You're the only one I have to shop with anymore.
Life doesn't have to be as complicated as we make it.
Merry Christmas Eve! I hope everybody is having an amazing holiday season with their loved ones so far. This time of year can be difficult if you’re grieving, in a tough situation, or honestly, just because you wish you had things you don’t. I want to share an update: When I began this newsletter, I had 130 subscribers from people that submitted their emails to my trelarosa.com. Their initial support propelled me to try this. In a month and a half, we’ve grown over 80% to 240 subscribers. I have big plans for this newsletter with many ideas in the pipeline. Thanks for your support, we’re building a community and I’m so excited. This newsletter is dedicated to my readers and to those that are feeling a little lonely during this time of year or to those that aren’t quite in the holiday spirit. Solidarity with one another is the point of this whole life thing, I sincerely believe that. If you’re feeling a little jolly, sharing this newsletter helps to build it and support my writing and it’s dearly appreciated.
Oxytocin is the hormone that is released when a woman is pregnant and during breastfeeding. It’s this compound that underlies the unbreakable tether between mother and child. This hormone is released when babies are touched by their parents. Consider this: A hormone is released in the brain during a crucial time of caretaking—pregnancy and the early years of life—that is intended to solidify the bond between baby and parent, and it’s most intense between baby and mother. This bond lasts a lifetime. If it weren’t a part of our reality—that our bodies know to release a hormone and that hormone bonds two great apes together without language and with only touch—it would sound like science fiction. It would sound like something out of Avatar or Game of Thrones or Twilight (in fact, I’d suggest that since this does happen in reality, that may explain the bonds that were explored in much of pop culture).
It isn’t a stretch of the imagination at all to suggest that when you lose a loved one—death, a break-up, or even just lost contact with somebody you shared a lot of time with—you go through a process similar to withdrawal, much like an addict. It makes sense, though. When you spend time with a loved one, you develop memories, thought patterns, habits, and entire schema of life with them in mind. You spend countless hours bonding, laughing, yelling, crying, and doing nothing with this person. When you spend time with them, your brain is literally being altered all the time. Think of your brain as a riverbed. Whenever you first meet the person or when a baby is born, a part of your brain is smooth and undefined with zero previous experiences with them. Somewhere in your brain, there is a neurochemical pathway that forms every time you process information. Sometimes it goes from short-term to long-term memory where we will recall it for a much longer time. I believe our brain, essentially a supercomputer capable of computations and abstract organization, places memories together based on similarity. This suggests our brains group all collective memories and experiences with somebody together, somewhere, where they are exerting force on one another. That previously smooth riverbed is altered by the accrued memories; it was smooth, and with each additional memory, it becomes deeper, eroded by the recurrent use of those pathways, until it becomes etched deep inside the folds of your brain. For some relationships, these pathways become Grand Canyon–esque, so deeply embedded in our brain that We—our Humanity—is incomplete without them.
Our relationships with people in our lives provide us value. Think about a time when you were feeling terrible about something when a loved one made you laugh. Think about the overwhelming sense of calm that comes with a laugh. The emotional depth of that feeling is even more than that moment, it’s that that loved one has now caused your brain to release compounds that made you feel good (which we like!). It becomes necessary that we actively pursue those feelings of good. The more we experience those with certain people, it just makes sense that you want to spend more time with those people.
And it’s addictive! (Maybe not quite technically “addictive” by the dictionary definition, but there’s no doubt that we crave these experiences, not in way too unlike addiction to compounds such as nicotine and caffeine.) When we lose somebody that our brain has come to expect to be there, our brains are deeply confused by this abrupt, unexpected absence. How does the brain reconcile what has always been with what will never be again? How does my brain understand the suddenness of death, after having lived for nearly 24 years with my sister? Everything I’d ever known happened in a world with her there. And that’s without the inextricable bond that she experienced with my parents.
When my sister died, my brain was short-circuiting. That’s why we go through the multiple steps of grief. We first deny this is reality; We can’t imagine the future goes from them being there to not. It’s a deeply befuddling thing to lose a loved one. I remember a similar feeling when I was going through a difficult break-up or when we lost two of our family dogs. The first days without them are hazy. You almost feel guilty that you’re alive, and for the first few days you’re not really “alive,” at least in the sense that you feel alive. You feel weird, confused, relieved, annoyed, powerless. It’s a strange thing to just continue moving forward, trying to act normal or like the things that used to matter still do. It’s in these days where you realize life is not anything in particular. When life is upended by death, there is no “real” life. It’s all a façade; there’s nothing here that is eternally and consequentially real. If my career and hobbies are what’s real, then what are our relationships and losing a loved one? The death of a loved one is not a “roadblock” or time-out; it’s what life is. Life is the encompassing experience of all there is. To think that any one part of our life is the most real part is to dismiss that our lives are always moving toward some unknown end. It is to think that we need to always be convinced of our destiny, while also dismissing that the enjoyment you get out of that iced coffee is as real and legitimate as anything else in the entire universe.
The holidays bring all of this to the forefront. What I most struggle with the holidays now is that it used to be my absolute favorite time of the year. I still love Christmas, but it’s not the same that it used to be. I have responsibilities and concerns that I didn’t use to have. We don’t have our sister so it’s another reminder that for a few decades, we were whole but no longer. At the same time, my grieving process has reached an inflection point. I am wiser since my sister died. I have written thousands of words about her death and our relationship. It has forced me to reflect on my worldview. It has made me a stronger advocate, better person, and maybe counterintuitively, calmer and less anxious.
Something interesting happened the other day. My mom had to go do some shopping. Alyssa and my mom bonded over many things, but the things they loved most were shopping and fashion. For my mom to lose her best friend was more than that, she lost her shopping buddy and her confidant. They talked about everything for decades. Their relationship was as tough as anything on earth. So, the other day. My mom was a bit frustrated with me because I was giving her half-assed answers about my plans (a fair thing to be irritated with me about) and she was headed to Rookwood. I decided I’d go with her after a little guilt trip from pops. I met her in a parking lot of a nearby store and teased her by saying “Are you done pouting and being mad at me?” And she responded, “You’re the only one I have to shop with anymore.” In that moment, my heart shattered as an important discovery washed over me.
I adore my parents. With every passing day in my adulthood, their sacrifices decades ago to give me and my sister a fair chance at life become more and more apparent. They are special people. When I recognized how this grieving process has been so heavy on my mom, all other concerns or responsibilities faded away. None of it matters more than sharing a day with my mom. I know it’s not the same—but we shouldn’t dismiss the power of our relationships with our pets—but just spending time with Duncan is all that matters to me. It wasn’t about the shopping; my mom lost her daughter and the most important thing in the world to her now is spending time with me. It always has been, but now more than ever. My mom developed a bond with my sister through their many experiences, that’s true. But what else is that this bond was tough as concrete because it was intensified by the oxytocin shared between her and her kids throughout our childhood. The love my parents have for me is as real as anything in this world, if only because of the truest things in our brains—relationships deepened by the hormone oxytocin—are the most real things in the universe.
The sooner we realize the importance of our relationships and what others mean to us, the sooner life can reach its full vibrancy. We should do right by each other, not just during the holiday season, but all the time. The relationships we have with others are reciprocated; we provide them value, they provide us with value. There is no moment that means more than the moment you’re in. And there should be no doubt that just about every single moment can be intensified by sharing it with somebody we dearly love.
I look back at my fondest memories with my sister with nostalgia. I love that familiar bittersweet; it hurts to recognize those memories are gone, but they exist in my memories and that is enough. It has to be enough. If I choose to believe it isn’t enough, I’m robbing myself. When we reflect back without trying to understand how we can be better, we rob ourselves of the chance to grow into our best selves, we rob ourselves of the happiness that can be found in the present moment.
I’m actually quite surprised the sense of calm I’m feeling this holiday season, I really am. I thought it would be like last year: hard, confusing, stressful, burdened. I’m not entirely sure why it’s not the same. Time is the great healer, so maybe it’s just a bit more distance from my sister’s death and I’ve matured in a lot of ways since then. But maybe it’s also the comfort of accrued wisdom.
I’ve never felt so…present. The colors of the world feel brighter than they ever have. That isn’t to say I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, but to waste time wondering about that is in and of itself pointless. I feel like I’m feeling the world on a different plane. My relationships with others, with Duncan, with my career, with myself all feel transcendently real. They no longer feel ephemeral, though nothing has really changed.
We can become our best selves. We must give ourselves a chance to get there. And that requires looking at ourselves the same way we look at our loved ones. You have to recognize you’re a human capable of greatness and also failure; we contain multitudes. It is okay if you don’t live up to your expectations, just work harder to get there next time.
Life can be really simple, it really can be. For as complicated as it appears to be, it comes down to the fact that the most important thing we have to do is the only thing we can do in any given moment: be present. Be present this holiday season. It doesn’t mean you have to enjoy every moment, but your presence is enough.
From me to you and the community we’re building, I hope you have a happy holiday season. My next newsletter will be reflecting on 2019 and all the crazy things that happened this year. I hope you enjoyed reading, take care!
Thanks for reading. Since my next newsletter will be about 2019, please send me your proudest accomplishment of this year! I’ll share them—with your approval of course. And another reminder, if you’re feeling jolly and want to support ya boy, sharing this post or newsletter with someone helps get my words to more readers, which is what writing is all about. Thanks in advance. :)