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.