I was an hour into a 4.5-hour drive. It was getting dark and there wasn’t another car as far as the eye could see as I cruised down a frosty single-lane highway. I had spent the day teaching several workshops on managing and preventing burnout and was feeling the irony of that while the fatigue of such a long day settled on me.
Now that this speaking gig was done, I was looking forward to a relatively quiet week. The previous few weeks had been disruptive as we navigated our first house reno and all the chaos that goes with that. We were in the home stretch of finishing it and I couldn’t wait to settle back into our normal routines again.
But that was not to be.
My phone rang and I saw that it was my mother. I put the phone on hands-free and pulled over. I knew immediately that something was wrong. She told me that my brother, Elliot, was in the ICU in critical condition with pneumonia. He was on life support and it was very serious.
I asked all the questions I could think of and, after hanging up, called my other brother, Evan, and then my husband, as I tried very hard not to freak out in the middle-of-nowhere, Alberta. The remainder of the drive was a blur as I tried to keep my spinning thoughts and emotions in check and make it safely home.
2 steps forward, 3 steps back
What followed was several weeks of roller coaster ups and downs as Elliot battled the infection. He was intubated 3 times and for a long time couldn’t breathe on his own. He developed a secondary infection that required a chest tube to drain the additional fluid pushing on his lungs. He had a feeding tube and a dozen lines for various medications, fluids, and monitoring.
For the first week and a half, my heart rate spiked every time the phone rang, and each day seemed to be 2 steps forward and 3 steps back.
And of course, there were the visits.
If you have spent any length of time in a hospital you know they are energy-sucking vortexes. The sounds, smells, and reasons for being there all conspire to drain you. Time seems to slow down and all you want to do is leave as soon as you can, regardless of if you are a patient or visitor.
Even the practical parts of driving in the bitter cold, and going in circles hoping to find a parking spot, which you then have to pay an exorbitant amount for. Then walking in the bitter cold. The isolation protocols of mask, sanitizer, gown and gloves. The helpless feeling of watching someone you love struggle and being able to do so little about it.
Every part of it chips away at you.
And so it was for my brother, me and my family for nearly 4 weeks.
The silver linings of hard things
To everyone’s immense relief, after 26 days in the ICU, Elliot was discharged to continue his recovery at home. As of now, he is nearly back to himself and enjoying all the comforts of his bachelor pad with renewed vigour.
I waffled on whether to share all this and for what purpose. Given some time to reflect, it was the parts that were hidden, the silver linings, in this experience that stood out the most to me.
I wanted to share those silver linings of what was a hard time for me in hopes of inspiring you to look for the silver linings of the hard things in your life.
The love of brothers
For a bit of context, my brother Elliot has Down’s Syndrome (which was an additional complicating factor in his hospital stay). He is sweet-natured and funny. He is a marvellous mix of boy and man who loves to colour and watch cartoons, but also enjoys beer and has a preference for blondes. He laughs uproariously at Scooby-Doo and watches the Aliens movies with wide-eyed delight.
While Elliot was in the hospital, my other brother, Evan, and I visited him together as often as we could.
Our sibling dynamic has always been an interesting one, made unique by our birth order combined with Elliot’s special needs. Evan, the oldest, was Elliot’s bodyguard, protecting him from the cruelties of children that don’t know any better. I, the youngest, was Elliot’s lawyer, ready to explain him out of any faux pax he might have unknowingly stumbled into. Elliot was in the middle, always his charming, easygoing self, rarely worried about the great fuss everyone seemed to make about silly things.
Over the weeks when Elliot was at his worst, struggling to breathe and looking so small, being there with Evan felt right. Together we took our places, bodyguard and lawyer. Evan understood best the overwhelmingly helpless feeling that this was not something we could protect Elliot from. We could only keep showing up and bring him what small joys we could. There was a strange comfort in the three of us being in the same room, just us, despite the terrible circumstances.
Each day, we coordinated with our parents, put on hold other parts of our lives, and supported each other as best we could.
The silver linings of THIS hard thing
In the final week as Elliot started to improve (and stay improved), the fear and vigilance shifted to cheering on his incremental steps forward: Together, with nearly the whole unit, we encouraged him to walk the hall and back (with a walker and 2 nurses supporting him) after being in bed for so many days.
We were able to enjoy watching shows with him; the tail end of a Spider-man movie (Elliot and Evan’s fav superhero), an endless stream of Simpsons episodes, and an unknown black and white movie that Elliot inexplicably gave a thumbs up to. Evan and I goofed around a little and Elliot, even as sick as he was, still managed to give Evan a good whack in my defence, as he always did when we were growing up.
On a day that Evan couldn’t make it to the hospital until later, Elliot and I took funny pictures together and sent them to Evan, who responded in kind to make Elliot laugh. Together, the three of us slipped into the old rhythms of our childhood, but with the new rhythms of adulthood added in.
Throughout what was a scary and harrowing experience for everyone, the silver linings of this hard thing were the moments of laughter and connection, and the reminders of the children we used to be and the ties that bind us as adults. As is often the case with serious life events, it was a harsh reminder to pull back from the normal day-to-day and reconnect with two people I love very much.
A reminder for you
I decided to share all of this to encourage you to think about the silver linings of the hard times you have experienced and the opportunities they reveal. When you are in them, it's harder (even impossible) to see. But with a little distance and time to reflect, you can find those silver threads.
The point of an intentional life, (and, I would argue all the productivity tools, tips, and tactics) is to make space for the things that matter. It’s to get clarity on your priorities and give your attention and time to the right ones, without the need for a crisis or tragedy.
I hope my experience inspires you to reach out to someone in your life that maybe you haven’t connected with in too long. Someone who, amongst the busyness of the day-to-day, has been lost in the assumption that they will be there “when you have time”.
Make some time now.
Are you having a hard time finding the silver linings? Let's have a chat.