My husband, Matt, died suddenly four days before our 12th wedding anniversary when he was 39.
That was three years ago, and this year I decided to spend the third anniversary of this “day” walking at what is known as the “1000 steps” in the Dandenongs in Melbourne, Australia.
As I arrived, I noticed only a few cars in the car park which surprised me. I thought there would be lots of people here on such a gorgeous sunny day. I parked and walked through to the start of the trail…. and noticed the steps went down…. I had always expected the trail to start with steps leading up.
Down I went…. 776 steps down…. (apparently there’s only 776 which kind of bugs this data nerd but anyway)… As I walked, lots of people passed me going the other way. I was a bit confused. I finally got to the bottom and noticed a large car park filled with cars. Apparently my car’s GPS had led me to the wrong end of the track and I’d actually gone down when I “should” have gone up and gone up when I “should” have gone down.
I expected to start the track by going up…It went down. I expected my life to go a certain way… It hasn’t.
As I walked, I was thinking of my wedding day. There are two enduring memories I have of that day. The first is the staircase I walked down, my version of the aisle. The second is that it rained, poured actually, until about half an hour before the outdoor ceremony which I had stubbornly refused to even countenance moving indoors.
I spent much of the morning of my wedding day looking up, checking the dark clouds, and as I walked down the stairs I remember the sun was shining so brightly that I had to squint. It was so much more beautiful – and memorable – for being so unexpected.
I thought I’d learned the lesson about not being able to control things on the day I got married. It took me another 11 years and 360 days to learn it properly. That sometimes the unexpected can bring joy; and sometimes it can bring pain, but either way what you expect very rarely turns out to be what actually happens.
I expected this year’s third anniversary days – wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries, birthdays – to be easier than last years. But they were harder… maybe because of the expectation itself. I expected to be “more ok”, and I was knocked for a six when I realised I was not.
When I finally got back to the top of the steps and made my way back to the car I remembered a quote I love.
There’s no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs.
I believe that. I believe professional success is born out of tenacity and persistence and keeping on going even when it feels like a hundred walls have been put in front of you. But I wonder if there is also no elevator to happiness. No shortcuts or automated processes which can take you, effortlessly, in one straight line upwards. That happiness, like success, is also at the top of a peak whose steps must be climbed. Each step, both the shallow narrow ones and the deep ones which require several mini steps to climb, takes you closer to the top. It’s hard, especially if you are unfit for the challenge having never climbed something like it before. Some days it feels like the oxygen is too thin, that you can neither breathe in nor breathe out, so you just have to hold your breath for a little while.
But I wonder if the worst thing you can do to yourself is to have expectations about the climb itself…. Because sometimes the climb goes up, and sometimes it goes down, and both lead you to new discoveries.
I walked down the steps on my wedding day to get to Matt and the long future I expected we would have together, but I walked up the steps on my wedding anniversary this year to go home to my kids. And the only expectation I have now is of something I can absolutely control – that I should never deny how I feel, but I can always control how I think. And I’ll always be grateful.