Saturday, January 5, 2013

Two Years Out

Have you ever run into someone whom you haven't seen in awhile and noticed that something about that person that you can't put your finger on has changed?  Maybe it was something so indistinguishable, so subtle, that you have even wondered if it was just your imagination, but still you felt that something was different about that person than it was in the past.  That's what grief feels like for me at this point.  It has changed over the course of the two years since my dad died, but it's hard to say exactly how.  Or maybe I have changed in how I address the grief and in how I cope.  One thing is for sure, though: it's still looming; it's not any less of a threat except for the fact that I guess I have learned a little bit about how to manage it.  

Part of me is shocked and even a little bit impressed (surprised?) that we've made it to the two year point after my dad went on ahead.  We've done it; we've helped each other through it and we've survived it, so far.  Some days, though, it feels like running the third lap of a four-lap mile around the track, which for me was always the most painful because I knew that I had to give it my all in that part of the race but I was also aware that there was so much work left to be done even after that lap had been completed.  Part of me is so shocked and so saddened by that fact that we're already at the two-year mark that just the thought that it has been that long since I've seen him immediately brings tears to my eyes.  Two years.  How did that happen?

I had a dream about my dad a couple of nights ago, and in it he was sick and he kept asking me, "How did we get here?"  At first, I thought he meant that he wanted to know how we had arrived in the physical location where we were, which was, oddly, sitting on a bench in a park that was not familiar to me (and certainly it wasn't somewhere that I went with him while he was sick), but then it dawned on me that he was asking how we had gotten to that exact point in time.  And then in the dream I turned to him on the bench with tears in my eyes and I said, "We got here because of your strength, your courage, your toughness, your determination, and your love, and we will never forget that."  I knew he want to know how he had gotten cancer and how it had gotten so bad so quickly, but no one knew the answers to those questions.  What I did know in the dream - what I wanted to convey to him - and what I do know in real life is that my dad is the reason that my family and I have had the fortitude not to crumble in the midst of the biggest challenge of our lives; time and time again, we have held him up as an example of how to face the pain of our grief, how to cope with the sadness and the anger that threaten to overtake the joy and the promise of hope for a better tomorrow, and how to look for the good on even the roughest of days.  That's how we have gotten here; that's how we've made it through these two years since he had to go on ahead.

But of course knowing that doesn't make me miss him any less; if anything, the passage of time makes me miss him more!

It's not just that today marks the two year anniversary of my dad's death that brings him to mind; I miss him all the time.

I miss how he and I could laugh over the craziest things, sometimes things we knew were ridiculous or even dumb but we thought they were funny anyway. 

About ten years ago, Dad and I drove from my house to the small town in Alabama where my grandmother lived to pick her up and bring her back to my house so she wouldn't be alone on Christmas.  It was about a 7-hour long drive each way, and we had a great time talking and laughing along the way, just the two of us on the way there and then with Grandmom on the way back.  At one point en route to her house, we stopped at a gas station that happened to be in a rough neighborhood; we both got a big fountain drink inside the convenience store and then got back into the car.  As Dad pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto the street, we heard a loud ricocheting type of noise on the back window of the car.  Each of us instinctively ducked our head as Dad quickly pulled the car over onto the side of the road so we could see what had made the noise; we both thought we had been caught in a crossfire that had shattered the glass on the back window.  When we'd had a few seconds to process things, though, we realized that the sound had come from the ice from the drinks that had spilled as we'd turned the corner after both of us had set our cups on the roof and had forgotten them there as we got back in the car.  A good laugh ensued, and we headed out onto the road again.

I miss the inside jokes and the memories we shared from running together.  One thing we used to talk about in that vein was our strategy of "rounding up" our run time ("If you say you'll be out running for 40-45 minutes, you can go for almost an hour before anybody notices," Dad had advised me many times throughout the years when I complained about not having as much time as I liked to have to run.  Prior to the time when he began training for the Ironman triathlon, his fitness goal from age 55-65 was to work out for an hour a day, at least 5 days per week.)  

I miss the exuberant way he marked his place in books, by folding half of the page down.  I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when I was going through some books to see which ones could be donated to charity and I came across a book that he had handed down to me a few years ago, complete with folded down pages marking the places where he had taken a break from reading along the way.

I miss the way he took joy in everyday tasks and, in doing so, he made them fun for those around him.  This included lots of things he did to entertain me on long runs - things like singing as he ran and alternately bounced and caught a tennis ball to the beat of a song, like taking me on different running routes that he had scouted out in advance to make each one an adventure, and like coming up with unusual training techniques for the two of us like running up and down the steps on the outside of a grain storage bin for a certain amount of time (which he then challenged me to try to improve on when we did it again the next week).  

We ran up and down steps like these
as one of our training routines.
There were lots of non-running tasks that Dad made fun, too, though.  One thing I was thinking about recently was what he called "Laundry Parties."  When I was a teenager, Dad, as the person in our house who did most of the laundry, had trouble discerning whose clothes were whose between my mom's, my sisters', and mine, and so he often brought laundry baskets full of clean clothes into the den, dumped them on the couch, and announced to my sisters and me that we had to help fold them.  "It'll be fun!" he'd say. "It's a Laundry Party!" and, although we usually groaned and complained about having to help, he always joked around and made a usually boring task fun.  

I miss the way he hugged, which was often more back patting than anything else.  Somehow his technique always seemed to instill confidence in me, as if the back-patting was literally him patting me on the back to let me know he thought I'd done something right.

I miss the funny random emails and phone calls from him, sometimes about something so out of the blue that just his question or comment made me laugh out loud.  Once he called to ask me how to spell "coulotte" (pronounced "coo-lot" - this is a style of women's pants also known as a split skirt, in case you didn't know).  I spelled it for him, he thanked me, and then, obviously in the middle of a thought, he hung up.  I had to ask him later why he needed to know: he had been writing a memo to employees in his office about what was and what wasn't acceptable attire for Casual Fridays.

I miss the funny rules he made up for some things, like "I never drink beer that I can see through," a rule he imposed several years back when he discovered that he had a penchant for dark beer, despite the fact that he had been drinking lite beer for decades before that.

I miss the smell of Brut on him, so much that I sometimes break out a bottle of it that I have stashed in my bathroom just to take a whiff of it.  It's comforting in that context; it's disturbing and sad when I smell it on someone else in passing, as if that intrudes on the comfort of it in my memories from when he wore it.  

I miss the way he bounced on the balls of his feet when he walked.  I miss his competitiveness, which he carried on with himself as much as anyone else, and I miss his pride.  I miss the way he could (and usually did) talk to anyone who crossed his path.

I miss the way he lost certain things, like his wallet, so often that he tended not to worry about it whenever he did; like he did with a lot of other things, he didn't worry because he thought worrying was a waste of time and he just believed that everything would be ok.

I miss having him ask me about my job and how things were with my husband and the kids; I really miss how he used to listen to what I said in response and then how he would sometimes sigh as if he felt exhausted on my behalf and then say, "I don't know how you do it all!" with so much pride and admiration in his voice that it soothed me and made me proud, even when I'd felt like I had been struggling before then.

I miss his no-nonsense attitude and advice, the same kind he gave me when I called to tell him that I'd been offered my first job as an occupational therapist after I'd graduated from college.  I told him what the salary would be and that I thought it would be a great place to gain experience, and then I said that I had told the human resources department that I would get back to them about my decision.  Without missing a beat, he said, "Haven't you been wanting to work at a children's hospital like that for many years?"  I told him that I had, and he said,  "Well, then, what are you waiting for?" was the advice I got in return, in response to which I hung up with him and made the call to accept the job. 

I don't think Dad always recognized the value that other people found in the advice that he gave out, though.  Late one night when he was in rehab and he, as usual, couldn't sleep, we were talking about the schedule for the next day and I reminded him that I was leaving to drive back home as soon as my mom got back to stay with him the next morning.  "Be really careful driving back," he told me, and then he said, "Be sure not to stop for gas in the valley on the way back; it could be dangerous there and cell phone coverage isn't good."  He paused and added, "But I'm sure you can take care of yourself."

Before I could say anything in response, he commented, "Sometimes I worry that any advice I've given you hasn't been about the important things."

"What do you mean, Dad?" I asked him. "You've given us good advice!" to which he responded, "All I can remember telling you is stuff like always keep a towel in the trunk of your car and put some toilet paper in the waistband of your shorts when you go for a run in the woods."  It was true; he had told me both of those things many times throughout my life, and, truth be told, I always did both of them (and still do).  But, of course, that wasn't the bulk of the advice he had given to me over the years, and I wanted to be sure he realized that.  "You've taught me a lot more than that," I told him, but the only answer I got was the sound of his rhythmic snoring.  After tossing and turning and chatting for the majority of the night, he had, at last, fallen asleep.

I miss the lists of "suggestions" he emailed to us before his birthday, Father's Day, and Christmas.  To me, he was always the easiest person to buy a gift for, not just because of the list but because he had such distinct hobbies and because he would often just "make do" with whatever he already had instead of buying the latest and greatest accessories and gadgets for himself, leaving it open for us to give those things to him later if we wanted.

Once when we were running together during the time that I was preparing for a marathon, I told him that I had gotten some new gear to help me with the training and that I had estimated that I had several hundred dollars of equipment on me every time I went out the door to run.  He actually stopped in the road and said, "Are you serious?"  Yes, I told him, but that included my high-tech clothes, my shoes, my GPS-enabled watch, my heart-rate monitor, my sunglasses, and my iPod.  "That's crazy!" he said, incredulous.  He started running again but insisted that we go back by the house so that I could "ditch the extras." "That way we can really run just to run," he said.  And that's what we did.  How I miss being able to do that with him, and to talk about anything or nothing along the way.  Damn.

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