Another Lap Around the Sun

We turn not older with years, but newer every day.
— Emily Dickenson

On Friday I turned 36. I spent the day mostly alone, and drove from Muskoka to Ottawa. This was the second birthday I've spent in the car, letting my mind wander the tiny towns, lakes & forests between Muskoka and Ottawa.  On Saturday I said farewell to my aunt Johanne. Johanne was my father's older sister, and my godmother. She passed on to whatever awaits us all back in October after losing her fight with cancer. For whatever reasons her funeral was held off until this last weekend, but we got a beautiful warm day to remember her and I suppose that is what matters.  And so the circumstances surrounding June 9th this year made my day of birth a very quiet, introspective one. 

Johanne was always sweet and kind - every person who knew her will say this first. She had a soft voice, and a gentle spirit. I remember going to stay with her & uncle Frank as a child and we drew and painted until we covered the walls of their house with all our creations. My dad's family grew up in Montreal, but Johanne had lived in Milton (outside Toronto) since early adulthood. Things with her and Frank didn't last though, and she moved to an apartment in the same area.  She would come visit us once or twice a year in Ottawa. One hilarious time in the 80s she let Elissa and I crimp her hair. When she would visit in the summer she loved to be at the cottage. She loved to swim. She was an extremely sensitive soul, with a heart that always wanted something more exotic, more foreign than her French Canadian roots. Even after her and Frank parted ways, she kept her married name, "Lazarra", and all of her friends called her Johanna.  Over the years her visits were fewer and farther between. When we were old enough to understand we learned that she battled with bipolar disorder. Sometimes the downs would consume her for the better part of a year, during which time she didn't feel able to leave her home. And she was too ashamed to have her family see her like that, so we weren't welcome to visit. This is just how it went. I think the last time I saw her, I was in university studying Physiotherapy. We must've been learning about the jaw, or maybe I was in the clinical placement I had with a supervisor who did TMJ physiotherapy, but I remember giving her a head/neck/jaw massage in the family room. Her laying on the carpet there, her head in my lap. She said I had very good hands, and how much she appreciated feeling cared for.  That was probably twelve or thirteen years ago.  I think as depression took a bigger and bigger toll, family got pushed further and further away. As a young adult living abroad, I lost all connection with her for a while except for occasional phone calls and updates from my mom. We reconnected properly this fall, though only over the phone. We spoke many times, sometimes for hours at a time. She refused to see me in person, saying 'don't do this to me, I can't bear it' when we talked and I wanted to help/bring food/drive her to an appointment... I saw her October 16th, 2016. She had died the day before. Only hours before my father reached the hospital. She was so tiny, and cold. She had a large bruise on her arm. I touched her hair and held her hand and couldn't help but feel like our whole family had let her down. She had been hurting for such a long time. My family remains comforted that they respected her wishes all those years. That the outmost service you can do for someone is respect the choices they make. But I wonder to what extent we let ones we love suffer? Though it appeases our conscience to offer help, have it refused, and move on for a while before offering again... I wonder how much of the refusing help is shame and fear? Do the motivations in someone's refusal of help make it ok to ignore their wishes? Can we ever really know someone else's true motivations? I think Johanne felt very deeply alone.  My heart tells me that it is very much a two way street, where each side played the part they knew to play. But what could've happened if Johanne dared to stepped out of her comfort zone and let someone in? What could've happened if the family pushed their way in to help, and show that in her time of need we would share the burden? These are all just questions, I don't think there is an easy right or wrong answer, and there certainly isn't any judgement. We all do the best we know how to do. 

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So while I know there is no changing the past, we sure can learn and grow from it. I'll share with you some of my birthday ponderings. And while this may seem like quite a 'dark' post, emotional and personal growth is a gift I will gladly accept.

Choice. We do all get to choose. We get to choose how we react to our circumstances. We get to choose who/what energetically fills our space and time. If who/what fills our time is draining, exhausting, and false feeling - we can choose to let that/them go. These choices aren't always easy choices, they may even feel scary, but they exist. There are ALWAYS other options - though we may need to look longer, harder, more patiently, with greater creativity, and maybe a willingness to sacrifice or compromise. If we struggle to see the possibilities, or if our burden is too heavy - we can ask for help. This too is a choice. Asking for help from another being should not be shameful.  One doesn't have to wait until another notices their plight and offer assistance. One doesn't have to feel awful or guilty that someone was inconvenienced because of their need. It's unnecessary 'suffer in silence'. Also, a request for help is not an obligation.  We can each choose if we are able, in our personal circumstances, to help. Often the request of another will at least spur some suggestions or ideas which opens up "options" for the person in need.  Not feeling able or being willing to ask for help is a behavior that favors the development of ego & pride which makes it nearly impossible to admit the times you can't manage solo. It can lead to a lot of "beating around the bush" rather than fostering the ability to recognize and clearly verbalize your needs. Or more severely, repressing needs and problems, leads to isolation,  coping mechanisms, depression.  In case anyone has spaced completely on the revealing work of Brené Brown, the ability to be vulnerable takes a lot of courage in itself. There is power in vulnerability. And the act of asking for help and receiving the support we seek is a very human part of our existence.  If we were all perfect, we wouldn't ever need anyone's help, would we? Asking for help and helping others is a wonderful practice in kindness, compassion and community.  I choose to be a giving and receiving part of my communities.  I choose to let go of the shame in asking for help. I choose to be a willing source of support for those who ask it of me. We are all given old patterns of behavior, from those that were given them before us. It's an active choice to let go of these old patterns in favor of adopting guiding principles that serve the you of today. So, that's what I'm doing. For my birthday, and everyday, I am creating the kind of life I want to live. 

RIP Johanne Cora Lazarra: Jul 30 1950 - Oct 15th 2016

Sunset, June 9th, 2017.  Taking a beautiful break, somewhere between Muskoka and Ottawa.

Sunset, June 9th, 2017.  Taking a beautiful break, somewhere between Muskoka and Ottawa.