Grief’s Tentacles

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No matter how prepared you are for it, Grief hits you like the blast of a furnace door opened in the middle of a snowstorm.  That difference in temperature is a shock, an uncomfortableness that prickles your skin and nauseates.  You’re constantly trying to catch up, get on an even keel, regain your footing.  And it doesn’t come.  Even someone who has been languishing between worlds for months, years, who abused you or beat you, or conversely, who adored you and thought you walked on water – when they go, when it happens, you’re different.  Immediately.  Nothing is ever the same again.  It becomes a watershed moment where everything is then measured against it – post-Loved-One.  It leaves these waves, tsunamis, actually,  that come at the most unlikely and unwelcome times.  Sometimes it’s a vise grip on your heart that wrenches brutal wracking sobs that have no sound, they just make your body heave, that awkward keening, and the tears pop out of your eyes so hard they splash feet ahead of you; sometimes it’s a feather, tickling the bottom of your heart with poignancy and softness, causing whimpers and mews, and sometimes, most of the time, it’s a stone, heavy with loss and darkness, sitting on your chest, weighing you down like a millstone on your soul, threatening to hurtle you into the chasm; that abyss of nothing – no light, no feeling, no sound.

It is useless saying to siblings or other family members that you know what they’re feeling.  They don’t know what you’re feeling either.  Empathy is just a word we use to keep connected to one another.  We may have experience with the circumstance, but it is completely different to each who goes through it.  We each meant something different to the person that was lost, we each had a different relationship to them.  That’s the curse (and sometimes the blessing) of being human – we never ever truly know exactly what another human being is thinking.  We just can’t.  We can’t crawl up into that consciousness and think their thoughts.  Even people who say they are telepathic – reading another person’s mind doesn’t give you any more insight to who they are – it’s just the words they haven’t spoken.  Their soul, their spirit, is as private as the darkness.  So when that soul, that spirit, exits this plane, it’s that light, that anima, if you will, that we miss.  This is one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to see my father after he was gone.  I knew that it wasn’t him anymore.  I knew the thing that made him, him, was gone. What was left was just his shell, his husk, his house where he lived for 75 years, 5 months and 24 days.  I would have been more disturbed had he actually looked like I remembered – then I would have known it was a mistake.  As I touched him, his hands were cold, they didn’t reach for mine, his skin didn’t react when I touched it.  He was gone.

The friends that I have through my program have taught me so much.  One of them lost her mother and her brother within a year of each other.  The first was expected, the other, tragically.  She spoke of the privilege of being in the room with her mom when she passed.  To see the whole family gathered beside her, sending her love, knowing that her journey elsewhere was about to begin, and not be sad about it.  To witness the human being who had given birth to them, take her last breath, and to be grateful for that awesome gift.

Stupidly, I was hoping for something like that when Dad passed.  I wanted to be there, but I know now that it was OK that I wasn’t.  My niece whispered a message to him that I was on my way, and to please wait, but he couldn’t.  He was tired, and I knew that.  My mom and my sister were there when he went.  I am grateful they were there, so that he wasn’t alone, and that it was peaceful.

I used to be so afraid of death – like it was some sneaky bastard watching me and counting the minutes till I was his.  (There’s a Mr. Death at the door – oh, it was the Salmon Mousse? I’m FRIGHTFULLY embarrassed!) I used to be afraid of succeeding, or being too happy, or loving too much – because I was sure that Death was waiting to spring like a cat and devour me.  So I stay just in the middle – not too happy, not too successful, not loving too much – just enough.  Enough to be alive but not really to live, not to suck the marrow out of life and feel accomplishment and satisfaction that the day ended well.  There’s always something I could have done better, someone I could have loved more, some task I could have tried harder at.  I foolishly thought that Death would come later for those who don’t expect too much out of life, don’t live, don’t take risks, just survive.  The people who enjoy their lives always get cut short, in my world.

I remember this so vividly, like it was yesterday – in Grade 8 religion class, being with these kids I’d been with since kindergarten, who already thought I was weird, a freak – our teacher asked us, “when would you like to die? When you’re young, after your prime, or old age?” Every single person in that room, save myself, answered, “Old age.” When the teacher asked me what I said, and I replied, “after my prime” the room erupted in derisive laughter.  After he quieted the class, he asked me why, and I said, “I would rather die after my prime than sit thinking about yesterday as an old woman.  And besides, I could not hit my prime till I’m 80!”  Yup.  Definite weirdo.

Program has helped me become OK with Death.  Sometimes it’s tragic, sometimes it’s wistful, but always, always – it’s inevitable.  It’s what you do with the days in between birth and stepping off the curb in front of that bus that are important.  Cleaning up the wreckage of my past and continuing to try to keep my side of the street clean helps not have that fear.  I didn’t feel any remorse or pain that I didn’t get to say what I needed to say to my dad before he went.  I had already said it.  He knew me, warts and all.  He fathered me.  He gave me my love of traveling, of meeting people and conversing with strangers (in other words, friends I hadn’t met yet). There were probably many more things we could have talked about, and I wish that there had been that time.  There wasn’t.  That’s the thing I most regret.  I wish for more time.

Bon Mots & Assets

Lamott Bon Mot

I love pointed bon mots such as that one above. It puts it all in perspective when I am struggling to be on whatever side I am hoping to be on. Do I go with my family, who raised me and who love me (in their sick, twisted alcoholic way), or do I find my own voice and just tell the truth as I know it? I’m going with – b. Let me tell you why.

I got married almost 6 years ago. 5 years ago we had a wedding. The two events were about 9 months apart. The first we did for ourselves, and to get me legal (that’s another story). The second we did for God, our friends, and family (in that order). We wanted to share our joy. That’s the only reason. To let the people who had got us to that place, be thanked and celebrate with us. When someone really close to you does the whole “your wedding” thing with you, and says it, with the quotes, in a sarcastic voice, it kinda pisses me off. Because I’m a newbie at this standing up for myself thing. I still have a tendency to get caught up in everyone else’s shit and take what they say as gospel. Particularly if they are related to me. But I think God blessed me with a photographic (and audiographic) memory for such a reason: to write this shit down. Bon mots or not, if there is 7 billion other people in the world than me, and alcohol is still being consumed in some of these families, someone else is going through this shit. So, if I can put aside my own fear and rejection, and fear of rejection, and simply tell what happened, maybe, just maybe, someone else will feel strength and relate in some way. And not feel so utterly alone, like I did, for a long time.

While I never expected it to be easy, and I never expected it to go well, I certainly didn’t think that in talking to my Dad before I left (with him being so sick) would elicit someone absolutely losing their shit on me, tearing strips off of me, and ending with being called “a fucking cunt” in front of both my parents. Kudos to my program though. It allowed me to stand there in that horribleness, to listen to what the person was saying, wade through the bullshit, identify the parts that were true, take responsibility for those, and then say, “I came here to talk to my Dad, not you, so if you are finished…”

My program is also what enables me to look past my own grief, and fear, and anger, at my Dad’s illness, and look with compassion and empathy for the rest of the family, who don’t have recovery or tools to fall back on. To see them lash out at each other over the smallest things, which is really not what they’re pissed off at, but they can’t say the truth. To see the pain on my sibling’s faces as we watch my Dad shrink into COPD and liver failure (or maybe whatever other illness is going on that he won’t confide in us about); going from a hale and hearty steel worker that smoked two packs of Sweet Caps a day and drank beer like a champ, tempered with good scotch shots, who had a halo of white hair by the time he was 35, coupled with sea-blue eyes that went right through you. He played soccer, walked everywhere, and like Michelangelo with marble, he could see what was in wood while others just saw fuel for the fire.

I had a chance to sit down with my Dad and ask him how he got interested in woodworking. I firmly believe that all types of creativity, whether they be musical, written, with your hands or your mind, are passed down. This man could put together a gourmet meal out of apples, peanut butter, cheese, and celery. Arrange it on a plate so that you thought you were eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant instead of the kitchen table. My Dad emigrated from Scotland before he turned 25. I find it hard to believe that at that age, he had been married for 5 years, and had two daughters – when I was 25, I had graduated college, and was trying to find my way in my adopted city of Boston. He started working at Stelco, the Steel Company of Canada, as a millwright, which he had gotten his trade in. At age 31 or 32, he fell from a platform at work, and broke his ankle. No, wait, not broke. I don’t even think shattered is the right word. They stopped counting at 19 different breaks. It required him to be in a toe-to-hip cast and put an end to soccer. It also put him in the Worker’s Compensation Board rehabilitation clinic for 6 months. That blew my mind. I was very young, probably a year to 18 months old, and I obviously don’t remember him being out of the house for that long or what the rest of the family did while he was there. But it was there that he was encouraged to make use of his time by finding woodwork. Much like patients in other facilities learned leather work or ceramics or something, my dad learned pretty much by himself how to measure, cut and finish projects with wood. We had a kitchen dining set that he made by himself. It was a corner storage unit, two benches for each wall, and a table with two straight edges forming a right angle bordered with a curved third edge.

My Dad was pretty handy with anything he touched. I think he had so much going on in his mind that he got overwhelmed, like the best of us. Often projects would sit unfinished or take a long time to finish. We put a fireplace in our living room and didn’t have the mortar and stone up on it one Christmas, so my Dad stapled the Christmas cards we received to it. The whole face was covered. When it came time to re-do my room, after both my siblings moved out, I got to pick the paint and the carpet. I helped to peel wallpaper (the baby-shit brown and yellow plaid-flowered one), spackle the numerable holes from my posters, and sand it and prep for the paint. I picked a pastel shade of mint green, with matching comforter and curtains. The carpet was beige with a few hints of tan through it. I got a new mate’s bed (with the set of drawers below it) and loved it, even though it was too short for me and my feet hung over the end. It was white with gold metal pull handles and a decoupaged flower posy by each handle. My dad then painted my dresser a bright white glossy enamel to match. And when the top didn’t turn out how he wanted, he cut a piece of smoked glass and put it on the top to fit perfectly. My Grama’s vintage mirror hung above the dresser, an ornate antiqued gold-framed one with heavy, true mirror glass that I loved. It was my skinny mirror. It broke about three months ago; the heavy string finally gave out. I chastise myself for not replacing that with heavy-gauge wire. I kept all the broken glass so that I can make some kind of montage mosaic out of it. Good luck finding someone who can replace that glass. I think it was from the 20s or 30s.

Anyway, that room was my growing up room, with my calm green walls and my stereo holder made from wood planks and bricks. I would turn on my Styx albums, or Chilliwack or Burton Cummings, and serenade myself in the mirror, trying out funky makeup or clothes. It was magic. The windows and that mirror would rattle every Sunday when I got older, and chose to spend an extra hour in bed rather than go to Church with my parents. “Heathen!” my Mum would loudly shout as she slammed the door in disapproval. I would have one hour to myself. To daydream, sleep, fantasize about my grown-up life. I stopped dancing in the front room when my own room was finished. You see, we had one of those all-in-one stereos with a lid that lifted up and you could listen to records, the radio, or an 8-track. I would put my records on and sing and dance in front of the mirror tiles my dad put up in an arch on one of the walls, with the wood-paneling accent. Several of my parents’ friends would remark to them they saw me dancing and acting out through the front window, so I chose to take it behind closed doors.

If I could go back to the kid I was at 11, 12, 13 and beyond, I would let her know that it is all happening for a reason. All the shit that brews and gets thrown your way prepares you somehow for adulthood. What you think is a defect ends up being an asset. I was cooking very early in my teen years, and although that seemed like I wasn’t being taken care of to me, I am now an amazing cook and it has served me well. When my mum was going through a breakdown, she had me read to her. I was terrified, and didn’t know what was going on in the house or with my family, and really, what I wanted was my mum to read to me, or even better, to sing to me. But she would curl up on my bed, cover herself with a blanket, take her thick glasses off, and listen to me read to her. It soothed her, calmed her, and you know what? It made me a fantastic reader. I devoured books. I remember once in grade school, I read an entire paperback in a day. Took it out from the library in the morning and brought it back in the afternoon to get a new one. The librarian didn’t believe I had read it and quizzed me on what had gone on in it. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I answered every single one of her questions, and she waved her hand in a gesture to open the library to me again, and said, “Very good.”