September 22, 2012

Celebrating the Day I Almost Died. ~ Maria Ross


Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life.

This is an excerpt published with permission from Maria Ross’ humorous and heartfelt memoir, Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life (2012, Red Slice Press).

Bucket Lists

August 4, 2009.

The one-year anniversary of my aneurysm and brain hemorrhage rolled around faster―and yet, slower―than I ever would have thought possible. In some ways, it felt like I’d just been lying in the hospital bed, sightless, shorn and scared. On the other hand, if you had just met me, my hair was growing back in and my pallor (and weight) had returned to normal, so you would never have known the trauma I’d been through just one year earlier. Many of the scars were now on the inside, not the outside.

How does one celebrate (is that even the right word?) the day you almost died? Granted, I had avoided philosophical melodrama for most of the year as I focused on healing, while those around me looked to me as some kind of shaman who’d had a life-changing epiphany.

The truth is that, at the time, I didn’t. Not really.

I was trying so hard to get back to normal that I couldn’t stop to think about any greater cosmic significance.

But as the one-year anniversary rolled around-as I got back into my life, as my business picked up, as I started traveling to visit friends and take vacations again-this quest for significance grew stronger. I’m sure experts might say that means my healing was coming to an end.

Those who know me know I’m not much into the psychobabble. While I enjoy self-actualization, goal setting and even my religious faith as much as the next guy, I have a bit more trouble dwelling on my situation when I saw so many people in rehab who were much, much worse off. People who couldn’t fully speak or walk or get back to work. Those whose family or friends had abandoned them because they could not deal with the new person they had become. It was heartbreaking and humbling all at the same time.

The night before the one-year mark, Paul and I enjoyed a romantic dinner out and a few glasses of wine to mark the occasion. Afterwards, in my bed, I sat wide awake and pondered the duality of “Wow! It’s been a whole year since it happened” against “Wow! It’s only been a year and look at all we’ve been through!” Amazing how time and space can morph to be as long or as short as you want them to be.

It seems “bucket lists” are all the rage these days, and the trend cropped up even more in the year following my aneurysm. Coincidence?

I’m not sure if this term had been around for a while or debuted with the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman film of the same title. Regardless, it kind of irks me that it is swirling around everywhere, like shallow buzz about the latest hot handbag or must-have designer. While I love self-help and motivational goal-setting as much as the next gal (yes, I read Eckhart Tolle, so back off), I’m always leery when it takes the form of a blind fad. Shouldn’t those themes be much more consistent and ongoing throughout our lives?

As the one-year anniversary of my brain hemorrhage passed, I was still trying to figure out what it all meant―and if it really meant anything anyway. Successfully distancing myself from the immediate recovery of the event―which was all about getting back to daily living―I entered this second phase of more thoughtful contemplation around the whole thing.

Why did I survive? Why is my recovery going so much more miraculously than someone who has three children relying on her? If it was not “my time” yet, than what the heck is it I was meant to do here? What am I not finished with?

Small questions these are not.

Answers abound. Paul, who truly understands how lucky we are but is not a spiritual guy, will tell you, “This happened due to the genetics of a combination of weak vessels and high blood pressure that runs in the family. You are okay now because we got you to the hospital in time and the doctors were amazingly skilled. End of story.”

Or maybe it’s just as simple as what a sassy old friend of mine said when we met up for dinner after not seeing each other in person for over ten years. She had followed my story and progress through our online journal and was dying to catch up with me. Her playful theory? “Maybe you are still here so that on this night, in this city, we could catch up over dinner and you can entertain and inspire me.” I kind of like that answer.

Which brings me back to bucket lists. I feel in today’s renaissance of enlightenment, we are just putting too much darn pressure on ourselves to “live our best life.” I am all about going after what you want, not waiting, and experiencing all you can experience. But in my life, the adventures have happened pretty organically.

Sure, goals are great things. But when they start to consume you, to make you feel like you are “less than” if you don’t accomplish them, that’s where I have a problem.

My recovery was all about being gentle with myself, setting realistic goals, and not overwhelming myself with too much. I think this is a good way to live, brain injury or not. So rather than some of the more lofty bucket lists out there that seem to taunt and stress many of us―and make us feel like we are not doing, being, or seeing enough―mine became a simple bucket list:

1. Ensure you have at least one person in your life who understands you, accepts you for who you are and who makes you laugh. Just one will do. It could be a lover, parent, sibling or friend. If you don’t have someone like this in your life, make it your mission to find him or her.

2. Spend at least one night of your life falling asleep to, and waking up to, the ocean. Wherever that might be.

3. Next time you are on a plane, bus or train with a rambunctious toddler or fussy baby, try to make the child smile. Just once. See how it makes you feel.

4. Call one long-distance friend a week. Not email. Phone. If you can’t call, write a handwritten note.

5. Adopt a pet once in your life and give it a happy, loving home.

6. Say thank you to every bus driver or cabbie you encounter. You never know how much that might turn around a bad day for them.

7. Once a day, ask one clerk, be it barista or cashier, “How are you doing today?”

8. Have one dinner outside on a warm summer night with friends, wine, candles and great conversation.

9. Each time you talk to a family member or a close friend, say “I love you” at the end of the conversation. You never know if it might be the last time.

10. Every year, make one trip to a place you’ve never been or somewhere out of your comfort zone. This could be another city in your own country, a foreign country, or it could be based on accommodations: if you are a hotel person, go camping. Try it for perspective.

My injury forced me to slow down and focus on the moment. It was not just a Hallmark card platitude, but a necessity. My goals became much less lofty but much sweeter.

I wrote a blog post musing about these thoughts shortly after my one-year anniversary. A dear friend of mine in San Francisco read this post. As I read her lovely emailed reply, I got the wind knocked right out of me and tears sprang to my eyes. It was titled, “I hesitated…” and it went a little something like this:

…to send you a note on your one-year anniversary. How do you celebrate someone not dying? So I waited and tried to figure out what to write. Thinking if maybe I just let it slip by, that would be the best thing. But then I finally summoned the courage to read your 365-day blog and, of course, found myself crying uncontrollably…to the point that both my husband and mother-in-law came over to find out what was wrong or who had died.

And I was like, no, someone lived! Try to explain that one!

Anyway, I just wanted you to know how much I admire you. Your strength and conviction. We always say, “No one but Maria could have persevered,” and I truly believe this.

Thank you for being my friend and someone I look up to. I oftentimes think, “What would Maria do in this situation?” and so often, if I put my Maria Hat on, I come up with the right answer.

Holy smokes. She looks up to me?

See what I mean? Sometimes tragedy is a gift. I got my visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and attended my own funeral, in a way. My whole life, I just wanted to inspire, to make a difference, to matter. Who knew my brain had to literally explode for me to realize that the thousand tiny moments, interactions and love that you show people each and every day can add up to such a lasting impression? I always thought I was missing the big stuff: the grand gesture, the saving thousands of lives in Africa and, therefore, my life lacked real substance and meaning.

It turns out you can touch the lives in your own backyard more profoundly than you think.

That is what I mean by a gift. And my hope for anyone reading this is that you don’t need to suffer a traumatic brain aneurysm to realize how your little gestures and selfless acts matter to the world. Every bit of energy you put out there matters to someone, somewhere, sometime.

Maria Ross is a consultant, author and speaker who believes cash flow and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As chief brand strategist and creator ofRed Slice, she advises start-ups, solopreneurs and small to midsize growth companies on how to craft irresistible brands. Maria is the author ofBranding Basics for Small Business and the just-released humorous and heartfelt memoir Rebooting My Brain. A dynamic speaker, she is highly sought-after to present keynotes and workshops and has appeared on MSNBC, ABC News, NPR and in Entrepreneur, The LA Times, Seattle Business and Columbus CEO. Spark a convo with Maria @redslice.


Editor: Olga Feingold

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