Wishing I Weren’t Sensitive

I wish I knew how to be insensitive, knew how to put matters out of my head and go on with my life as if nothing happened, but I don’t seem to be able to do that. Even after enduring months of being relentlessly hounded by my dysfunctional brother, even after I took him back to Colorado, I worry about him, worry about his well-being, wonder who he is aggravating, wonder what trouble his mouth is getting him into. There’s nothing I can do though, so worrying is foolish. I can’t control his behavior for him — no one can control another person’s behavior. I remember as a child wondering why he argued with my father since he knew it always got him a beating. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t keep his mouth shut as I did. It wasn’t until my mother was dying that I ever stood up to my father or broke one of his unwritten rules. (I did for her what she could never do for me — stood up to him — which seemed to connect some sort of karmic circle and brought me peace when she died.)

My family was a pool of unwritten rules. Somehow I could understand those rules while other of my siblings couldn’t. Even now, when we are all getting old, those rules still dominate. I guess those rules are why I was “allowed” to stay here to look after my father. I knew never to disturb him when he was praying or reading or doing anything, actually. I knew not to open the windows when the air conditioning was on. I knew not to eat his food, read his newspaper before he did, disturb his paperwork. Most of my siblings knew I was here to shield my father from the world (though we didn’t use those words), but my dysfunctional brother couldn’t understand. I didn’t even know there were all these unwritten rules until he started screaming about my changing “the rules.”

[Oddly, my sister who is here helping has broken many of the same “rules” that got my brother kicked out of the house, which is one of the things that sent him into emotional overdrive. He said it was unfair, and he was right.]

I came here to look after my father partly because I had nowhere else to go after the death of my life mate/soul mate (and when my father is gone, I will again have nowhere to go). But mostly I came to see if I could unwind my ties to the past so that after my father is gone, I wouldn’t still be whining over my unhappy childhood. It’s working, I suppose. I just never expected to be buffeted by such emotional storms, never expected my brother to come and shake things up even more, never expected a lot of what has happened, such as finding a nearby dance studio and taking dance classes.

I hoped that by doing for my father what he could never do for me (I pay attention to his needs though he had always been unable to pay attention to my mine) that a karmic circle would be closed when he was gone and I could finish out my life strong and wise and bold and ready for whatever happens.

But all I seem to do is cry, which is so not my idea of a strong woman, or a wise one, or a bold and independent one.

I thought my brother’s coming here fifteen months ago was a portent of my father’s passing, but although at the time father seemed near to death, my brother’s presence, however unwelcome, stimulated him and brought him to life. (Which is one reason I endured his presence all these months — there was something powerful going on beneath the surface I could feel but couldn’t understand.)

My father seems to be recovering from his most recent hospital stay. With my future on hold once again, there is a chance I can still accomplish whatever it is I need to accomplish by being here. I just wish I knew what it was. Perhaps it’s one of those unwritten rules even I am not sensitive enough to read.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

If I Could Change a Single Moment of the Past

clockIf I could change a single moment of the past, it wouldn’t be a moment of my life. The traumas and failures in my life have never been the result of a single moment but of life’s unfolding drama or mistaken assessments on my part. The single moments that did have an impact didn’t change my life, just gave me a few uncomfortable weeks or months, so it’s not worth the trouble to go back and redo those moments and put up with any ripples and upheavals that might result from such changes.

I would instead bestow this power to change a single moment on another, someone I’ve only talked to a few time, someone whose name I don’t even know.

At a local employee-owned grocery chain, I occasionally see an employee sitting by the door, giving us customers a friendly good-bye as we leave. Generally, these “sitters” are workers who have been injured and can’t stand all day, so this is a way of giving them a rest on the clock.

One such woman is radiantly beautiful, looking to be about twenty when in fact she is in her forties. A couple of years ago, her boss needed someone to move a heavy object, and since no one else was available, she volunteered. In that moment her life changed from one of a vibrant health to one of chronic back pain and doctors who can’t agree on treatment.

The last time I saw her, I didn’t stop to talk, merely said in passing, “I was hoping I’d never see you again.” Those words echoed in my mind as I crossed the parking lot, and I was appalled by what I had said. I meant, of course, I was hoping I wouldn’t see her at her post and that she finally was through with her ordeal. I might have let the remark go, but she is of a different race than I am, and I was afraid she’d take it as a racial slur if not a personal insult. So I went back to the store, but she and her chair were gone.

Yesterday I saw her again and finally got a chance to apologize. She said she knew what I meant and hadn’t taken offense. We talked for a while, and she mentioned that her grandmother’s funeral had been packed to overflowing. The woman had been active in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, was loved by all who met her, and since she lived to be 106, she had plenty of opportunity to meet people.

If the grandmother is anything like the woman I met, it’s no wonder she was so beloved. This woman’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day, even mine when I was in the worst phases of my grief. Although she is very sweet and kind, and not at all bitter, she is always aware that one single moment changed her life forever, and if it were ever possible, she’d go back and change it.

It is that moment of change that I would gift her with if I could.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Grief: Cleaning Up the Past

Thirty weeks and still counting. I’ve already stopped counting the days since my life mate — my soul mate — died, soon I’ll stop counting the weeks, and eventually I’ll stop counting the months. Perhaps there will even come a time when the anniversary of his death goes unnoticed. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens in my life, he will always be a part of it — almost everything I do, feel, say relates to him in some way. He was instrumental in making me who I am, and his death is the catalyst to make me who I will become, though I still don’t feel different from who I was before he died. So much of the change in me came before his death, during the long years of his dying.

During the last year of his life, as the cancer spread from his kidney up to his brain, he spent more and more time alone. I thought I coped well with the situation, continuing with my life, taking his dying for granted. I thought I’d moved on. In fact, I told him I’d be okay after he was gone, that I’d finished with my grieving. And I believed it.

After he died, the depth of my grief stunned me. His death shattered my state of suspended animation, and I was appalled by the way I’d behaved that last year. How could I possibly have taken his dying for granted? How could I have refused to see what he was feeling? How could I have become impatient with his growing weakness, his reclusiveness, his inability to carry on the long ping-ponging conversations that had characterized our relationship? How could I not have treasured his every word? Even after his diagnosis, even after we’d apologized for any wrongs, even after we become as close as we had been at the beginning, I continued to think I wouldn’t grieve. How could I have not known how much I still loved him?

I’d been living that last year over and over again in memory, trying to make it come out right, but no matter what I did, I could not change the past. It haunted me, that year. I could feel everything I refused to feel back then, and it about crushed me. A few days ago, while I was crying uncontrollably, I remembered hearing something during my grief support group session that struck a bell, so I checked back over the paper the counselor had read to us. “Self protection — denying the meaning of the loss.” Aha!

I had never denied his dying, just the immediacy of it. (Which is not surprising. He had the strongest determination of anyone I’d ever met, and he kept rallying until he couldn’t rally anymore.) But unconsciously (or subconsciously), I had denied what his death would mean to me. Denied what he meant to me.

After my aha moment, I started wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t gone into suspended animation, and I realized if, during that last year, I had let myself see what he was feeling, let myself feel what his dying and his death would mean to me, I would have been in such agony I would have cried all the time. He would have hated that he was causing me so much pain, which would have made me feel even worse. I still couldn’t have done anything for him, so eventually I would have blocked out all that was happening. I would have gone on with my own life and left his dying to him. I would have become impatient with the restrictions of our life, with his weakness, with his retreat into himself. In other words, even if I could have gone back and relived that year knowing the truth of it, my behavior would have been the same. And he would still have died.

With that realization, my tears stopped. I continue to have teary moments, but I am at peace with the way I acted that last year of his life. I still wish I could have done something to make that last year easier for him, of course, but perhaps I did — with all his troubles, at least he didn’t have to deal with my grief.