Space Between Snowflakes

I woke up early this morning, thoughts already racing.

Yesterday felt chaotic to me. In the middle of a tense meeting that I was leading, my phone – which I had forgotten to silence – starting pinging with notifications. My elderly mother was on the way to the emergency room in an ambulance.

There was nothing I could do about it – Mom lives at the other end of the country and my sister, who lives locally, was meeting Mom at the hospital. Mom’s health has been rocky for several years. She is living with several chronic conditions that put her at risk. She has worsened the situation by neglecting to take the prescribed medications or follow medical advice. She waited too long to accept that her changing physical needs required a caregiver, and fell several times.

And, when the doctor prescribed oxygen, she made a mental and emotional decision that it meant that she would now have to live like the old people that she had known as a child, immobile and isolated, dependent on others to serve all her needs. She reduced her food intake and stopped exercising, refusing to engage with people other than my sister’s family, my other sister and I when we visit, and her caregivers.

During this time, her health has gone up and down. Sometimes she feels better and stronger for several months; then something happens and her health declines again. Right now, she’s on a downswing. She’s been experiencing stomach pain for several months that keeps her up at night and prevents her from doing much of anything during the day. It gets better and then worse. When she can get in to see her GP – who is impossible to make an appointment with and is pretty much useless when she can see him but she refuses to see anyone else because she likes him – he prescribes things that she neglects to take anyway. She’s had my sister take her to urgent care who sends her to the emergency room (because they refuse to get involved with someone with her underlying health problems), and then has had my sister take her home because she’s tired of waiting for someone to see her.

Yesterday, she decided the pain was too great and had the caregiver tell my sister that she wanted to go to the emergency room. They were in the middle of a bad ice storm, and my sister wisely told them to call an ambulance so she wouldn’t risk having an accident with Mom in the car, and met them at the hospital. Once there, the hospital ran some tests, recommended surgery then scared Mom out of having the surgery. Since she is refusing treatment (the surgery), they will probably observe her for a few days then put her back on hospice and send her home. She was on hospice last year and it really agreed with her – her condition improved so much that they kicked her off hospice. What she really needs is palliative care, but they don’t offer that service in the small rural town where she lives.

But I knew none of this when my sister started texting. After the first, alarming text, my sister went radio silent – she was driving across town in an ice storm, locating Mom in the hospital, getting her checked in, navigating what the different doctors were saying, trying to figure out what was going on. My husband – I am working from home this week; due to the rate of Covid in town, my office is closed, and thank goodness, because every call I’m on I hear about 3 more people from work who have it – kept popping into my office, interrupting me from distracting myself with work, asking for updates. In his family – which is populated by doctors – his sister will take his parents to the hospital, navigate the complications, interpret what the doctors are saying, challenge their diagnosis and treatment until she is satisfied they are getting the best care, and then call her siblings with a full case history, prognosis, and proposed treatment plan. After I snapped at him for demanding information that I didn’t have for the third time – I was getting texts that said things like, “ER doc says she needs surgery” without any backstory – I finally realized how stressed out I was, asked a team member to take the 2 pm meeting I had spent two days prepping for, and went offline.

This interruption came at a bad time, for things are also chaotic at work. My team is being asked to take on more with less, while at the same time raising standards, and renegotiating our role in our current work. By the end of the year, I was so burnt out that I spent the Christmas break sleeping. Yesterday morning, at the first senior leadership meeting of the year, everyone shared instagrammable stories about skiing and snowboarding, going to the beach, spending time with extended family; I said nothing – who wants to be a downer and say you were so burnt out all you could do was sleep, despite your best plans.

By the end of the day, I was happy to curl up and watch some bad TV, then crawl off to bed, where I slept restlessly and woke up obsessing about work until I realized what I was doing. It was 4:30 and I was too awake to go back to sleep.

And then I remembered: it was snowing.

This is our first big snow of the season. Due to climate change, several storms that would have been blizzards in the past swept through as rain.

I crawled out of bed, wrapped myself in a fuzzy blanket, and curled up on the couch, losing myself in the snow for 30 minutes.

When you watch the snow out the window, it seems at first to fall like rain, a sheet falling down. But if you train your eyes, you can pick out individual snowflakes and follow them down, and then let them go when you lose them below the windowsill. Sometimes they fall down; sometimes, caught by a gust of wind, they fall up, or sideways, or tumble in loops.

There was something peaceful and restorative in watching it snow.

As soon as I realized I had started thinking about something else, I took a breath, found a snowflake, and followed it down.

After a half hour, I started my usual day.

For this morning’s meditation, I found a guided meditation where you alternate focusing on your breath, and watching your thoughts as if they are snowflakes. This was a great image for me today; that is how my thoughts often are: falling in sheets, tumbling, coming into focus, then falling again and getting lost in the overall volume of falling snow. The guide suggested, as each thought left, focusing on the space – however small it was – between the snowflake thoughts.

It was the perfect meditation for me today, creating space in a world filled with chaos.

And it’s a perfect quality that I need to bring into the rest of my life: chaos is chaos, you can’t bring order to it – as much as I want to – sometimes you have to let it be chaos. You have to let your mother be sick, your sister be stressed out, your house be a mess, your colleagues refuse to meet deadlines.

You have to accept that there is chaos in the world and that it’s not up to you to fix that. All you can do is recognize it, label it, and let it be.

And focus on the space between the snowflakes.

Update several days later: Mom is back at home, health situation resolved. The doctor said it was spontaneous recovery (i.e. a miracle). The problem she had was serious and can be fatal, caused by a combination of lack of activity and dehydration. But now Mom is home and determined not to do the very things that the doctor recommended doing to prevent a recurrence: every hour during the day, getting up and moving about, and drinking water. But Mom is depressed and, when you are depressed, even getting up and moving about and drinking water feels overwhelming. Even finally attending the online therapy appointment you made when you were feeling better, feels overwhelming; so she tells me she is thinking she should cancel it, to which I said NO, you are keeping it, and you are going to continue for at least 3 months. We’ll see…

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