If It’s Not One Thing…

It seems that my family has gotten the short end of the stick lately. My stepfather has gotten cancer again. I can’t remember what kind he had the first time he went through it, but this time it’s in his throat, which is a much scarier proposition. Good vibes are needed all around, because it’s a much tougher battle than last time.

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Me (Leslie), Forbes, and Lindsay after my mother’s funeral.

Outcomes could range from chemo and radiation and he’s fine… to completely having his voice box removed. For a singer who was once in Syracuse Opera, I can’t imagine what he must be going through right now. Being a singer myself, I don’t know what I would do if I was in the same situation. Given past bad situations, I imagine that I would be a puddle on the floor of anxiety, so a lot of my prayers go out to him on a daily basis.

Historically, we have not been close, but bonded over the look and feel we all wanted for my mother at her memorial service. For instance, she did not want an open casket funeral complete with “cakewalk,” so we buried her before the service began, with just Forbes, Lindsay and Mathew, James (best friend from high school as support person) and me, and a few family members and close friends. I’d never heard of burying someone before the funeral, and it’s stuck with me because it was so perfect… definitely something to ask the family when I do a funeral. It seemed to make everyone much calmer, because the sad part was “over” and we could just focus on the celebration of her life.

I miss my mother every day, slowly beginning to come out of my shell, but I have not been prepared for setbacks in grief. My grandmother dying has made things worse, but at the same time, due to her Alzheimer’s Disease, I highly doubt she would have recognized me had I gone to say goodbye before her funeral. The last time I was in NE Texas was five years ago, for my aunt Shawn’s wedding, and it was in Longview. I never made it to her house in Lone Star, which might have provided some context. Five years is long in Alzheimer’s time… yet another thing I wish I’d done differently, which is to make time for the trip north.

I’m planning on going with my dad to see my grandfather, which I almost perceive as being better than trying to get out of town in the snow, because just like my mother’s funeral, I was greatly intimidated by the prospect of a room full of people I didn’t know, or hadn’t seen in at least 10 or 15 years…. although still very much recognizable because I stopped growing in 7th grade. As a true introvert, the prospect of just spending time with my dad and grandfather on my own truly appeals to me…. going for “walkies” with Harry “Putter” and sitting in “the new room.” I also can’t wait to go back through all my grandfather has written, because my style is very much inherited.

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A Personal Century, Vol. I

His first book concentrated on their family in the early years, and it’s been fun to hear what my father and his siblings were like as children. Apparently, my father was quite the Boy Scout, which surprised Lindsay and me to no end, because when we were kids, we never camped once. Perhaps it was because as a child, he’d had all the camping he could take. We always joked as a family that our idea of “roughing it” was a hotel with no room service.

When my grandfather was younger, he was the Public Relations Manager at Lone Star Steel, making a career of writing and photography. He passed that love of writing to my dad in his sermons, and of course to my blog and my own sermons. I don’t know that I ever read anything my grandfather wrote during his career, but it is clear that writing is genetic, a need rather than a want.

I know for certain that I don’t know how I feel about something until I’ve had time to think about it in “longhand,” the hallmark of a writer. I wish I was better at fiction, because it would allow me so much more license in terms of getting out emotions without characters directly related to the people in my own life… they’d just have to guess rather than seeing their names or the loving terms of endearment I’ve given them over time.

The people in my life that are terms of endearment on this web site include Argo and The ___nator. Argo is a nod to the line I wrote about her years ago, that I sleep deeply in the belly of the ship, where I know my passage is safe. The ___nator comes from wanting to leave out her name, but she’s part Buddha, part tornado, a velvet hammer if ever I’ve met one. If I had to compare her to anything, it’s an M&M…. hard shell with sweetness in the middle.

They’re gone now, but I live for the memories they’ve left me when they run across my mind…………. a grief sometimes deeper than death, because we’ve all agreed to just move on, and they’re just out there with their hilariousness of which I’m not a part. In order to let go, I had to constantly stop thinking about what I could do to make things better, because nothing would. I had to start looking forward to the future, to the people I’d meet, to the places I’d go, and how my experiences of them inform who I am now and want to be.

It has taken an enormous amount of work, and I’m still not finished. But what I do know is that the end is the beginning is the end as I approach getting older and leaving behind things that were not meant for me, which was tending to react with rage because PTSD touches the parts of your brain that render you speechless in the right ways and activate all the wrong ones.

Getting my anxiety under control and taking to my room is what has helped the most, because Dana and I were partying and not pondering, the paralysis of analysis put away for yet another day. Because of this, I was angry with the wrong people, or as the old axiom says, I didn’t say it was your fault. I said I was going to blame you. Taking responsibility for the fact that words sometimes do hurt more than sticks and stones has been the focus of my recovery, because not feeling the physical reactions to anxiety has allowed me to delve deeper into myself than I ever have, because I don’t get panicked as easily, don’t shoot off my mouth when I feel threatened, don’t feel cortisol racing through my body, taking away my ability to put things in perspective…. which would have been a Very Good Thing™ when I was married. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was an amazing wife, and in others, I failed miserably. The same goes for my friends. In some ways, I was awesome. In others, I was a right bastard, a judgmental dickhead that popped off faster than I could calculate consequences, which were immediate and dire. The PTSD excuse only goes so far, as well as being bipolar and anxiety-ridden…. because even though I am all those things, it doesn’t erase responsibility for the damage I caused…. and that responsibility weighs on me like a rock when I agree to pay attention to it. I have to, sometimes, because I have to know whether I’m progressing or not…. just backbreaking emotional work for someone who really needs to do it. It makes my mind tired, as if I’ve been trying to prune kudzu and blackberry vines, which seem to grow as you’re cutting.

In terms of grief, the best way I can wrap it in a box is if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. I cannot underestimate how much losing my mother has changed me, as if nothing can get worse, so it’s only onward and upward from here. Surely there has to be some merit in remaining calm and collected through it, without the rage of losing the possibly 20 years I could still have had left with her.

I am trying my best to live life without regret by not doing dumb shit I have to regret in the first place. I am also considering yoga, because a trauma specialist on On Being with Krista Tippet said that it’s often hard for PTSD sufferers to get back in their bodies, having cut off their feelings and hidden them so deep there aren’t words, just compounded pain in the muscles from years of fear, anxiety, anger, and the associated triggers. For me, it’s the scent of fall; the air tinged with burning leaves, seeing my old church, hearing music I’ve heard a thousand times in a different light. At Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, it was the handbell tables with their long curtains and hearing the ringing of them. I was so proud of Dana for finding a musical outlet, and suffering on the inside as I watched her play, because in a lot of ways, it was just too much.

Now I watch and wait, praying on the spaces…………….. that these triggers will become less powerful over time and space, trying to concentrate on the people who need me rather than taking to my bedroom in order to avoid coming undone.

And as I pray, I use the words I’ve used since I was 17; may God forgive me for all the things I’ve done, and all the things I’ve left undone. It’s a mantra of enormous proportions, simple words that go through my mind all the time rather than setting aside room for prayer. Instead of believing that there’s only power when I hold space for God, it’s that God flows through me like water, all the time, without thinking and therefore smoothing the jagged edges and eroding the hard places that live within me.

I can only hope that it shows on the outside, rather than just abiding in the thoughts no one can read.

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