Sometimes it’s hard to be thankful, and that’s okay

UnknownIt’s not a secret to anyone who knows me, or reads my work, that the last two and a half years have been the crappiest on record for me. And by crappy, I mean moldy garbage full of week-old salmon crappy. I mean two entire years of shrunken donkey balls and snake excrement. (Snakes do poop, right? I’m too tired to Google it.)

I lost my hero, my sweet and funny dad, in July 2015. I knew I’d lose him at some point, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to not be able to pick up the phone and hear his voice. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after, and it’s been a speedy descent into memory loss and confusion and sundowning and finding 24-hour caregiving and hiring and firing agencies and feeling guilty that I can’t be there in person for her more than a few times a year. My once-vibrant, beautiful, take-no-shit-from-anyone Mom is now virtually helpless. I don’t think she would recognize me if I walked up to her in the HEB grocery store tomorrow. Yet I talk to her daily, trying to help from two states away. Every day, she asks for my dad. She needs him, she says. Where is he?, she asks. Why won’t he come get me? So every day, she has to feel the hurt of either a) his death again, or b) his not being there to take care of her when she needs him. I feel her pain of abandonment physically.

On top of those losses, there have been financial challenges and job transitions and substantial fear for my son’s future in this country and huge hurt from those I thought would always be there for me and let’s not forget important volunteer demands and mass shooting nightmares and months of sleep sacrificed to worry. (I’m sure this is the case for a lot of people right now; I don’t mean to imply my life is worse than anyone else’s. It’s sooo not. Just bear with me as I write through it.)

I told a friend recently that grief is kind of like this: Things always go sideways in life. Tires go flat. Sewer systems fail. Assholes thrive everywhere from Starbucks to the office. But when you’re grieving, your brain can react to those things like, “yes, the sewer repair will cost $8,000 … AND DON’T FORGET your dad is gone forever and your mom doesn’t know you anymore.”

I know I should practice better self-care, but I’m not very good at it. In fact, my body has recently said, F*ck you, in a very loud way, and I’m struggling to recover enough to even eat a bite of turkey on Thursday.

So yeah. Thanksgiving this year? Meh. Whatevs. Nobody really likes the cranberry sauce anyway. Am I right? And pumpkin? Please. There’s no way to make it look any less like runny camel shit. (How many times can I say shit in one post?)

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Buck up, sista! Things could be much worse. Stop yer whining already. You’re thinking that I still have a lot to be thankful for. And I know that. (Of course, I do. I’m sad, not dumb.) And I say those very things to myself all the time.

I have a roof over my head. My son and husband are healthy and happy. I work with some great people. I have good friends and my generous in-laws who seem perpetually on standby to pick us up if any of us fall. I live in Colorado with a view of the foothills from every level of our new home. Nature still surprises me if I let it. Our dogs are still funny and hanging in there most days. And we now have a truly caring and kind team of caregivers helping my mom.

But I wonder.

Why do we force ourselves to pretend, especially during the holidays, that everything is just fine? That we’re living a Target + Kay Jewelers + Folgers commercial?

Doesn’t the sorrow we feel also serve some purpose, just as gratitude does?

Is it just human nature to want others to snap out of it? And if so, why? What do we fear so intensely about sadness? That it will spread like a contagious disease?

The fact is I’m not good at pretending. I don’t have a bluffing face. I’m bad at poker.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re having a tough time, too, it’s okay.

If you feel like you’ve put on a good show for the past year, but you’re tired and have run out of energy to do so now, it’s okay.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

It’s okay to say you are a little hopeless and lost right now.

It’s okay if you don’t feel like writing a gratitude list.

It’s okay to say “pass” as folks gather around the Thanksgiving table, with everyone saying what they’re most thankful for this year.

It’s okay to binge-eat pecan pie in the garage.

Yes, I’m absolutely sure that we all have much to be thankful for this year. We don’t live in Syria, after all.

But it’s also absolutely ok to acknowledge your wounds.

And honestly, it might even help more than you think to give the Folgers coffee commercials the middle finger every now and then.

 

Getting past grief …

Grief Poem #129

by Kathy Lynn Harris, copyright 2017

 

I saw an older man today

in the January-crisp morning light

walking a fence line—

faded ball cap down, blue flannel shirt,

shoulders hunched against the wind,

breath like smoke

from one of your old Marlboros.

 

And there it is again, that abrupt

catch of throat-breath,

quick-snag of heart.

 

As if I’m 14 and arm-crawling

under a sagging barbed wire fence—

dead weeds in my face,

 

following you into the

next section

of winter-brown pasture.

 

Moving as fast as I can;

trying to prove I’m good

at this sort of thing,

 

thinking I’m in the clear.

 

Then a razor-sharp

rusty prick

hits

 

and the back of my shirt rips

and maybe my right shoulder bleeds

and I realize I had misjudged

time and space …

 

And that I wasn’t past

the worst of it

 

at all.

 

 

Maybe We Weren’t That Different

On the surface, one might think my dad and I were not much alike. I’m liberal; he was conservative. I always vote Democrat; he never voted a straight ticket in his life. I saw him cry maybe three or four times in 46 years. I sometimes cry over a dog food commercial or when the fading sunlight catches my child’s face just right, all in the same day. He was rational and logical and a planner. I tend to be impulsive and approach life with the thought of, Why not? I’ll figure out a plan B later. I anger easily and have little patience. My dad demonstrated patience every day of his life — whether teaching a bunch of loud-mouthed eighth-graders or dealing with three daughters arguing over who needs the bathroom next.

I think because of those differences, he didn’t really know what to do with me. He shook his head in subtle disbelief — a lot — when I was around. I was the one who fell out of line. I moved away. I didn’t listen to advice (much). I had no interest in cattle ranching. I’d stay up all night reading when he’d told me, “lights out,” five times before. I wore socks with holes in them so I could afford to travel. I ate Cheetos and drank Dr Pepper for breakfast if the mood hit me. I mowed circles in the yard versus straight lines like he taught me. I chose to live where temps hit 50 below and bears hang out by the front door. Did I mention he shook his head a lot around me?

In fact, my very first memory at age 3 or so is of my dad shaking his head at me, grinning, as I tried to climb over a sagging barbwire fence. He waited to see if I could do it on my own, then quickly picked me up and over when my shoe caught the top wire.

Now that he’s gone, I miss that feeling so much, physically and metaphorically.

But something happened at his funeral that makes me think maybe we weren’t as different as I thought.

After he retired from teaching, my dad worked in my hometown county in Texas helping the area’s veterans and their families get access to benefits they might be eligible for through the VA. His office was in the county courthouse, across the street from the fire station. One of the firefighters came up to me at the funeral to tell me how much he enjoyed getting a wave from Dad in the mornings.

Then he asked me if I knew Dad was trying to help a homeless vet who slept down by the river and who hung out near the station some days. He said my dad would watch for the guy and bring over forms for him to complete. Several times, same forms. Tried to help him fill them out right there in front of the station. Told him about resources. The firefighter friend said my dad would always say, “I’m working on it!” when asked about the man who wandered around town, obviously needing services but not trusting anyone to help him.

I was so proud to hear this story. But it didn’t really surprise me. My dad was the kind of man who would stop on the side of the road to fix someone’s flat or run into a neighbor’s burning stable to get horses to safety.

But hearing the story did make me feel closer to him. Because my husband and son and I, every fall, put together a warm blanket and pajama drive for the homeless folks who stay in Denver shelters as winter moves in. It’s gotten really big over the years, and it’s something we look forward to all year. Last year, we collected nearly a thousand blankets alone. Now, knowing my dad had a soft spot for a homeless vet in my hometown … makes what we do even more meaningful.

I’m sure we had other things in common, too. The love of animals. A strong work ethic. Good books. Credence Clearwater Revival. Stubbornness when pushed.

But the next time I’m home, I just may try to find that homeless man. Maybe I could at least bring him a home-cooked meal or some clean clothes.

I don’t think my dad would shake his head at that.

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12 Ways to Avoid Crying When You’re Grieving the Loss of a Parent

  1. Do not listen to music. This is especially true of country music. Hip hop may be okay.
  2. Do not commute to work over long distances that leave you with too much time in your head.
  3. Take fast showers, and stay focused on hygiene, not the emptiness.
  4. Avoid looking at family photographs.
  5. Ignore the fact that the holidays will still exist.
  6. Abstain from drinking more than one glass of wine at any one point in time.
  7. Do not travel down Target aisles that pose a threat, such as those where you might see a can of his favorite kind of nuts (Beer Nuts) or catch the scent of Old Spice aftershave.
  8. Talk to your dogs about chewbones, the weather, or anything but how you’re feeling. Especially if they have big, brown-saucer eyes and floppy ears.
  9. Do not allow yourself to linger for very long in the company of compassionate and kind people who ask you how you’re doing.
  10. Do not text your sisters or call your mom.
  11. Tell your husband no thank you when he wants to simply hold your hand or massage your neck.
  12. Amp up your carb intake and emotionally overeat as necessary.