Posts Tagged ‘death’

On Grandma

My sister messaged me today to give me an update as to how Grandma is doing with making preparations for Grandpa’s funeral.

Grandma was apparently pretty funny today with picking out papa’s clothes

They were picking out a shirt for under the suit jacket, and there was a white one that was okay, but then mum found this striped one, and grandma squealed “Oooo!! That will give a little pop! to the collar!”

Also, they were looking for an undershirt, and mama found the brand new ones that papa had never worn (instead always wearing the stained and holey one). But grandma said “oh no, you can’t give him a sleeveless one, he’ll want one with capped sleeves”

So mum goes, “oh, well, um, do you really think he needs the warmth right now?”

And grandma replies “oh, it’s just that he never wore the sleeveless ones. Couldn’t stand them. Despite all the nice sleeveless ones i bought, he would only ever wear a t-shirt style”

So, if that’s what made him happy – he’s wearing the t-shirt undershirt.

I hope that Mr. Lee and I will have at least 63 years together, and that we’ll learn to accept and embrace each other’s idiocentricities until the end.

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At 7:04 am my cell phone rang, but Mr. Lee had just figured out how to add a song ring tone last night, and as he had stayed up until 4am watching the football match between Korean and Iran, he understandably got confused and turned it off thinking that it was the alarm. The number said 002 01 – meaning it was some kind of international call, but we couldn’t tell who it was. In my grogginess, I thought it was my mum accidently pushing ‘call’ when she entered my new number into her phone.

Six minutes later the phone rang again, and this time I knew something bad had happened.

In a déjà vu moment from almost 4 years ago when our father died suddenly, it was again my sister calling to tell me that someone had passed away. This time it was our paternal grandfather.

Until a few hours ago, all of my grandparents were still living. They have all had serious health problems in the past few years, and my paternal grandfather has been struggling with pneumonia the past few weeks, but he was recovering. Then, this morning he didn’t want breakfast, started vomiting, and then laid on his bed and passed away. His heart had finally stopped beating.

My grandfather’s passing is not surprising. He has been preparing for this eventuality for some time. Recently he and my grandmother moved from their apartment to a local retirement home, so my grandmother – who struggles with her own poor health as well as mental illness at times – has someone around her constantly. He had already planned his funeral, settled his will, put his affairs in order, and made sure that grandma would have everything she needs. All of these preparations have been made with grandma in mind because he has always been concerned about her ability to function without his constant supervision.

But even with these preparations, even with his age and health problems, even with his great sadness that he outlived his children and this enormous feeling that the world had been turned on its head when my father died before him, it is still a tragic death as every passing is. My grandmother is the last of my close paternal family. And my grandfather, who looked so much like my father and shared so many of the same speech patterns and experiences, is yet another reminder of my father’s death and our short time on Earth.

I’ve worried about this eventuality since 4 years ago – that there would be a death and this time I wouldn’t be able to come home for death. This is that time. I’m in the middle of a winter program with very few others around to take over my class. If it were during regular classes, I could cancel my classes and make them up later. There are no make ups now. It’s the beginning of the week (not coming up on a weekend where I could maybe skip out a day or so early). And, it’s just very very far. These are the moments when being an expat feels like a betrayal of your family.

My grandmother, in a moment of great clarity, said that I should not come. But it’s still hard, and there’s an immense amount of guilt. I’m leaving my mum and sister to do all the work. I’m not there for my grandma at that time. I’m not there to help carry the burden of the living.

I don’t feel guilt at not being there for my grandfather. Perhaps that might surprise you, but my past experience with death solidified in my mind that we go through these highly important death rituals for the living. The dead have passed, and yes, we need to recognize them, but I’ve found that this recognition is best expressed in my life when I fulfil the potential they saw in me and take every opportunity they gave me to the fullest. In my grandfather’s case, he gave me a chunk of money when I was 10 which was invested and later allowed me to pay for my undergrad tuition. Despite his grade 6 education, he was able to provide me with my university education. That is a gift that I will always treasure, and I have always tried to use. Sometimes at a university, surrounded by coworkers with graduate degrees and teaching elite students whose parents are able to provide their children with every educational opportunity without thought or burden – it’s easy to forget just how important education is. But it is, and I need to keep that in mind when I am teaching. I need to constantly remember to give 100% to each class, lesson, and student because being able to teach and study is a blessing.

The other major way in which I think I honour both my father and my grandfather is in continuing this great chain of marriage and family. It was not until my father’s death that I realized how important human connections were, how important family connections had been to me, and how much I wanted to have my own husband and family. My grandfather’s goal since his son died has been to be at my wedding. He said that every phone conversation I had with him, not as a means of pressure, but because he too saw the value in such relationships and wanted that for me. My grandparents were the number one reason we had, from a practical standpoint, a very unnecessary Canadian wedding. It was very necessary for my grandparents to participate in that ritual and see their granddaughter married to a good man.

And while I am not pregnant, we do want children, and death made me realize the way that having children is also a way to honour those who gave you life. Teaching future generations about the lives of those who came before them, instilling in them the work ethic that made their ancestors successful, and in my case, coming from a long line of farmers, teaching them to love the land is also an important gift to pass on.

Not being able to be with grandma, mum, sister – this is a form of trauma. Not being able to be around people who knew my grandfather is also difficult. The number one thing that soothed my soul when my father died was how people told stories. Our shared memories of this one precious person, and the act of sharing were how we healed ourselves. But other than Mr Lee, who only met my grandparents on 2 occasions – there is no one here from grandpa’s days in elementary school, from the day he got married, or from his time on the farm. There’s no one to tell me about how he helped with their harvest or sold them crops from his farm. The memories are mine alone, and they will have to suffice. But even if I am not there, I will continue to honour him with my daily life and my life choices here. I will honour him when I take care of my cats – recognizing that my grandparents’ farming profession is the primary reason why we are a family of animal lovers. I will honour him when I write my surname. I will honour him when I use the skills I acquired in university, and one day I hope to honour him with a great grandchild.

So my grandfather is now reunited with his daughter who died at 2 weeks and his son who made it to 54. He is with his parents, his brothers and sisters, his nephews – strangely a large number – something inexplicable happened in my father’s generation where many men died suddenly and died too young – and he also joins so many of the friends from his youth and neighbours from his apartment building. They will continue in another place, and we will continue here. And that is the only thing that can be done.

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On a Good Place to Die

This might seem like a strange post to make on the eve of Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), but I think it has a lot to do with the spirit of the holidays – ancestors, family, thankfulness, and honour.

I’ve written at length about my father’s death and how his life and death affected me in a profound way (here and here), but I haven’t yet written a lot about my mother.  A few months before he died, the community preschool she worked at, which had been running for several decades (educating, in some cases, three generations of the same family), had shut down because the owner, and a good friend of my mother’s, had decided that she needed to retire.  He also died a few months before my sister left home for university, meaning that the three things that defined my mother’s life – being a wife, being a mother, and being a teacher, were taken away from her within less than a year.  

I don’t think that I need to explain further the profundity of those losses – coming so close together – were for my mother.  She, like many women, lived for everyone else but herself, and her identity was tied up in those roles which were all taken from her.  It was an incredibly painful year of loss with just the glimmer of self discovery. 

But then she took a hospice course through the VON.  We have a rather large car parts factory in my hometown, and when it was built, the company donated a mansion on the edge of the land to the VON to use as a hospice.  It was a very cathartic course for my mother.  She was able to talk openly about death, and she was able to hear people who had been intimately connected with death tell their stories.  One older man had been an 18 year old soldier during WWII when he had been ordered to retrieve body parts from the water after a ship had been bombed.  Such open discussions and lessons on how to help the dying were really helpful for my mum in terms of allowing her to express her grief and turn it into helping someone.

She now volunteers at the hospice once a week, and when my sister and I were in Hong Kong last Christmas, she spent an extra shift with the dying and their families.  She tries to contribute to something which our family never had – a place of peace where patients and their loved ones can be together to share their last days. 


It’s not the only new thing she has started to do, and it’s not the only new role which is helping to define her new identity, but I think it is an important way for her to continue to work through loss by contributing to a place which helps the terminally ill and their families to live peacefully until the end. 


The day before we left my hometown, Mr. Lee and I went with her to donate one of our large wedding arrangements and see the place.  It’s incredibly beautiful, and it is, to state it plainly, the best of places in which to die. 


There was a Hungarian-Canadian cancer patient there being pushed around in his wheelchair by his large extended family.  I’m sure that they felt pain, I’m sure that they were in deep grief over the looming death of their loved one – but I’m ever grateful that there is a place where they, and so many others in our community, can go and be together in order to honour the patient’s life and legacy.  My father didn’t have such a place, but I think by volunteering at the hospice, my mother honours him…and perhaps more importantly…honours her own life and potential to change and grow. 


So on this Chuseok, when I go to Mass with my in-laws and do the Korean Catholic memorial to the dead – on this Chuseok when I will pray for my father and the newly-departed Mary-Lou – the preschool owner and teacher to three generations who passed away on Saturday – I will also say a prayer of thankfulness for my mother who has survived – survived in body, mind, and spirit, and who has decided to remake her life and her identity.

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I remember the scene so vividly in my mind. I was sitting in the break room with my sexy black stilettos on drinking a can of Coke Zero at 9:10 in the morning. Yes, I know that no one should make a breakfast out of carbonated beverages, but as I taught two advanced writing classes by that time in the morning back in those days, I needed a little pick me up around that time.

So there I was, sitting at the break table, sipping away on my drink and marking the first round of assignments from my many writing classes. And then my phone started ringing (my silver bug-like phone) in the fancy cell phone pocket of my new (ridiculously expensive) purse from a recent trip to Tokyo. God I loved that purse.

I had been having a few problems with my realtor, and I suspected it was her calling. I didn’t want to deal with her shrill voice and petty issues, so I refocused my eyes on my marking and kept on going. But after the prolonged buzzing – much longer than usual – my phone started up again, and I felt a strange need to pick up the phone.

The dull voice – the dull lifeless voice of my seventeen year old sister on the phone:

‘Dad’s dead. Dad’s dead.’

What are you supposed to do when you hear those words? Time is supposed to stop. The coffee cup you are holding in your hand is supposed to swan dive in slow motion and come crashing to the ground. In the movies that’s always a symbol for the brokenness of the moment. You are supposed to collapse or wail or be caught in mid collapse. But it wasn’t like that. There was nothing but silence. A big empty gaping silence that I later learned was death.

And then chaos.

Everyone started running up and down the stairs – cross-Pacific phone calls-managers running to the nearest travel agent to beg a seat for me on a plane that night – Mr. Lee rushing out of a highly important meeting looking ashen to escort me home – a suitcase packed carelessly with whatever garments I could find –and all the while this chaos held back the void.

I do not know how I got on a plane that day and got myself across the Pacific. I do not know. Cross-ocean-20-hour travel is trying in the best of times, and when you are in a state of extreme shock, it’s bewildering. I sat for hour upon endless hour, not eating or drinking, not sleeping or watching movies, not reading or looking at magazines. I just sat and willed myself to get there. I did almost get escorted away by security in Vancouver after I broke down when a particularly nasty customs officer questioned me mercilessly about my reasons for entering my own country, but that’s another story.

There is a certain horror to losing your father which I’ll discuss in my next post. There was nothing to indicate he was about to die. Nothing at all. He was in the hospital for a routine surgery which had complications, but he was improving and was told on that same morning that he would be released from hospital after the Easter holiday. The whole time though, there was a massive blood clot forming, a massive clot the dr. missed despite him being in the hospital for an entire week after the operation (it was later observed while reviewing his file). He simply went out for a walk in his ward after the family left for Easter dinner, collapsed in a chair, and died. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely for our small hometown, his Code Blue responders were one of my high school friends and our neighbour whom he had known for 20 years. There’s a strange comfort knowing that the people who tried to revive your father actually knew and cared about him.

The first year after he died, I bought some flowers, made a memorial to him in my house, and cried myself to sleep. The second year, I was invited to a Passover Seder here in Seoul, and I dragged myself out of the house, raised my glass, and affirmed L’Chaim with the others. Life does go on despite our best attempts to stop it. This year, I’ve been wondering what to do – how to honour him this year. I’ve abandoned all the physical elements of that day. I quickly bought a new phone – every time it rang my heart leapt in horror. I feel sick if I drink Coke Zero, my stilettos sit abandoned on the shelf, and I can’t look at that gorgeous purse without wondering if seconds later my world will shatter again. But the memories remain as those things I turn to for comfort – even hideous images I hold tightly too – like his stiff body or the design we chose for his tombstone. Somehow they are comforting because they are little bit of him. So I decided this year to write a small series about him. Blog about the tragedy, but also blog about how it changed me, made my vision of my life clearer, made me appreciate my family, friends, history, and hometown so much more. So this is my tribute to my father and to those who have survived him.

And this is my last gift to my father before we buried him. The eulogy which formed in my head during the 20 hours of cross-Pacific travel:

For Dad

This is the wrong speech.

There were supposed to be others before this one. Our father was supposed to make speeches at my sister’s graduations, at our weddings, the baptisms of his grandchildren, on his 50th wedding anniversary.

This is the wrong speech.

But, the world has been turned upside down, and here we are…

Our father was above all else, a good father.

I feel like I should tell you some incredible stories about what our father did for us, but the truth is, he was a daily constant presence in our lives. So many fathers are absent in some way from their children’s lives, but our father was always present.

Our father had no concept of ‘me time’. I never heard the words ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse for not attending some recital, awards ceremony or graduation. Because the truth was, he attended almost every single event. I think he honestly enjoyed spending time with us, even when what we wanted to do was of no interest to him.

He read almost the entire Nancy Drew original series of about 100 books to me by the time I was 7. He had absolutely no talent for reading out loud-he had the most monotonous voice ever, but he did it to please me, sometimes reading for hours at a time.

And then there were the baseball games, hockey games, moving in and out of houses, from one university to another, the woodworking class we took together, the swimming class he took with G because he wanted to learn how to swim if he ever needed to save me. The hours we spent at J’s farm. The car rides to and from high school and the summer we worked at W’s together. He was my t-ball coach, my brownie leader when my mum was pregnant, my Sunday School helper.

He took me to my first concert, and we stood in the pouring rain because he knew that music was important to me.

He was a constant, stable, reliable, and loving presence in my life, even when I was far away. He was so involved in my life and never questioned if he should be using some of that time for himself.

And he is still so present in everything. He helped build our home, the shed, the deck, my grandparent’s deck, half of the furniture in our house. He spent hours making gifts for neighbours, friends, my sister’s friends…the last thing he made for me were two small jewellery dishes he gave to my boyfriend and I which means that his presence is still in Seoul.

And there was always a history to what he made. He knew where the wood was from. He knew what tree it came from and that tree always had meaning for him, because land, geography, was important to him. Because he loved where he came from and was proud of where he came from.

And he tried so hard as a husband…I remember one time coming back from J’s farm – maybe he was in trouble with mum or something, I don’t know. And he stopped the car on the side of the road, and jumped out and waded into weeds on the side of the road which were up to his waist. I was like ‘what are you doing in the weeds?’ And he said, “picking flowers for mum”. And he came back with a beautiful bouquet of flowers – they were weeds, but they were beautiful and he had seen them and immediately thought of mum.

I don’t remember many of the large presents he gave us, but he was constantly trying to find small things which would make us happy. Those little things are the ones you remember.

Jacques Derrida, the 20th century philosopher, was asked to write many eulogies and essays for famous people, and these were compiled in a book which translated into English, is called, Each Time Unique, The End of the World. That’s what this loss is. A bomb blast that has broken so much-the end of a world.

But I also try to remember that Dad died on Easter. And sometimes I hate that fact, and sometimes I remember about resurrection. I remember that nothing is shattered-only broken. And we can still pick up the pieces and make things anew. His body has become a new life and we will put our broken pieces back together and life will go on.

The thing I’m going to miss most about my dad’s body are his hands. His hands that had dirt so ingrained in them that they would never come clean. You could wash them for hours and they would still look the same because those hands testified to a life of hard work and dedication and pride in what he did.

And when God gives him a new body in heaven, I hope He doesn’t change those hands, because that’s how I will recognize him, and they symbolize all that was good about him.

See Part 2

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There were so many things that surprised me about death.  I didn’t understand that for the living, death looks and feels like an empty void, I didn’t realize that sorrow was a physical feeling that permeates every inch of your being to the extent that sorrow paralyzes brain functions, digestive functions, and even the ability to control your own body, and I didn’t know that grief could be so all encompassing and all consuming.  I also didn’t realize before the death of my father that death is much more about the living than the dead. 

 Because my father died so suddenly, and because he died in the prime of his life, one of the most surprising things (at least for me), was that he was intricately bound to so many places and things.

 Yes, death is the loss of a person, in this case a ‘gentle giant’ as his friend would later call him, with a giving heart and a work ethic which endured all things.  But ‘loss’ is also the loss of that person’s place in each individual’s world.  The loss of the muffin baker every morning, the loss of the skilled tradesman at the small company he had work at for over 30 years, the loss of the man who painted the church at 10pm after he had already spent a day at work and an evening doing lawn work at home, and the loss of a neighbour to chat with on the nightly walks with the dogs.  Yes, of course, it is the person we mourn, but when we dig a little deeper, we realize that it is more the place that person held in our own lives that we mourn because the void that is left by their death is a void in our own lives.  This is one of the great lessons that I learned upon my father’s death:  there is a value in life much beyond wealth or power.  So much of the value of our life’s work comes from the contributions we make to the lives of others and to the bonds we forge with them.

 I had plans of grandeur in my youth.  While my parents were not happy about my decision to move to Korea, they weren’t so much shocked by the fact I was going but by the fact that I had taken so long to find a way to get there.  Every job I wanted as a child:  astronaut, foreign war correspondent, diplomat, UN aid relief worker, archaeologist, missionary, all the jobs, were meant to take me out of my sleepy village with its well manicured lawns and neighbours who all knew when each another got home every night.  It wasn’t so much that I hated where I came from but that I thought the more exciting the career seemed, the more valuable the contributions were to the world.  I’ve also written about my wanderlust in so far as it manifests as a deep desire not to be pinned down, always to have escape options, and a life void of cumbersome possessions which might make leaving too difficult.  I’ve always wanted to be the one who comes and goes, not the one who stays.

 But death, especially sudden death has a way of shaking our collective conscious, and for a moment, just a moment, refocusing everyone’s attention.  The sad thing about life really, is that it takes death for us to come together and see the fullness of a person.  And for a child, a person who intimately knows their parent, and yet only really knows them in the capacity of parent, seeing ‘father’ as a whole person is an eye opening experience.  His visitation, where people who knew the deceased come to commune with the living who remain, was full of such people who filled out this picture of who my father was as a man.  The people he worked with, the people he bought gas from, the woman he dealt with for insurance, the neighbours he had bailed hay with as a child growing up on the farm, the clients he worked with everyday – their stories and their presence gave me a much larger understanding of my father than I ever knew existed.  Yes, I was his daughter, his eldest, the one he had spent more time with than most of those people combined, but they also knew stories and sides of him that I did not know, and for those gifts that they shared, I am not only deeply grateful but deeply humbled because I realized the fullness of what it means to be human, and the value of making bonds with other humans. 

 At that point I had been in Korea for 18 months, but I had thankfully been home at Christmas, just three months before his death, and spent a great deal of time reconnecting with friends and family, including my father.  Despite coming to Korea without knowing a soul in Seoul, I had cobbled together a pretty impressive urban family of coworkers and found myself a pretty kick ass boyfriend in that time.  And still, before my father died, I had been afraid of these solid connections because I felt they might be weighing me down from some future exotic life as a global nomad.  I loved Mr. Lee, and I had seriously considered marrying him at that time, but I could only think of what I was losing by staying with him and settling in Seoul.

 Dad’s death changed all of that, not the least because within eight hours of learning of his passing, I was on a plane bound for Canada without any secure knowledge that I would be back in Korea soon or ever again.  My father was the sole breadwinner. My sister was 17 and months away from entering university.  There were bills, there was no certainly about insurance claims, there were my grandparents – elderly, sick, and suddenly childless, and there was my mother shocked and paralyzed with grief over her unexpected and never-dreamed-of-early-widowhood.  I did not know at 26 if I as the eldest child and grandchild would have to instantly take on all the responsibilities and burdens of our family.

 I remember one moment very clearly in the haze of those first few days.  I had been off the plane for less than 48 hours, just a few days had passed since my sister’s phone call, and I had not had anything to eat and no more than a glass of water to drink since that Coke Zero.  We had come back to my grandmother’s house after a long day of visitations to rest up before another few hours of visitations, and I collapsed with exhaustion on the couch for a few minutes rest.  I was dehydrated, jet lagged, filled with grief I did not know how to express, and as a result I started shaking in an uncontrollable fit. 

 At that moment, my godmother and mother, shook off their death haze, and in a moment of clarity much more perceptive than I could muster, realized that the true reason for my sudden fit of terror was that I was staring into the void of losing absolutely everything: my job, my friends in Korea, my home, my life, and above all, my boyfriend.  It was clear to me then that if my mother would have asked me to stay, that I would have. I would have given it all up to stay and be with her, but she and my godmother cradled me and told me that it was my role to go back – to my life – and to my love. 

 It’s strange thinking back to just before that time because I was so terrified of really committing to Mr. Lee (which in fact was a much bigger commitment to settling my life here in Korea).  It’s strange because that horrible, gaping, life sucking abyss that I was staring into on my grandmother’s couch was the loss of those things I had but didn’t want to commit to.  It was my realization that I had a damn good life and at the brink of it being taken away forever, I wanted to fight tooth and nail to keep it and to commit to it. 

 I think it was the people really.  The people at the visitation who stood and shared their stories, the cards with anecdotes, and the family and friends, and neighbours and parents’ friends who traveled from all over to pay tribute to just one person.  I realized at that time that their actions were a great tribute to a lifetime spent cultivating relationships, serving others, sharing oneself with others, and I realized I wanted that too.  I wanted to marry, I wanted to build long term relationships with people in Korea and maintain my relationships at home to the best of my ability, and I want to pass on this love of life to the next generation.  The gaping hole that was his absence made me value all the more the others in my life. 

 I do not think I am now a perfect daughter, fiancé, sister, or friend.  I am, like my father and all others, a deeply flawed person.  But his death did spur a profound desire to be a person who is connected and entwined in life and relationships because it is in doing this that we find our purpose and ourselves.  I want to learn from my parents – my father’s work ethic and selflessness, and my mother’s enduring strength to overcome the greatest of odds – and I want to instil these values and a love of life in my own children.  I want to be a good wife – one that is modern and feminist and independent – but a wife whose presence and care and love enhances her husband’s life and makes him happier to wake up in the morning.  And it makes me want to be a more grateful person who is thankful for every breath and every moment we all have to be on this earth because there is so much goodness to be learned here. 

 In Winifred Gallagher’s book Working on God she tells a story about a Rabbi.  “Once, a great rabbi taught the people that they should put God’s words across their hearts.  Finally, a student said, ‘Excuse me, but don’t you mean in our hearts?’  ‘No,’ said the rebbe.  You aren’t ready for that.  Lay them across, and when your hearts break, God’s words will fall in’.’

 I do not mean to suggest by telling this story about the positive impact of my father’s death on my own life, that the ‘reason’ for his death was for us, the living, to learn something.  To this day, I do not think God ‘took him’ or even that it was ‘his time.’  Shit happens.  Doctors misread films and x-rays, blood coagulates when it shouldn’t, death can come without reason or meaning.  That’s life.  But, I do think that when we are at our most vulnerable, when all that we have built for ourselves – our lives and our illusions about our lives – are shattered, we sometimes have moments of great clarity when all those anxieties and neurosis are stripped away so that we realize what we truly want, and what our true purpose is.  At that moment, truth – God’s or secular truth – falls in and we are receptive to the truth in our brokenness. 

 I came to appreciate where I came from when I looked back on my father’s life, I came to outwardly show pride in him and his work.  I found strength in my mother’s strength and transformation, and I saw the value in long-term commitment.  I don’t want to say that the nomads of this world are wrong.  The people who move from country to country, job to job, urban family to urban family may indeed have this calling, and they may have much to learn from this life.  I myself am not back in Canada – I have stayed here which is some middle ground between my Canadian village and the life of the first-responder disaster aid worker I once wanted to be.  Rather, what I want to say is that in my own life, I feared long term commitments and was always looking for what I didn’t have and coveting the possibility of something better (and I still do…) And it is in this context, when I had so much (that was almost taken away at once), that I finally became receptive to the joys of commitment and the joys of experiencing life through connecting with others.

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