Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Valuable Advice

Someone asked me recently what the best advice that I was given after my dad went on ahead was.  My answer involves words of wisdom that were imparted to me by three people:

The day after my dad died, one of my friends said, "Stay strong," which was a sentiment several others had also expressed to my family that day and during my dad's illness, but this friend added two more words that gave a whole new meaning: "... or don't."  I'm not sure that I fully grasped the meaning or the astuteness behind those words that day, but since then I have come to understand and appreciate the message more than I can adequately express.  From my perspective, the directive "Stay strong" is given out way too often to people who are going through a difficult time.  These days, when I hear that said to someone, I want to ask the person who says those words, "Why?  What is the point?  And, really, what other choice is there?"  Like the meaning behind the words my friend said to me on one of the hardest days of my life, in my opinion, it's ok not to feel that you have to be strong when things are tough.  That's why you have friends, faith, or whatever else gets you through it.  Sometimes being told to "be strong" can put an undue burden on a person, sometimes it sets a goal that is unattainable, and sometimes it sends a message (albeit inadvertent) that the only thing those around the person want to see is him or her, being "strong."  Sometimes it feels better to fall apart for awhile in the midst of tragedy; sometimes doing so enables a person to regroup and to power on.  In any case, I much prefer my friend's message: "Stay strong, or don't!"

I still think about that advice regularly, and when I see or hear things like THIS ...
... it makes me want to respond by saying, "You can do both: you can smile and cry, hurt that he's gone and be happy that he was here at all, feel pain and sorrow and still cherish his memory.  You don't have to choose just one or the other."

The second piece of advice that I found most helpful was given more as a piece of information than advice, and it was actually said to me by two different people at two different times; the first person said it to me just after my dad had been diagnosed with cancer.  She had been through a cancer diagnosis and treatment with one of her parents and wanted to share her observation about how she and the other adult children in her family had handled things in distinct ways.  I thought back to her words many times while Dad was sick, not just in relation to how differently my siblings and I were trying to cope but to how every person in the family had his or her own role in helping and his or her own way of getting through to the next day.

After Dad went on ahead, the grief counselor that I went to had me do an exercise in which I was to draw a flower with petals on it and then write on each petal a different role that various people were playing to help me get through the grief process.  She gave an example of "This person listens when I talk about my dad," "This person takes some of the work load off me by doing chores I don't feel up to doing," and "This person lets me cry without asking me what's wrong."  Writing it out helped to remind me that people around me cared and were trying to help in their own way and that no one way was "better" than another.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

I Remember

  • I remember running behind my dad along the side of a street for miles, trying to imitate how he carried his arms and watching him wave at the people in every car that passed by, whether he knew them or not.
  • I remember how he brought a tennis ball for us to bounce and two pieces of gum - one for each of us - along on long runs so that he had something to distract and entertain me with when the road seemed long.
  • I remember him handing me a stick of gum, with the wrapper stuck to the gum because he'd been holding it in his hand for over a mile as we ran along, and saying, "I just chew mine with the paper on it," and so I did the same thing.
  • I remember being impressed at how he knew exactly what the minutes-per-mile pace that we were running was at any given speed, how he knew where every working public water faucet in town was, and how he always seemed to know the mileage along our route but then he'd insist that we drive the course to double-check after the run.
  • I remember him telling my sisters and me to sit on his back while he did push ups.
  • I remember when he ran to my track meet, ten miles away, and how the other kids on the track team said he was crazy when our school bus passed by him on the highway on the way to the meet.
  • I remember when he ran from my grandparents' house in Nashville to Centennial Park, about 11 miles, in freezing cold weather and how when I picked him up in the car I saw that sweat had dripped down and frozen off his ear lobes and it looked like he had earrings on.
  • I remember seeing the needle with the pain medicine being brought in to his room in the ER after he was hit by a car while running in a marathon and hoping the shot hurt him less than his broken leg did.
  • I remember being so angry that I wanted to kill the old lady that ran over him.
  • I remember the hopeful look on his face when he said he was too lucky to get cancer.
  • I remember wishing there was someone I could be angry at then too.
  • I remember turning my head when I answered him so he couldn't see the doubt or the tears in my eyes.