Friday, December 20, 2013
For as many things as I like to think that I got from my dad, whether by nature or by nurture, we had one core difference: I am a worrier and, simply put, he wasn’t.
I, like others with tendencies similar to mine, call it planning, organizing, taking care of the details. I consider it a necessary part of life and, truth be told, I do it pretty often; his philosophy was that whether or not one worries is a personal choice. He and I had many conversations about this topic over the years, including several during the weeks that he was sick, and he told me many times that from his perspective there were alternatives to worrying, like “just doing it,” or “going with the flow.” He was a great list-maker, often leaving sticky notes and legal pad pages of reminders for himself around the house, on his desk at work, and even in his car. That, he said, was a way to get worry off his mind.
That stuff doesn't work for me, though. I don't feel like it's my choice to worry or not to worry, and making lists (as I do as often as my dad did) lessens the worry but doesn't turn it off.
This is what a supreme worrier I am: I often read books while thinking about trying not to leave a mark on the book that will affect its condition. I try my best not to get smudges or water marks or creases on the pages as I read. My dad, in contrast, concentrated on thoroughly enjoying a book as he read through its pages. What a joy I have found it to be to look back through the books he read and to see the marks he left behind, the crumpled pages, the sticky notes, the underlined and notated passages, and the dog-eared corners. What pleasure it brings me to look at those things and to know that my eyes are where his once were and that he so completely basked in the moment when he was there, on that page in that book. It’s like seeing the scrawled “I was here” written somewhere, and it makes me smile and warms my heart. It also sometimes makes me think again about the benefits of worrying less, or, as my dad would say, choosing to do something besides worrying.
Maybe that’s why the anxiety that Dad experienced during his illness, especially during the last two weeks of his life, still haunts me so much. It was so uncharacteristic of him to be worried, and the rest of my family and I felt so powerless in our ability to quiet his fears and quell his distress. More than anything during his last days on this earth, I wanted to take away that worry, which I knew would ease his pain. I think back to his last night in the hospital and to the next two nights after that when I took a turn sitting up with him as he struggled to sleep and as we worked to get control of the panic and the pain, and my heart hurts to remember the worry etched in his face. Sometimes the medicine would help, but more often it was the presence of someone he trusted completely that seemed to help ease his mind.
I remember sitting beside his hospital bed in the semi-darkness of my parents’ den after he’d come home and listening to him worry aloud about things that he could not control. I tried telling him not to worry, I tried to let him know that we only needed to focus on the really important things, and I tried to convince him that others of us would take care of the things that seemed to be on his mental to-do list, but that just seemed to agitate him more. Finally, I waited for him to pause to take a breath, and I said, “It’s going to be okay, Dad; I hope you can choose not to worry so much,” and he turned toward the sound of my voice in the darkness as if those words were my arms going around him. A minute later, the talking stopped and his breathing slowed into the rhythmic pattern of sleep. I stood up to cover him with an extra blanket and then tucked in beside him, half on the couch and half on his bed, with my head on his shoulder, thinking that maybe I could absorb the burden of the rest of his worries during the remainder of the night.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
A friend of mine recently lost her father, and she has asked me about what’s “normal” in grief. Hmmmm. First, I will say that I am perhaps not the right person to ask that question of, as I am not only unsure about the answer but also because I think that even my speculation about the answer may be more confusing that it is right. And next I will say that one of the things I do know about grief is that there really isn’t a “normal” to it.
Through the reaching out of others with whom I have connected through this blog, I have begun to see that, although grief may have some universal similarities to it, it is not experienced in the same way by any two people. There’s not a right or a wrong way to do it. Going through the grieving process often seems to make people feel like they are feeling abnormal – but that’s normal, I think. Grief is just grief, and, in spite of the things it may cause people to do or say or think or feel, it doesn’t mean that the person who is grieving is flawed, or sick, or selfish, or crazy, or depressed.
Grief can look like thousand different things, mostly painful and confusing but some inspiring and strengthening, if one chooses to let them be. I think that the idea of death and dying, the difficulty of grasping such a HUGE concept, as well as the questions that come along with it like WHY and WHAT NEXT sometimes makes our brains think things we wouldn’t ordinarily think. One thing I have learned by putting my story out there publicly is that whatever’s going on in one’s head in the midst of the grief is very likely to be something someone else has/is also thinking or feeling; maybe knowing that will help someone else not feel quite as alone as they walk the road of grief and mourning.
Lots of times grief feels like walking in a fog, without any direction at all. It looks like breaking down into tears in the middle of driving to work or making dinner or taking a shower. It looks like reading the same passage over and over again and then saying “To hell with it” when the words on the page still don’t seem to make sense. It looks like waking up in the middle of the night and forgetting what has happened just for a second or two, and then remembering and feeling the slam of the sadness all over again. Sometimes it feels like a force making you want to stay in bed – even if that means missing a meal or a party or work or the entire holiday season. Sometimes it feels like a force that won't let you sleep - or that fill the sleep that does come with nightmares and sadness.
Grief can make it feel as if the world is spinning, it can make things look fuzzy, and it can make your legs feel heavy like cement and your heart feel broken and raw. It can make you feel overly bold or brave … or it can make you feel small and terrified, all the time. It can sometimes make a simple task or decision feel like climbing a mountain. It can look like staring into space; it can make you feel like you can’t function, and – here’s the brutal truth – it can make you not really care if you can’t.
Grief can look like laughter – or rage – or avoidance – or more tears that you ever thought your body could manufacture. It can make the world look like a minefield, full of danger. It can feel like walking into a room full of strangers who have no idea what you’re thinking or feeling or what you’ve been through – and it can also feel like being all alone in a completely empty room, full of only coldness and hard edges and with an echo. It can feel like holding onto a secret that has been locked away or supporting a boulder so big that it’s incomprehensible to think about ever doing anything besides struggling under its weight. It can feel like going on a hunt, looking for a glimpse of any good at all in the world, a desperate search and an endless list of questions and worries and fears.
It can look like an endless road, and, in a way, that’s what I think it is, and I think maybe the secret to getting through it is knowing that there is no secret to getting through it.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Life, for the most part, is full of the mundane, the predictable, the obvious, the day-in/day-out routine. We get up each morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work or school, run errands, take care of the kids, make dinner, clean up, and go to bed. Repeat. It is easy to become complacent, to take it for granted, and even to sometimes complain about the little things without realizing what a blessing things around us really are.
And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changes. We are jolted out of our reverie, forced to refocus and to reevaluate pretty much everything. And even as much as we might wish that things would go back to the way they were, things are changed. We are changed. And, for better or for worse, so is our perspective.
In a way, the holiday season was part of the repeating loop for me over the years. Certainly the joy and the excitement were there, especially seeing the wonder and the happiness in the faces of the children in the family. Looking back from this vantage point, though, I can see that I spent too much time worrying leading up to and during the holiday season each year. I worried about when and how the Christmas decorations got put up, I worried about having the “perfect” gift for everyone on my list, I worried about what I would prepare for holiday get-togethers, I worried about getting a photo for the annual Christmas card and getting the cards addressed and mailed out in a timely manner, and I worried about making sure that my kids had an action-packed, memorable (at least what I thought was memorable at the time) holiday season. A lot of the stress I felt during the season was admittedly self-inflicted. And, as I see it now, a lot of it was unnecessary and unproductive.
As I got out the Christmas decorations this year, I thought about years past when I did the same thing and I thought about when my dad was sick. The hustle and bustle was still present that year - it was just focused on a different set of priorities. My kids did most of the decorating at my house that year; I was out of town helping to care for my dad a good bit during that the time. I did 100% of my Christmas shopping online, much of it late at night in between conversations with Dad. Some of the gifts did not get wrapped, and a few even got left behind in the transport between my house and my parents’ house, where my extended family gathered on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, taking shifts being with Dad who was in the hospital in the ICU at that point.
I will never forget how awful it was being in the hospital that Christmas. The hospital cafeteria closed after lunch on Christmas Eve, and families of patients in the hospital had to fend for themselves for food for the next day and a half after that. The roads were icy and travel was precarious, and everyone in my family was so, so sleep deprived and concerned about Dad and about each other. None of us cared about opening gifts or celebrating; the only thing we really wanted to do was to spend time together and to do whatever we could to try to help Dad.
I thought about that a lot as I lifted each string of lights and each ornament out of the boxes again this year, and here’s what I realized: As tough as things were that Christmas, not for one second did any of us lose sight of the value of being there together. No one in the family ever said anything like this isn't fair or I'd rather be somewhere else or doing something else. Together we struggled through my dad’s illness and death and together we have struggled through the grief since then, the day-to-day routines as well as the holidays that have come since then now colored in a very different way. The lessons I learned from all that we went through that holiday season are things that I am certain will never leave me – things like how it’s more important to focus on the joy and togetherness of today than to worry about the details of tomorrow, especially when much of tomorrow is out of our control. Like how it’s important to ask for help when help is needed and how stuff is just stuff. Like how when one of us is sad or exhausted or discouraged or sick or hurt, we are strong as a whole. And like how, even in the midst of the everyday, it's possible for perspective to reflect the riches that we are fortunate enough to hold in the moment.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
As far back as I can remember when I was a child, my dad made a point to remind my sisters and me every year on Christmas Eve that Santa liked to have beer left out for him at some houses instead of milk. I remember asking Dad if Santa would mind if the beer was hot by the time he got to our house and Dad said, no, any beer is good beer, even a hot one.
Fast-forward a couple of decades later when I told my own children that Santa liked beer instead of milk. Things went according to my plan until my older daughter was asked to write a letter to Santa as an assignment in her first grade class. The letter started out like most of them do: "Dear Santa, Hi! How are you?" It was written in very neat handwriting with good spacing and sizing of the letters, and I’m sure the teacher was very impressed, until she got to the more unique part where my daughter wrote, “My mom says you like behr more than milk do you? Even hot?”
My daughter finished the letter with her list of a few things she wanted Santa to bring her that year and a “Thank you!” and then signed her name at the bottom of the page. She added a couple of little drawings out to the side which she often did in those days; I doubt that distracted the teacher from the Mom ♥ Beer message in the body of the letter though. The letter was mounted on a piece of construction paper and taped to the classroom wall for all to see at the PTA Open House that week. I remember telling my dad about it on the phone the next day and hearing him laugh through the phone as if it were the world’s funniest joke. “It’s like a treat you gave to yourself years later,” I told him, to which he laughed even harder.