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The Purple Fence

Dr. Joanne Paul- MBBS (UWI), FRCPCH (UK), FRCP (Edin)


So, a few years ago, of course before the pandemic, I was on a small expedition cruise in Canada with a few friends. It was a boat cruise with an expedition vessel where every day we were docked at a different island and we had a chance to go on land and have hikes, cycling, walks, bird colony viewing, kayaking and a host of activities. I remember one trek for hours with one of the passengers sharing about her life. She and her husband had tried for some time and eventually she became pregnant. A few years later though, their child was diagnosed with leukemia, a blood cancer, and eventually the child died. She then went on to adopt a few children from Haiti and tried to rebuild her life, but one could tell that she was still grieving as the wound still seemed raw.

What really struck me though about her story, was not the sadness of having a young child die which is an absolute, but her disbelief that her plan for life, her milestone, could be thrown so off track. She was a good person she said, and she had a right to happiness. We sometimes get brainwashed from young that we must have the same life story and must achieve these milestones in life to make us happy. Relationships, marriage of whatever sort, children, grandchildren, homes, a great career. Don’t get me wrong, research has shown over and over again that all of the above, quality relationships, family bonds, children, marriage, it all makes us live happier and longer lives. But it is the monochromic uncompromising linearity of it. Childhood, adolescence with fun and exploration. The twenties and thirties where we choose and develop in careers, we have relationships, we have children. In our forties and fifties our children grow older, start secondary school, and prepare for university. We become senior in our careers. There may be a midlife crisis or two, we reassess our career choice, maybe try something else, maybe not. We babysit the grandchildren, spend time with old friends, get older, and eventually we die. We hear stories of life events that happens to other people but somehow, we have a fixed concept of the expected stages. And when we are derailed or if an expected life event does not occur or if it occurs out of sequence, we are shocked to our every core.

‘What about the purple picket fence’ I said, as the group walked through fields of flowers and brush that came up to our waist and caressed our fingers. The sun was a warm glorious one that you get in a temperate country like Canada during the summer. She stopped her walking and turned to look at me, puzzled by this concept. ‘We all expect the white picket fence,’ I said, ‘sometimes it is okay if it is purple’

We have been socialised with clear signposts. We as a society set up our own paradigm and criteria of what we must have in order to be happy and successful and when we do not achieve them, we somehow feel we have failed. We set our own societal reality rules and then suffer grief that they were not all there in the package. We can change our mindset to accept that the criteria is amorphous, and the milestones could be our choice.  If we determine our perception and our perception impacts our reality, then by extension we determine our reality to some extent, sometimes a small amount and sometimes more.

The writer Bruce Feiler speaks of our fixation with the linear life story where we expect life to unfold in fixed stages and if it does not, we feel upended, off track. He states that we will always have life disruptions and when we have large disruptions, he calls those life quakes. Transitions he says, are periods of change, upheaval, and renewal. He recommends that we learn how to transition through these life quakes. Some examples of life quakes are divorce, death, pandemic, cancer, loosing your home, having a stroke or a major health issue. No one wants it to happen. No one expects it to happen. But it does. To transition best, Bruce says start with your strengths, expect emotion, try something new and shed parts of the old you, ask for help from others and rewrite your story.

I think transitions are important but even before the transition, the key to me is to allow for adaptation and agility. It makes the transition easier. Relationships can take many forms and connections can be many types and children can be biological but can be from so many aspects; nieces, nephews, neighbours, adopted, work, school, everywhere that there is a connection. Career success is also just relative

Maybe it is not about the linear life but maybe we should copy the style of the tree. The anchored roots in the ground represent our core values, close relationships, and general stance on life. But we allow the top of the tree to sway in the breeze and grow slanted, twisted and shifting around with each challenge, and disruption, and life quake. But we still grow.

The white picket fence can be purple. Or even better, the fence could be just a field of flowers and brush, between our fingers

Dr Joanne F Paul is a Lecturer, a Paediatric Emergency Specialist, and a member of TEL institute



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