And on top of the lack of self-care, something triggered a little grief storm last night that raged through this early afternoon. Last night, I was putting away the pearl necklace I wore to an event on Friday night and I caught a glimpse of the little jewelry box, tucked back away inside my jewelry drawer, that I inherited from my mother and that is now filled with various bits of her. Literally, it has her ashes in it. But, figuratively too, little odds and ends from her life, her last bedroom, her last kitchen. I don’t know what possessed me to take these pieces out and lay them over my bed and cry over them last night. I just did.
A grief counselor told me last September that I needed to make appointments to be with each of the family members that I have lost for a certain amount of time – give my mother 30 minutes on Monday at 1pm; my brother, Robert, 15 minutes on Thursday at 10am and so on… – like a date with the dead. She said this would help the grief and the mourning stay within manageable limits rather than cropping up at unexpected times. This makes sense to me. I believe this is something I should do but there’s something in me holding on to the grief storms. It hurts when they take hold – especially when I’ve had a really good run of happiness, like I have these past several weeks – but there’s something strangely comforting about them. A lot like a real thunderstorm that can be scary and calming at the same time, a grief storm causes a lot of big noise in my head and through my body but there’s something soft about it too, like it belongs there, like its natural.
Last night, the thunderclap through my head sounded for my mother. This morning, of course, because it’s father’s day, I couldn’t help but think about my father.
I regret refusing that invitation.
My father, though, was an extraordinarily difficult man. For you, dear reader, to fully understand just how difficult my father was I would have to enumerate for you the many painful ways he has upset me and my family throughout the years. This, I will not do because it would make my family members feel a shame that they do not deserve to feel. Let it suffice, please, dear reader, for me to say that he was an extraordinarily difficult man and let’s leave it at that.
Still, remarkably, losing one’s father is hard, regardless. There goes the knight-in-shining-armor, even if he was only a dream that you held onto despite all evidence to the contrary. There goes the ultimate teacher, the role model, the man beside which all other men are measured, for better or for worse. There goes one of the two people in this world who are supposed to help you make your dreams come true.
I received all of my mail at the high school where I taught in downtown Rzeszow – a town about the size of Ann Arbor, Michigan, two hours straight east of Krakow. I saw the rejection letter sitting on the table waiting for me in the teacher’s lounge when I got in that morning. I knew right away that it was a rejection because it was one thin envelope, one thin folded piece of paper. If I had been accepted, there would be paperwork to fill out, notifications of financial awards, etc… but there was none of that and I didn’t even have to open the envelope to know. I taught all of my classes that day in a mental fog. I probably ran into the bathroom in between classes to cry a bit here and there. When I was done teaching for the day, I put the still-sealed envelope in my bag and walked to the bus stop. When I got off the bus, I made a quick detour into the grocery store near my apartment building and bought a bottle of vodka. When I got back to my apartment, I poured a glass of vodka and took several drinks then opened the letter and read it and allowed my disappointment to flow freely out of me in the form of desperate and hopeless tears.
Oh it was very dramatic. It actually makes me laugh now, thinking back on that time, how very over I thought my life was when I didn’t get into that school and when I realized that I would not be living in NYC upon returning to the states. To be fair, I think my failing marriage played a big part in this feeling of hopelessness. I saw a possible acceptance to NYU and beginning a life in NYC as a chance to either make things better in my relationship or make things better for myself while giving myself the energy and courage I needed to leave my relationship. So, when the rejection came, there was a little more at stake than just graduate school and the fun life I thought I could lead in the big city.
Whether it was justified or not, I kept re-reading the letter and taking sips from my glass and working myself into a pathetic self-deprecating, self-pitying little puddle. And, suddenly, in the middle of all of this, my father called me on the telephone. This was unheard of. This might have been the single time in my whole life, while my mother was still alive, that he called me himself. This call was also strange because I rarely spoke on the phone with anyone from the states. This was well before cell phones. International calls weren’t that difficult but they were a bit of a pain and often the connection you could get was faulty so it was just sadder and more frustrating to even try. But here I was, in the middle of a self-loathing vodka haze, speaking to my father who was coming in loud and clear all the way from Michigan.
I told myself to keep my news to myself. He wouldn’t care, I thought. He’s just going to tell you that graduate school doesn’t matter, that it’s stupid anyway, I told myself. This was the man, after all, who told me that girls shouldn’t go to college just seven short years prior to this moment. But despite my telling myself not to tell him, I told him. Through my tears, I explained the whole thing, beginning, patiently, with an explanation of why it was so important to me and what graduate school and New York meant to me. I told myself, as I was speaking to him, “don’t’ expect him to care. Don’t expect him to say anything right.”
That one moment in my father’s life and in my life made a small bridge between us that made it possible for me to forgive him even though he never believed or admitted that he ever did anything wrong. This one moment created a love and bond between us that makes it possible for me to miss him. This one moment made it possible for me to look at other moments between us, though not filled with as much unconditional love, and begin to see the glowing edges of that hint of love that might have been there after all. This one moment is the biggest reason why the sharp pangs of grief resonated through me while thinking about my father this morning. Not that I think, “oh there was this ONE time my dad actually cared about me” but because in that one moment, he made it clear that he ALWAYS cared about me.
It is just nine short days before I will have this surgery. If I want Team QueenPrincess to be a success, I have to accept the Mojo everyone is sending me with a commitment to use it toward my own consistent, disciplined happy practices. If I want to create a happiness advantage for myself before going into this surgery, I’ve got to start doing the work like I mean it – because I really do.
I know – because I am now a parent – that neither of my parents wanted their love for me or my siblings to seem haphazard or inconsistent. They wanted for us to feel cared for all of the time, every day, consistently. If any of us were capable of being our best selves every moment of every day, this is what they would’ve been able to give us all. But we aren’t. I can’t give myself constant perfect care anymore than they could… but I can be mindful of those times when I’m letting my self-care slip… and I can try harder… and I can try to care for myself in the way my parents’ best selves would have, if they could have. And in more consistently caring for myself, I can become more mindful of how to continue to create that kind of consistency for my own children.
It was a good, busy, sunny, tearful, revealing day in MoJo’s Kitchen.
Happy Father’s Day – especially to those fathers who still struggle with how to show their children their unquestionable, unconditional love – may you figure it out soon and make it clear at least once before you no longer have the chance.
& Happy Father’s Day to those children, young and grown, who have father’s they can’t count on – may you give yourself the gift of forgiving him one day and come to understand that you were always worthy of unconditional love
Vaya Con Dios