Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Christmas List

By this time of the year, I usually have a ton of Christmas shopping done. Oh sure, I've picked up a couple of little things here and there but nothing close to the comfortable level I like to be at by now.

I have a place in my finished basement where I store all the gifts along with the materials I use to wrap them. When I was in the basement today going through paperwork for my dad's estate, I noticed just how empty the Christmas corner looked. 

My dad, who lost his reason for living when my mom died three years ago, was the main focus of most of my energy for the past three years until he died last month.

Since that day, I’ve been doing everything that I need to do for his estate, just like I did everything I needed for his care while he was alive. Handling finances, meeting with professionals, and doing the Australian crawl through the swimming pool of responsibility. 

I no longer visit the nursing home to spend time with him but everything else feels almost the same. Anxiety awakens me at night. Worried that I’ve forgotten something that needs to be done for him and then remembering he is gone. 

It’s easy to go from zero to sixty since we spend our lives reacting and pre-reacting for the next dropped shoe. But going from sixty to zero is harder. How do you turn off that switch that’s been stuck in the ON position for so long? 

I threw myself into work and volunteer responsibilities. Taking two business trips in three weeks and more or less allowing for no space in my brain for thoughts that would lead me to process the loss of my last parent. 

There is fear, yes. Fear that I will start to grieve and never stop. Fear that I’ll uncover some dark emotion or, worse, mistake. That I somehow didn’t do the care-taking “right.” I perhaps forgot to fully understand all the medical choices available. Or maybe I didn’t communicate his needs as well as I could have especially since his dementia kept him from doing that himself at the end. 

After getting the paperwork I needed for the estate attorney, I walk up the basement stairs and into my kitchen. I add the paperwork to the pile that sits at the end of my kitchen table awaiting some sort of action.

As I head back towards my home office, I notice my purse which sits on the counter. I stop, clench my fists at my sides, take a deep breath, and open the compartment in the front. I fumble around through the individually-wrapped life savers and the mai tai drink umbrellas that I save for my nephew until my fingers find the Christmas shopping list I started in September.

On it are a list of names with gift ideas next to each person. The first line reads “Dad - pajamas.”

Since his world was so small in September that he was no longer able to understand the history books he loved, and the house he adored was no longer there to putter around, I had no other ideas.

I struggle with what to do about that line on the list. I don’t know if crossing his name off is a sign of moving on or a sign of disrespect to his memory. I pick up a pen from the counter and take another deep breath. 

I smile at the word “Dad”. I remember how much my parents loved Christmas. And then I put pen to paper. 

I cross out the gift idea “pajamas” but can’t bring myself to cross out his name. I look at that line on the list again and smile.

In place of “pajamas” I write “Mom.” Then put a check mark next to his name.

And so the healing begins.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Post-mortem beginnings

Since two days before Thanksgiving, my emotions have mostly been full of anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness. When Dad died in October after a 2 1/2 year struggle to live without the one person who could keep him in one piece, it was the end of a very stressful journey for me as well.

The holidays are something I need to "get through" this year. I'm decorating the house and putting up a tree. But not sending cards or baking. It's not in me this year and, for once in my life, I'm taking a break from expectations that I put on myself.

Dad's final journey started over three years ago when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a miracle that she lived 9 months with it before it finally took her. She gave it an amazing fight till the very end which was not easy for me to watch. I don't think she was ever ready to die and seemed to feel that by admitting "defeat" she would die quicker. 

One of the reasons she wanted to live was my father. She was supposed to take care of him when he was dying, not the other way around. And she knew how much he relied on her for his emotional wellbeing.

Dad had his demons. None of which were lost on the family. He worked hard and provided a comfortable home and life for his family. But he never could outrun his anxiety or the ways in which he tried to silence it. 

My relationship with my father was complicated as were all of his relationships. He pissed off more people than I can count. Some saw through his difficult personality and found the heart of gold that he had. To those friends and family members who hung in there with him, I have only the utmost respect and gratefulness for them.

There is much to write about my dad who was without a doubt the most influential person in my life. Even more than my mother whom I adored. 

And maybe that's why this Christmas I don't want to feel anything at all. It seems almost like the last 3 years didn't happen for me. Or that it happened to someone else. 

These feelings of unreality are my brain's way of keeping me safe. Of only allowing me to feel what I can without losing control of my emotions which has always been my biggest fear in life. I understand that and respect this natural process.

My father's PCP called me today. He wants to talk about the last few months of dad's life. Dad's care had been transitioned over to the nursing home doctor who was great. But dad was a patient of his PCP for 25 years and there were many times that I called him for help when dad was clearly unable to function any more. His grief was so great that he became lost in it. Incapable of sleeping, eating, conversing. And being so afraid of how deep the well was that he couldn't bring himself to accept help. And then the dementia took over.

I don't want to talk to dad's doctor today but know that I must. I'm surprised at how many details - details that I was so immersed in for years - I have forgotten. Another defense mechanism thanks to my brain, for sure. 

This is why I don't write in my blog much lately. It's hard for me to put my hands around what I'm feeling and I don't really want to remember the hell of the last three years. Especially since I took the majority of the anger from my dad since my mom died. I was to blame for everything that went wrong in his life - and a lot did. 

I don't normally write rambling, unstructured blog posts but this is where my head is right now. I don't have the neat little endings with lessons learned from it all like I always do. It's untidy and messy and might stay that way for a long time.

I will do my best to let the feelings and memories come and try not to fear them or hush them. Maybe then I can tidy up this cluttered brain.