Eleven years ago yesterday, my uncle took his own life. Dates hit me hard because number patterns interest and excite me. After a stressful previous night I woke up with self care on my mind. I've come to the distinct realization that when my mental state is poor, life for my family is worse. People ask me often how I handle five kids. I used to shrug it off. Not anymore. I try really damn hard to be a good mama, and part of my ability to be a good mama means doing the things that keep my soul alive. In an effort to buffer from my stressful night I woke early, showered and shaved, and had some time with my husband. I buckled everyone half dressed and barefoot into the van, we dropped J off, and we headed to the beach. We watched the surfers, found some seashells, and then made our way to the playground. Seated at a picnic table and half reading Brene Brown I watched my eldest daughter swing higher and higher, listening to her raucous giggles. "She's so joyful." I thought to myself. "She really knows how to be in the present moment. She's fearless. I wish I could be more like her."
As for the rest of the day, I'd planned to drink just enough chai tea, watch Lilo and Stitch, and ask Will for a foot massage . That all changed when "Hey Mom, watch this!" turned into a broken elbow and a hospital stay. This darn day, I thought. The stupid 26th. Another bad thing on this day. I know suicide is taboo. We don't like to talk about it. We don't note in the obituary that people decided to die. It's not easy to talk about. For many there is a lot of anger surrounding it. I've heard everything from "How could they?" to "That's so selfish to hurt others instead of working on being happier." Suicide isn't malicious, though. Suicide is driven by fear. Fear that life will never improve. Fear that temporary problems will be permanent. Fear that we are burdens on our friends and families. Fear that we can't handle the hardship coming around the corner. I'm no stranger to fear myself. I deal with anxiety and have from my earliest memories. It isn't difficult or an imaginative stretch for me to understand how people can fear so deeply. Life can be really hard. Especially when we spend the majority of our time wondering what difficult thing will happen next. Up until the last six months I spent more time worrying about events that never came to fruition than I did processing the way I felt about experiences that actually happened. Dealing with our natural human emotions can feel far from natural. In the course of daily life with five kids we experience a multitude of feelings every single day. Many are so, so pleasant. We truly have the best time together. Growing up is terse though. Two, four, five, seven. Big ages. Big brain changes. We're busy moving from one part of the routine to the other and sometimes emotional displays feel like a drag. "I don't have time for this dramatic upset about popsicles" runs through my head multiple times a week. The thing is, it's never actually about popsicles. Kids don't know how to say, "I'm feeling frightened about school today." or "I'm having a hard day and I need extra connection." Most adults I know would have a hard time saying it, too. And perhaps that's because we're so used to stuffing down our emotions. We don't want to feel the bad ones so we don't express and deal with them and then we become unable to feel the great ones, too. We don't get to have it both ways.
We have joked in the past that Cianna is our drama queen. She feels everything very deeply and she shows it. Joy, pain, adoration, the whole nine yards. You never have to worry where you stand with this girl, she'll let you know. Sometimes that results in a lot of messy emotions. At home. At school. In the middle of Aldi. And yes, as patient as I attempt to be there are times I'd really like to fit her emotions in a neat little box and keep them put away until it's more convenient. But I know that she, like me, like us all, needs an outlet for that emotion.. Shortly after her fall she said, "I know I got hurt. But I'm probably going to do that again." Its not that she was fearless. She felt fear. She walked through it and jumped anyway. Show me the kid who can share the big emotions and I'll show you the person who has life figured out better than the rest of us.
No matter our thoughts about what happens when this life ends- and it will end for all of us, some way, some how- this is the life we have on this Earth. How sad it would be to live forever in fear. Sad for us. Sad for our friends and our family. Sad for the world. I’m here to listen to how people are feeling and tell them how I’m feeling. Life is messy. Let’s be there for each other. Maybe we can convince everyone one by one that the joy is worth the tough stuff and no one has to go through what our family did eleven years ago.
Not quite a month ago my Grandma called and said she thought I should head home. I could tell she hated saying it. Not just because the news was sad but also because it meant a cross country trip with five kids. I acted like I wasn't sure if I could while beginning to throw snacks and diapers and clothes on the kitchen table. I threw a load of dirty diapers in the washer and when they were dry we hit the road. I told her we were on the way when we reached New Mexico because she worries.
About two years ago I sat eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants with one of my favorite people following the funeral of a well loved older woman from our church. She said, "You're about to go through the hardest thing in your life." I knew she was talking about losing my grandparents but I couldn't even go there. I couldn't get into the head space to even fathom it. My grandparents raised me from fifteen until I sort of kind of got out of their hair and married at 22. The teenage years are interesting. They are even more interesting when you move in with 70 year old people. They loved watching me excel in school and I loved doing it. They came to every school play, every awards assembly, on more church trips than I can count. They paid for prom dresses and for braces. They watched me fall in love, get a broken heart, and stood by me when I got pregnant the year after high school in a relationship that should have stayed in high school. I brought my first baby home to their house and my sweet Papa was so worried about me getting anemic after birth that he made me steak every single day for a month. He taught me to drive and to balance a checkbook and how to talk on the phone. He was mostly retired by the time I moved in so we had more time together than the usual parent/child relationship. I was a typical teen. My head so self absorbed I didn't think nearly often enough to ask about his life. When he knew he was dying he began talking deeply about life; about mistakes he had made as a young person and I was sort of shocked. It sounds silly. We all make mistakes. My Papa was the kind of person people listened to. He didn't talk just to hear himself talk. He was wise and full of the common sense that seems to have skipped my generation. The idea of him making mistakes was laughable. He was the rock of our family.
We drove and barely made it out of California the first night. My mind raced with thoughts and I'd packed funeral clothes. But I never really believed he'd actually die. He was too strong. Too steady. It wasn't time. Except that it was.
When I got to his hospital room he immediately held his arms out and said, "Give me Jane." Isla Jane is our newest baby. 8 weeks old at the time. He evidently wasn't fond of the name Isla and had decided to just call her Jane. He held her. Said how perfect she was. Then he asked me to take her because he couldn't think of anything worse than dropping her. He asked about the plumbing disaster at our rent house and when I told him it was all fixed up he winked at me and gave me his hand sign for "good deal." Within a few hours his pain was unmanageable without Morphine and we gave him his wish of being placed in the care of Hospice. We weren't going to have him poked and prodded anymore but allow him to leave this life as comfortably as possible. In my mind this was an "easy" decision because he so firmly wanted it. Looking back it was "easy" because I still didn't believe he'd actually die. As I type this I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that he isn't up eating ice cream in the middle of the night or putting on a pot of coffee for Grandma when he knows she's on her way home.
The thing about life is that there are only two things we all get to experience. Birth and death. They are so commonplace no one is surprised or in awe when our friends welcome a new baby or lose a loved one. The newspaper and our social media feeds show us that it happens every minute of every day. But God, when it happens to us, it's earth shattering. Life will never be the same. We will never be the same.
In his last days I watched my Grandma love on this man she has loved for 63 and a half years. The man she grew up with. Had babies with. Lost a son with. Caring for dying loved ones is not new to my Grandma. Her calm and strength got the rest of us through those difficult last days. She held his hands and his arms. Sat at his feet. Spoke calmly to him. We watched her heart break as one more time she was able to give him exactly what he wanted. Permission to let go. The reassurance that no matter how much we relied on him it was okay if he was tired. We would continue on and be okay. What a gift to give someone.
I wasn't there when my Papa died. Helene had been having a rough morning and after three days of mostly being at the hospital I wasn't comfortable leaving the kids again. The previous night I left around 11. I ran my fingers through his hair, kissed his forehead, and told him that I was going home to take care of my babies. I don't regret it. That's exactly where he would have wanted me to be.
And now we do go on. As strange and wrong as it feels, we go on. We're thankful for the years and the memories and the wisdom and the love. We're so grateful that he was surrounded by his family and friends in his last days. That his mind stayed sharp up until the very end. That we had the opportunity to tell him exactly how much he meant to us. We know not everyone gets that.
And today I hope he's some place beyond where we can see building something.
I always swear that I won't cry at send off. It's not helpful for me or the kids, I tell myself. We will play and laugh and hug. There will be no tears from me.
There were tears. When he pulled J in close to tell him to snuggle the baby he won't meet for months, there they were. When they called for five more minutes and suddenly it's real and you wonder how in the world to fit in half a year's worth of togetherness in five minutes, there were tears. Maybe the worst part is seeing the other families. Knowing this heart breaking feeling is far from your own, but is collective. There are newborns in the crowd. Some say they are "lucky." Dad got to see them being born. Spend a few days, maybe weeks with these new lives before they take off around the world. We all know that it isn't lucky though. That their Dads will come back and they'll have no earthly idea who they are. That they will learn about each other and bond then, not now. There are several very pregnant women in the crowd, including myself. Some of us have done this before. It doesn't really make it better. We know for sure what we're getting into. We know what it feels like 5 years later when your daughter recounts the story of her birth and reminds everyone that her Daddy wasn't there.