Thursday, July 5, 2012

What I Didn't See Coming

Since my dad went on ahead 18 months ago today, I have come to realize that when someone you love dies, you don’t just have to say goodbye to them at the time they pass away but also at every crossroad, every milestone, every big event.  I've discovered that there are endless firsts and countless tough moments to get through, not just obvious ones like holidays and big events, but many others that are equally if not more challenging and shocking, which in many cases makes them even more difficult to struggle through under the heavy blanket of grief.

As children, we look forward to firsts – the first day of school, the first time to ride a bike without training wheels, the first time to ride the school bus, the first time to go on a date, the first time to drive a car.  Firsts seem happy and are something we treasure.  But somewhere along the line, we suffer a loss, things change, and we have to adjust.  And then the firsts that come can bring about a sadness that is hard to shake, a feeling of extreme loneliness because you know the picture isn’t really complete and things aren’t as they should be.

And so as we traverse through the forest of firsts and other challenging moments in the midst of our shock, our sadness, and our grief, we are forced to let go, one finger at a time.  For me, the milestones have been hard, sometimes really hard, but some of the most difficult things to get past so far for me have been the ones I didn't see coming:

Topping the list are The Flashback Moments:  The first time I went to visit someone in the hospital after leaving the one with my dad and knowing he wouldn't be coming back.  In the elevator when I was visiting that day, on the way up to see my friend, I almost had a panic attack when the flashback hit me. It was a different hospital and a different reason for my being there this time, but when my mind careened back to a few months before, to the many elevator rides we took in the hospital when we were taking care of Dad, the unexpected flood of emotions that swept through me was shockingly debilitating.  

When I hear about someone giving birth to the first child in their family and especially when I hear about how excited someone is to become a grandparent for the first time, I flash back to when my first child was born.  As Dad happily took a turn rocking my daughter in the rocking chair in her room when she was just a few days old, I could hear him over the baby monitor singing to her and having a one-sided conversation with her, telling her that he was so proud of her and how he was so glad to be a grandfather at the age of 50 and that he thought it would be a good plan for him to become a great-grandfather when he turned 75.

There’ve been lots of other Flashback Moments too:  there was the first time I went to a funeral after I'd buried my own father, and there was the first time I found myself in the pick-up lane at the airport and I realized that I was in the exact place I was when I found out Dad had a mass in his head.  Every time I hear someone say “Howdy!” just the way Dad used to greet people in passing.  Just recently, on our family vacation, I was standing on the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard and suddenly I was hit by the awareness that the last time I was in that exact spot, less than a week before my dad’s diagnosis, my life as far as I knew was as it should be.  Hearing a song that Dad used to sing and recognizing that the only way I will ever hear his beautiful voice again is in my dreams is heartbreaking, every time it happens. The toughest of these Flashback Moments so far, though, was walking into my parents’ house the first time I’d been there after he wasn’t.  During all of these times, my mind is pulled back to another time as I remember; sometimes it is to a happy, healthy time, but more often it’s to darker days that let me know I am still heavily in the midst of grieving.  Even when the flood of memories from before his illness come to me in situations, I am almost knocked to the ground by the sadness and anger that come along for the ride too because I know in my heart that that’s how things should still be, with my family together, Dad singing and laughing, enjoying life as he always did.

And then there are The Stinging Moments, those that rub salt into my wounds, the ones that make me feel like I am walking on a very wobbly tightrope, like when I am watching TV and the story line is one in which one of the characters is dying and/or has cancer (or even brain cancer!).  Like when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night and all I can picture is the image of my dad’s frailty at the end.  Like the times when I’m searching for a contact on my phone or in my email and his name automatically pops up, such a cruel reminder of how I can't talk to him anymore.  Like just now, when I typed the number 18 in the first sentence of this post.  Like the time I checked my calendar just a couple of weeks after Dad's passing and I saw my notes about the trip to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke that we were supposed to be taking that week, and I was hit by another wave of realization about what had happened and what couldn’t happen.  Like the ones when I feel like I shouldn't STILL be crying so much or the ones when I lie and say I'm fine when someone asks how I am.  Those are the times that I keep forgetting to expect, the ones that leave me with a just-slapped feeling that I’m not sure will ever lessen or go away.

Probably the most frequently occurring difficult times for me since Dad went on ahead have been The Empty Chair Moments, the ones in which I am startled again and again by his absence.  I think about him many times each day, I fall asleep with tears on my pillow almost every night, and I talk to him in the car pretty often – so that part of missing him has become part of my routine these days.  But family vacations and holiday gatherings, they are so tough without him, even worse than I thought they would be.  I so often think about how he would've loved the things that we are all able to do, the ones that he isn’t still here to do ... going the beach, riding a roller coaster, drinking a beer, swimming and lying in the sun on a hot day, playing with the kids, listening to the conversations and the laughter.  All of those moments together that feel so great except for the fact that he is missing.  The ones that make me tear up and grind my teeth and CUSS because I am just so damn angry, over and over again. 

The first time I went on a run after my dad went on ahead, I got about a mile from my house and the tears started; being out there on the road by myself, away from any distractions and so aware of the empty space beside me, was tough, and I didn't see that coming.  It wasn’t that I never ran without him before; it was that this time I was running and I was so acutely aware of the fact that he couldn’t be.  And he LOVED it.  That day, I ended up cutting my run short and trying it again the next day; the second time I wore some of Dad’s running socks and things went a little better, but it still stung.

When my daughter graduated from high school a couple of months ago, I knew that getting through the ceremony without become a total emotional wreck would be tough for me for so many reasons, including the fact that her Gramps wasn’t there with us to see her and to tell her how fiercely proud of her he was.  As I watched her walk across the stage and accept her diploma, I felt the love, the excitement, the joy, and the pride more than anything else, and I got through it without a tear, but what happened after the graduation that night was even harder than I’d thought the ceremony would be: my husband had made a dinner reservation for nine people at the restaurant where we went afterwards; however, when we got there, the table was actually set for ten.  I don’t think anyone else except me noticed, but the chair that stood empty after we’d all taken our seats seemed like a blatant reminder to me, such a glaring physical sign of the very important person who wasn’t able to be there. 

The first time we gathered for a family photo with one less, and every time since, we can all feel Dad’s absence so strongly – it feels like the reverse of a Where’s Waldo photo. Each time I start to call him and realize that I can't. The first time I did something that I knew he would be proud of and I had to feel his pride in my heart because I couldn't hear it in his voice or see it in his eyes. The first time he became a person whose name was being written "in memory of" instead of him writing that to honor someone else.  The times when I need to ask him a question and he isn't here to give the answer that only he knew. Ouch.  

Another kind of moment that I didn’t see coming has been The Shadow Moments, the times I've seen someone doing something in everyday life that he would (should) be doing now ... scenes that, if I squint my eyes and get the angle of the view just right, give me a second to glimpse what I can pretend is actually my dad, in the moment, here as he was meant to be: a man about his age running or biking, someone swimming in the ocean, a person sitting in the sun reading the paper and drinking a Diet Coke in a Sonic cup.  All of it, underscoring the unfairness, again.

Also making the list are the surreal Not-Supposed-To Times, the times when I have to do something that I shouldn’t have to be doing – like when I visit his grave, like when we had to clean out his car to sell it, and every time I hear my voice telling someone who doesn’t know our story that my father passed away.  Or the first time I had to mark the box next to Family History of Cancer and then write brain in the box beside Type/Other.  Closely related are The Stand-in Moments when I am having to do things my dad should've been here to do - to worry about my mom, to tell his grandchildren that he is so proud of the good grades they are making, to give my mom and my sisters the advice that I think he would be giving were he still here. 

And finally, there are The Obscure Moments, those unique to him and probably unappreciated by or perhaps even imperceptible in the awareness of other people who didn't know him in the exact way I did: the first summer Olympics, the really hot runs of the summer (“Anybody can run in good weather,” he said at the start of every summer, “but it takes a real runner to brave very hot conditions.”), going to the movies and ordering popcorn and then saying "No way, but thanks anyway!" (as Dad always did) when the worker asks do I want butter on the popcorn, the times when I think of something that I know he would think is funny or interesting and I realize that I can’t share it with him. These things leave me with an aching in my heart because he enjoyed them so thoroughly and now he can't.

The first Mother’s Day after he died was one of the worst days I’ve had in regards to handling the grief.  I expected that first Father’s Day to be hard, but when I woke up on Mother’s Day that year, all I could think about was how my dad wasn’t there to honor my mom (or his own mom, who’d passed away just a few weeks before that first Mother’s Day), and my heart was unexpectedly full of sadness even more than usual that day.  When we took my daughter to visit the college she will attend this fall: Dad was so good at meeting people and making everyone feel comfortable, and I kept thinking that he would have loved to be there with us to help her meet people and acclimate to the new surroundings and he would have been so proud of her and so impressed with her college choice.  On the night of my daughter's prom, just a few months after my dad died, the kids and their parents all gathered at a park before the big event for a photo shoot, and grief descended upon me like dew falling at night; it was the first big event involving my kids that we had to get through without him being around to know about it, to see the pictures, to hear about how much fun she had.  And even the minor, the everyday times, that come in intermittent blasts, like when I see an Advil tablet dropped on the floor like he used to do or when I eat an apple and catch myself thinking I should just go ahead and eat the core too ("It saves time!" he reasoned whenever someone asked him about why he did it.) just like he always did.  Those are the ones that pop into my head and shoot me with a spear of grief and all the emotions that come with it, but at the same time somehow those memories sometimes bring a smile to my face as I remember how unique of a person my dad was and how his viewpoint, his perspective, and his “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude are something I will carry with me forever.

And with all of these unexpected moments, I am left to wonder:  Does it get easier when these firsts happen again as seconds, and then thirds, and then so on? Do the shock and the pain lessen as the time when he was here gets further and further out, like a balloon floating in the sky? 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Don’t Look Back

In April of 2004, my dad and I traveled to St. Louis to watch the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the Women’s Marathon.  Going to see the marathon trials was a Bucket List item for both of us.  We spent the night in a hotel near the start of the race the night before; we were both so excited that we could hardly sleep all night.  It was an early race start – 7 a.m. – but we wanted to be sure to have a good view in the crowd of spectators at the start of the race, and so we got there almost an hour early.  I thought it was extra-cool that the event started at Frances Field on the track of my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, which was also, incidentally, the site of the 1904 Summer Olympics.

Over the course of my life, I watched countless races both in person and on TV with my dad.  Because he was always much more up-to-speed than I was about the field of competitors, he typically told me which runners we should “pull for,” as he put it.   He didn’t have to tell me that day, though; we were both long-time fans of Deena Kastor and had been following her running career since before she was married, back when she was Deena Drossin.  She had run the fastest debut marathon for American women in 2001 and was the national champion in women’s cross-country.  A California native, she was a four-time SEC champion in track and field as a collegiate competitor at the University of Arkansas, which was where Dad had started following her running career in the news.  She held several U.S. records in running and was internationally ranked, twice finishing as the runner-up at the World Cross County Championships, the most important competition in international cross-country running.

Our favorite, Deena (or "Deener," as Dad pronounced her name), is sporting a #1 here.
As Dad and I sat in the front row of the stadium seats at Frances Field that day, we watched the runners stretching and milling around nervously before the start of the race.  Dad had a copy of the course map and had circled in red the points where he thought we should stand during the marathon to watch the runners go by.  The course consisted of 3.5 loops through Forest Park, a 1300+ acre park located in the western part of the city, and ended at the World's Fair Pavilion in the park.  The layout of the runners’ route made it an ideal race to spectate, and, as soon as the starting gun was fired and the athletes completed four laps around the track and then raced out the gate onto the street, Dad and I high-tailed it out of the stadium to claim our spot on the curb at the three-mile mark.

Exiting the track for the on-road portion of the race

A runner named Blake Russell took the lead early on and was about a minute ahead of Deena and four other women when they came by us three miles into the 26.2-mile long race.  Deena and a couple of the others were giving out occasional high-fives to some people standing on the curb as they passed by; Dad called out “Good pace; don’t lose touch” to her, just like he’d advised me in countless races of a much smaller scale.  She looked right at him and gave him a nod as she and the others in the pack flew by, and then Dad and I rushed to get back in the car so we could make it to stand around the 7-mile mark before the leaders got there.  

Just a few minutes after we’d staked our claim on our spot at that point, we saw the front pack racing up the hill in front of us.  Deena had closed the gap on Blake by about 20 seconds, but the rest of the leaders were right on Deena’s tail.  “Pick it up half a step, but don’t go all out yet,” Dad advised her in his regular-speaking voice volume as she sprinted by.  I didn’t think she’d heard him until I saw her flick her right hand out to the side in a quick gesture of acknowledgement and then noticed her get a little higher up on the balls of her feet in an obvious effort to pick up the pace.  

Blake (#4) in the lead at Mile 12
Our next planned check-point was at Mile twelve.  There was an aid station there with all different kinds of water bottles on the table, each marked with a different runner’s name and no doubt filled with a specific concoction of that competitor’s specifications.  While we waited, Dad and I joked around about trying a drink from the various bottles to see what was in each one, but, when he saw the runners coming around the corner, he got serious and started bouncing on the balls of his feet like he always did when he was nervous.  Blake was still out ahead about the same distance.  Deena grabbed her water bottle from the table and then side-stepped to get out of the way of the other runners coming up behind her as she stopped to take off her shoe; apparently, she’d felt a rock in there and wanted to try to get rid of it.  She quickly put her shoe back on, took a swig from her water bottle, tossed the bottle down, and then bolted ahead to get back in the race.  She quickly caught and picked off the other front runners who'd passed her except for Blake, who had increased her lead to about a minute again.

Dad and I raced to get to the 15-mile mark and were excited to see that Deena had lessened the gap to only about 20 seconds by then; “Keep it right there!  Pace yourself; you’re right where you need to be,” Dad told her in a conspiratorial voice.  She looked at him and gave him a quick nod as she ran past us.  It was so impressive to see how fast the turnover rate of all of the runners’ legs was as they went by; they made it look almost effortless, but we knew it was far from that at the pace they were putting in.

Next Dad and I positioned ourselves near the 19.5 mark, and a few minutes later we saw the women approaching.  Deena was in front this time, leading by just a few seconds over Blake, who was tailed by about 30 seconds by another runner, Colleen De Reuck, a 40 year-old South African native who became a U.S. citizen just after the previous summer Olympics.  As Deena got closer to where we stood, we saw her glance back over her shoulder a couple of times to gauge the position of the runners behind her, a move that I knew from my days in competitive running that Dad did not think was good strategy.  “Don’t look back – it shows weakness!” he advised adamantly as Deena flew by us, and again she gave him a right-handed sideways wave of recognition.  

After the rest of the front runners passed by, Dad and I decided that we wanted to go to the end of the course to try to secure a good spot by the finish line.  We parked and walked towards the big Finish Line banner, and we were thrilled to see there was room just past the tape near the media truck.  The race was being announced in a play-by-play fashion over the loud speaker, and we listened among the other spectators to hear.  At Mile 22, Deena was still in the lead by a small margin, and Colleen had overtaken Blake.  Over the next couple of miles, the crowd alternately grew quiet and cheered as we heard Deena’s lead being decreased by Colleen little by little, until #2 De Reuck became #1 and then continued to forge ahead to build her lead on Deena and the rest of the field. 

At the finish, thousands of fans holding little American flags lined the streets. Someone held out a big America flag on a pole to Colleen about 200 meters before the tape; Colleen grabbed it and crossed the finish line in first place, carrying the flag, with a huge smile on her face, setting a U.S. Olympic trials record with her time of 2:28.25.  (Her win qualified her for her fourth Olympics - pretty impressive at age 40!)  Deena was the runner-up and finished strong with a time of 2:29:38, followed by Jen Rhines, who had run in the lead pack the entire race and finished third in 2:29:57. Blake came in fourth with a time of 2:30:50.

Colleen De Reuck - winner of the 2004 Olympic Trials Women's Marathon
For the first time in history, the top three runners in this event all finished in under 2 hours, 30 minutes.  These three women were draped in huge American flags as they climbed up onto the awards podium a little while later to accept their medals and to claim their spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.

After the runners had come down from the stage and the frenzy had died down a little, Deena happened to look up and see us at the edge of the crowd.  With the flag still draped over her shoulders, she walked over and called out “Thanks for the advice!” to Dad.  “Sure!” he responded casually, as if we stood around talking to Olympians every day.  She gave us a wave and stepped off into the swarm of reporters, and we turned to find our way back to the car, tired but excited from our big adventure.

A few months later, as Dad and I watched the Olympic women's marathon on TV at our respective houses, I thought back to the Trials and to the advice he’d given out to Deena during the race.  Deena’s third place finish in the marathon in Athens was one of the highlights of the 2004 Summer Games.  She toughed out the extreme heat, paced herself just right, and made our country proud when she stood with the olive wreath on her head to accept the bronze medal.  As I watched her going the distance over the 26.2 miles she ran that day, I never once saw her looking back.  And now, remembering back to Deena's big win that day, I can’t help but think that, along with strategies of her coaches and the wisdom she'd learned along the way as a professional athlete, she also had my dad’s voice in her head, urging her on, telling her she was right where she needed to be, just as I have in mine each and every day of my life.