Living, Losing

The day before he passed, my younger sister wrote our uncle's name in the sand in Gulfport, MS.

A week ago today, I watched a man I’d known my entire life take his last breath.

My two sisters and I drove over 1,000 miles to see our Uncle Donald, who was in ICU at a hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi. I hadn’t been home in six years.

For the past week, I’ve been through an array of emotions. Disbelief.  Sadness. Anger. Fear. Loneliness. Disappointment. I lost my grandmother (his mother) two years ago, but this feels different. Unlike Weya, who had been ill with dementia for years, Uncle Donald was up walking around, driving–he had taken the long trip from Maryland to Mississippi in his beloved “Jeepo”–and doing things the average person does. He had even recently begun texting. I knew he was battling a few illnesses, but I didn’t know he had been sick for as long as he had.

While I’m still having trouble accepting the fact that my dear uncle is gone, I have so much to be thankful for. He survived Hurricane Katrina. He always had a smile on his face. He always wanted to make us laugh, even if his jokes were corny. He would come bearing gifts–T-shirts, car adapters, oversize headboards–anything to make us happy. I can say, without a doubt, that he squeezed every ounce out of this life that he could. As much as it hurt to see him in that bed, I had the privilege of being there until, literally, the very end. We went down there to see him, and we didn’t leave him behind: It was as if he had waited for us. The truly profound experience of watching his final moments means more to me than I can express.

I’m coping with this loss. I sleep, cry, and stare into space a lot. I’ve been looking at old photos and calling his answering machine. I can laugh sometimes, but I can’t smile yet. With each day, however, I’m doing a little better. That’s all I can expect from myself at this point. I’m preparing myself to write something beautiful about him for his memorial. Though losing Uncle Donald hurts, the peace I know I will feel when I fully accept what has happened and embrace my wonderful memories of him is worth the wait.

Classical Music, Crazy Concentration

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Focus eludes me sometimes. When I’m supposed to be applying for jobs or working on a research project, I find a million more important things to do. The microwave will be spotless and my shoes will be organized, but the real work will continue to hover over my head.

So, while prepping myself to write a 6-to-8-page paper on two 19th-century short stories in four hours, I decided to do something different: listen to classical music. I remembered hearing about the so-called Mozart Effect and that classical music, to some extent, helped concentration. Tchaikovsky and Bach weren’t strangers to me, as I’d played the violin briefly in the fourth grade and always enjoyed movie scores. Still, I had never taken the music seriously in my adult life. Stressed but hopeful, I figured I had nothing to lose.

I went to Pandora, typed “classical” in the search bar, and pulled up my paper. When I put my fingers on the keys, something miraculous happened: my fingers started moving. Ten minutes later, my digits were still darting across the keyboard. I felt like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless,” working as if I were on some brain-expanding drug. In an hour, I’d clocked over 400 words–it was a miracle! Two hours later, I’d surpassed the 2,000-word limit by about 250 or so.

My paper was finished. I was floored.

I realize that several other factors may have contributed to my supercharged production. Maybe the fact that the deadline was in a few short hours pressured me to finish quickly. Maybe my five-minute yoga session before I began working relaxed my nerves. Maybe I just believed the music would help and sparked a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows? Frankly, I don’t care. I usually listen to India.Arie or Musiq Soulchild during my work, but I’ve never felt as efficient as I did with the classical. It was as if my surroundings disappeared and I became a robot, analyzing Kate Chopin like nobody’s business. I had sipped no caffeine and popped no Ritalin. And yet, I finished my paper as if I were updating my Facebook status. Amazing.

Can classical music–Baroque, specifically, as I’ve heard–turn you into a keyboard-clacking, project-completing drone? In my case, yes, and I’d do it again in a flash. However, I realize this was no scientific experiment. Results may not be typical or may be based on other variables: Any music without lyrics can possibly help you focus better. Still, I suggest you give those old composers a shot. If all else fails, at least you won’t get the crazy 5-Hour Energy jitters.

Forgiving the Self

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Forgiveness is choosing to love. It is the first skill of self-giving love.

– Mohandas K. Gandhi

Sometimes I find myself relapsing into habits I don’t like. As hard as I try to resist my vices, they tempt me in my most vulnerable moments. I look back at some of the things I’ve done and realize, ashamed, that my mistakes have followed me. I wonder if I’m really doing right by myself, really taking care of the young woman I am. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I fall short, but I must forgive myself. I may stumble over my goals and drift into comforting yet insidious habits, but I don’t deserve to be abused for my human frailty. I make plenty of mistakes. I don’t do everything I know I should–sometimes those chips just taste better. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the moment. No honest person can deny those feelings.

I have committed no crime. Unless I have hurt someone, I don’t owe anyone an apology. I’m neither wholly bad nor wholly good–I’m capable of both. I only owe it to myself to forgive myself and try, try again.

Putting It in Perspective

Our Earth: So important to us, so small in the big picture.

Sometimes I imagine there’s a super-powered camera set up over us.

First, it hovers over me, recording what I decide to wear and eat and do in my free time. Then it zooms a little farther out, depicting in full detail the varied yet similar experiences of other human beings. The camera pulls out again over the Earth’s lush oceans, landscapes, and atmosphere. Finally, the billion-megapixel device captures our planet’s dazzling colors against the broad cloth of space and then zooms farther out into the solar system, then to the edge of the galaxy, then into the vast universe we most likely will never comprehend.

The camera, a product of my own imagination, helps me put my life in perspective. When I picture it zooming out of my personal life, I see how trivial many of my problems are in comparison to others’ real plights. Certainly the prevalent hunger for food, freedom, and a warm place to lay one’s head outweigh my privileged need to finish my last few credits toward a degree. My complaints about the painfully slow Internet connection on campus appear trifling next to a starving child’s desperation for a clean handful of water. I ache for these innocent human beings, reminding myself how truly fortunate I am to live in this era, on this continent, in this zip code.

When the camera zooms out to space, human consciousness appears even more infinitesimal. Microscopic, we crawl, walk, or wheel over this pale blue dot like germs on a flush button. The mass of Jupiter and Saturn dwarf our little rock, and the stars Betelguese and Aldebaran diminish even our gargantuan sun.

So much bigger than us, this universe can laugh at our reasoned cortices. We argue about which deity reigns over us and when this world will perish and whether life exists elsewhere. But when I envision the super-charged camera floating farther and farther away from us, I can’t imagine how we, with our tiny perceptions, can confidently ascribe any personality or will to this mysterious dark plain. How dare we think this great expanse exists solely for us?  What makes ticks so special?

Putting life in this perspective doesn’t depress me: Instead, seeing myself as a single pixel on a screen the size of a bazillion Cowboys Stadium JumboTrons (and even larger) fills me with wonder and awe. How amazing it is that my little brain can perceive just a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and breathe solely oxygen yet make some semblance of sense out of this world? Love, hope, dream, desire? How is it that this world–these faces, these senses, these thoughts–means something to an ant like me? It’s baffling.

Yes, our lives can seem overwhelming. But if we zoom out just a little, we’ll see others in far worse conditions. If we zoom out even more, the problems become irrelevant. As Stephen Crane wrote,  “One view[s] the existence of man then as a marvel, and concede[s] a glamour of wonder to these lice which [a]re caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.”  A mystifying and humbling yet completely awe-inspiring perspective–one it would behoove us to take more often.