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I’m writing this on the airplane back to Portugal, via a stop in Madrid and a very late arrival tonight. Somehow though, it feels less like we’re going home than leaving it behind. As we said goodbye to our friends at the airport, I had to remind myself that I met them only twelve short days ago. Already these people inhabit a closer place to my heart than many I’ve known for years.

I am completely at a loss as to how I can describe the warmth with which we were treated during our time in Israel. I know it’ll take me a while to process everything, to be able to put things into words. But I do know right now that I will be feeling the impact of this too-short trip for a long time to come. When we were waiting to begin boarding, Gabe asked me if I had had a fun trip. I said yes, of course, but not in a laid back vacation sit on the beach kind of way (we don’t really do that kind of vacation anyway). This trip was, at the risk of being cliched, nothing short of life-changing. It opened my eyes to so many things, to a country and a way of life so refreshingly honest and vibrantly, fully lived that it felt like a homecoming.

Having been there for Memorial Day, I can say that one of the most refreshing things about Israel is that they openly acknowledge the fact that loss is truly universal. Everyone there has lost someone, everyone mourns, and everyone feels intimately the cost of Israel’s continued existence. Death is truly seen as a part of life there, which is a fact that we constantly strive to deny or ignore in the United States. Instead of making people inured or blase though, their intimacy with mortality seems to release the Israelis to enjoy life with greater gusto, to feel things more strongly, to laugh louder and harder than we do, to allow tears to flow down the faces of big strong men with no shame implied or felt.

To my immense relief, this meant that small talk was almost entirely dispensed with when meeting new people. Instead we got right down to the meat of things, and I was soon making dirty jokes with the young men and discussing children with the women. It was such a relief to meet so many genuinely open people, to dispense with the false artificiality of Americans or even Europeans, and to simply be myself — including the darker, less savory aspects.

In fact, I think I talked more about my father in the past ten days than I have in the year since he died, simply because I felt for once as though the taboo was lifted. People were open to hearing my story, and didn’t greet it with false sympathy or discomfort, but rather took it in stride. It was hugely refreshing to no longer feel like a freak, the twenty-something year old with only one parent. Instead, my curse became a shared burden, my shame no longer applied.

I will write more on the culture of loss another time. But for now, I wanted to express how incredibly grateful I am for all that was given to us during our time in Israel, the laughter, tears, meals, and trips that we shared with friends both new and old. I already can’t wait to return, and am busily scheming how we can get away with doing so before too long.

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We spent the weekend with a veritable maelstrom of family, who all came into town for my dad’s third (and final) memorial.

Saturday night we hosted everyone at our little home in the country, with my uncle barbecuing like mad, my mom and aunt creating salad after salad, and our guests bringing many many more salads, chutneys, desserts, beers, etc to place on the long dining room table. They all arrived in a massive caravan, giving the country roads and villages a larger parade than they’ve no doubt seen in years.

In fact, we decided that we hadn’t had a gathering this large since my half-brother’s wedding over 25 years ago, as the intervening get-togethers have usually had at least two or three branches of the family missing. Not this one. I had cousins from Ireland, a friend from Scotland (my dear friend from grad school took the train all the way in from Edinburgh to be here — a total of 12 hours travel), a sister from Reading, brothers from California, Oxford, and London, an aunt and uncle from California, nieces and nephews from all over, and even a great-niece and -nephew from Wales. We stayed up talking, drinking, and of course, laughing. The whole time, all I could think of was how much my dad would have loved having everyone in one place like that.

The thought stayed with me throughout his memorial the next day, as even more far-flung cousins, colleagues, and friends poured in to Oxford to say goodbye to a great man. I was finally able to place faces with names I’d been hearing for my whole life, and they very clearly felt the same way about both Gabriel and I. The memorial itself was lovely, with each person reading a piece of the long biography my mom and half-brother wrote for my dad’s first memorial in February. It provided just enough structure that people didn’t go off on too many tangents, but still provided room for people to share their personal memories, making for much laughter and tears all around.

The day continued with drinks, food, punting, and more food, all of which my dad would’ve strongly approved. We scattered his ashes in the river near one of his favorite pubs, saying our goodbyes in a manner truly fitting to his life.

It was a wonderful and moving day, and I think he more than anyone would’ve had a grand old time. Perhaps, somewhere, he did. I hope so.

Once again, forgive the radio silence. I’ve said before that I process things kinetically, and now is definitely not an exception. These days, there’s a hell of a lot to process, so I pretty much had two choices: run an ultra marathon, or redo our garden. Due to the state of my knees and our friends’ quickly approaching rehearsal dinner in June, I chose the latter.

Thankfully, I have found in the garden a respite from the maelstrom of words in my head, from the relentless clamor of the thoughts and feelings generated by my father’s illness. So I have embraced the hard, exhausting work with gusto, throwing myself into it with the knowledge that by the end of the day, I will simply be too drained to think about anything more than flopping onto the couch. As far as narcotics go, I think it’s a pretty safe way to attain oblivion, that is until I injure myself again (fingers crossed).

Below my search for numbness, however, is the half-realized knowledge that I am creating something beautiful and lasting out of a time of transience and grief. In that, gardening provides the perfect foil for my caregiving responsibilities: beautiful, simple, life-giving, physical labor. And in the end, if something I’m caring for in my garden dies, I just buy a new one, simple as that. Unlike my father, my plants are ultimately replaceable (shh don’t let them know!), so nothing I’m doing here is really all that earth-shattering. Thank God for that.

Before I begin yet another day of labor, I will leave you with an essay called “The Light of Death,” which I read in TIME magazine last night. It is really all I have been wanting to say about death and more. With that, it’s now time to go plant some lovely, simple, undemanding things in my new garden beds. Bliss.

For an introvert, one of the main (and wholly ironic) advantages to having an office job is that it requires you to interact with people other than the one living in your head. While these interactions range from mildly pleasant to downright excruciating, they do have the added benefit of keeping your otherwise poor social skills at least somewhat up to par.

Conversely, finding a vocation that fulfills your inner need to be quiet and alone may feel to you like coming home. Unfortunately, over time it will also make you less and less suited for public consumption, until finally one day you realize that it’s been multiple days since you talked to someone who wasn’t either married or related to you.

At least I have found it to be so since leaving my job. As my inner world has increasingly taken precedence in my daily life, so my external considerations have all but dropped away. So what if “dressing up” these days constitutes putting on my black yoga pants instead of my muddy jeans, or if I haven’t taken a shower in two days? I’ve been gardening! And yeah, maybe I talk to myself a lot more… hey, it’s allowed when you’re in the garden. And the garden center. And Ross. And Trader Joe’s…

OK maybe that’s stretching it, but still, I usually manage to get by without too many mishaps. I even remember to put a smile on my face, quiet my inner dialogue, and go through the motions of small talk with the people I encounter, from the person at the checkout to the various acquaintances I run into around town. Silly me, I thought I had everyone fooled into thinking my life was still normal. Ha.

Then yesterday, while out at the garden center with a good friend, I encountered someone I used to work with. Apparently she didn’t recognize me the first time I smiled at her, because when I caught her eye again, she actually had to confirm my identity. I said, mostly as a joke, “I guess I do look a little different right now!” She replied, with astonishment clear in her voice, “I know, you always look so polished at work!” Read: “Wow, you look like total shit!” Umm… thanks?

The comment stuck with me, and later on it occurred to me: what exactly is one supposed to look like when going through hell on a daily basis?

You see, I’ve had some conflicting input on this front. Apparently, some people think that you’re supposed to look like crap when you’re caring for a dying person. Thus they are surprised to see that you can in fact muster enough energy to lift the mascara brush to your eyelids, put on clothes that match, and perhaps even wash them and put them back in your closet again afterwards. (I’m still working on that latter one today.)

Both my mother and I have had people we know remark with surprise on how good we look. Perhaps they expect the illness to rub off by association, making the caretaker look like they’re the ones who are dying. Or maybe it’s some kind of consolation prize, as in, “Well, your life really sucks, but hey, at least you look good!” I never quite know how to take it. Again, umm… thanks?

Then there’s the opposite side of the spectrum, which usually comes from people who don’t know you that well. Those are the ones who make comments like the one I got at the garden center. I mean, there I was, actually emerging from my self-imposed social withdrawal long enough to spend some time with a good friend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And what, I’m expected to look “polished,” too? Do you think I gave more than 30 seconds’ effort or energy to my appearance after tearing myself away from the garden? No, because that time might have been sufficient to talk myself out of going at all. I just wanted to laugh at her and go, “‘Polished’? Honey, you’re lucky I even got out of bed today!”

I’m not sure what’s worse: people lowering their expectations because they know what you’re going through, or holding you to normal standards when they don’t. Either way, I just wish people would let me go about my stinky, solitary business, or let me get gussied up and feel like a normal human being for a day, all without comment. I mean really. Is that too much to ask?

Once again, all signposts in my life are pointing in the same direction. They are telling me that now is not the time for action, but rather for stillness, for waiting, for watching and learning.

I injured my hip flexor a few weeks ago now, and the recovery has been agonizingly slow. Somehow, in almost ten years of running and practicing yoga, I have managed to avoid many serious injuries. I’ve fallen a couple times while running, which put me out of commission for a week or two each time, and then there was the Rodney Yee back injury incident last year. (My friend and I were laughing so hard during the video — “OMG he said buttock flesh!” — that I wasn’t paying attention to the pose and threw my back out so badly I could barely walk. Watch out for that buttock flesh!)

Other than that, this is by far the worst injury I’ve ever sustained. Quite simply, it is making me insane. Most people welcome any excuse to be inactive, and so do I, for about oh, five minutes or so. But soon I start to get antsy, then jumpy, and pretty soon I am crawling out of my skin. I am like a shark — I need perpetual motion to survive. So sitting still and resting for long enough to heal an injury is not really an option.

In fact, pretty much the only time I know I need to stop or slow down is when my body forcibly requires me to do so. When my grandmother was in the hospital last year, my husband took me out for a walk around the grounds every half hour or so to work out my nerves. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when a terrible cold kept me in bed for almost a full week, that I was finally able to fully surrender to the grief and shock of her sudden departure.

So OK, I get it already: this is another one of those times when I need to slow down and look at life through a different, less frenetic lens. And if I’m not going to do it voluntarily, then my body will do it for me, thank you very much.

But it’s more than just my body yelling at me right now, it’s my whole life. Suddenly, everything is making it very obvious that this is the time to slow the hell down and recover a bit before the next crisis comes along. So after two months, I have finally stopped spending all my energy beating myself up for not working and accepted that this is the best thing I could be doing (or rather, not doing) right now. At last, I am able to relax into the rhythm of having my own life once again, undefined by someone else’s hours or priorities.

I know, I know — rough life, right? But really, at first it made me very nervous that I didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything. There’s a lot of safety in knowing exactly where and what you need to be for forty hours a week. It significantly cuts down on the number of decisions you need to make in life, because most of them are made for you. And trust me, for a long time, that was a very good thing for me.

Now that I have managed to accept this newfound stillness in my life, I have discovered that it holds great promise — if only I can stop fidgeting long enough to actually pay attention. That is the true challenge. It’s so easy to fill all my “free” time with other trivialities and make them into absolutely essential items of business: the garden, exercise, studying for class, etc.

But really, when it comes down to it, none of those things matter right now. The question of where to plant my new hellebore is definitely not an issue of life and death (except perhaps for the poor hellebore itself). No, there are plenty of the latter in my life right now, which does have the added benefit of teaching me how to tell the difference.

So I can say with total confidence that right now, what matters is simply the stillness in my life, letting it be and breathe in the space between crises. This is where the growth comes from, the strength that will get me through the next set of difficulties, and on into the rest of my life. Now if only I could actually learn from my injury is trying to tell me, and sit still long enough to really listen — that would be a real triumph.

Last night, I dreamed of math. More precisely, I dreamed that tonight’s midterm for my Death & Dying class consisted largely of GRE-style math questions, which I was totally unprepared to answer. I have been feeling pretty confident about the test, especially since it’s an open note exam. But in my dream, when I sat down to take the thing, none of the questions were even in my notes because they all involved complex mathematical calculations. Yikes!

Now, keep in mind that I am atrocious at math — I actually scored a 430 (out of 800) on the math portion of the GRE. That is barely even half of the total possible points, and I think you get 200 just for writing your name correctly. I took it again two years later when I was applying for PhD programs, and with three months of expensive tutoring, I managed to bring my score all the way up to a whopping 510. That’s — hold on, I can do this — an 80 point increase. How much did I pay for each of those points? I don’t even want to know. But since my mediocre goal was to get over 500 points, I was disproportionately happy that I did it.

My inability to do math has become something of a phobia for me, which of course only serves to make me worse at math. It’s a vicious cycle. So it is very interesting that my subconscious mind would conflate a test I’m nervous about with the incomprehensible language of math. No, I’m not talking about the midterm here, since I’m not taking the class for credit (and might not even attend the test — yikes!) But it is a class on death and dying, and it has given me a lot of homework that cannot be found in any workbook or solved with any answer key.

No, the test I’m so nervous about that it manifests itself in my worst mathematical nightmares is a different kind of test altogether, one which I have been cramming for almost two years to pass. It involves fun multiple choice questions such as these: How is it possible for my dad to be dying when I’m only 27? Will the amount of anticipatory grief I’m experiencing alleviate or aggravate the amount of grief I feel when he’s gone? Am I spending enough time with my family? Too much? Should I get out of bed today, or should I take out all my frustrations on my garden? Hmm. Choice C, none of the above? Or is it choice D, all of the above?

Little wonder then that my current situation is leading me to have flashbacks to taking the math portion of the GRE. Those concepts were also huge and incomprehensible, and while I knew they were vitally important for me to wrap my head around, I had no idea where to even start.

Somehow, my dream took all of this anxiety and conflated it with tonight’s very simple midterm, which I find fascinating. So, although it violates every bone in my geeky academic body, perhaps I should take the message my subconscious mind was clearly trying to send me and not go to class tonight after all. I think I’d be better off studying for the much bigger test in my life by spending the time with my family instead. Or maybe I’m just that scared of math…!

Recently, I decided to fill up my spare time (ha ha) by taking a psychology class at my local community college. Subject? Death and Dying. Many see this as the ultimate act of sadomasochism, and I have to say, even I was uncertain about it until about five minutes into the first class. Once there, I found that the teacher took on this most difficult of subjects in a funny, honest, and ballsy manner — in other words, a sorely needed breath of fresh air on what is otherwise a truly stifling subject.

The class is taught in a somewhat unique way, in that you meet once a week for a short semester (11 weeks) of class. This is then supplemented by a weekend long intensive seminar on key subjects in the class, which I took this past weekend. Luckily, the weather was appropriately gloomy for spending a weekend with Death and Dying — I couldn’t imagine doing it in April, which was the other alternative on offer. Far too cheerful.

When I told people what I was doing all weekend, the unanimous reaction was, “Good God, why are you doing that?” Even my brother reacted that way at first, but after a minute’s thought, he added, “Actually, that would be pretty cool.” He got it, but it just took him a while to get past that initial reaction to those ultra-taboo words, “death” and “dying”. This is a very telling reaction, by the way, since at this point my brother is almost as comfortable with those concepts as I am. You can’t have a father with a terminal illness and be in the Rangers without increasing your familiarity with death in leaps and bounds.

At the end of the weekend, I came out of that classroom feeling like I’d run an emotional marathon, or at least done a really freaking long training run for one. I was wrung out, exhausted, barely able to think straight, but somehow strangely peaceful. I felt lighter, as though a huge burden had been lifted, just a tiny bit.

I think what made me feel this way was the simple fact that for once, I could talk about my experience candidly and openly without feeling the usual stigma or revulsion that the concept of death usually inspires in people. I didn’t have to watch my words, or moderate them to save other people’s feelings. No, for the first time I was not only allowed but encouraged to speak openly about my experience, and people listened without judgement. I felt somewhat guilty at first for using these poor kids as my group therapy, but I was encouraged when the teacher started asking me questions about my experience with terminal illness. I hoped that it was helpful for the people in that classroom to see someone close to their own age dealing with these issues, that perhaps it made the concept of cancer a little bit more real to them.

However, as I talk about it more and listen to other people’s reactions, I’m finding that many people around me have struggled with similar issues. Here I have been feeling isolated for so long, as if I’m the only person who could ever understand this experience, when all around me are people who have lost someone or are struggling with a loved one’s illness. A couple times now, people have come up to me after class or on the break and talked to me totally candidly about their own losses, baring their souls in a truly heartfelt effort to ease mine. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh, but always there is a connection over the grief that we have in common. Quite simply, it is amazing.

So my question is this — if death and grief are more of a unifying factor than I had previously thought, why does no one talk about it? Death is the lowest common denominator for all of us, no matter what our background, our color, our profession, our culture. We all die, and we all know people who die — some more than others. So why are we still so afraid to mention death, as if in doing so, perhaps it will come true? I am fascinated by this question. I’m not sure if I will ever succeed in answering it, but I think it is definitely one worth asking again and again, even long after I have left this class behind.

All three people who read this blog may have noticed some radio silence over the past weeks. Mostly that’s because I’m dealing with huge and insurmountable Issues, and don’t really want those to be internet fodder, thank you very much. But it’s also because I made the mistake of surrendering my beloved computer, my life’s blood and my muse, the fount of my creativity, over to the most inept and rude crew of computer geeks I have ever experienced in my whole life.

Two weeks they had my computer. Two weeks. For a flickering screen! The initial repair (oh sorry, that would be the initial second repair, since the first one Apple did a month ago didn’t work) only took about five days. But when I got my computer home, sat myself down in my favorite writing spot on the couch, and flicked on the power button… nothing. It booted up with Apple’s diagnostic programs still loaded onto it. Fantastic!

So I took it back in, and all hell broke loose. Initial diagnosis was that Apple had wiped my harddrive — duh. But it’s fine, right, because I paid $80 for a backup the first time that I brought it in for this same repair? Um, wrong. Even though two people had reassured me when I dropped it off that they still had my data and I did not in fact have to pay for another back up, now I was told that oh, by the way, they only keep their backup data for 30 days. And because they had turned me away when it first started having problems again, it had been in excess of that period.

Panic set in. Panic got exponentially worse when I suddenly realized that our wedding video had been shot straight to my harddrive and never copied.

Oh. My. God.

But then a light came through the darkness. They did a full data recovery, and it looked like they had almost all my files. Huzzah! So I went in to choose what I wanted to transfer back to my computer from their master harddrive… only the tech I’d been working with had just gone home sick ten minutes before — and wouldn’t be in until three days later. Fantastic.

I went back in three days later, very excited to have my computer AND my data back intact. The guy sits down at their master computer, starts looking through his files, and goes, “Uh oh. I don’t believe this.” Ummm… what?

Yeah, you guessed it. Somehow, the recovered data from my backup had been erased, written over, dumped, burned, something. No one could tell me what had happened, and no one offered me an apology. I was flabbergasted, but really, all I could do was laugh and walk out of there before I started screaming and crying like a banshee. I am a little on edge these days, after all.

No call came the next day. When I finally swallowed my pride and called the store, they simply told me to come and pick up my computer while they continued to search for my errant data. And still, not a single apology was heard. Oh wait, let me amend that. I apologized to them for causing them the inconvenience of having to search for my data. Remind me how that works again???

So after two full weeks, last night I finally pried my poor amnesiac computer from their utterly inept hands. I even managed not to break down in helpless tears until I was safely back in my car and on the phone with my husband. But the final indignity was yet to come. After I had cleaned myself up and gotten to my next destination relatively on time, I reached into my bag for my pen — only to find that the tech who made me sign off on five different invoices before I could retrieve my computer had kept my best pen. Damnation! They win again!

Since then, it has taken me another twelve hours to even turn my computer on, because I didn’t want to be faced with its poor blank stare and a stranger’s desktop image. Not to mention its harddrive devoid of my documents, pictures, music, and most importantly, a movie.

Not only is all of this devastating in its own right, but right now everything seems to get blown out of all proportion because it inevitably gets conflated with my dad’s illness. So instead of just shrugging my shoulders and getting on with it, I feel deeply violated by this whole experience. The anger and helplessness mirror my emotions around my dad’s cancer, as does the lack of comprehension as to why exactly this all happened.

So yes, I know it’s just a computer, but it’s the only one I feel comfortable writing on, and it’s an integral part of my daily life. The loss of my data is a deeply personal one, and the callousness with which this loss was treated is simply inexcusable.

What lessons have we learned today, children? 1) Always always ALWAYS back up your data yourself; and 2) never ever EVER go to this particular Mac store again.

I realized today that my “little” (aka 6’4″ and 200-odd pounds) brother has now been out of the military for three months. Since then we have spent a lot of time together, starting with walking me down the aisle at my wedding, cracking fart jokes all the way. Hey, at least I was laughing too hard to be nervous.

Next month, that same brother of mine officially enters his mid-20s. Despite his youth, he has seen far more of the ugly, violent side of this world than anyone should have to experience in their lifetime. Come to think of it, we have both been through a lot in the past few years. While he was off fighting battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was at home helping fight for our dad’s life. While the battles we fought were vastly different, in the end we each did what we had to do, and it has changed us both in myriad ways.

Now that we are getting to know each other as adults, it strikes me how much we are still the kids we have always been. We have always been pretty close, simply because we are the only people who can truly understand what it was like to grow up on the planet we came from. We spent our childhood traveling with our parents, and when we were at home in our isolated farmhouse in California, we didn’t have a TV. What’s more, our dad has always strongly resembled Santa Claus, which brought no end of attention and embarrassment to us in our school years. Our family, our travels, and our plain geekiness always set us apart from others, and as a result we grew closer to each other out of sheer necessity.

As adults, the bond we formed on Planet Primrose Lane is just as strong. To this day, we are equally as likely to make a crass joke or recount a line from the Simpsons as we are to discuss more serious matters like our dad, school, relationships, etc. No matter what the topic, our conversations tend to devolve into helpless laughter within a matter of minutes, with no one the wiser as to what exactly we’re talking about — least of all ourselves.

This morning, my brother and I went for a trail run in the woods. Both of our lives are in complete turmoil at the moment, as he transitions out of the military and back into school, and I transition out of work and into taking care of my family full-time. But for just that brief period of time, it was like he had never been gone at all, and everything was fine with our family and the world. It all just dropped away. For that short time, the only sounds to be heard were our feet splashing through the mud and the occasional echo of our loogies ringing out across the silence.

Sometimes, with the right person, the best therapy can be had by not talking at all.

This morning, I put on my layers, stepped out into the cold, breath-condensing air, and I ran. I saw the sun come out defiantly from behind the clouds, I saw surfers getting in their first (or perhaps second or third) set of the day, and grinned as a flock of pigeons took off around me and momentarily included me in their flight.

What made this morning’s run special was that it all took place around the time I would normally have been leaving for work. Instead of walking to the bus stop slowly, relishing those few minutes spent outside, I reveled in a whole half hour of gloriously cold air hitting my face and an early jolt of endorphins to start the day. Suddenly, the transitions of the past week didn’t seem quite as scary any more.

I have spent most of that week adjusting to two new realities: a renewed awareness of my father’s mortality, and the bittersweet realization that I needed to quit my job in order to spend more time with him. The latter development has come about rather more quickly than I had anticipated, which is how I find myself at home on a Monday morning after an early run, finishing my coffee two hours later than usual.

This is the first time in almost five years that I will be without a regular vocation, be it work or school. The last time was when I traveled for three months in between college and grad school, and even then I had something concrete to do (i.e. getting from place to place, on time and in one piece.) This time, it is truly unstructured. There is something frightening about having that much freedom, and I feel a faint sense of unease, as if there are alarm bells going off in whatever place I’m really supposed to be right now. I am slowly getting reacquainted with the concept, but I can say that if all mornings start off the way this one did, I might get used to it a lot faster.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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