Friday, February 8, 2013

At Least

I know a lot of people who are competitive, but I think in some way I am the most competitive of all of them (ha ha, did you catch that???).

Early-onset competitiveness: that's me on the left, totally out-doing my toddler sister and my granddad at pull-ups.

That's why I've never been much of a fan of "at-leasts."  

I think it all started when I was about five years old.  I remember standing in my driveway one day, eating one of those red, white, and blue Bomb Pop popsicles, and being so sad when the last part of it dropped off the stick and fell onto the driveway.  My mom, who'd seen the whole thing happen, said, "Oh, well, at least you got to eat most of it!"  

But I didn't just want most of it, of course; I wanted ALL of it (especially the blue part at the bottom, which I still consider to be the best part!).  And thus began my distaste for the term "at least." 

Growing up, I remember hearing that term used pretty often, way too often for my taste, by both adults and by my peers.   I cringed inside when I heard other people say things like, "At least you tried!" and "At least we got some of what we wanted."  Every time I heard that phrase, I knew I should probably buy into that type of thinking; I realized that it was an expression of optimism and gratitude, but I saw it as settling

That has changed, though, since my dad got sick.  I guess going through the experience of caring for him during those ten weeks and then trying to cope with his death over the past couple of years has changed my view on at-leasts; these days I'm actually a pretty big fan of the term.  I hear it from the lips of others who loved him too - and from those who have also who've suffered through a similar experience, and I know we are in a club of sorts whose members know the true meaning of that phrase.  I've never liked consolation prizes, but I guess that's just another example of how tragedy and hardship hammer out perspective.  

I came across an idea shared by a fellow griever yesterday that made me think about my changed feelings for at-least type of concepts.  She said she would rather have had the person she'd lost and had to have suffered through living without him than never to have had that person in her life at all.  How profound.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Flow of Grief

Today is the 5th of the month, and, as on this day every month over the last 25 months, that date results in an exacerbation of grief for me, because it is the day of the month that my dad went on ahead.  

I wonder if the 5th of the month ever won't be like this, if it will ever just flow by like the rest of the days on the calendar, and I wonder if it will hurt even more when the realization hits me that it has somehow slipped by unnoticed.  

From the moment I opened my eyes this morning, I felt the grief a little heavier, like a blanket that's too thick for the temperature in the room.  I plodded through the morning routine and made it out the door on time, but then, on my drive to work, I saw a car exactly like my dad's, an army green Mini-Cooper with a customized bike rack on the top.  

In an instant, tears filled my eyes.  I felt like I'd been punched in the gut but weirdly also a little bit comforted; feeling that it was a sign from my dad, I felt both like I'd gained something in experiencing that connection with him and like I'd suffered a loss again with the thought that the only contact I can ever have with him is transcendent. 

The unpredictability of grief is something that gets to me time and time again.  I like patterns and predictability; I don't like surprises or disorder.  All along I've felt like I wanted, or actually needed, to know - how will this go?  What's the plan?  How long will it last?  When will I feel like I have a grip on this grief, if ever?  

In the beginning, I told myself I could take it, if I only had an idea of how long it would go on.  And if I had some kind of rules or guidelines for getting through it.  When I realized there was none of that type of knowledge or information to be had, I found that pretty much all I could do was to cry.  We all cried, to each other and alone.  We worried about each other and we worried about ourselves; we wondered if this was how things would always be, and we wondered if we would survive the hardest thing that any of us had ever gone through.

So far I've just been muddling through it.  And the change - and the order to it and the flow of it - that I've started to notice, one that has come about at some imperceptible point in time, is that I have started to be able to reflect on the road I had traveled, to see some ribbon of road behind me as I glance in the rearview mirror, even as I have continued to trek along the same route, and I have started to see some differences in myself and in my grief ... not "progress," really, but observations about the path I have traveled as part of this process. 

Maybe it's just familiarity with grief, almost a relaxed intimacy like a couple who has been together for awhile or like shoes that are worn in but not worn out.  Certainly part of it is a realization that there is no standard of excellence in this process, just getting through it, hopefully intact. 

                           "I pick up a stone that I cast to the sky, hoping for some kind of sign."

I can smile most of the time these days when I see a photo of my dad, and I can usually talk about him without the extreme sadness and devastation that used to bubble right up to the surface so quickly.  I can laugh at some of the inside jokes that he and I shared, even though I realize that I'm the only one left on the inside of those now; I can usually think about something that he should be here to experience or to participate in now and not fall apart.  I can go to sleep most nights without feeling like I need to beg into the dark for a good dream about him.  Much of the difficulty is still there, though; I think I've just gotten more adept at managing it.  

I used to be a lot more inflexible - maybe even close-minded or harsh - in my views about certain things before my dad got sick.  I must admit: I did the same thing about certain things before I had children of my own; I thought I had at least some of the answers, and then reality hit me and I realized that I didn't.  I spent a lot more time with the "my way or the highway" type of thinking going on in my head than I do now.  

There's a certain amount of perspective that growing up  gives to a person - some of it good, some maybe more realistic than good, but nonetheless having our views changed over time is just part of life.  It's almost kind of metaphysical the way perception can be divided up over the course of a lifetime: either you think you know, or you know you don't know. 

But then comes grief, and that's a game changer on an entirely different level.  I think for most people, grief softens the edges of what we worry about, of our priorities, and maybe even of our philosophy about things.  For me, going through the trial of my dad's illness and living with the grief that has come from his death has also blurred lots of things.  I'm less sure about certain things - many of which I have written about and will continue to write about - and that can be stressful, confusing, and exhausting.  But one thing that I think has actually been a change for the better in this process is the mitigation of my tendency to cast judgment on others in general; not only have my views on some things softened, but I guess so have I.  

Here's what I know for sure about grief: there is no "right way" to get through it.  Each person brings a different set of circumstances, different coping skills, and different needs to the situation.  We may share some of the same emotions and sometimes even thought patterns as we travel down the road, but, as we are all unique individuals, so is the exact nature of our mourning and our grief.

In the weeks and months after my dad went on ahead, my first instinct was to isolate myself.  I'm not sure why, exactly; there are probably a whole host of reasons that went into that propensity.

With the encouragement of my family, though, I tried to get out and do things socially, although, truth be told, I didn't really feel like leaving the house most of the time. 

Through phone calls and sporadic visits between the different places where we lived, my siblings and my mom and I all stuck together as much as we could, but at the same time we all did different things to keep ourselves together in the midst of the grief, to ward off the grief, to get through the days that were so much tougher to get through than I'd imagined.  Wait a minute, scratch that:  I actually never even took the time to imagine what life would be like without Dad, until we were without him.  I guess that, like Dad used to say about worrying being a waste of time, I felt that punching through the unbelieveability to picture the sadness, the absurdity of that life, even when he was so sick, was just too far out there to be a reasonable use of time for me - it would be like me thinking about jumping on the space shuttle and going to the moon right now.   

I recently looked back at something I wrote very early in my grief, a jotted-down Q and A with myself. I wrote, "How can I get through this, how can I go on, what can I do?  I will probably end up sleeping too much, drinking too much, not eating enough, walking around in a stony silence, and I hate all of those ideas."  For better or for worse, I actually missed the mark on all of those things.  A lot of time at work and around town, I felt like a fraud, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, as if I were the same. I felt lost, but I knew where I was and I knew I didn't want to accept it.  I didn't know where to even begin trying to figure out how to live without my dad or how to live with the sorrow. 

In the immediate aftermath, my mother, of course, was the one still at the house where Dad was supposed to be with her, with the most dramatic life change, and she was the one that we worried about the most.  Her form of coping initially seemed to come in the form of trying to re-organize her house; it was as if she was trying to gain some of the control that had been lost the moment we heard Dad's diagnosis.  In my corner of the world, I made a list of the things that angered me, in an effort to keep from exploding in my fury, and of questions to which I knew there were no answers.  I tried different things, many of which I've written about since.  One of these was my longtime balance: running, which failed me in that role; for the first time ever, running didn't feel right to me.  It wasn't physically therapeutic and it wasn't emotionally therapeutic; it felt more like I was trying to chase down the answers to an interminable stream of runaway questions.  It hurt, something I was used to and was well experienced in in the physical sense, but the pangs of emotions that flooded my mind and my body on these runs were difficult to bear. After awhile, I gave up on it, and only recently have I begun to try it again, intermittently, as it seems like the flow of the grief and the things that come along with it allow.