We returned from our vacation to a difficult reality: my husband’s father has entered into the final stages of a terminal illness. He won’t be with us much longer, and it hasn’t seemed right to post all the happy photos from our trip while our family is so heavy with sadness.
We drove through a hailstorm to visit him on Sunday. My new car took a beating – cracked windshield and hail damage to the body – but it was worth it to see him, to be where we needed to be and where we were needed. A car is nothing. Family is everything.
I returned home last night and tried to go through the motions of normal life today.
I was shampooing carpets at one of our rentals when the machine made a strange noise and began to spew smoke. With the receipt for this new machine in my wallet, I decided to load it all into my car and return it to the store. Backing up, something didn’t seem right. I stopped and ran around the car. Apparently, I’d only set the box of parts behind my car, not IN it, and backed over the damn thing. The good news, however, is that I was able to return it anyway.
A phone call came in on my cell. My mom’s condo building was on fire. She made it out safely and was staying with a friend a few blocks away. I drove by, so much destruction. Her unit was untouched by there is no doubt smoke damage to her belongings. No one was hurt, that’s all that matters.
On the way home I picked up a stir fry for supper. It flipped over inside the bag and the contents came out of the container. Teriyaki chicken and rice smoosh.
My car is damaged but I am safe.
My mom is displaced from her home but it’s only temporary.
My carpet shampooer blew up and then I drove over it but the store still gave me a refund.
My dinner dumped all over the bag but I poured it on a plate and ate it anyway.
Is this fucking day over yet?
No, it’s not. It’s messy and it sucks but it’s life and I’m living it.
My heart feels like it’s going to drop into my feet with dread and grief. I don’t want my sweet, funny father-in-law to go. I don’t want to think about the world without him in it. And at the same time I wish him a gentle end.
We can do hard things. It would sure be nice if we didn’t have to do it all at once, though.
My leg freaks me out.
My heart was pounding when the fibreglass cast was lifted off a few days ago because I wasn’t sure what I’d see below that clinical white shell. If not for the maroon gel polish matching the other foot, I wouldn’t have recognised the foot and leg at all. It was tender and fragile and bruised.
The left foot I know is in perpetual motion – walking, running, bobbing nervously when I sit. It is a partner in crime to the right. The limp, mottled limb I saw emerge from that cast is a burden, a stranger. I felt like I was looking at a kidney or other internal organ inadvertently exposed; seeing something I shouldn’t see, a fragile thing in need of protection. My leg was then transferred into a large, removable aircast and strapped in place beneath layers of foam and plastic. I was relieved it was safely out of view.
It bothered me all day, that encounter with my leg. Never mind the pain that ensued from the new cast, I couldn’t stop thinking about the disconnect I had experienced from this poor hurting part of me that had spent two weeks in exile. I was such a bad leg owner!
But there is one thing I can work to repair right now, and that is my relationship with this estranged part. You see, after I quit drinking and started to unravel the all the emotional junk I have been cramming down inside I had a startling realization: I have a cat-perch in my chest. I was ignoring that parts of my body I didn’t like: my big feet, my coltish legs, my bony wrists and the hand with the amputated finger. The wobbly bits on my belly and thighs. The curves that draw male attention and the lumps that draw self-loathing. I would climb up up up inside myself until I was safely located in my chest, shoulders and head. It felt safe up there. No wonder I have chest pains and headaches! A whole body worth of energy was confined to an area that could barely hold it.
I stumbled into yoga a few years ago. I’d previously dismissed it as too slow and woowoo, but once I tried it I was stuck by the way it relieved the head and chest pain I had constantly felt for years. It got me off my cat perch. At the start of every yoga class, the instructor will often say, “Take a moment to set your intention for this class today.” I have no idea what others’ intentions involve (if you do this please share, I am so curious!) but mine is always the same: to accept and appreciate every part of my body, to be here now in my entirety.
I did the same thing with my life. Anything I didn’t like I would ignore and pretend wasn’t real, wasn’t me. That didn’t happen, I didn’t say that, I don’r remember. I raced to the future in my mind, always anxious to get to the next moment. Always planning, thinking, worrying. Too busy for the now. Definitely not looking back, it is scary back there.
Healing my life involved making peace with the past, trusting in the future, and living in the now. Healing my relationship with my body meant learning to inhabit all of me. This is why I do so much yoga, because I can unhook for thinking and just follow the instructor’s voice: breath in and do this….breath out and do that. I need every part of me to balance and twist and move through the poses. I fill up my body, and it is safe…I am whole.
So I know I can’t allow myself to see this poor broken leg as “other”. I can remove the cast to shower and get dressed, which frankly scares the shit out of me because IT IS BROKEN and one little bump will hurt like hell and possibly screw up the healing, but I force myself to free my foot for a few minutes to give it some loving care. I clean it, roll on essential oils said to speed healing and keep the skin soft, and gingerly run my fingers from toes to knee.
This morning I whispered, “Thank you for breaking so that my knee didn’t blow. You took it for the team. Get well soon, leg.” Then I realized I was talking to it like it wasn’t mine, so I stared at it a little longer until it felt more familiar, and tried not to notice that it needs a shave.
Before returning my leg into its robo-shell, I allowed my feet to just rest side by side on the floor. For the first time in weeks, both feet felt the same thing at the same time and I felt connected. It was a sweet, peaceful moment; just sitting and feeling my feet touch the floor.
If you have exiled parts of yourself, whether physical or emotional, it is worth while to sit quietly and experience wholeness. It can feel odd or uncomfortable (okay, you don’t have to talk to it, unless you’re quirky like me!), but just allow it for a little while every day until it starts to feel natural. It has been a powerful experience for me, and this week I was reminded that it will be an ongoing process, something I will have to keep working at to overcome a lifetime of sitting on my perch.
My last post may have left you with the impression that I had a good cry one afternoon and then everything felt better. That was not the case.
I did feel better for an hour or two, but then the tears would return unexpectedly and with intensity. A familiar tightening of my chest and throat emerged and remained for days; something I used to call “stress” because I was ashamed to say “anxiety”. These symptoms persisted but I knew what to do…
…I knew what to do because of this community’s raw, honest comments about their own experiences, such as the following from an anonymous reader to whom I express sincere gratitude:
Jean….please make sure you call your therapist and please make time for therapy to cope with this difficult time.
My dad passed away in February of this year after a long and courageous battle from Parkinson’s…
How I wish I had asked for help. I hit the bottle HARD to cope and it did not work. I drank because trying to remain present in the moment caring for a parent with Parkinson’s was just too damn hard for me at times and while I couldn’t change the situation I wanted an escape. Alcohol numbed the feelings because I felt emotionally trapped with nowhere to go.
You’re going to have a real challenge on your hands because this next journey is painful and all about having to respond constantly to the unexpected and being in crisis mode – you will not be in control. This alone is a major threat to sobriety and will be a cause for relapse. (Anonymous)
…I knew what to do because other bloggers like Anne of “A in Sobriety”, who has written so openly about her approach to mental health, work to shrivel the stigma and shame around asking for help.
…I knew what to do because nearly 50 years of “pressing on” and “being strong” when I’ve felt this way in the past caused me to embrace coping strategies that were ultimately harmful and self-defeating. I won’t make those mistakes again.
…I knew what to do, so I saw my therapist and my doctor and I told the truth: I am struggling. I have chest pain and throat cramps and I cry constantly. They helped me to see that my body was telling a truth that I could not mentally register: I am grieving a parent who is not yet gone. I am ashamed of my sadness because it feels like I am wishing him dead, and yet I am dreading the indignities of witnessing my father further succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease.
He is literally half the size he once was. He needs help to stand or walk, and gentle coaching to find his way down the hall or perform simple tasks. He speaks in a jumbled whisper as his face and throat muscles have atrophied. This is my father and yet it is not, so the time I spend with him each week keeps the heartache fresh even as I grieve the loss of the man I knew.
In the past I would have drank to quiet these feeling and numb the pain. Now I understand that drinking would have made things worse, creating an illusion of comfort that would silently accelerate anxiety and stall true healing.
I have made slow progress these past weeks, patiently tending my routine responsibilities while waiting for the effects of my medical care and talk therapy to loosen the knots. Also I embraced the self-care I so frequently suggest to others and went for a massage, got a fresh cut and colour, went to yoga classes, switched my coffee to half-caff, and spoke honestly to my family and friends about my situation. On my doctor’s advice, I booked a week on the beach (choosing, of course, my favourite getaway: a She Recovers retreat in Mexico that miraculously had a last-minute cancellation).
My emotions are better regulated and my chest pain is dialed down by half.
Last night came a true test of my progress, serving as emcee at my niece’s wedding. Weddings are notorious triggers for people in recovery, and as the official host for the evening I could not rely on old standbys like slipping out the back door when things got uncomfortable.
Hosting hundreds of Bubble Hour interviews prepared me well for staying comfortably professional in front of a microphone while feeling deeply vulnerable and human and flawed. I focussed on my affection for my niece, the happiness of the day, and the script I prepared in an extra-large font for easy reading. I was in my element, in my body, and in the moment. I gave service by way of warmly hosting the proceedings, and felt grateful for the ability to do so.
My father was seated right before me as I spoke. He is no longer able to smile his big grin or laugh from his belly, but he seemed to quietly enjoy the festivities from behind his hazy gaze.
Now as I reflect on that scene – me at the mic and him in the audience – I realize that I did not look to him for approval: he has none left to offer or withhold.
Maybe that is part of my grief too, knowing that something I spent my life striving for is officially off the table. The notion brings me sadness and relief. I allow myself to feel them both fully and move on.