Thursday, December 27, 2012
Since my dad went on ahead almost two years ago and especially over the past year, I have been struggling with the fact that the way I see him in my mind is as he was when he was sick, but today when I happened upon a picture of myself helping him walk using his walker I was struck by the fact that he looked even more frail than I remembered. So now I’m troubled by the fact that apparently I don’t clearly see him as he was well or as he was sick, although maybe the latter is for the better.
It was excruciating to watch Dad struggle and to witness the physical and psychological effects of his illness as it progressed, especially because I felt that we had all but been promised that there would be improvement after he had gotten the "Magic Bullet drug," Avastin. My heart broke for Dad as I watched him struggle to grasp the severity of his illness, time and time again. As long as I live, I will never forget the look in his eyes when he was struggling to get around on his walker one day not long after he got out of rehab and he stopped for a minute, obviously deep in thought. I was holding onto the waistband at the back of his pants, and he looked back at me with tears suddenly in his eyes and said, "Am I handicapped?"
"No, Dad!" I responded. "You've been through a lot, and you're having to work on some things, but you're going to get better." I was so sure, and, from my perspective, so was everyone else around us, maybe not that he would be cured but definitely that his physical skills would improve with effort and with time.
But that didn't happen. He didn't get better; in fact, he got worse, and little by little his independence and then his life slipped away. Or maybe I should say they were stolen, or ripped away from us, because saying they slipped away implies that we weren't holding on and fighting tooth and nail every step of the way, which we were, Dad included.
I don't think he realized that the end was very near for him those last couple of weeks; likely, the invaders in his brain - the cancer, the trauma from the seizure and the surgery, the chemicals in his body that collected as his organs were shutting down and could no longer filter out the toxins, and the array of medicines he was taking - clouded his knowledge of his rapidly worsening condition. I hope so - Dad didn’t deserve to be given a death sentence. It was heartbreaking enough that the rest of us had to know what was coming down the pipe all too soon.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
In the hours, days, weeks, and months after my dad went on ahead, I became aware of a phenomenon that I hadn't ever been in a position to notice before, and that was one of feeling as if I myself were the source of pain each time I had to tell someone else that my dad had gotten sick and that he didn't make it. I felt guilty and somehow responsible for the shock and the sadness that I witnessed descending upon each person as soon as the words left my mouth. I felt as if I should be able to comfort them. I wished I could spare them having to know what had happened and I wished I could explain why, but I couldn't do either. Instead, I had to stand by and witness their pain, their sadness, and their grief, while I was deep in the midst of those feeling on my own.
If I'd had to guess before I had any inside knowledge of one who has lost a loved one, I would have said that the worst would be when someone didn't know what had happened and I had to tell them. But what I discovered was that the hardest thing to get through was when I knew someone knew how sick my dad was or even knew he had died but then they said nothing to me afterwards. It felt like they didn't care, like it didn't matter to anyone except those of us who were so deep in our grief that we could barely function. It was like salt in a wound; it was like watching and not be able to stop the waves from washing up on the shore and wiping out a one-of-a-kind sand castle in the process.
About six weeks after Dad went on ahead, my husband, my mom, and I attended a business convention that my dad had been a big part of for decades. Everyone at the convention knew (had known? Damn I hate having to change that verb tense) my dad; he had known many of the people who were there since I was a child or longer and had served as a mentor for many of them over the years.
The last time any of those people had seen my dad was one year ago, ten months before he died and eight months before he got sick. They still thought of him as being the picture of good health; he was the guy who was the life of the party, working the crowd and cutting up on the dance floor at night and then heading up a meeting after an early morning run the next day. People asked what had happened, and I didn't know how to respond. I could hardly have finished processing the series of events over the ten weeks. Most of the people there had heard about Dad's illness and his death, but it was like they couldn't process it or accept it until they showed up at the convention and saw that he wasn't there for the first time in decades. His absence was blaring, to put it mildly. In the midst of their shock and in what I guess was an awkward attempt to process the news themselves, several people told stories about other people they knew who had gotten some serious kind of cancer and had survived. That didn't make me feel any better, and I don't think it served that purpose for them, either; actually, I think it only fueled their sense of disbelief. We heard a lot of "I'm sorry's" but it seemed like mostly what was said was "I just can't believe it." Yep, me neither, I said. What I guess I wanted them to say was that sucks and I'll miss him too. I wished they had something that would comfort me and my family; I wished I had something that could comfort them - or myself. But there was no protection, and there was no comfort to be had.
Monday, December 24, 2012
I'm a "fixer;" I like to fix things. Maybe that's one reason I'm finding the grief process to be so tough - because there's no righting this situation.
Not that I haven't tried. I went through with three different counselors in search of a remedy not long after Dad went on ahead, each of whom didn't specifically deal with grief; I liked all of them at first precisely because they seemed to have a linear approach to how they laid out their sessions - my impression was that they were "fixers" too, and that seemed like a good thing to me at the time.
About halfway through my second session with the first counselor, she asked me how I defined myself after the loss of my father. What the hell does she want me to say? I thought, and I felt as if I had been sucker punched. I felt like I was afloat in a sea of sadness on my best days during that time, and on many of the other days I felt like I was drowning. How do I define myself??? I had absolutely no idea, and I knew it would be a long time before I could withstand even the thought of redefining myself without my dad here with me in this world. And so, without answering, I thanked her for her time and walked out the door.
Two sessions in with the second counselor, she leaned back in her chair, put each of her fingers together with each of the matching fingers on the opposite hand so that it looked like she was about to start doing the hand-gesture that goes along with "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and said, "I think what you need to do is to realize that you were lucky to have been given the time to say goodbye to your father." Then she just sat there looking at me expectantly, as if she thought that some giant epiphany was going to come to me in that moment. Anyone who has ever been through the death of a loved one after that person has had to suffer through a terminal illness would not find comfort in that statement, particularly at that point in the grief process. Without a word, I stood up and walked out.
I waited a couple of weeks and then, mainly because I was concerned that I still wasn't sleeping much at all, I tried again. About 45 minutes into the first session with Number 3, I got "It's already been six weeks since your loss. You should ask your primary care physician to write you a prescription for an anti-depressant." The message I took from that was that I should have already moved on, that six weeks was plenty of time to have moved through the grief, and that I should get over it, and that's really the last thing I wanted to hear. Strike three.
Luckily, through a friend of a friend, I found my way to a grief counselor about six weeks after that, and that was a different ball game all together. That made me realize the lack of training and knowledge in the area of grief that the other three had. The grief counselor let me talk about my experience and my feelings; she had posters on the walls of her office that said things like, "To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die" and, my favorite: "Every grief needs a thousand tellings."
More than one physician, when I've gone in for a check-up or for a minor physical complaint and then when I've brought up the subject of my struggle to try to figure out how to cope with the loss of my father, has offered to prescribe medication as a solution for grief. As society does so often these days, these doctors have seen grief as a sickness, as an imperfection, as something that needs to be "gotten over." I didn't want to be on medicine. I know it's something that's helpful or even necessary for some people, and I told myself that I wouldn't completely rule it out as an option for myself on down the road - but I instinctively realized that to numb the feelings associated with the loss of such an important person in my life at that point would not only put the feelings associated with grief on hold temporarily but also would likely numb me to the goodness in my life, and I knew that the latter was all that was keeping me going. As I had learned from my dad, I mustered all the courage I could and forged ahead, for the most part with the belief that someday, somehow I would find a way to make it through. Because one thing that I've learned about grief is that not only is there not a "quick fix" for all the things that come along with it, but there isn't really a "fix" at all.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities ... because it is the quality which guarantees all others." ~Sir Winston Churchill
When I was a freshman in college, I took a class during which we learned how to rappel. The culmination of the instruction of that part of the class was that each student had an opportunity to descend by rope from the top of a tower that stood three stories high.
At the beginning of the semester, in my 18 year-old mind, that endeavor didn't seem to me like it was going to be too tough. I wasn't scared of heights, and I was in pretty good physical condition. I listened carefully to the instructor talk about the technique and the safety information, and I watched videos of others rappelling. When the day of the descent finally arrived, I confidently climbed up to the top of the tower, hooked in to the roping gear, and backed up to the edge. And then I looked down - and that's when the fear hit me.
I tried in vain to talk myself into stepping off the ledge for several minutes. The instructor, who had positioned another instructor at the top, shouted words of encouragement to me from down below. My legs just wouldn't move. Finally, the guy at the top said, "The longer you stand there, the harder it's going to get to take that first step. On my count of three, you're going to step off. One, two, ..." I took a deep breath, and I did it. The warmth of the sun on my face, the feeling of gliding so freely, and the big burst of adrenaline all hit me at once, and I loved it. It was, in the true sense of the word, awesome.
But the best part of the descent was at the bottom, and it came from the words spoken by the instructor, words that I have thought about many times since that day: "And that," he said as he turned from watching me to address the rest of the class, "is a perfect example of the difference between courage and bravery. Bravery is something a person can be born with, but courage is something we have to dig deep to find. It's natural and often even smart to be afraid, but, as long as you are prepared, you can't let that stop you from forging ahead - and that's courage."
Before that day, I had never considered that there was a difference at all between courage and bravery; I actually thought they were synonyms. Upon further consideration, though, I began to see that there is a distinction between those two words. Bravery is the ability to confront pain or danger when one is not afraid. Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to take on a difficult situation or pain in spite of the presence of fear. Courage requires using a thought process in order to overcome a natural emotion; it is the willful choice to forge ahead regardless of the possible consequences. A courageous person understands the risks of the task but is driven to participate anyway for a greater purpose.
From my perspective, there are a couple of different types of courage: Physical Courage, which often involves overcoming fear of the risk of pain or death to do things - like rappelling, getting up to try again after falling off a bike, running into a burning building to rescue someone, climbing a mountain, or undergoing a medical procedure. Here's a video that gives a great example of physical courage (it's 17 minutes long but well worth taking the time to view it!):
And then there is Mental Courage, which may involve doing something that poses a risk of something negative socially happening, like embarrassment or rejection. This includes things like standing up to a bully, giving a speech to a crowd, disregarding peer pressure, and being a leader. It also encompasses ethics and doing the right thing, even when that puts one at risk for consequences such as disapproval of others. It's pushing past a fear of rejection to put oneself "out there" by being true to one's own beliefs and essentially to oneself. And that is how courage is linked to the most bonding of human traits: vulnerability. A person who has the courage to accept that he isn't perfect but the depth to love himself and to see himself as worthy anyway not only ends up being a happier person but also gains a different kind of strength than cannot be gained in any other way. And, in accepting himself as an imperfect being, he shows others that variances - and vulnerability - are the essence of the beauty of life.
What I have taken away from that is the understanding that courage has to do with perspective and with the way we adapt to the challenges and to the circumstances of our lives.
Without a doubt, what my dad had a great amount of physical courage, and I think that was likely something about him that a lot of people noticed and admired. What I have found to be even more impressive about him, though, and what I hope to go out having had is the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to oneself and to others, the conviction to stand up for myself and for people and things that are important to me, and, last but not least, the courage and the confidence to show vulnerability, which, really, is the thing that connects us as human beings. Vulnerability, like the imperfections seen in granite, is what makes people unique, memorable, and beautiful.