Forged by the Crucible

24 Jul

 

My, what a difference a year makes.  Last year, on this very day, I was caring for my dying father, feeling hopeless and wrung out, like I had no hope that things would ever get better.  I’d lost my mother mere months before, my son was absent from my life, and I was struggling through the final throes of having my youngest son graduate high school by the skin of his teeth.  To say things were bleak would be an overstatement of optimism I certainly didn’t feel at the time.

But oh, how different things are today.

This is not to say that my grief over losing my parents so swiftly has dissipated, or that I don’t still feel the sting of the trials my boys were going through at the time, but today…today is a different sort of trial.

Today, I am just as anxious, just as short of breath, and just as worried as I was twelve months ago.  Today I can’t sleep and I can’t focus, but it’s for entirely different purpose that I wring my hands and pace the floor.

Today, that young boy who felt he knew it all and didn’t care to put in effort in high school is facing an obstacle only a scant few in the world will ever take on.

Today, that sedentary child who had never done a pull-up in his life is thirty-eight hours into what is known as the Crucible, the toughest task the Marine Corps can throw at its young recruits.

crucible

In sixteen hours, if all goes well, my son will hike to the top of a mountain where twelve weeks of intense training will culminate in a ceremony he will remember for the rest of his life.

In sixteen hours, if all goes well, my son will earn the title of Marine.

To say this has been a long road would also be an understatement.  This child…this child tried my very patience and was one tough nut to crack.  I struggled to understand him, to motivate him, and to help him see what I felt he couldn’t see in himself.

What I didn’t understand was that he saw it, he knew it, and he had every ounce of it inside him to make the best of his life.  It just had to come on his own terms, in his own time, and at great effort to be worth it to him.

As his girl says, he likes to prove people wrong.  And every day in boot camp he’s done that.  He’s taken challenges and turned them on their heads, scoring high marks in every test they’ve given him.  He’s excelled in this warrior training, giving it his all and never looking back.

Thirty-eight hours ago he got up in the middle of the night, packed his things, and with his brothers at his side, embarked on the true test of his determination, a task that will put the boy he was through the fire toward the man he will be.

As a mother who has invested her very heart into this boy, I can only sit and hope that all is well with him.

That he continues to face the obstacles with determination.

That he continues to find the courage and drive deep within himself.

That he relies on his brothers and allows them to rely on him.

That he knows how amazing he is and how much support he has at home.

That, come tomorrow at sunrise, he holds that black pin in his hand symbolizing all he has sacrificed and all he has become.

Until then, the control-freak I am has taken a back seat to the worrier I have become.  I’ve created tasks to keep myself busy and diligently followed progress as much as possible through the parent group for his company.

But I still can’t breathe.

I still catch my heart racing and my eyes watering for no reason. I still worry when the phone rings with an unknown number that it may be bad news.

I still worry.

I am the mother of a Marine.  I suppose I will carry this worry with me from here on.

But the pride is worth the worry, because my son is one of the few, the proud.

My son is a Marine.

Being Enough

18 Mar

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A year has passed.  It is cliché to say but it truly feels like yesterday when I walked away from the hospital for the last time, prepared for the weeks of hospice my mother would experience as we supported her choice to die at home.

Nine hours later she was gone, and the first day of this year since began.

Little did I know on that day that I would lose more in that year than I had expected. That my dad would grieve so deeply that he too would soon give up on life and succumb to his own illness, one we had no idea was lurking below the surface on that Sunday in March when my mother drew her last breath.

I wasn’t there.  I think I mentioned that a year ago as I wallowed in some sort of self-pity or guilt or some other emotion I’d yet to sort out.

I wasn’t there.

In fact, I was at home tying my shoes and preparing to return to her house after claiming a night’s rest at home in preparation for my own shifts caring for her when the call came.  My time to care for her never came because she had my son, father, and uncle beside her that morning when she left. They were there, and that was enough.

I wasn’t there to provide the support she needed, and in some ways I think that has been characteristic of the past twelve months.  I’ve simply not been there.

I feel as though that sentiment reflects the past 365 days. I’ve been largely absent from my own life.

I have gone through the motions, have remained busy, and have pursued work and hobbies with dogged dedication. I’ve poured hour after hour of effort into tasks attempting to fill a void I didn’t even know existed until today, really.

In the span of that year, my son came home, and I can’t explain the joy that accompanied his return to my world. But I still carry a hole I fear won’t ever be filled.

The hole isn’t the loss of my mother, exactly, or the loss of my father months later.  Rather, as I’ve sat listening to my own mind over these past twelve months I’ve come to understand that this hole is born of living a life I felt was never enough.

I used this phrase with a friend recently, and while she told me I was most certainly enough, I’ve never quite felt that to be true.

I’m not blaming my parents for that, although as parents I suppose we all impact our children in ways we could never imagine.  In my case, my mother always spoke of not wanting children or of wanting a son…of not wanting a redhead with brown eyes simply because my grandmother did.

Of the way she envisioned her life as opposed to the way it turned out.

Most of this was said with the candor of a woman who intended no harm and instead was communicating simple truths.  No blame there.

But as my young mind heard these things, I somehow came to own that I wasn’t what they wanted and never could be because if they never wanted children, they would never have wanted me.

I understand that my parents were not unhappy with having me, that they took pride in my accomplishments, and that they loved me.  I understand this in ways I can’t communicate.

But I also understand that the child whose greatest wish was to be a child someone wanted (not a child someone had) grew into this woman who lost her parents and can’t ever be that for them.

That I failed them in the greatest way possible, simply by being who I am.  That I could not make up for that in anything I tried or did, even in those last days when I wasn’t present enough, or didn’t say enough, or didn’t…enough.

And I can’t change that now, even a year after my mother died.

Today I felt her loss deeply as I reflected on the way I’ve failed to gain traction in the past year.  I felt her loss in the telephone calls I no longer make, the text message strand I sat thumbing through in a long meeting at work, and in the musings of my thoughts during my drive home.

I remembered some of the last things we talked about and wished I’d had the conversation with her about how I’d tried to be what she wanted and how I hoped that, in some small way, I’d accomplished that.

I’ll never have that conversation, and rationally I know that she would have said I was and I did.  But if the past twelve months since her death has taught me anything, it’s that the words we don’t say are heavier than those we do.

So tonight, I’m committing myself to a shift in my thinking.  Instead of feeling like I need to be something to someone, I’m going to try to remember what she was to me.

She was a woman with a distinct laugh and sense of humor that carried her through difficult times.

She was a close friend to some amazing women who were with her to the end.

She was a daughter to her mother and father who passed before I knew him.

She was a wife dedicated to her husband, my father, for fifty years.

She was a sister to her twin who was beside her at the end.

She was a grandmother to three amazing grown men.

She was a Brownie troop leader when I was small.

She was a softball parent and board member.

She was the team parent at football games.

She was Suzanne E. Goff-Shamburg.

She was my mom.

 

Suzanne E Goff Shamburg

February 11, 1951-March 18, 2018

Discarding all of this

1 Jan

Today is the first day of a new year, one that begins on the tail of what may go down as one of the most chaotic and heart-wrenching twelve months of my life.  The year started off well but quickly went downhill and even in the waning days never ceased delivering blow after blow of sadness, despair, and defeat.  I personally experienced unfathomable loss but lay no claim on the year as solely a year of my own grief; rather, I shared the year with close friends who received news they never wanted to hear and woke up to find their lives altered in ways not one of us ever imagined.

It almost seemed as if we were moving from day to day in a fog, ducking to avoid the next blow and simply trying to keep our heads down and move through the motions of being alive. It was surreal at times, to be honest. Two years ago when I had ankle surgery I thought I’d reached a low, and 2017’s shattered wrist almost seemed like a bully kicking sand in my face.  I never thought then, however, that I’d be where I am now.

But where am I now?

I’m numb.

First Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Years have come and gone and I felt no joy in any of it.  I put on a façade for my children and tried to do my best for my friends, but in all honesty if I were asked about the details I couldn’t tell you.  I got up, did what was expected of me, and pretended that all was ok.

It wasn’t.

It isn’t.

Today, I had to admit that.

You see, I’ve yet to completely sort through the remainder of my parents’ belongings.  I locked the door on the house in September and have not personally been inside since then.  I’ve had friends and my boys checking in and slowly packing boxes, but I have not.  This afternoon, I opened my garage to find some of my mother’s things – impersonal items from the house – stacked on a workbench.  They were brought home with good intentions, stored away until the time when I can face the task of deciding what to keep and what to discard.

It’s the discarding I have a hard time with.

I’ve said before how dreadfully poor my family was at times during my upbringing, how hard my father worked just to make sure we could eat.  My parents didn’t own a home of their own until I was a married woman and the furniture that stands in their bedroom is the same I remember from being in elementary school.  They rarely indulged in anything for themselves and always lived in fear of the time when there wouldn’t be enough. In the end, there was not enough but I made certain it didn’t matter.

What does matter, however, is that they scraped and scrimped for every last item in that house and now it amounts to so little.

What meant so much to them is now mine to discard.  I’m somehow in charge of relinquishing the things my parents owned.  There is no value in any of it, save for sentimental, and if I were to move forward on sentiment I may never have the courage to let go.

Of the stereo my mother was so proud of being able to buy when I was a teenager, the one that plays cassette tapes and records and takes up an entire wall.

Or the countless music boxes my father bought as gifts for her, carefully kept in a curio cabinet that is itself a relic of the 1980’s.

Or the memorabilia from the days when the Sacramento Kings were my mother’s favorite team – an entire room of keepsakes collected by a fan with unparalleled dedication.

Of the framed lace piece I brought for her from Bruges and the delicate strand of paper butterflies I picked up in Giverny on my first trip to Europe (my parents never made it to Europe).

My father discarded many of my mother’s things shortly after her death. In a time when I was unable to face going through them his grief required him to sort and discard, leaving little behind in the way of her clothing or personal effects.  Those things I do not have to sort.

I’d like to say he did the same with most of his things, but the truth is my father really never had things.  The three pairs of jeans, six pair of socks, and handful of t-shirts in the closet accompany the two pair of shoes he owned.  The rest of the drawers were empty on that day after he died when I opened them aimlessly searching for something I couldn’t pinpoint.

It’s this sparseness that cuts me, takes my breath, and makes it impossible for me to consider throwing those things away. They had so very little, who am I to determine what matters and what doesn’t?  How am I to be the one to pack boxes I know will make their way to the thrift stores and quite probably into trash receptacles because the items simply aren’t worth selling?

I can’t do it.

But I must.

Tomorrow begins work on their home before I put it on the market to sell it.  They never let me do much when they were needing it; the only thing I was able to do was help buy new carpet a few years ago to replace the 25 year-old rug they lived with.  I’ve suffered so much guilt as I consulted with the roofer who will install new shingles (they should be here to see it) and the plumber who will install the shower in the front bathroom which now has only a bathtub (they should be here to use it) and the company who will install the newly-selected granite counter in the kitchen (my mom should be chopping vegetables on it). I cringed as I selected the new dishwasher to replace the one that hasn’t worked in years and the flooring to replace the laminate I now remember helping to install in the kitchen nearly twenty years ago.

All of these things should’ve been done when they were alive and deserving, and instead I was busy trying to keep ahead of raising three boys.  I should’ve insisted they allow some of this to be done, but instead I struggled with my own finances, determined not to find myself where they were in my own retirement.

Instead I’m doing it now and the only people who will enjoy it will be the new owners who (hopefully) build a new life and begin a new family in this starter home that was my parent’s only home.

It will soon be empty because I will have to discard what remains.  I’ll have to go there and face what I’ve yet to be able to face, and do it with dignity.

Someday, hopefully, soon, I’ll put the key in the lock for the last time and walk away from everything my parents worked so hard to have, everything they valued.

I only hope that, in discarding all of this, I’m not discarding them.

Because it feels that way.

The only place they’ll exist after that is in the hearts and minds of those who remember them, and I’m trying so very hard to make certain my boys do just that. There won’t be family heirlooms to carry their memory, just small items I hope my boys will someday see as those treasures hard won by people who lived every day hoping to make it to the next.

I myself have no idea what I’ll keep, but it’s likely to not be much more than the guilt I’ll always carry for never being enough of anything to have made a difference for them.

That’s enough. I don’t need anything else.

A pathetic excuse for an apology

10 Oct

 

I saw my father tonight.

Well, I didn’t really see my father, that would be impossible since he passed away two months ago, but…I did.

For reasons that belong to mothers who are mentally and physically exhausted after a long day at work, I stopped to pick up dinner for my son on the way home. After ten hours of nonstop meetings and hard decisions, I simply didn’t have the energy to stand in front of the stove, so the choice was made.  And in retrospect, while I don’t have a faith that any person who actually possesses one would recognize, I think somehow tonight I was meant to be where I was, when I was.

As I stood waiting for my order to be filled, I noticed a small table toward the back where an elderly man was seated.  He was alone, and what caught my eye was not the man himself but the brown t-shirt he was wearing.  It was old and worn, the neck stretched out and hanging slightly askew.  The shirt hung on its wearer’s thin frame, draping and folding as if ashamed it couldn’t do more for the man underneath.

It was my dad’s shirt.

The one he was wearing the morning I woke up and he didn’t.

The one he was wearing when I walked down the hall to check up on him and saw him sitting still in his chair, lifeless.

The one he wore when they wrapped him in the shroud and took him away from me forever.

It startled me to see that shirt and took my breath away, if I’m being honest.  I was a bit irrational for a moment, until I looked at the man wearing the shirt.

Then I became completely irrational.

I had to make a conscious effort to gather myself then and there, or risk losing it in the lobby of a rural fast-food restaurant where they’d likely assume I was a madwoman.

The man was old, probably around my father’s age, with only a few wisps of hair on his head just as my father had in his final few days.  He was eating something and seemed intent on receding into the bench on which he sat.  He mumbled to himself as he ate, and his hands shook as he ate.  Bite after bite, his frail hand would slowly rise to his mouth where he would break off a bit and chew with his toothless mouth.  His hand trembled as he lowered it back to the table, only to repeat the sequence again and again.  He was alone and intent, his eyes never raised from the task at hand.  In his isolation, he never acknowledged anyone else in the restaurant.

I sat there watching, suddenly returning to the last time I tried to get my father to eat.  He’d refused, pushing the fork back at me and denying even a small bite.  Earlier, as I’d tried to get him to take a drink of water, he’d accused me of trying to drown him.  I got frustrated and it was evident in my voice, I’m sure.

Days before, he’d accused me of lying about what was in the refrigerator, and had taken my oldest son to task for trying to starve him. But on that day, that last day when we even tried to get him to eat, he refused and I was stern in response.

The doctor had told us he must eat to maintain strength.

He was refusing, like a child refuses to eat his vegetables.

I was trying, and I was upset that I couldn’t make this man understand the importance of my endeavors.

The man in the restaurant wasn’t alone, as it turns out.  As I struggled with my own demons there in the lobby, I noticed another table of men sitting together and realized they were residents of the nearby group home. The man I’d been watching was likely mentally disabled as were most of the residents there.

I drew in a sharp breath as I realized that my father, in the end, was also mentally impaired.  He lacked the capacity to understand what was happening, much like this man probably struggled with everyday things like eating.

What the Hell was wrong with me?

I spent my days working to support individuals with disabilities, but when it counted, I was a miserable failure.

I failed my father because I didn’t understand.

All the mental self-flagellation in the world would not change what I had done or who I was in those last few days when it counted.

When I was impatient, unforgiving, and unkind.

When I raised my voice because he wouldn’t stay seated where I left him.

When I insisted he had to eat whether or not he was hungry.

When I told him he had to listen to me because I knew what was best.

When I cursed as he fell and took us both to the floor, not knowing that ten hours later he’d be gone.

There is so much that should have been, and so much that was.  None of it is anything I’m proud of, and most of it is reality I wish I could go back and change.  The truth is, I could use the excuse that I didn’t know he was as close to death as he was, but that isn’t any sort of excuse. It shouldn’t matter if he had one day or ten.

The truth is, sometimes I was scared he wasn’t as close to death as he was.

And that, I suppose, makes me a horrible person.

So, there are some things I need to say, and if you want to stop reading now, I suggest you do.  These words are selfish words, put out into the universe because I hope they will help me feel better about me, not because I expect he’s anywhere to know I’ve said them.  They are the words of a woman who will never have the chance to make right what was wrong and a pitiful attempt to absolve myself of a burden I should rightfully bear for the rest of my days.

They’re an appeal to someone – anyone – to take the guilt from my shoulders when I have no right to ask such a thing.  So here I go…

I’m sorry, Dad.

I’m sorry I left you alone to hear your prognosis when I should have held your hand.

I’m sorry I sat stone-faced in the car on the way home when I should have had words of support.

I’m sorry I said I didn’t want to talk about the end when you did.

I’m sorry I worked on days when I should have been with you.

I’m sorry I was frustrated with your forgetfulness, and I’m sorry I spoke harshly when we disagreed.

I’m sorry I nearly fled on the first day of chemo when I was relieved to have you in the care of someone else for a few hours, and I’m sorry I became so irate when they wanted me to stay.

I’m sorry for making you eat when you weren’t hungry, and I’m sorry for not trying harder in a kind way when I needed to make sure you had nourishment.

I’m sorry for wishing you silent and still and not realizing that soon you would be far too much of both of those things.

I’m sorry I asked your nurse for help in settling you down, and I’m sorry I argued about your meds.

The meds…

Dad, I’m sorry for the meds.

I’m sorry for not knowing what and when and how much, and I’m terrified that I got it wrong.

I’m sorry if I did, because in my mind, that’s certainly why you were gone too soon.

Mostly, I’m sorry for running from the house into the warm night after finding you gone, leaving you alone in the home you shared with my mom.  I’m sorry I wasn’t woman enough to sit with you and be there in the last minutes of your life and in the hours after when the funeral home employees were there to take you.

I’m sorry I left you, Dad, and I’m sorry this was my fault.

I’m so sorry.

Me Too

26 Sep

 

It’s 1993, and I’ve graduated from college with my Bachelor’s degree a scant eight months before.  I’m employed by one of the largest accounting firms in the world with a job that is comprised of about 60% travel, so I’m away from home quite often.

On these out of town assignments, which usually last a few weeks, I stay in moderately-priced hotels meeting the firm’s expense standard.  The places we stay aren’t fabulous, but they aren’t bad, and I’m with the rest of my team so I feel pretty safe.

Well, I felt pretty safe.

The memory, when I choose to recall it, isn’t clear at all.  It’s blurry and difficult and surreal.  It feels like it happened to someone else, but, if I close my eyes, I can hear the sounds, smell the smells, and – repulsively – feel the sensations.

Why that is repulsive will be revealed to you shortly, but first I must tell the story.

My story.

Mine. I have to own this.

I should start by saying I was on a job with people I trusted and enjoyed working with very much.  Our Senior, or lead, was a woman I respected and felt I could learn a great deal from and I valued her opinion greatly.  We had been on this particular job about two weeks, going home on the weekends and staying over in the small Central Valley town during the week.

The town had little to offer in the way of lodging so we stayed at a motel just off the freeway, less than a mile from our client, with a nice-ish restaurant in the parking lot.  Our rooms were on the second floor toward the back of the place, although that’s really not relevant I suppose.

Because we worked twelve hour days, we ate most of our dinners in the aforementioned restaurant.  After two weeks, we had come to know the staff fairly well.  My Senior had been on this job before, stayed in the same place, and eaten at this restaurant many times in the past; as a result, she had struck up a friendship with a waiter whom I found to be a pleasant guy.  He was a little older than I and possessed of a self-assurance that drew people to him.

Excellent for a person in customer service, and excellent for someone whose purpose in life is to earn the trust of others, which he did.

But I digress

At any rate, one evening – it was a Thursday – we were looking toward wrapping up the audit for the week and heading home early on Friday. Through some twists and turns of the conversation at dinner, we all agreed to go into town for a drink to celebrate the upcoming end of what was our busy season.  The waiter offered to show us a place he said we’d enjoy and we gladly took him up on it.

The details of where we went and how long we were there aren’t important.  What is important is that this story – as boring as it has been – takes a tragic twist at this point.  For twenty-five years, that twist has remained silently hidden in my mind and not divulged to anyone.

By anyone, I mean anyoneNot to my friends, husband, or my parents.  No one.

You’re hearing it here for the first time.

You see, at some point early in that evening, the rest of my team decided they were going to head back to the hotel without me.  I can’t remember exactly what the driving arrangements were, or why they left me in the care of the waiter, but they did and I was, and at no point up to then did I feel anything other than safe.  He was going to take me back to the hotel and all would be well.

Spoiler alert:  it wasn’t.

Before agreeing to take me home, the nice waiter bought me a drink, my first and only of the evening.  At some point, finding no reason why I shouldn’t, I let my attention drift from that drink.  My eyes were likely not off the glass for more than a few minutes but that truly is all it takes, my friends. I’m quite certain it didn’t taste any different, and I’m quite certain it was the only one I had.

If you’re a woman, you know (or have heard) the warnings against leaving a drink unattended.

The rest comes in flashes, like the evening was lit only by a strobe light.  I remember looking at the drink – it was an intense purple and to my mind, it seemed to glow in the glass. Something was off about it, and about him.

I remember heading to the bathroom after telling him I wasn’t feeling well, and sitting on the ground in the stall for what felt like hours.

I remember two well-meaning women coming in to get me, telling me my friend was worried.  I protested but they delivered me to him, staggering and barely able to hold onto my purse.

I remember collapsing on the grass in front of the restaurant and feeling him scoop me up to carry me to the car.  I heard him tell someone I’d had too much to drink and I tried to protest that I’d only had one drink, but the words wouldn’t come.

I don’t remember the drive back to my hotel room, and I don’t remember going upstairs.

I don’t remember opening the door with my card key.

I do remember his insistence that I kiss him, and my attempts to shake my head no.

I do remember being pushed backward onto the bed and trying to sit up time after time without success.

I do remember my panic at not being able to fight back and I remember saying “Please don’t” over and over and over.

I blacked out, or passed out, or whatever you care to call it, and woke the next morning stripped naked in my hotel bed, unclear on what had happened to me. For reasons that are clear to all women, I shortly became clear.  Disgusted, I made it to the bathroom where I vomited multiple times and sat in the shower for as long as I could bear it.

At some point I realized I was late to work and wondered why no one had come by my room to check in on me.  Somewhere deep down, I panicked at the thought that someone had, and that they knew.

That someone had checked in, realized what had happened, and left me there.

I begged the universe for that not to be the truth.  I wanted them to have forgotten me because that was better.

I dressed, threw my things in my car, and headed to the client’s offices.  I could barely make the drive and had to pull over twice in two miles to vomit again and again.  Arriving at the site, I composed myself and walked in the back door to be greeted by my Senior who chastised me for being late and for – in her words – obviously drinking too much the night before.

I froze.  I wanted to tell her what had happened, to ask for her help, to seek guidance as to what one does after something like this happens, but I couldn’t.

I didn’t, and I let her berate me then and for the rest of my time with that firm.  She carried a poor opinion of me from that day forward and I’m certain she shared it with others. I worked my ass off to prove anyone wrong who believed her, and I know I worked twice as hard as my colleagues as a result.

It really wasn’t her fault, because she had no way of knowing that something like that had happened to me; I didn’t tell her.

Wait, back up.

Something like that.

No, not something like that.

That.

Why can’t I say it, even now when I’ve determined to put it out there for the world to know?

Something like being raped.

Raped

I was drugged and raped in a hotel room in Merced, CA in 1993. 

It took me a quarter-century to say that, and it’s not that I don’t know what happened, or even that I’ve forgotten the details.

I know his name.  I could pick him out of a line-up even today.

So why?  Why hold onto that?

Well, boys and girls, let me tell you exactly why, and make a supposition about why many women make the same decision.

It’s not only that we fear no one will believe us.

It’s precisely that we fear they will, and with that belief will come judgment.

I was married and the mother of a young child.

I was an only child of parents who had little and worked hard.  They faced adversity nearly every day and had hopes that I would turn out to be something great.

I’d graduated college and had a fantastic career.

I was (allegedly) smart.

But if I weren’t smart enough to avoid this situation, was I really as smart as they hoped?

How much disappointment could I bring to my parents if they knew that I’d placed myself in the position to let something like this happen?

So I held it in, and I pretended it never mattered, and I blamed myself for not being smart enough to keep it from ever happening.

I’ve spent most of my life believing that what happened to me would never matter (if no one knew), and truly I probably wouldn’t have uttered it even still if either of my parents were alive and apt to feel shame over the situation.

But they aren’t and recent news stories have eaten at me as I watch the mainstream media tear into women who have chosen not to disclose what happened to them.

I’ve heard men in leadership positions imply (and outright claim) that women are lying about sexual assault because they tell their stories decades after the events, and it makes me sick.

I simply can’t understand why anyone would think a woman would make up a story like this and go public with it given the immediate shift her life will take after uttering the words. Trust me, the simple shame I feel in writing this piece is enough to make me want to hide from everyone I know who may read it.

I’ll never be able to look at any potential reader and think you’re not silently judging me, but it’s important that I not sit on this any longer.

Judge away, I can’t stop you.

But I can try to educate you.

I don’t care what your political leanings are, and I don’t care who you follow.  I don’t care what you eat for breakfast or who you share your life with.

I care that you read this and understand a little more about why a woman – any woman – wouldn’t tell her story.

In this particular instance, why an ambitious, career-minded female would choose to go to work instead of disclosing that she’d been raped the night before.

Why she’d endure the judgment of co-workers determining she was unreliable instead of a victim, and why in the remaining three years she spent in that job, she chose to commute daily – up to two hours each way – to avoid staying out of town again.

Why a wife would fear the disdain (or rage) of her husband if he found she’d been violated, and why she became distant and withdrawn from intimacy until tests came back reasonably certain she’d not been exposed to anything deadly.

Why the child of proud parents would not want to let them down by finding out she’d made a stupid decision that resulted in such a crime, and why she held that secret close until they were gone.

No one was punished for what happened to me – well, except me, because I’ve punished myself day in and day out for years.

No one ever will be punished, and I’m not sure punishing him would even make a difference now.

That’s ok.

Because even though I’ve questioned every stroke of the keyboard that went into typing this, and even though I’m still not sure I want everyone to know, I feel as though I can’t sit quietly and let character assassination happen from ignorant viewpoints who don’t understand the whys behind the actions of victims of sexual assault.

I have a voice, and I have my own answers to those accusations.  Shouting them at the radio during my morning commute is no longer enough.  If I’ve educated even one of my readers on why a story about sexual assault that happened thirty years ago is as valid as a story about one that happened last night, I’ve done something right with a very bad situation.

Now you know.

#metoo

A Second Trip to the Sea Shore

4 Sep

Once again, the drive is familiar.  We’ve done this before, a few months ago, only this time all of my boys are with me.  We wind through the country roads, over hills baked golden in the summer sun.  As always, we top a small hill and the Pacific comes into view, its expanse taking my breath away.

Four months ago, we were here to give my mother to the sea.  On that May day, we held my father steady as he crossed the loose sand carrying a package that was priceless to him.  We leaned against the rocks, removed our shoes, rolled up our pants, and walked with him into the surf where he bent to open that package and release her ashes into the receding waves.  She was joined by irises he’d grown for her, flowers that chose to bloom immediately after her death as though to remind him that she was still around.

On that day, my father looked so small and frail, but he made us promise that we’d do this very same thing for him when his time came.

We promised, thinking to ourselves that we’d have a long time before that trip had to be made.

Oh, how wrong we were.

Today, my sons helped me make that same trek across that same sandy beach, toward those same rocks we used to prop ourselves up a few months ago, and into the surf where this time it was my turn to carry such a valuable parcel and bend toward the turquoise waves.  We were joined again by friends who are really family and family who came thousands of miles to see my dad off as he took his final voyage. I wish I could say I handled the task with grace, but really I didn’t, and instead I fumbled my way through what should have been the job of a better woman.

But I was who he had and I did my best, making certain that he was honored in the way he would have wanted.

If I keep telling myself that, someday it will be true.

I watched as the waves carried his ashes, a long, thin stripe of brown standing in stark contrast to the blue water.  I stood motionless as first they brought his ashes toward me and then quickly drew them away, and in that moment I think I realized the full gravity of what it meant to let him go.

It’s hard to explain how complete and utter loneliness feels, but today I came as close to that feeling as I think I ever have. I watched the ashes of my father move away from me with the irrational desire to call them back.

I didn’t want him to go, even though he was already gone and had been for a month.

I wanted him back in that urn, back on the table next to the picture of my mother.  I wanted to know where he was, even if the he wasn’t really him.

What had I done? 

My father, the man who had lamented his loneliness after the death of his life partner, was now no more than particles surrendered to the sea.

He was gone, and I was alone.

Utterly, completely alone.

I had a moment where I understood this to be irrational and I looked around at the love my boys were sharing with one another, the love my mother’s best friend and her husband had for our family, and the love that had brought my uncle and his family from so far away.  I knew this meant I wasn’t alone, and yet…I was.

And I am.

I rationalized today by telling myself that it wasn’t about me, it was about his wishes and the dedication he and my mother had to one another. I’ve spent the afternoon telling myself this was absolutely how it had to be, how it was meant to be.

How happy they’d be that I followed through on this.

But it doesn’t help.

In many ways I feel like a small ship on that vast ocean I stood before today, tossed around and completely out of control.  I have no rudder and am drifting, trying to make sense of who I am and where I’m going now that the role of daughter is not one I continue to fill.  I’ve always felt like an outsider, but today I’m outside even the three-person family that was all I had growing up.

As my father’s ashes receded from me, so too did his presence.  Neither of my parents wanted a memorial, and there will be no place save this small slip of sand to visit when I feel distant from them.

When I go, so will they, and there will be no mark on this earth as to their existence.

Maybe I did the wrong thing.  Maybe I’m hyper-focused on it because I don’t know what the right thing would have been, if not this.

All I know is that I’ve held it together through the loss of both of my parents by putting up a dam to hold back what I couldn’t face because I didn’t have a name for it, and today the ocean waves wore cracks in that dam.

The dam finally broke this evening as I sat watching the sun set, and what came pouring out is ugly and unpleasant and completely crippling.

Today was supposed to be closure. Instead, it was a complete failure on my part to deny the truths I don’t want to face.

I don’t know what lies before me nor do I know how I will put on my stoic façade and face the world.  I don’t want to grieve anymore, and yet it seems I’m not being given a choice.  It is there, and I can do nothing to stop it.

This process is unfair and it hits below the belt when you’re not looking, and my first instinct is to run to my mom or my dad.

Dammit.

It’s despair, this feeling I didn’t want to name.

Despair.

And I don’t want it.

I want to give it to the ocean like I gave my mom and then my dad, but the ocean won’t take it.

And honestly, I’m not sure I can take it, either.

Forty Days and Forty Nights

6 Aug

 

The drive feels familiar.  I pull into the lot with the same anxious tightening in my chest I remember from mere months ago when I was in the same place, for the same reason, doing the same thing.

I’m early and it’s hot, so waiting in my car isn’t really an option.  I make the slow climb up the steps, one by one, dreading the moment I’ll pull the door open and set foot on the threshold of yet another ending.

I remember telling the woman – Sherry was her name – that I appreciated what she had done for us but that I hoped not to see her again anytime soon.  How wrong I was.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  So soon.

A wave of chilled air hits my face as the door yields and I step into the building where the same leather chairs and peaceful music await me.  I choose a seat toward the back, where I hope to remain unnoticed until our turn comes.  The side rooms, I notice, are all occupied by people with blank looks and drawn expressions and I suppose the look on my face must mirror the ones on theirs.

A kind and soft-spoken woman – not Sherry – comes to greet me and tell me she’ll be with me in a moment, apologizing for the wait.  I tell her I’m waiting for my son and that there’s no rush.

No rush indeed.

This entire thing has been a rush, and if anything, I’m now ready to slow it down.

Forty days.

Forty days and forty nights is all that passed from the time we learned my father had cancer until the moment I found him sleeping in his recliner, never to awaken.

Forty damn days. 

The doctor said a year.

He went from an upset stomach to a backache to disorientation in just about twenty of those days.  The last twenty were a blur of declining mental state, loss of strength, and a general descent into incapacitation.

In the last week, he went from asking when he would feel better to asking how to end it to not being able to ask anything at all.  He went from walking down the hall of his own home to all of the indignities I’d previously imagined in the space of seventy-two hours.

I’ll admit to wondering, more than once, how I would go on like that for weeks or months but in the end, the worry was for naught.

In the last twenty-four hours of his life, hours I spent tending to his needs, a lifelong friend came and gently reassured him it was ok to let go.  His lost grandson returned and he’d opened his eyes for just a moment, speaking to him as though he knew he was there.

I hope he did.

After those words, he’d closed his eyes and slept. His nurse told us to expect about two weeks; in reality, it was likely closer to nine hours between then and when I woke from a short nap to realize I couldn’t hear him stirring – or breathing. The end had come and with it an overwhelming sense of relief, sadness, remorse, and horror, all combined with crippling guilt.

What had I done?  Had I mismanaged his care?  Was I somehow responsible?  Why did this happen when I was alone with no one to reassure me?  What the Hell did I do?

So many conflicting feelings so complex I’ve yet to unravel them and make sense of what they really mean.

I stood there alone in that house, looking at my deceased father and facing fears I’d not wanted to acknowledge.  Minutes ticked by, I’m not sure how many, and all I could rationalize is that I was alone.

At one am, the world felt very large, and very empty. I picked up the phone, called hospice, and the rest felt…automatic. The nurse came, then the van from the funeral home, and then I was left standing in what used to be my parents’ living room, staring at an empty recliner where he once sat, wondering what I was supposed to do next.  Reflexively, I began making calls, first to my sons and then to my uncles, and then to family friends.  I don’t remember what was said in those calls, or how long the lasted, or even when I stopped dialing.

As the sun rose I found myself standing in front of a mirror, dressed for work and putting the last of my make-up on.  At six am, I rolled my suitcase out to the waiting car and drove to my office, where I worked feverishly on a project for the next five hours.  I don’t remember anyone speaking to me while I was there, although I suppose someone did.  When the project was done, I picked up my bag and walked from the building to the same waiting car that would carry me home.

I don’t remember speaking; I don’t remember blinking for that matter.  I just remember looking out from inside and feeling as though someone else was at the controls.

I’m still on autopilot four days later and nothing seems to penetrate this fog surrounding me.

Even twenty-four hours later, when my cat died (yes, another death), I felt like an observer watching from the outside.

Somewhere far away, someone calls my name.  I come back to myself, remembering where I am, and realize my son has somehow joined me without my knowing it.  The woman is there, beckoning us to follow, and we soon find ourselves seated at the same table with the same paperwork we completed for my mother four months ago.  The woman asks questions and I mostly nod, providing information when I can.

Soon it’s over and we’re outside in the sweltering heat with reassurances that he’ll be well cared for and that we’ll be back here next week to retrieve what remains. I glance from the doorway to my car and think about how driving away is mostly what I’ve been able to do lately.

I don’t want to come back, although I know I must.  I feel my eyes begin to sting as I contemplate having to make this drive again, and I realize a truth that shakes me to the core.

I’ve not cried.

Not yet, and something inside me fears not ever.

I feel as though the past few months have robbed me not only of the ability to cry but also of the ability to feel deeply, to care profoundly, and to mourn genuinely.

I know I will never be the same woman I was in January, before my family crumbled and my life change in irreversible ways.  I know I cannot ever regain the sense of optimism I cultivated back before I was faced with the situations and choices made over the last one hundred twenty days.

I fear what the next forty days will bring.

Maybe they’ll be better; maybe not.

I fear they will not, and I’m certain I can do nothing about that.

I also fear what it means, this numbness, and I fear what will happen when – and if – my ability to feel properly returns.

I wonder if I have the fortitude to survive it.

I fear I do not.

The Devil’s Hour

24 Jul

It’s 3am.  I hear pounding in the next room, low muttering, and occasionally my name.  I lie in bed, listening and trying to figure out what is happening.  He calls my name louder and I head into the room to find all of the clothes removed from the closet, lying on the bed.

I’m going now, it’s time.

No, you’re not going.  It’s the middle of the night.  Let me help you put those back.

No, I can do it myself.  Go away.

I sigh and continue to pick up the mess, hanging shirts and pants in the closet in a haphazard fashion while he sits on the edge of the bed watching me.  Before long, he’s forgotten whatever trip he had planned and his eyes are closed; he’s sleeping upright.  I lie him back in the bed and head back to my room.

We’ll do this three more times over the next two hours before I surrender and stay up to watch the sunrise before heading to work.

We’d done something similar twice before 3am, between when I’d gotten him to lie down at ten and when he decided to take the as-yet-unspecified trip of a lifetime.

Later that morning, I help him adjust his clothes and tie his shoes.  I try to feed him but he refuses, turning his head to the side to avoid what I’m trying to give him. I remind him to go to the bathroom and there’s an accident, so he changes his clothes once again.

He talks about things I don’t understand and when it’s time to go, I notice he has only one shoe on.  The other is lost in the house and I can’t figure out how, since he’s never left my sight.

I load him into the car, buckling the seatbelt low and making sure he’s comfortable before heading off to the appointment we must keep.  Later, after a disappointing outing, I’ll return him to the living room where someone else will be there to watch over him while I head to work.

I’m tired and I can’t remember the last time I ate.  I grab a bottle of water to down on the way to the office and try to get my head in the game; I have too much to do to waste even a minute trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.

By mid-day I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I lunch with a co-worker at a favorite spot but find little joy in the food I can barely taste.  I’m a walking zombie but making the most of it and hoping my friends can’t tell.

After hours in the office that seem like minutes, I’m off to the house again where I’ll try to feed him, talk to him, and put him to bed early in hopes that at least one of us gets some rest.

He’s so much like a toddler.

Oh, you thought this was a story of motherhood?

No, it’s the story of single childhood and a parent who three days ago could hold a conversation but who today can’t zip his own pants.

A story of a father who tried to exit a moving car at 70mph on the freeway because he was convinced he was in the driveway, and who argued when he was saved from himself.

A story about cancer and radiation and accidental overdose that has changed my world – and his – in a matter of less than a month.

A story of a woman who doesn’t know how she’s going to get through the next twelve hours, let alone the next week or month or however long this takes.

You see, I’m trying to be brave.  I’m shooting for strong, as much as I hate that adjective.  Hell, I’d settle for “able to cope” at the moment, because I’m certainly not meeting that bar even as low as it’s set.

I’m perseverating on the details:  how many minutes between times when I have to re-seat him in his chair because he’s trying to head to some imagined obligation; how many times he tells me he needs medication he just took.

Worse even than that is how many times he asks about my absent son, the one I grieve every day.

Where is Rowan?  When is he coming?  Why hasn’t he called?  Do you need to go pick him up? 

Today he thought my oldest son had stolen his car.  Tonight he was going to pick the youngest up from school.

So far he hasn’t mentioned my mom, but my gut ties in knots knowing that is probably coming soon.

I don’t have answers for any of this and I feel a strange sense of guilt and obligation to say something when he looks me in the face and shoots off something nonsensical.

Why do I feel the need to answer?  The need to clarify and make him understand when he clearly can’t?

Today, as I tried to explain why water came in a cup and not a box, he looked at me and said “I think I’m losing my mind.”

He’s sleeping now, and I can hear the rhythm of his breath as it rises and falls.  He’s had his medication, refused dinner, and watched a little television before nodding off.  Three days ago he would’ve slept for hours but today I’m certain he’ll be roaming the house the moment my own head hits the pillow, and we’ll once again engage in our game of cat and mouse.

Last night, in one of his many adventures around the house, he must’ve made his way to the garage.  I found a utility knife lying on the table and it scared me to think what he intended to do with it.

It scares me to think how many more knives (or similar objects) are in our future.

It scares me more to contemplate how many more nights like last night there may be.

And how many more of those nights I can truly take before I myself lose my mind?

A Game of Make Believe

12 Jul

It’s very hard to prepare for the end.  I know that seems like a foregone conclusion, but when it gets right down to it, preparing to die is one of the most awkward, uncomfortable, and downright confusing things to be doing.  You’re trapped in this space of planning for tomorrow and trying to live while you subconsciously recognize that your tomorrows are limited and the things that seemed so important last month really don’t matter at all.

When you’re helping someone you love do those things, it’s even worse.  You engage in this game of make-believe, where you pretend all is well and that you have the time to make plans and allow them to play out when really what you’re doing is simply getting through one day, and then the next, and hoping you’re not on the last one.

Dad, I need you to tell me what bills you pay, in case I ever need to pay them.

You know damned well that discussions about who will be playing for his favorite baseball team in the spring have little merit. There is little chance he’ll be sitting in his chair wielding the remote like a weapon and daring anyone to try to change the channel.

Dad, I need you to write down the combination to your safe in case you accidentally forget it and I need it for some reason.

You start embellishing all of your statements with “when you feel better” and hedging your requests with “in case” or “for some reason.”

Dad, we should think about making a file of important documents, like bank statements, in case I have to help with your money.

You know that the “case” is a fast-moving and terminal illness; you know the reason you will need those things is that he will pass someday soon, and you’re positive that “feeling better” is not in the cards.

Dad, I need to know where the paperwork for your advanced directive is, just in case…

It becomes a charade, this game you play.  The truth hangs between you like a gossamer curtain, slightly obscuring the truth you both are doing your best to ignore. You know he knows what’s coming, and you know he knows you know what’s coming (are you still with me?), but it’s almost like you have an unspoken agreement to pretend that you don’t.

He never mentions dying.

He talks about how much he can’t wait until he feels better.

You never mention dying.

You never mention that the doctors have told him the days of feeling better are gone.

He spends days talking about the home repairs and projects he wants to do, and then you notice that those conversations become shorter and farther between.  Within a matter of weeks, he’s no longer talking about replacing the floors or fixing the deck.  He’s become quieter, almost as though it’s better not to talk about anything now that the only thing to talk about is the end.

You spend your days trying to find things to talk to him about, things you want to remember, and you find those are the conversations that hurt the most.  He can’t remember the day, or keep track of the time, or recall a great deal about many things any longer. You realize that soon the answers to questions you don’t want to ask will be gone with the memories of the rest of his life, and that when that happens the end will have arrived, even if he is still breathing.  The end of everything he is or was or ever could have been will have arrived.

Dad, I need you to write down the important things.  I need you to tell me about the time you first saw my mom, and the time when you got your first car.  I need to hear about the hunting trips you used to take with your friends and I need to hear about that crazy hunting dog of Ty’s, just one more time. 

Tell me how you used to ride your motorcycle fast down busy streets and convince my mom you were going to crash, but you never did.

Tell me about how I caught that big catfish when I was five, the time you couldn’t catch anything, and about how I was so proud of what I’d done.

Tell me everything, Dad.  Start talking and never stop, because if you never stop, you won’t forget and we can go on like that forever.

Dad, I need you to tell me who I am, just one more time. 

What’s my name, Dad?

I need to know you still know.

A Question of Time

9 Jul

Time.  It’s the one thing we can’t buy more of and the one thing we all really wish we had more of, in the end.

We want time to enjoy life, time to fix mistakes, time to make decisions.  We think we have so much time when we’re young, and as we make our way through life we realize how very short on time we become with each passing day.  We watch our children grow, our skin wrinkle, our hair lose its luster, and it all seems to happen in an instant.

Much like the circumstances I currently find myself in, which have happened over the course of a thousand years that have passed in a millisecond. Or a millisecond that has lasted a thousand years, I’m really not sure which.

On Thursday, we were managing my father’s pain and hoping for good outcomes from chemotherapy that would give him less pain over the remaining months of his life.

On Friday afternoon we were facing the hardest news of our lives, learning that the cancer in his brain had spread rapidly and the much-awaited chemotherapy would not happen.  Instead, we were told of the choice for radiation treatment to address the integrity of his brain and the need to consider that before we do anything about his lungs, bone, or stomach.

Days, they said…in days the radiation oncologist will call and by the end of next week you’ll have an appointment to learn what this all means, and then time before treatment begins.

On Monday morning, my father was whisked from his home by taxi before I even knew what was happening, and I was called to meet him at the cancer center. They used words like “urgent” and “essential” and “pressing” to explain why, when I’d just settled into my desk with a cup of coffee, I needed to rush to meet him.  No waiting for me, he was already on his way.

So meet him I did, and I spent the next few hours hearing the doctor tell my father what was happening, why less radical treatment wasn’t an option, and what he had to look forward to.  Consensus among those of us who know him, or thought we did, was that he’d refuse the treatments when she explained these things to him.

He didn’t.

Despite my steadfast conviction that my father would not accept this, his pain levels are so high that he will accept anything that might help, and this might help.

Might.

That’s a sad word for such a barbaric treatment.

It might help.

By the end of the afternoon, my father had new scans and a new tattoo and a new mesh mask that will be fitted to his face as they irradiate his brain for ten straight days. He also had hope that the pain that has robbed him of the ability to lie down and to eat anything solid will somehow be less because of this, although I don’t know how that could possibly be.

He still has us, my son and I, and we will do our best to make certain he is as comfortable as possible in these last remaining days.  We will cook for him, and shop for him, and do all of the things he will no longer be able to do for himself that dignity prevents me from detailing here.

What he doesn’t have is any more time.

Likely, he has less than we thought, but no one can say for sure because this disease takes its liberties with those it claims, and it does so on its own schedule.

We do know he doesn’t have time to work on those home repairs he intended, the ones that he thought up in the days after my mother passed.

He doesn’t have time to visit any more relatives, or take trips, or enjoy an afternoon fishing with his grandsons.

This idea of time, and the lack of it, brings me immediately back to the thoughts I had when I lost my mom less than four months ago… the ones about what she’d never get to do or see or experience.

All of that is doubly true for my father, because while my mom suffered with a chronic illness that robbed her of time slowly, my father was allegedly healthy until eighteen days ago and he had plans.

Eighteen days.  So very few days, yet so much about life and death has happened in that time.

This afternoon, I walked behind my father as we left the cancer center.  I watched his small frame and his slumped shoulders as he shuffled down the hall toward the door, hitching up the pants that no longer fit, and I remembered a different man.

I remembered the man who lifted my mother from her wheelchair when she wanted to sit on the sofa mere months ago.

I remembered the man who could fix anything, whether it be a car or an air conditioner, or the pressure washer I recently brought for him to tinker with.

I remembered a time when neither of us had such a heavy load to carry, and I remembered that I’d forgotten what it felt to truly be happy.

I left happiness behind sometime in January, and I fear I’ll never get the time to go back and find it again.

My father won’t, of that I’m sure.

So the best I can hope for is to find some way to make the coming months bearable, if more time and happiness is out of the question.  I need to figure out how to help this happen with dignity and how to respect my father’s wishes when they tear at my soul and leave my heart in shreds.

I need to make time, somehow, to say and do and be all of the things he needs me to be.

And even then, the best I can hope for is that one of us makes it out of this alive.

 

My point is: maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through your fingers. So much time you can waste it.

But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.

― Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall

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