Update on 1/19/19: My memoir, Angels in the OR: What Dying Taught Me About Healing, Survival, and Transformation, can be pre-ordered now. It is a #1 new release in several categories. I would love it if you helped me make near-death experiences more mainstream.
Hope is the only thing that matters because it points to the inevitable.—Pam Grout
Today, I watch my prayer flags blowing in the wind and remember a time in my life when I was ridiculously optimistic. I was eighteen and close to graduating from high school. I hadn’t received any scholarships yet, but I visualized money flying into my mailbox on a magic carpet ride. Thousands of dollars did indeed arrive, and I knew those checks sealed my fate. I would be leaving East Texas and never returning. I took pictures of my ramshackle of a home to remember it. I captured the sinking floors, the sinking roof, and the black mildew covering the walls. I captured the peeling wallpaper, the wood panel, and the mouse droppings. I grew up poor, ridiculously poor, like Walmart was too good for us kind of poor. Poor like I rolled up white bread and ate it slowly when the hunger pains hit. Poor like I wished my parents weren’t proud and would’ve applied for welfare so I could eat free school lunches. I envied the kids eating warm breakfasts in the cafeteria.
I wore clothes from garage sales and was picked on unmercifully in late elementary school and early junior high. Girls called me ugly, disgusting, and worthless. When I look back at the pictures, I was adorable, a little malnourished and underdeveloped but worthy of love. All kids are worthy of love. My innocent heart and compassionate nature was lovely. I liked all people in an open-hearted way. I didn’t understand why my love wasn’t often returned, but I realized that was probably more about them than about me. I didn’t understand why my parents hated each other and didn’t get divorced. I didn’t understand why I had to observe mom hurling abuse in dad’s direction and dad ducking out the door and coming back late at night. He never came around much during the evenings other than to shower and head out again, only saying, “Keep up the good work in school, kiddo.” At least he said something nice. Sometimes, that phrase would be the only kind thing I heard all day.
Most nights, dad stayed away from the house until 10 or 11 p.m. On weekends, he went on fishing trips. When he wasn’t around, mom generally yelled at me for minor reasons, threatened suicide around 5 p.m., and went to bed around 6 p.m. At first, I tried to find help for her by asking a few friends parents about therapists or ministers, but she refused all help. She wasn’t always unstable, but many times I felt scared for her. I was unable to help her in those moments because I needed parenting myself and a peaceful place to live. I didn’t have siblings and there weren’t any kids in my neighborhood to hang out with. I was alone except for the phone and the moon and the stars.
However, my life situation didn’t matter much to me on most nights. I had a connection to nature, books from the library, and so much freaking optimism. I had the optimism of a rocket not afraid to leave the earth’s atmosphere. I wrote poems late into the night. My future felt like a wild ride, and I was a racecar driver. I left East Texas a week after graduation with unlimited optimism. Whatever life had given me didn’t matter. I was a live wire, a magician, and a song writer. My life was my song.
I wish I could bottle the enthusiasm of that eighteen-year-old girl. I wish I could make it into a magic, everlasting elixir and give it to everyone. It didn’t matter that life would crush me in a hundred different ways after that moment. It only matters that I dared to dream. I dared to try. I shot for the stars and made it to a few mountaintops around the world. Hope doesn’t have to be reserved for the young. Hope is a gift we give ourselves because we love ourselves despite our life situations or challenges. Hope is a gift we give ourselves in order to rise above and beyond what is going on around us. Hope means loving yourself enough to get excited about what comes next.
Eventually, my mother left my father and created a better life for herself by looking to new horizons and taking chances. My father died eight years ago, but he died better and more optimistically than anyone that I have ever witnessed or read about. He didn’t try to hang on desperately to his dying body. His soul grew large, and he met death with curiosity, ready for his next adventure and solidly certain that his soul would go on. To this day, I still get communications from him.
Today, I am excited about what comes next, not exactly in the same way that I was excited at eighteen but excited. This excitement comes from not bothering to turn my head back into the past. My head is on straight, and my sight is set on the next horizon. Each setting sun is a prayer flag waving back at me, a blessing giver throwing confetti. I am my own beacon of light, and I’m not lost at sea. My ship has docked in a fabulous port. I know there’s spicy food at a restaurant nearby, and I like my food very spicy. I can afford desert as well. I’m in my own commercial, and I’m sold on the life that life is giving me. Everything is turning out beautifully. Better than I could’ve imagined. I wish this for everyone. Hope and so much freaking optimism.