Me and my sister, one year after the stroke

My world was shaken up one year ago. The kind of shake up that made me question everything about how I prioritize my life. Which leads me to sharing an experience and some guidance that helped me through.

My sister and her kids are my heart. You know, the people that define ‘unconditional love’ for you. The people who, when you close your eyes and imagine them deeply laughing or smiling in those golden shared moments, light up your entire universe and kind of make your heart explode?

Almost exactly 1 year ago, my sister suffered a stroke. She was 30. We were setting up for my niece’s 6th birthday party, and while she was bathing her two beautiful kiddos she looked up at me with terrified panic. In quite literally one moment, Sarah had lost her ability to speak. She couldn’t move her right arm. Her breathing quickened, and she mouthed the word ‘Help.’ I will never forget every detail of that moment, like it’s woven into my DNA.

And the seconds… and days… and many weeks that followed this experience were the hardest of my life.

The rest of the world melted away… all of the to-do lists for the DIY Pinterest inspired unicorn party, the ‘urgent/important’ projects at the office via a corporate marketing career I had spent a lifetime building, the noise of a busy life. And my new world was focused on minute-by-minute processing for my self and my beautiful niece and 1-year old nephew while their mom was in the hospital on the brink of being lost.

So let’s marinate in the reality of that fear for a minute. Because I’ve never felt fear like that. I imagined how I would find the words to tell these sweet babies if their mother died. I struggled to comprehend these life changing events that came out of nowhere and flipped the universe upside down into something dark and unrecognizable. I grieved the possibility of losing my sister, my best friend, either to death or to altered mental state. In moments where I was alone, I cried. A lot. Like the kind of crying where my body just crumpled on the floor and sobbed uncontrollably. The sadness fed the fear and the fear fed this deep, unrelenting sadness.

And although this was all a very real part of the experience, there were other parts. Family and friends dropped their lives to bring rays of support and hope. It is shocking how comforting it can be when someone’s response to bad news is without hesitation “I’ll be right there,” and they show up on the doorstep with a long hug. My niece and nephew always had a sense of safety, support, and love. We threw my nieces birthday party, as planned, to retain a sense of normality and everyone showed up and we were strong in that moment together.

My sister survived her stroke. I have never been more grateful for anything in my life. But a traumatic instance isn’t singular. My memory has relived that day 1,000 times and mention of stroke victims still brings fresh tears to the surface. I also had a very real dose of the mortality of the people that are the biggest embodiments of joy and love in my universe, which introduces fear in a whole new way into my world that has to be managed daily.

But beautiful things emerge, too.

I am learning a new relationship to fear and trauma through yoga and meditation. This experience has created deep moments to help and connect with others.

I learned the power of envisioning a Stop sign when my thoughts go to dark places that don’t serve me. This helped me with reliving the moment of the stroke in an unhealthy cycle.

I understood how I show up in the hardest of times, and get to carry that knowing with me throughout my life.

And, I get this “bonus” time with my extraordinary and hilarious sister, who I thought I had lost.

So this year, one year after the stroke, I went to Costa Rica for a New Years Even yoga retreat. Part of my motivation was to go inwards and continue to heal. I found myself still fearful in moments or tapping into pockets of unresolved grief or worry. Or my least favorite tendency, this new desire to “fix” everyone through research and recommendations. While well intentioned, it’s annoying. Even to me.

Costa Rica gifted me an extraordinary experience. And an unlikely coincidence. The retreat’s yoga instructor was named Lena. To paint a picture, Lena is this stunning 50 year old woman that radiates warmth, health, and caring.

At breakfast one morning, Lena shares her motivation for becoming a yoga instructor. When she was 30 years old, she had a stroke. Her kids were 1 and 5 at the time. She turned to yoga and meditation to heal, which transformed her life. For years after the stroke she wondered ‘What did I do wrong that this would happen to me?”. But now, Lena has a beautiful perspective on the experience, steeped in 20 years of a life after this defining event.

She focused on how lucky she was that she survived and was able to heal. Lena called the experience a “gift.” She believes that when we need to shift something, things will happen that shake up our life and it’s our responsibility to listen. And she asked me to share with my sister that she has never been healthier, and now at 50 she is the happiest she has ever been.

What has this shake-up motivated for me? The experience has me thirstily needing to play BIG and impact the world with these few moments that make up my life. I will never lose sight of every moment I can soak up with the people I love.

I experienced many life lessons throughout this ongoing journey. Some I don’t like, such as people’s timelines in this life don’t exist for us. Some fuel me, like our ability to choose hope over fear. The universe shook me up, and bent me. But here I am, ready to charge forward.

It will forever be a guidepost moment in my story.