Taking the Helm
I now know that opportunity – as it presents itself to me – doesn’t always appear as I might think it would, or as I would hope, given my respective aspirations. I don’t always notice it, even when it’s right in front of me. In fact, I could be intentionally looking for it, and still miss it.
I also understand that opportunity doesn’t necessarily come when I need it, or when I most want it. It can actually arrive when I least expect it or when I’m not even looking for it (or, at least when I think I’m not looking for it). Looking in hindsight at something that happened in my life sometimes makes it easier to define it as an opportunity, or, sometimes, as a missed opportunity.
Perhaps opportunity lives at the corner of fate and freewill.
Nonetheless, how do we recognize it when it comes? Or, better, how do we initiate opportunity for ourselves? And what do we do with it once we recognize it or initiate it? Opportunity being the enigma that it is, makes it hard for me to pin down. Perhaps sharing a few chapters of my life will shed some light on the potential answers to these questions.
My wife, Shira, was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer on her 39th birthday, one month after the birth of our second son. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the greatest opportunity of my life was presented by this precipitous event.
Though she had blood in her urine during the pregnancy, the midwives dismissed it as an anomaly of a body undergoing tremendous change. Just the same, I was blindsided by the news. We had just bought our first home together, scrambled to make a cozy nest, and had an amazingly beautiful home birth, all in a span of nine weeks leading up to the colonoscopy appointment.
I struggled desperately in the days, months, weeks, and years following the news of her diagnosis. I became a lost sailor at sea, blindsided and knocked off our life’s sailboat when that virtual storm approached. Unprepared. Without personal flotation devices. I was shocked and scared. She was terrified for her life. And, there was no land in site and nothing to ground our feet into.
But my desire to stay connected and show my love for her helped me get back on the boat. With everything I had, I showed up and leaned in to an order and context that was falling apart. It’s easy to appreciate now all my misgivings and shortcomings, all the lessons I’d yet to learn at that time. My life had been turned inside out and upside down, and over and under, spiraling and unraveling towards entropy. I did the best I could.
In the four years from her diagnosis to her death, I saw Shira do everything in her power to heal her soul and cure her cancer. While she didn’t go the conventional route, she didn’t dismiss it either. She spent an enormous amount of time reading, listening, and synthesizing everything she could about the biology of cancer and approaches to curing it. She had surgery, some radiation, but no prescribed chemo. She traveled to southern China for four months seeking a specialized sono-photodynamic chemotherapy while I stayed at home with my two sons, at the time ages 5 and 2, and continued working. She then went to the Philippines for adjuvant therapy for another month. After returning from Asia, she went to Colorado to get a medical marijuana license and meet with pioneers at the forefront of cannabis and cancer research. She also went to Brazil to see John of God near the end of her life. She was bold, brave, and tenacious about finding a solution that was not only effective at curing her cancer, but that was also right for her. And she never gave away the power to heal herself to anyone or anything other than to her own authority and judgment.
There wasn’t an allopathic oncologist or medical professional of any kind who could keep up with her. I certainly couldn’t. The best I could do in support of her journey was to lovingly carry out the duties of my role as first mate. She was a desperate and determined captain, unwavering in her commitment to cure her cancer and let go of all that didn’t serve her. Her quest was to dwell in the realm of love. And I was at her side for the wild ride.
Shira died on February 24, 2014, two days before my younger son’s 4th birthday.
That was the day I was handed the helm of the vessel. By virtue of my position and seniority (the other sailors on board were quite young), I became captain. I now had complete dominion over my family and all the responsibility that came with it. A metaphorically massive, sophisticated, multi-masted sailing vessel, a boat much larger than anything I’d ever known, and larger than anything I’d ever commandeered before – huge rectangular sheets of canvas sails, complex knots and rigging, captain’s quarters in the stern, multiple decks and lookout towers, a mermaid on the bow sprit. And a crew of two.
Since that promotion, my boys and I have been battered by gigantic waves of grief and anger; thrown off course into confusion and doubt by cloudy, grey skies; and hurdled in far-flung directions by the winds of change. All the while, I’ve had no reputable intelligence about the condition of the ship. We’ve been in true survival mode and the crew has been near mutiny countless times, full of pain, anxiety, and anger. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or to where we should travel. Nor did I know much about navigating a ship of this size. Alone.
Over these years through the vast oceans of sadness and through subsequent storms, I’ve been madly trying to keep our boat afloat. Keeping it from crumbling altogether. As if waking up into a nightmare, I slowly began to realize that I was indeed set adrift, as it were, on the sea of life. I’ve seen dark skies as foreboding as any I’d ever seen. And, I learned to see them for what they are. Waves repeatedly smashed up against the sides of our ship. And, I was constantly reminded of my lot. Winds have howled vortices around the masts. And, I’ve hung on for dear life.
In my loss, there existed constant conflict between descents into darkness and pursuits to rise above it. The lure of holding onto and hiding under the swarthy veil of grief, with all its sadness, despondence, and habitual tendencies that were no longer relevant and appropriate, was incredibly strong. The darkness was comforting and incredibly alluring because it contained all of which was familiar and all of which felt safe. But the dark was attractive not because it was dark, but because the light was so excruciatingly blinding that I could not look at it. I could not see joy. I could not envision a world of light. I could not claim my happiness. I thought I had no right to it anymore, as if claiming it would discredit Shira’s death. I equated letting go of the grief with letting go of her. And so, for much of the time, it was easier to stay in the pain of my loss – to remain connected to the sadness – than to get out into the light and walk into the unknown. The light had represented a breaking away from all things familiar; an absolute letting go. It was far too great a step for me to take at the time. The inertia holding me back was too much to overcome.
In time, I became aware that part of what was holding me down in grief was my perspective on being left as a single father. I had never asked for this way of living and certainly never wanted it. My expectation in marriage was to have a family that included a partner. I subconsciously held onto that as tightly as I could even as it was being ripped out of my hands. And, all the while, I was unable to deeply feel the sadness of what was taken away from me. Out of my inability to express the pain of my loss in healthy and humble ways, I sought blame, and felt a deep resentment about being left by Shira to raise the boys alone. Anger emerged. And lots of it. I was wholly unwilling to accept my circumstances. And so, in my righteous indignation, the tasks of single parenting felt like a burden to me. My kids felt like a burden to me. Their behaviors and insecurities felt like a burden to me. I bore the absolute injustice of my situation, trapped by it and full of rancor, as if a ball and chain were now attached to my ankle.
The process of removing this self-imposed restriction has been an arduous endeavor that has required my unwavering commitment to living and loving. Initially, I experienced a desire a run away, to escape and flee. I once had a fleeting inspiration to travel internationally for a long while with the boys. Though it was ridiculous and whimsical at the time, it had attractive and sensible qualities that I was yet to understand. Then, I met an angel, a beautiful, wise woman – single mother of two girls – who, through a profound, long-term romantic relationship, helped me open to love, transform my resentment, and redirect my parenting. She tirelessly turned me towards love and shepherded me over the sharp, rough edges of grief towards praise and joy for life.
In the beginning, while I named her death as an opportunity to move towards light and love, I couldn’t actually define it as such. Naming it did give it context. It did help me move towards my ambition and drive to live more fully and more authentically in my sentient self. But it was hard to see the definitions of the momentous opportunity that stood in front of me. It was simply too big to get my head around. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to keep moving towards change in all parts of my life – my parenting, my living situation, my occupation, my relationships, my values, my self-confidence, the stories I told myself. Gradually, new definitions formed around what it means to take full responsibility for my life. I could no longer tolerate complaining about what I’d like to change about myself, or what in my external world wasn’t bringing me joy, health, or peace. It became futile. Eventually, embracing my life for the opportunity it is, and taking action to make it mine felt more compelling.
With these new perspectives, a personal vision full of purpose and direction began to emerge. Four years after Shira’s death, with all my executive functioning skills renewed and energized, I renounced full-time employment, rented my house and car, and took off for nearly a year to travel around the world with my two boys (at the time, ages 11 and 8). It was the boldest thing I’d ever done and the single largest endeavor I‘d ever accomplished. It felt riskier than anything I‘d done before. At once, I was resolute in my conviction and uncertain about the outcome. I wasn’t really sure how any of it would go, or where we’d wind up, literally and figuratively, when we completed our travels. I essentially took the boys’ hands in mine, walked off a cliff, and assured them we’d fly.
And fly we did (eventually!). The sheer boldness of this act has since provided me with countless moments of grace and ease, and has given me the verve to continue forging ahead into the great unknown, as it surely is. I have been able to fully step into my power to make further changes in my life with intention, trust, and commitment. And my boys have been witness to my fortitude, resilience, and strength. They have followed me on this path through the darkness and into the light. And in doing so, they have had to put their trust and faith in me so that I could have faith and trust in something much larger. My decision to shake everything up by traveling the globe was deeply rooted in a bed of faith that the universe will provide me with what I need when I need it. And by virtue of my full participation in the experience, all my senses have been turned on – I listen with new ears; I see with new eyes; I feel life’s sensuality; I smell its fragrant beauty; and I taste its tender essence. I am alive in the boldness. That’s its magic, its genius. It has released the life force in me that was so stifled by my loss. It has rejuvenated my desire to turn towards the light. It has shown me that grace appears when I follow my intuitions, stay true to my intentions, and relinquish my expectations.
It took me this much time in grieving the loss of my wife to understand that, like the beautiful pearl, love is formed by the layers of learning that result from paying attention to the irritants in our lives, inflictions upon our sensibilities, and slaps in the face of our understanding of the world. It’s formed under the immense weight of the sea of life overhead and all around us, shifting and bending in the up swells and down currents, subject to forces much greater than the sum of its visible parts…much greater than we’ll ever know. Each and every hardship in our lives, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the seemingly insignificant disappointments we encounter in our daily lives, holds the potential to transform our connection to our own selves and the world around us. These are, without a doubt, opportunities to grow more comfortable with who we are, more grateful for all our positive aspects, and less critical of those places in which we fail to meet our own expectations. We have the chance to grow more secure in ourselves, so that no matter the weather outside, we can feel safe and warm inside, connected with our good parts, and bad parts, and standing firm in our values, ethics, morals, and most importantly, in our love. I understand now that my love is born in the sediments of pain, death, and decay that lie beneath the façade of adaptation. We reveal the pearl-like, shiny surface of our love only by embracing all that we’ve been through and experienced in our lives.
In the end, I believe that opportunity is all around us, waiting at the confluence of our courage, conviction, and compassion. Opportunity is the unrealized potential of our lives. It is what we choose to go after when we are ready to go after it. To take an opportunity is to make change with all our heart and all our mind. And sometimes, we need to lose something in order to make room for something new to come in. My wife used to tell me, as she held out her clenched fist to demonstrate, that when we hold onto things tightly, there’s no room for anything else. But when we open up and let go – here, she’d release her grip and slowly open her hand to reinforce the concept – we make space for novelty.
I could never have imagined what would come into the space that was created when I let go of all that I let go of. I couldn’t see what lay on the other side of a life that was so distressing and dark. I couldn’t see how I’d change when I let go of old ways of being and outdated, limiting beliefs. How could I have known or foreseen that by quitting my full-time job I could work from home supporting solo-entrepreneurs in their editorial, administrative, and operational needs? How could I have known that by leaving my home, I would want to move to a new location? And what about all the countless other things that I changed over these years? What sorts of marvelous things lay in store for me (us) on the other side of those changes? None of us can possibly see what lies ahead of us in its entirety. However, we can be sure that taking opportunity delivers possibility and novelty.
My circumstances have indeed propelled me to take opportunities. And now I see clearly that my wife has given me precious gifts – taught me to love and be loved, presented me with two illuminated beings, and left me with the burning impetus to take responsibility for my life in bigger and bolder ways. In her death was the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of my life. And here I stand, with her teachings and blessings, poised at the helm to charter a new course in the next chapter of my life.