“Are you Yvette?” The waitress caught me mulling over a lunch choice. Cashew chili, a vegetarian option I had enjoyed once before, or roasted red pepper soup with an egg salad and strawberry half-sandwich. I looked up at her, eyes wide and head tilted in inquiry.
“Yes, I am,” I answered. What was going on? How would she would know my name?
“Are you waiting for Miriam”*?
“Yes, I am,” I replied. Now, my forehead creased in anxiety. I was to meet Miriam and a friend of hers here for lunch. She was feeling better after a month-long illness, and she wanted the three of us to get together.
“Then, there’s a call for you.”
She led me to the alcove beside the kitchen, and handed me the phone.
“Yvette? This is Elizabeth.* I was supposed to have lunch with you and Miriam today.”
Supposed to? “Yes.”
“Miriam is in the hospital.”
Oh, no, I thought. She’s had a relapse.
“Yvette, she’s in a coma.”
“She fell in her apartment, and hit her head on the concrete floor. The doctors say she had a stroke. We’re meeting later today for a prayer vigil and to talk about support. Would you like to come?”
“Of course. I’ll be there,” I assured her. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Stunned, I walked back to the table, picked up my things, excused myself to the waitress, and went back to my office to pull myself together.
Miriam was in a coma for two weeks. Her life as she knew it would never be the same. At the beginning, though, Miriam, her caregivers, and those like me who loved her, hung on to the belief that the pieces of her shattered life could somehow be reconstituted, like a broken vase in a rewound film. Things would one day go back to normal.
We were right about one thing. She picked up the shards of her life. Fortunately, her memory and vast knowledge base were unaffected. The damage was physical. She learned to pronounce her words again. She learned to swallow, and then, to chew. She learned to eat with utensils. She learned to move her legs again, to walk, and to get in and out of a car. After a brain injury, these movements were much more deliberate than before. She had to focus on each step of the action that her therapists had first deconstructed for her and then engrained during her convalescence. Slowly, she regained enough independence to live on her own and reclaim her work part-time.
Miriam could taste her old life. Her body, though, could not sustain the progress. Her limbs weakened. Stability was a challenge, and she needed a walker. In the end, she moved into an assisted living facility. Miriam knew she would live the rest of her life with people who were generally at least fifteen years and more older than she. She was dependent. How would she give her life purpose once again?
Miriam did what she always did. She analyzed her own talents and the need before her, and got to work. She began by being present to her fellow residents. She learned their names, spent time with them, established relationships. She found people like her who loved to read, so she began a book club that met regularly. Through the book club, where members shared stories, she saw an opportunity to record those stories. She began a writing club, with the goal of some day publishing the stories the group wrote. Miriam is a mover and shaker within her community.
Like Miriam, we are called, at various times in our life, to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes, we have the luck to be able to choose the moment of our redefinition. A career change or a retirement would be an example. More often, however, that reinvention is imposed on us—by age, tragedy, illness, or other unforeseen and unwelcome events. When our turn comes, Miriam’s example can inspire us. Confronted with a scenario she didn’t want and couldn’t change, she used her predilections, her gifts and talents to help others. Like the violinist Itzhak Perlman in the story from the Houston Chronicle reproduced in the preceding blog post, Miriam continues to make music with what she has left.
What might be the essential messages, then, in this four-part series on identity?
1. A brand, or specific traits we cultivate in ourselves and that others attribute to us, can be an advantage in establishing both a professional or a personal identity.
2. We need to be aware of our own abilities, character traits and limitations, as well as how all three are perceived by others. Johari’s Window is a useful tool to help us track our progress toward that desired state.
3. When we have a strong sense of who we are, we are able to self-actualize.
4. We will have to reinvent ourselves several times throughout our lives, often when it’s most difficult. With courage and determination and the example of others, we can continue to enrich the lives of others, and, by extension, our own sense of satisfaction and our identity.
Thanks to David Myles, Brett Cave, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, T. S. Eliot, Miriam, and Itzhak Perlman for their inspiration in these posts.