New Normal

I haven’t written since the end of May. I couldn’t. While writing is my therapy, or a sort of working through. It is also a process that requires readiness, and willingness. I put my heart and soul on the page, and while I often write of struggle, or challenge, I ultimately find the blessings that come with being broken open, or the growth connected with change. I write to pick myself up. It feels good to write. It allows me to see the light around the cloud, and to sort things out. The only time this isn’t true, is when I’m unable, or unprepared to let go of my sadness. I’ve written, or tried to write when I’m in that headspace, and it’s painful. My despair magnified tortuously with each click of the keyboard. It takes longer to get to the part that feels restorative, to the part of the process that heals me. Seeing the silver lining is what makes the hard stuff less hard. It is the reason I do this. To try to let the light in… But sometimes the blessings are harder to see. Sometimes we need to sit in the dark, until we just can’t help but let the light in.

I am grief stricken. Struck with grief. I go to bed with my grief, and wake up to it. There are moments of pause in between, where I can set it down like a hiker’s pack, standing upright on its own, like a separate entity, heavy and ominous. There is still joy, and love, and gratitude in those moments of pause. Sometimes I find myself at the end of a day realizing I haven’t cried. But when the grief comes, it swallows me. I’ve not been able to write because I knew what writing would mean. A working through that requires perspective. Writing is a way into grief. Not a way out. Despite my resistance, here I am. Pouring out the contents of my broken heart, letting it be messy, and painful, and hoping that in doing so, I might somehow ease my suffering.

On June 1st 2015, we heard the news we’d dreaded hearing for nearly 2 and a half years. No more chemo. I sat there, holding my father’s hand, and squeezing my mother’s knee. 3-6 weeks the doctor told my mother and I privately, as we pressed her with questions when my father stepped away for a moment. A week later he’d be admitted to palliative care, and on July 8th, he would take his last breath. There is no holding back the tears as I type those words. His last breath… The man who’d breathed life and love into me was gone.

In the month he had in palliative care, he was fortunate to have a few good weeks. His pain finally managed, and his head clear, he was more social, and talkative than he’d been in the 6 months prior. “Write Shannon”, he would say. He’d tell every doctor, nurse and volunteer about my blog, rhyming off titles, and themes and insisting that I print copies that people could read when they visited. I knew what my writing meant to him. He read everything I wrote. And re-read it. He knew that writing would sooth me when he no longer could. A lifeline when the grief that was ahead engulfed me… He’d even encouraged me to interview him in the last weeks of his life.   A cherished conversation- a joining of our two hearts. Those precious bits of audio that will be listened to for years to come. His words tattooed in my brain. “The Last Interview” I intended to call it. An article for another day. But not now. Not yet.

Grief is a process, a path. We spiral through its stages, and then spiral through them again and again. A road we’d started out on the day he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. It’s a very strange thing to know that someone you love is dying. To watch them slowly die. To contend with people’s natural response, that we should have hope, and stay positive. We knew, since diagnosis, that a cure was not a possibility. We knew management of the disease was our goal. We’d spend over 2 years being afraid most of the time. Could he be treated at all?   How would he respond? How much could he endure? How would his quality of life be affected? Would he catch some infection that would take him before the cancer did? Would this hospitalization be the last? What will the next set of scans show? How much more time do we really have?  All of this interrupted, and punctuated by periods of quasi-reprieve that we’d soon term the “new normal”. We’d get used to using the word cancer and talking about chemo and disease. We’d grow to expect interruptions in his treatment due to low neutrophils. We’d anticipate the stress of waiting for the results of tests, making it ever so slightly easier. We’d get used to my father slowly deteriorating, knowing that with every dip, there would be a leveling off. We’d become accustomed to his failing health, and lessening energy. We’d learn to appreciate a good day for what it was. We’d be thankful if he could sit through dinner with us, or if we could visit for a while on a day where everyone was healthy, and there was no risk of getting grampa sick by our visiting. But whenever there was a change, fear would creep back in, and we’d grieve anew. We’d anticipate the other shoe dropping. Cancer cuts you off at the knees, and reminds you that control is elusive. We learned that the sooner you get used to whatever new normal you’re in, the easier riding the roller coaster will be. We had no choice but to adjust, and we did, again and again.

When treatment stopped, and we knew he was entering what would be the last stage of his life, the fear changed and morphed into something that didn’t feel like fear anymore. The fog that descended was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. A surrendering. A letting go.   We scrambled to get our bearings. Things like eating and bathing, or even getting from point A to point B suddenly became hyper deliberate because the inertia of life had halted. It was as though all of our priorities shifted. What mattered, mattered a lot, and what didn’t, just didn’t. There was no decision about this reprioritizing. It was automatic. There was an urgency to everything. Spoken and unspoken prayers reverberated through our family like a radio frequency only we could hear. Time. More time. No suffering if possible. And the hope that he’d make peace with whatever he needed to make peace with, so that he could go when he was ready. When he was ready. I prayed and prayed that he wouldn’t linger for us. That he would get whatever he needed to from us, from his time on this earth, and that he would work through his fear of letting go in the most complete sense.

“I am both the happiest, and saddest I’ve ever been, at the same time… Do you know what I mean?” he’d ask me just days before he died. A tear rolled down my cheek, a gentle smile on my face, I nodded. I did understand. There was such light, and love in his dying process. Family that travelled from near and far, friends old and new that visited, he was bathed in love. Cloaked in it. In turn, he exuded it from every pore of his body. He told me, and others, that he wanted those who visited him to leave feeling better than when they’d arrived. His wish was granted.   We laughed, and reminisced, and made new memories to go along with all those that came before. We left nothing unsaid. And we cried… It’s hard work to close a life. Really hard. I saw my father weep, and fold into his release. I heard him bellow, felt his mourning. In those last four weeks, I’d see him cry more than I had in my 40 years. More than he had in all of his 73. We teased that he had some catching up to do, being the patriarch of such an emotional family. He appreciated the space we made for these feelings. In the last years of his life, and even more so in the last weeks, he’d become such an expressive, and tender man. I can see now that this was the person he always was, just that he hadn’t allowed himself to show these tender parts. He hadn’t learned how. In the end, all inhibition, any wall that was once there, melted away. A process that had started over a decade before, now expedited. There would be no more holding back. There couldn’t be. While he’d come to terms with dying, he too prayed for just a little more time. “Fifteen more minutes Shan”, he’d say. “I asked God for just fifteen more minutes”. He spoke of his deep sadness to leave us. To say goodbye to the love of his life, my mom. To his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. I’d reassure him that he’d still see my babies grow. He’d just have a different seat in the arena. He worried about how we would carry on. I’d hold his hand, and kiss his forehead, and do my best to comfort him, telling him, “We are cut from the same cloth dad. We will all be ok. How could we not be? We came from you”.

He showed such grace, and humility, while demonstrating such strength and tenacity. Both in the fight for his life, and in the closing of it. My dad did everything 100%. His positive outlook, and sunny disposition were contagious. He never complained. We had no choice but join him. To be authentic, supporting each other in our sadness, while keeping sight of all that we had to be thankful for. He would repeat how lucky he was daily. He loved his family. He felt our love. This familial love deepened and expanded as our hearts grew heavier and fuller. It became a life force of its own. This force later enveloped us, protecting us to some extent, in those first few days after he passed.

I am thankful for the 15 more minutes we had together, and the incredible gift of a long goodbye. For now dad, I am not ready to set down my grief. I don’t really think I ever will be. My hope is that I may grow stronger with each passing day, and that I can finally set down something else. Something heavier. The thing that tarnishes all good things- my fear. I don’t need it anymore. Maybe I never did… What I feared most happened. Fear never protected me; it only infected the happiness that was there all a long. Even in the dark, there was always light. As I struggle to adjust to yet another new normal, I will remember the man I watched you become. As proud of you, as you were of me. I will hold dear the bond between us, knowing that it will never be broken no matter how far apart we are.

I haven’t written since the end of May… But today, when I visited my father’s grave, and sat in the wet grass sobbing, waiting to feel and hear him. To know he was still there, listening and loving. I took a deep breath, and said, “I know dad… I know what you want me to do. I know what I need to do”.  “Write Shannon”, his words echoing in my ears. Even if it hurts. Even it feels worse.  Like a defiant child that didn’t want a way into her grief, but rather a way out of it. I shook my head, as though trying to quiet the answer I couldn’t help but hear. I hoisted myself up, and lay my hand on the pedestal holding his urn. “I know dad,” I whispered. “I hear you.”

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17 Comments

Filed under grief

17 responses to “New Normal

  1. joanne

    Hello Shannon, I saw this Facebook post of your blog through my dear friend Natasha page. Its been 18 years my father passed away from cancer and I still think about him all the time. I do find comfort through my children, I honestly can say you will see glimpses of him through them. my eldest son has his hands and smile. my second son is the joker like he was, always using his humour to cheer anyone up and my daughter has his compassion, always putting others first before herself. my secret tears still flow, our fathers were good men.
    keep writing, you write beautifully…….

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  2. MC

    Shannon, as I read this rich and courageous portrayal of this crucial experience for you and your family, it’s clear to see that you are blessed to have had a father so receptive and giving of himself and a chance to say goodbye in the most complete way I have ever heard. Part of me doesn’t envy the sense of loss you must feel, but in a way, I do. I hope you find comfort in sharing your experience and giving us all a chance to cry with you. Thank you.

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  3. Lisa J.

    Hi Shannon,
    Thank you for sharing your experience so eloquently.
    I saw the word ‘neutrophils’ and was immediately transported back to a time 13 years ago that lasted 4 in which we suddenly became experts in cancer patient care. I haven’t thought of that word in 9 years now. We brought my mum home after the ‘no more chemo’ decision and we spent several special weeks together, her enjoying her garden, before she literally took her last breath in my arms.
    I’m so glad you can still hear his voice, lovingly encouraging you. I still dream of my mum and it comforts much more than hurts, now. You’re so right about the idea of a new normal.
    Thank you for sharing. I was very touched to read about an experience so powerfully similar to my own, in nature.
    L

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  4. Dianne

    Shannon, Thank you. For the love you will forever feel for your beloved dad, for sharing your grief and pain, for the complete raw truth of saying goodbye, while holding on. You have personified and lovingly articulated the impossible. You and your father will be in my thoughts, as you are comforted with his love. Be well this moment.

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  5. Patricia

    Thank you, Shannon for sharing your innermost feelings about your Dad and grieving. I can identify in part with your grieving as I continue to grieve for my 20-year old granddaughter who passed away 3 years ago.
    Through my tears, I was able to get an even better glimpse who Paddy Walsh was and thank you for that.
    Sincerely,
    Patricia E.

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    • Thank you Patricia E. Sorry for your loss as well. Your granddaughter… So young to leave this earth. Sending love to you, and the rest of your family.

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      • Beverley Hamilton

        Thank you for your heartfelt feelings. I lost my husband 26 years ago and I didn’t have a proper goodbye. My son died 4 years ago and I was able to spend the last days with him. I feel contented in his death somehow? Life has many surprises! BJH.

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      • Thank you Beverly. I am new to loss, and am humbled by your response to my piece. Sorry for the loss of your husband and more recently your son. I cannot imagine that grief… What your response, and the responses of others has shown me, is that as devastating as loss like this can be, the human spirit is incredibly resilient. As you say, life has many surprises. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

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  6. carol natale

    Such a beautiful testimonial to your father’s memory! and so appropriately titled as this will be your new normal for a while. Reading your very insightful text brought me back to my own personal journey with losing my dad 5 years ago. He was my beacon, my rock and my friend and a teacher by example to my children and all who knew him. I understand completely the special bond you both share. It hurts even greater because of this bond and at the same time it’s a gift your father has left you with…The waves of emptiness and despair will become less frequent with time but when they do they will be profound until one day somehow..you know you’re going to be ok because you are part of him and he lives within you. Thank you for sharing and allowing me to remember with tenderness!

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  7. Katia

    As I read your special words, I could listen to your voice and to your heart. You are such an special person and I can just say that your father was more than special to have the blessing to have a daughter like you. I wish I could be there to give you a big and warm brazilian hug and cry along. May God bless your family always. Love
    Katia

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  8. What a beautifully written piece. I have not yet had to say goodbye to a close family member, but I can sense the grief in a way that is so real, through your writing. I have been experience some really challenging and difficult times over the past year (relating to my 7 year old) and just recently my FEARS have manifested into some health issues. This line REALLY got me:

    Fear never protected me; it only infected the happiness that was there all a long.

    I need to write this down and re-read it every day until that FEAR goes away and I can see the happiness it is hiding. What a jewel of an insight.

    With appreciation for sharing your deepest pains with others,
    Jenny

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