Ten months ago, my youngest sister passed away after a seven-year relationship with cancer. She never liked to say she was fighting cancer, since she didn't like the idea that she was in a battle -- she thought that gave the disease too much power. Instead, she sought to embrace cancer as an opportunity to discover and heal aspects of herself that had dis-ease on any level, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. What a roller coaster it was. During the highs and lows, the healing and the blows (when her cancer returned again and again... and again and again), she never lost sight of what it might teach her. She was the most courageous person I have ever known.
I grew up in a family with an all-too-familiar story: a history of alcoholism on both sides of the family, an angry and verbally abusive father, a mother who had no voice, and an uncle who was the family pedophile. The culture of my family was never to talk about the elephants in the room. To the outside world we appeared to have a good life. After all, my father was a bank executive, we went to the right schools and belonged to the country club. Eventually, though, it all unraveled, and by the time my parents died, my father had been married three times and my mother four. I believe my mother married the same man each time; he just happened to be in a different body.
As a teenager, I felt isolated and alone. This was due in part to the fact that we moved a lot, but it was also because I didn't want anybody to see the state my father would be in after several cocktails, how cruel he could be. I had difficulty making friends -- I was always the outsider who tried too hard. I didn't understand that my behavior pushed people away rather than brought them close. I longed to be loved and accepted. I didn't realize at the time how depressed I was.
When I was a senior in high school, I had my first boyfriend. His sister was eight years older than we were, and he idolized her. She was a full-fledged hippy and was living an alternative lifestyle. (In case you're wondering, this was the early 1970s.) She was so cool. She told us how she was on a spiritual journey and sent her brother books on different spiritual practices from both Eastern and Western disciplines.
Influenced by his sister, one day my boyfriend said to me, "Let's commit to having a spiritual relationship."
Because I didn't want to lose him, my shy, naïve 18-year-old self replied, "Uhhh... okay."
And then I started reading the books. The first one I read was Be Here Now by Ram Dass. As I read it, something started moving inside me. I began to get a glimpse that there was more available to me than the unhappiness I had experienced up to that point. There was something greater than myself at play in my life -- something joyful, expansive and free. It took time for me to believe that not only did I deserve such freedom and joy, but it was readily available to me. I developed a hunger for the experience of liberation I knew lived beyond the books I read.
A year later as I was working in the Harvard Coop, I realized that to obtain the experience I was after, I truly had to commit. I had to commit to myself and to my healing. I remember standing in the middle of the medical textbook section and making the commitment to love and accept myself fully. No matter where the process took me. No matter what obstacles I had to face. I was fortunate to have had a sister who was deeply supportive as I walked my path.
It's now 41 years later, and what a journey it's been! Along the path of healing my pain, learning to forgive myself and others, embracing my vulnerability as my strength, and opening to partake of the grace in my life, I've had to face some pretty shadowy places inside myself. The commitment to my spiritual heart has carried me through my darkest hours and pulled me through to the light. It has not been an easy path, and there is still more work to do. However, more often than not, my life is full of wonder and deep inexplicable happiness. I strive to live life knowing (not just thinking I know, but knowing I know) that my essence is good and pure, and loving is my reality.
A recent conversation with my late sister's 17-year-old daughter prompted this blog. As she emerges from a very tough year, my niece has declared she is ready to face her fears and learn to love herself. She was vulnerable and shaky as we talked. The difficulties she has endured in her short life have been huge. Witnessing her mother's heroic efforts to heal the cancer and, in the end, succumb to complications surrounding it was more than any child should have to bear. But because her mother's courage runs through her veins, my niece will have her own internal North Star to guide her on the voyage ahead. As I hugged her and whispered gentle words of encouragement in her ear, I felt I was holding not only her, but my younger self as well. Tears flowed down my face, and I felt deep gratitude -- for my sister, my niece, myself -- for all of us who have chosen to step up to the angel at the gate of our hearts and proclaim that we are worthy to enter.