Thursday, November 15, 2012

Living Strong

We've all heard the expression "Live Strong," especially in the context of fighting cancer. 

Since my dad's diagnosis, though, I've come to view the meaning of this command in a different light, and I see now that it’s not just for the people who have been diagnosed with cancer, but also for those who are caring for them - and even beyond that to those who are left behind to grieve.

By all accounts, my dad "lived strong" during the ten weeks he was battling for his life against the brutal brain cancer that took first his independence and shortly thereafter his life.  He literally fought with all his might until his very last breath.  

I've heard it said that people die as they have lived, and, in regards to being courageous and strong, definitely that was true for my dad.  And, as for my family, I think we've "lived strong" too, working as a team throughout his illness and since then.

In many ways, it's been the "since then" part of this whole thing that I've found to be much harder, but, to honor my dad and the rest of my family, "living strong" has been and continues to be my goal.  

Sometimes I worry that I'm not being strong enough now, though.  

When I was a teenager, I had a t-shirt that had big lettering at the top of it on the front that said "Trackster's Excuse Shirt." Underneath that were listed dozens of excuses that people often used not to run on any given day, things like, "I'm sore from yesterday's workout," "I think I'm coming down with a cold," "I had to work late," and even "It's too cold outside" and "It's too hot outside."  I loved that shirt, and I wore it often.  Dad and I used to make up additional excuses that we thought should also have been listed on the shirt and laugh; there were many days when I didn't especially feel like running but I did it anyway because the shirt helped me to realize that whatever excuse I had was just that - an excuse.  I remember the day I got braces on my teeth; when Dad got home from work that afternoon after I'd gotten home from the orthodontist, he told me to get my running gear on, and I protested, claiming my teeth were too sore to run.  "Oh, really?" Dad asked with a smile on his face. "Should we put that on the excuse shirt too?" Of course, I laughed and then suited up so we could head out the door to run as planned.

Lately I've been thinking that maybe I need a shirt like that, one that lists all the reasons excuses I so easily come up with these days for not running (or for anything else, for that matter): "I didn't sleep well last night;" "I miss my dad too much;" "I'm grieving;" "I'm too busy at work," etc.  

There's no good reason, only endless excuses, and yet I still can't seem to find the drive to do it anymore.  A few years ago my dad gave me a big magnet to put on the back of my car that says "Runner Girl."  I took it off my car more than a year ago; it just felt so disingenuous, and seeing it every time I walked around to the back of my car made me sad.  Sad that I wasn't running, sad that my dad couldn't be.

That's just one of the things that I used to do that I don't anymore, one of the changes that I don't know the reason behind and that I don't like.  I'm honestly not sure if I should grit my teeth and try harder to live strong or if I should just look at it as a temporary thing that I have to go through and go with it for now; I know that some of this is just part of the process - and that some of it is out of my control.

From the time when I was about 12 years old, I always volunteered to pack the car the night before we went on a family road trip.  I liked being the one who knew where everything we might need during the course of the trip was in the car, from a deck of cards to snacks to a box of tissues and a map. 

I think one of the hardest things about dealing with a terminal diagnosis and the grief after the death of a loved one is having the realization that there is no control to be had and that there is no getting prepared for some things in life.  In essence, there is no packing the car the night before in Real Life.

In grief, you spend a lot of time focusing on, well, you.  Grief tends to make us shut out other things at times, not out of self-centeredness but out of necessity.   It is a rough road, one riddled with obstacles, but one with learning and growing and - with time and effort and luck instead of excuses - living strong, to the best of our ability.  We just have to get through it, in our own way.

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