Having My Cake and Eating It Too Is Not Possible

This morning as I volunteered at the city library, the foundation director observed that I seem unsettled and expressed concern that I might be bored. This led to a conversation about work, the lack thereof in my life, and stress. He majored in psychology as I did, and when I mentioned the Holmes Rahe Stress Test he knew exactly what I meant. The test is used to determine disease susceptibility.

In the past year I’ve experienced a change in jobs three times; a cross-country move; change in frequency of seeing family and friends; the illness and death of my father-in-law; a rupture in our relations with my husband’s brother and wife; the sale of a house; the advent of repaying a student loan as large as a mortgage; a pregnancy and miscarriage — and I got married. A score indicating high stress is 250 or more. Scores above 300 suggest an 80% chance of serious illness in the next two years. My score was 510. No wonder I’m exhausted. I have moments of pleasure and contentment and am grateful for them. I don’t want to be this weary and flat. It simply is what it is.

The challenge with moving away from one’s roots and one’s parents is it requires a sacrifice of continuity. My visit home was wonderful. It was also revealing. I was privy to family documents I’d never seen before that told me about family members I’d yearned to know.

And yet.

A one-week visit is an intense face-to-face encounter with people. My brain couldn’t absorb it all. And of course loved ones in close quarters sometimes rub each others’ edges a bit; living close by would ease that and still allow for contact. Travel is exhausting, too, especially across several time zones. Being company and having company disrupts each person’s routines; while this isn’t fatal, the interruption evokes some level of stress.

(I’m doing a crappy job writing about this. I feel myself disconnecting. Time to plunge in.)

My parents are in their seventies. They are old and tired. Their bodies are wearing out; their energy is diminished. I visited for seven days, and I didn’t listen to every tidbit my mother shared. I couldn’t soak up all the details from my father’s binders filled with family lore. There’s a limit to my curiosity about my forebears, people whom my mother knew in the flesh, but now I wish I’d asked more questions. It’s not that I care so much about what my great-grandparent/aunt/cousin did or said; it’s that these relationships were real to my mother and they shaped her. I can’t know them. But don’t I want to know my mother? Why don’t I listen with more care and inquisitiveness?

I confess, I experienced moments of irritation with them (which I hope I hid effectively most times) during my visit. Then (too soon, and yet not too soon because I crave normalcy) it was time to leave. I hugged my mother and felt the frailty beneath her tissue-paper flesh. I realized that this could be the last time I experience her corporeally, because no one lives forever. Such has always been the case, but in the last ten years I’d been able to cram awareness into a dark corner. Now I’m older, they’re older, and I’m so much more aware of life’s brevity — of the irrevocability of death — since my father-in-law died. And I could not get enough of them, these people who gave me life. I sat and wept before I went through airport security. Since then, tears press against my eyes. I live on the verge of crying every day. For all I know, they may live many more years, and I hope they do. But the problem is I know nothing. It is impossible to know.

If I lived nearby, I could stop in for briefer visits over tea, a meal, or for an overnight. We could take in a movie and go to the farmer’s market. There wouldn’t be the intensity that a one-week visit creates by virtue of its beginning and ending. I wouldn’t feel compelled to store up sensations and images in case this is the last infusion of them. (And they are poor replicas of the real experience — they can’t be otherwise.) I wouldn’t be so aware of the fact that it might be another 18 months before I get to see them again, and if they die before then, all I will have are the memories and ghost sensations of my last visit — that then there will be no more. Being physically nearby would ease this, I tell myself. Perhaps this too is delusion. But it wouldn’t feel as urgent, as though so much were riding on one encounter.

And yet I moved far, far away. I needed to, in order to create my life and pursue my dreams. It is a good life, and I would make the same choices again. When I get into the rhythm of my life, the inevitability of death and loss recedes. My attention becomes entwined in daily activities Now, because Now is all there is. I can talk with and email my parents, of course, and I do. Yet these big trips home remind me that we are finite physical beings with a deadline. This awareness abates the more time passes, and I will again be content with the disembodied communication over phone wires and cyberspace. Right now, though, I’m acutely conscious of finitude.

A reader emailed to tell me that she missed my personal posts, the ones that reveal the Deeply Personal Me. Well, here you go. That was the nudge I needed. So now you know what’s been weighing on me. It is what it is.

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3 Comments on “Having My Cake and Eating It Too Is Not Possible”

  1. katherine Says:

    girl I am soooooo serious . . . get the Spirituality is The Damndest Thing book . . . it addresses this very thing that you are confronting, right up against the edge with . . . not that you aren’t doing fabulously with the waves of truth that you are facing as they crash over and over and over again . . . reading the part about your stress test score I found myself asking: what would getting sick give her? what is she not getting enough of Now? What is it that you need, Kathryn? What is it that your insides are screaming for like a car driving in third gear going 60 mph is screaming for??? What is the name of your fourth gear?

  2. kat Says:

    it’s so hard to get out from underneath the heaviness of life sometimes.

    (((hugs and love)))

  3. Nacho Says:

    Oh, my fourth gear is a pint of Strawberry Hagen Dasz ice cream… or Coconut… : ) Kathryn, I really feel for you here, because I can feel through your words some of the emotion, and because so much of what you share resonates with me. As I read more and more of your post however, I felt that you were doing such a marvelous job of pouring it forth, of giving voice to, as you say, what is. That recognition and awareness of the present moment, of what is alive in you now is critical for our understanding, compassion, acceptance, and letting go. I say what is alive in you because I got the feeling from your writing that you saw it as flat, nor lively. Yet, I see your post as reflecting a deep engagement with life, with its trials and tribulations, with the moments of yearning, the intensity and emotional toll that stress brings, a deep and soulful dance with your wish that it be different and with the realization that it is not, and that you will face it and just be. This is alive in you, your heart is doing is work. There is ferment in the field and your heart is encompassing it with as much mindfulness as possible.

    This is not to discount the real stressors, losses, and pain you have experienced. You’ve had an exceedingly high share of stressors, and close together too. But your post rang of beauty in the face of stress, of a heart that is encompassing of much, of the realization of our limits, of the suffering that you go through, and from which you draw wisdom. Sometimes it takes a while for stress to catch up with us. It is as if it takes its time to slowly bloom inside of us. And thus, our banishing it might also take this slow time to change the soil, re-pot ourselves, face the sun.

    You are so right about the intensity of the experience. I think that being close would allow for all those small contacts, but sometimes those are not when we are more present. It seems to me that the one week visit was a very present one in many ways. That you were more aware and mindful.

    It is too bad that we have those instruments to measure stress levels, but no assessment to check how we are de-stressing! : ) If you took the test again and added all the variables in your life recently, it is likely your score would still be high, but it might not reflect your work with the stress, your love and beauty embracing yourself with mindfulness.

    All the best to you, thanks for the wonderful post, thanks for the inspiration. You know you have another person embracing your suffering, which is also in some ways mine, with mindfulness.