Saturday, May 5, 2012

Grief. Such fun...

I was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to visit a friend, and as part of that visit, we finally went to the church where my dad’s ashes are kept.  This was a visit that had been foiled a couple of times…once I went and the plaque wasn’t up yet because they’d had to do some repairs, and so I had no way of knowing where my dad’s ashes were.  Another time was over Thanksgiving and the church was locked up like Fort Knox.  So finally, on the second anniversary of my father’s memorial service (purely by coincidence), I was able to go.  It turned out to be a pretty important moment and it’s hard to explain why.  I know he’s not really in there, but we both felt him in that tiny room, and talked with him.  I didn’t cry.  Walking downstairs from that room into the beautiful sanctuary of All Saints, I was stricken moreso by the perspective of the empty church from the altar.  Two years ago, I’d stood there, in front of maybe 100 people?  I don’t even know how many were there, I just remember seeing key faces in the crowd as I gave my speech about my dad, a speech that was supposed to have a time limit.  As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who disregarded that rule…I’d written it out ahead of time, and simply had to read it.  I did it.  I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, the font on this Bible is HUGE”, but I didn’t say it out loud.  Memorials are strange events, something to live through when you lose someone so dear.  They end up being somewhat of a blur, and my memories of that day come in snippets…like a wedding, you don’t really have the opportunity to really talk with people.  Anyhow…it was good that we did this, my dear friend and I. It was something I needed to check off my grief list.  There are more, but I'm getting to them slowly.

The next morning, we had breakfast and walked around the Los Feliz area of LA.  We went into an awesome bookstore, something that is easy to forget even exists in suburbia, which is the world I exist in most days.  I picked up a book called “The Long Goodbye” It’s a memoir written by a woman who watched her mother die of cancer at the age of 55.  Reading the back of the book, it mentioned how complicated grief can be, and how nothing really prepares you for it, even when the death is expected and even anticipated. It also mentioned how our society largely ignores this inescapable part of human existence.  There are so many other cultures in the world that honor grief and have rituals and traditions…here in America, you’re supposed to get over it and move on pretty damn quick.  I showed the book to my friend, and he immediately said, “Oh my God…you’re buying that, right?”  I did, and I’m reading it now. It’s amazing.  I mostly read in bed by a book light, and I’ve resisted the urge on more than one night to get up and go grab a highlighter, or start my computer.  I’m only about 2/3 of the way through, but it’s really shedding a lot of light on the last several years of my life.

One of the things that the author highlights is how incredibly painful it was to watch her mother die.  Not at that exact moment, although she was lucky enough to be present when her mother finally left.  Her mother’s illness, like my father’s, lasted over years and was just excruciating.  The feelings are so complex.  In dealing with my dad, I felt like the parent, frustrated over the fact that he really never took good care of himself.  As he deteriorated, it got harder and harder to be around him and everything that came with it.  All he would drink was Coca Cola, which couldn’t have been good for him, but he refused to drink more water.  I was angry with him for being so ill.  As much as I loved him, there were times when I was here at home in Sacramento and it would be time to go to the airport and I would cry, not wanting to go.  The house in Altadena that was a place of such comfort to me growing up, now just represented sadness and sickness and disrepair, since he wasn’t able to take care of his house anymore.  He existed in one room. The rest of the house would be “cleaned” periodically, but mostly looked ghostly from lack of use.  My old room housed his amazing nurse, and the other bedroom was stuffed full of junk and smelled dusty and old.  The bathroom was filled with medical supplies, bedpans, and insane amounts of medications.  This wasn’t my home, this was a house with a dying occupant…sometimes it felt like the house was ready to move on, even when my dad wasn’t yet.  I hated that he was sick, it seemed so unfair when I had other friends whose parents were young and healthy and would get to know their grandchildren well.  I was lucky in that my dad got to meet and know my kids, a little, but my grandmother was at my college graduation. My kids never really got a chance to get to know him and what he was like before he was so ill, and that’s hard to live with.  They deserve to have known him, and they didn’t.

I believe it was around 2008 when people I knew just started to GO.  I remember at one point making a list…friend’s parents, extended family, family friends…we had eight people die in one year.  I remember telling my dad about it and saying, “The only one that was really expected was you, and you’re still here!” and we both laughed.  I wanted him to go, I was tired of his pain, tired of never knowing what was next, tired of all the hospitalizations.  I wanted peace for him.  However, when I got the call that he was gone, I froze and had no idea what to do.  I think I’ve written before that I went and cleaned the shower, a task I hate.  At the time, it made perfect logical sense.  Now I understand that I needed to distract myself with something mindless, something I could do alone while I tried to process what had just happened, as well as put off some exceedingly important and painful phone calls.

Lately, I’ve been feeling this odd dread…it took me a little while to figure it out.  A year ago, I had no idea what the next two months would hold.  In May, my old childhood friend Matt died unexpectedly, and less than 30 days later my best friend lost someone incredibly dear to her under tragic circumstances.  I went to both of these memorials and it suddenly struck me. I didn’t know which was harder, being in pain over your own loss or watching people who you’ve loved and known since the beginning of time in so much pain.  It’s a scary thing to be in the presence of so much intense pain coming from so many people.  You can feel it in the air. As the anniversaries loom very soon, I still kind of can’t believe that they even happened.  Shock and robot mode gets you through what you need to get through, and you don’t have a chance to really think about it until a lot later.  How in the world does Matt’s mom, who I’ve known since the day I was born, even get out of bed in the morning?  How does his wife, or his brothers?  Thinking about it makes my chest hurt.  Regarding my best friend’s loss, I have tried to put myself in her position.  I’ve tried to imagine losing her suddenly, in such a brutal way.  I have to admit that I get to a place in my imagination when I have to stop…I just can’t go there.  Having her in my life is like breathing, we’ve been friends for 30 years.  I have been constantly amazed and proud of her candor, strength, and determination to face her pain head on and plow through it.

Last week I attended our church’s annual women’s retreat in Lake Tahoe.  I’d been asked to lead a break out session about mental health.  (Those of you who know me well can stop laughing now!).  It went well, I think.  I never really know what I’m doing, I just go talk and usually end up feeling like a big dork afterwards.  In any case, one of the areas I covered was grief.  The one thing I stressed was that you can’t outrun grief…it will stop at nothing to find you.  I’ve seen what it looks like when people try to outrun it, or hide from it under a cloud of substances and denial.  It’s not pretty, and relationships fall apart.  The bravest thing you can do is feel it, and it sucks.  I also mentioned that you can be going along in your life, happy as can be, and grief will sucker-punch you.  An example:  Dad’s been gone two years now, and I miss him every single day, but I’ve accepted it.  Over Christmas, I was watching the end of The Wizard of Oz with my husband.  Dorothy discovers that the Wizard is a sham, and calls him on it, telling him he’s a very bad man.  He replies, “Oh, no my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard.” I burst into tears, much to the alarm of my husband.  I’d completely forgotten that my dad used to say that when I was growing up all the time.  At that moment, with that wave of memory of being 6, 12, 17, 20, and having my crazy, dramatic dad say those words just did me in.  Sucker-punched.  Another time happened last summer when I was shopping at Old Navy.  They were honoring the military, and there was a young man in the Army there in uniform.  He had eyes like Matt’s, and Matt was in the Army.  The last picture I saw of Matt was in uniform.  KaBAM!  Tears in line at Old Navy…just let me get to my car, just get me to my car. When it comes to my best friend’s pain, it’s too personal to even write about…it just hurts like hell.  Pictures of her friend, so young and gorgeous are usually enough to bring me to tears.  It’s not fair.

My assignment at work is changing, and I won’t be working at the high school next year. I’ve had the true pleasure of working with some amazing kids with some pretty heavy burdens to carry, as young as they are.  They are things most of us can’t even begin to imagine.  In any case, I only have three more days with them before I have to say goodbye, and they’ll work with someone new next year, a wonderful person who I completely trust.  However, I’ve been taking it hard.  It took me a little while to figure out why, but I have.  I started at this school after dad died, after his old high school students talked at his memorial about what an impact he had on their lives.  Some of his students graduated high school before I was even born, yet there they were at his memorial, talking about him as though they’d just had him as a teacher.  It wasn’t conscious on my part, but I think as I started this position at this particular school the fall after he died, I wanted to honor him by trying as hard as I could to connect with these kids.  I want to make him proud; I want to have made an impact and to have these kids remember me in the same way his students remembered him.  Somehow having this part of my job come to an end means letting a little more of him go. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but that’s exactly how it feels. In working with teenagers, I felt like he was right there, cheering me on.  What’s irrational about this, of course, is that I know he’s proud of me in what I do.  He always was, it doesn’t matter what the exact capacity is.  He knew how much I love kids, and how I’ve dedicated my professional life to at least attempting to help them.  Yet, it still feels like I’m having to say goodbye to him again in a way.  Grief, in its sneaky, mean-hearted way, has made sure that the only person I really want to talk to about having to move on from these kids is my father.  He’d understand how I feel…he does understand.  So do many other important people in my life, but grief has made sure he’s the one I want to talk to the most.

I really wish, as this very brave author of “The Long Goodbye” has done, that our society would start to recognize and talk about grief openly.  The one thing I know for sure is that none of us will ever escape it, it’s just a matter of when we’ll have to experience it.  I have friends who have lost children….children.  I have absolutely no idea how they didn’t just crumple, boneless in the corner, and die there.  That is a loss I can’t fathom, I truly can’t.  I think all parents do, in their nightmares.  These friends of mine amaze me, and I admire their strength every day.  At some point, my children will have to live without me.  My husband may too, or I may have to live without him.  I still have my mom here, thank God, but she won’t be here forever.  My in-laws are all here and healthy, but no one lasts forever.  Again, I can’t think about losing more friends, but we’ll all have to go at some point. It’s such a solid, un-yielding part of being human…we all have to lose people. You never know how hard it will hit until it happens.

The bright side is this:  I notice beauty in a way I never have before.  I absolutely revel and cling to small moments of joy, things I would have thought nothing about before.  I was in Lake Tahoe last weekend, and spent a fair amount of time in absolute awe of its brilliance.  On the drive home, alone, I exclaimed out loud several times, “Oh my God, look at that!”  We’ve had late storms here, and then it warmed very quickly.  As a result, there were waterfalls absolutely everywhere. Yesterday I went with my 11 year old daughter to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with her 5th grade class.  The day was gorgeous, and this sounds nuts, but all the colors were brighter than I remember.  The ocean, the clouds, the jellyfish, they all looked almost fake in their vividness.  She had never been there before, and was so blown away by the things we saw.  “Mom!  Come over here! This is the coolest thing EVER!” She was right too, it was the coolest thing ever. 

Life is the coolest thing ever.  Live it.