Friday, February 8, 2013

What It Can Feel Like


Like an ox without its yoke mate
I walk along the cart path
leaning on habit and
learning new ways to move.

Ever-mindful of my precious cargo,
I'm keenly aware of what's missing.

The smell of his sweat.
His shoes strewn about the closet floor.
The cupboard doors he annoyingly left open.
The sound of his car coming up the drive.
Numbers and lists on endless scraps of paper.

His pet names for each of us.
His voice.
His laughter.
His sharp intellect.
His fitness.
His remarkable stories.
His steady presence.
His humility.
His warrior fight.

His acceptance and encouragement of me.
The words of affirmation
and lovely bouquets.

There is no one to back me up with the kids.
There is no shoulder to cry on late at night.
There is no eye to catch from across the room.

He was a son
a brother
an uncle
a friend
a husband.

Phil.

Broken and battered.
Strong as an ox.



Monday, December 17, 2012

Connecting

I recognized something in a man's eyes today. Weariness and fatigue pressed down, dimming most of the light in his beautiful blue eyes.  It was all there in his face, the bags under his eyes, the dullness of his complexion, the inflammed watery eyes revealing a chronicity of poor and inadequate sleep.  Oh how I've seen that face in the mirror, looked in those same blood shot eyes.  That old school-ground taunt, "takes one to know one" was never more true than today.  This man's wife is dying.  After five years, she is nearing the end.  

This recognition came about because I walked up to introduce myself and make a comment to him after hearing him speak.  I had wanted to encourage him to follow through with writing something he'd spoken about so passionately.  He'd said, almost in passing, that he'd probably never get around to writing it.  It was as I shook his hand and gave my encouragement that I looked him full in the face.  The details of how we got from point A to point B don't much matter but we were soon sharing our stories and I immediately felt a deep compassion for him.   We only spent about 5 minutes together ~ talking and understanding and holding each others pain.  Two total strangers, empathizing.  Bennett came over and joined us for a few minutes and as I introduced the two of them Bennett immediately connected to the man and shared some kind words and a tear.  It was a beautiful and powerful few moments.

The rest of my day was nothing if not routine.  I cleaned up the house and fed the kids. The Steelers lost a gut-wrencher of a football game in OT.  I got cranky and was more short-tempered with the kids than they deserved, truth be told.  We talked it out and hopefully we learned something for next time.  But for a while today, against the backdrop of our very grieved and confused society, I met a stranger and we connected over pain and heartache and weariness. 






Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I'm Not A Zombie

For the longest time the whole appeal and lure of zombies were lost on me.  I chalked it up to getting old and figured this was yet another sign of the times; that I was not the demographic the pop-culture mavens were trying to reach.  Then the most fortunate of tidings befell me when a friend recommend I watch "The Walking Dead".  Not only do I understand zombies now, I'm one step closer to sympathizing with those folks on the fringes of society (mentation?) who feel driven to stockpile supplies and ammunition against the zombie apocalypse.  To be perfectly clear here, you won't soon find me building a silo in my back yard like some of those wing nuts.  However, in the event I ever find myself surrounded by a bunch of walkers, I'd be down with having some skills in the whole silent-assassin-cross-bow area.

Now if you're honest, I'm guessing you'll cop to what I'm about to describe.  You sit down to watch an episode of a show on Netflix or Hulu and because it's so damn good and there is an entire season at your fingertips you just keep on watching.  Episode, after episode, after episode.  Eventually the sun comes up and you realize you've got shit to do or perhaps you should get some sleep or maybe think about eating or emptying your bladder or some such thing.  Am I right?  All I know is this: I managed to put a whole season of "The Walking Dead" under my belt in a shameful amount of time.   And honestly, there is no better way to watch three seasons of "24" then back to back to back.  When it comes to cliffhangers, I have no willpower! I can't pull myself away.  And it has to be said that Netflix has completely ruined watching real time television forever.  I'm sure if I tried to watch anything in real time I'd become as petulant as a toddler having to wait a whole week for a new episode.  Perish the thought!  (Again, shameful I know, but hey, it's been a tough year and TV has provided some serious balm for my aching heart.  But I digress).

Getting back to "The Walking Dead".   After the last jag I went on I had an epiphany of sorts about what I enjoyed so much about this show.  It has nothing to do with the zombies or the dystopian elements of the story line.   Rather, I empathized with something in the characters at once.  To a one, they are living each day, each moment in a state of heightened awareness and vigilance.   There is a clarity with which they see what is important and necessary ~ everything that is unimportant is literally left by the roadside.  I recognized that kind of living immediately and I was surprised to find that I miss that quality in my life, that razor sharp quality to my days.  I had to watch the entire season all at once - it was exhilarating and gave me that feeling.  Maybe I just sound crazy.  Maybe you understand.  Who knows?

I'm not saying I want cancer and all the turmoil of those days back, of course not.  But waking up each day knowing exactly what I needed to do, knowing exactly what mattered and why, knowing in my bones how much of my and everyone else's lives around me were filled with superfluous shit that could be jettisoned and not missed for a moment was so liberating and defining.  The days since Phil's death have been fuzzy by comparison.  I am reminded of a lecture I went to when I lived in Washington about methamphetamine abuse of all things.  The lecturer said that one of the worst things about meth use is the damage it does to sobriety.  The way it stimulates the brain is so powerful and it's high is so potent for addicts that it makes sobriety almost unbearable by comparison.  This is what makes being sober so difficult.  Sobriety isn't just boring, it's painful.  

I get that, boy do I.  My new found "sobriety" lacks a certain clarity, it lacks precision and a singleness of purpose, an edge.  To compensate I've populated my horizon with Steeler games, my kids school activities, and "the next big thing" on the calendar to give me a sense of purpose and meaning I long for.  But it still falls short a lot of the time.  It's a temporary solution while my brain resets itself I guess.  I have been through a crucible after all.  

In thinking about all this, I know one thing for absolute certain.  I don't want to become the walking dead, like the zombies I see all around me.  People asleep at the wheel, people going through life's motions with no emotion.  People for whom sobriety is painful or worse, for whom sobriety is so hard they have to pretend to be happy when they aren't.   People who are unhappy and don't even know it, who are hiding from themselves.  I won't ever do that.  I've been through hell and back, and although sobriety doesn't look the same anymore, I'll be damned if it's going to be painful.  


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks 2012

Thank you to everyone who commented on Bennett's previous post.  He really appreciated each comment and encouragement regarding his writing.  I also enjoyed reading them and my mother's heart swelled with pride seeing all the accolades sent his way.  That piece of writing was from a school assignment that just happened to come along during the anniversary week of Phil's passing.  His teacher had been giving the students one word starters for narrative stories to begin from.  Bennett had worked with the words "help" and "hurt" previously and fate brought him to "loss" the day he posted on my blog.  He told me about having written about his dad and cautioned me against reading it, not wanting me to get sad.  But I loved it when I read it and I wasn't sad at all.  I remain very happy about the progress he's made and his ability to share his feeling both verbally and in written form.  I am most proud of the incredible insight he's shown into his inner life.  It bodes well for his future.

A year ago today I was in world of hurt.  Phil had died a little over a week earlier, I had just thrown together a somewhat hasty memorial service due to the impending holiday season and the long siege of his illness and the culmination of the days and weeks and months of fatigue came home to rest on me with a surreal finality.  My best friend from Washington, Tricia, had stayed behind to mop up and take care of me and the kids and we had chosen to eat out instead of  cook.  I was way beyond spending anymore time with my family or  friends and we thought eating at a local restaurant would be easiest.  What a nightmare.  The noise and banter of the other diners was just the beginning.  We were so out of place in our grief.  We had no business being in public let alone, joining in this most familial of holidays.  It was brutal and to a person we couldn't wait to get out of there.

Now it's one year later and I am hosting Thanksgiving in my new home, expecting 25 family and a few friends and I am in a good place.  I've survived my year of firsts and am moving into my future with optimism.  If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I've always had a grateful heart amidst the trials.  On this day, as ever, I am thankful for the steadfast people who walked with me this last year, sharing my inner life and the pain and grief there.  Your love and compassion, words and silences, your steady presence and understanding of my anguish have helped me heal.  You have made all the difference and I love you.  Thank you!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SHATTERING CHANGE

by Bennett Conrad 

"I have good news and bad news, which do you want to hear first?"  "The good news!" my sister and I exclaimed. 

"Well, Donna, Jeff, David, Rob, Jamie and Grandma are all coming for a long visit."

"Great" we replied.  

"Don't get worked up because the bad news will bring you down.  Dad's cancer is getting a little overwhelming, so Dr. Kossman took him his off chemotherapy."

"You're not saying what I think you're saying, are you?"

"Yes, and it's very sad."

Mom stopped talking and began to cry.  So did Olivia and I.

"First Libby, then Grandpa, and now Dad!" I yelled in outrage.

"I know, it really sucks," whimpered mom.

"Why now? It's almost Christmas and then his 50th birthday." I croaked.

"Bennett, we'll be able to see him before he's gone."

"Really?"

"Yes, at the hospice center."

Two days later... he was still as a statute, but he was clinging onto life.  Grandma, David and two of my aunts sat around his hospital bed trading stories about Dad and saying quiet prayers.  David, my uncle, held my dad's cold hands for about 5 whole hours.  Then the worst, the cruelest, maddening part of the day came, we had to leave.  I stood up, walked over to Dad's bed and whispered in his ear, "I love you."  Suddenly, Dad sat up and opened his eyes; he looked grand, like cancer hadn't laid one poisonous gnarled little finger on his great life.  He took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "I love you too."  Then he slipped back into unconsciousness.  I was the last person to ever speak with him. 

We got into our car and slowly drove away; devastated.  And that was the last time I ever saw my father.  Philip Taylor Berry Conrad died on November 15th a year ago today.  I will always remember him as a cunning and loving father, a blindingly fast and strong athlete, and one of cancers bravest, fiercest, and most determined competitors. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Life is Beautiful

“Life is Beautiful” directed by and starring Roberto Benigni is the story of a devoted father and his son who end up in a Nazi concentration camp.  In an attempt to hold his family together and help his son survive the horrors of the camp, the father imagines that the Holocaust is a game and that the grand prize for winning is a tank.  At the time the movie came out I didn't have any children, but just watching the previews and imagining what the father had to go through, the pretending and the elaborate charades, it was unbearable to watch, let alone consider being in that position myself.  And the title?  I knew what it was suggesting but I just couldn't get there at the time.  I love movies and will watch most anything across all genres.  I've never seen this movie and I probably never will.  At first I just didn't want to "go there" but now, it's a moot point.  


See now, I get it.  Life is beautiful.  Although I haven't been through anything nearly as horrific as the Holocaust I know what it is to want to protect your children.  Protect them from seeing their young, strong, capable father slowly wasting away in front of them.  Shield them from the realities of depression and cancer and chemotherapy and grief that encroached on our lives and their childhood.  And yet.  To deprive them of these basic truths of their lives would have been to deprive them of all the beauty that is life.  I don't need to see the movie because I've lived that story.  I don't need to watch it unfold on screen and ask myself "what would I do in a similar position?"  I was refined in the crucible of Phil's unrelenting illness and death.

I am a mother and although my first instinct will always be to protect my children, I also take into consideration what is ultimately best for them.  When a teachable moment comes along I seize it, because in their lives, as in mine, it is what it is.  With Phil's cancer, we were all dealt a shitty hand, he more than anymore.  But I tell you, the way that man played his hand was inspiring to watch and be a part of.  I am changed forever.  If I'd shielded Bennett and Olivia from that by pretending or sugar-coating it, it would have diminished what he was teaching them in the face of his greatest challenge and what I believe will be some of their greatest life lessons going forward.  Phil was showing them that life is beautiful and worth fighting and suffering greatly for.  He was showing them that love is beautiful, that family matters, friends matter, faith matters.  He taught them how to suffer with dignity and die well.  Phil lived a life of love and was a good father to his children to the very end.

Thank you Phil, you are beyond beautiful.

   

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Steel Nation

My Sunday Best

It's quite easy for people to find our house when coming over for the first time.  We're the one's with a Steelers banner hanging in the front yard.  We understandably stirred up some interest with our neighbors when we put it up and it's definitely been a conversation piece.  Although The Chargers aren't remotely on par with The Steelers we still have some die-hard fans here.  My parents for one have been season ticket holders for over 45 years.  They even flew to Miami for that joke of a Super Bowl.  My brother Stephen drives down from Redlands (a couple of hours away) to enjoy the season tickets next to my parents which he bought from their best friends when they became available.    

Until we put up the banner we hadn't heard much from our neighbors.  The street is wide and quiet and though folks had waved and smiled as they drove by no one had actually introduced themselves yet.  Something about hanging that banner tipped the scales and one by one they started making their way over to say something.  Comments ranged from "what's with the banner?", to "that's my son's favorite team", to my personal favorite from my next door neighbor's father-in-law, "the Steelers made me a lot of money in the 70's!"  

Inevitably Bennett or I would explain why we had the banner up in the first place.  Our Daddio was from Pittsburgh, he had died in November, and we all bleed black and gold.  Anyone who had even the slightest problem with it would have quieted down after that I'm thinking.  I married in to this passion for the Steelers and it's a great legacy from Phil that I share with my Pittsburgh friends.  It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it - being a part of Steel Nation.  But it is everywhere.  The kids and I see Steelers bumper stickers, license plate holders, T shirts, paraphernalia of every kind down here.  

To be fair, tomorrow I'll be wearing my #14 Dan Fouts jersey when The Chargers take on The Raiders (boo hiss), having been raised watching the Titans Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson in the era of Air Coryell.  However, when the Chargers have six Super Bowl rings that's when I'll hang their banner in front of my house.


Game Changer