“It is a universal experience for life not to turn out as we want or expect.”
These are the wise words of Edith Eger, a concentration camp survivor who wrote her first book, The Choice, at age 90.
If it is so universal, why is it so damn hard?
Why do we rail against what’s happening, damning the world for not giving us what we want?
Why do we ache when something doesn’t turn out as planned?
Why is our disappointment so intense when expectations aren’t met?
How do we do anything about it?
I have shared before about my mother; a beautiful, brilliant, literary giant, a teacher in every sense of the word who, with my dad, raised her children to love reading, writing, discussing and contemplating. There was never small talk with my mom. All conversations inched towards the heart of the matter within moments. Everything for my mom had meaning and thus, a lesson was to be learned in every situation or life event. For the first sixty years of my life, I would have described my mother as one of the most accepting, tolerant people I’ve ever known. She was always curious about what we were up to in our lives, but never over-involved. She needed her space and she gave us ours. Mom was neither critical nor judgmental, always able to see the good in people. If anything, I would have said that she overlooked too much, sometimes wearing rose-colored glasses. But one thing was clear; because she was so positive, so able to see what was beautiful, because she was so open and appreciative of what life offered, she was a joy to be with.
Until a few years ago.
My mom is no stranger to adversity or challenges. She was born into the Great Depression and her family lived with no source of income for years. She lived through WWII, watching her brother and friends go off to war as teenagers, only some of whom came back. She lost her youngest son to addiction and her fortune to Bernie Madoff. But she never lost hope, nor the ability to be grateful for everyone and everything around her.
But 2020 rocked our world in unimaginable ways and we have watched my mom turn sad, angry and almost bitter. She is not who we’ve known her to be and it is heartbreaking.
After my (second) brother died in February, in the midst of the pandemic, a cloud of grief descended on us all.
My dad, an extraordinary lawyer and human being, couldn’t get out of bed, and stopped reading his beloved NY Times, smoking his cigars or listening to Bobby Short. After a number of falls and hospital visits, my frail mother became unable to care for him and we moved him to a nursing home near my sister, where we celebrated his 96th birthday a few weeks ago.
A month ago, facing a cognitive and physical decline, we moved my mom into the assisted living facility just steps away from her husband of almost 73 years. We decorated her new apt with her exquisite furniture, beautiful antique lamps, artwork, countless framed family pictures and dozens of her favorite books. The apt is light and spacious and we were optimistic that she would find her way back to herself.
On the day after the move, we sat on her velvet couch and she looked at me with tears in her piercing blue eyes and whispered “this isn’t how I expected my life would turn out.”
The depth of her disappointment has been hard to stomach. I want to help her find a little peace and contentment.
How do I help her accept that this is the way her life turned out; that she’s almost blind, unable to read, the activity she cherishes most?
How do I help her let go of the fantasy that she’s capable of living life in the same way as she was just a few years ago- before she began forgetting things, having trouble hearing, and living with a painful ulcer on her leg, making it hard to get around?
Expectations are almost always at the root of disappointment. She expected this phase of her life to be different. I did too. We are all suffering from thwarted expectations.
The phrase “man makes plans and God laughs” always resonates.
We try not to be attached to our visions of the way things should be, but nothing is more difficult than allowing things to be the way they are, particularly when they suck.
The book What to Expect When You are Expecting was our bible when we were having children in the 90s. It attempted to give us a road map for a journey we had never before been on. We fed ourselves morsels of the book each month, each week, each day of pregnancy, carefully mapping whether we were on “schedule” or deviating in any way which, most likely would lead to anxious thoughts or calls to the doctor's office.
We bought into the notion that by reading the book, we would not be shocked, surprised or disappointed by what happened to us during pregnancy; but would instead, be comforted by a book we could follow closely, assuring us that we were doing things right.
But can we find a book to manage our expectations for every stage of life?
What to expect when your children leave home and your primary role in life changes?
What to expect when you lose a sibling or a close friend from a horrible disease?
What to expect when your adored parents become unrecognizable?
What to expect when your life feels devoid of meaning?
Maybe there are books that will be helpful, but the truth is we need to live with fewer expectations, road maps and how- to books.
Rather, we need the books How Not to Expect Life to Go Any Particular Way and How to Live with Exactly What is Happening.
In the words of the brilliant Sharon Salzberg, “The key in letting go is practice. Each time we let go, we disentangle ourselves from our expectations and experience things as they really are.”
I am hoping that my mom can take a look around her and make peace with the significant physical and psychological challenges in her life, recognizing that this is her new reality, allowing a quiet acceptance to fill her being. I hope that she can focus on tasting the foods she loves, listening to the music that soothes her, watching the trees outside of her window and feeling the love of all of us around her.
It’s definitely not what any of us expected but it is what we have. Raging against what is doesn't change a thing. If you are struggling to accept something in life at the moment, I can relate. In those moments, try closing your eyes and connecting with your physical environment. Notice what's around you, using all your senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? Smell? Touch? Nothing brings us into the present faster than connecting to our senses.
I hope there’s a Fred Astaire movie on tonight for my mom to be swept away by… I hope she can watch every dance move and hear every note of every song, being transported back from the clutches of sadness and frustration and into the present. I hope that she can taste the mint in her tea and feel the cozy blanket around her legs. I hope she can close her eyes and remember the last hug we shared a few days ago. May we learn to embrace our present, let go of the past and stop obsessing about the future. May we expect the unexpected.
And may we all heed Buddha’s wisdom to “be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life.” With love and light, Nora