A dear friend told me that she loved when I posted things that really helped her learn about me. This piece may not be the best. It may ramble, it may be too long and it may mean nothing to most, but it means something to me because it is a part of me.
October. Yes, that’s the month we’re in. It’s also the most difficult month of the year for me. You’ll understand why by the end of this post, but for now, I have to provide you with a little background. Last Tuesday at work, during our monthly all-staff meeting, we had a training about grief. A woman who truly understood the meaning of loss delivered the training. Her husband died on Christmas day. He left her with a four-year-old and they were expecting their second son. I can’t imagine. She talked about the work she did with a company called Fernside. The company’s website says, “a non-profit organization offering support and advocacy to grieving families who have experienced a death.” She explained that grief isn’t merely the result of the death of someone in one’s life and it doesn’t only manifest in days of sobbing into one’s pillow. My coworkers and I are all too aware of the angry, rude, threatening, mental breakdown, and manic manifestations of grief. And not grief from the death of a loved one: the parents we work with have lost their children to a system they feel is out to get them. Reality is just individual perception: grief is all about loss in your reality. This is about loss in my reality: first grief, biggest grief, and current grief.
When I was ten, my Pop lost his battle with brain cancer. He was, in my ten-year-old reality, the best person to ever walk the face of the planet. He was a Penn State grad and had been in the Navy for what seemed like a lifetime. As early as six-years-old, I memorized that the Pop that existed before me was a Master Chief Electrician on the USS Sam Rayburn, a nuclear class submarine, and was the Chief of the Boat of the Gold Crew (that’s the highest you can get if you’re enlisted in the Navy). The Pop I knew was a teacher at the local vocational school. He was tall and smart. He danced with me standing on the tops of his feet to Elvis Presley’s “Falling in Love With You.” He knew someone everywhere we went. But the important thing was that he was MY Pop.
I was nine when I learned what cancer was. I knew it was in Pop’s brain. I knew there were several “tumors.” I learned about chemotherapy and radiation. Every night – every single one – I prayed over and over, “Please let Pop live one more Christmas. Please, please, please let Pop live one more Christmas.” What you don’t understand about Christmas at Pop and Grammy’s is this: miracles could happen then and there. My little heart just knew that if he lived until Christmas, everything would be ok. I was so sure he would live one more Christmas, all the Christmas crafts we made at school; I wrapped and put his name on.
When we had gone up at Thanksgiving, my Pop was his normal self. He was having some radiation treatments, but nothing outside the fatigue I was used to. Somewhere between the Thanksgiving and Christmas trip, I recall my mom telling me that Pop was not doing well. She tried to prepare me for what I would find when we made the nine to ten-hour trek to Pop and Grammy’s house over the river (the Susquehanna) and through the woods for the yuletide holiday, but the words in my head never made it to my heart. I was shocked to find him completely immobilized on the couch. He was nonverbal. He didn’t eat. He was weak. He would only take a few sips of Ensure for me. I recall on Christmas Eve, he kept trying to get up. Something was wrong and no one could figure out what he was trying to get up to do. Mom, Dad and Grammy huddled in the kitchen and discussed the possibilities. I don’t recall the conversation but I remember my Mom coming to me saying, “Pop always hid presents around the house and would put them under the tree on Christmas Eve. We think he knows they aren’t out and is trying to get them. Ask him if that’s what he’s doing and tell him we’ll look and find everything.” I walked through the dining room, across the living room and sat on the couch where his defeated body rested. His eyes bore through me as I repeated the instructed script. He sighed and closed his eyes. That night we found a scarf, diamond ring and a lapel pin for my Grammy.
He lived one more Christmas. He died on December 28, 1994; two days after we drove back to Cincinnati from Pop and Grammy’s house in Berwick, PA. Pop always said he would never go into a nursing home. He died while my Grammy was signing admission papers. My small ten-year-old mind had little understanding of loss. I was angry. I was the only person who had gifts for Pop under the tree. I thought he knew this and it may have made him feel like no one wanted him anymore. I understand now, the completely illogical process of this thought. That was the first time I saw my Dad cry. I still shutter at that thought. I have the most vivid memory of saying to my Mom, “Pop wouldn’t want us to cry,” and thinking, “But I just can’t hold it in.” I didn’t feel physical pain at the loss of my Pop. I was sad, but my brain wasn’t really able to comprehend the loss. My Grammy had lost her whole life in him. Helping to take care of her made it easier for me to survive. Just like one never forgets a first love, one never forgets first loss.
Today is the hardest day. Thirteen years ago, October 30th became the worst day of my life. I was sixteen and although I had experienced my fair share of loss at that point, I had no idea what I was in for. I was about to embark on a life long journey in cognizant grieving. With my Pop and other loss along the way, grieving was just being sad. This would be an entirely different beast because my brain was capable of processing it in a new and more complex way.
My Dad lost a long battle with brain cancer. The thing I remember most about the grief I experienced with the loss of my Dad was the physical pain. Put your hand in the middle of your chest, right where the CPR guys tell you to make your compressions. Move your hand up about two inches and to your right about two more. That’s where the pain is. It’s not a sharp pain. It’s more like an ache. I get that ache when I hear the Van Morrison song, “Into the Mystic.” That’s the song Dad and I would have danced to if he’d been alive when I got married.
I remember the tumors were pushing on the part of his brain effecting his sight and speech. He had double vision and had to wear an eye patch. This was tough at the grocery store because of those mid-aisle displays that he would run into from time-to-time. I would walk on the patch side so he would run into me instead. Near the end, there was very little Dad could say. Frequently, he said, “What’s up?” over and over. Parts of my days, at that time, were spent remembering every little thing so that when he asked, “What’s up?” I had something new to say. He got so skinny and he craved chocolate. One night, he wanted something specific to eat. As he was rarely hungry, we were planning on doing whatever it took to get him what he wanted. The trouble was, he couldn’t say what he wanted. The only descriptor he could get out was, “Like a cracker, but not a cracker.” We looked through EVERY cabinet, pulling everything off the shelves to see if that’s what it was. Someone finally said, “Cookie.” He yelled, “YES! COOKIE! With lots of chocolate.” From that day until he was gone, there was always a package of Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies in his immediate vicinity.
The week before he died, we were called to the hospital in the middle of the night because his breathing was shallow. I watched his chest go up and down all night. The next day, after school and cross county practice, we completed the new nightly ritual of going to my Dad’s house to get Grammy and then going to the hospital. That night was different. Before we left, Mom talked to me in the hall. She said, “He’s hanging on for you. You need to tell him that it’s ok to go.” The moments following in that hospital room were the most difficult moments of my life. He died the following Saturday.
Three levels of grief accompany the life of my Dad, the death of my Dad and my life after my Dad. First kind of grief while he was sick: grief with hope. The kind of gritty determination hope that this thing would not beat my Dad because, well, he was MY Dad. A second kind of grief: my Dad was not indestructible and I would have to adjust to life without him. The third kind of grief: living life feeling like something is missing. Something is missing: my Dad. People say, “It gets easier. The pain fades. It will get better with time.” I don’t think any of that is true. It doesn’t get easier not having my Dad to share ups and downs with. The pain does not fade. When I went to Roger Water’s The Wall in Cleveland, the pain in my chest as I cried listening to, “Mother,” was just as strong as the day I learned he was gone.
I work, part-time, for the Ronald McDonald House in Greater Cincinnati. Working in a building that houses the embattled families of chronically ill children and sometimes the children themselves, should prepare one to experience death. It doesn’t. Each time a child associated with the house dies, the manager on duty sends out e-mail to notify all staff. Until a few weeks ago, I had never been on duty when such e-mail needed to go out. There are, literally, no words to describe witnessing a parent’s decimated being after having lost a child. The look a parent carries with them will haunt me forever.
As a Guest Services Assistant, I don’t carry much “official” responsibility. I get to meet and spend time with some amazing volunteers. I’m fortunate to work with and for some beautiful (inside and out) people. I schmooze with meal groups, check families in and out of the house from time to time and I drive the shuttle back and forth from the House to Children’s Hospital. These are the most precious pockets of time. When a parent/relative gets in the shuttle, my favorite question is: “How are things at the hospital?” I’m not sure why, but families just let it all go. It may be that I have no understanding or use of flashy medical jargon or that I really don’t have all that much information, and therefore no judgment, about their situation. Whatever the reason, the families seem quite able to communicate a few moments of complete and unguarded honesty. Hearing about the peaks and valleys of the little heroes fighting their daily battles will forever be precious treasures.
One particularly quiet evening at Ronald McDonald House would prove to hold the most precious of the aforementioned vignettes. A family had checked into the House just a few hours before. As I recall, the aunt and eight-year-old sister of the patient attended the check in. The mom was at the hospital with her daughter. They had stated she wasn’t doing well. At the House, the shuttle runs every half hour on the half hour BY REQUEST. I place emphasis on that last part because I like planning and often feel not at all planned when family’s idea of “by request” for the 8:00 p.m. shuttle is asking at 8:05 p.m. The aunt and sister came down to the front desk and requested the next shuttle. They stated their patient wasn’t doing well. As they clamored into the back seat of the donated white Cadillac Escalade, I heard the sister whisper to her aunt, “Do you think we’re going to make it in time?” It took everything I had to hold it together. “It’s not your turn to cry. It’s not your turn to cry.” I repeated that to myself over and over. I dropped off the family and returned to the House.
Julie, the manager on duty, and I were standing at the front desk when a mother and her boyfriend walked into the lobby. She stared at me and said, “My son’s gone.” She buried her face into the man’s chest and almost fell to the ground. Again, “It’s not your turn to cry. It’s not your turn to cry.” That pain from before, you know, the two inches up and two inches over? It was back. Funny how loss, even when it has a different catalyst, can manifest itself in similar ways.
What seemed like moments later, the phone at the front desk rang. It was a pick up at the hospital. I left Julie to care for the sorrowful mother, as I don’t think anyone else could have done. As I pulled around the circle, I recognized the woman standing just outside the sliding doors. She walked to the back passenger door, opened it, got in, shut the door and put on her seatbelt. I was frozen in the driver’s seat as she tearfully looked at me through the rearview mirror. “She’s gone. We made it.” She began to cry in the silence. After a few moments she thanked me and said, “I’m ready.” On the short ride back, I asked her if she needed anything from me. I can honestly say, I don’t remember what happened between then and when I walked her to the car and gave the bereavement book and Ronald McDonald House nightlight every family who’s lost a child while staying at the House gets. It is such a gift to be able to be there for others in their darkest moments. My coworkers at Ronald McDonald House are true pillars of strength and courage for the families staying there. It is truly a breathtaking thought.
I’ve processed this post through countless runs. How am I going to organize this? What am I going to say? Who am I going to talk about? This is going to be one of those posts that if I looked at it tomorrow, I’d find a whole new level of grief to discuss. I’m going to wonder why I took out that part about my Nanny. I’m going to think about Maci, my first Dachshund. I’m going to remember that grief doesn’t just surround death and I’m going to think about that one guy who broke my heart. I’ll remember friends that moved away and wishes that never came true. I’ll look at all that and think, “That’s a lot of loss.” I’ll think about how fortunate I’ve been to care about so much. To have never experienced this kind of grief would mean that I never really loved anything.
Grief now, isn’t about burying my head into the pillow and sobbing for days on end. Grief is about watching my October movies and listening to my October songs because of the meaning they have for me. Tom Hanks as Sam Baldwin in Sleepless in Seattle, says of recovering from the loss of his wife, “Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning: breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while, I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out. And, then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.” I’ve heard it said, “There’s no such thing as perfect.” I don’t agree. If reality is individual perception, then it’s entirely possible for my perception of perfect to be an existence not without hardship, but survival through hardship.