Have you ever heard of that TV show, Queen for a Day? I think it was from the 50's. Queen For a Day was a competition among women contestants usually, describing tragedies they had endured - family deaths, job loss, or serious illnesses. The audience would vote by applause, measured by a meter with a big needle - pretty demeaning if you were in the low range. The winner would usually get a washer-drier combination, a crown, roses, and a robe. She would walk down a ramp, tears streaming down her face, while the audience applauded and cried for her victory. It was the 50's version of today's Extreme Home Makeover show. Oh, I wouldn't win Queen for a Day if it were on today. There are so many people who have been through much more than I have. But, in my little middle class life, here in a smallish town bordering Pittsburgh, PA, I might get a 4 on the applause scale.
By January 1, 2005, the Biology department where I am a faculty member had been through a lot. We had experienced several deaths, mostly parents of faculty, and it had gotten to the point where people joked about being afraid of emails from the Dean. By the time our colleague Ed suddenly collapsed and died of a brain tumor, we were saying, "What next?" In July, the shop mechanic, Kevin died in a motorcycle v. bus accident in North Carolina. And, in early September, one of our recent graduates, one of my students, died of an aneurysm at the age of 24. The tragedies in my work collided with my family on October 25, 2005.
This was "The big one". My husband, and our departmental chairman, died suddenly … in the middle of the night … heart attack … when I was in Arizona doing research. My oldest son, only 19, was with his father that night, calling 911, trying to save him, and got the word at the hospital that his dad had died, with me 2000 miles away. My little boy did my job that night. Then, he made the call to me at 3:00 AM, the only words, "Mom, Dad died." I remember standing there in my underwear, screaming. My three children, ages 19, 16, and 13 were all home at the time. Luckily the youngest didn't wake up. All this part of a jumble of thoughts I have - the airport, talking to the doctor from the hospital, talking with my seatmate on the plane. She said the worst thing about losing your spouse is not having anyone to talk to, I remember. I arrived home at 3:00 PM the next afternoon.
One of my most enduring memories of this time was how quiet the house was during those first months. There was no talking, almost none at all. The sounds that a house usually made weren't even there. It was just a gigantic silent emptiness. Not being religious, I had no comfort that he was watching over me; it was simply that he was no more. He was there, smiling one minute, and gone the next.
I think my daughter's writings, from a high school writing assignment and later used in college essays, expresses the feelings that a child has on the death of a parent. Again, the quiet …
I sat motionless in the darkness of my bedroom as the enormity of my father’s death drifted into focus while silence echoed in my head. All I could do was gaze through the foggy air outside my window as the silhouettes of objects took shape in my backyard and feel a part of my life slip into the fog.
Fog continued to seep through my window into my mind. Then, who knows how much later, a beam of sunlight streaming over my roof began to awaken me and my world. The basketball hoop towering over the wooden picnic table emerged through the darkness. The silhouette of a single orange pumpkin appeared in the light, while the image of my father planting the seeds faded from view. The future forced itself on me with every breath, whether I wanted it or not.
That breaks my heart.
We got through that year, and the next, and the next. But, John's death wasn't the end of it for my family and me. Less than six months later, my husband's brother died by suicide. His wife had asked for a divorce, saying that not only did she not love him but also she never had loved him ever in their 20-year marriage. He stabbed himself in the heart in the spare room, orchestrating his own death so that his wife who had broken his heart found his body. Again, I remember screaming when my sister-in-law phoned me at work with the news. When we went to the funeral in Nashville, the hardest part was hearing his wife, who had told no one the truth, say that he had a problem with depression.
Four months later, it was my own brother who died, as they say in the papers, "after a brief battle with cancer". By now, I was completely unable to feel anything. I actually could not bring myself to go to the funeral. I don't know why. I just couldn't leave my house.
That was my 2006. In early 2007, I found out I had endometrial cancer. Surgery and fear. By now, all I cared about was my children and this wasn't part of the plan. I just couldn't leave them.
I definitely feel that experiencing so much pain in so short a time puts one into a form of PTSD. So much of these years are basically blank. It took me until about 2009 to not cringe when I saw the date "2005". No, I take that back. I still do.
So, here we are in 2011. I feel pretty good about my life or at least, I ignore the problems. I am so proud of what I have accomplished with my children. They are doing great. My daughter is starting graduate school in trumpet performance. My youngest son is starting college in International Studies. My oldest, my rock, is applying for jobs in computer science/web design. Interestingly, in the years following their dad's death, both of my older children have dated other people whose fathers died. They did not know it before they started dating. I think there is a change, a maturity that comes on the death of a parent that draws them together. I have healed by just growing and responding to what my mind and body is asking of me. I strongly believe that we humans have evolved methods to deal with overwhelming stress. It's in our physiology. For example, in the first days after my husband died, I was actually nauseated. I was very thirsty but couldn't eat anything. People kept urging me to eat but I couldn't. I think that is a self-preservation method that is part of dealing with stress. I believe that we are meant to listen to our bodies.
What I have learned from all of this … Well, I haven't really processed it yet. I know that I have a better understanding of life and I know that life is too short. I feel better able to help those who are in need partially because of what I have experienced. I believe that I have an ability to accept what happens, and even offer support to others.
And, one year ago, in early September 2010, when my best friend was dying of pancreatic cancer, I was ready again. I could handle it and be there for him and his wife. I didn't avoid him and worry about what to say like other people. I didn't visit and stare at him with that look that a person has when he or she doesn't know what to say. I was calm, and talked and read to my friend. And, the night he died, I held his hand and read to him from a book of Dylan lyrics.
Thinking back to my husband and our life together, I remember having gripe-fests with him. He would start, complaining about work. When I would finally join in, he would give me line and then reel me in, saying, "But we have a lot to be thankful for. There are so many people who have it worse than we do. Some people don't even have jobs at all." Crap. Nothing is worse than feeling sorry for yourself and then thinking about those who have it worse. You have the guilt of being shallow but yet you don't win the "has it worse" competition.
So, no, I wouldn't win Queen for a Day, but I might get a consolation prize like the Ship-and-Shore blouses or something. You?
A special welcome to anyone who is new to The Grieving Room. We meet every Monday evening. Whether your loss is recent or many years ago, whether you have lost a person or a pet, or even if the person you are "mourning" is still alive ("pre-grief" can be a very lonely and confusing time) you can come to this diary and process your grieving in whatever way works for you. Share whatever you need to share. We can't solve each other's problems, but we can be a sounding board and a place of connection.