September 20, 2020
It took my mom dying when I was 37 years old to understand why my life was not flowing the way I wished it would. Yep, death opened my eyes to the importance of shifting priorities in life.
Leading up to my mom’s death, my life looked like this: work, school, work, work, church, work, school, church, work … OK, you get the point. I was a consummate student, beginning early in childhood. And at age 17, I began undergraduate study at Baylor University, followed by completion of a Master’s degree and a doctoral degree. With the exception of a few years, I wore the banner of ‘full-time student’ for 17 years.
O.M.G! Just reading that sentence gives me chills.
Not only was school my focus, but I also functioned as a workhorse across employment settings and feverishly served at my local church.
Yea, me too, obviously. See, my priorities over those years were completely out of order. My life had, for the most part, followed this sequence: help others, spend time with God, and do things for myself (if I had time). Put another way, my schedule typically flowed as follows:
8:00am – 5:00pm Work
5:00pm – 5:30ish Drive from work to school or church
6:00pm – 10:00pm School (and occasional church activity)
10:00pm – 10:45pm Drive home
10:45pm – Midnight Shower, study, and read my Bible
Midnight – 6:30am Sleep (well, try to sleep the best I could as an insomniac)
Weekends: Study and church-related activity
This was my life and after so many years of living this way, I simply accepted it.
But as we all know, life has a way of waking us up to what matters most.
My awakening was gradual, beginning in 2010. I began the second year of a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in Los Angeles, prepped and ready to work hard and slide into the finish line. That final year progressed with ease and things flowed smoothly, that is until I received a phone call from my brother early one morning. He called to share that our mom, a feisty and hard-working Black woman, had suffered a series of strokes and was hospitalized.
I flew home, Houston, Texas, raced to the hospital, and met my mom and brother there, both laughing at my mom’s ability to still fuss even after experiencing a major neurological insult. It was quite comical to see!
So after observing her steady progression over the course of several days, I did what I knew well. I read academic articles and texts. While my mom slept, I checked work e-mails. I coordinated with my church’s worship team to plan for the next event. When my phone rang, I updated family members, checking in to see how they were managing the news about my mom’s health.
After the hospital discharged my mom home, I stayed with her a few days then returned to Los Angeles. And of course, I reverted back to my day-to-day rhythm: God and others and maybe, me. While I hate to admit it, this pattern continued for another year-and-a-half.
… until the phone rang in early November 2012, and on the other end of the line, my brother yet again. This time, he shared not only news about my mom’s poor health, but also a terminal diagnosis — stage IV pancreatic cancer. And just 30 days from that date, my beautiful and lively mom died.
(I’ll share more about that 30-day waiting period in a separate post. If you want to read more about my journey, you can grab a copy of my book, “Relaxing Into the Pain: My Journey Into Grief & Beyond,” here: https://www.amazon.com/Relaxing-Into-Pain-Journey-Beyond/dp/1512747084).
For now, I’ll simply say life shook me awake in startling fashion.
Death opened my eyes, forcing me to lean into the reality that God needed to be first, followed my me, then others. After God, loving others, as I love me.
What did that look like, you might ask? Taking naps as an adult, something I’d never done. Cancelling plans at the last minute in order to rest. Spending hours upon hours at the beach journaling. Allowing myself to cry. Saying ‘no’ to others’ expectations and demands. And so much more.
Death continues to open my eyes — to the weight of my grief and sadness, the depth of appreciation I have for the strength inherent in vulnerability, and the awareness that the space I hold for myself is sometimes, the only space I can hold.
Death can open your eyes too, that is, when you’re ready.
If you’re interested in learning more about managing your lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God and others, click here: https://mekelharrisphd.com/.