Thursday, May 27, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
The final part to my letter...
I also think experiencing grief has allowed me a greater joy for what I do still have. At a certain point after he died life returned somewhat to normal again. And now my new normal is knowing that sometimes I am sad that my father died, sometimes telling people about him, sometimes being angry at him or selfishly want to talk to him and have a wise mind to bounce things off of. Normal also just means doing regular things too and not thinking about him at all, like working or talking with friends or going to church. I feel that the majority of that first year I waded through death, through the dark places, through questions and injustice, and through the feeling of things being “cut short.” But there is something different now, like I can experience moments of joy and really embrace them in a way I couldn’t before. It isn’t just that ticking clock that is gone, although that does change things for sure, and mostly it’s a relief not to hear it all the time. It’s like, when my husband and I really connect or I get really excited about the baby that is ready to come in June or something really amazing happens with my church body or my friends I can really praise God for those moments because I know that they are fleeting but they are those same things that are little pieces of me (and them) that are impressed on each other for this short time we have on earth that no one else can share. Those are the same things I hold dear even now with my father... the days we could fit side by side in a big arm chair and watched TV, how I used to try to lace up his work boots for him in the morning as a young child, the first time he taught me to make coffee, our frustrating adventures of me learning to drive, our recent trip to the Gorge with the dogs.
I can’t say grieving is all over. Just this morning I was thinking of him when I was making breakfast and wishing he would have eaten healthier to perhaps lower his likelihood of getting cancer or increase the quality of his last years of life. Things pop up at church a lot too, like last week when we talked about the healing that Jesus did of the man at the well and how my father and our whole family prayed for years for healing and it never happened. I cried like a baby and in my heart I wondered why some are healed and some live a crippling painful death that lasts for years. I guess in some sense I resolve that by being grateful that God allowed for us to have more time with him on earth to enjoy before he died. But I still miss him. Sometimes Donovan says something about my behavior (like stubbornness or impatience, traits that many women in my family have not just me) and says something about empathizing with my dad for dealing with us all for so many years and I am somehow softened and warmed by my dad showing up in our day.
Grief has been quite the journey. It is messy and so not easily categorized as some clinicians may explain it to be. I was all over the board in those five years. And in the aftermath in the last 14 months I have experienced new feelings I never new I had in me and old feelings that have been there in this whole process too. At first I made long lists of why he got cancer, I worried about getting it myself and about my children getting cancer one day. I blamed his work, I blamed him, and I blamed God. I tried being normal and moving forward with life as if nothing was wrong, I tried processing how it had taken a toll on me and even saw a therapist for a long period of time specifically about how this was changing our family system, and I tried being intentional with him. The truth is, we can do all we can do to prepare ourselves for death but we can never really accept it, we can never really feel okay with it. My pastor at the time of my father’s death shared with me a scripture that comforted me saying essentially that... that on this earth there is pain and death and injustice but in heaven it is different because God brings completion and wholeness. So our humanity has us right on target, it feels bad, it feels undone, and that’s okay. So maybe I will always feel that... I’ll feel sad my child doesn’t get to meet it’s maternal grandfather, I’ll feel sad that my father’s life was mostly work and no retirement, I’ll feel sad we never grew into a good adult parent/child relationship, but the good news is that with God there is wholeness and completion and all the things we long for because God longs for those things too.
I hope this helps piece a few things together as far as how I have traveled this road of grief thus far and gives you some real life material to use for class.
Peace to you in your own journey, as I know it is a difficult road.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
My father had a hard time with his mother. He was always in contact with his parents and they all lived in the Portland area their whole lives. I think he wanted to be a good parent because he knew he didn’t get the kind of emotional support that he needed from his parents. But something about being raised the way he was made him unsure at the same time, not confident that he was doing parenting right, not fully able to let go and be honest with me and my siblings, never able to say “I’m sorry” or show weakness. Death opened up this big door for me and I feel like in a few ways, I know my father more fully and cohesively now than I did when he was alive. The pieces of how his childhood affected our parent/child relationship became clearer. I started to see how complicated it was to be raising adult children while he was managing a very difficult adult child/parent relationship himself. As a family therapist I feel enriched by learning more about our family dynamics and history in this last year in a way that people are not open to talking about unless someone has died. But no one in the profession really wants to know personally even if there is benefit in being able to empathize with others, because it means you have to walk that hard road yourself. In addition to the family piece, I heard many stories at his funeral and in the week before the funeral as visitors came to my mom’s house from his friends, coworkers, old high school buddies, etc. I was starting to see that there were things that everyone knew: he loved people and hearing people’s stories, he never complained about his cancer or aches and pains and almost to a fault did not let others be burdened by his pain, he loved his family and loved telling others about family events, and he was a very ethical man and worker. There was so much freedom for me in knowing that others knew this too.
The day that he died we were called at 3 or 4am. We were asked to meet my mom at the house... the worst request ever. That meant there was an emergency that couldn’t wait until morning, and that meant that he wasn’t being rushed to the hospital. I had stayed up the night before researching furniture on the internet and I nervously told Donovan about all the strange Craigslist discoveries I had made, trying to put out of my mind the urgency, the car ride, the possibilities. We were both in our pajamas. I could tell Donovan was really concerned by the look on his face and by a few things he said to try to snap me out of my chatter, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be and I didn’t want to until I really knew. I remember having this urge to yell at Donovan once we got within a mile or so, JUST GO FASTER. But I didn’t say anything, I knew it was crazy and that nothing could make it better. I ran from the car when we got there and my brother in laws were both outside looking sad and saying I should go inside. From there I can’t remember anything. I think my mother told me he died and I yelled some questions back at her very harshly and she held me while I cried. At one point the funeral home was called and we were given a chance to say our goodbyes to his body before they came. I hated to see him dead but I sat there for a long time. I thought, in my denial and fear, that I saw him breathing and that there was something we could do. I tried to tell others but they told me I was imagining it. I remember after that sitting there and thinking how very strange it was that he was not looking back at me. I had never sat with my father before and tried to make eye contact and gotten back a distant stare. In the following days I asked questions about everything, and I was stuck on what could have been done to avoid his death that night. Although when I thought about it I knew that if he had lived it would eventually happen anyway.
That first day I saw his clothes folded up from the day before with his change in his pocket. I saw all the food he liked in the fridge and felt strange when I sat down in his favorite chair as a few guests arrived at the house. I think I went into a frozen mode. I called everyone in the phone book on my mom’s behalf and told them the news and how to contact us about funeral information. The first call was hard but after that I became fine at it. I was surprised at how childish some of these big parental figures were when I spoke to them on the phone. I was surprised that they needed me to say he is in a better place without pain; they needed to be sad and told that it was okay. Somehow this was easier than seeing someone a year later who had not heard the news (an acquaintance of ours from my elementary school days). She simply asked “how are your mother and father?” and I cried, not knowing what to say. I eventually got out that my dad had died a year earlier but I felt embarrassed that it made me cry right there in public. It was fresh all over again.
The numbness and dark cold feeling lasted that whole week after he died. I saw my most favorite sight in Portland and the only thing I could think was that my father loved and served this whole city (as a PGE worker) for his whole life and because of that I wanted to leave. I remember feeling so sad for a few days and then the first time I laughed I was in the car with my sister and I felt bad for laughing. How could I laugh again? My emotions were all over the place, and I was not myself. My mother tried to reach out to me once at the funeral home saying “you never got to grow old having a father” and I shut her down with no remorse; I didn’t even ask my husband how he was doing until days later; I broke down uncontrollably at a family dinner and didn’t stop crying for over a half hour. I lived in this weird week where time was not real and where I wanted to change it and go back one week so badly. I didn’t want the funeral to come because I wanted to process it all. I wanted the space to think. But eventually it did come. And the funeral ended up to be so very comforting. I saw others pain and loss which was so unique from mine and I realized I was not the only one hurting. It was a celebration for me to laugh and cry and to remember with a big room of other people who all had their own stories and experiences with him. I especially wondered how his mother felt being there or his older cousins and aunts and uncles, those who remembered him being born and a young child only to die at 53.
For months I was stuck on what he didn’t get in life by dying young. He was such a hard worker and wanted to enjoy retirement and never got there. I was stuck on the injustice of death. It added fuel to the fire that in the company that he was so devoted to, several other men in his line of work (working on high powered electricity lines) also got cancer but the company did not take responsibility for the cancer or deaths. I did think about eternity in the early days after he died, but having some distance from the grief I can see that his experience in heaven is far greater than any unfinished or unfair thing that happened on earth. I thought those things then but I couldn't really understand it like I do now with some distance.
When I think about what all this experience has given me I think it has made the circle of life more clear to me. I can see how family patterns can be passed down from generation to generation and how fragile the human spirit is. I can also see that there is so much to still want from life here on earth, that nothing is perfect, and in knowing that, it’s pretty freeing because we can hope in God and not this world and can look forward to our time with God, our communion, after we die. I think my dad really loved his family although he couldn’t always show it, and I think, praise God, because when we get to heaven all of those inadequacies and worries and fears and self doubt and unfinished parts of our inner person will be complete in God. How very beautiful. I am so glad my father has that and can be free.
Monday, May 24, 2010
I will say, being a newlywed has been a hard dynamic in the midst of this grief. I love my husband. He is open and honest with me like no one else has been and in many ways I feel has been God’s gift to me to show me that a man can be open and loving since I didn’t always see that in my father. But there were nights when I cried myself to sleep after my father died. I felt guilty sometimes when I did it, like I wanted to just stop and let Donovan be enough for me. But my heart was so torn, so sad, so very bruised. And it didn’t feel like that would ever go away. My father was my friend. There was something about our friendship that no one else in the world could give me, and for that I cried. I grieved the loss because it could never be given back to me, it could never grow and continue, and I feared it would eventually even be erased from my own memory. My dad and I laughed together in a way that my husband doesn’t truly see as funny, I guess in a cynical way, in a so-sad-you-have-to-laugh kind of way. There is something about our person that is similar, something that is alike, something that through being socialized by him or being born from his blood makes me like him. I can’t help but have his sense of humor, and I can’t make Donovan have it when he doesn’t. I grieved that being gone. I grieved all the little tiny things I remembered us doing together as a child and I guess I was happy to have those moments and sad that the person who they were created with was gone forever. I was so sad that no more memories could be made.
There was a hope in me for a while that things would go on as normal. For so long we got used to “things being really serious” that we didn’t get phased by it as much anymore. My dad would go through a long and hard surgery and we would all pray for him and call him and check up on him when we could, but we knew that as it had been in the last few years that he would be fine and life would still limp along. Eventually he would do less but still participate. He drove us to the mountain as a family once a year, but he would ski a half day instead of a whole day. He would work until the end of his work day (3pm) but not work any overtime. He would come to family events but sit in a chair. I think towards the end of his life I got even less sentimental because one just gets tired of worrying themselves silly for over five years. It wasn’t conscious, but I thought he would always be there. Although when it came to big decisions I always remembered him and worried about his cancer and if he would be around. I moved back to Portland after graduate school was done and even rushed the process by a few months saying it was because I couldn’t find a job in Portland as a therapist and wanted to get the ball rolling. Really, I was afraid that time was running out. Several people in my church community didn’t understand why I left LA and did so quickly. I think that was one of the smartest things I did for myself in this whole process. Just four months after my move up my father died. Those four months were such a precious and fun time. I worked odd hours and had the time to come to see him at least once a week. He would take me out to eat because he doesn’t cook and I didn’t have the money to treat myself out. We would talk about very basic stuff, but it was just good to be together. I imagined (after he died) that if we had more time we would go on growing as adults in this more “equal” type of relationship, co-adults, although me always knowing that he was my father. This is more than a friend because he knew me at my birth and through every single step until the moment he died. A kind of friend that knows you like that I guess can really say what they think and you have to listen because they have such a deep context for relating to you. That’s the piece that I’m talking about when I say that Donovan didn’t really perfectly fill that grief, because although he has known me in a different way and known me for several years, there is something he can never know completely and that many cannot know, and that died and was buried the day that my father died.
So moving forward after his death is very painful. He was so interested in my decision-making as a young adult. He wouldn’t impose but he would share his concerns. He worried at times that we were too young to be married, that we didn’t have enough money to make it, and that whatever challenge we went through might break us instead of make us stronger. So the first time I moved apartments after he died I cried, knowing that he had helped me hang some practical things on the walls and helped put the pieces of our bed frame together. Once I undid them I knew I could never again say “my dad helped me do that.” The first time I got a job after he died I knew that he would love to talk to me about how it was going, and although some people in my life did that it didn’t replace his curiosity and the conversation that only he and I could have had about it. And by far the hardest thing was finding out I was pregnant almost exactly six months after his death. I was surprised at the news and so happy. But a part of me was so sad to know that my father would never become a grandfather. Moving on meant that I had to learn to make decisions and changes without him there to catch me in case something went terribly wrong. It felt venerable but it also felt good, it felt adult, it felt right for Donovan and I to stand as our own family even though it was kind of forced.
Friday, May 21, 2010
It’s been a year and two months since my father died, and only now can I bring myself to say something solid about what death is, how I have grieved, or who my father is to me. I found out in August 2003 that he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and that in only 5% of the cases similar to his would he live longer than five years. It was more than likely that he would live less than that time, and since then there was a terrible ticking clock at every holiday, every birthday, every graduation, every Monday morning, every turn of a chapter that this could be the last time he was with us.
It is hard to live in transition in your teens and early twenties with so much changing to feel so grounded by something like your father’s impending death. My family did not really want me to move to LA for graduate school, but on the outside they were excited for me. I think everyone including myself wondered how I would cope if he died while I was away at school. One time I was deep in my spring term school work and my father was scheduled for a spur of the moment and very serious surgery. I struggled for a week to figure out what to do and then bought a plane ticket even though we had so little money and flew to Portland not knowing if he would even be alive when I got there. The odd thing was he was happy to have me there as a distraction and pretended that I wasn’t there because of the surgery. We went out to dinner. I have a picture of us there. In all of his pictures there is so much underneath the surface. If I look back at our family photos in the last five years I see his pain, his excitement to be with us, our fear that this can’t last forever, our joy that we have at least that moment, and all of us wanting it just to be normal.
When I worked as a therapist in graduate school all of this was going on... the ticking clock, the fear that I would miss something, the rest of life that was exciting and moving at a fast pace, the love that I had for my father, the anger that I had at him for not being honest with me about how he was doing physically, the sadness for the things I wanted from him as a child that I knew I would never get if he died now. By a strange set of circumstances I was offered a position working with cancer patients and their families. Some of them during the last stages of life, others in the early parts of grieving a death. I was very honest that I was sorting through those things myself and told my colleagues of my father, some of my own challenges in my family because of it, and how it affected my work. At that point I had been living with and processing my father’s illness for nearly four years, learning how to talk to people about how he was doing and how they could pray when I wasn’t even really sure what was going on with him. At times I felt like ignoring my parents and moving on with life, at other times I was more sensitive and worried and tried to reach out and help. Over those years I felt like my father wanted to keep things a secret and live life without us worrying but I felt pushed away. I remember one of the concepts in our counseling work at that agency sticking with me during the last years of my dad’s life “a new normal.” They said that families dealing with cancer have such a different perspective, but they find their new normal and live in that and often can thrive.
Our new normal was so... us. My father lost his entire retirement in the Enron scandal in 2001 and for a short time was very angry and unapproachable about the topic. He was a Christian but was not the type to sort things out externally or talk to others... especially to family and especially about his faith dilemmas. At some point we all realized that his cancer made it impossible to ever earn back money enough to live into retirement. And I’m sure he realized that he wouldn’t live that long either. There wasn’t a big event that happened but eventually we got to laughing about Enron, about how it all went down, about how blind all of the employees felt, and how in the end, it doesn’t really matter. My dad talked to me one day about God’s judgment, about what I thought happened to people like Kenneth Lay, and about living in this world when we don’t actually see justice pull through. In this sense my father is a great pillar of faith to me that I can draw on even now, even though we couldn’t talk about faith together most of the time. I can put my tiny life trials into perspective when I know that he lived through great injustice and is now with God enjoying eternity without any of that bitterness on his radar. So I guess our new normal was a humor that only we could understand, an acceptance that life is life and that our narrative with God is so much greater, and that pain will be here (like cancer, like financial ruin, like wanting more from our families and knowing we can never have it).
to be continued...
Monday, May 17, 2010
So far the baby room is on it's way. It's at least walk-around-able and the basics are set up. Which makes me feel great. And we have a stroller and car seat in the car. So the hospital will let us take the baby home. Yea. Donovan has had several funny moments of "oh my gosh we're really going to be parents" lately. One was when he was assembling the crib and using a clean diaper to wipe down the crib wood. Oh my, how we never imagined our Saturday nights would be so exciting! :) And earlier today he tried to fit his laptop in the backseat and realized there was no room (car seat takes priority!) only to do the same thing a moment later in the trunk (oops, the stroller is there!). Life is changing. Or in his words, life has already changed.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Right now Donovan is surfing the internet looking up research stuff to finish off his capstone paper for his Master's degree. And I've been updating my baby registry and catching up on things.
Yea! This is a great day!