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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Where Strength is Found

When I was a little girl, my Dad took me to the campus of Notre Dame right around this time of year.  He and I would occasionally go on little excursions.  My mom was a stay at home mom, maybe he was taking me off of her hands for a bit, admittedly I was a handful.  Or maybe he genuinely liked spending time with me. I like to think the latter.  I remember walking down the sidewalk by the Hesburgh library right as the sun was setting and our shadows grew taller as we walked.  I let go of his hand and jumped on his shadow. He fell over in pain like he could feel it.   I did it again and again... and again. Each time his reaction was greater and more dramatic.  I began to wonder if I was actually hurting him, so I stopped.   It was then that he began laughing, scooped me up and put me on his shoulders. He pointed to our shadow, "Look, we're a giant!"  he said.  Now nobody can hurt us; we are unstoppable.

I have never forgotten that.  I work on the same campus, and whenever I walk by the library, I always think of that moment when my Dad and I were one big shadow giant.  Most daughters think their Dad is the strongest man in the world, I knew mine was.

As I grew up, I realized that physical strength is a genetic trait that I was blessed with from both sides.  Crazy strong women who liked getting dirty doing what was considered a man's work.  And the men in our lives have always stepped aside and let us do it, even celebrated it.  Don loves the fact that he doesn't have to call another guy to help him carry a refrigerator into the garage.  Just let me put down that baby, and I'll get it.

After my Dad had an accident about a month ago, he has been mostly paralyzed.  We had to move him to a rehabilitation center in Chicago that specialize spinal cord injuries.  Everyone tells me he is making huge strides.  He can move his right arm now. He can also move his left foot, which is a huge improvement from not being able to move at all.  But what he can't do is swallow, eat, walk, jump, sit up, move his hands... hug.

You don't realize how much you miss something as simple as a hug until you lean in to get one and feel nothing in return.

This is the man who carried me on his shoulders.  This is the man who could do anything and now is left laying in a bed doing nothing.   Even if I were to jump on his shadow, he wouldn't be able to feel it.  All I have left to do is just watch and cry.

But that is not what strong women do, at least not this one.   It took me a couple of weeks to understand that no amount of will or determination was going to make him walk again. At least not right now.

My mom has not left his side.  She is his muscle for now.  But don't get me wrong, he works hard.  Every day he is in physical therapy the same amount of time as my sons are in school .  He has never worked harder in his life for something that used to be done without thought.  The next time you brush your teeth, know that my Dad has been working countless hours to do that same thing and has failed.

So when all of your physical strength is gone, where does the strength come from?   I was right about my Dad; he is the strongest man I know, emotionally and even physically.  My strength, on the other hand,  has atrophied right along with his body, at least my emotional muscle.  But it's not because of lack of use. I have stretched my emotional integrity to its limit.

This kind of situation is hard on a family. When your foundation has a crack in it, the house begins to fall.  One by one my siblings and I have hit our low point.  Outside pressures and elements only add to the crash.  We still have jobs; we still have families to take care of. We still have people who love us that we hope to God forgive us for being "off" the last couple of weeks.   The truth is, when your foundation is cracked, you will do anything you can to fix it because your entire house needs it.

There are several things that lead to emotional strength depletion.  It can be heartbreak. The kind of heartbreak that hurts so deeply that it feels like your heart has been cracked open and exposed for the cold air to fill it and you are so chilled to the core that you don't think it's possible to ever feel the warmth of love again.

There is the death of a loved one.  There is frustration.  There is hopelessness.  Very different situations but all leave you feeling empty.

Not having control of this situation has at one point made me feel all of those things.   One of the things I love to do is exercise and not just a little thirty-minute cardio session.  Like my Grandmother liked to get her tiny hands dirty, I too like to work hard.   The tension and pain  I feel on the outside temporarily alleviates the pain I feel inside.  After one particular workout, I went to my car and cried, so gutturally that my throat hurt. On a different occasion, I went into my co-workers office, shut the door and collapsed into tears.

This was when I realized that I had been successful in letting everything out, but hadn't let anything in.  Friends had offered help, and I hadn't taken it.  I didn't want to admit I was weak.  But the truth was, I was emotionally dehydrated, and I needed to accept help.

Previously I had always relied on my mother or my husband for help, but they are in the same familial house that's foundation is cracked, and they are trying  just as hard not to fall too.

So I decided to lean in.  Accept invitations to go for a run, or have dinner made for us.  To go for a drink or get a coffee or to spend the day after Thanksgiving with people other than family.  It was the first time we had ever done that, and admittedly, I was hesitant.  I doubted why anyone would want to include an additional six people around the table.   But we went.   We played a football game and within moments each of our four boys had fought, cried, gotten hurt and stormed off.   It was just like we were home. I slowly began to feel stronger.

So to answer my question as to where strength can be found when you feel like you are completely out, it is found in friendship. True friendship that doesn't have to be pretty or funny all the time.  Friends that just show up, and lift that burden off your shoulders and carry it for a little while, even if the moment is brief.  Then you realize that when you put it back on your own shoulders, it doesn't feel as heavy.

In fact, if you were to take a walk with that burden on your shoulder's and look at your shadow you might even see an unstoppable giant that can face anything.

Strength is found in family and friends who will let you fall, but help you stand back up when you are ready.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sometimes We Fall

My Dad broke his neck.   Obviously we hadn't anticipated this happening.  Although I will say, that when life seems too good to be true, I have a bad habit of waiting for something bad lurking around the corner.  I could have never thought it would be something like this.

He fell off of his deck and landed on his head. I received a call from my mom that they were in the emergency room.   I quickly crossed over a single bridge to the hospital, the one that I was born in, the one all of my boys were born in and the one that if I stood on the roof of my house I could see if I wanted to.  I always have joked that I didn't travel too far in life if I can see the hospital where I took my first breath from my house.

When you see someone you love in pain, a shock comes over you, when you see a parent, specifically one whom you have always viewed as the strongest person you have ever known in pain, your world shifts.

He could talk, which was a good thing.  My first instinct was to make a joke, to make them laugh. That is my role in my family. When things get too serious, I make a joke.  There was absolutely nothing funny about this. Nothing. My mom began to cry, and I choked back tears as I asked my Dad what I could do. He told me to hold his hand.  I picked his limp, bloody hand into the mine and held it.  Annoyed, he told me to hold his hand. I told him that I was, and I looked at my mom and quickly realized he couldn't feel it.  I didn't believe him, I dug my nails into his palm, but he felt nothing. That is when it sunk in.  He can't feel anything.

At that moment, all the acting I have ever done came into play.  Their youngest child was going to be the strong one.  I wasn't going to let him see the fear I felt.

The hardest part was seeing him realize this too. He is an artist.  He paints beautiful landscapes and has sculpted things out of clay and plaster that have won awards and sit in people's homes.  How cruel is this?

The next day they did surgery and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.  This is the floor that people go to when things are really bad.  Only two visitors are allowed in the room at a time, but we stretched the rules on a few occasions because I knew one of the nurses, and strangely my dad wanted a picture of the family.   My mom was the common denominator in the room.  The numerator changed, between first, second and me, third born. And fourth if you count my husband.  When my mom left to use the bathroom or go home for a quick shower, I became the denominator.

The ICU is a place that is hard to remain positive.  The pain of family members is palpable. I sat in the waiting room when things got too personal with my dad. Like when they had to insert a catheter, or change him.  He didn't want me in there, and I didn't want to be in there either.  I observed other people at their lowest.  In situations far worse than ours.  A young girl in a car accident who after a day of her family holding out hope while she was in a coma didn't make it.  Two older gentlemen on either side of my father's room died.   That is pretty common I think. Just three years ago I sat in an ICU when my uncle died.

But. We. Are. Not. Going. To. Go. There.  Nope, we are not.  My brother arrived at 2 a.m.  walked off the stage of an opera in Dallas,  and arrived at the hospital exactly 3 hours later.   There is something about our family that when we are all together we are a force.   We set our differences aside, because really, nothing else matters.

You learn a lot about yourself when you are sitting in a dark hospital room without any windows.   My dad is on morphine, so he is pretty drugged, which shouldn't be funny, but it is.   He had been sleeping, and I was curled up in the tiny recliner in the corner of the room surprised that this position was comfortable to someone who is as inflexible as I am. Out of the blue, he said that he would be able to braid my hair again when he regained feeling in his hands.   He hasn't braided my hair in 30 years. But when you are his age, 30 years can feel like 30 minutes. Especially when your mind is under the influence of major drugs.

To be honest, I had forgotten that he used to braid my hair. I mean, I remember it now, but that was probably the last thought on my mind. Sure I want him to regain his strength, but for practical purposes, like eating. But somehow his mind brought him to a place where I was a child, and he was a father, braiding his daughter's hair.  The next day when I worked out, I wore my hair in a braid just because.

When you get older, you have the general notion that you will be taking care of your parents when they get older, but until you are faced with it, it doesn't seem real.  Last week, he was raking leaves in his massive yard, and today he wouldn't even be able to pick up a leaf.

In the past week, I have done things that I never thought I would do or could do.  I have witnessed the pain of a loved one both emotionally and physically.  And I have also spent hours alone with my Dad because we refuse to leave him alone.  The only regret has been that I can't say that I have spent hours alone with my dad like this in at least a decade.

What is more important in life than really spending time with the people you love?  How in the world could I have been so busy that I couldn't spend just an hour sitting with him, or taking a walk or going for a Sunday drive, or just eating dinner without interruptions?

But as I write this, I have just finished feeding him ice cream, and we sit listening to a classical playlist my brother made for him on his iPad.  The sound of Vivaldi, Beethoven, and my brother's CD mixed in there, in an effort to be funny. At least I hope he was trying to be funny. Maybe not, he just knew what our Dad liked.

Strangely for a few minutes we were at peace.  My Dad has absolutely no concept of time and doesn't know if it's night or day. To be honest, I'm kind of having trouble remembering too.

For someone like me, who likes to be in control of everything I have had to relinquish that.   The only thing we know right now is that we don't know what the future holds for my Dad's mobility.  But what I do know for sure is that you cannot begin to realize the power of the love of friends and family.   The people who have prayed for us, or made us dinner.  Or taken the boys for the night.  That have just given me a hug or words of encouragement.  Friends telling us they love us. I can't think of a better gift of knowing that over the years we have surrounded ourselves with such generous and good people.

And it has taught me about my husband.  I have always known of his big heartedness, but little did I know that when he told me he loved my parents, he really meant it.  He has stepped up and taken care of their home, and our home, spoon fed my Dad when I needed a break and watched me cry without telling me it was okay.  My love for him too has grown.

Despite the bad, there is always good if you are willing to look for it.

When you marry someone, you say the vows in sickness and in health but it is said so often that you don't consider the sickness part. At least I didn't.   My parents are living out that vow at this very moment. And their three kids have the privilege to witness it.

As I have been typing, my Dad asked me if I was writing out my thoughts.  I said yes, hoping this wouldn't be too personal to share.   He said "Good for you, write out your thoughts, you have always been good at that." Always a cheerleader.

It's an uphill battle, but I have no doubt that with time we will be taking his Audi TT convertible out for a ride up to New Buffalo to Oink's  and get some real ice cream, not the crappy hospital kind. And Maybe I'll wear my hair in a braid just because, and maybe this time he will finally let me drive.