Not waving but drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

 Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him, his heart gave way,
They said.

 Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

– Stevie Smith

My dad’s heavy heart weighed upon me. His sadness was ever present; even in childhood I carried bits of it in my heart, and as I grew, I began to increasingly share the burden my mom had been carrying alone for so many years. It was the burden of trying to pull a sinking man out of a pit, to revive him again and again, and in the last months of his life I felt it daily. His spirit lightened a bit towards the end, as he saw the light of Heaven approaching and becoming brighter, the end of his striving nearer. But all along he was moving away from us, slipping into that other, eternal world, and his relief and gladness slayed me.

A few weeks ago, I found an old notebook of his on a shelf, stuffed between family photo albums. Flipping through the albums, I saw pride and joy in his face, so clearly evident on the day I was born, on our family trip to Disneyland, playing with us in the yard.

But the notebook told his pain. It contained half-poems and short story drafts, each one dreary and despairing, painting desperate portraits of a man sinking and flailing in his own depression.

And on this day, I reached my limit. Always in the past, when confronted with his misery, I had felt for him, mourned with him, but this time I shut the notebook with a snap, not placating or understanding, but bored. Bored and irritated. Yes, I said to him in my head, defiantly. Yes, your life was just so hard, wasn’t it? Your life, with your loving wife and children, and dear friends and beautiful home. Rich memories, relationships filled with honesty and love. Yes, your life was just terrible, wasn’t it? 

After so much energy spent trying to help him, to fix his sadness, his burden had become mine—consuming me, weighing me down. And even my best efforts had not been enough to lift him out of the depression that choked his life. Reading his words on the page, I raged at the injustice that my love—our love, my family’s tenacious bond—had not been sufficient to save him.

And even as I spat anger at him in my thoughts, I realized that with his death, we are both free. His chains are gone, and I need not continue to carry him. And the anger I felt represented my freedom. Because I don’t always have to be merciful. Because I am allowed to feel my own emotions, and not simply carry the feelings of others around on my back.

And if there is any portal between this world and the next, if he somehow heard my words, I think he would understand. I think he would smile, because freedom was the goal all along.

Back in the saddle

Hello, friends! It’s been quite a while since I posted here. But after trying out a career in PR, getting married, and leaving said PR career to follow my creative dreams, I think the time has come to dust off the ol’ blog.

I’m sure I’ll write more about my career transition at some point, but for now I’ll just say that I took a leap and left my stable, corporate job with great benefits to be broke and write a book.

Oh! What’s your book about? people always ask. And I get a little shy and say it’s a memoir, then try to steer the conversation in another direction. Then they usually look at me sideways and ask, Wait…how old ARE you? You can’t be old enough to write a memoir.  And I say I’m 28 and YOU DON’T KNOW ME. Well, maybe not that last part. I usually laugh a little and explain that I’m writing about the last five years of my life, because I think I have a story worth telling. And I leave it at that, and let them ponder how mysterious I am. 

So far, my experience of life as a writer has mostly consisted of sitting on the couch in my pajamas, feeling anxious and trying to stave off the panic with episodes of Ugly Betty. But occasionally, I trick myself into sitting in front of the computer and actually typing some words. And then the next morning, I look back at what I wrote the day before and discover that (shockingly!) it’s not that terrible after all, and I keep going. Those are good days.

But mostly, Ugly Betty.

Every successful writer says that the key is writing every day. And I’m sure that’s true, but it’s taking some time for me to find my own rhythm. Am I a morning writer who wakes up early to spend a few hours working before life has a chance to distract me? Or do I operate better on a flexible schedule, stealing time each day to write in between other commitments? I don’t know the answer yet, and the days bring so many seemingly important distractions from what I’ve set out to do. I’m committed to finding my own writing rhythm, though, and despite the financial stress this endeavor has put on Luke and me and the ambiguous future ahead, I’ve never been more sure I’m in exactly the right place.

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on how my writing adventure is going and reading my rants about any and everything, check back here a few times a week. And don’t be surprised if the blog’s appearance changes a little from time to time. WordPress themes are not my favorite thing in the world, and I’m still working out the kinks.

Exit the fog

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We recently passed the six month mark since Dad’s death. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since I’ve seen him, and yet I can feel the change. I’m starting to emerge from the fog of fresh grief, and the rhythms of life feel less jarring than they did a few months ago.

Here’s what I can tell you about the last six months: Grief is lonely. There is no getting around it–grief is a solitary experience. Though there are many people who miss my dad, my particular relationship with him was exclusive to the two of us, and that means that the version of him that I miss is different, even, from the versions my mom and brothers miss. We all have different memories, different images to hold on to, and we feel his absence in different ways.

Over the last few weeks, though, as I’ve placed a tentative toe outside of the grief fog, my eyes have been opened to a community I didn’t know existed; it’s a community of people like me who have all lost someone irreplaceable. There is an invisible thread that binds us all together, and suddenly I see it almost everywhere I go. The first time it hit me was several weeks ago when my boyfriend Luke swam in a race benefitting cancer care and research. As I sat on a hill overlooking the lake, waiting for the race to begin, I started looking around. Hanging a few feet away were flags inscribed with messages from participants. “Why I swim: Because my friend Barbara no longer can.” “Why I swim: For my family and friends impacted by cancer.” “Why I swim: Thinking of you, Dad.”

I am not alone.

On a recent episode of Katie Couric’s new talk show, Chelsea Handler had tears in her eyes as she spoke about her late brother and mother, and Katie herself spoke poignantly about losing her husband to colon cancer. Then, this week, I got to see my favorite singer/songwriter, Rufus Wainwright, in concert, and though for most of the show he maintained a certain emotional distance from the audience, his grief was evident as he spoke and sang about his mother’s death from a rare form of cancer.

I am not alone.

I think there’s a tendency among the grieving to focus internally. It makes sense. We feel like there is a gaping wound in our gut, and we devote all of our attention to the pain. For me, as I begin to slowly inch out of the fog and look around to see that, lo and behold, there are other people out here, I am reminded that each of us has a story. I’m coming to terms with the fact that no one will ever fully comprehend what is in my heart when I say, “my dad died.” No one will understand the details and depth of who he was to me, and maybe that’s okay, because those are mine to treasure. But there are others who have been through equally devastating loss, who made it out the other side. And that helps.

We are not alone.

Grieve

It’s one month today since Dad died.

I hate the fact that time keeps moving, that every passing day takes us further away from him. I feel that time itself is betraying him. How can it be that he will only get more distant? That he is never coming back? I see photos of him when he was well (or looked well) and feel absolutely shocked that that man, that Dad is gone forever, and not only the sick version of him I knew during his final months.

I hate that time is moving on because it means everyone else is, too. It means that this journey, this grief, once over-crowded with spectators and well-wishers and even drama seekers, is increasingly lonely. Flowers and meals are no longer delivered daily to our door, and in truth we don’t need them anymore. Friends care deeply, but grief is so personal and so unpredictable that they often don’t know what to say, whether to ask questions or avoid the subject, whether it’s okay to joke yet. Most people have continued with life as usual, the earth continues to turn, and we are left to the quiet tasks of reforming our lives; packing up his clothes and mementos, sitting quietly in a house that rings with memories, trying to sleep.

My life will never be the same again. I miss my dad constantly. And though I know I will someday find a “new normal,” I am nowhere near it today.

Run, run, run

I went for a run yesterday. I didn’t want to go. It was cold and I wasn’t in the mood, but I had already taken three days off so I knew I needed to do it. Rain poured down as I laced up my shoes and zipped my jacket and set my workout playlist to start with “Footloose.” Drops of water fell on my face as I stepped off my parents’ porch and made my way down to the drenched pavement. They splashed into my shoes and caught on my eyelids until no part of me remained dry. I placed one foot in front of the other, dreading the cold, knowing I was in for a struggle.

Then, as I picked up my pace, a quiet joy began to rise up within me, and I ran, and ran, and ran. Two miles. Easily and happily.

Growth has been sneaking up on me. One year ago–even six months ago–I couldn’t have dreamed of running two miles without stopping. Without dropping dead, for that matter. Even last week it was a struggle. But suddenly and without warning, I find myself stronger.

My growth as a person over the past few months is more difficult to sum up or quantify, but it is every bit as real. When I look back eight months to the beginning of my family’s journey with cancer, I can see that I have changed. This growth feels different than my ferocious fight to thrive post-divorce. In that situation, the goal was clear, and the battle more defined. I had an enemy, and a vision of who I wanted to become. But in this journey with my dad there is no empowering battle cry or happy end goal. My days consist of quietly being with my family and attempting to make my dad’s final weeks as comfortable as possible, to protect his dignity, to let him know he is loved.  It is a slow process of unclenching fingers, releasing expectations, making peace with the process. When this is done, I will always miss him.

Yet somehow I feel that I am being carved out deeper and wider through the loss. I look inside myself and discover more steadiness of spirit, more quiet strength than I had when it began. I have found an ability to sit in the moments of difficulty and remain rooted. Six months ago I could hardly see my dad in a hospital bed without weeping. Now he lives in one, and I read with him, talk with him, hold his hand, bring him food or juice. I feel sad, but  not shaken.

I choose to be a part of this process, just as I choose to run. I choose to continue placing one foot in front of the other, very slowly, until one day I look up and find I have come further than I thought possible. 

Some days the sun is out and my feet hit the pavement with glee. Sometimes it’s a slog. Sometimes the sky pours on me, and it’s the best run I’ve ever had.

Reel

What to write?

The news is all bad. All shocking. All impossible to believe or comprehend.

Death is a familiar concept to all who walk this earth. We are aware from early in life that we will one day make our exit. Most of us have at the very least known a distant relative or friend to die, or have watched someone else go through the process of losing a loved one. I have experienced both. But this…this is a completely new experience. I am suddenly shocked at the finality of death. My mind keeps playing over and over the incomprehensible reality that when a person dies, they are no longer here.

“Duh,” I want to tell myself. But really–how can that be? How is it possible that a person who has loved me since my first intake of breath might simply cease to be?

I feel that the planet may stop turning.  It cannot be the same world after he is gone.

I don’t know how to end this. I have no tidy string to wrap it up with; no lessons or conclusions today. I am made up of frayed bits and jumbled pieces. Maybe the lessons will come later.

Ponder God

A funny thing happened today. I was watching the Glee Christmas special (which overall I thought was kind of sub-par, but whatev…), and found myself getting a bit misty eyed. It was when Roy, the Irish exchange student, read a small portion of the Christmas story. The phrase that got me was at the very end:

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.'”

I have heard these words so many times I could recite them in my sleep, but for some reason, listening to them spoken in such a non-religious context made them stand out to me in a fresh way. I love that God’s message to the world as he is born into it is neither a battle cry nor a condemnation, but peace and good will. I sat on the couch holding the remote control and feeling amazed at the way God extends himself toward people.

I feel like I have more questions than answers when it comes to God these days. I often find myself hung up on the finer points of theology and morality, confused about the reasoning behind many of the things I’ve been taught, and unsure about whether to trust my own intuitive and (I think) Spirit-led inner compass or the words and traditions of the centuries of believers before me. These things keep me up at night sometimes.

What I don’t find myself questioning is his character. His message on the first Christmas confirms what I have learned from experience: I know that he is good. He is merciful. He is forgiving, compassionate, holy, just. I know that he exists for himself and not for me, but that he gave himself up for me. I know that he holds the ultimate answers to my questions, and that in many cases he simply is the answer. I also have a sneaking suspicion that while I spend the rest of my life putting together and tearing apart my various conceptions of him, running in spiritual circles, he will be watching me with a smile and one day, he will greet my eternal self with his huge, kind, complete answer: “I AM.”

I think I will breathe a sigh of relief.

In the meantime, I take great comfort in the knowledge that I am his. I can ask any questions, test any theories, form wrong convictions all day long if I want, and it will not change my status as a beloved child, adopted at great cost to himself. There is such freedom in that. I am his and he is mine.