Friday, 10 August 2012

Two Months, Three Weeks: "How Are You?"

Some of the things my mother used to do just escape understanding.  For example, out of the blue, she used to send me books that she thought I would enjoy. Some of them made sense while others just came out of left field (and I have never played baseball, so those were really confusing).  One of the books she sent me was Mitch Albom's novelette "Five People You Meet In Heaven". I'm not sure what her point was, maybe trying to lead me back to a Christian faith in heaven or something, but she was right, I did really enjoy that book.

"Five People You Meet In Heaven" starts with the death of the protagonist (it would seem that this book would be really short, but not so much) and follows him through his sudden, gory introduction to the afterlife while reviewing his life in a series of apparently unrelated anecdotes. Typically the story does build to a sort of climax and denouement, but the "reveal" is that we are all connected. The end of every story is merely the beginning of another and very few of them have all the loose ends trimmed off. Herman Hesse covered similar ground in a completely different manner in his classic "Siddhartha"; in this case, rather than dying to learn this universal truth,  the protagonist finds immortality by recognising the universal truth that all life is a flowing river where all humanity's  tale blends into one vast muddy course. Those two books are basically about life, death and the continuity of existence. Today's entry topic is very much the same: the death of our daughter, our life into the future and the eventual completion of this journal.

I am not sure if everyone realises how often we ask each other "How are you?". It seems to be almost a reflex greeting, possibly more common than "hello" or "good-day".  Often the answer is hardly heard or even expected as the inquisitor moves onto other, more interesting topics like the weather outside or the state of the union.  The subject of his query may be laying on a hospital bed, trapped in a wheel chair or white-cane tapping stone blind and the yet the question "How are you?" is thrown out like a leg tapped by a doctor's percussion hammer. Of course, if you are having a good day or even a merely mediocre day, the answer of "Doing well" or "I'm Ok" is pretty easy to give. On the other hand, if you are still living while the remains of your daughter are sitting in a brass urn in your bedroom, the answer is a wee bit more difficult to come up with. There are just so many ways to answer that question, most of them far more complicated than a short conversation could even begin to cover.

Grief is kind of like life; there is always a beginning, but there is not really going to be an end.  There are no stages or phases, no real progression and no horizon where the bereaved can see the coming dawn.  It does not get "better" and we who have lost our children do not "get beyond it". We just get better at hiding our feelings because the rest of the world moves on. Frankly, we from  the Club of the Damned realise that we have to put our grief away in a private place or be abandoned as our friends tire of being crutches or sounding boards.  I already see the apprehension in people's eyes and caution in their voices as they approach me and talk to me; they intellectually understand that my loss is still very fresh, but emotionally most people just want this all to go away and for Roni and me to go back to the way we used to be.  And we will eventually, at least in public.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that I actually have a grasp on what is going on inside of Roni and me. Our moods swing wildly from moment to moment. Within each day there are some good points and some bad points. I still get caught by "the wave" at least once daily; it may be set off by something obvious like finding a previously undiscovered photo album featuring a very young Calista just out of grade school, or it may be something stupid like sorting through her practically new kitchen utensils.  In fact, those kitchen tools, some of them barely out of their packages, are in some ways the saddest items of all; they speak of a young woman just starting out on her own after a lifetime of living under her parent's roof.  Some days are much worse than others; Roni has bad days every single Thursday like clockwork, while I tend to spiral into a morose, angry depression each weekend. Often, by the time Sunday night rolls around all I want to do is hide in my basement and punish my beat-up punching bag for the crimes of an uncaring God who kills young women thoughtlessly. Most of this anger will eventually dissipate, but no doubt the sharp edge of  decent parents wrongfully cheated will always be lurking close to the surface.

Roni and I find ourselves quite intolerant of childish behaviour in adults these days.  Surly, demanding people who want what they want right now and at the lowest price just make us go flat and apathetic.  At the clinic, we do not even waste the time reasoning with these sorts of client now; we just try to figure out what will make them shut up and go away sooner rather than later, hoping to accomplish that goal with the least amount of stress possible. If it means just asking them to leave the clinic politely or otherwise, well that is what we do.  Thankfully the majority of the time the staff shields me from those clients and the rest of the time those clients catch the timbre of my voice and understand that today is not their day to "win" with me.  I still have trouble understanding how so many of  people have attained middle age or older without developing some degree of maturity. Maybe everybody needs to lose someone they really desperately love before they get their priorities in order. 

Neither Roni nor I fear death any longer.  That is not to say we court death or are suicidal. I am not about to take up high altitude mountaineering, sky diving or hang gliding. Roni still tells me to slow down and watch the road closer when we are driving.  My best description of our approach now is that we no longer lust after a long life; rather  we now find our current life quite tedious and the coming years stretch in front of us like a rocky goat trail through a desolate wasteland.  Certainly we still see beauty and light, we just don't taste it and savour it any more. When our time comes we will likely just give up, cave-in and  let go, hoping to either finally end this dreary life or enter a better one that includes a certain someone.  I am told by everyone (except ,of course, my fellow club members because they know the truth) that this is a natural phase which will pass.  Of course this is the same "everyone" that has told me about the non-existent stages of grieving.

If I had to break grief into stages, I would suggest there is three basic stages (much simpler than five or seven, of even a twelve-step program). There is the immediate "shock" stage.  I am not sure how long that lasts, but there are still moments of disbelief where both Roni and I are shielded from the raw pain because we feel like third party observers watching this terribly long movie about people that look a lot like us. This feeling of dream-like observations predominated the first week or so and is probably the only reason both of us survived that first seven days.  The second stage comes after you recover from the shock. Intellectually you understand the situation, but emotionally you still are not quite there yet.  Roni and I are still in this stage. Of course we understand Calista is dead. Hell, we have ashes and certificates to prove it.  On the other hand, we remain reluctant to move forward in any constructive way just in case this turns out to be one colossal mistake.  Make no mistake; we are able to move on and we understand that we need to move soon in some things (like the massive collection of designer clothes that will quickly become dated), we are just absolutely reluctant because it would mean she really is gone for good.  We are not giving her clothes away, we are not cleaning out her room, and Roni is keeping most of her stuff ship shape and buttoned down. Just in case.

Unfortunately, the last and final stage of grief is looming on the horizon and I believe that much of my anger and depression stems from the fact I starting to get to its edge.  We are starting to come to believe she really is gone. Gone for good. We can see the road ahead and it really is pretty bleak. We will be alone and lacking any real reason to live beyond our own satisfaction for years and decades to come. There will be no careers to follow, no marriages or grandchildren, no family trips or family visits. Nothing. This realisation creates the kind of lethargy that I can imagine only an immortal can feel: with all the time in the world to live, what does a person live for?

I have found my own behaviour has changed quite dramatically.  I used to exercise obsessively. I would rise early, swim between two and three miles, work all day and then either train in karate or lift weights in my basement.  I maintained  a large library on martial arts and I wrote extensively on the topic, managing to get published internationally several times.  I kept up a running correspondence with karate geeks over half the globe.  I do none of that anymore.  My karate library has been stored in a plastic tote under the stairs to be donated to some deserving aficionado (I am told I have to wait a year for my emotions to come under control before I give meaningless garbage away). I have not wrote one word about karate since she died. I have not gone to the pool even to pick up a new season schedule since her death.  I exercise, but reluctantly and I can be distracted by something as trivial as the cat wandering into the basement looking for more food.  Heck, I have been reading the same book for 6 weeks; since I finished the books Calista asked me to read prior to her death I really find reading more work than pleasure. I am even considering selling my beloved but impractical Mustang convertible since Roni and I now own three cars between the two of us.  I will likely never actively pursue photography as a hobby again; it seems so pointless without my Calista to laugh at my complete incompetence.  I work obsessively these days despite the fact just concentrating on anything other than HER death is supremely difficult.

So how are we doing?  We are doing poorly but covering well. That is the simple truth of the matter.  Answering the question is a loaded gun though. If we answered truthfully, it would consume much of every conversation and I believe most people would avoid speaking to us altogether in the future.  If we lie and tell everybody we are doing fine, we run the risk of either being called out as liars or having some flip remark like "See, life really does go on. You're going to be just fine" thrown back at us.  Or we will appear to be abnormally cold and apathetic about the death of our Calista, something we most definitely are not. We really don't have an answer for the question. I have taken to telling people that I am taking it one day at a time and some days are better than others. This is a pretty bland answer and avoids getting into details, but it really confuses people who don't know that Calista has passed away.  I just hate discussing the topic with strangers these days. I believe those that know now are those that need to know and those that don't know need never be told (and my frail and aged mother, with her tenuous grip on reality, falls under that category). Roni appears to ignore the question altogether now; she just skips over the entire topic and goes straight to weather talk.  This tactic confuses a few people, but the people that really know Roni fully understand. Roni has never been much for discussing her feelings with anyone, even me (or especially me sometimes).

I keep on reminding myself that there are all sorts of people who have been hurt by Calista's death.  I am still concerned about her friends and how they are coping. Kareen seemed to be hardest hit by her death, but then she was actually there when Calista collapsed. Jesse was closest to Calista and the way she learnt of the tragedy was far less than gentle (I really am such a blunt instrument sometimes).  These are two young women with their entire life in front of them; I really do not want them to bear any deep scars that will effect their enjoyment of life.  I want their friendship with my Calista to be a source of pleasure and strength for them for the rest of their lives.  It will be a challenge for me to support these young ladies without looking like a creepy old man, but I will do what I can and try not to intrude too much on them. Then there are all her friends back in Regina; I am sure there will still be repercussions from her death at her future high-school reunions.

I also have to keep in mind that into each life some rain will fall. Certainly some of us have sudden, torrential and devastating thunder storms, but everyone will have at least one nasty rain storm in their life.  One of my clients commiserated with me just the other day; she understood how I felt because she lost both her husband and her son in one terrible boating mishap. For months after the accident she kept on seeing her husband's truck roll up the driveway and park. The door never opened and he never came home. Then there was the visitor from the mainland who's beautiful and inquisitive ten year old daughter is suffering from barely controlled leukaemia. That poor woman gets to sit through months and years of cancer consultations and unending chemotherapy sessions with little hope of seeing her girl grow up and grow old.  Roni and I have to understand that there are worse storms to endure; I'm not sure  how I would stand to watch my child slowly die of an intractable cancer (as if anyone has a choice though).

 Passing through life constantly moaning about the poor hand one was dealt is to forget that none of us get out of here without a few scars and some people have much deeper scars than can be believed, they just have managed to keep them hidden. Hopefully Roni and I will eventually learn to hide our scar from outsiders and return to some modicum of normal.

So where is this all going? There have been just so many words and not much progress. That's the point though. This is not a mystery or a thriller, there is not going to be a climax or a denouement. Roni and I are not going to just turn some mystical corner and walk out smiling into the light. Certainly we are progressing somewhat; our crying jags are shorter, less frequent and not so intense and we are returning to some normality in life. On the other hand, our progress is going to be slow and our final destination is going to be far from "happily ever after". This stuff is hardly fodder for a best-seller.  I am not sure I need to drag everyone through ever minuscule step of my lengthy recovery simply because if I did, any message I might have to impart would be diluted.  There will be far fewer posts in the future but perhaps those few will be better and more meaningful. My final post, if the coroner ever manages to finish the job, will be a full review of the coroner's report. This I promise; my readers at least deserve to get the official decision on why Calista died.

Unfortunately, even if we get a definitive cause, the death of a beautiful young woman at the very beginning of her adult life will always remain meaningless to me.

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