – but for now I am taking it off the table.)