As we all explore ourselves, our world, and the different facets of life, we tend to discover that it usually does not run its course as we once imagined. We all have different paths that our individual circumstances lead us on, and for most of us the distinct visions we have of what life ought to look like serving our individual whims and fancies, transpires into something quite different – for better or for worse. Life is not put into full perspective until something drastic happens. In the last fourteen months, I have encountered various conflicting mindsets and idiosyncrasies during what I have known to be the most challenging year of my life so far. This is my story of how I came about putting my life into perspective, and understanding what really matters.
From having strong ideals and curiosity to seek an understanding of the true purpose of my life, this past year I diverged into someone who was on-the-fence with every single thing I thought I understood about the larger concept of human existence. In the summer of 2016, as the quintessential, zesty twenty-two-year-old living in New York City for my work-experience semester of college, I was happy about almost everything in life. Everywhere I went, I found myself connecting with interesting people, exploring all that the city had to offer and constantly thinking about different projects to take on. Taking full advantage of the freedom of not needing to answer to anyone, I was thinking of which country to move to, for my next internship. But most of all, I was excited and skittish about where my life was going to take me upon graduating the following year. I would find myself watching interviews of celebrated athletes like Michael Phelps & Muhammad Ali, and thought-provoking leaders and self-made entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Oprah, and Michelle Obama. I was easily inspired by anyone doing something great, and was daydreaming about making some difference in my own capacity.
Only a few months later, things took an exponential turn for me. This time it was not for the better. I received highly unanticipated and unsettling news of my perfectly healthy mother, getting diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Naturally, as any child close to their parent, I was heartbroken. But after processing the news in a few days of anguish, I took to the only approach to challenges I could think of and decided to face the issue with pragmatism. I flew back home to support my parents, only to discover from my dad – what my mom did not know herself – the cancer was incurable and she had between six to ten more months left with us. I subsequently watched my dad like I had never seen before – crying and helpless. I was stunned to silence, and quickly realised no amount of ‘pragmatism’ could help me right now.
The following weeks were agonising. I had to accustom myself with being composed, or pretend as my mom was unaware about the severity of her own condition. That was the first day I felt something that seemed like a panic attack. I remember sitting in my room that night, with tears gushing, being unable to breathe, my head exploding and feeling extremely nauseous. But in order to pretend to be a strong-figure for my mom, I would try to be composed in my day-today interactions with her, while spend my nights researching cures, solutions, experimental treatments – anything that could save her. I had never felt that level of desperation in my entire life, and remembered in that moment, that I had once thought the hardest thing I would ever have to overcome was a silly break up, but I was now forced to put things into perspective. Everything else going on in my life suddenly seemed irrelevant.
I have never believed in any religious philosophies, spirituality or any kind of supernatural elements, but my desperation had led me to explore anything that could help. On a friend’s suggestion, I began a practice of Nicheren Buddhism and started chanting nam-yo-ho-renge-kyo after hearing about various miraculous stories. A few weeks later, after a lot of contemplation and having already missed two weeks of my last-semester of college, my parents and I decided that I go back. On being back in Boston, I started to spend increasing amount of time alone in my apartment – focusing all my thoughts on a Buddhist practice that I did not completely understand or relate to. I genuinely believed we would find a way and refused to internalise and accept the situation as it was.
In April 2017, after having just watched runners participating in the Boston Marathon of 2017, I was reminded of the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, and how that seemed to be the most horrific thing I had ever encountered. I immediately recollected my experience as a volunteer staff member the following year, and recalled being completely astonished by the resilience of those families and runners who suffered the aftermath of the bombings, and still returned in 2014. These feelings instigated me to write a three-page email to my dad asking him to Be Strong. Till date, this email has been the only emotional acknowledgment I have ever had with either of my parents about our situation. A part of the email read:
“I want you to know, like really know, that every challenge makes us more equipped to face any struggle we need to face in order to move forward with our lives. If we can surpass this, we can come out better, stronger and most importantly grateful, and in appreciation of how blessed we are in many other aspects of our lives. If the Boston Marathon runners can come back to run with one-leg, we too, can find it in us, to fight this fight”
In the following months, I would realise that as a matter of fact, I was only fooling myself about being “strong” and in reality, I felt extremely overwhelmed. I even joined a Buddhist organisation to make the meditation and chanting practice easier to understand, but only within three weeks, realised that it was becoming harder than easy. At this point, I had been praying for my parents to make it to my graduation. We had all been eagerly looking forward to it for the last five years, and with three days left for the ceremony, and no sign of either of them making it, my frustration and disappointment, made me give it all up.
Having always planned to leave Boston upon graduation, I decided against it, and for the sake of some level of stability, I found myself a job that seemed promising, and started to prepare to stay put for yet another year. However, only the night prior to signing my contract, I was drawn to another company based in New York. Impulsively the following week, I moved my entire life and started my current job – which would prove to be one of my rare blessings of the year. Amid all the chaos of moving, living alone, and starting a new life with new friends and colleagues, I was simultaneously trying to stay focused on myself by attempting to work towards a goal. This was not easy, as my own expectations for myself didn’t allow me to be happy.
With the support of my kind colleagues, I continued to visit my mom every couple of months, and each time I went back, I realised that her health and my dad’s state of mind was getting worse by the day, and my inability to process all this change was becoming prevalent. The back and forth between going home and coming back to a real job was also becoming challenging. I would often find myself divided between taking the big step of giving up everything and moving myself home. I felt guilty about my dad enduring all the pain of making decisions and taking care of my mom – all alone. I instead avoided my reality and resorted to habits that would ironically make me feel all that much more worse. I had not worked out in months, my diet consisted of alcohol, sugar, and junk, and I slept no more than three to four hours each night. As a result, my lack of energy, focus and sleep deprivation was making me an emotional wreck. I put on about twenty-five pounds, and the way I looked and felt made my self-confidence reach an all-time low. I felt mediocre in my life, in my job, as a daughter, and in every sense as a person for having reached that point. My conversation with my parents every morning on my way to work had become shorter as there was nothing left to talk about, and more often than not involved seeing either of the two in tears. My panic-attacks had started to come back worse, and I was terrified of my own thoughts.
It has since been only a few months, and the rollercoaster has continued. However, for various reasons, I now feel the need to acknowledge that I have still been privileged. Even in the midst of the chaos in my mind, I know how much more others including my parents suffer through similar situations. Although it has taken me over a year, I have begun to realise, that it is no longer just about my mom and her cancer – but also about my self-deprecation. The façade I have gotten so used to putting on for not just my parents, but also myself has caught up with me. I see an urgent need for change, as there is no positive outcome in speculating over things that can’t be controlled. And perhaps, by focusing on things that in fact are under my control, I can maybe make the time that I am spending away from my parents worth something – for both myself and more importantly, for them. By taking care of myself, by being more present in my conversations, by working hard, and by being there for those around me, I can take small steps towards the right direction. My experience has also led me to an epiphany about the various individuals we interact with on a day-to-day basis, who may or may not be going through various personal challenges, big or small in their own capacity. They may simply be too private or too drained to address and discuss their feelings with anyone. Therefore, as part of being aware, and honest about my own struggles, maybe I can arouse others to feel open about sharing their own stories of heartbreak. I now know, that every challenge – big or small – is difficult to endure, especially all alone.
I have also learned that I must value and appreciate the support of people I love and trust, and of people who want the best for me. I see a greatness in connections that we share with various individuals who aren’t necessarily family, and yet, play the role of pillars and sources of strength. At different phases of my rollercoaster ride over the last year, there have been various such people – friends, teachers and colleagues who have been nothing short of family to me. While I continue inspecting the reason behind why and how things happen, or why we do what we do, I do feel like it’s okay for me to not always be strong. Even though I do not feel my absolute best right now, I know I feel better and more hopeful today than I did a year ago, and that in itself is of significance to me. My mom continues to fight her fight, for herself and for us, with all her heart and all her soul. My dad continues to make me proud of him each day: as a father, a husband and more so as a loving and generous person. So, I must as well, try every single day to give my hundred percent to anything that I do, and to anyone I interact with, as I ought to do my best to make my life worth something that I can also feel proud of. In order to do that, I think it would be wise to follow Oprah Winfrey’s words, “Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.” From now, I begin a new journey of being true to myself, by getting to know who I am – for myself, and for those around me.