My 44-year-old sister’s violent death in 2004 at the hands of a drunk driver rocked my and my family’s world. At first, I went about my business as marketing director of a Houston-based software company, thinking I was OK. But after a few weeks, I realized I was really, really not OK. I realized my life was way out of whack. My drive to succeed professionally had overtaken everything else in my life. I was overweight and in poor shape. Constantly stressed. My marriage was in shambles.
I had a sweet, blue-eyed blonde haired eight-year-old son, Burke, who was getting my leftovers – whatever remained of me at the end of each day after feeding my insatiable ego at work.
Blowing into his private school one day – between crafting a masterful PowerPoint presentation and writing an award-winning conference report, I’m sure – to catch a glimpse of him in the Egyptian mummy funeral procession, a third grade rite of passage, I overhead one of the other moms say, incredulously, “Is that boy in a Roman costume?”
The other moms had spent weeks carefully researching and hand crafting their kids’ costumes, complete with jewel-encrusted headpieces, Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra bangs and a sea of shades of blue eye shadow. And those were the boys. Bopping along amidst a gaggle of tiny King Tuts was Burke, a miniature Russell Crowe from Gladiator in his hastily purchased Roman outfit from Arne’s Party Supply.
My wake-up call came at 7 AM on March 17, 2004. I was working, always working, during a spring break family ski trip in Beaver Creek, Colorado. With the coffee brewing and bacon frying, the rest of our group was groggily sorting through damp mittens and ski socks. I was at the kitchen table, hunched over my laptop, scrutinizing an excel spreadsheet. A co-worker had called to say our team had inadvertently left a zero off our annual budget request, the business equivalent of the end of the world.
In the middle of the call, my sister Julie’s son Aaron beeped in to say, “You need to come home.” While traveling home from work in Downtown Houston that morning, Julie’s car had been hit from behind by thirty-two-year-old Eric Hinton, who the police estimate was traveling at a speed of 117 miles per hour upon impact, his blood alcohol content three times the legal limit. Julie was being kept on life support at Hermann Hospital in Houston until I could get there to say goodbye.
In that instant, as if by magic, the apocalyptic budget crisis simply ceased to exist.
Over the course of the next three years, I methodically deconstructed my life and constructed Karen v2. I quit my very important, all-consuming marketing job and began freelancing. I quit my hopeless marriage. I began to exercise and get into shape, exploring Pilates and hot yoga. I sponsored a woman to become Catholic at my church. I became an Art a la Carte docent at my son’s school, immersing myself into art and the classroom. I spent time with my son. I remarried. Moved twice. And started a new job. I began to ponder what happens to us, to our spirits, after we die, and how they came into existence in the first place.
My sister was an organ and tissue donor, and through that experience, I became an advocate for organ and tissue donation, something I had spent little time thinking about before her death.
Eleven years later, I am seeking another wave of personal transformation, but this time without the catastrophe. This time from a place of health and happiness instead of stress and dysfunction. This time, I hope to get to know myself. Not the Karen who shops at Anthropologie, drinks skinny lattes and writes press releases for a living, but the Karen who was put on this earth for a purpose, to fulfill a mission. This time there’s nothing to deconstruct, save perhaps a few bad habits and limiting mindsets.
Almost a year ago to the day, I stumbled upon Dan Harris’ (then) new book, 10% Happier, which inspired me to give myself the freedom to explore new things. Since then, I have joyfully bounced around a bit, letting things happen instead of making them happen.
First, I delved into mindfulness and meditation. Who knew eating a raisin could be so engrossing? I explored the life of the Bodhisattva through a course at the Houston Zen Center. And I experienced life inside the womb through Watsu massage at a ranch in Baja California, Mexico (still trying to sort that one out, but it required a passport).
As a result of my family’s involvement in organ and tissue donation, I was asked to deliver a keynote speech in September to an audience of 900 members of the American Association of Tissue Banks in Scottsdale, Arizona. Nervous about speaking in front of such a large audience, I took a course on effective public speaking at Rice University, taught by a man with a serious speech impediment. (It was either that or devise the human version of the Thundershirt. I even purchased a black neoprene jog bra about four sizes too small, but that’s another story.)
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I became a volunteer at LifeGift Houston, the organ procurement organization that, well, procured my sister’s organs and tissues upon her death, which promises an opportunity to support this worthy cause and a peek into the inner workings of organ and tissue recovery.
And through my first writing workshop, on memoir writing at Inprint Houston, I learned that I could actually put words on paper and properly use quotation marks. Inspired, I joined a fledgling writers’ group, Writespace. Oh, and I started a blog.
All in all, 2015 has been a year of forming new relationships with some amazing people, two of whom are my sister and myself. If it weren’t for her and quite frankly her death, my life would be very different. Every stone I overturn on this journey brings a new, interesting and sometimes bizarre experience. In 2016, I plan to share some of these experiences, and I hope you’ll share yours.