I’ve been struggling with the need to go back to see a therapist after the one I had started seeing awhile back retired. I hate to think I have to start all over again telling “my story.” It’s such a daunting process and I’ve come to the conclusion that I am very "good" at therapy. I have analyzed, negotiated, rationalized and thought through all my emotions. I know how to communicate them and express how I feel in a very logical, well-thought out way. The good news is, you all know most of my background. So, if its okay with you all, I’m going to use you as my therapist so I don’t have to start over again. What’s more, I don’t have to worry about insurance covering it and there’s no co-pay! Thanks in advance.
We will call this “coping.” Through all my years of therapy sessions, self-help books and medication, the bottom line always remains; How am I going to cope? Through the highest highs and the lowest lows, the question always remains; How am I going to get through each day?
Don’t get me wrong, I have had plenty of ups to go with the downs. I’ve had great successes, great joys and great accomplishments. Some have been out of luck, the rest hard work and determination. I try not to let these things to go to my head. I try to remain humble and remind myself that I’m not so special. Lots of people accomplish great things, far greater than my accomplishments. Lots of people get to do things, go places and enjoy a “good life.” The whole time I have to remember to be thankful for what I to have. Not to take anything for granted. Celebrate my accomplishments, but not brag. I am special, but not that special.
And on the low days when I question why this has to be my life? Why I was dealt this hand? How I am going to play this hand? I have to remember it could be worse. I have to recognize my sadness. My loss. The amount of work it takes to pick myself up and overcome the obstacles in my way can be overwhelming. Some days I want to just curl up in a ball. Some days I just have to cry and lean on others for support. Despite my independent nature, I need validation, love and coddling. Some days I do allow myself to wallow in my sadness and self-pity. Some days I succumb to the paralyzing depression and take to my bed and hope that when I wake up, things will be better.
Each and every day I strive to find a middle-ground. I look to find that place that allows me to take the good with the bad. Never spend too much time on self-congratulations or feeling sorry for myself. Engaging in a balancing act that leaves me teetering ever so slightly on the edge of happiness and sadness…pleasure and pain. I try to be kind and accepting of everyone, but not take shit from anyone. I aim to always remember that I am here for a purpose, and that is to love and be loved. Because in the end, that is what helps keep everything in perspective. It sounds so simple and even cliche, but when the world seems to be crashing down around me, I know that I can come home to a place where there are people whom I love and who love me right back…unconditionally. They are what keep me going and without that love I don’t think I would be here right now. They are the one’s who remind me that even when I don’t love myself, they are there to love me. The love it was trumps everything else. It reminds me that material things don’t matter. It keeps me from letting unimportant things cloud my happiness or wallow in sadness. My family and their love keeps me balanced.
A few weeks ago I attempted to pick up my dad’s belongings at the nursing home he was in before he was hospitalized. It never did visit my dad in this particular home. My uncle switched him there a few years back. It was the place that would “allow” him to stay after we determined he was on an offenders list for something he did in his past that made it more difficult to be accepted into many institutions.
My intention was to go the week after he passed away, but life got in the way. Life, and my selfish desire to return to a place in my life where my dad was no longer a daily concern. Of course, in my defense, the place was geographically undesirable and would require at least 3 hours out of my day and I couldn’t bring the kids. Based on my schedule, that was not exactly easy to come by. I finally carved a day out to venture out to the nursing home and as it turns out, not only is it geographically undesirable, it is just plain undesirable.
I had visited my dad in a few of the homes he had been placed in over the years, and none of them were comfortable or anywhere I would choose to frequent unless absolutely necessary. Most were dirty, smelled bad and had unsavory people lining the halls or smoking at the entrance of the building. It is one of the reasons my children never met their maternal grandfather. His last home was no exception, but was on a whole new level. I immediately saw the gaggle of residents clambering around the front of the building having a smoke break. They all had a similar look to them, whether they were male or female, black or white. They all looked like they could be homeless. Some were talking to themselves. All looked disheveled and “off.” Some had canes or walkers while some were in wheelchairs. Some were even missing limbs.
I entered the office that was a 10X10 room with two desks. I could barely see the second desk amidst all the stacked boxes, piles of paper, wires and general chaos. The floor was filthy and the lighting poor. The receptionist was put-off that I was there since I had called earlier and she told me the person I needed to talk to wasn’t available. I had said I would call back, but decided just to go there instead. I knew if I didn’t just go on the day I had determined to go, I’d put it off again. I figured they had just put his things aside and it shouldn’t be too much trouble. After all, he didn't have much.
They called for the social worker, despite the receptionist’s warning that she was too busy to accommodate my request to pick up my dad’s few belongings. All I really wanted was a blanket from Notre Dame High School that my uncle wanted. My uncle requested that my dad be added to the Veteran’s Memorial at his alma mater. The alumni director at the high school had made it possible for my dad to attend the ceremony and was awarded the blanket in recognition for his service in Viet Nam.
I waited patiently in the front entry way for someone to bring my dad’s belongings and tried to remain invisible. Despite the fact I was wearing all black, I stuck out like a sore thumb and might as well have had on neon colors with flashing lights sprouting out of my head. The characters wandering the halls were a cross between “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest,” “Seven Monkees,” and “Girl Interrupted” all rolled into one.
It was evident several were veterans and I even engaged in a “conversation” where a man mumbled something about Israel…bombs…where he was stationed… how many degrees Celsius it was…Muslim. The rest was incoherent. I tried to smile, nod and feign interest in what he was saying despite the fact the look in his eyes scared the crap out of me.
I’m pretty sure one woman had vodka on the rocks in her tumbler. Another man in a wheelchair was making his way to the door with two cigarettes in his hand and literally shuffled only a few inches at a time before exhausting himself, taking a break and then starting up again only to make it another few inches. I was exhausted just looking at him. The next few people roamed sans-teeth. The nurses seemed immune to the antics going on around them and I could hear on particularly unruly resident coming down the hall telling everyone they were “stupid idiots.” Lucky for me, he made his way to the chair next to me in the hall.
I fought back tears and simply could not believe this was my life. More importantly, this was my dad’s life. The feelings of guilt crept in that I let my father live in a place like this. Then I had to remember he landed himself in this place. There were other homes, he didn’t qualify for them based on his record. I had to remember, I didn’t do this to him.
The administrator of the facility saved me and welcomed me into his office. He apologized for the residence. Little did he know I had seen the likes of these people before, hell I was related to one. He explained that the facility was being reviewed (God help them), so they were very busy. On a side note, please remind me that when they make the movie of my life story, the role of the administrator of this particular facility should be played by Jeremy Piven and he should channel his 30-year old self, bring back the sideways haircut he sported before he had the good sense to crop his hair short. His office was a welcome escape from the freak show going on in the front hall, but it looked like an episode of “Horders.” Jeremy Piven’s long-lost-brother explained that they could not locate the few belongings my dad left behind, but took down my name and number and promised they would locate them and call me.
As much as I wanted to wait for them to find the blanket, I just wanted to leave that godforsaken place. I resigned to leaving without what I went there for, and hoped they could just ship the blanket to me so I didn’t have to return there ever again.
I returned to my car and immediately burst into tears. I couldn’t put my finger on what was so upsetting. Was it that place? Was it my dad’s death and its emotional repercussions creeping up on me after I had suppressed them the last couple of months? Was it guilt for allowing my own father to live in such a place despite the fact he did this to himself? Was it the fact that I failed on my heroic mission to get the damn blanket for my uncle before the memorial service next month? Was it guilt for not going sooner to get his things? Was it fear that I might end up in a place like this some day?
I drove in a daze and almost got killed by an angry semi-truck driver annoyed with my inability to maneuver around a car making a left-turn at an intersection. I tried to call Tom to tell him about it, but couldn’t get the words out to express how I was feeling. It was all too much. I felt like I was in an alternate universe. I decided to stop for lunch and I was wishing I would run into someone I knew simply for some familiarity or even a hug. Of course, the chances of that were slim-to-none since I was nowhere near my home. It seemed inappropriate to ask the checkout person at the Mariano’s salad bar for a comforting embrace.
I choked down my salad and made my way home. Once I made it there, I took to my bed, curled up in the familiar warmth and scent of my sheets and let the emotionally exhausting events of the day take me away into an afternoon nap. What felt like moments later, my alarm was going off to ensure I was awake to get the kids off the bus.
I made myself a cup of tea and waited for my babies to return home from school. I put on a smile and greeted them at the door. I relished in their hugs, listened to how their days went and savored every moment of normalcy I could. When Tom got home from work, I finally broke down for him. I hashed out the details and he asked me just the right question…what exactly got so upset? Even though I couldn’t give him an answer, he was able to recognize the familiar uncertainty I continue to have as it relates to dealing with my father’s death.
I pulled myself back up, just like I always do. I taught my group fitness class with all the zest and gusto I could and came home and put my kids to bed. I made sure I gave lots of extra hugs and kisses said extra prayers of thanks for the fact that despite everything else, I am so blessed.
I had given my information to the director at the nursing home so he could call me when they located my dad’s belongings. Of course two weeks went by and I heard nothing. I decided to call and follow-up and they said they had found the blanket. The same day my uncle emailed me that the nursing home director contacted him for my phone number because he had misplaced it. Shocking, I know. I scheduled a time to head back to the city to get the blanket. I thought about requesting they just ship it, but I wasn’t sure if I gave them my address they would be able to keep the piece of paper long enough to put it on a shipping envelope and keep the blanket in their sites long enough to actually have it shipped.
I found a day I had at least 4 hours to dedicate to my journey and set out for the nursing home once again. I saw the same familiar crowd outside the home smoking and babbling. I had a few men make inappropriate noises at me and I think one wanted to give me candy. I was thankful they had cleaned up the office a little bit since I was there a few weeks prior and that the social worker delivered my dad’s blanket within a few minutes so I didn’t have to stick around for too long. I departed the building as quickly as possible and tried to ignore the calls from the peanut gallery as I walked by and held my breath to avoid a contact high from the guy smoking a joint. Then again, I probably could have used a little buzz at that point.
I got to my car and felt like I needed a stiff drink. Of course, it occurred to me I was in a dicey neighborhood and nothing good could come from me sitting in a bar by myself day-drinking. I still had to drive home in time to get the kids off the bus. No “Mother Of The Year” awards are doled out for moms with DUI’s or who stumble to the bus stop because they felt the need to cry their beer. I opted for a Diet Coke and package of beef jerky for the drive home. Overall, I was relieved. Mission accomplished.
The next step would be the actual memorial. We had to travel down to central Illinois to a small town where my grandmother was from. You know those little cemeteries you see in the middle of a cornfield and wonder who’s buried there? That’s they type of cemetery my dad and his family find their resting place.
My anxiety started to set in over who would be there. There would likely be family members I hadn’t seen in years or one’s I’ve never met. My Uncle Don would be there, and I continued to feel guilty that I could’t rekindle my relationship in the way he envisioned and hoped for his only surviving brother. I knew there would be condolences for my dad’s death, which always make me uncomfortable. When people say, “I’m sorry,” I’m never quite sure what they are apologizing for…his death or his life.
We were originally going to stay overnight in Peoria the night of the memorial, but decided just to make it a there-and-back in one day trip. No need to drag out the event longer than necessary.
Originally my mom was going to join us, but with the premature birth of my nephew, she felt it was better to stay behind based on his condition and ongoing tests and procedures. Tom and the kids accompanied me and I figured as long as I had my babies to hug me, I’d be fine. We grabbed bite to eat before leaving town only to have Maddie get an upset stomach after she ate and tried puking in the bathroom for fifteen minutes before we left the restaurant. I contemplated just leaving Tom and the kids behind and setting out on my own. I could just imagine Maddie puking in the car and driving 2 hours with vomit everywhere. Then, she forgot her tablet at the restaurant and we had to turn around and go back and get it. I thought maybe going down to the service was not meant to be and I should just go home.
We powered on and no one puked. We arrived in Camp Grove twenty minutes before the service and I needed to call my mom to help get us to the cemetery in the middle of nowhere. The small town of Camp Grove still looked the same as I remembered it with the exception of a few buildings that had been torn down, including the church where my uncle’s funerals had been. I’m not sure how we ever found it all those years ago without GPS. Even with our trusty Google Maps app, it took a phone call to my mom from the road to navigate our way there.
We arrived at the cemetery and there were a few women already there. One was a woman named Patsy who was my late Uncle Jerry’s first wife and someone my dad had befriended during his years of nomadic and homeless living. From what I understand, she herself had a checkered past and was instrumental in my dad’s drug abuse. She walked up and introduced herself and her friend and thanked me for coming, almost as if she was his wife. For all I know they might have had a relationship---nothing shocks me anymore. Next to arrive was my Uncle Jerry’s third wife who had driven an old RV from Colorado. Things were already getting interesting and we had only been there thirty seconds.
Soon, one of my cousin’s, who I haven’t seen in several years, arrived along with his daughter and his mother, my late Uncle Dick’s wife. He had been one of my favorite uncle’s and died when I was pretty young. I felt a great deal of comfort seeing them there.
As people arrived, I went to my Grandma Irene’s grave. My dad would be buried right next to her. I never met her, but was named after her. My mom loved her dearly and from what I understand, was a wonderful woman. I was already very emotional at this point being in a place that not only reminded me of my childhood, but also of a childhood lost. I been here when other family members were buried here. As kids, we would go to Peoria to visit family fairly often and usually made a trip to Camp Grove to see my dad’s family and swim at my Uncle John’s house. Of course, as familiar as this place was, it seemed like I didn’t belong there.
My Uncle Don and Aunt Linda arrived and that’s when I really started to fall apart. They are my godparents and have always lived in a different state. While we aren’t very close anymore, we used to vacation with them when we were younger, even after my parent’s divorce. Several years ago, before I began visiting my dad in the nursing home’s he was confined to, I visited with my uncle in Omaha because I was there on business. I tried to talk to him about seeing my dad after not having him in my life for several years and I felt like he kind brushed off my concerns about opening that door again. He seemed to think that since he was my dad, I should sweep everything under the carpet without a second thought.
My uncle began the memorial with a prayer and then said a few words about my dad. They had been very close as children since the other brothers were considerably older and my dad and uncle were only two years apart. My uncles made several attempts to get my dad help for his mental illness, only to have him check out of the facilities just like he did when my mom made efforts to get him treatment. My Uncle Don promised my other uncles he would look after my dad and make sure he was okay. My uncle dealt with a lot from my dad and even suffered some of the same identity theft, harassment and heartache my brothers and I did. While my dad was in the various nursing homes, he was my dad’s medical power of attorney and was called for every single thing that went on with my dad over the years.
He began talking about fond memories of my dad, his time in service in Viet Nam and how happy he was that my dad got to go to the Veterans ceremony at Nortre Dame High School where he was given the beloved blanket and had his name added to the memorial. He shared funny stories about their childhood. He didn’t leave out my dad’s struggles, or how challenging looking after him was. He talked about my dad’s faith and how much he loved his family.
Patsy chimed in with her memories of my dad and that’s when I started to feel anger rise up in me. She was pining away for him like a widow and lamenting on how wonderful and funny he was. How much a part of his life she was and how much she would miss him. I cried through most of the ceremony, but with each tearful word that cam out of her mouth, I began clinching my teeth harder and harder. If I’m being honest, I wanted to punch her in the face. I don’t even recall much of what she said, but at a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore and turned to run for the car. I stopped short, knowing I couldn’t leave and make a scene. I walked to a nearby tree and turned my back so the rest of the group couldn’t see my emotions, but I’m pretty sure I did a terrible job of muffling my sobs. Tom had taken Colin to the car for something, which I later found out was to take a leak on the side of road. Maddie ran to me and held me. I was shaking uncontrollably. I sobbed deeply, my chest was heavy and I had never felt so much pain, rage and sadness all at one time. I could hear some others sharing their fond memories of my dad in the distance as one of my distant cousins came to rub my back and comfort me. Tom and Colin walked up and joined me.
I wanted to turn around and say, “FUCK YOU!!!” They had no idea the pain he caused. The mess he left behind. The crazy he carried with him until the final moments of his life. I felt so alone, like a stranger at my own dad’s burial. I was angry and wished my mom and brothers had been there with me so I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about him. For as much peace as I had thought I found visiting him before his death, it became abundantly clear there was still a great deal of hurt in my heart.
Perhaps it is my own self-doubt, but I still feel like my uncle in particular felt I should still let bygones be bygones and be there for my dad. It frustrated me that no one could understand what we had been through as children and how difficult it was to just let all that go. Many times I tried to imagine what it would have been like if I did come to my dad’s rescue. I think about my brother, Mark, trying to help him while he was in college and my dad would show up at his apartment, unannounced and ask for money, booze or a ride. The distraction eventually led to my brother dropping out of college.
I could have been at his side through all those days living in a home. I thought about how emotional I had been picking up my dad's belongings and how the times I did visit him were challenging to say the least. Again, it did’t seem possible to have that relationship so easily. What really bothers me is, I am the type of person who helps people. Those who really know me, know I will go to the ends of the earth to lend a hand. I will give my time and energy to many charities and causes. It is at the root of who I am. But the one person who I couldn't bring myself to help was my own father. The loss is not only my dad’s lack of presence in my life, but the lack of my presence in his. I wish I could make the people standing around my dad's grave understand how much pain in my life it took to go against my grain like that.
As I stood under the tree with my back to the services going on behind me, I stopped, repeated to myself, “You are not special. There are worse situations than this. There are people in more pain. There are people feeling deeper loss. This is not about you, Michelle. You are blessed with your husband and children and while your brothers and mom are not here in the physical sense, they are here in spirit. You are loved. You need to pull you shit together. You need to cope.” Instead of running away, I pulled myself together. Turned around and returned to the group for the conclusion of the service.
They had their memories. I had mine. All of those things, good and bad are in the past. Death is about the people left behind and how the dead fit into their life. We each had our own experience with my dad and if that is what they want to take away from how he touched their lives, that is their prerogative, not mine. They are grieving too, and while their grief is far different than mine, it is still “their grief.” We all have a right to it. Furthermore, everyone deserves to be seen in their best light when they die. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone airing my dirty laundry in my eulogy. No matter what my dad’s faults, he was a human being. It was time to let it all go.
I said a final goodbye to my dad’s remains. We would all walk away with our own feelings, and despite how powerful and hurtful my feelings were about my dad, I couldn’t put that on everyone else. It wouldn’t be fair and it would be selfish of me. As much anger as I felt toward Patsy, perhaps her purpose in being there was to take me to a even deeper level of my grief and anger and expose it so I could get it out.
My dad is at peace. I know that. As for my peace, I know that will come at some point. It's something I strive for every single day and I don’t think that effort will ever go away. My grief is about a lifetime of loss. Despite that, I feel I hit a defining moment in my life that has shaped me even further in this journey. I’ve had to gather a great deal of strength that only I could conjure up because at the end of the day, it’s my story. Every thought, feeling, emotion, setback, achievement, victory and triumph is because of me, my experiences and who I am at the core. Only I can sort through the pain of what I know and the pain I’ve endured. That is no one else's job by my own.
I’ve learned that there is only so much other people can do to give me strength, that ultimately it is up to me to deal with this life, the cards I’ve been dealt, and how I will play those cards. I can draw from the love and support of my family, but I also have an obligation to my family to get through this and be the best person, mom, wife, daughter and sister I can be.
Like I said, our life on this earth can be boiled down to the ability to love and be loved. My uncle reminded me that I was the last family member to see my dad, and thanked me for that. It was an important time for my dad and I to say “I love you” to each other one last time. I know in my heart my dad loved and was loved. That simple statement brings me great peace for not only him, but for myself knowing that I have that gift in my life as well.
Some of my dad’s cousin’s were gracious enough to invite us to their home for a dinner after the service. Many of their family was already gathering for my Great Aunt Helen’s 99th Birthday. I had seen some of the four years ago when my family and my mom went to her 95th Birthday celebration and have kept in touch over Facebook. I caught up with a few family members and right before we were getting ready to head home, my uncle pulled out a photo album he had put together of some of my dad’s pictures. There were several of him as a boy, some from his time in the service and when he and my mom were first dating/married. There were a few from the ceremony where he was honored at Notre Dame Hight School for the Veteran’s Memorial.
A few of the photos caught my eye and made me smile. Others made me cry. There was one of my mom and dad from some time when they were in their early 20’s struck a chord with me. I was initially astonished at how much I look like my mom. I also saw much of myself in my dad’s expression. They looked so normal. So happy. They looked like they type of people who would raise a family and live a long happy life together. They looked like two characters in a fairytale. They looked like the fantasy of what I always wished for, but never had. While that life is a fictional for me, there was something so peaceful and comforting about those two faces. They represented where I came from; my origins. Whatever the outcome, I was built from love.
No one’s life is a fairy tale. We all have our story. We are all just trying to cope and find balance through our storyline. Each story is different, but the common thread is that we all have twists and turns in our plots, our crosses to bear, our hands to play. It is that struggle that binds us together as humans. I hope whatever your story is, you embrace it. I hope you let it shape who you are and know that you are not alone.