My Life’s Unpredictable Leap From Loss to Change to Adaptation

I almost failed Physics at Bronx Science in the 1980s. None of the brain-numbing equations or principles made much sense to me or related to my life. Why would I, a budding journalism major, ever need to know quantum theory? I completely forgot it all—or so I thought–until this New Year’s Eve, when it was time to reflect on the past year and plan the new one. I shook my head in disbelief: how fast has everything changed for me in these last eight months? 

Faster than the speed of light, a voice in my head whispers 

My head spins when I think of all the changes I endured this year. (Shutterstock DimaBerlin)

This was the hardest year of my life

This was the hardest year of my life. I am no longer the person I was. It began in March, when sadly and abruptly, my mom passed away. In the wake of that tremendous loss, I was left to care for my 52-year-old sister who—although she holds down a job–never moved out of our childhood home.

My 85-year-old mother was her confidante and constant companion—think Grey Gardens and you get the picture. Without her, she is lost, broken, inconsolable. She depended on her—and now me—for everything. 

I did not know the extent of my younger sister’s issues

I knew my younger sibling had issues. I lived with her for 20+ years, sharing a small bedroom with two twin beds and numerous Donny Osmond posters. I knew she had fears and insecurities and my mother protected her fiercely, denying there was anything wrong. But since the pandemic, they shut me out—literally—keeping me away from their Bronx apartment for fear of bringing in the virus.

Days after my mother’s death, when I came to sort through her things, I didn’t expect to find the space overrun with clutter. I had seen hoarding on a few reality TV shows with the tagline “Buried Alive” but face-to-face with mountains of “stuff” I literally fell to my knees. Where do I begin? How do I begin?

They had stocked up, not for quarantine but for an impending apocalypse, and my mom was too weak (and my sister “too busy”) to clean it out. So, it accumulated for three years. Towers of cleaning supplies, discarded clothing, food and paper goods. I had never seen so many rolls of Charmin in my life. Even more shocking: my sister liked it this way. 

I don’t recognize my life anymore

It took me three months to make a dent and another three to replace ancient carpets, furniture, and appliances. My sister finally admits she likes the change, but “doesn’t recognize the place.” I can honestly say I feel the same. I don’t recognize myself these days or the tasks that consume me.

Likewise, there are people who have come and gone. My sister had kidney stone surgery in June and her kind doctor is now a constant for me, as is her grief counselor. At the same time, I’ve completely lost touch with many of my mom’s teacher colleagues who were like second mothers to me. After paying shiva calls, they simply disappeared. 

I thought things were settling down. I let myself breathe. Then, this October, I was hit with another unanticipated tragedy. I received a call from a detective with the Broward County Police Department. My 85-year-old aunt collapsed on her kitchen floor and was found dead in a pool of blood. I was sitting in a nail salon at the time, and I literally jumped up, mid-manicure, and ran out of the door hyperventilating.

I called my sister who didn’t seem shocked or saddened (they were estranged), but my head was spinning. She was fine, just fine, only two weeks ago when we chatted about politics and cataracts and what she would eat for lunch (potato salad was a distinct possibility).

I was blindsided again when my aunt passed away

When my aunt’s estate attorney calls to explain the inheritance, I expected it to be split between her two only nieces. I am the eldest, and she told me repeatedly “I’m leaving it all to you both, my only family.” But when the will is read, I am once again blindsided. My sister, it turns out, is the sole beneficiary. I—a woman with a career, a husband, and a child—am clearly in better shape than my unwed, emotionally-scarred sibling.

Though my sister and aunt haven’t spoken for years, I am an afterthought. I am too stunned and hurt to say anything more except that I will file all the paperwork according to my aunt’s wishes. My sister is set for life; the money will provide for her old age or any health concerns that arise. In that way I am eternally grateful to my aunt; a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I almost felt at peace, but then, as if on cue, another quake bowls me over: my daughter walks in and announces, “I’m moving out.”

Then my daughter announced that she was moving out

My husband and I look at each other, speechless. Yes, she just turned 21 and yes, she’s graduating college in May. But once again, everything has been tossed topsy turvy without warning. We thought we had a few more months of her at home. I am no longer someone’s mommy—at least not in the day-to-day “What’s for dinner and can you help me with my homework?” sense.

She’s an adult, she’s strong, smart, and capable of caring of herself. Which leaves me…I’m not quite sure where. A thought from Physics suddenly floats to the surface: “The one thing you can count on in quantum experiments is unpredictability.” When it comes to particles, it’s virtually impossible to predict where one will end up—and the same I suppose goes for me.

My spouse waits a day, barely a beat, to present what he thinks is a plausible solution to our newly empty nest: we should leave it behind. He wants to move to Florida, to become “snowbirds” with all the other New Yorkers in the 50-something age bracket migrating to Delray, Boca and Aventura.

I tell him, honestly, I’m not ready to make that decision just yet. For him, it feels like the perfect time to just pick up and go, but for me there are too many unknowns.

This year has taught me that life changes at the speed of light

Has this year taught us nothing? Have we not seen how much can change at the speed of light? The numbers came to me as if I’d pulled them out of a magic hat: “186,000 miles per second, 700 million miles per hour.” That’s it! That’s exactly how it feels. Like everything is racing by at breakneck speed, ricocheting ahead. 

But I am not helpless. I would prefer things to slow down and let me catch my breath, but that’s not something I can control. “Inherent unpredictability” is part of Physics but also part of life. I could dig my heels in, demand we stay in one place, will time to stand still. But that would mean ignoring all the good that’s come this year as well as the bad, the love I continually experience from unexpected places. A neighbor treats me to afternoon tea. My group of “stage moms” from our kids’ theater days reunites for brunch and a screening.  A friend from Bronx Science calls to reconnect and meet up after the holidays. 

“You’ve had quite a year,” she listens patiently as I recount each incident. “No one would believe it. It could be a movie!”

Maybe this is an experiment to see how I will adapt

Or maybe it’s all just one big experiment to see how we evolve and adapt to everything that’s thrown at us. I was never good at Physics, but it did teach me one thing: You must keep moving forward. We live in a chaotic universe; things happen that we simply cannot understand but they do lead to growth and revelation. For me, it’s a greater faith in myself. Even if I do get swept away, I know I can still stick the landing.

Life has changed dramatically and so have I. I’m braver and a little less loathe to experiment with the unknown. So maybe I will try Florida for a few weeks or write a screenplay (truth is stranger than fiction!) or help my daughter decorate her new digs in Barbie pink (her choice, not mine).

I might even just re-read my dusty old Physics textbook (I found it when clearing out my mom’s shelves). Who would have thought that any of those boring scientific facts would stick and come in handy after all?

More Great Reading:

Finding My Way Through the Grief of Losing My Mom

About Sheryl Berk

Sheryl Berk is a New York Times Bestselling Author and celebrity ghostwriter, as well as the former founding editor in chief of Life & Style Weekly. With her daughter Carrie Berk, she has written three children’s book series: The Cupcake Club, Fashion Academy and Ask Emma.

Read more posts by Sheryl

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