Monday, August 15, 2011
Family is defined in the dictionary as “a group of people related to one another by blood or marriage;” “a person or people related to one and so to be treated with a special loyalty or intimacy;” or “a group of objects united by a significant shared characteristic.”
From my current perspective, though, a more accurate description of the institution of family is a hybrid of these: to me, family is a group of people who are connected by circumstances, cause, and choices. The people that make up a family may or may not be related by blood or marriage, and they often play a vital role in dealing with serious illness and grief.
During the time that Dad was sick and in the months since he went on ahead, I have seen the makeup of our family change. Actions and lack thereof have resulted in the forfeiture of the inclusion of some people whom I fully believed would have supported us in our time of need, some of whom I would have even bet the farm on because I thought they were included in the group I defined at the time as my family. I stand corrected, though, in some cases, as well as disappointed, hurt, angry, and full of even more grief for the loss of those relationships as I thought they were.
The surprise, the transference, the thing that allows me to keep my faith in mankind, though, has been the outpouring of love and kindness from many of our friends who have become family to me. Those who have suffered a loss and know the devastation, even those to whom we weren’t “close” in the past, as well as those who don’t know a loss like this first-hand but have made every effort just to be there and to listen - all of them have been such a comfort to us, and that is something I will never forget.
I will forever value the lifeguards who guided and supported us, who kept us afloat, when we were thrown into the deep end when Dad was first diagnosed, as we treaded water while he was sick and in the throes of grief, and as we struggle to try to make it back to shore without being pulled under by the current.
As part of his training program for the upcoming Ironman triathlon, Dad trained with a swim team at a facility near my parents’ house. The majority of the people on the team were years younger than he was; some were even half his age. Like he so often did, he made an impression on these people just by being himself - genuine, dedicated, positive, and kind. Before he got sick, Dad had mentioned to me a few times that he really liked being on this team, and he talked about how cool he thought it was that Ashley, the coach, was a gold medalist on the U.S. swim team in the 1996 Summer Olympics, which, coincidentally, Mom and Dad had gone to as spectators.
During the time just before and after Dad’s surgery, he told me to contact Ashley to let her know why he wouldn’t be at swim practice that week. He said he didn’t want her to think he was “slacking off” at the end of his Ironman training schedule. After she found out what was going on, she offered to help with anything we needed, and, from that point on, she became one of Dad’s cheerleaders and a support on the sidelines to the rest of us. She organized a schedule of meals to be provided by members of the swim team on an every-other-day basis. She sent cards and checked in regularly to find out about Dad’s progress. She did research to find out which Physical Therapists did aquatic therapy when I mentioned to her that he really wanted to get back into the pool as soon as possible after he finished his inpatient rehab stay. And, when Dad was on the decline that sent him to the hospital the second and final time, she stopped by the house for a visit and ended up helping my sister get Dad up after he had fallen. Dad admired Ashley as an athlete and as a person, and it was obvious that the feeling was mutual. Before his diagnosis, Dad was the only one in our family who knew her, but, through her efforts and her kindness, we all came to think of her as a great support and a friend. She and the other swim team members cared so much for Dad and were so compassionate that they continued to bring meals to the house for many weeks after Dad died, feeding both our bodies and our spirits with their kindness.
Something that was therapeutic for me during Dad’s illness was writing updates for his Care Page. Word spread quickly about his illness, and within a couple of weeks, we had 375 “visitors” checking the Care Page for updates. Over the 75 days of Dad’s illness, those online supporters viewed his Care Page more than 6,000 times and left over 1,000 messages for Dad and for us. We read many of the posts and comments to Dad, and we have read and re-read them many, many times since and have found comfort in the concern, the sentiments, and the messages over the past ten months.
I saw an editorial recently in which the author said he thought it was “crass” to announce or to discuss serious illness or death through social media like Facebook. I couldn’t disagree more! I don’t know what I would have done without the connections and support I have gotten through Facebook over the past months. Many people shared stories of their own losses with me and had great advice about how to get through the day, the weeks, the months of grief. Others just checked in here and there and let me know they cared about how I was doing. A few told me about how they loved Dad and let me know that they missed him and would always remember him, too. Some posted thought-provoking and inspiring quotes, photos, and statements that have influenced my perspective. And still others provided me with welcome distractions and laughs, all of which have played a valuable part in pulling me through the murkiness.
As much as I will always carry with me the pain of the loss and the suffering during this time in my life, I will forever remember and treasure the friendships and the generosity, consideration, and affection of those in what I consider to be my newly formed family.
We don't accomplish anything in this world alone ... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something. ~ Sandra Day O'Connor