When I was in my twenties, I met an elderly woman with bright purple hair. She was charmingly funny, wise, and FUN, and for the first few weeks of knowing her, I didn’t like her. It would seem hard NOT to like a funny and charming woman with bright purple hair, yet I didn’t. In all fairness, I don’t think she cared much for me either. Despite this, we were stuck with each other: a woman coming to the end of her life and wanting it on her own terms, and a clueless and jaded youngster in charge of her care. What a pair we were, judging each other as we sat in her quirkily decorated condo surrounded by treasures she’d collected during a well-lived and well-traveled life.
At the time I was working through the fact that I had moved six hours away from family and friends to be with someone I loved, and this person developed cancer.
Suddenly doctors were telling us my loved one had a slim chance of survival and that the chemo was just as toxic and painful as the cancer itself. I was angry and the friends I was missing were too busy to take my calls or answer an email. I won’t speak for my then boyfriend’s (now my husband) experience, but I will acknowledge that cancer is difficult in so many surprising ways. I often asked, “Why him?,” “Why me?,” and “Why God?” I was a ball of terrified, angry, and lonely emotions that had no healthy outlet.
So what did I do as a twenty-year-old? I took my feelings out on the closest person available: an 80-something-year-old woman with bright purple hair.
I was Lucille’s home health care companion and spent upwards of 12 hours a day with her, so I saw her more than anyone. It grated my nerves that she was happy, blindingly happy. Her body was slowly succumbing to age and yet she was just so happy. She kept journals upon journals of things for which she was happy and grateful, along with different ways she saw kindness. I couldn’t believe that while I was so angry, hurt, terrified, and lonely, she or anyone else could be happy. Happiness was an emotion I wasn’t sure anyone had a right to feel while someone I loved so deeply was going through something awful.
Lucille rightly thought I was an idiot.
She couldn’t understand why I was directing her care when I couldn’t take proper care for myself. It’s the height of absurdity that a woman who has lived a full life should be told what to do and yet that’s where we were. I helped her carry out tasks prescribed by her doctors: I prepared low sodium, heart healthy foods for her to eat; helped her exercise every day; and ensured that she avoided alcohol and sweets (by keeping an eye out for hidden bottles of sherry and stashes of dark chocolate that her friends would sneak in while playing Bridge).
One weekend, our forced working relationship came to a head.
My boyfriend had had a rough week and his doctor was concerned about his white blood cell count and his weight. I dealt with this stress and fear by being less than kind. I was young and supremely stupid and didn’t have the skills to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way. Thankfully, Lucille in her wiseness broke through to me. While I was cleaning up after a game of Bridge, I came across pillows stuffed with tiny bottles of sherry, gin, and vodka, and little hollow books of dark chocolate and peppermint patties. I should have appreciated how creative and hilarious it was, but I didn’t. I confronted Lucille and listed the reasons she wasn’t supposed to have these items. She looked at me in her piercing way without saying a word. I realized then how absurd it was that I had told a fully-grown woman she couldn’t have something she wanted, and I began to cry. When I was done crying, I felt intense shame and remorse for my behavior during the previous two weeks. I was sick to my stomach knowing I had been raised to know and do better.
In a gesture of comfort, Lucille gave me a handkerchief she had acquired on a trip to Turkey. It was soft, detailed with tiny flowers and bees, and smelled heavenly. That trip was important to her because she took it after her oldest daughter passed away from breast cancer. While we spoke, she showed me pictures of the first rental house she could afford for herself and her children after leaving an abusive husband. We spent the rest of the day reminiscing about her life and the struggles she had survived.
Throughout this time spent together, Lucille did something unforgettable and important: she forgave me for being short with her and coming to work distracted and upset. It was powerful moment and something I desperately wanted, yet did not deserve. Lucille shared with me how she coped with losing her three children while still finding joy and happiness in life: she kept journals of each and every act of kindness she saw; she wrote down each time she felt happy and experienced anything joyful; and she made it a point to pay attention to the good, no matter how insignificant.
I wish I could say that after that weekend our relationship was healed, but as Lucille would often remind me, we were too much alike and she needed some water to her fire, not more fire. We did however, find a way to have a more peaceful time for the remaining few months I worked there. I overlooked the bottles of sherry and bars of chocolate if she did her exercises and didn’t complain about not having salt to put on her food, and I started appreciating how creative her friends were about hiding the contraband.
I’m sharing this story to remind you that no matter what we may be going through, there are moments of light. Maybe it’s a bird that sits perfectly still outside your window. Maybe it’s a stranger helping to pick up fallen groceries. Maybe it’s getting to watch a sleeping baby snore softly with their belly poking out of their pjs. Whatever it is, look for it. Make a point to seek out those moments. Forgive someone, even if they don’t deserve it, and take note of how freeing the feeling is. I’m reminding you of this so that when I need this advice again, you can give it to me.