Thursday, September 5, 2013

From This Vantage Point

During the ten weeks that my dad was sick, whenever I heard someone use the phrase "at least" in reference to my dad's illness, my gut burned with fury.  I didn't want any at-leasts, or rather I didn't want to have to have any.  I wanted my family to go back to the way it was, and, as I tearfully texted my husband late in the night after we brought Dad home from the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke, I wanted my dad back.  It seems selfish and childish to me now, but I was in a state of shock and disbelief that that changes that had occurred in such a relatively short period of time had happened.  The doctors at Duke had promised us that the treatment Dad had gotten just after his appointment there was like "magic;" they told us that within 24 hours of getting the medicine we would notice an improvement.  Instead, though, probably due to the toll the stress of the trip had taken on him, he seemed worse.  To me, there certainly didn't seem to be any at-leasts in the picture at the time.

Dad, competing in a half-Ironman triathlon just weeks before his diagnosis

The at-leasts poured in from seemingly everywhere while he was sick and for awhile after he went on ahead; I realized even on my worst days of rage and despair that everyone who said those words did so in an effort to help: "at least he had his family around him the whole time he was sick;" "at least he had good insurance;" "at least you got to spend those extra weeks with him;" and then, the hardest to swallow, "at least you were with him when he died."  We even got a few at-leasts that weren't true ("at least he didn't suffer" being the most blaring untruth).  People were just trying to help, I told myself then and in the months that followed.  I knew it was true; I just hated that I was suddenly on the receiving end of such a phrase. Just having part of what I had or should have had didn't seem good enough.

The flag at half-mast at the cemetery on the day of dad's burial

Over the past six months or so, though, I've been thinking more about those at-leasts, and I've started to see them a little bit differently.  Don't get me wrong: I still long for the whole; it's just that I'm starting to see the value in the in between.

I think the change has come from my reading about the struggles of others - their challenges, illnesses, and grief mostly - and seeing that the people who seem to come out ok (that is, those who don't end up with a completely bitter outlook on life, one that seems so damn disrespectful to the people in their lives including, in the stories of grief, the person for whom they are grieving) are the ones who lean at least a little bit into the at-leasts.  

My dad wasn't a big believer in thinking about Worst Case Scenario; although he like to plan ahead, he frequently said that he thought worrying was a waste of time.  I'm actually not sure what he thought about at-leasts, if he thought about them at all.  I know he was a positive thinker, though, and I can see now that at-leasts fit into to that way of thinking, which is further evidence that it's not a bad idea for me to reconsider my view on that point of reference.

From this vantage point on the road of grief, I can see the value of at-leasts.  Saying "at least" in reference to one's own troubles is a way of keeping perspective; it's a way of reminding ourselves that, while we are powerless to change certain situations and to stop certain things from going wrong, we have a choice in how we view things, even (and maybe especially) in the midst of tragedy and hardship.

And so I have changed my opinion on at-leasts: I believe in the goodness of at-leasts and of positive attitudes; I believe that each of us has the power to take tough circumstances and bad breaks and find the good in those situations.  And that, more than anything, is what gets me through the day now.