Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Embracing the Pain

Once again, I have been on hiatus from writing for a while. I have had a lot of stuff happen and I was afraid to sit down and open up my brain and heart to write, because that is a big scary dose of reality.

When big things happen, I tend to become the Doer of All The Things. That comes in handy to a lot of people in a lot of ways. It also is one immensely effective defense mechanism, because as long as you keep DOING ALL THE THINGS-- and there are so very many to be done when shit hits the fan-- you can spend all your waking moments doing that, and busy yourself just well enough that you can maybe drop, exhausted, onto something soft at the end of a day full of Doing Things that you don't have to actually think about anything. Or, God forbid, FEEL anything.

Yeah...I am really, REALLY good at that.

Too good, probably.

And while life has been flung through the worst fan and the pieces have scattered all over, I've been spending the past couple weeks feeling like my time as the Doer of All The Things is kind of running out. There are fewer Things and we're down to just regular things...no more capital "T" to prioritize or hide or distract me now.

So, here's where the Things and the things collide, and it is time to get real.

So where have I been?

Mourning my father.

My dad died.


You know what's so bizarre? It's not like this is news (at least to me), because it has been over two months now. But my breath caught in my throat when I typed those words. Typing them makes it more real, because it's not just my reality...it's "internet confirmed" reality now. Not sure if that makes it a Thing or a thing, or what.

I've been trying to figure out how/when/what to post here and coming up with just...nothing. But recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to go see Glennon from Momastery. If you haven't seen her or read her stuff, go check out Momastery.com. She is amazing and REAL, and if you have the chance to attend one of her talks, YOU MUST GO. Glennon spoke so openly about grief and loss this weekend. It was the kick in the pants I sorely needed.

One thing in particular really stuck with me: So much of what we seem to do-- the Doing All The Things mode we ALL get sucked into at some time, and addictions, and so many various ways we find to numb ourselves-- we do all that because we're afraid of pain. We have been taught to avoid pain or anything similarly icky like a hot potato- drop it and MOVE ON, SISTER. But that doesn't work, does it? We do all of that stuff to avoid the pain, and find ourselves doing it over and over and over, because pain is always showing back up.

So maybe, just maybe...we shouldn't drop that hot potato so quickly. Maybe, instead, what we're meant to do is dive into it-- embrace that pain, because it is here to teach us something. Maybe if you stop pushing it away or pretending it isn't there, you might just find what you're supposed to learn from all of it. Maybe you find your purpose, your passion, your...whatever it is you need to find, it's a pretty safe bet that you won't ever get there by lying to yourself or running from what hurts.

So thank you, Glennon. I couldn't write before now, because I was running from the pain and I was afraid of how much writing would hurt.

Now I know it will... and it has to hurt, and that's exactly why I need to write again. So, here I am. Embracing the pain. Waving to Glennon, wherever she is at the moment. Probably shoeless.



The last time I posted here was the end of February, and I was feeling that creeping nag of something not-so-good slinking around the outskirts of my life. It has happened before, that feeling, and as many times as I tried to push it away or pretend I didn't see it, the darting shadows in the corner of my perception have never lied.

I knew something was coming, and I had a pretty good idea what it was going to be. And yet, I tried to Do Things and push it away, like a kid singing loudly when she rides her bike past the graveyard.

We had gotten the happy news that Monkey had been pulled into an enhancement class for reading and writing, because she was leaps and bounds ahead of her kindergarten classmates. It was not unexpected, as she's been kinda bored with the curriculum for most of the year. Still, the school usually starts enhancement in second grade. This year, the differential instruction teacher had a free period and the school had five kindergarten kids who needed more challenge, so they tried a pickup class for them. There are three classrooms for each grade at her school, about 75 kids per grade total. Monkey was the only one from her classroom selected; two came from each of the other two kindergarten classes. They were meeting once a week, on Mondays.

When I had called to tell my parents the good news, Papi actually answered the phone. That was a bit unusual. Most of the time when I called, Bunny answered. I think she was sort of screening calls. Unbeknownst to me, Papi was napping...a lot.

But I reached him directly. He sounded wistful, and tired, but was genuinely happy to hear she was doing such advanced work. Her regular class was still working on reading and writing uppercase and lowercase letters together. The "Monday class" was breaking down parts of a story, examining elements of the setting and time frame. They did actual reading comprehension work, and wrote and illustrated their stories.

Papi was so proud, and not the slightest bit surprised. My brother and I were both advanced writers from a pretty early age, and so were both my parents. I remember entering my first Young Authors' Contest as a kindergartener. (I came in second place...out of two entries. Which sucked as badly as it sounds.He had better pictures. Someday, I might even let that go...or not.)

I could tell Papi was tired, so I didn't keep him long on the phone. I just said I'd wanted to share it with them and we'd send some copies of her work once we had some. I recall exactly how he ended the conversation: "Hey, I'm glad you called to tell me. It's nice to get some GOOD news for once."


BOOM. Shoe? Dropped.

Many repetitions of four letter words ran through my head. But that was not yet the time for reality, because my dad was also in the Do All the Things mode and like any parent, wanted to protect his child from the pain and fear he was already facing. And as the dutiful child recognizing the steps of that particular dance, I didn't push for reality yet. I knew it was time for follow-up scans, and because they hadn't said anything about the process, I had to trust he'd tell me when there was no way to not tell me anymore.

He'd had one follow-up scan just before that call. And based on that, the doctors ordered two more for the following week.

Now, as anyone who has made the tour of Cancerville knows, that time frame almost never signifies good things. No, the GOOD plan is when you have your MRI or PET scan and the doctor says, "All clear! See you in six months!" Six months = good news. Six months = breathe easy, at least for now. Next week? And TWICE next week? Yeah...that means those peripheral shadows are pulling their nastiness again, and you'd better buckle up, baby.

So he went in for the first follow up scans the first week of March, with a second round bumped the following week. They got results on March 13-- Friday the 13th, for those keeping track.

The protective brain radiation had done its job, in protecting his brain from the preferred location of small-cell lung cancer to colonize. His brain was clear.

EVERYTHING else was riddled with it.

It was everywhere.

Throughout his bones. Large lesions in and on his liver. Another chunk in his shoulder, which explained why he'd been unable to sleep well: he couldn't find a comfortable position that didn't press on either that spot or his back.

Reeling from the immediate and undeniable reality, my parents didn't tell me on the 13th. It was such a blow that I don't think they could have called me then.


Here in the Land of Lincoln, that weekend was the first nice-weather weekend of spring. Around our neighborhood, people started emerging from their winterized hobbit holes to converse in the streets and sidewalks like a class reunion. Dogs were walked, bikes ridden, and the swings at the park were in high demand.

It was beautiful, good-smelling, perfect Chicagoland weather. I took the opportunity to ride my three-wheeler (adult trike, since my legs don't work) with Monkey on her two-wheeler. We rode all the way down to the park, about three long blocks from our house.

Somehow, when we got there, we were alone. It was a perfectly blue sky in the sweet-smelling breeze of new sunshine refreshing what the harsh winter had crushed. And I knew that underlying all that was something dark coming.

I sat on the swing next to my girl, who alternated between sitting the "normal" way to swing, and flipping over to put her belly on the swing and flying like Superman. I remember doing the same thing as a kid. My heart ached watching her, and knowing that I would soon have to tell her things that would taint that beautiful kid-ness of her.

We had a planned trip to Bunny and Papi's house for the girls' upcoming spring break. It was still a couple weeks away. I knew Monkey was excited, for a lot of reasons. It would be the first time Big Sis got to go to Florida with us. Monkey was looking forward to showing her all the cool things about their house. She was relishing the concept of knowing more about something than her sister. She also was excited to see the neighbors, especially their beautiful yellow lab, who is lovingly referred to as Bunny's "god-puppy" and spoiled rotten by her, accordingly.

But those dark shadows were big and slinky that day on the swings, and I knew I had to use the calmness of the day to start a conversation I wish I didn't have to have. I reminded Monkey of our earlier talks the prior year, when Papi was first sick and we were planning to go see him over the Fourth of July. He'd had the first radiation cycle and chemo at that point, and no one really knew how he'd be doing by the time we got there. We'd carefully explained then that our trip might not be like other Florida trips, because we'd be going to help, not really as a vacation.

So, dragging my feet in the loose playground dirt, I reminded my girl about those talks. She remembered how I'd explained that we might not be going lots of places, and I might have to take Papi to doctor visits or the hospital. Monkey would probably get to help Bunny cook, or work in the garden...but we might not be doing much at all.

"Papi's still sick, isn't he?"

She knew, too. My sweet ponytailed girl, with yogurt on her cheek and marker stains on her hands, who had been flying like Superman...she knew.

I did the hardest thing: I was honest.


I told her I didn't know for sure, but there were a lot of tests happening. I explained this spring break trip was looking like it would be what we thought our July trip was going to be. There was a lot I didn't know, and it was scary. But I promised her I wouldn't hide things. She said she wanted to help, however she could, and my heart shattered again at the depth of her love and compassion,

My girl understands more at six and a half, than I did, probably all through my teens. I'd like to take credit for that, but I don't see how I could. She is who she has chosen to be, and our role is to help her figure that out. She's a better person than I will ever be.


The next day, Monday, was the prettiest, best day I can remember having in a very long time. Everything went well. I had a decent commute, got a bunch of things done at work in record time and with minimal issues, and picked up Monkey from the sitter. She had a great day, and was loving life and ready to go play outside. She got on her bike while I cleaned up a bit and started dinner. All the windows were open, music was playing, and the sounds and smells of spring were blooming all around me.

It was one of those moments when you look around and freeze time in your mind. Because when you've been through so many violent storms in life, the rainbows and warm fuzzy times are few and far between.

Monkey excitedly yelled through the screen that it was OUR DINNER that smelled so yummy outside! And she gets to eat that soon!!


...and then the house phone rang. And I knew.


I knew before I touched the receiver who it was and what it meant. Somehow I still answered it, grateful that my husband and daughter were not inside while I faced this conversation.

The peripheral shadows circled around me as I heard my mother's voice. She was crying.

They'd spent the day in and out of doctors' offices and lab tests and she'd had to help him in and out of the car all day. And he couldn't walk so well. And the lab results were back, and it was bad.

Really, really bad.

In a whisper I had never heard--and never want to hear again-- my mother asked me if I could get there. It was time, she said.

My brain was at war with itself. One side was arguing, NO NO NO!! This is NOT REAL! But the other, the side that saw those shadows and smelled that perfect day, the side that doubts every good thing because it always has its equal and opposite reaction-- that side said, simply: Told you so.

Told you so.

MDD came inside and Bunny asked to talk to him. I blurted it all out as he picked up the downstairs extension. I heard her apologize to him for "taking me away" to help her. 

Oh, the things we do to try to protect those we love from pain. Not that it ever works, does it??

We told Bunny I would work on a flight and call her back. MDD got my suitcase and brought it to our room so I could throw things together. I asked him to keep Monkey occupied because I didn't know how to face her right then. I just couldn't think. So I got on the computer.

It was 7:00 PM in Chicago on 3/16, and according to the Southwest website, the last flight of the evening left at 7:55. There was no way for me to get out that night. Our existing trip had been booked for 3/28, so I was going to change just my ticket to 3/17. I started to try that online, but couldn't see straight anymore through the tears and was afraid I was going to mess up. I gave up and called them instead. The guy who answered did an excellent job of both ignoring my snorting and sniffling and showing me the utmost compassion, which of course just made me cry more.

He separated my ticket from the rest of my family's confirmation and set me up for the earliest flight the next morning, 5:55. Thank God I didn't try to do all that online, or I would have set us all up to leave then. Monkey and Big Sis still had school and Monkey Doodle Daddy didn't have the time off from work yet.

MDD and I agreed that it would just be me going first, and once I got there I would assess the situation. Depending on what we needed/wanted to do, we'd look into changing the other tickets to arrive earlier. I just didn't know what would need to happen until I got there.

My dad's oncologist had laid out an array of choices, and we had to decide what to do. He offered another round of chemo, tentatively scheduled to begin that Wednesday. If it did anything, there would be one more round the following Wednesday. Papi initially said he wanted to do it. Bunny didn't think it would be good. I couldn't contribute to the conversation until I got there, because some things just do not translate well over the telephone. I had to SEE him to know.

Monkey wandered up to the doorway of the master bedroom while I was staring blankly into my closet. She saw my suitcase and grinned. "Mommy! You're excited for spring break, too? Are you going to pack now so you're ready? We still have over a week..."


I lost it. I turned and looked at this beautiful girl, all lit up with excitement for the long-awaited trip, and just...lost it.

She blinked and took one, tentative, small step into our room. ",,,Mom...?"

I said I was going to have to get to Florida a little earlier than we had planned. I was, in fact, leaving very early the next morning.

And I saw it.

I SAW the change in my child, as the reality I couldn't protect her from came crashing into that room and broke her heart, right in front of me. I watched it happen.

"That was Bunny on the phone, wasn't it?"

I said yes, baby, it was.

She ran down the hall to her room-- her perfectly Pinterest-worthy cartoon nature room, with its trees and birds and flowers against the perfect shade of lavender--and flung herself onto her bed, sobbing. I held her, and rocked her, and smoothed her crazy hair away from where it stuck to her wet cheeks, and I sobbed along with her. We held each other and broke somewhere, separately but somehow in sync with one another. I realized that's what my mother must have felt when she picked up that phone.

Monkey was adamant about going with me. I couldn't convince her otherwise. She wanted to HELP, she had agreed to HELP, all these times-- why wouldn't I let her help??


I don't even know what I told her. She recognized my fear, and in her big, brave way, she didn't want me to do whatever I had to do without her there.

My little girl reminds me of the description I heard once about firefighters: they are the heroes who run IN, when everyone else is running OUT. That's just who she is. I admire that so much, and aspire to do more of that myself. Sometimes I can do it, but other times... Well, she is braver at six years old than I sometimes know how to be at forty.

But as adamant and helpful as Monkey wanted to be, she is still just six years old. I couldn't make peace with flinging her into an unknown situation when I didn't even have any idea what would be happening once I walked into that house.

I don't really remember packing, except it was interrupted umpteen times by various rounds of crying and forgetting stuff and bathroom trips and MDD and I both trying in vain to get our distraught child into her bed.


Several times, I crumpled and just hung onto my husband, who held me up and said all the things that needed to be said and heard. At some point, I declared the bag packed and he took it downstairs. I crawled into bed to lie partially awake until I got up to meet the taxi at 3:30 AM.

I think I showered. I don't know. I do know I kissed my girl on her sleeping forehead and inhaled deeply to keep her scent with me. I took with me her stuffed elephant she'd gotten from the urgent care center when they'd had to swab her throat for strep. We were giving it to Papi, because it helped her be brave when she was sick.

I stumbled out into the cold, with a last big hug from MDD and promise to call when I figured out what I needed to do. I got into the cab, wearing my late brother's big fuzzy sweater as insulation from the external and internal cold I shivered through.

The bank sign by our house declared the temperature to be 42 degrees, a sign from my brother regarding the answer to the universe. I cried silently the whole ride, feeling queasy and sort of floating out-of-my-body-ish after the three hours of semi-sleep I almost sort of got.

The cabbie asked where I was headed, and I croaked, "Florida." He asked if it was business or vacation. I gulped and whispered, "Family emergency."

He said he was sorry and stopped talking.

When we got to the airport, the driver brought my bags to the curb and made eye contact. He held that contact until I acknowledged it. He told me he was praying for my family and me, and that prayer and patience would bring peace. I thanked him, but I don't think any sound actually came out; I just mouthed the words.

I don't recall much else, except getting to the gate and wondering where the hell all these people were going at o-dark-thirty on Saint Patrick's Day. It was packed, and I wanted to be invisible.

It was Spring Break time, and a lot of the other travelers looked bound for Florida adventures I suspected would be vastly different than what my own. It was a packed, bumpy flight, and pretty hellish on my troubled stomach. The buzzing of the engines replaced the buzzing in my head.


I had made arrangements with my parents' neighbors to pick me up from the airport. I called when we landed, retrieved my checked bag and stumbled out into the mugginess of a Florida spring morning. All around me, people were exuberant and chatting about their hotels and trips and plans. I just blinked at the sunshine and wondered if I was awake or not. This is happening, I kept reminding myself. Sometimes, it's hard to tell.

It would be the first airport pickup my father wouldn't be greeting me. Every other time, I'd meet him either at the end of the shuttle tram stop or at the baggage claim. We'd be one of those reuniting families, chatting about plans and dinner and who's where.

Not this time. This one was just me, silently lugging my crap to the curb as I watched for the neighbors' SUV.




to be continued...