Friday, December 7, 2012

The Tears That Followed

When I was growing up, my parents used to tell me that even if you have to have a good reason to cry, at some point you need to stop crying and move on - or you risk running out of tears.  I'm not sure if I totally believed them or not, but regardless I have never been much of a crier, until my dad got sick.  Since the time of his diagnosis and even more so since he went on ahead, I have officially become a crier.  And today, I'm here to say that evidently what my parents told me decades ago about running out of tears isn't really true - the tears do not ever dry up.  

On the night my dad went on ahead, when they took his body away, there was a sense of utter bizarreness, almost of an unearthly quality.  It felt like everything was happening in the midst of a fog.  Afterwards, somehow - probably from sheer exhaustion, both physical and emotional - my mom, my sisters, and I all slept for a few hours that night before we had to get up and start planning for the funeral.  Once we had made it through that, we knew we had to make ourselves eat, even though none of us felt like eating, and so we stopped by a pizza place on the way home from the funeral home.  "This is so surreal," I kept thinking, and it really was.  My brother arrived from out of state not long after we got back to my parents' house after lunch, and, after awhile, we resolved to do something instead of sitting around the house crying or in a daze.  

Someone suggested we go to get our nails done at the nail place near where my parents lived, the same place where my mom usually went and where we had taken my dad just after he'd gotten out of rehab, on the day before we'd left to take him to Duke.  

"Was it only six weeks ago that we were here with Dad?" I thought, with tears in my eyes, as we walked into the nail place.  When the woman who worked there and who knew my parents looked up and saw us, she asked, "Where's your dad?"  I couldn't bring myself to say the words "he died," and so I just stood there until my sister Jennifer said, "He didn't make it."  The woman and the other staff members there were very nice; I was grateful that they just expressed their condolences and then moved on to other more casual topics instead of asking for details.

I don't remember much from over the course of the next few days, just bits and pieces and feeling lots of sadness and confusion.  I was grateful that my family was there together and that many of our extended family members and friends had come to the memorial service, but the shroud of despair was so pervasive that it was impossible not to retreat into bouts of stunned silence and driving tears, both at regular intervals.  

It was really tough to leave my parents' house that Sunday; I wasn't sure how I was going to get through walking back into my house, when the last time I was there things were so very different.  I was operating on auto-pilot, I'm sure.  I remember one of my friends from work texting me that Sunday night to express her condolences and to suggest that I take some time off work; no, I told her, it's better if I keep busy.  I couldn't stand the thought of sitting in a quiet house with nothing but my thoughts and my tears.  

Looking back now, I think it's odd that I didn't think I should take any time off from work.  The ten weeks preceeding my dad's death while he was sick and certainly his death itself were the most traumatic experience of my life, and I was exhausted, hurt, and in shock.  So much so that I thought going right back to work was a rational decision.  But, as it turned out, I ended up with two extra days off, and I didn't have to spend them alone, because it snowed enough to warrant two snow days off from school that Monday and Tuesday.  I felt like Dad had sent me a gift, so that I didn't have to go back to work right away and so that I was able to grieve in the comfort of my own home with my kids there with me.  

I have this photo saved on my
computer under "Snow From Dad."

After that, though, I tried to hit the ground running.  I guess I somehow thought it would be back to business as usual, even though nothing felt "normal" at all to me.  In reality, though, I was in a daze much of the time.  The emotional pain, and the physical pain that came along with it, were almost more than I could bear.  The physical effects - the body aches, the back pain, the crazy appetite, the insomnia - were a complete shock to me; I had never heard that those things are part of the grief process, and they all compounded the difficulty of trying to cope with the sadness and the other emotions. 
A far as I can remember, I functioned well enough at work, but it was at a much slower than usual capacity.  Some days it was all I could do to get dressed and drive to work, often while crying, to fake being ok for the duration of the work day, and then to make it back home.  It was as if I was just going through the motions from the time I got out of bed in the morning until the time when I could get back in it in the evening.  At home, for the first time in my life, I let others take care of things like dinner and laundry and paying bills.  I often couldn't sleep at night; I spent a lot of time wishing with all my might that my dad would at least come back to me in a dream, and I was unbelievably tired.  Tired from not sleeping, tired from the grief, tired from crying, and tired from trying to keep it together.  It was beyond my capability to make plans or even very many decisions; I felt like I couldn't think straight or keep track of things, and in some cases I just couldn't make myself care about a lot of things that were going on around me.

If I had to choose one word to describe myself during those first weeks or maybe even months after Dad went on ahead, it would be "depleted." As I had done while my dad was sick, I read about brain cancer; sometimes it made me feel better, but mostly it just made me angry and sad and so I started to read about grief instead.  Eventually, I found my way to a grief counselor, and my sessions with her helped a little in that she told me each time I saw her that what I was feeling was "normal" and in that attending those sessions eventually led me to writing.  Sometimes I still wasn't so sure, though, that I was doing anything right or that I was going to make it through any of the pain, but I just kept plugging away, getting through the days and the nights, one at a time, because that's all I knew to do.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer said that he found there was “a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” and that “sensitivity to human suffering does not stand alone and rootless.” We have all stood over different graves and have had different beliefs as to the fate of our loved ones, but our tears remain a universal constant and need no translation.

Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I think most people only have a handful of times in their lives when something is happening and they realize in that moment that they are going to remember it for the rest of their lives.  Our other memories, things we think about after the event has come and gone - they come back to us unexpectedly, out of the blue, without our having consciously collected them along the way. But the ones that we know will stay with us as they are occurring are extra special, because we get to live them live in real time and in memory. 

As hard as it is to think back on the time when my dad was sick, I realize that the fact that we were aware of the risk (probability) that his time was limited allowed us to pull in those memories while we were focusing on the specialness of that time. Some of the time, I was functioning in the moment, but I was also deliberately hoarding memories of what was going on. I wasn't trying to hold onto those things because I thought Dad wouldn't be around much longer, though; usually I was logging those moments because I thought he would beat the damn cancer and we would be able to look back and think this is how we made it!!  And even though it turned out we didn't, at least we were afforded those memories, both the good and the difficult, to remind us of the fierceness of our love for one another. 

I dealt with my dad's illness with staunch denial of the fact that the devastating prognosis could apply to us, and, looking back, I think it turned out to be for the better that I wasn't aware of many of the last times I'd have with my dad because of that denial.

In going through life, we tend to think we will always have more time, which leads us to think that it's ok to rush around, to put things other than our loved ones first, and to worry about the past and the future instead of letting everything else fade away and just appreciating the simple physical presence of those we love.  Hearing the words "brain cancer" allowed me to stop all of that and to recognize that I needed to just be with my dad and the rest of my family, even though I didn't let myself think that there wouldn't be many more opportunities to do that same thing.   

And afterwards, I had to see not just that I'd been wrong in thinking the prognosis was wrong, but I also had to realize another hard thing as part of the grief: when the dust starts to settle after the first time you lose someone that you truly love, in the darkness it hits you that your days together with everyone else that matters to you are numbered as well.  And somewhere along the way in dealing with the horror of that realization, you may see the importance of paying attention, of stopping to smell the roses, of committing the moments to memory, because doing so is one of the few things that may possibly help to ease the deep aching when we do have to come to find out that the lasts were just that.

All the inconveniences, the irritation, the stressing out over things, the wishing for things that don't really matter at all seem so insignificant, so stupid, and in some cases so selfish when we put it into perspective.  At some point, for all of us, it will be too late.  We have to do our best to capture those moments now, before they actually become lasts, before there is no hope of recapturing them, before the regrets set in and that's all that we have left.

I still have moments when I don't believe it really happened or that he's really gone, even now, 23 months later.  Damn I miss him. 

What I wouldn't give to see this smiling face again //
"There are no goodbyes for us.  Wherever you are,
you will always be in my heart."  ~Mahatma Gandhi