As a child I often heard my mother say, “I stopped aging at 28 because that’s when my mother died.”
We lived with my grandmother in a two-family house in Sunset Park. She had lung cancer and only lived for a few months after the diagnosis. At the time, my mother had me, age 9, and my sister, 5, to care for along with her mother. One night when my mother was nursing her mother through the last weeks of her life, I ventured downstairs to my grandmother’s apartment to find her. I stopped at the doorway to my grandmother’s room. My mother was changing her mother’s diaper. My grandmother’s stared at the wall as if she was trying to remove herself from experiencing this most unkind role reversal. My sense that I’d interrupted something very intimate had me fly back upstairs to my room.
My mother didn’t stop aging at 28. She grew up at 28. That’s when she went from being untested to challenged. That’s when she had to find every ounce of energy and courage and strength to figure out how to get through the next day.
It took me a bit longer. I grew up at 40.
Everyone’s life is tested. Be it death or illness or loss of any kind, we all reach these moments where we have to make a decision: Am I going to dissolve into a puddle of my own helplessness or am I going to muster every ounce of energy I have, put on my blinders and figure out a way out of this mess? The lucky ones choose the latter. I like to think I am lucky.
The last year has tested and challenged me in ways big and small. It put me face-to-face with my own shallowness and materialism and helped me to shun both. Who needs stuff? I’m now hoarding experiences. I want to be in the moment with my children, experience their laughter and see the wonder on their faces as I take them places and show them things I’ve never seen before. I want to turn off the TV that we relied on to zone out during our refugee days and instead have long talks with my husband about our lives, our dreams, our frustrations. I now can stop worrying about the inconsequential and relax a bit more about the big stuff. I have seen that no matter what the challenge, with enough faith and hard work and optimism life actually bends towards beauty and grace.
I’ve learned that life can be frustratingly hard and fear a demon that taunts you in the dark of the night. But I’ve also learned that both can be overcome not because it’s easy but because what choice do you have? Should I overdose on self-pity or should I keep serving microwaved hot dogs for dinner and cold cereal for breakfast all the while remaining focused on the promise that a better future was coming? I kept nuking franks and somewhere stopped caring about the milk spilled on the carpet or the crumbs in the bed. And isn’t that a blessing?
My kids, who managed this catastrophe with more strength than I could have ever predicted, taught me that as long as you have your family you truly do not need anything else. They never cried over lost stuff and were just happy to have all four of us together under our roof. They got frustrated by our tight quarters and lack of privacy, just like I did, which made me realize that a need for space — both physical and personal — is a natural human craving. Now when my daughter wants to be alone in her closed room, I smile grateful that I have that bit of peace to offer her.
Last night as we were getting ready for bed my husband said to me, “We survived the last year and did it without killing each other.” This is no small thing. Our marriage was tested again and again but I realized that for both of us, being patient and calm in temperament and having the internal strength to wait when we wanted to scream “I want it now!” was what saved our own minds and likely our marriage. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to fight and kick and scream to get what you want and get it quickly, you realize that all the energy in the world isn’t going to make it happen. And so you move to acceptance and realize that the peace that accompanies it is better than the satisfaction of winning a hard-fought war.
We have lived in a Sandy year and it has changed me, changed my community, changed how I look at everything in my life. I am older now in mind and spirit. I am tested and I was victorious. I faced the shock; I wrestled with the anger. And as I feel, and as I see reflected in the faces and lives and stories of those around me, I am one of many who fought the fight and won.
Right after the storm I truly felt like a victim. Today, a year later, I am a survivor. I am smarter and tougher and better prepared for the next thing life throws at me. But I won’t think about that because I’ve also learned this — enjoy the now. Be thankful for this moment. Because it only happens once, and you might want to remember it.