past tense

This year has been strange.  I’ve had three babies now and the first year is always somewhat otherworldly, tinged with grief and depression and anxiety, fraught with tears of awe and the most tender sadness.  With each birth comes the knowledge that something has been lost and yet another thing has been found.  Life is forever altered.

As our daughter has grown from a blob to a chubby joyful baby and we’ve watched her begin to smile, laugh, babble, move with intention – as we’ve watched her fully move towards her life and her self, the gap between me and my dad continues to widen, moment by moment.  As he continues to die, over and over, and I begin to understand it a little at a time, so she learns to live.

There are two sets of milestones this year.  On the calendar in our kitchen I note down Daphne’s milestones.  In my headspace I note down my grief milestones.  Today is ten months exactly since my dad’s death.  It’s finally starting to feel like a real thing that’s happened.  He’s gone.  He’s not coming back.  Every day I face this reality.  It feels strange.  It’s starting to feel familiar.

Just two days ago I had the first conversation ever with a person that referenced my dad and not his death.  All this year the two have been linked; I haven’t been able to discuss one without the other.  I referred to my dad in the past tense, sharing a little tidbit about him, and I was aware I was talking about him in the past tense and I was thinking, “I’m talking about my dad in the past tense.”

And then, “Of course I’m talking about my dad in the past tense.  He’s gone.  He’s not coming back.”

The conversation ended and I thought nothing of it, until yesterday when I was driving and I realized what had happened.  I’d experienced a milestone and it wasn’t huge and groundbreaking the way it is when a baby achieves something.  No cheering.  No “good job!”  Just silence, a reckoning with grief, a head nod to the slow process we call moving on.

july 4th

We all met up in the parking lot of the furniture warehouse to watch fireworks each 4th of July.  Often it’d been a whole year since our families had seen each other, and I always shrank back a bit, morphing into a more shy version of myself.  I was the only girl among four or more boys and I was separate in my girlishness.  The loud booms scared me and the colors thrilled me, and all of our faces were raptured as we stared up into the summer sky.

My mind turned to all of those Independence Days this morning, how my dad is gone now and how their dad is gone now – both having passed away in the past year, and how those days are done but how they still feel as real as the thick Texas humidity.  I still struggle with wanting to find my dad somewhere and not knowing where to go, I found myself googling “how to contact the dead” before writing this.  I am aware of my quiet desperation, it’s just that I want to sit next to him again and watch the fireworks and witness the colors shining in his dark eyes.

father’s day

It is my first Father’s Day without my father.

It is not my first Father’s Day without my father.

***

This morning I read this, by David Whyte:

The death of anyone close to us is always a form of salutation, a simultaneous good-bye to their physical presence and a deep hello to a more intimate imaginal relationship now beginning to form in their absence…

Immediate intrigue.  I am no stranger to the idea of a relationship forming and/or deepening with a person after his death, but it is nearly impossible to scale the wall of permanence that death leaves behind.  In the six months since my dad’s death, I have felt often like we are forever separated and I have spent countless hours wondering where he is.  Heaven?  An urn buried at the foot of his mother’s grave in South Texas?  In all the molecules of everything living on the planet?  Somewhere else?

Or, the most frightening – nowhere?

The thing about a living person is that you know where to find that person.  When my dad was alive, I could fly to Texas, drive to Waco, and then go see him in the nursing home.  He was not all there, for lack of a better phrase, but he was alive.  I knew where to go if I wanted to hold his hand or tell him I loved him – I couldn’t always be there when I wanted to be, but that’s beside the point.  Now there is no hand to hold and when I tell him I love him, I say it in my head or on the page, and that’s pretty much it.

No one ever told me that when someone close to you dies, you continue to love them.  It is such a perfect unrequited love, to love someone after they’re gone.

***

I have been grieving for much of my entire life.  My dad’s illness and the toll it took on my family and myself is a wound that has opened and healed and reopened and scarred through the years.  When I saw Father of the Bride as a preteen, I grieved heavily, because I knew it would never be like that for us.  When my dad didn’t show up to my school activities, I grieved heavily, because I wanted him to care.  When I moved away from Texas to California, I grieved heavily, because I didn’t want to leave him and yet I couldn’t stand the thought of staying another second.

Grief has been a constant companion of mine and that hasn’t changed with my dad’s death.  Father’s Day has always been tinged with a deep sadness – it doesn’t define the day, but it is undeniably there.  Due to the distance between us and my dad’s inability to communicate, we would go months without seeing each other, or even talking to each other.  The last six months have been remarkably similar to the rest of life before his death.

He could still be alive, for all I know.  Because I can’t stand the thought of him being nowhere.  I can’t stand the thought of never being able to find him again.

Denial is a powerful thing.

Denial

is an underestimated state of being. Denial is an ever present and even splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on. Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate: children are not meant to know they will one day die and older adults are never meant to tell them. Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present. Denial fully experienced, also enables us to understand the full measure of our reluctance thus becoming a way of both paying attention to and appreciating what is asking to be seen. Denial is a beautiful transitional state every human being inhabits before they are emancipated into the next larger context and orphaned, often against their will, from their old home. 

Denial is ever present and unavoidable in a human life, even in the most accomplished guru; even in the Dalai Lama; it is a necessary dynamic so that the overpowering elements of a waiting, terrifying, universe can be held for now, over the horizon; denial belongs to us all. Denial can be a prison if inhabited in too concrete and unmoving a way, but denial is also a necessary stepping-stone and a compassionate foundation for viewing others who are not able to take the next courageous step. Denial can be a beautiful skin shed, left to be seen, or even to beautify and beatify others as they follow, wearing our former clothes. To understand the true nature of our reluctance through observing and then inhabiting our denial is to see directly into the soul’s wish to participate.

Excerpt from the essay “Denial” 
From the Up Coming Reader’s Circle II series
© David Whyte 2013

***

It is and is not my first Father’s Day without my father.

I am not ready to let go yet.

And I don’t even know if such a thing is possible.

Happy Father’s Day, wherever you are.

003

tiny beautiful things

I’ve spent a lot of time at Starbucks lately.  It’s not the refreshing beverages I’m after; it’s time and space in which to put words on the page.  I go to Starbucks to write.  My entire life I’ve just written when I’ve felt like it – which, to be fair, has been often – but things are different now.  I made a promise that things would be different now, and then I made a plan.  

The plan: Go to Starbucks (or wherever) to write on my days off.  That means I have three days a week with time especially carved out to do my thing.  No excuses.  No saying, “Oh, I want to go hang out with such-and-such, I can write another day.”  No saying, “I’m tired and want to go to sleep.”  Nope.  If I’m going to make alternate plans, I will have to figure out how to make up for missing that day of writing.  Even if I’m writing nothing important.  Because as far as I’m concerned, it’s all important.

I’m tired of apologizing for myself.  I have a college degree, I never finished graduate school, I wait tables, my house is a mess, I sometimes yell at my kids, I take medication for depression, I’ve slept through the night maybe 10 times in the last 4.5 years, I’m a writer.  I will turn 34 on Friday and my writing dream is as alive as it was 20 years ago.

Some things never die, no matter how hard you may try to kill them.

The writer in me deserves to be honored and taken seriously.  That means I show up and I do the work.  I plow through the blocks and try to get at the sweet spot underneath.  It’s awkward most of the time.  I feel frustrated.  Just earlier today I was driving and the words in my head were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, and then I got here to Starbucks and I wrote the most mundane and unremarkable crap I’ve ever written.

Thankfully my computer has a delete button.  

***

This weekend I went to a writing workshop led by none other than Cheryl Strayed.  I bought myself a ticket almost immediately after the workshop was announced at the beginning of this year.  I figured that my beloved Sugar probably had a thing or seven to teach me, and I was not disappointed.  

Here’s a summary of what I found remarkable about what Sugar said:

Writing is about total surrender.  You have to surrender to mediocrity and realize that it’s not up to you to decide if your book is brilliant or horrible or mediocre.  But it is up to you to do your best.  

You won’t become Faulkner by sitting around waiting to write your book.  It won’t materialize out of thin air.

Keep your eye on the ball.  Writing is the ball.  Publication is not the ball.

Write about what it means to be human.

People will love you the way they’re able to.  It’s up to you what to do with that love.  (This was a huge one.  It actually brought me very close to tears.)

If you haven’t written something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you probably haven’t told the whole story.

“And nothing was ever the same again” should be the invisible last line of everything you write as opposed to “And they lived happily ever after.”

Write into the grey areas, not the absolutes.

What is the question at the core of your work?  Your job as a writer is to answer that question.

Writing is about revelation.  Writing itself is an act of revelation.

In writing, there is no bottom.  Or perhaps it’s just that there’s no top.

Take the ugly stuff and make it beautiful.

 
She signed my book:
 
Image
 
 
And she even smiled at me:
 
Image
 
 
And then I drove the two hours home, fighting to stay awake, because I’d gotten home at 1 AM after The Worst Shift Ever, during which I got stiffed for cutting off The Most Annoying Drunk Customer Ever, and I walked into my messy house just in time to kiss my kids goodnight, and afterwards I immediately collapsed on the couch, and right before I fell asleep my last thought was that nothing would ever be the same again.
 

final echo

My dad is almost six months gone and I can’t bear it.  I can’t understand how life has managed to continue, I am struck by the cruelty of this as well as the necessity and the beauty.  I can’t stand in that same place I found myself the morning of December 9, 2012.  I had to go on and that’s all there is to it.  

The last few months I’ve been confused, my grief has been shoved to the very back of my life, there is no room for it.  I am consumed by the needs of others, my job, exhaustion, and I repeat to myself daily, when the thought of him swims into my mind, “Daddy is dead.”  I tell myself this because if I don’t, I may just start to believe that this is another one of those long periods of time when we aren’t seeing each other.  (Part of me still believes this.  I can’t bear to think that I will never take another trip to Texas to see him in that sad little nursing home, that I will never grip his skeletal hand in mine again.)  

What does it mean when someone dies?  I have been obsessing over the moment of death since he passed away.  I wonder about pain, about sorrow, was there a moment where everything became illuminated and he became enlightened?  What were his last words and did he think of me?  Was it like falling asleep?  What happens when we die and where do we go after?  

I have no answers.  And for years I wished for closure and even in his death, there still is none.

Yesterday we drove up to San Francisco and spent a couple of hours in Golden Gate Park with one of my dear friends and her husband.  Charlie and Simon found a tunnel that went under the street and led to the amphitheater, and they kept running through it, yelling and listening to the echoes of their voices.  Oh, to be so young and so in awe of the world.  To let loose something into the world and to watch as it’s returned.  To have utter faith that it will be returned.  I can’t bear to think of the ways in which life will break their hearts.  I can’t bear to think of my dad as a little boy, and I can’t bear to think of how we get from that purity to this brokenness.  

I sat with my friend and we talked in the mist while passing Daphne back and forth between us, a young man was playing his cello nearby and I gave him a dollar.  Golden Gate Park stretched in front of us in all its majesty as I let my heart break a little bit while we talked.  We talked about grief and how it looks the same no matter what or how you’re grieving, and then we talked about letting go, and the fear that letting go means that what you’re grieving never meant that much to you to begin with.  

I fear that someday there will be a final echo of my father, and then just silence.

(i write these words

hundreds of miles 

from where you

are resting peacefully,

you are so close to me,

in me,

part of me, 

my DNA tied to your ashes, 

bits of bone,

pieces of bone,

you are so far from me,

I don’t know how

to go on without you.)

what I meant to say

I put tie-dye sheets on our bed the other day.  They don’t match our duvet but I have to stop and consider if we are the type of people who match.  It’s bedtime for the kids, I have left the house and escaped to Starbucks to write, and this is the post I meant to write for Mother’s Day.  Actually, it’s not the post at all.  It’s the post I am settling on sharing.

A few wonderful links about motherhood:

Mother’s Day Proclamation, by Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Babies to Teenagers – This is a link to a series of posts.  I love Maggie’s “Babies to Teenagers” posts she writes on her blog.  Sometimes she simply shares pictures, sometimes she writes posts so breathtaking and heart-wrenching that I am speechless. I don’t know her personally but I have been reading her blog for years and I can say with absolute certainty that she is my very favorite blogger – and a very gifted writer.

on things being hard, and what I think it means to grow up

Why I Hate Mother’s Day

What I Know About Motherhood Now That My Child Has Died

Encouragement for tired moms

My friend Ryan Hartigan’s status update on Mother’s Day:

Today, I’m thinking about the mothers (whom I’ve known personally – and, perhaps unwittingly – so many of us undoubtedly have) who try to shield their children from the constant stream of domestic violence that they suffer, but which people find so easy to overlook while public figures cut funding for shelters for those mothers who manage to make the escape; I’m also thinking about the unthinking judgment visited upon those mothers by figures who’ve never had to endure violence, who berate them for what should apparently be so easy to escape, even though these mothers get stalked by abusive partners who will not let them go. My grandmother could have told you all about that. But she fell into all of the above categories. And she died.

I’m thinking about all the mothers who work three jobs and bust their asses to get by and get reprimanded for apparently not being good enough mothers, by people who have the resources to make all their own choices with ease; I’m thinking about mothers who love their children but are apparently automatically flawed (despite the statistics showing otherwise) because others think it’s a problem that their children happily have two mothers; I’m thinking about mothers who don’t get access to basic healthcare when the resources are available, and die from eminently treatable conditions; I’m thinking about mothers who get judged for not having belly six-packs after they’ve had children; I’m thinking about all the mental conditions which can and should be addressed but are dismissed as female neuroses; I’m thinking about the examples of rape culture which should change the most unthinking minds, but don’t, as mothers try to prepare their children for a world that doesn’t think that these things happen very often. I’m thinking about all the mothers who made tough decisions.

Sarah McLachlan’s status update on Mother’s Day:

Just when you think you can’t take anymore, they smile at you and your heart melts and in an instant, all the feral animalistic thoughts recede. Our children have the ability to bring us to our knees , we weigh the depths of love and terror and wonder how could we ever go on without them?
They are our greatest teachers and harshest critics – our babies, born of our bodies and spirits to raise us to the highest office- motherhood. Love those babies well and love yourself even more, for you are witness to and part of an ongoing miracle. Life is rich, embrace it all, happy mothers day, Love Sarah

_____

I don’t want to write about motherhood.  It seems like it’s THE THING for mothers to write about and I always seem to want to rail against THE THING, no matter what it is.  When I was younger, my subject was me, myself, and I.  In addition to having the luxury to obsess over myself, I also had the luxury of time.  An old high school classmate passed away yesterday, and I am reminded that I still have time.  I think of her, and how she probably had to face up to the fact that she was going to have to leave her kids without a mother, and I am reminded that it’s okay to be so immersed in this mothering that I often can’t think of anything else.  This is my reality.

This is my reality: I don’t know how to be a mother and a wife and a human being and a woman and a writer and an employee.  I don’t know how to handle everything that I need to handle.  Some nights after the kids are in bed I clean until everything is sparkling and fresh, and within an hour of a new day, there is no more sparkle, only crumbs and dirt, smears of peanut butter, small pieces of egg on the kitchen floor.  Other nights I am at work and I come home tired and depleted and oddly wired from rushing around refilling drinks and cleaning tables and taking orders all night.  And still other nights I give up on progress and collapse on the couch to read or watch The Walking Dead.  I have words swimming through my head throughout the day but my hands are full with my children and their needs; by the time I sit down to write the words have left me.  I am exhausted, and with the addition of my third child has come the realization that I have never worked this hard in my life; every moment is full.  I have a full life.  What is it people say when someone dies?  “She lived her life to the fullest.”

What does that mean, to live fully?  I always imagined that someone who lived her life to the fullest was a person who had managed to escape the boring rat race of working, bill paying, debt, bureaucracy, red tape, and monotonous tedium that seems to make up most adult lives.  Someone who drove a Jeep Wrangler or a convertible or perhaps a Volkswagen van, who laughed all the time and never let life get her down, who “danced like no one was watching.”  You know?  I always felt envious of those free spirited types, until I realized that they don’t exist, except for maybe in the movies.  We’ve all got bills to pay, mouths to feed (if only our own), lifestyles to support.  It doesn’t leave a lot of time for giving into wild hairs and going off-roading on a regular basis.

What I have come to realize is that life is hard, it’s hard for all of us, and that there is no escape from what must be done.  Choosing to be a mother means that I’ve had to let go of the notion that motherhood is bliss.  It’s not.  It’s hard work with a lot of laughs, a lot of tears, a lot of uncertainty.  There are the small quiet perfect moments when I am nursing my daughter or holding one of my boys.  There are the horrible moments when I have just yelled at one of my sons for not listening and I hate myself for not being more patient.  And then there are the moments in between: the constant influx of dirty dishes, smelly clothes, poopy diapers, tears to be wiped away, sickness, temper tantrums, the tie-dye sheets that don’t match our duvet, when I realize that THIS IS IT.  This is my life, this is what I have chosen for myself.  This is what must be done.  It’s humbling and huge to have it all laid out so clearly in front of me.  I must kiss this booboo, I must get them down for their nap, I must feed them a healthy snack, I must not let them watch too much TV. I must find a decent pre-school, I must pick the best elementary school, I must help with homework.  I must teach them how to drive, I must talk to them about sex and drugs and alcohol, I must help them fill out their college applications.  I must watch them walk the stage at their high school graduation, I must wave as they drive off to college, I must be brave.

I must let go.  Of most other things.

I don’t want to write about being a mother.  I want to write about something more profound.  It’s just that motherhood is the most profound thing I have ever experienced.  On the crumb-covered floors of my kitchen, I have found a small piece of enlightenment.  I have no idea what to do with it.  I know exactly what to do.

what we talk about when we talk about depression

In March I began taking Lexapro after seeing a psychiatrist. My decision to see him was made months ago, when I was still pregnant. Since having my first child, I have been struggling mightily with depression and anxiety. Over the last (almost) four years, I have made countless calls to my husband at work, crying so hard it was difficult to breathe. I have spent hours alone at home with one child, or two children, or three. I have endured numerous visions of horrible things happening to my babies, many panic-induced mornings or afternoons when I hid in the kitchen and shoved chocolate in my mouth and guzzled soda – anything to make it better for just one second. I have looked out the window and thought about leaving, either by car or by suicide. I have read accounts of mothers who shook their babies or drowned them in bathtubs and I have understood the overwhelming darkness that grips desperate women.

I am not proud of these things. But this has been part of my experience of motherhood, one of isolation and alienation, probing the depths of myself and hating what I found there.

The other part is laughter and hugs and kisses and gentleness and light and the knowledge that my family is my world. That when my children were born, I was born – a little more each time with each child. That my husband is truly the best person I have ever known – flawed and fallible, yes, but someone I am truly honored to love. That those things, the depression and anxiety and yelling and thoughts of suicide, aren’t me. They are pieces of my experience. But not me.

What happened when I became a mother is that I was unexpectedly cut open and my first child was delivered and I slept under the haze of general anesthesia through it all. I was not present for my son’s birth and neither was my husband, and to this day it is something that bothers me, that my son was ushered into the world without the two people who loved him most there to catch him, to say “Welcome to the world. We’ve been waiting so long for you, Charlie.” He is a wonderful child, he knows he is loved, and it’s not often that I think of his traumatic birth. But when I do, it’s with the knowledge that such a thing, the birth of a child, no matter how it unfolds, changes a mother for life. It would have changed me regardless, and yet, it stings. It stings and I learned. I learned so much and I evolved into a mama warrior and I dragged the darkness along with me, the trauma, and then I put it all into my next pregnancy and my preparations for my second son’s birth and I had fantasies of cathartic weeping while pushing him out in a pool of warm water. I had a feeling that a different birth experience would help me to heal and I went down a different path to deliver my child and at the end of that path, ultimately, was another operating room, another surgical birth. I was so exhausted from laboring so long and pushing so long that I could barely stay awake while the OB cut into me and pulled my second son out of my scarred womb. But I stayed awake, I was determined to be present through it all, and I heard his first cry and I felt the squish of his cheek to mine before the nurses whisked him away. The OB took a long time stitching me shut as he had lacerated my bladder during the surgery, and over the next week, I developed a bad UTI and I spent an entire day at home sobbing in agony while waiting for a prescription and a confirmation from the doctor of what we already knew.

The human soul is strong, though; it wants to survive – flourish, even – and I healed. My incision healed and my heart healed even as it broke in different places simultaneously. My dad was put under hospice care and I learned that my midwife had heartlessly betrayed me, and in the midst of these things, my husband got a new job and we packed it up and moved six hours north, leaving our family and friends and our beautiful little home behind. We’d rented an apartment sight unseen and it was fine, it was a place to live while we got adjusted and came to know the area, but it was never home. We had no money; that first Christmas we were only able to buy the boys a gift because my dear friend sent me a gift certificate to Amazon. We had one car and I spent days upon days in our cave of an apartment with the boys while my husband worked. After a six month adjustment period and realizing we’d never be able to make it on one income, I returned to my college job, waiting tables, and I worked nights while Roy worked days and we passed the kids off between us.

One month after being back at work, I found out I was pregnant. I was never unhappy about it. I knew this baby was our baby girl. But I was unprepared. I was terrified. I wanted to fast forward through the pregnancy and birth and just hold her in my arms. As my belly grew, my anxiety worsened. I grieved hard over the fact that I would never have a vaginal birth. Thoughts of death crept into my mind on a regular basis. My dad’s condition worsened and stabilized, worsened and stabilized. I made two trips to see him while I was pregnant, and each time I was never sure when I’d get to see him again. It is strange now, to look back on my last pregnancy – I was so sure that I was going to die during my C-section, that I’d never meet my daughter, that I’d leave my beloved family and friends behind, and I was so preoccupied with my own mortality that my dad’s death was a true shock, even though he’d been on hospice for almost two years, even though he was skeletal, even though I knew he couldn’t hold on forever. He’d been ill for 30 years, surely he’d make it a little longer.

He didn’t. He died the week my daughter was born, and it’s been over four months now, and the world still doesn’t feel right without him. He died the day after my mom’s birthday, five days before his own birthday. I don’t mean to make this about him, but all things are about him, all things lead to him, he’s half the reason why I’m here and the entire reason why I’m a woman. He’s in me and he’s in my children. I can’t deny him.

But what was I talking about?

Depression. Yes, things have happened, hormones fluctuating over and over, three pregnancies, three births, three children have entered my life in the last four years, we’ve moved twice, once was completely out of the area I’d lived in for 10 years and the place we called home, I quit my job and became a stay at home parent and then went back to work part time. Things are always changing and I once heard that depression is a healthy reaction to change. Depression, for me, is hard to recognize, even though it makes me virtually unrecognizable. I’m always justifying it, thinking if I ate better, got more exercise, slept more, I would feel better, and while that is almost certainly true, none of those things have been able to pull me out of what has been, at times, a truly terrifying place. And people have said all kinds of “helpful” things to me, like “just be grateful” or “just be happy”. Someone asked me recently why I don’t “just smoke some weed.” I don’t get this whole “just” attitude. It’s like telling someone suffering from infertility to “just relax” or “just adopt.” If things were as easy as that, none of us would be hurting and we’d have all the things we wanted.

I think I finally gave up and realized that as much as I wanted my depression and anxiety to have a completely natural cure, I’d experienced too much misery to wait it out much longer. When I went to see my psychiatrist for the first time, my voice shook as I described what life had been like for me – yes, I’d had so many moments of sweetness and light, but the bad moments were horrible, they were monstrous and my self-hatred was growing. I finally realized that as much as I wanted the bad moments to be normal, they weren’t. They were me being unable to cope with whatever little thing I couldn’t cope with at the moment, making that little thing into a huge horrendous thing that led me to yell at the kids or call my husband sobbing, and the worst part, to hate myself for being weak. For failing.

The little white pills have helped me, thankfully. At night I sweat profusely while I sleep (wonderful side effect) and when the baby wakes to feed, I am cold with my damp clothes stuck to my skin. It’s a little alarming and also a little comforting, I like to imagine that my psyche is driving out the demons with a brutal force, I like to imagine that someday I will be cured. I have no idea if I’ll be on medication forever, but for now, it’s helping me cope with the needs of my three small children and the grief surrounding the death of my father, and the grief surrounding everything else in life. There are still bad days, the difference is I’m not staring desperation in the eye much of the time.

I’m practicing talking about my depression and anxiety. I’m practicing talking about being on medication. I’m practicing this because as with most unsavory parts of life, much is left unsaid, and I need to shine a light on my experience. It matters.