To be a spiritual warrior,
one must have a broken heart;
without a broken heart
and the sense of tenderness and vulnerability
that is in one’s self and all others,
your warriorship is untrustworthy.~ Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala.
I just recently came across this quote and found it so beautiful I have hung on to it. I wonder when I read it, however, if having a broken heart automatically makes you a spiritual warrior, or if there’s more to it. I say this because while I know my soul has grown strong and healed a lot in the past two years, but at times it shakes like it would like to hide under the bed. I try to hide this by hardening myself to emotion a lot of times. I avoid anything that will make me feel something, be it books, movies, or songs. Alternatively, things that shouldn’t make me cry will leave me sobbing brokenheartedly. My mom tells me I have a gentle heart and that’s why I’m affected by things like this. I don’t like showing my emotion over certain subjects but I also used to cry at the drop of hat when my heart was hurting. I used to be embarrassed by that, as if there’s something wrong with crying. I know that there isn’t and that’s just who I am, but I’ll be honest that it doesn’t mean I don’t still keep my distance from emotional subjects. So have I become a warrior?
Two years ago today I said goodbye to one of the most important people in my life. In the end of August 2012 my Grandma passed out at my Aunt Cathy’s house. Upon further testing it was discovered that she had a tumor on her brain. A surgery was scheduled to remove what they could of the mass. The day or so before the surgery I Skype-chatted with her, in case things didn’t go well in surgery. Up to this point I didn’t REALLY realize the seriousness of the situation. After surgery my mom called me right away to let me know that Grandma has pulled through it and they had gotten almost all of the tumor. The doctors told her that she had at least 6 months to live. Six months seems like it could have been forever but for me it might as well have been the next day. To this day I honestly don’t know why I didn’t call her every single day after that to talk all day long.
I got the phone call on Friday September 26, 2012 that Grandma had stopped eating and communicating and basically if I wanted to see her before the end I had like 12 – 24 hours to get to Illinois. I of course booked the first flight I could get and afford to take. The next morning my boss drove me to the airport (so thankful) and I landed two hours later in Illinois. My Aunt Kim picked me up and we headed to the nursing home where Grandma was being cared for. As we walked hand in hand towards the building she warned me that Grandma looked a little different. All I could notice was that all the trees in Illinois had changed colors already and in New York we were still green. We walked down the hallway and into my Grandma’s room. I actually wasn’t sure what to expect and remember feeling shy and slightly terrified (not of her, but of the reality of what was happening). Kim told me that Grandma’s skin gets dry so I could rub lotion in for her, and then she went for a coffee, leaving us alone. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her face, I was so in shock. I took her hand and started rubbing lotion into them. They were so soft, just like I always remembered and immediately I started to cry silently.
After a minute of just watching me, Grandma said ”No, no, no, don’t cry. You’ll make me cry and I don’t want to be sad about this.” I said “But, I LOVE you, I love you!” Couldn’t she understand? I had to cry, she was leaving me and I was never ever going to see her again. I don’t believe in heaven so when she was gone we would never talk again. She was quiet for another few minutes as tears poured down my face. She finally stopped me rubbing lotion in, and squeezed my hand. ”I want you to be happy, Maria. Just be happy in your life.” Happy? How could she think I would ever be happy again?
I was exhausted after a night of no sleep so when Grandma said she might nap I crawled into her hospital bed with her with a blanket under my head for a pillow, cuddled up to her and cried and cried. She reached over and patted my arm in a way that was so familiar it hurt my heart. I fell asleep, eventually and woke up a little while later. Grandma had decided she was going to eat some food and the nurse was going to clean her up a little. Kim and I went to the nearby nail salon to buy some pink polish so I could paint Grandma’s nails, something we had always shared. When we came back she had a ton of food in front of her and was eating it all. I got to work filing and painting her nails, and then my nails so we would match. While I was painting her nails she kept saying things like how beautiful she would look in her casket, to my horror (I was still trying to deny that this lively, chatty woman was dying). She told me about her guardian angel, a large black woman with orange and purple colors. Today, I have a changed view of guardian angels and thinking back to this I am so thankful to her angel for letting us have that whole day together, making a few last memories.
My sister arrived shortly after this and I gave her some time to spend with Grandma. After this my mom arrived and we went to the cafe to sit and have lunch. The other big news of the day was that our cousin, Matt, was proposing to his girlfriend, (now wife!) Valerie that night, so we were all waiting to hear about that. He had a big romantic thing planned in front of the big fountains in Chicago and it was supposed to be perfectly beautiful.
Back in the room Grandma seemed to be living it up, eating Chinese food, bratwurst, beer, cheese and crackers, nuts, jello anything she wanted she could have and eat it she did. We (my sister, mom, aunts and cousin David and his girlfriend (now fiance!) Cheri,) all sat around with her giggling about stories from when she was younger. The subject changed from shaving, smoking pot and terrible cooking. The news arrived that Val had said yes, as we assumed she would, so we (the cousins) were planning to get together in Chicago (about an hour away) to celebrate with Matt, Val and their friends! Again, today, I wish I had stayed back and spent time with Grandma but my sister has repeatedly told me that she knows Grandma wanted us all to be together. It was the first time in twelve years that the four of us had all gotten together at the same time.
That night was a bit of drunken blur, memories coming in at interesting times: cheers to Grandma! Crying at the dogs in the humane society window watching us walk past, and getting sick in a gas station (I think) and being pissed that I didn’t redeem myself after that last time I drank with David and got too drunk haha. It was a beautiful night full of a lot of love, tears of joy and sadness and hugs all around mostly from me. My cousins like to joke that they have no doubt of how much I love them because after two beers I insist on hugging them and telling them I LOOVEEE YOU SOOO MUUUUCCHH over and over again. Hey, it could be worse.
The next morning we slept in a little, hungover, and then drove back to the nursing home. That day Grandma was not awake. She was in a lot of pain and not conscious. It was a day spent facing the inevitable and watching fall leaves blow outside her window. That night, sleeping on my Aunt Cathy’s couch I cried myself to sleep, knowing I had to go back to New York the next day and it would be literally the last time I ever saw my Grandma ever again.
Bright and early we headed to the nursing home. Again, she was not awake at all, she was getting a lot of morphine for pain and was breathing loudly and laboriously. At 11:30 the pastor arrived and we started chatting with her. During a pause in talking we noticed that the harsh breathing had gone silent. We all stared at Grandma waiting for the next breath. 5 second of silence and another breath. Silence. Silence. Silence. Another breath. She opened her eyes, her beautiful blue eyes, that always sparkled when she laughed, but there was nothing in them. It was very clear, like nothing in real life had ever been clear to me before, that her soul wasn’t in her body. We all started comforting her and everyone was telling her it was okay to go and be at peace. I had my face in her neck and was screaming inside my head for her to please not leave me, please please not yet. Was it selfish of me? Probably. But I can’t change how I felt. Finally the breathing just stopped, she was gone. 11:42 AM. I had spent all weekend crying silently, not wanting to upset her, but now that she was gone, she was really gone and I couldn’t stop the loud sobbing, I couldn’t even breath. I honestly thought I would choke from crying and not being able to breath. I didn’t want to let go of her hands and her neck, because she was still my warm Grandma. If I let go, the next time she would be cold. As my other cousins arrived we sat around Grandma’s body and told our favorite memories of her. i I eventually had to leave to go to the airport and return to New York. I was given a moment alone with her and while I was hugging her a nurse walked in to pick things up. I remember the fury I felt with her at being interrupted saying goodbye to my Grandmother. She couldn’t know, obviously, she was just doing her job, but I will never forget the level of anger at her I had. In retrospect, I know I was projecting my anger and pain on this nurse, who thankfully, realized what was happening and left.
My mom and sister drove me to the airport and I cried all the way through security, in the bathroom and onto the plain. Flying home there was a full moon outside my window the entire way. I landed and took the bus from the airport to Grand Central, where my friend Rachel met me and hugged me while I lost my shit in the middle of the sidewalk at 11pm. I have never been so grateful for a friend to just hold me and cry with me. I eventually took the train home and went to bed.
The following week I was a zombie. I would wake up crying, go through work motions, and then cry in the shower, not eating and cry myself to a dead sleep at night. I had no idea what to do with myself with the knowledge that I could no longer call my Grandma up and hear her voice. Everything was dull colored and depressing. No more visiting her in Florida, watching her flirt with her church friends, show off her new bathing suits, enjoy chocolates together and hold her hand.
That weekend was a three day weekend and I had to get away. I had to have a place where I could just sit and stare. So I went to Rachels. Friday night I arrived at Rachels around 8:30 or so and we went to sleep at 9. I woke up with a start around 2:30 am. Now, Rachel has a cat named Raskol, and he is….rather noisy. I knew I needed to get back to sleep before Raskol realized someone in the bedroom was awake and began his nightly antics. I clicked shuffle play on my ipod and put on my headphones and of course the song that came on was ”I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, a version which my grandparents would often sing to each other (Grandpa badly, Grandma adorably) in the car when we would visit when we were younger. I changed the song immediately and lay back down. I was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that if I didn’t sit up RIGHT THAT SECOND I was going to have a panic attack. I sat up and took off my headphones. My head was spinning, like when you’ve had too much to drink, despite having nothing to drink, and I couldn’t see a damn thing. Despite this odd blindness, I knew without a doubt, 100% that my Grandma and Grandpa were standing together at the end of Rachels bed, smiling. I couldn’t SEE them I tried and tried to rub the stars out of my eyes, but I couldn’t see anything, but I knew it was them and I could feel their love, I could feel their smiles. After a few minutes I laid back down and instantly fell back asleep.
The next morning when I woke up I felt like a new person. Or rather, the old me. I could smile, the colors were bright again and the sun was shining joyfully. To this day, I don’t know what happened that night, like exactly. But I do know that it was real and I know it because of the drastic emotional change in me the next morning. I woke up feeling so loved and happy that I don’t even want to try to make it logical. I still don’t know what I believe but I believe in Grandma and Grandpa at the foot of the bed. Since then many things have happened to continue my belief that I am being watched over by my Grandma daily in many situations, where bad things could have happened and should have, but didn’t.
This brings me to my initial topic: being a spiritual warrior. I know it was a long way to get here but continue to bear with me please.
I spent the following year asking myself what my Grandma had meant by ”be happy”. Wasn’t I happy? I loved my job so much, the kids I cared for were my heart and soul every day. I had made friends and had a steady paycheck. So what would she say that for? I was happy, right? As time went by I realized that I was not in fact Happy. I was happy but not with a capital H. I was satisfied, comfortable and content. But my soul wasn’t singing every day the way I think it was supposed to be. As I began wondering what I needed to be doing to bring myself that happiness the idea of the bike tour was presented to me. When I officially started making plans with Tom, the man I was supposed to tour with, the excitement I felt for the future, for the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted and rely on no one but my self, proved to me that I needed more from my life.
When I would try to explain this to people many didn’t understand how the idea of going ”for a bike ride” was going to help me grow up, or fulfill myself and I had to just let it go. Not everyone is made to understand. I set out looking for a SOMETHING with the label happy on it. If it was a place, a person, anything but I knew it was physical.
Looking back in reflection on the first leg of my bike tour I have come to a realization. I couldn’t be looking for SOMEthing to make me happy. I had to be looking for ME to make me happy. I needed to learn to stop relying on other people to make me feel worthy, to feel loved, to feel needed. When I started to need MYSELF every day to feel worthy, to feel able and needed, things began to change in me. No one but me was going to get me up this hill, no one but me was going to push me through this wind, no one but me was going to set up my tent, talk with hosts and strangers, and no one but me was going to hear the wind whistling by me as I blew down the hills I, ALONE, had worked so hard to climb. Through all of this my Grandmother showed herself, in the yellow butterfly that has followed me through from Texas all the way to San Francisco, in the orbs that will show up in moments on photos when it couldn’t be the sun glare, in moments of great emotion, like when I first saw the majestic Saguaro Cacti on the mountainsides heading into Phoenix. She is with me all the time, I talk to her all the time and I definitely pray for her help when I need her. I also told her she was ruining my makeup this morning as I cried while writing this blog. I know she has put me here at this place at this moment to further understand how I need to be strong on my own. Yes, I still have moments of breakdowns, when my heart longs to hear her and hug my family so badly that it hurts and I feel short of breath with wanting. But I also know that however long it takes me to heal from the grief, I can never thank her enough for giving me the push and confidence down the road to finding myself and my soul. I think I can say I am a spiritual warrior, because to admit my weakness has to be a strength needed to be mighty. And I am a small biker in the world but I am learning to be big and strong in my heart and soul, and that’s a step, isn’t it?
I heard this song during a movie this weekend and it really hit me powerfully. Here’s the link, I’m sure you’ll know why. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YLEaRPffEg