Home > Life, Really?, Spirituality/Religion > The Pain in the Joy

The Pain in the Joy

I watched my life pass before my eyes last weekend.

No, not like that.

I mean that I felt all the phases of my life so far through the experiences of others in my family.

A beautiful wedding in a beautiful setting made my eyes well up as I watched my sweet niece marry a wonderful man that she had patiently waited to find. The ceremony was every bit as lovely as its surroundings but the formal Catholic service touched a resentful spot in me knowing that I too could now get married in that state…. but not in that church. I hadn’t thought it would matter to me, but on some level it did. I tried not to think about it.

I felt a strange melancholy realizing that all of my nieces and nephews are coming of age or are moving into new phases of their lives and I found myself remembering what it felt like for my brothers and sisters and me to be their age as we heard about their different challenges, from those just starting out, looking at the huge world and trying to find their place in it, to those who have fallen down and gotten back up again and are digging deeper to find the meaning in it all, we have been there. We are still there. I tried to push down the sense of envy I was feeling that they are just starting out and have their whole lives ahead of them. I wanted a do-over.

I did my best to control these paradoxical feelings that seemed to have no place in the midst of this joyous gathering, but when my niece, Cara, the bride, took a moment to chat with me, unexpectedly acknowledging the awkwardness I might have felt about the Catholic wedding, she brought up an event from when she was a little girl and I lost it. Completely and utterly.

When Cara was just 3 or 4, her mother became gravely ill. Her father, my brother, was doing his medical school residency and with two toddlers to care for, things were tense. They needed help.

About the time of my 21st birthday, I traveled with my parents to visit them. I had dropped out of college after two years and had lived at home for five months because I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I was a mess. I had a lousy job at a drug store in the town where I’d gone to college, just 15 miles from home, and I would frequently see my former classmates, most of whom I hadn’t really become friends with. I was at the lowest point of my life.

Sweet little Cara and her younger brother Jim had no idea how serious their mom’s situation was. They laughed and played and did what toddlers do, just like my younger sister and I had when our own mother had been sick. When it was suggested that I stay with them for a while to help, I bowed out, saying that I couldn’t get time off from my job (that I hated). I was giving in to my fears and thinking only of myself. Instead, my sister, who was about to embark on her own journey with illness, stepped in. She was able to offer her time to assist in the recovery process.

As Cara was reminding me of that time, my mind and heart flashed back to how hard it had been for everyone, especially her mother. But what finally got me was when she told me that she and her mom had gone to the mall before we arrived to get a birthday present for me. While it touched me to think that even through all their struggles they had thought of me, when Cara told me that she had been the one to pick out my gift, a purple sweatsuit with green stripes and arms that zipped off to make it short-sleeve, I plunged headfirst into a deep pool of tears. Little Cara, with her giant blueberry eyes and relentlessly cheerful outlook had chosen one of my favorite gifts of all time. And now she was a grownup married woman still thinking of others first. Her Catholic mother had taught her well.

As I looked around at my siblings and their children, all of whom have faced difficult choices and situations but have managed to muscle through, I was humbled in a way I have never been before. I realized how often I have taken the path of least resistance and have shied away from challenge, how I have blamed others and felt resentment toward those who didn’t deserve it. In that moment, I felt acutely the fear and pain of growing up as though I were still in the midst of it.

And I realized that I still am in the midst of it.

If I have any words of wisdom to offer my up-and-coming family they are these:

  • Never shy away from challenge. There is a reason you are being asked.
  • Don’t give in to any voices that tell you you’re not good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough. JUST TAKE ONE STEP. The others will follow.
  • Learn to take criticism and praise with a grain of salt.
  • Keep learning new things.
  • If your heart yearns for something, figure out how to oblige it.

I am ever faithful that each of us will manage to break through the roadblocks in our lives, that we will come to forgive ourselves and others for not being perfect no matter how long it takes, and we will learn to appreciate every painful moment as well as every joyful one even though we won’t always be able to experience them separately.

To my niece, Cara, who, on her special day was gracious enough to make part of it about me, you have already mastered the secrets of life listed above that many of us struggle a lifetime to learn… Bless your beautiful, open heart and may you and Andy have many wonderful years together.

  1. Mama Nance
    July 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    There was beauty every which way you looked last weekend. There was a beautiful
    day, a beautiful church, a beautiful ceremony, a beautiful reception setting, a beautiful brides’ gown, a beautiful toast and much more. The roots to all this beauty …. a beautiful family.

  2. Anonymous
    July 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Ellen, you leave me with goosebumps. Isn’t it wonderful how you’re never too old to have an epiphany?

  3. Barb
    July 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I was going to comment, but, Nancy…you said it all…and perfectly! I love you all! Thanks, Ellen, for such a beautifully-written piece!

  4. Pat Garvey
    July 16, 2011 at 1:49 am

    Those are good words of wisdom, Ellen. I have been so fortunate to have people give me a chance to prove that I can do more than I think I’m able to, time after time. Those challenges can be scary, but you learn so much by taking that first step. When you overcome your self doubt, you surprise yourself! I’m so grateful to everyone who took a chance on me, allowing me to prove to them and myself that I was more capable than I thought I was. Learning new things…I think an old dog CAN learn new tricks! I love learning new things at work and on Facebook! We are all works in progress, I think. Bless you for YOUR beautiful, open heart. I love that you share your life path with us, and the joy and pain along the way.

  5. Lee
    July 17, 2011 at 12:07 am

    As always, so deeply touched by your words….blessed to have you as my sister. Love ya

  6. Mickey Grooters
    August 8, 2011 at 1:22 am

    I love this line: “that we will come to forgive ourselves and others for not being perfect no matter how long it takes, ” and this one: “Don’t give in to any voices that tell you you’re not good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough. JUST TAKE ONE STEP.” I wonder. .. why is it so hard to forgive oneself for not being perfect. That “self-harshness” often then morphs into “you, are not perfect either.” A deadly storm for relationships.

    I like the idea of “taking one step”–one of our young grandsons already thinks of himself as a loser–bad at everything–he is an S and not an N and at his age would not quite “get” your wisdom here. I am trying to think how to communicate this same thing to him.

    What damage we do folks with our expectations- either social, or personal. Thanks for your blog.

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