Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Spirit – Not the Spirit of Competition

I’ve been thinking a lot about competitiveness and its place in my life lately.

Dad was very competitive, unless it was at the expense of someone else.  He always set goals for himself for running, whether it was to be among the top finishers, to run the race in a certain time, or to complete a race that was unlike one he had done before, like an ultra-marathon. 

Even with an objective in mind, though, Dad always tried to help other people who were also competing.  He often cheered people on in the middle of a race while he was running.  He always appreciated the spirit of competition and admired people who overcame adversity and challenges to rise to the top, especially when their success wasn’t expected.  On more than one occasion, Dad won a trophy or a medal in a race and then gave it to someone else who had competed in the race but who hadn’t won, often a child who had finished a race for the first time ever.

When I was a teenager, Dad drove a couple of guys from my high school and me to a state park in Mississippi to compete in a small-town road race.  We left early on a Saturday morning, and, as we drove the last mile or so to the starting line, we saw a teenaged boy walking along the side of the road in basketball shorts, walking barefooted and carrying spiked track shoes.  The guys in the car and I laughed when we passed the boy because he seemed so poorly prepared for a race that was about to be run on a paved road.  Dad didn’t laugh; he said, “You never know who’ll get the last laugh.”  We found out how true that was after the race when we found out that the boy had finished in second place overall, running on Dad’s heels with his spikes clicking on the pavement for the entire 5-mile race.  

The last race that he and I participated in together was in May of 2010 and was a Muddy Buddy event in which teams of two had to tag-team over a 7 mile course, taking turns on foot and on a mountain bike.  Teams were put into age divisions according to the combined ages of the two teammates; Dad and I were in the “Over 105 Years Old” age division!  Many teams had dressed in costumes, some of which were quite elaborate.  When everyone lined up at the starting line, I told Dad that we if we ever did another race like this, we should plan to wear something better than the matching t-shirts we had on.  He said, “I think it’d be better just to train more than to hassle with getting costumes.  Today I mostly just don’t want to get beaten by someone who is running in a tutu.”

In this race, Dad started out first on the bike.  At the one-mile mark, he parked the bike and set out on foot.  I started among the other first-leg runners, several minutes behind the first-leg bikers, and ran to the one-mile point and then hopped on the bike.  We continued to leap-frog like that over the rest of the course.  At one point, I was running and heard footsteps coming up behind me.  I turned around and saw Dad running (he was supposed to be biking that leg since I was running it), carrying our bike and another bike too.  

“What happened?” I asked him.  He said that a girl on the course had had a flat tire, and so he offered to carry her bike to the next check-point so that someone there could get started on fixing the tire while she completed that part of the race.  He added, “Don’t worry though, I’ll make sure we still don’t get beaten by anyone wearing a tutu!”

I know in my head that grief and loss are not a competition, but I sometimes cannot help myself from thinking about his death as being more tragic, unfair, shocking, etc. etc. than some other people who were his age or older, who were in poor health because they didn’t take care of themselves, or other illogical ranking factors.  It doesn’t make sense to compare, I know.  It’s hard for me to listen to others’ stories of grief or loss without adding my personal experience or thoughts or advice, but I know I have no idea what I am talking about.  Everyone thinks his or her story is the hardest and most unique.  I guess it isn’t a competition when your heart is broken.  It’s not more or less broken; it’s just broken.  In other words, no heart wears a tutu.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This One's For You, Dad

There are a lot of things about my dad that someone who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him well might not really understand - things that were such a part of him, things that really made him the person he was, things that I want to be sure to always remember. Here are a few:

*Many times when he wanted to buy my mom a present, he couldn’t figure out what to buy, and so he went to a store that sold women's clothing and just bought everything on one of the manikins, including the shoes and jewelry. He would point to a manikin and say to the sales clerk, "She looks about the same size as my wife. Can I please buy everything she has on?"
*He tried desperately to keep up with technology, including social networking, because, as he said, "I need to stay connected!" However, he often got things in this category confused. Despite many lessons from his grandchildren, he never understood how other people could see what he put on his Facebook profile. And he sometimes got mixed up about the term "text" and called it "twist."
*Whenever he competed in races that he didn't really have a chance of winning, he often made up a category and proclaimed himself the winner of that. For example, once after a biking race, he said, "I didn't win my age group, but I was the first guy over 50 to finish who didn't wear biking shorts." (He wore running shorts when riding his bike early in his biking "career.")
*He was preparing to do an Ironman triathlon, at the age of 67.

*He thought it was a good idea to “round up” in the amount of exercise time – he regularly told my mom that he was going to run or bike for a certain amount of time and then actually went for longer, basing his time on how long he thought it would take her to notice he had exceeded his original “bid”
*He once told his grandchildren to load up in the car for a “big surprise,” which ended up being a sale he had found for some fake-Croc shoes AT A GAS STATION.
*He LOVED to try to jump out and scare people, and this became a long-standing family joke because he was TERRIBLE at hiding. And every ghost story he told ended the same exact way, with him saying something like "And the boy went up the ladder, climbing the first step, then the second, then the third, until SOMETHING GRABBED HIM - his friend!" (Even when the kids were young, they weren't at all scared by his ghost stories.)
*Anytime a holiday was coming up that involved a gift for him like Father’s Day or his birthday, he would suggest (repeatedly) that we give him the gift ahead of time. Then when the actual holiday rolled around, he would jokingly say that we didn’t give him anything. Which brings me to what made me think of some of these quirks …

Last night, I dreamed that I was talking to Dad on the phone, and he laughed and said, “Thanks for calling, but what did you get me for Father’s Day? I don't think I got anything from you.” After thinking about it, I now have a new plan:


So here’s what I got you this year, Dad, and I hope you like it:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Going On Ahead – Part One

The following is from the book On Grieving The Death of a Father, by Harold Ivan Smith:

I have long been impressed with the ability of death to make shambles of our carefully ordered priorities.  A single phone call – whether local or long distance – suddenly takes from us one whom we have known, loved, hated, touched, fed, hurt, surprised, photographed, cleaned up after, and bought presents for.  
One early morning phone call left me without a dad.  Without.  That word ricocheted through my heart.  
The phone rang.  A collect call from my niece.  No “How are you?” No “Sorry to be calling so early.”
“We’ve lost Paw-Paw,” she said.
I was annoyed.  “How could you lose Paw-Paw? He’s in Room 302 at Methodist Hospital,” I snapped.
“No,” she said. “We lost him.”
It hit me.  

The author goes on to say, “My father had died. That was the word I insisted on using.  That word had to be used.  Daddy was not ‘lost.’ Daddy had not ‘passed away.’ Daddy had not ‘expired.’ Daddy had died.”

Since my dad died, I have also held this sentiment and have often cringed when I’ve heard his death referred to in one of the many ways in which our society tends to classify it.

Two days before he was scheduled to get his third dose of chemotherapy, Dad ended up back in the hospital because of a severely compromised immune system; he had a raging fever, terrible pain in his head and neck, and such muscle weakness that he couldn’t even reposition himself in the bed or swallow.   At one point, he was given painkillers in an effort to both relieve his pain and allow him to get some much-needed rest.  My mom, my sisters, and I breathed a collective sigh of relief when, about 20 minutes after the medicine had been administered, Dad seemed to relax and closed his eyes to sleep.

When Dad woke up (i.e. when the medication wore off, about 3 hours later), he was wide-eyed and seemed shaken, and he told us that he had had a really bad dream in which he was about to die.  He said in the dream he was fighting and was so scared because he thought that if he died he would be lost and we wouldn’t be able to find him.  

We assured him that it was not his time and that the doctors had told us that they fully expected him to recover from the infection that was making him so sick.  

He had a similar dream about a week later, after which we again told him that he was going to get better, as we believed with 100% certainty at the time.  Dad talked many times about these dreams and how worried he was that if he did die that we wouldn’t be able to find him.  Every time he brought it up, he said, “I just don’t want to be lost!”

Despite predictions and promises made by many physicians in different specialty areas while Dad was in the hospital, he did not get better; in fact, he grew weaker by the day.   Between the time when we took him home with support from hospice on December 31 and the time that he died on Jan. 5, we told him many, many times that he had finished the race, that he had accomplished what he needed to do, and that we knew for sure where he was going and where to find him.  Even when he couldn’t say anything back, we kept telling him that he would not be lost and that we would know right were he was so that we could find him.  This message seemed to help him as he visibly relaxed when we said those words to him at the end.  

One of the things that was said to my family in the days of shock and chaos that followed Dad’s death was that Dad, in the same way he had done in the hundreds of races in which he had competed throughout his life, had “gone on ahead.”  

These words particularly rang true to me because Dad wasn’t just my father; he was my running partner and coach over the 30+ years that I have been running.  

Dad and I ran in over 100 races together, and, in each one, he finished before me and then ran back to find me on the course, to cheer me on and give me advice, especially if he saw me struggling.  Once he had seen that I was ok, he would run ahead to the finish line to wait there for me to make it in.  I like to think that he is doing that same thing right now, encouraging me on after he has gone on ahead.

And, as promised, he isn’t lost; we know right where to find him.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Went Right

After Dad went on ahead, I read some information about the process of dying.  One thing that I read said that most people die, and react to someone else’s death, in ways reflecting their "usual selves."  I think this was so true for Dad – trying to tie up loose ends, making sure everything was taken care of, sticking it out for as long as he possibly could.

It would be so easy now to look back at what wasn’t handled exactly right while he was sick – but, following Dad’s example, I want to look more at what happened that DID go right:

Things he said and did during that time that we will never forget: the opportunity to create and remember more priceless memories with him

Those who went out of their way to help and support us, many of whom were quite unexpected

Time we got to spend with Dad over those ten weeks, individually and as a group

The pictures we had taken together and the memories of those times

Bringing him home from the hospital – as much or more for us than for him

Letting him know that we would be ok and that he had done all of his “jobs” just right

Finding out that there were SO many people, WAY more than we knew about, who loved and respected him and who benefitted so much from having known him

Getting his cat Foster for him – a different goal than the ones that he had had on his Bucket List but one that brought him and the rest of us joy.  “This cat is the second best thing that’s happened to me since I got sick,” he said.  “The first is that my kids and grandkids are coming to visit a lot more often.”

Recognizing that what drew people to him wasn’t that he was FUN but that he was KIND to every person, even those who didn’t really deserve it and whom he would probably never see again.  That is his legacy – demonstrating the impact of kindness and how far-reaching it can be.

Getting to have a spectacular view of Dad through the eyes of so many others, many of whom we didn’t know well or maybe at all.  I always thought he was so popular because he was so much fun, but I know now that it was because he was kind and respectful to everyone who crossed his path.

Allowing time for the kids – and for us – to adjust a little bit to not having him at 100% capacity:  Allowing us to wade into the deep end instead of just being shoved into the water

Coming together as a family.  During those ten weeks, it seemed like we were all working so hard to provide what Dad needed, but, looking back, it seems much more like HE was working so hard to provide what WE needed – time with him for each of us, seeing with certainty that we can count on each other above everyone else, and perspective – cementing what is REALLY important in life.

The celebration of his life – undeniably the best “going on ahead” ceremony ever!

Thanks, Dad, for the time, memories, for your persistence especially in the home stretch, and for giving us perspective.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Surgery, Diagnosis, and Jagged Scars

Over the past six months or so, I’ve learned that denial isn’t always a bad thing; at times, it is a necessary crutch that we use to support us when we aren’t ready to face what is happening head-on.  It’s what we lean against until we have something stronger to put it its place, a temporary lifeline of sorts.

When we first learned about Dad’s diagnosis, we were told the prognosis was poor.  I, in particular, could only deal with the shock and horror of this news through denial, which came out in the form of Hope, cranked all the way up to 100%, just to make it through the day. I needed that Hope to prop me up so that I could provide support needed for Dad and when it was my turn to be “the strong one” for someone else in my family.

We were told even before the surgery that the "large mass" really couldn't be anything other than GBM, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, and how terrible the odds of even surviving a year were, but at the time we were frantically busy trying to hold ourselves together, trying to get by on very little sleep, trying to keep Dad comfortable emotionally and physically, trying to do what we thought was helpful and right, and trying to protect him.

We didn't have time to process what was happening.  We just wanted to get him through the surgery, and, when that was done, we focused on three things:  his post-surgical pain management, gearing up to fight like holy hell to get him the best treatment possible, and attempting to control information that Dad was given about his diagnosis so that we could protect him from SOMETHING FOR GOD’S SAKE!

It was hard to see Dad after the surgery with lots of staples in the top of his head, still having trouble remembering certain things and reasoning, and still without much strength or sensation in his left side.   Even more than the scarring that the giant cut in his head would leave, we were starting to realize that the battle would leave jagged scars all over all of us and there was nothing much we could do about that.

We kept extremely detailed notes of everything that went on while Dad was in the hospital, including what was said by the staff and Dad himself, what he ate or drank, and how he slept (always poorly – more on that later).  We charted medications and vitals and made extensive lists about procedures, recommendations, treatment options, doctors’ credentials, questions, and things to do.  All part of our trying to control a situation that was COMPLETELY out of our control.  Whenever a new member of the medical staff walked into his hospital room, Dad would jokingly say, “Don’t screw anything up in here.  One of my daughters is a lawyer and the others in my family write everything down.”

When I look back at the many notebooks of careful notes from during that time period, I remember feeling like through documenting and regimenting everything that I could STOP what was going on.  I so desperately wanted to change the channel back to Normal!  I remember on several occasions thinking about how great it would be when Dad SHOWED those damn doctors and beat the odds.  We would high-five the ones who helped us and flip the bird at the ones who didn’t, sprint out the door, and never look back.  "F-U, BRAIN CANCER!  YOU HAVEN’T MET MY DAD, YET!  HE IS A BRILLIANT IRONMAN TRIATHLETE WITH AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE OF FAMILY MEMBERS SURROUNDING HIM," I said on a daily basis (sometimes out loud, sometimes out loud in public).

Once he found out about his diagnosis a couple of days after the surgery, we regularly (nightly, in fact) talked to Dad about our 100% certainty that WE WERE GOING TO BEAT THIS THING.  Running with Hope, you see, is a little bit like running with scissors.  Hope is a tricky thing:  we need JUST ENOUGH to keep going, but TOO MUCH can be every bit as dangerous as not enough.

And now, after being forced to skip ahead to the end of the book when I wasn’t nearly ready, I keep wondering when the bad-day memories will fade even a little so that the good-day memories can be in full-color again.  Every time I get to the place of a good-day memory, it’s like someone is adjusting the settings on the TV; with the slightest interference, the screen goes to black-and-white or even to a completely fuzzy screen.  In a flash, I can be back in the terribly uncomfortable plastic chair in the hospital room, stretching so that I can reach Dad to hold his hand and straining to get my ear close enough to his mouth so that I can hear his quickly fading voice.  It breaks my heart again and again to remember the terror and pain in his eyes during that time and the fear in his voice when he asked over and over, “When can I just go home?”

I’m sorry, Dad, that it took all of that for us to see it, to fight the right fight, to wall ourselves up so that you could see that we were as ready as we could ever be for you to go on ahead.  We know now that, every minute of every day from when you couldn’t finish that run on Oct. 23, you were fighting with everything you had ever had to be there with us and for us.  I’m sorry that you thought you weren’t being tough or “taking it like a man,” when actually you were braver and tougher than anyone I’ve ever known.  You had a few more important things to teach us, though, and we finally got it, didn’t we? And now we wear these jagged scars with respect and pride as think in awe of how you did go Home, much in the same way you lived, with dignity, honor, strength, and love.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Words and Thoughts on Father's Day

                            CLICK HERE FOR MUSIC TO GO WITH THESE WORDS

"Father and Daughter" by Paul Simon (with my thoughts in blue)

If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second you can't remember where you are

( ... Every day I wish that someone would wake me up and tell me it was just a bad dream, that I can pick up the phone and hear your voice, that you didn't really have to go on ahead ... )

Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star

( ... I'm trying to stay focused on the many, many good memories that we have with you and to feel LUCKY just like you taught us ... )

I believe a light that shines on you will shine on you forever
And though I can't guarantee there's nothing scary hiding under your bed
I'm gonna stand guard like a postcard of a Golden Retriever
And never leave 'til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head

( ... I know you are still with us because we'll always have you in our hearts and in our memories, and I still feel you watching over us ... )

I'm gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you'll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you
Trust your intuition
It's just like goin' fishin'
You cast your line and hope you get a bite
But you don't need to waste your time
Worryin' about the market place
Try to help the human race
Struggling to survive its harshest night

( ... I remember how while you were sick you talked about how we all need to spend less time WORRYING and more time enjoying life and being with the ones we love ... )

I'm gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you'll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you