Dark Ages and Rennaissance

Dark Ages and Rennaissance

He was falling, a lot. Just before Valentine’s Day he fell while tucking the children into bed. His head went through our daughter’s wall, and I went running to his aid. Once he was sitting upright and we had taken stock, knew that he was okay, she burst into tears.

“It’s my fault Daddy fell!” she wailed. “If I had cleaned my room he wouldn’t have tripped, it’s my fault, it’s my fault…”

The second fall was two weeks later, at my friend and her daughter’s funeral. He fell getting into his seat, and was caught by a few fast acting mourners, who helped him back up.

And then we went to the opera and ran into his social worker, and his social worker’s partner. It was the only time Mike ever took me to the opera. I wanted to enjoy it, but I couldn’t. My friend was dead, and I could see the writing on the wall.

The news was filling up with stories about this mystery virus in Wuhan, the word “pandemic” becoming commonplace. By the time of his MRI, I remember being bloated and anxious and sad, recovering from surgery and somehow already resigned. Somehow already braced.

The tumor, grown back. More surgery. And I knew. I knew it in my bones. I felt it in my teeth. I felt it in fingernails. And I told myself it was my fault.

If I’d only been more positive, since the surgery in August. If I’d only made more of an effort to keep his spirits up. If I’d only eased more of his burdens, he wouldn’t have fallen. He wouldn’t have gotten sicker. The pain in his working hand would have eased, he would have been happy.

It was my fault he wasn’t happy.

When children are small, it is easy to hold them as they cry. They cry about simple things. Pain. Frustration. Exhaustion.

In truth, that is still what we cry about, but they are not the same.

In 2020, I learned how to hold a child nearly as large as me as she sobbed because her father was dying. I learned to hold a child old enough to blame herself for not doing her chores, because she connected that common lapse with the consequence of her father’s illness. I learned to hold a child who is silent, who cannot process the weight of that grief. I learned to hold space for her silence.

None of us are the same.

The child who sobbed in bed while I held her makes nests in which to sleep, anxious and weary but also angry. I try not to feed her anger, or her anxiety, but of course I do. I’m her mother. I keep her in the world. The world is often cruel. I tell her we must be aware of her anxiety, and make sure we’re doing what we can to help her live with it, and around it, and through it. But I also tell her we cannot plan to dismiss it. I tell her it may be with her forever, and that it’s okay, because we learn and we get better. She cries, of course she cries, but she knows that when I say these things I am being honest, and she needs that. She believes hard reality is preferable to comfortable lies. I tell her she must find a way to sleep like a person, not a mouse, because she has a person brain and person body that needs person sleep. She cries, but she understands, and I cry with her.

The child who blamed herself for her irresponsibility wakes up at dawn and fixes lunches for the other children. She gets fabulous grades. She volunteers to bring in the trash cans on garbage day, she finishes her tasks with minimal oversight, she takes initiative to solve problems before they become insurmountable. She has become the deputy adult, and she excels. She is almost never late for her zoom and phone appointments. She responds to my texts and calls when I’m frazzled and disorganized and she shepherds her sisters into their activities. She wants me to be okay, she says. I tell her this is not her job, but find myself relying on her more than I would like. She beams with pride, and it breaks my heart.

The silent child still holds her feelings close, cautious. She does not volunteer them, but they burst out of her in ways she cannot control. She sobs uncontrollably about small inconveniences, disruptions to the routines that make her comfortable. She hesitates to express affection verbally, but hugs without restraint. She finds herself sleepless and anxious, and making bad decisions because in the late hours when she is unsettled, they feel like the only decisions. She is afraid. She is afraid of spiders, ants, shadows, injury. But she is also afraid to talk about the fear underneath them. Instead she clowns. She draws. She takes pride in the cat’s affection. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious. She is happy, until she cannot ignore the unhappiness any longer. And then she cries, silently, without the words to explain.

And me.

Once the woman who did it all, did everything, simultaneously. Once the woman who ran two girl scout troops and Mike’s medical care and the household and freelancing and speaking and a complex social life. My mantra now is, “triage.” One thing at a time. One crisis at a time. One decision at a time. Not because I am incapable of multitasking, although this does come harder, but because the crises are somehow huger than they were when Mike was alive. You would think everything would feel small now, but no. Now the playing field is leveled between crises. And my support structure is different.

Do I deal with the car or the bank? The middle school or the elementary school? The kids’ dental appointments or my cardiologist? Today, will I spend half my day dealing with my lemon minivan or will it be a school district that “can’t” provide an education for my daughter? Will it be refinancing my mortgage or restructuring my will?

I used to have a productivity journal to keep me from overcommitting. Now I remember the lessons of that system, “Only five tasks a day,” and ask myself, “Can I even DO five tasks a day?” And no, I can’t. I can’t plan for however many hours the dealership will take, or the bank, or the school, and the waiting in between calls is it’s own task.

That’s something cancer taught me too well. Waiting is its own job.

The other night, I watched my partner fall down the basement stairs. They were fine, their socks slipped on the painted wood. It was not a major fall, but I panicked and I could not understand why.

It wasn’t just the fall. It was Mike’s cousin’s 40th birthday. It was the Foo Fighters releasing a movie. It was my boyfriend making the kinds of romantic gestures Mike thought of but never enacted. It was my anxious daughter coming to me for help with her math homework, and me calling in the deputy-parent daughter to help me help. It was my silent daughter, who is also the talkative daughter, telling my boyfriend, “I love you,” and hugging him at bedtime.

It was my pseudo-step-daughter hugging me because I’d had a hard day. It was all four children cleaning the living room together, almost perfectly, while I was out. It was realizing I have nobody to make corned beef and cabbage for. It was standing in front of the school board and telling them my sister was dead, and my husband was dead, and my children needed more from them.

But that person from two years ago, the one who blamed herself for everything going wrong… she wasn’t there.

Whoever this person is, this person writing, this person who triages migraines versus chipped teeth, and transportation versus education, who is juggling the same pandemic as everyone else but the weight of so much loss, this mother no longer of three but of four…

None of this is her fault. She is doing the best that can possibly be done. She knows it, her kids know it, her partners know it.

She knows that when somebody falls it isn’t her fault. She knows the world does not run on her optimism. She knows that asking for help is not weakness, that accepting help is not failure, that giving only up to her ability is not selfishness.

She is so far from perfect. She is so, so far away. But she isn’t even trying to get there.

She’s just ready to triage, holding her kids when they cry, and letting the love of her children and partners and friends cushion her when she falls.

You can read more about the evolution of grieving here: On Grief and Vertigo

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