Personal Statement

Personal Statement

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Salute to My Suck-Ups and Non-Suck-Ups

I recently stumbled upon a piece by JD Bailey, a Huffington Post "Healthy Living" blogger, that completely summarized where I am in my head now that we are more than half a year past my dad's death:

Grief is uncomfortable. It is foreign. It is an ill-fitting garment that pinches you in all the wrong places. You can feel like you've shed it for a while, and then it can unexpectedly wrap you up like an unwanted sweater in July.

And because of this, it's hard to be around a person who is grieving. You don't know when she's going to break down and start sobbing while watching Chris Matthews, because he looks a little like her dad. Or because football season started, and her dad's not there for it. Or because it's Tuesday. And Tuesday is just another day without her dad.

[For the record, Chris Mathews is not a trigger for me.  On his best days, Dad looked like Tom Brokaw.  When he packed on a little weight:  William Shatner (the "Boston Legal" version - not "Young Kirk").  When he packed on a LOT of weight:  John Goodman in "Roseanne."

But, apparently, Bob Newhart is a trigger, on account of the facts that (1) my dad (also a Bob) had TV Bob's deadpan comedic delivery and (2) TV Bob was one of my dad's favorite television personalities.  And so it was that the first time that I really, truly wept over my dad's passage (not those first tears at hospice, which were a combination of tears of disbelief, relief and - oddly - joy, because I was so grateful that his suffering had come to an end) was a few weeks ago during an episode of  "Big Bang Theory."  All it took was one particular turn of the phrase from Professor Proton, and the floodgates opened.  It didn't help that TV Bob is visibly showing his age.  (Spouse is on notice that, when TV Bob passes away, I will probably take it ridiculously hard -  in a weird way, it will be like I'm losing Daddy Bob all over again.)]

Yes, being around the grieving is hard for anyone. But that's how you help a grieving friend. You suck up your own uncomfortable feelings and you are there for her. You are around.

My very best friend - Spouse - most definitely sucked it up during what we now refer to as my "Professor Proton Pity Party."  He has been there before:  we lost his dad, very suddenly, when the Little Kid was a toddler (seems like yesterday, but we will hit the eight-year mark next spring), so Spouse is a more senior member of what another, similarly situated friend astutely refers to as "a really s***ty club that no one wants to join."  I remember at the time of his dad's death desperately wishing that I had a frame of reference for what he was experiencing, because I felt that I was doing an entirely inadequate job of "being there" for him.  It didn't help that I, too, was grieving the loss of a father-in-law who over a span of twelve years had become like a real dad to me.  I felt guilty for mourning him myself - after all, he wasn't my dad, at least not in the biological sense.  Was Spouse angry at me for grieving alongside him?  Gratified?  I finally asked, and he assured me that it was the latter.

Now we have been in both positions:  the grieving child, and the concerned spouse simultaneously grieving for a second father.   We have a complete understanding of each other, and that understanding enhances our relationship.  (We have joked for some time about divorce never being an option for us, because we know where all of the bodies are buried - a figurative statement that in our shared middle age has become literal as well.)

So, obviously, it's easy for Spouse to be part of the Suck-Up Squad - he has the requisite frame of reference, and, also, it's kind of his job to pick up the pieces when things go pear-shaped.  (Seriously, a priest in Houston said so, seventeen-plus years ago.  Okay, he didn't say "pear-shaped," but it would have been awesome if he did.)  Likewise, fellow members of the Really S****ty Club have waded in, and on the Scale of Awesome they have blown "a theoretical priest saying 'pear-shaped' during a wedding ceremony" out of the water.

For awhile, I was confused, and more than a little hurt, by the fact that most non-RS Club members seemed to avoid the topic of Dad's death (and I'm talking the "never bring it up again after the day of the funeral" kind of avoidance).  But then one day I had the epiphany:

it's hard to be around a person who is grieving.

Really, it's like walking into a minefield:  if I ask her how she is doing, will she cry?  Get defensive and bite my head off (my signature move when Dad was diagnosed with cancer the first time; I was nineteen, and I could not handle the idea of people caring that much for me)?  If she blows off the subject, should I accept the blow-off, or should I push?  How hard should I push?

Oh, Lord, what if I put my foot in my mouth?

Based on personal experience:  I don't think that there's such a thing as saying the wrong thing.  If you fumble, the only discomfort your friend is likely to feel is the emphathetic kind.  Mostly she will appreciate that you volunteered to tap dance on eggshells in the first place.

Also, on behalf of myself and others similarly situated, allow me to offer apologies for sending out CUH-RAZY mixed signals.  One minute we're joking and posting photos on Facebook with "Good times!" captions, and/or fretting over inconsequential things, and the next minute we're wallowing.  The joking, good-timing and fretting could be defensive, but not necessarily.  The first thing that they tell you after a parent, spouse or child dies is:  grief is not linear.  And if you are me (or my mom), you respond, Mmmmkay, what the heck does that mean?  But I get it now.  There are stretches of time where you are able to function, more or less, like a non-grieving person.  You joke, you enjoy your family and friends, and you sweat small stuff.  Doesn't mean that the grief is gone, and sooner or later it comes back to the forefront.  If the erratic pattern catches me unawares, I know it has to be confusing to others.

So, to my Non-Suck-Ups: please feel free to get in my face.  Or, you know, don't.  Just know that I will love you either way.

To my Suck-Ups who are RS Club members:  Thanksgiving will be over in 48 hours.  Love to you all.

To my Suck-Ups who are not RS Club members:  how bleepin' brave are you?  Thank you for getting in my face.  Your in-my-face-ness means more than words can say. 

And, also, I love you.

Thankful for you all.

Monday, November 18, 2013

No Helicopter Needed

We had an inkling that the Big Kid would not be in need of a "helicopter parent" when Radio Disney stuck it to him at Mayfest.

A shiny-faced RD intern handed him a swag bag, and as we were walking out of the fenced-in RD enclosure, my then seven-year-old surveyed the contents and discovered that he had been shorted by a couple of promotional geegaws, relative to what his friends had received.  Instead of whining or bursting into tears ("Moooooooom, everyone else got TWO bumper stickers [that we will never stick on anything, because you aren't that into Radio Disney, and so Mom will throw them away when you aren't looking] and a Mickey-shaped squeeze ball [which will also mysteriously disappear], and I only got ONE bumper sticker [that Mom is totally going to throw away - count on it]"), he stopped in his tracks, said, "Excuse me, I have to go back," and next thing I know my kid is at the giveaway stand, politely explaining that HIS SWAG BAG WAS DEFECTIVE AND EITHER NEEDED TO BE SUPPLEMENTED OR REPLACED.  RD Intern looked somewhat shocked to be dealing with a small child with a firm grasp of customer service protocol and glanced over to me. 

I just shrugged.

Since then, Big Kid's nickname has become "Cher Horowitz," after the Alicia Silverstone character in "Clueless" who wouldn't show her attorney father her report card because "some teachers are trying to low-ball me, Daddy. And I know how you say, 'Never accept a first offer,' so I figure these grades are just a jumping off point to start negotiations."  Big Kid's worldview seems to be that all guidelines are flexible, which bugs the ever-loving crud out of his parents, and what bugs us even more is that HIS TEACHERS DRINK THE KOOL-AID AND AGREE WITH HIM, but at least he does his own dirty work and doesn't come crying to Mom and Dad, asking us to intervene on his behalf.

On the more positive side, he didn't break his stride when we enrolled him in a magnet program for middle school.  Final selection of a campus was his, but the decision not to remain at the home campus in any event was parent-fueled, and we worried that he would be morose about having to leave his friends, with good reason:  middle school's hard enough without having to start fresh, you know?  But Mr. Independent took to his new school like a duck to water, and happily claimed the pond as his own.  His other elementary school friends who had opted for magnet programs?  Not so much.  By the end of sixth grade, all of them had migrated back to the home campus, and in a bout of word vomit one day, I asked him:  was he upset that the proverbial band was getting back together?  "Nah.  I think it's pretty cool that I'm the only one who tried something new and stuck with it.  And I'm happy that I did something different - it's a great school. I have made a ton of new friends, and I'll see the old ones when I get to high school."

Except . . . now that high school is fast approaching, he is wavering.  On some levels, he loves the idea of the home campus:  it's a great school with great traditions, he will know a ton of people, and joining the swim team will be pretty seamless, since it's basically his summer swim team with a couple of additions.  But then, completely on his own, he decided that there would be some benefit to enrolling in another magnet, geared towards either engineering or architecture.  At the district's "Choices Expo" last weekend (which Big Kid was supposed to be attending as a representative of his middle school campus, but he ended up spending a good bit of time interviewing high schools, completely on his own), he winnowed the available magnet options down to one - a blended engineering/architecture program (giving him more opportunities to find his groove before college, because he's not sure which direction he wants to go) at a campus with a fabulous swim program.  When I suggested that, maybe, just going to high school is okay, and it's not strictly necessary to specialize - particularly when specializing would mean starting over with new friends once again - the answer I got was, "Mom - I wouldn't have suggested it if I wasn't up for it.  ALL of it.  My old friends will still be old friends.  I'll see them at church and swim meets and stuff, and I'll get to make new friends again."

He's turning 14 in a week, and I'm still waiting for his awkward/maladjusted phase to begin.  And it occurs to me that that wait may be open-ended.  Kid's not perfect, but he's ridiculously grounded and self-confident without being smug.  And I have no idea how that happened, because I really don't think that Spouse and I are that good at being parents.  Gotta give credit to the kid himself.

And thinking that maybe we can go ahead and transfer the "purchase a helicopter" budget to "college - general" on our balance sheet, once and for all.