I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone, I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you. ~ Walt Whitman
So tomorrow will mark one full year without Jessica in my life. A little over a year ago tonight was our last real conversation before she drifted off for the last time. I recounted some of that conversation in my blog about her death here. It was basically a pep talk meant to lift my spirits. Her last action was to give me a call to action that would help motivate me through what would be an impossible time. It's been almost a year, and ... wow. She was right when she said I could handle it, but it wasn't the straight shot of a path that they write in movies and books.
Before I start this, that blog I linked above is poetic, and was massaged and cultivated over a period of time as I started to work things through my head. Basically, it was far more nuanced and eloquent than what this will be. This is going to be a bit more ... normal speak. A tad more raw. I'm going to cover some shit that I've gone through in my life and that my family has endured this year. Some of it is going to be challenging to read if you are sensitive to trauma. I also had both my kids permission to talk about their experiences, so that should clue you in. This won't start out fun, but I want to make a point to myself and to others about something that is critical. Don't worry, it ends uplighting. This is me we are talking about, right?
So following my wife's death, shit sucked hard. That goes without saying. It's hard to convey what it feels like without feeling like you are grabbing a Wal-Mart metaphor. It just sucked. It got so much worse. The year has been an emotional gauntlet with one impossible challenge after another. Let's recap.
My oldest deals with significant anxiety and PTSD from an event that happened a few years back. This isn't your garden variety anxiety. My straight A student was unable to go to public school because being around anyone that was not family would send the kid into a physiological shock that would require emergency care. When I say PTSD, I mean it. Jessica was a damn great Psychologists and between her, me, and many colleagues we made tremendous progress with my oldest. Then .... no more Jess. The events that my kid witnessed with losing his mother was almost like hitting a reset button on all that hard work. At home he would be fine ... outside it was a different story.
Then in April, my daughter, the liveliest and happiest teen I've ever met, had her first birthday without her mom. It hit her hard. In response to her overwhelming pain, she attempted to sever her femoral artery. She attempted suicide and came frighteningly close to succeeding. After hospitalization and wound care and some healing she was placed in crisis care for a week until they determined she could continue with outpatient therapy. Problem is, the kid is kinda brilliant and had a mother with advanced mental health training. She knew what to say to get released. In May she tried again, this time with some prescription pills. Like last time, luck and luck alone played a role in me catching it in time. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Every time I thought we were through the worst of it, something else hit and hit harder than before. By the time summer came ... I couldn't help but feel like a complete failure. A failure to Jess, to my kids, and as a parent. I stopped paying attention to myself. I didn't see the signs. I kept dragging the kids on little missions of remembering their Mom. A road trip to places from out past to scatter some of her ashes. I was going through motions that I had heard worked for others trying desperately to fix what felt like my family shattering into a million pieces. Yet I kept up the act. The illusion that I was ok. Read that blog. How many times that I have to say "I'm good". I stopped eating and sleeping normally. I didn't want to dream of her. I didn't want to sleep in our bed. I actually started to manically redecorate the house to change things thinking that would work. All the while, I had a smile and joke for most. Most. I did find myself snapping at good people for almost nothing. A side of myself I only let out for people who acted like legitimate assholes. Not mean, just a smartass with a verbal scalpel. But most times ... I put on a happy face.
You see, There was a hubris and arrogance I possessed after Jess died. I thought I could be the rock that my family would lean on. I was no stranger to personal tragedy and complications. Since 1995 I lost my father to suicide, a child in still birth, and another infant after four months old when she could no longer continue fighting a poorly formed heart. Each tragedy I was the rock in the family. It hit me, sure. Yet, I picked everyone else up. I endured with a resilient spirit that became one of my calling cards. It's what my wife referenced before her death. There is nothing that this world could toss at me that could break me ....
2017 arrived and laughed it's ass off at me and my assumptions.
I assumed I could do what I did before ... process my pain and move forward ... slowly but with absolute certainty that everything will be fine. Focus on others and it will be fine. I was always a that person, and figured that I could bear her death with grace and poise.
Boy what a big fat dumb idea that was. By the time October rolled around, the effects of the entire year broke through me like a pressure hose through toilet paper. The facade and veneer of a composed mourning widower crumbled and ... left me emotionally drained and bitter in a manner that could have very well become my new normal. It came very very close. My mind went to some dark places when the kids were asleep. I was failing my family. If something happened to them, and I was certain that it was a matter of time ... could I deal with that? Would that be what broke me?
Then, it happened. Nothing in particular, and not in some instant, but it happened. Instead of the kids leaning on me, I found us three leaning on each other. My kids saw I was breaking. My kids caught some of the subtle hints of my private hell. I didn't have to be their rock, we could be each other's. Working through the loss of our Boss Lady and our other demons we were starting to heal together. That said, it wasn't enough. I also had a few close friends that kept on me and they certainly helped. You all know who you are. But as the saying goes, "I needed an adult."
I'm not embarrassed one damn bit to say that I found myself seeking a Psychiatrist and someone impartial to talk to. Hell, we lost one amazing woman, soul mate, mother. In a sense ... it's absurd to think I wouldn't need a professional mind miner. You miss someone like Jess in a way that makes everything that came before seem like a minor bump in the road. I sought therapy. I've lived most of my adult life trying to be a ray of light for everyone else, coaching and giving advice. Being that ear and shoulder when it was needed. Each of my own personal tragedies handled and minimized because others were far more important. Shit, I'm nothing special. I'm just an average guy who is the product of a decent parent, a solid upbringing, and a lot of patience. Even my insight and intelligence is simply the product of a natural love for reading. I'm not the star of my own show, I'm the guy that wants to make others shine. Why focus on myself when others are dealing with their own problems. It always felt selfish to me. And that's my biggest flaw. My own personal hamartia. I finally stepped up for myself and said I need to talk to someone. Holy hell it worked. A stranger with a piece of paper and some ephemeral medication helped. No matter how diamond tough you are, anyone can reach a moment they need to hit the pause button. I finally practiced what I preached. Go figure.
It's been a long ass road, and even though tomorrow is going to piss me off something wicked, at some point in December everything started to get better. The world started to make sense again. The anxiety, anger, guilt, and bitterness started to ebb away more and more. I was able to think clearly for the first time in a long while. I had almost forgotten what that felt like. And I was recently tested in a pretty dramatic and horror show sort of way.
The other day I laid down not feeling great at all. I knew something wasn't right but I didn't want to worry the kids (old habits die hard). I woke up and proceeded to redecorate my bathroom with more red stuff than I thought I had room for in my stomach. A fun present courtesy of (according to a gastroenterologist) years of stress, some unfriendly bacteria, and recently chasing headaches away with aspirin.
Had I just gone back to sleep, or didn't successfully fight through passing out due to losing over two pints of blood in a short period, I wouldn't be here. What was a simple duodenum ulcer became a larger wound. Pretty bad situation all around. Anyway, the good doc burnt and sutured the bad hole shut, dropped some meds to kill the H. Pylori, and situation fixed.
I'm still woozy at times, completely sworn off aspirin, and have some of the must horrible tasting pills that I have to endure ... but none of that is bothering me. I survived one really bad year and sometime in December ... started to feel like me again. Started to feel like .... I got this. Actually started to feel like 'we got this'.
My kids in the last few months have all made amazing progress. The oldest is prepping for college and is as close to normal as I have seen him in a long while. My youngest found her step too and is staring in a local musical. Madison, Faith, and myself ... we found strength as a family, in ourselves, and I like to think that we had one hell of a teacher in Jess. It was a longer and more difficult path for all of us than I expected, but we pulled clear. The house feels alive. I have that old bounce in my step, and it's genuine.
I miss the fuck out of her, but I know she would approve of the fact that we are making it through this after all. I know I mention her a lot. I did that when she was alive. When you have a family as great as I have, you talk about them. I say that because recently it's been intimated by someone that I am seeking pity from others. No. Even though I've been through hell and back, I'm lucky. I had and have love. I don't seek pity. But Jess was that kind of awesome, and I'll be dipped in shit if I don't carry her memory with me where I go right there on my sleeve. That's what love can do to you.
No pity ... just a whole lot of pride for my wife, my kids, and for the first time ... myself. What is broken can be fixed. If we can make it with help and family and friends, so can you.
Sorry for the long stream of consciousness. Felt like it was needed.
A Personal Year of Hell - Jan 21, 2017 - Jan 21, 2018 ... RIP