Sunday, October 28, 2012

Waving A White Flag

During track season in my sophomore year in high school, my team competed in a track meet that sticks out in my mind more than many of the rest.  My last event for the day was the mile run, my favorite and my strongest event.  As the starter's gun was fired to signal the beginning of the race, the rain that had been steady but fairly light all day long turned into a torrential downpour.  Over the course of the first three laps we ran around the track, there was lots of accidental jostling within the front pack of five or so runners; not only was the track slippery, but the pelting rain was making it hard for everyone to see.  As we charged into the curve of the final part of the race, the usual volleying for position was going on amongst the runners, and one of the girls behind me stepped on the back of my shoe.  The shoe didn't come off my foot, but the mishap made me lose my balance, and I threw my left hand out to the side to steady myself so that I wouldn't fall down, knocking into the runner who was to my left in the process, which in turn caused her to step out of bounds on the inside of the track.

I realized that I had bumped into the girl, but, because I kept running along with the rest of the pack as this split-second chain of events was occurring, I didn't see her step over the line.  As I eyed the finish line at the end of the straightaway as we came out of the last curve of the track, I put my head down to block the driving rain and gave it all I had, finishing a step ahead of the pack to cross the line in first place.  

I remember wiping my rain-soaked face and looking over at Dad who was standing at the fence at the edge of the track and seeing the pride in his eyes.  I knew he was thinking, "Well played," and then I saw him shift his gaze back towards where the other runners were standing on the track, and I knew he was reminding me to congratulate them.  As I turned to step into the circle of girls hovering in the rain just past the finish line, one of the lane judges stepped towards me and said, "You are being disqualified for fouling in the curve."  I was stunned; I didn't say anything back, but my coach stepped in and a conversation ensued.  It was a fruitless one, though, and the judges' decision stood.  

I felt hot tears running down my face as I walked off the track towards my parents in the cold rain.  I was disappointed, and I was embarrassed.  Sportsmanship was very important in my family, and I felt like people would think that I had somehow been trying to win by cheating, even though the mishap was obviously an accident.   After the rest of the track meet was called off due to the weather, the ride home on the school bus with my team that afternoon seemed twice as long as the ride to the event had seemed.

The next morning, Dad woke me up and told me we were going to the track to run.  I usually took the day off from running on the day after a race, but I was still so disheartened from the day before that I just got my gear on and climbed into the car without questioning.  We were silent as Dad drove to the track and parked the car and as we both got out of the car and walked onto the cinder track.  "Here's the deal," Dad said. "I don't want what happened yesterday to make you doubt yourself, and so we're going to run it again.  As long as you can run the same time you ran in the race yesterday, in our minds the victory will stand."  

We jogged a couple of laps to warm up, and then we shifted into race pace to cover the four laps around the track in step.  Dad offered a few words of encouragement and pacing advice along the way but was mostly quiet until he looked down at his stopwatch as we crossed the finish line.  "Ten seconds faster than yesterday," he told me.  "That's it: now we're not going to worry about yesterday."

I've thought about that day - not the day of the track meet, but the one when we were out there by ourselves on the track the day after - several times since my dad went on ahead; the "leave it all behind" mentality that he had is forever etched in my memory.  But that's a much bigger challenge in grief, way bigger than I ever thought it would be.  Leaving it all behind really isn't an option in this type of situation.

Nothing in my life prepared me for the loss of my dad, not even in the least, including his 10 week-long illness.  I'm still surprised by how robbed I feel, both on my dad's behalf and on my own.  The things that happened during the time I spent with him while he was sick play in my head over and over again, and, to be completely honest, as hard as it is to think about those days, a part of me doesn't want to leave it all behind because I don't want to lose even a single memory that I have of him and of my time with him.  

I am learning that grief is full of surprises, most of which I have found to be of the unwelcome variety.  It's surprising how it can feel so lonely, so endless, so awful, and I've been told that's true pretty much from the time of the loss on.  The threat is always on the horizon, and that's something I wish I didn't have to know.  

At some point during my first year of grief, when my husband found me holed up crying for the 10,000th time, he just looked at me and then said very quietly: "You're not the only one who misses him."  In that moment, I opened my eyes to the presence of the grief and hurt of others; I'd been so consumed over losing my dad that it was only when that was pointed out to me that I could really start to see the loss from another person's perspective.  And, in doing so, another round of hurt went through me, and another round of feeling useless and helpless, for I was already doing all I knew to do and yet nothing seemed to be getting any better.

And even today, there are times when I have to force myself to remember that I am not the only one this loss has affected so very profoundly.  Like a lot of people who are grieving, I tend to isolate myself when I am upset, and that seems to make me feel like it is only I who is still feeling this amount of pain, feeling stuck and angry and so much more.  Of course, I know in my head that isn't true, but sometimes it's all I can do to keep myself together and I worry that at some point I may fall short of the strength needed to hold another person up too. Although at other times when I am able to see through the fog and realize the grief that is bearing down on others I love, I feel a sense of protectiveness and of bonding that somehow helps to lessen my own grief, and I know in my head and in my heart that the only way that anyone gets through any of this is through togetherness.  

The second birthday of my dad's that we had to spend after he went on ahead hit me a lot harder than I thought it would, another surprise I could have done without.  Truthfully, it has been only with the support and love of my family that I have gotten through the shit of the past two years, and this point was driven home yet again on my dad's birthday when I realized that had it not been for my family I would have surely spent the entire day - if not longer - crying hysterically.

I'm really not good at accepting comfort when I'm sad, and I have to say I've done a LOT of crying behind the scenes because of that and because I don't want my sadness and grief to permeate everything for everyone.  Many nights I've lain in the bed on my side with tears streaming down my face and into my ear and onto the pillow, and my husband just puts his arms around me and lets me cry, because we both know that there's not really anything to say that can make it any better.  The depth of the emptiness and the sadness that bear down on me at times like that continues to surprise me.  I believe that at some point life will give me moments that seem so much brighter than those moments seem dark, but I also know it will never be the same without my dad.  I know that those of us who were lucky enough to know him will always feel a piece is missing, but I also know that we will proudly carry him forward, not just to tomorrow, not just to next year, but into future generations who will undoubtedly hear many, many "Wild Bill" stories in the years to come.  I hope that in carrying on in his honor, at some point in the future we will be able to leave behind much of the sadness and the pain.

"This emotional pain caused by loss suffered does not move toward forgetfulness.  It moves, rather, in the direction of enriched remembrance; the memory becomes an integral part of the mourner's personality.  The work of mourning has been completed when the person no longer appears as an absence in a barren world, but has come to reside securely within one's heart.  Each of us must grieve in his own manner and at his own pace.   Periodic waves of grief are often felt for the remainder of one's life.  The mourning process must be given the freedom to find its own depth and rhythm; it cannot be artificially accelerated.  A loss, like a physical wound, cannot heal overnight.  There is no way to hurry the stages of tissue growth, and there is no way to speed up the healing process of mourning.  But, when mourning has been completed, the mourner comes to feel the inner presence of the loved one ... the person is present in a new form within one's mind and heart, tenderly present in inner time without the pain and bitterness of death.  Once the loved one has been accepted in this way, he can never again be forcefully removed."  ~Robert Chernin Cantor in And a Time to Live: Toward Emotional Well-being during the Crisis of Cancer, Harper & Row, 1978.

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