Thursday, March 30, 2017

Heartbeats and Crumpled Shirts

Running with him was as much a part of me as my bones or my heart. The day he died my heartbeat seemed to slow to a melody I didn't recognize.

I kept trying to find the tempo, the exact moment my inner conductor decided to signal a molto ritardando. 

I couldn't do it. 

I was too slow to rewind myself backward. I was stuck in slow motion, moving from room to room with dragged feet and crumpled shirts.

My body forgot what it felt like to hit the ground hard and confident, pushing against it to move forward.  I was used to my heartbeat being synchronized to his when we would race towards the finish line. Now that he was gone, who was I going to run next to?

The couch became my coffin for a year. My eyes were constantly in motion, shifting from the television to our old cat that would stare out the window, wondering when he was going to come in from outside.

I would have to tell her to come away. I would try to shelter her under the blankets and hold her tight, but she didn't want to. She would jump out and run back to her place, waiting. 

Her all-knowing eyes would look over at me - a slow blink, a deep breath- and return to stare longingly out the window. She was sad. She got thinner and thinner like the rest of us. 

The only time I ventured out to the track we ran on was on foggy days. It matched perfectly with the haziness in my brain and the aches my bones made, as if I hadn't moved in 100 years. 

Out there walking on the track, the grass was over-grown- another reminder that he wasn't here, another reminder that what we had with him was history. 

My eyes searched the pasture for any type of apparition. Maybe he would whisper something to me, maybe he was right beside me walking along the path. Or maybe I was going crazy. 

But the ground was never my friend. The ground was a support system that I abused time and time again without paying much attention to it, forgetting how much I needed it to move forward.

I hated myself for not telling him every day how thankful I was that he was my father. I hated that I didn't tell him how much I appreciated a man, who was not biologically related to me, taking an interest in my life and offering a shoulder to cry on or give advice when he knew I was ready for it. 

But a father isn't always made of the same DNA. He is made of the same love and heartbeats. He is made of the drive to be there for every concert, every play, every dance, every heartbreak, every accomplishment, every night, every day, every moment. 

Written: 3.27.17

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Last True Snowstorm

Photo I took of Howard during the 2010 snowstorm.

The storm came in quick and covered the forest in a thick blanket of snow. It shrouded the house and weighed down the branches. It went up past our ankles when we marched through it.

Howard took out his camera to get some pictures of the house and the trails. We stopped periodically to make snow angels or have a snowball fight.

 The rainy blizzard stuck to the silver hairs on his beard making him look like a snow giant.

Mom's purple hat was slowly collecting snowflakes too. Both of their cheeks were stained pink. When we laughed our exhales were visible.

"Mom, kiss Howard in the snow," I said. I took my own camera and began snapping as many photos as I possibly could. When it snowed over five inches the house ended up looking like something in a postcard or a wintery wonderland. 

Photo I took of Momma and Howard during the 2010 snowstorm.
Sometimes when we walked through the forest we would hear the cracking of branches falling to the ground. The weight of the snow seemed to prevail over the branches strength. I couldn't help but feel a bit somber every time I heard one of the big branches break and fall to its demise. 

I looked over at Mom and Howard who were holding gloved hands and strolling along quite peacefully. They looked as if they were in their own little bubble, not caring one bit about the forest's destruction. 

Looking back on that feeling, I don't know if it was because I knew I was missing something that they had, or if I was too scared a branch would fall on me as we walked further. Probably a little bit of both. 

We all ended up wearing two coats a piece to prevent the chill from seeping in faster. We all joked that we looked like human marshmallows. Howard said that we should recite an on the spot poem about people walking through the snow storm. 

I ended up obliging this request, knowing that the poem would probably include some sort of dry humor aspect. Howard loved dry humor. 

Photo I took of Momma and Howard walking out on the trail during the 2010 snowstorm. 
"I'm pretty sure my toes are frozen," I yelled. Mom and Howard began to get further and further ahead of me. I didn't really mind though. I always had a good time watching them be in love. 

I grew up with parents who adored each other. They were intellectual, funny and always kept each other on their toes. I knew if it was in the cards for my life plan, I would want a romance like theirs. 

It hasn't snowed at the house that much since then. I feel mixed feelings about this. One aspect would be that it makes me sad I can't experience the forest that way anymore, like it will remain a distant memory forever. The other is that I'm happy I don't have to relive how happy we were then and how different it feels without him now. 

Written: 3.23.17

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rewind It to the Beginning

Many people who I have shared this blog page with are aware that I am in a class for blogging. They usually ask me why I decided to take on such a personal topic for a class. My answer to this ranges from "Yeah, I guess it is kind of crazy" or "My advisors made me do it." The latter is obviously meant as a joke, but they really did have an influence in my decision. 

In reality I didn't know at the beginning what I would learn from writing about all of this. I didn't know what it would feel like to share such personal details of my life with friends and strangers. 

The overall feeling I have about posting is relief. 

I went back to the start of this whole blog decision and I looked at some of my earliest posts. It is there that I see the hesitation in my writing, which I eventually ended up writing about (Thanks, Mom). 

I think everyone could tell that I was very unsure at the beginning. I think they knew that I had become accustomed to keeping this part of my life tucked safely away and that I was daring to be bold, something my extremely introverted self doesn't do too often. 

I think my posts started to change when I knew that I would publish some of the letters that I wrote for Howard. I never got used to keeping a regular diary about my life because I didn't particularly see what was interesting about documenting the most mundane characteristics about myself... but when it came to the pain I felt, it was almost effortless. 

When people ask me how I write so often, I usually tell them it is like therapy. I tell them that it hurts if I don't write. Writer's block is very real and it is also very painful. Ask any writer you know this and I am pretty sure they will tell you something similar.  

Since I started my career track in journalism I think I lost sight of what it meant to write creatively. I got used to writing about the news and detailing facts in a easy and straightforward way that I forgot what it meant to lose all track of time when I started jotting away ideas and phrases. This class brought me back into that creative side of myself. 

I decided I didn't want to keep it in anymore. 

Since I started this blog I have received many messages and calls from people who are dealing with the exact same thing that I am. They say to me that they are glad that I am doing this because they don't know how to put their emotions into words. I sometimes say that I don't know how either, but I'd like to think I'm helping in some way. 

I do think that the diligence to keep this up is probably the hardest thing. I sometimes feel the pressure to organize my more depressing posts with something that is a little more light-hearted. After all, I am not the sort of person that is constantly looming from place to place unsure of what I am feeling or where I am going. 

It is important for you all to know that I do have good days. 

So how am I doing? I suppose the answer is I'm doing pretty well. I have figured out that I do have fragments of myself before Howard's death that I thought I lost. I am still in the process of piecing them all back together to try and figure out where I lost myself along the way. But I think that is the point. I am trying. 

Written: 3.21.17

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Is Culture Independent to Grief?

Grief will find and affect us all one way or another.  For me, the inevitability of that statement was disturbingly profound. 

Researching grief and coping mechanisms felt like wading through a pool of murky water. I first started out looking for blogs like mine that talked about a specific loss. Most of the blogs I found I couldn’t relate to because a lot of them were about spouses or people who lost their parents later in life.

I then moved on to watching Ted Talks to see what some of their speakers were saying about grief. I even searched the self-help section of Barnes and Noble for information. 

What I did find got me meditating on an assumption that grief can be very reliant on culture. Thus begging the question: If culture really is a independent factor, how are we supposed to grieve?

When I started researching grief I found there were some cultures out there that, in a way, celebrated the end of life—one with jazz music.

An article on the Ted Talk by Kelli Swazey, a cultural anthropologist, titled “Life that doesn’t end with death” noted that in New Orleans where the culture is a mix between West-African, French and African-American, they have funerals that find a balance between sorrow and joy.

A marching band begins by playing “sorrowful dirges” which leads the mourners in New Orleans in a procession. After the body is buried, the musicians shift to a more upbeat note which is often a precursor for "cathartic dancing" that is done "to commemorate the life of the deceased."

We didn't dance at my father's memorial. Would he have wanted us to? Was how we honored him something that was predestined in our minds of how his service was supposed to be?

I found myself reading books such as "The Book of Calamities" by Peter Trachtenberg or "Grief Is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter. There are plenty of books out there that deal with grief and loss. Sometimes these books will delve into religion, philosophy, psychology or are just memoirs.

In the short novel "Grief Is the Thing with Feathers," Porter personifies grief as a character that many might not think to use- the crow from "Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow" by poet Ted Hughes. 

The father in the novel, who is a Hughes scholar, loses his wife and has two small boys to take care of. The crow "moves in" with the family and says he will stay as long as he is needed. The following quote is an excerpt of one part of the novel's imagery that really stuck with me. 

"I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling. Feathers. There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and death, and yeast. Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor."

This is at the very beginning of the book when the crow moves in with the family. It is told from the father's perspective at this point (it goes interchangeably between the boys, dad, and crow). 

After this, the crow comes unexpectedly into the house and makes the father say hello to him multiple times. The crow asks the dad to say hello "properly" when he senses his reluctance.
This passage highlighted for me what it was like the first couple of weeks after Howard's death. 

Everything felt odd, as if it was out of place. It felt foreign and like all of us were living in another dimension apart from everyone else around us. The world seemed gray in a sense. Grief had moved in with us. It was unwelcome, just like the crow was.

I think that is what Porter is trying to say here. Everything is shadowed, covered, stained, dirtied by grief. Happiness is absent in moments like those. But again, after everything I have researched, is it because of our culture?

I found solace in another Ted Talk I watched; partially because the speaker had lost her parents in a tragic way and had studied journalism.

This Ted Talk was a personal story by Marieke Poelmann, an author and freelance journalist. At 22, Poelmann lost both of her parents in a plane crash in Tripoli in 2010.

She spoke how, at first, she didn't know what to do with herself. She felt that because they had died, she didn't have a life anymore either.

"I thought, 'if everything I used to know is broken, it doesn't matter anymore. I might as well do what I want.' It changed my focus. Why waste time on things that don't feel right?" Poelmann said.

Poelmann said it took her several years to understand that bad things do not have to define you. She also truly believes that life has a way of always coming through to the other side. She wrote her novel "Everything around them is still there," about her experience with grieving.

"After the crash people kept saying to me 'there are no words to describe what you are going through right now,'" Poelmann said. "But at a certain point I thought, 'What if those words are there? What if I start trying to write those words down?'"

Why do we assume that people cannot describe their grief? Why do we try and downplay peoples’ pain to justify our words? I don’t have any answers to this... but that is the rub about researching culture and grief.

American culture, as well as many other Western civilized countries, seems to suppress grief, loss, coping and death in general. The consensus seems to scream, '"Well, if we don't talk about it, it doesn't exist."

This is just false.

Anyone who has gone through grief will tell you otherwise.

In short, there are multitudes of ways that people honor their dead. Research them. Learn about different cultures. Not all of us have to have caskets and dress in black. After all, the last thing any mourner wants to be told is how to grieve.

"Grief is the Thing With Feathers" by Max Porter (page 6)