Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back in the Valley of Shadows

No, I am not Job but I think we are related.

Last week my erudite, generous, beyond energetic, gentle uncle decided that he had nothing to offer the world and so he left us. He was a Princeton man, did a Fulbright in Rome, had a PhD, loved opera, was interested in church history and theology, was brilliant on Shakespeare, drove people around who couldn't drive themselves, and was kinder to my children than you can imagine. He was a teacher in profession and in calling. He was steadfast in his support of me personally and professionally. And now he is gone and for all the wrong reasons.

His death came one year and four days after my aunt (no relation to him) took her own life.

His death is like an earthquake in our family. In just a few moments everything looks different; there is no stability, and three generations of us no longer feel safe. There is no "getting used to" suicide. There is no "better suicide" than another. It is all a nightmare, but each a different nightmare than the other.

In the years since I have had this blog, my parents have fought cancer and a coma, my last two grandmothers died, even my dogs died. I have tried to understand my own health problems (considerable to the average healthy person, absolutely nothing in light of this week) that limit my ability to live as I would like. I have waited for test results with my friend Lizard Eater and a buddy Undertaker. I now pray for another one of my hero buddies as she enters into another fight against her own cancer.

Through it all my goal has been to be honest and open about grief and loss. I wanted to pull back the veil on some parts of death and dying so it was less terrifying for people. I have shared my worldview that not only is life still funny when you pay attention to death, sometimes it is funnier. My thought has always been: maybe if we talk about it, it will help.

But I am run down to the ground on this one.

My uncle left me a package. It included a long letter and a bag of items. The letter was his instructions for his funeral, his asking for me to perform it, and some suggestions for what I might include. The package included some of the items he mentioned in the letter - photos and notes mostly.

It would appear that in all my comfort concerning death, all of my talk about pre-planning, all of my suggestions for finding meaning at the end of life... my uncle had listened very carefully. Too carefully and I am left with the realization that I never said the most important things.

I never said: if you are physically healthy but wanting to die, something is very wrong. Yell for help, and when help does not arrive start sprinting for help, and when you can't find it scream for directions.

I never said: all the pre-planning in the world is not helpful when you hand it over to your own brothers, your own niece, your dear friends after your unexpected and fully intentional death.

I never said: LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! If life has lost its siren call to survival before anything threatens your physical well-being, treat your mind like a body with cancer and fight for life.

I know that this was his struggle not mine. I know that his choices were set in granite a long time ago. I know because he said so in what he left behind. I know that my words could not have changed his mind.

But my heart does not believe as I look over the meticulous plans done to the very letter of how I have taught people for a decade to plan. He did everything I asked. I just wish I had asked him to live.

So I post again in the face of very personal and deep pain because every time I come out as a survivor of suicide loss, I meet more people who have walked this road with no more ease than I. I share my selfish feelings that resist the lessons of my psychological training because that's just how I feel. It may not be "right" but it is true. Our feelings rarely behave in times of grief and I am not going to compound the pain by shaming myself for how I feel.

If I want to dream that something could have made him save himself, who would be so cruel to take that little dream away from me? I don't plan to build any structures on that foundation and it isn't hurting him, that's for sure.

And I share, most of all, because there has been a stunned silence in the wake of my uncle's death. "How can one family have so much loss?" "What do you say in the face of compounded suffering?"

I don't know. Unlike Job, I don't even have a theory. But like Job, I feel judged, blamed, avoided, pitied, feared, misunderstood, fussy and really damn weary.

As for my family, we are all putting one foot in front of the other, getting through each day as best we can, trying to keep talking to each other gently but honestly. We are hugging the children a little too tightly and saying "I love you" more. We are fussing over stupid stuff and apologizing. We don't know what we had for dinner any day since last Wednesday. Our cell phone minutes are all used up. We don't sleep well.

Day after day we do this because there is only one road through grief and it is THROUGH it. Not over, under, or around it. The only way out is through. We aren't courageous, just reasonable.

And we will all get up tomorrow and see what that day brings. Some days we cry. Some days we are angry. Some days we are sick to our stomachs. But one day it will be better than this. So we keep walking through it all toward that inevitable auspicious dawn.

You'd do the same. That was always the lesson of Job to me: you'd do the same.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf says I need a room of my own. I think a nap, a loft, a secretary, a nanny and a well-stocked bar could be more helpful.

If I had a room of my own, I'd just fill it with all those boxes of crap in my attic that I haven't taken to the thrift store. In fact, I had a room of my own. It was my sewing corner. It is now full of clothes to mend, sweaters looking for a summer home, the children's art supplies and another pile of things that I don't have the energy to throw away. I'm no longer sentimental, I'm just really damn tired.

I also had a car of my own. It looks like my children got some weird chewing disease and ground through our belongings leaving nothing but shreds, crumbs, and my blotted lipstick prints. My car has become a possum den on wheels. That is not to say that I don't sometimes get in it and drive nowhere in particular just to feel quiet and alone, as much as that is possible with Ben Nichols hollerin' at me on the hifi and that infernal honkin' sound behind me at stoplights.

My grandmother bequested a man chair to my husband which quickly became a chair of my own. Just last night I wasted some hours and sanity I can never recover on that chair watching "Sin City". Does any movie ever need that many severed heads? In addition to causing me to make questionable choices of cinematic "entertainment" that chair also gives me a neck ache and I have to fuss with the children to sit in it so it is not the throne of my calm. (Hopefully all men reading this are toasting my poor seatless husband at this point because no matter who is blogging it: that man never gets that seat.)

I gave up on the bathroom as the room of my own when the children arrived. As Mom, I am the one person everyone is allowed to interrupt in the bathroom. How did I become the least interesting naked person in the house? Sometimes I forget that I am allowed some privacy and just leave the door open so I can skip the process of screeching, banging and sudden entry most favored by my 5 year old. Today two of my buddies pulled shower shifts in there due to a power outage in Southside and the DIY renovation of a bathroom in Carytown. These are my drinking buddies so I have this dreadful feeling that when I take my shower limericks are going to appear on the mirror and walls as soon as they steam up.

There was a brief and wonderful period when the kitchen was all mine. I picked everything out for its renovation and personally rode herd on the construction crew whom I also picked. The light strip now needs replacing, the floor needs a moppin', the fridge needs a scrubbin, and I feel like Loretta Lynn every time I go in there. Plus both those dudes who used my shower today cook better than I do so I've lost my will to excel in that joint. It has become a place to put the cereal box and the dog bowls.

So I whine and pout about not having a room of my own and then I have a day like today. This morning I toured a shelter for people trying to rebuild their lives. They live in 6 by 8 foot cubicles for a year. For lunch I visited a new friend and broke the bad news that she needs to convert her lovely sitting area of her beautiful historic home to a hospital room for her mother. I then came home and joyfully played hostess to the friends needing showers and the friend coming to get his dog we've been babysitting for a week. And when they all left, I truly missed them and wished they'd all come back.

Now I sit at the dining room table trying to blog and have been interrupted countless times by phones and texts, yelling and hungry children, sneezing dogs, and various reminders of the countless undone chores. And I am gateful for a big heart with room enough for all of this and more.