Missing the forest for the trees
In the months that followed my mom’s death, I traveled through my days in something more than a fog. I really don’t remember much of that time at all. It’s as if I was in some kind of stupor. My inability to make it to class at times forced my roommate to escort me to the classroom door – because the building alone wasn’t good enough. I was lost, in every literal sense of the word. I would wander to the quad and sit on a rock for hours. I’d go JM’s, the bar across Main Street, and stretch happy hour from 11 in the morning until after supper. Sometimes I’d just get in my car and drive.
One Sunday in late March of that year, I did just that, setting off one Sunday morning with no destination in mind other than east. I drove on back roads from Harrisonburg, through Albemarle County, along Route 20 to 15 and eventually to 460. Route 460 bisected Dinwiddie County and more importantly, it was the address of Rohoic Elementary School. I’d not meant to go there, but it’s where I ended up. I parked in the front lot, the horseshoe shaped, gravel driveway where the teachers parked, and I walked around the back of the school. I counted the windows until I knew I was at the ones of the classroom I wanted and then I peeked in. It was dark, of course. It was Sunday. There were no lights on, no students at their desks, no voices of learning happening to be heard. And there was also no sign of my mom.
Her desk was still at the front, angled by the window as it had been the last time she was there; her green stapler, her pencil holder with a decoupaged map of the Old World on it, her calendar blotter. It was like she’d just stepped out for the weekend, like she’d be back on Monday morning. I’d hoped to catch her. I thought that perhaps if I snuck up on her, if I snuck up on the life that she and I knew a couple of months earlier, it wouldn’t be any more the wiser and I’d find everything as it was supposed to be. I looked in the window for a long time. I walked around the school, around the field where I’d almost thrown up running the 600-yard dash years before, determined to win the President’s Physical Fitness patch. I walked around the blacktop where I played kickball and the chain-linked fence that I flipped completely over one afternoon, landing squarely on my feet on the other side, amazed. Then I walked to my car, my mom’s car that I now drove, the car that should have been parked in that space because she parked it there, not me.
I drove the very familiar drive to home. I felt if I was this close, I should at least check in on my dad. He was doing laundry and surprised to see me, but then I could tell by the look on his face that he really wasn’t surprised that much at all. He didn’t ask me what I was doing there and I didn’t tell him. We had supper and then I drove the three hours back to campus, taking the highway to save time.
The early months of therapy feel much the same as the early months of grief. I’m absorbed in thoughts and feelings that are fairly disconnected with what is actually going on around me. I try to focus on work, on home, on my day-to-day life, but my mind too often goes back somewhere twenty-five years earlier. I struggle to both remember the past and to pay attention to the present at the same time. During one Monday morning session, Cindy asks, “What would happen if you just gave in to it?”
“I would collapse.”
“And what is wrong with collapsing?”
“I really don’t know if I could get back up again. I don’t think I have it in me.”
She wants me to understand the value in working through the sadness that I feel. I want the promise that if I grieve, it will make everything better. I want to be assured that it will be the end of me feeling this way. I want to know that I will be okay. She cannot give me this, of course, but she does offer a little comfort in promising to work with me through it.
I leave her office thinking about things that collapse. I play mental Scattergories, though without the limitation of everything beginning with the same letter. I imagine a climber at the end of a fraying rope. I imagine the snap and the fall. I imagine an avalanche. I imagine the implosion of Veteran’s Stadium.
Most frighteningly, I imagine myself a heap in the corner of my cubicle, unable to move or speak or function. Catatonic. I imagine my co-workers passing by, glancing over, and looking at me with pitying eyes. “Poor thing, her mother died all those years ago. Some people just never get over things.” That is what I fear most. I am not weak and I don’t want pity and I surely don’t want anyone thinking I’ve lost my mind. And I don’t want to be one of those people who never gets passed the past. I hear Bruce Springsteen singing, “Glory Days”. That is not me. I am better than that. I tell myself these things even though every bit of my behavior says otherwise.
March is part of celebration time in our home. It starts with Christmas, moves on through New Year’s, then Valentine’s Day and my birthday in February. March brings my sobriety anniversary, Lynn’s birthday, the anniversary of our first date, and a whole bunch of birthdays for friends and family members. Cards stand upright on our dining room table from December through March, only changing for whatever celebratory occasion is next on the list.
I love celebrations. I love holidays and birthdays. I like to make a big deal of them AND to have a big deal made of mine for me, but this year is different. I’d see each date approaching on the calendar and think, “Here it comes. Gotta get ready.” But then I’d do nothing about it. I wanted to, but just didn’t. I was wandering in a stupor again, showing up for things much better than those early months of grief for my mom, but feeling lost all the same. I went to work and I went home, to work and home. It was normal, but not.
Lynn announced that she wanted to go to Provincetown for her birthday. It was unusual for her to ask for something special for her birthday. It’s unusual for Lynn to ask for much of anything for herself. The non-stupefied me would have recognized this and taken it as the significant event that it was. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I was absorbed in myself, immersed in my work with Cynthia, my work on myself. Lynn made all of the arrangements for our weekend away. She reserved a room, planned the hikes, paid for everything. I tagged along without so much as a card for her ahead of time. I blamed it on being busy at work, but that wasn’t it at all. I just could not get out of my own way long enough to be myself and do the things I normally did – and normally enjoyed doing – for the person who means the most to me.
A few months later, during one of those extended post-supper supper table discussions, the kind that take awhile because you’ve kept too many things to yourself for too long, Lynn confessed to me how hurt she had been by my behavior this weekend. She told me that it had been a special birthday for her (55) and that she had wanted to do something to make it memorable. She said it was one of the times that she’d been most worried for me, because it was so unlike me to forget cards and presents and my celebratory mood.
Hearing her say these things silenced me. I felt guilty and sad and mean and selfish, but more than anything, I remembered back on something Lynn once told me to describe her feelings for me. On only our second date, we took the ferry out of Portland to Peaks Island where we spent a very chilly, but sunny, afternoon sitting on the porch of an old house, sharing our lives with each other the way two people do when they’re first getting to know one another. Eventually, I shared with her some of the story of my family and of my mom’s death. She said to me, some years later, that it was during that time on the porch that she fell in love with me and she swore to herself that she would never hurt me, no matter what. Lynn has kept that promise, but at that moment, sitting at the table with the remains of supper sticking to our plates, I knew that I had not.
When I think back on those days after Mom died, it’s like watching clips of a movie, one of those that when someone asks, “Have you seen such and such” you reply, “I think so. I know I’ve seen bits and pieces.” Parts are of it are clear, every detail, but others missing. You know enough to know how the story goes, but there are scenes you’re not sure you’ve seen.
I can remember, for example, that I was watching a Beatles movie on VH1 the hours after Mom had said, “Get back inside before you catch cold” and before Dad called from the hospital. I don’t remember what movie it was, but that it was one of the Beatles’. I remember that after he called I turned off the television. I felt guilty for watching. I went to my bedroom and got down on my knees in the space between my bed and the window that looked out on the forsythia bush, the “switch bush” as my brother and I always called it because it was my mother’s choice of branch should she need to swat us across the backs of our bare legs in the summer time. It stung and she got her point across. I remember sitting there for a long time, praying. I remember asking God to make everything okay. I remember making promises, but don’t remember what they were now. It doesn’t matter though, as God obviously didn’t live up to the other side of the bargain.
I remember the reaction of my roommate, Carla, when she heard the news, but I don’t think I was the one who made the call. I can’t remember. Maybe she told me her reaction. Maybe I made it up. I remember certain people arriving over the next couple of days, but can’t recall details of how we spent all of that time. I do remember stating very clearly to someone (not sure who) NOT to sing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral. My mother loathed that song; some crazy old woman who lived down the street from her as a child had played it on her piano all the time, singing loudly so she could be heard out in the street. I’m not sure if it had scared my mom or just annoyed her. Regardless, I knew she didn’t like it and thus that standard of funerals needed to be omitted from this one. I remember someone saying, “That’s just the kind of thing we need to know” as if I’d given the correct answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.
I remember sitting on the couch in the den next to Lisa Gallaher, Ethel’s daughter. I remember my closest friend from childhood, Katherine Wray, sitting there, too. I don’t remember the exact words, but do remember that they shared feeling how they wouldn’t know what to feel if our roles were reversed. They wouldn’t know what to do. No one did. It didn’t matter the role you played now.
I remember what I wore to the funeral on Monday; the gray wool suit and pinstriped blouse. I remember that I got my period that morning, unexpected and off schedule. I remember it was freezing at the graveside, the wind blowing across the hard ground. There were so many friends and family members, so many people I loved and didn’t see often. I remember how much I enjoyed seeing them and then how sick I felt for feeling that way.
I remember that I drove back to campus the same night. I remember someone rode with me, but I can’t remember exactly who. Was it Karen? Carla? Beth? I cannot remember. I remember standing in the 2nd floor bathroom of our sorority house. I remember staring into the mirror, thinking that I looked old. I remember someone came in and stood with me, but I’m not sure who it was. I think we talked, but I can’t remember. I remember that I went to the dining hall the next morning to tell one of my supervisors – Robin? Judy? Dave? – that I would be missing a few of my scheduled shifts that week. I remember someone asking, “What are you doing here?”
I can see the cooks in the kitchen, those wonderful women who thought of us as their kids, Mary and Rosie and Robin, looking at me with such sadness. The gruff, former sailor cooks, two of them whose names I don’t recall, gave me big hugs. I looked in people’s eyes and they cried. I was out of tears by now, but they were all crying for me. They told me that work was the last thing I needed to worry about. I think I drove back home that day to be with my dad, but can’t remember for sure. At some point though, I returned to school and to class and to work. At some point, I stepped back into my life, nothing and everything being the same.
It was like this now, nothing and everything being the same. Except that it wasn’t. Something was different. I was struggling to figure out who I was anymore. What kind of a person was I? I could imagine looking into that mirror in my sorority house, staring deeply at my face, wondering who the person was looking back at me.
I was having trouble focusing at work. I was having trouble focusing at home. I was angry a lot. Back when I had decided to move from Northern Virginia to New England, my therapist told me at our last session together that I had used therapy very well. She said I’d seen it as a tool and I’d used it to fix the things that needed fixing then. She told me to remember that, to remember that I knew it was a tool that I could pick up again at some time should I need it. She reminded me how we had dealt with incongruence, how this was something that I had to work on always. “It’s the thing to watch for. Pay attention when you feel that, when you feel your inside and your outside in opposition.”
I’d remembered that advice over the years, at least up until the past year. This past year had not been about being incongruent, I thought. It had been about sadness. It had been about loneliness. It had been about nothing but feeling sorry for myself.
I share this with Cindy one morning. “How do you think people see you?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I mean, I’m not really sure anymore. I think I know, but I can’t tell if it’s true or if I’m making it up. I don’t know what I think of myself. I’m not sure I know who I am. Am I the person I think I am or am I the one that others know? I really don’t know.”
“Then ask them. If you’re not sure how other people see you, just ask them.”
And with that, she gives me another assignment. I make a list of my friends, keeping it varied, made up of people I’ve known in different capacities and for different lengths of time. I pick about a half-dozen people and I send them an email asking them the question, “If someone asked you to describe me, what would you say?” Before I read any of their answers though, I answer the question myself. I draw up a chart in my journal to compare the answers.
- I’m a self-centered, insecure, suck-the-life-out-other-people person. I’m selfish and self-indulgent. I don’t follow-through on things, don’t use all of the talents I’ve been given, and I just don’t fit with people. I don’t like people. I am a person. I don’t like myself.
- I would say that you are a very earnest person. And honest. And one who has a lot of interests in a lot of things. And you roll from thing to thing.
Javier (friend & co-worker):
- I know Sally to be kind and open to people. She accepts people readily, has high ideals and standards, is extremely energetic and pursues interests intensely. She comes from a place of compassion. Sally can sometimes have a tough time reconciling the world as it is. I see her constantly asking, “Why does it have to be this way?” I’ve seen Sally sad, but not “keep a wide berth” sad. Sally has a reasonable crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Donna (friend & former co-worker):
- I was first drawn to you because you were warm, friendly and fun. And you laughed. I have come to know that you are also very intelligent, reflective, and a deep thinker. You have a fabulous sense of humor. You write extremely well. You love deeply and generously, are faithful and loyal. You have music in your soul. You are the first to discount your achievements and you apply a higher standard to yourself than anyone else.
Lisa (friend & closest co-worker):
- Quick-witted, conscientious, energetic, whirlwind, people person, caring, sharing, giving, funny, smart, knowledgeable, aware, talented, brings people together, gifted, Renaissance Woman & meta-librarian.
Jacqueline (friend & colleague):
- Sincere, creative, talented, intense and capable of great joy and love. And fun!
Maxine (friend and colleague):
- Sally has interesting things to say and makes me want to listen. She is very talented in many ways, is thoughtful and is funny.
- You are fun-loving, creative, playful, and have a sense of wistfulness about you.
I look at the chart and hear the song that Bob always sang on Sesame Street, holding up the four-squared poster, something different in each pane, “One of these things is not like the other one.” I am the epitome of incongruence.
My mindfulness stress management class concludes after eight weeks with an all-day silent retreat. It’s held on a Saturday and I prepare by reading over some of the thoughts in my journal before going to bed on Friday night. I hope that I can have some things in mind for the explicit purpose of letting go of them. I enjoy the quiet of the day. I like quiet. Despite my verbose nature, my outgoing personality and my love of music, I’m quite comfortable in silence. I can feel it. Literally. It envelops me and feels like a cool cotton sheet. My heart slows and my muscles relax, regardless of whether or not my mind stops racing. To experience 8 hours of this is a treat.
Still, at the end of the day I mostly feel the same “unfeeling” that I’ve been feeling for too long. When we circle together and debrief before leaving, I’m annoyed by what I judge are shallow comments by my fellow retreaters when asked to share how they feel.
“I’m so relaxed, so light. I feel weightless.”
“I saw my brother in my mind. We hugged and cried and I felt so at peace.”
“I felt a light all around me. Such joy and freedom.”
I feel like Charlie Brown at Halloween. Everyone else gets chocolate bars and caramel apples and popcorn balls. I get a rock.
And then, of course, I get annoyed at myself for being annoyed at everyone. Why do I have to judge their experiences? They are who they are and their experiences are genuine for them. What is wrong with me?
I come home and a wave of exhaustion comes over me. I read a bit and fall asleep on the couch for several hours before finally getting up and going to bed. I wake early the next morning with a terrible headache. I take 3 Tylenol and go back to sleep.
I dream of the collapse. I’m in Chicago visiting my friends Jacqueline and JoAnne. JoAnne nonchalantly mentions that my dad called to say that my mom died. She says it in the manner of a “by the way” comment. I ask her to repeat herself several times. I feel the wind knocked out of me and I have to brace myself against the doorframe before I finally slide down to the floor, my knees to my chin. I say, “But my mom already died,” and I feel the rush of all the pain that I’ve already felt. I wake up with the dream still in my mind and I wonder if maybe the thought of even thinking about working on unfinished business is too much.