I sifted through both cars, my own and my husband’s, underneath our boys’ baseball equipment, candy wrappers, and empty water bottles. The felt bag was nowhere to be found.
I was finally ready to take this bag of a dozen sweaters, some of which were my fancy cashmeres, to the dry cleaners. Why a dozen, you may ask? Well, these were essentially all the nice sweaters I owned. I waited a very long time to finally do it in one go and get them cleaned by professionals. I didn’t trust my own machine washing skills with these delicate fabrics. The last time I tried, one of them transformed itself into a size 18 to 24 months.
I didn’t want to take a chance, especially because I also included a sweater that belonged to my late mother. It was striped black and white and still had her perfume scent embedded in it. She wore it weeks before she died. I debated whether or not to even clean it, and render it free of her distinct floral scent, but last minute, I threw it in the bag that was supposed to be headed to the dry cleaners that day.
To my dismay, I discovered that my well-intentioned husband thought it was a bag I had wanted to donate and tossed it in the donation bin conveniently located next door to the dry cleaners. He thought he was doing me a favor. The moment upon discovering this, I froze. I was beyond myself for a few minutes but soon after, I realized how much of a gift his “accident” truly was.
Letting go of these sweaters, including my mother’s, become a part of a journey towards myself. The awareness of my reaction is what shocked me the most. It wasn’t rational; it was transcendent.
Marie Kondo describes a sense of freedom and levity once we rid ourselves of the excess. This was different. It wasn’t about excess or minimalism; it was about recognizing I had a choice in my reaction and how I perceived what happened. The “sweater episode,” which I like to call this moment in my life, was just a reflection of all the hard work I did prior, which led me to this inflection point.
I had just lost my mother to aggressive cancer five months prior. During that time, I had been processing some very deep grief and pain. I slowly returned to life as I knew it but deep inside was an entirely changed person. I was back at work, seeing patients, tending to the daily grind of what needed to get done to raise a family and manage a household—which on a Saturday morning was going at its usual pace and included a quick trip to the dry cleaner’s. But the world had other plans.
Sometimes the mundane moments serve as our greatest teachers. In letting my sweaters go, my eyes opened to newfound freedom. This was a powerful space that felt limitless and unchartered. This space could have been painted in a million ways using a million shades. I became the artist who got to choose the color for my canvas.
In letting my mother go, I began the journey of exploring, navigating, and testing the boundaries of my canvas. As suffering crept in, I learned to surrender to it and to be in awe of what was in front of me. I learned to free myself of all self-judgment, analysis, and criticism.
While at her bedside, my body was in constant movement making critical medical decisions, yet my conscious sat back and watched it all play out. I stopped fighting with reality and rather moved with it. I let it move within me—which reminded me of being 18 years old and sitting on a small fisherman’s boat over very choppy waves. I learned to lean in and move synchronously with each crashing wave to not abruptly hit the surface. My mother’s death taught me to be buoyant with life.
In letting go, I now see things as they are. This has been tremendously helpful in my role as a physician. In medicine, we sacrifice so much of ourselves, and unfortunately, the culture upholds this malignant approach like a badge of honor. The tide is slowly shifting with structural changes, but the work will always need to come from within. When we let them, our losses will move us in powerful ways and enable us to find joy again. When I am more fully present for myself, I am more fully present for my family, friends, and patients.
The fragility of life and the power of loss has been phenomenal teachers leading me to pause and introspect each day. We all harness the ability to choose how we respond to the world and what shades we want to illuminate our canvas.
In the end, it’s also really about the stories we tell ourselves and how we tell them. I know my mother would have loved how this story ends and how the next ones will begin. Someone somewhere out there in this world who needed it more than I did was warmed and comforted by her donated black and white striped sweater.
Roxanne Almas is a developmental behavioral pediatrician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com