Sunday, April 25, 2010

Getting Nowhere and Liking It

Right around the time I started this blog, a friend told me that his wife was fighting cancer. Sadly, she passed away in early January and, since then, he’s been muddling through the ‘new normal’ with his two young children. This week I saw him in person for the first time since she died.

There’s a look to people who are grieving that’s hard to describe but easily recognized by everyone. He still takes up the same amount of space but seems lighter…like he’s floating outside of his body while the auto-pilot handles the social niceties. He hovers just slightly to the side of his former self. He makes people uneasy.

I asked him if he was feeling like a human again yet and he laughed. He said he couldn’t believe how much he hates work now and I laughed. We chuckled about the our new found surliness. All of this silliness made some of the other people in the room shoot me happy/panicked it’s-so-good-to-see-him-smile-again sort of looks. I’m not sure they would’ve smiled if they were within earshot.

One of them suggested that I take him to lunch, presumably to continue the ‘cheerification’ process and encourage his recovery (as if a recovery is a destination to be reached as quickly as possible).


June 2008
Church carnival beer garden, family snack break

I suppose the blond-haired, blue-eyed identical twin toddler girls who sat down next to us were cute and amusing. And that obscure pop song from the ‘60’s with our dead daughter’s name in it was an interesting choice for the suburban bar band providing the evening’s entertainment.

Luckily there was funnel cake on hand to prevent me from melting into a puddle of tears or erupting into deranged laughter (hard to tell in those days). I’m pretty sure deep-fried starch is the answer to most of the world’s problems.


April 2009
Cube farm @ unnamed government agency

My co-worker likely thought she was doing me a favor by telling me that another of our colleagues was expecting twins. I’m sure it was a courtesy to prevent my being blindsided at staff meeting or some other group event. I probably should have been appreciative but, I really just wanted to staple her mouth shut.

I don’t know what I said but I can remember that she looked a little bit like this so it probably wasn’t supportive/graceful/friendly/nice or whatever it is that people want to hear from the bereaved during these conversations.


April 2010
Conference Room – national bureaucratic meeting

“So, how are the girls?”

Girls? What girls could she possibly be asking about?

Now, in her defense, I did change jobs and move away shortly after my maternity leave but, it’s hard to believe that a woman who sat 15 feet away from me throughout my pregnancy could forget that we dropped from the plural to the singular.

So, I looked behind me to make sure she wasn’t talking to someone else and then just played it off and said that C is growing up fast.

A new member of our work circle who didn’t know me ‘before’ asked me if I had more than one.

“No, just one daughter.”

“I have 3. A daughter in college and twin girls in high school.”

“Wow, that must be interesting.”


The lunch appointment didn’t happen after all. We just sort of tagged along with the group and engaged in work-appropriate chit-chat. I’m sure some of our colleagues were disappointed by the apparent lack of coping. They're probably wondering how we'll ever cross the finish line if we don't get moving.

But there is no way to finish coping with loss.

First of all, R isn’t coming back and neither is W’s wife. It doesn’t matter if we react with tears, anger, or patience. We can’t earn them back by having just the right conversation at the salad bar or by being more considerate to our friends or by suffering or by giving up bad habits and staying upbeat.

Second, there will always be bizarre reminders and setbacks. I can imagine some distant future where my hoverboard or my flying car will make a sound just like the pump that delivered R's prostoglandin drip and my tears will stain my silver jumpsuit.

It’s forever. And there’s no getting over it or through it. All we can do is be patient and try not to get trapped underneath…and apply funnel cake as needed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I remember feeling extremely relieved that I still had all of my toes on my 10th birthday. The relief wasn't because of any imminent danger to my toes (frostbite, gangrene, flesh-eating athlete's foot, etc.) but rather, a reaction to a story I'd heard about one of the neighborhood dads who lost a few toes to a lawnmower at the age of 9. I spent my 9th year studiously avoiding open-toed shoes and naturally, lawnmowers, and convincing myself that if I could just make it one more year I'd get to keep all of my toes for the rest of my life.

I suppose I could dismiss the whole thing as nutty 9-year-old logic but I think I was onto something way back then. The world's a crazy, uncontrollable place and it feels good to put some boundaries around little pieces of it.

I think I owe y'all an apology for that last post. Having a whine about the unfairness of my FIL's mortality is pretty bad form. To be clear, I do care about my FIL and I want him to live a long and happy life and I don't think that everything's about me. I'm going to have to break one my blog rules to explain myself. So, another apology to FIL for oversharing.

The diagnosis FIL received from his doc was stage 4 metastatic melanoma. This is the same diagnosis my father got 10 years ago and the same disease that eventually killed him. So, I took an unpleasant little trip down memory lane with a little side trip into despairing-mama land. Two grandfathers with melanoma isn't good news for C or for her over-protective mother.

I've spent the last 2.5 years minimizing risks to C's health and well-being. We spent months -2 through 7 on almost complete lockdown to avoid RSV exposure. During the cruising months we attached the furniture to the walls to prevent tipping and crushing. We don't permit bike-riding without a helmet, car-riding without a car seat, or uninhibited furniture jumpery. I'm sure that much eye-rolling and head shaking goes on behind our backs but we tend to ignore parenting opinions on this subject from folks who've never had a play date at the funeral home.

It's deeply troubling (in a Grendel's Mama sort of way) to think that life-sustaining sunshine could do my daughter in...even if it's fifty-odd years from now.

The good news is that I abandoned my initial plan to detonate a nuclear warhead inside the sun (you know, because the sun actually does more good than harm). But, I'm afraid that I may owe an apology to the people of Iceland and all of the folks stranded in European airports for that enormous cloud of ash that may or may not have been caused by a request I made to various volcano-related deities for some assistance with blotting out the sun during summer 2010.

Now you may be thinking, "TracyOC, you don't have the power to cause major geological catastrophes with your mind." And for the most part I agree. After all, I just did a little hunting around on the internets and didn't actually organize a ceremony or anything. And I have fairly solid proof that you don't always get what you ask for--even if you ask many times with great fervor. But I was also raised in a one-true-god culture in a volcano-less part of the world so I don't really know how it works.

I'd imagine things are pretty slow in the volcano god/goddess offices in this age of scientific discovery. Pele and company probably spend most of their days sitting around playing pinochle--all dressed up and nowhere to go like immortal Maytag repairmen. They were probably thrilled to get my request and jumped on it ASAP. Meanwhile, in the seriously ill child department...

I keep trying to figure out the secret to carefree living. Did I forfeit any chance when I became a mother? Am I genetically predisposed to worry or have I just seen too much bad news lately? Maybe there's no such thing as carefree for any of us.

And so, I'm sorry for last week's selfish rant and for the havoc that I may or may not have caused. I bought some broad-brimmed toddler hats and long-sleeved swimsuits yesterday so the world is now safe.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Resilience

On my walk to the train yesterday a squirrel fell from the sky. Well, judging from the scrabbling noise I heard from above, he probably fell from a tree limb, but it was still startling. He didn't even try to get his feet under him. He just hit the sidewalk about 4 feet in front of me, lying on his side. I heard a tiny crack as he made contact with the pavement.

As I watched him fall I had one of those thought avalanches where I pictured myself splinting his tiny legs and cursed myself for not knowing if the new recommendations about rescue breathing during CPR applied to rodents. Before I could react, however, he was off, frisking about with his squirrel buddies, keeping pace with them in spite of his recent shock.

Maybe that's how it is with squirrels. They can afford all of their high-flying daredevilry because they're built to take a licking. Or maybe he ran because his little squirrel brain didn't know what else to do and just kept him going until he dropped.

Either way, it was an impressive display of resilience—equal parts foolhardy and admirable.

We found out this week that T's dad is sick. It's not really my story to tell so I'll keep it short. The prognosis isn't good.

I have to admit that I was feeling inappropriately smug about the future or at least about the remainder of 2010. I'd rediscovered my capacity for foresight and had visions of the leisurely contemplation of nothing in particular.

The past several years have been tightly managed in these parts. A forced march onward, upward, above through regimented activity. Somewhere in my mind lurks the rock-solid belief that our salvation, our return to normalcy, lies in whiter socks and more orderly closets. Or perhaps it's about not slipping further down the slope.

But this spring was gonna be all about relaxation and unlimited potential—thoughts and possibilities flitting about like tiny yellow butterflies while we sit back decide whether or not to chase them.

In mixed company I'll say all of the right things about hope and positive thoughts. We'll put our trust in the doctors and fix our faith firmly in place. But privately I can't muster a positive view. Instead I'm sitting in the family room of an ICU, I'm watching my mother-in-law sign a DNR order, I'm choosing pictures for a memorial service and taking ownerless shoes to a thrift shop. I can't even feel amazed that I don't dread these things anymore.

People who haven't experienced loss or watched someone suffer through a serious illness might think I'm callous and unhelpful but I know everyone reading here understands. There are lessons that can't be unlearned.

And resilience has a dark side.