Give a Hand, Take a Hand
Today would have been my dad’s 71st birthday. As I sit here writing to you, dear reader, I am preoccupied with thoughts of him, my memories, his illness, and my journey with grief. My dad was a character. He was larger than life, had a heart of gold, a steely drive and ambition, a wicked sense of humor, the ability to right all the wrongs in the world, a badass, and just enough rogue to keep him interesting. My dad was a good son, amazing brother, a loyal friend, and an incredible dad. I feel his absence daily, and although it has been 15 years since he passed, there are times that longing and pain are as raw and fresh as the day I lost him.
In October 2005, he was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. He had developed a lump on the underside of his right bicep. After several months, he demanded his doctor remove it because “we aren’t supposed to have lumps and bumps.” His friend, a surgeon, removed it, told him he had never seen anything like it before in all his years as a surgeon, sent it to the mayo clinic, and told my dad not to mess around in Indiana, to go to Pittsburgh. After 15 radiation treatments, he was declared cancer-free. Then in April 2006, the lump was back, this time with a vengeance. His friend, his surgeon, advised him to go to MD Anderson in Texas or Sloan-Kettering in New York. True to his character, he made his decision to go to MD Anderson because he “just doesn’t like the attitude of New Yorkers.” (If you are a New Yorker, I apologize. I have met some lovely New Yorkers.)
We flew to MD Anderson as a family. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job. I stayed on an extra month or so to see him through his first few treatments. He had the luck of the draw. He had the best sarcoma doctor in the United States; some say the world. His doctor decided to treat this disease fast and hard. He told my dad this disease would not kill him. The treatment would make him feel like he is dying, but this is not a terminal diagnosis. Everyone believed this but my dad. Truthfully, I believe he threw in the towel when he heard the “C” word. I have tried to imagine what it must feel like to receive such a frightening diagnosis. I have tried to imagine the fear, the angst, the anger, the betrayal. I don’t think it is something that can be understood until one experiences it personally.
I lost my dad on July 31, 2006. I remember feeling like I was in quicksand. I went through the motions of helping to plan his funereal, received guests, acknowledged condolences. It all seems foggy now, and I have to think really hard to visualize my dad sick or in his casket. Isn’t it odd how your mind protects you from painful memories? It was the months following his passing that I remember. I chose not to go back to work. We had a huge Victorian home in Brookville that we were painstakingly restoring, and I lost myself in the work. Painting became therapeutic for me. I could just concentrate on the lines, the paint, the trim, or the wall and not think of anything else. I painted our staircase, and I sat painting spindles in three different shades for 14 hours a day. Ripping and tearing out walls, cabinets, or tacky carpet was a release. I stopped answering the phone. I isolated myself. I made excuses not to see friends and family. I worked for days alone and into the nights because Eric was working away at the time. When I acknowledged the world around me, it was in anger. I stayed angry for a very long time. I fumed at the smallest offense. I lost my temper over trivial events. The only time my bibbed wearing buddy has ever thought of leaving me was the months following my dad’s death. It took my mother-in-law sitting me down and telling me about a conversation she had with her son to put it in perspective. I needed help.
I got help; I learned coping skills, I moved forward, I began to heal. It was a long journey, but I didn’t take it alone. I had a wonderful support system. Today, I say that grief is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. It was terrible. It was dark; it was all-consuming. I’m not particularly eager to revisit that time in my life. I was afraid of how I felt, and I am afraid to go back there for any length of time. I go back there today because I believe everything happens for a reason. We are facing difficult times. This pandemic has turned tragic for so many. There are so many of us who are in a dark, consuming place. So many face situations we never imagined, trying to deal with things that are too painful to bear.
My perspective is don’t do it alone. You may feel alone and isolated in your pain put you have an unknown army ready to take up arms and fight for you when you feel as if you can’t fight for yourself. Take a phone call. Talk to one person a day. Make an effort to stay connected. Make that zoom appointment with a doctor or health care worker. Take steps to help yourself. The ability to heal and move forward is well within your grasp. Our journey is made up of ups and downs, highs and lows. Some have the ability to handle grief with grace, others not so much. Wherever you are on your journey, if you’re in a high, lend a hand. If you’re in a low, take a hand. But as always, dear reader, stay safe, stay smart, and wash those hands.