The summer before my senior year of high school, I began interning at a local newspaper. In addition to making copies and transcribing interviews, I spent much of my time proofreading and formatting pages and pages of obituaries.
Common reactions to my position would include: “Why would you willingly do that, Lara?” or “I would get too depressed!”
And I did at first. But aside from my willingness to endure anything that took me one step closer to my dreams of becoming a professional journalist, I eventually told people the job was growing on me.
And it was.
Over time, the sometimes morbid and monotonous task became an opportunity to sift through war stories, academic and professional paths, passions and activist causes. I learned about the many lives people touched and the impacts they left behind. I remember telling myself that summer that I would one day write an obituary for someone who left an immeasurable impact on my own life.
Now seems like the right time.
For Aunt Paula:
I've always worried too much. My best friends nicknamed me “mom” sometime between seventh and eighth grade for my general tendency to overthink things, and as I grew older, my worries took the form of grade anxiety. I became the second semester senior in high school who couldn’t stop thinking about an exam until after I’d received my grade because what if I failed, and what if Michigan post-rejected me?
Anyone who shares similar stress knows that a decent amount of worry stems from the inability to accept stress itself. Is it normal for me to worry this much? Am I worrying about this enough? And so on.
One day when I was 11 or 12, my mom asked me: “Do you know who worries as much as you? Your Aunt Paula.”
She had no idea at the time just how much that comment would affect me, but it really did. It was as if knowing that someone I had always looked up to shared similar challenges somehow made my own anxiety acceptable.
Aunt Paula, my mom’s older sister, lost an eight-year battle with breast cancer at the age of 51 in 2013. The end of her life broke my family in so many ways it’s hard to put into words, so I won’t attempt to do that here. I will instead try to capture her genuine beauty and strength as best I can.
Aunt Paula was a fast-talking, analytical perfectionist whose electric smile brightened any room — or mood — I was in.
She attended New York City Public Schools’ hyper-competitive Stuyvesant High School before graduating near the top of her class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. After earning her MBA from Columbia, she led a long and successful career in banking and software development.
But Aunt Paula was so much more to me than an inspiration; she was a mix between my second mother, my best friend and my guidance counselor. When girls were mean and boys were weird, Aunt Paula would relate, sympathize and encourage me to push through the awkward years. She took me clothes shopping and tutored me in math at her kitchen table. Together we would obsess over our favorite episodes of “Gilmore Girls” and then read through the 2013 “Fiske Guide to Colleges.”
I still struggle to come to terms with her death because, for so long, it seemed to me that she was never sick. I now realize that for so many years she masked her own stress and fear and nausea to protect those around her from feeling even a fraction of the pain she did. Despite a severe diagnosis at the age of 43, my aunt continued to get dressed for work, travel the world and make it to every family dinner, birthday party, band concert and even field hockey game that she physically could.
Maybe my Aunt Paula was a superhero. But then again maybe she was just worried; worried that she would miss out on things — worried that she would upset those around her if she let her inner-anxieties show. I’d like to think my aunt’s anxious perfectionism is what allowed her to fight such a scary disease and live life to its fullest for eight years. Over time, I’ve come to accept that my own anxiety is what drives me toward my personal goals.
I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I’ll ever stop worrying about the small things. Then again, I never want to.