Turning Wounds Into Wisdom
by Lynda Fishman
(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
When I was 13 years old, in 1970, my whole world fell apart. My mother and two younger sisters were killed in an Air Canada plane crash.
My mother’s name was Rita. She was 39. My sister’s names were Carla and Wendy. They were 11 and 8.
Today, over forty three years later, I still think about my parents and sisters every day.
My mother was my best friend. I treasure the memories I have of us spending time together, especially the everyday stuff, like cooking, folding laundry, watching movies, and planting flowers in our garden.
My mother was always dedicated to helping others. Acts of charity and loving kindness were central to her way of life. She taught us, through her actions, how important it is for us to make the world a better place.
We were three sisters and our dad always acted so proud of me, Carla and Wendy. He always introduced us as number one, number two and number three.
I was sixteen months older than Carla, and we took piano lessons and rode our bikes together. Carla loved to read and she loved doing needlepoint. She was gentle, level-headed and intuitive. Her dream was to be a doctor.
Wendy, my baby sister, was incredibly energetic and enthusiastic about everything from the minute she opened her eyes every morning. She was 4 years younger than me. Wendy loved to keep moving and she was amazing at skipping rope. She skipped in our living room, our basement, our backyard and in front of our house. She was rambunctious and loaded with volumes of personality. While Carla and I would play piano, Wendy would dance. Her dream was to be an actress.
I was always a very responsible kid. I walked dogs in the neighborhood, and when we went to people’s houses for dinner, I helped in the kitchen or looked after the younger kids.
My dad, Saul, was a sweet and jolly man. He had a retail store in Montreal with his brother. My dad loved to tell jokes and he was always happy to meet people. He had a distinct giggle and he could whistle a whole song perfectly, barely stopping for air.
He was 44 years old when he had to bury a wife and two daughters. He was understandably traumatized.
So really, I lost my dad that day too. He never recovered. In my eyes, he was a completely different man. And then in 1999, almost 20 years after the plane crash, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he died very soon afterward.
Growing up, our family didn't have much money, but our home and our lives always felt rich and abundant. As a family, we lived a purposeful life where we reached out to help others. We were always involved in charity events and volunteer work.
Our house was often packed with company. We always felt safe and secure. Life was great.
And then on Sunday, July 5th, 1970, it was all gone. THEY were all gone. We were no longer a family.
For me and my dad, life as we had known it was over.
We were forced to carry on for days, months, and even years, with the impact and effects of such profound loss, that never went away.
Though my father was not on the plane, his life ended that day as well. And I had no one to talk to. Back in the 70’s, there was no professional help available to us. We didn't talk about the plane crash, or about my mother and sisters, because we didn't know how to – we were overwhelmed, frightened, haunted with terror . . . and alone. Very alone.
Pictures of them were put away, all of their personal items were cleared out of our house, and we were expected to move forward with our lives, as if nothing had happened.
Obviously, things have changed tremendously since then. Tragedies are dealt with much more openly, and there’s an outpouring of support and love from around the globe, for the families of the victims. When I think about it, I can’t get over the fact that there weren't even any grief counsellors or therapists brought in as they would do today. Instead, people just had to manage, and do what they thought was best. They didn't know how to handle the subject of death and grief, and they thought it was best, to never talk about it. They wanted to protect us, spare us from more pain, and prevent the stirring of feelings. The myth back then was that if we don’t talk about it, we can live beyond it.
I, on the other hand, wanted so badly to talk about my mother and sisters, to hear stories about them, to keep their memory alive. But that just wasn't the way it was back then.
So there was only me and my father. And he withdrew into his own new world, feeling hopeless, helpless and consumed by despair, where he would barely talk to me about anything. My jolly dad had become sad, weak and scared. He no longer giggled or whistled tunes. He never recovered from his heartbreak. In my eyes, he had given up on life.
There’s a crucial difference between truly living, and existence, that is often mistaken for being alive.
At night I would hear him crying in his bedroom. He was suffering terribly, but I didn't go in. I couldn't. I didn't know what to say, or what to do, so I covered my head with my pillow, so I wouldn't have to hear him sobbing.
From the day of the plane crash, and for his remaining years, my father walked around in a trance-like state. Like he was lost in the woods, and didn't know which way to go.
When I think back to how my father and I each dealt with our sorrow, I realize that we were two people living through the same tragedy, yet, doing the best that we could, we each made different choices about how to deal with this tragedy.
For me, no matter how hard it was, and it WAS hard - I was not going to give up on life. Giving up was NEVER a CHOICE for me.
I chose a direction and walked, trying to find my way, doing what I had to do in order to survive – in order to find a new normal.
But my father, quite to the contrary, just seemed to walk slowly in circles, aimlessly struggling. It was heart-wrenching to watch.
The truth is that I had no idea how to process or deal with so much loss. What I DID know was that I didn't want to give up, and I didn't want to give in, to the constant pain.
I wanted what every human being wants. I wanted to feel joy and happiness again. I wanted to laugh and have fun. I had to find something to make the panic and anxiety stop, in much the same way that we take a pain pill, to get rid of pain.
I discovered that the only thing that helped, even temporarily, was focusing on the things that made me feel better and gave me pleasure and joy. My pain medication, or emotional anesthetic, was to do whatever I could to keep busy, distracted and focused on helping others.
I felt so much better when I was spending time with happy, positive people, doing things for others, spending time with animals, finding things to be grateful about, and choosing positive thoughts.
And I didn't feel guilty about wanting to be happy, because my mother had always told us, that health and happiness, were the most important things in life.
I knew that my mother would NOT have wanted me to spend the rest of my life in a state of total despair, feeling sorry for myself.
Choosing to move forward, to live, and to be happy is a conscious decision. It’s a conscious choice.
So, I chose to live again.
I talked to myself when I felt scared and overwhelmed, and I taught myself how to replace the fear and panic, with hopes and dreams.
I imagined and dreamed about having happiness and joy again in my life. And I never let go of that belief.
And somehow I found a way to move forward.
No matter what we are faced with, we always have choices. And we make choices.
I also believe that the more choices we make, the more alive we feel. The more alive we feel, the healthier our choices.
Even when people are faced with very similar situations, they don’t choose to deal with things the same way.
When faced with difficulties and challenges, you can choose to give up, give in, or give it all you've got. I’m so grateful that as a young teenager, I chose to give it my all.
And here I am, 43 years after being hit with a terrible tragedy, to tell you that some people ARE able to survive, and even thrive after a tragedy.
Life moves at a rapid speed, so we have to appreciate and embrace every moment we are lucky enough to have.
I recently wrote and published a book, called Repairing Rainbows.
Why did I write this book so many years later? Because more I thought about it, the more committed I was to sharing my story, and all of the lessons I have learned through the years, in the hope that I could help and inspire others faced with tragedy – faced with the same choice I had to make over and over – the choice to live, and to seeing the VALUE in learning and growing from life's most difficult moments and challenges.
People faced with tragedy don’t know what to expect. Other than family members, friends, or professionals, the most credible support and information comes from survivors of tragedy.
Repairing Rainbows is the story of my life and how I dealt with personal tragedy, and the choices I made along the way. It is a story about choices.
Knowing that my experiences are helping light the way for others, makes the intensity of the writing all worthwhile.
We all know that there is no recipe or template to follow that will determine the course of any tragedy, and the effect it has on one’s life. But the toughest decision a person has to make is whether or not they are choosing LIFE.
Whether or not you respond to a crisis with hope, is a choice. It’s a choice about whether you want to live or die.