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.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Since the moment my dad went on ahead, I've noticed a pattern of paradoxes that has emerged: as he took his last breath, I was simultaneously glad he wasn't suffering anymore but so sad for so many other reasons. I was grateful to have had him in my life for as long as I did, but I felt (and still feel) angry, resentful, and desolate about the fact that I didn't have more time with him.  And after spending time helping to care for him around the clock during the ten weeks he was sick, with his passing I suddenly felt restless and fidgety - but at the same time I felt wearier than I had ever felt in my life, with the dull ache of grief settling into my bones from the first day I had to spend without him.  

Over the course of the past 22 months since my dad died, I've gotten better at some things and worse at others. The dichotomies of these changes in me have been very unexpected, unfamiliar, and sometimes even unexplainable; all of them, however, came as a result of the impact of loss and have caused me to have to reorganize my thinking and my patterns of actions in many ways.

When my dad got sick and throughout the duration of his illness, I felt like I had been forced to take off my rose-colored glasses; from that point on, I couldn't avoid thinking that Karma was essentially bullshit and that there's no such thing as justice.  That was nothing, though, compared to the thoughts that came after his death; at that point, those same glasses were shattered, in pieces, smashed on the ground.  I know now that there's not much - if any - control to be had over bad things happening to anyone, including me, at any time.  I guess I always thought that real insurance (and assurance) came from the kind of cause-and-effect relationship that I believed in before my dad got sick: if you live a good life, both in terms of being kind and giving and in taking good care of yourself, then you will live for a long time.  How can one NOT see the logic behind that?  But, as I came to see, that is absolutely not true.  

The realization of such randomness has effected two contrasting feelings in me - a sense of fearlessness, because, really, carefulness doesn't matter, and also a sense of terror, because, really, carefulness doesn't matter.  I don't know if that even makes sense - but I do know that the fluctuation between those two things can be exhausting and confusing, and I haven't yet been able to figure out how to reason away either of them.  I can see myself walking on a tightrope suspended high over the ground - and I can picture myself cowering in the corner.  Both with blaring vulnerability, and not at all the way I want to be.

Since my dad's diagnosis, I've done a lot of reading about cancer.  Every time I read something or hear something about risk factors and early warning signs, I feel a knot in my gut.  I want to yell a warning of my own to people who may also be reading the same information: Nothing is for sure.  No one is safe.  You can try to live clean, you can do all the right things, you can deprive yourself, you can avoid risks, you can live on a deserted island with no radiation, no cell phones, no microwaves, and you can eat whatever kind of diet you think is best, but YOU ARE STILL NOT SAFE.  And so there is the anger - and the fear that fuels it.  For like C.S. Lewis wrote, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." 

And it does; it really does.  Fear brings out so many things that I just don't believe were present in me before this tragedy - fear that there is something lurking, fear that I have no control over anything, fear that I am messing something up along the way that cannot be taken back, fear that time may be limited for me or for someone else I love, fear that I may go off into the deep end, fear that I am too indentured in grief and loss to do what I am supposed to be doing, physically and philosophically.    

One thing that continues to shock me about grief is how draining it is, both physically and emotionally, even this far out.  It's such an assault to the system on so many levels.  But, with as tired as I feel most of the time now, here's another irony: I often can't sleep.  Many nights a memory involving my dad plays over and over in my mind.  Sometimes that thought is a happy one; other times it isn't.  Regardless, though, and even when I'm not thinking about him, the insomnia seems to have set up camp on a permanent basis, further adding to my weariness.  That tiredness affects my health, as expected, and also, I'm sure, my attention span and my short-term memory, which haven't been at their best either for quite some time. 

The way things are now, I have to work to see the magic in things much of the time.  It's still there; at least I am aware of that - it's just that I have to remind myself of it, and I know I am at risk for not seeing it as I used to do so easily.

Sometimes all I want to do is to be by myself, to regroup or to cry or at times just to keep from spreading my sadness any more than I have to.  At other times, though, I can hardly stand to be alone; I recognize that I need to be around people, especially those who care about me and - even better - those who know what's going on with me and those who try to understand.  

I am, I think, much better at being supportive to others in difficult situations and more empathetic or, in some cases, sympathetic towards others these days.  Don't get me wrong: I cared when I heard about people going through hard times before my dad got sick; I just didn't GET IT on the level that I do now.  I now realize that it's a blessing to me to be in a position to help someone else who needs support, and I think I'm more in tune with what to say or do in certain situations because of my own experiences over the past couple of years. 

At the same time,though,  I am less tolerant of what I have come to see as drivel and drama.  I have a hard time nodding in complacent agreement when I hear someone say they just had the worst day of their lives – really?  Did you hear that someone you love has a death sentence coming down the pipe?  Did you watch a loved one die?  Did you bury a family member today?  Then your day wasn’t all that bad.  OR – when people say “I almost died!” when they’re talking in superlatives like “I was so shocked” or “It was so hot” – really?  From listening to complaining to watching someone make a big deal out of what is essentially nothing, I guess I am just more intolerant of certain things these days, which admittedly isn't fair of me, considering I certainly need more than my fair share of tolerance and understanding from those around me much of the time.  

I read several blogs written by fellow grievers, each with their own set of circumstances, story, and timeline, and each with lessons for me along the way. One thing I am more aware of now is that constant talk about sadness and anger and unfairness aren't necessarily the most pleasant to read, and more to the point aren't the most productive.  I think we as a society see something that is broken, and we try to fix it; when we are sick, we do what it takes to get well.  And I think as such our tendency is to want to hurry up and heal or to get over our grief as quickly as we can, but I'm not sure that's the right thing to do.  Most people who are actively grieving seem to be doing it in private for the most part, and maybe that's not the right idea either. 

And so then there's the guilt, and the shame, and the secrecy of the sadness of it all, which is a point of sadness within itself.  I realize this may seem a bit sensationalized, or repetitive, or self-centered, as if I think I am the only person who has ever suffered a loss.  I don't mean for it to be like that - I guess I am just searching for some kind of answers, and, oddly I know, I also realize that those answers really don't exist.  There is no pattern to grief; there is no to-do list that will ease the pain of the loss.  It truly is what it is, because, as Dad would say, what else would it be?

Some of the changes I think are positive though ... I am much more observant of the Silver Linings in my life; I don't go a day without recognizing how lucky I am, even on my worst days of grieving.

I take more pictures.

I appreciate the positive in my life - and the people, even more than I did before.

I write more - because it helps me to sort out my feelings, and because one of the things that hurts the most about having lost my dad is realizing that some of his stories are gone, too, and I want to try to save as many of those as I can.