We don’t always get to say our good-byes under ideal circumstances. Illness can catch us unprepared, and unfortunately, with a calloused heart.
I have two pictures, both taken at family weddings. And each one has taught me that sometimes it takes years to say goodbye with a clean conscious and a right spirit.
In the days that followed my husband Mike’s sudden and untimely death to brain cancer, one picture in particular seemed to mock me. It reminded me—each time I walked into the living room—of how death was continuing to bend my life in painful directions. It was a 5×7 photo from our wedding: Mike and I are in the center with Mom and Dad on either side. We’re standing before the choir loft under the stained glass bulls-eye window of “Jesus, the Good Shepherd.” I kept it in a frame on the TV stand. One day I grew so weary of that picture I put it away, and to this day I’m not sure where it is. At that time, the picture was taken 20 years ago, and out of the four of us, I was the only one still alive. But there was something else I was trying to forget…
The other picture was taken at my brother’s wedding, same church, but 24 years earlier. I was the junior bridesmaid and had managed to succumb to the humid September weather and nerves I wasn’t even aware of until I started to feel light-headed and everything began to fade out of focus. I hung in there until the end of the ceremony, but as we began to walk back up the aisle everything went black. By then, one of the groomsmen had me by one arm and Dad took the other, quickly ushering me to the door. As soon as we got into the vestibule and some fresh air hit my face, everything came back into view. The picture is of the two of us sitting on the front steps of the church: me very pale but chattering about something and Dad looking at me with a very concerned expression. People used to wistfully interpret that look as him thinking of the day he’d be walking me up the aisle. I’ve come to see something else on his face. And while the picture taken at my wedding has long ago disappeared, the one of Dad and me has followed me through all the years.
My friend Lorraine warned me that the second year of widowhood can blind-side you. The shock wears off and your new reality begins to set in. It’s not just a bad dream from which you expect to eventually awake. This is your life now. And Lorraine was right. The months, weeks, and days leading up to Mike’s death were fraught with much anxiety as the brain tumor robbed him of his reason and functions. I became hyper-vigilant, always operating on red alert. And my adrenaline was still pumping non-stop even two years after Mike passed away.
I eventfully developed neck and shoulder problems. One day I caught my reflection in a window and noticed my posture. I was hunched over and pulled in like I was trying to protect myself. I went for physical therapy, and it was there that I saw a picture of my emotional state. On a poster espousing the merits of massage was the image of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. The picture of Atlas reminded me of my reflection. I quickly realized that I would never correct what was wrong with me physically until I unburdened myself emotionally, and so I sought counseling.
I was asked about my family in the initial interview. I reported that there was a tendency toward anxiety on both sides. One grandmother had a bad stomach, the other outright bad nerves. But I think it manifested itself most overtly in Dad: he became an alcoholic. Dad was a well-respected businessman, and to this day there are many people who never knew of his struggle. There were never any fights, bills were always paid, there was always food on the table, and I knew he loved us. But alcohol took its toll on his health over the years, and by his 70th birthday he was dying from it. For a few months before his hospitalization, he was estranged from family and friends, so his funeral was quick and quiet.
The more I talked about Dad in counseling, the more I realized how psychologically complicated he was and how he endured all of it in silence, always refusing help even when the family tried a last-ditch intervention. “Valium and alcohol were how men of your father’s generation handled their problems,” the counselor said matter-of-factly. My father’s generation fought in WWII. Dad was 19 when he was drafted, and when he returned home he immediately stepped into the adult world of marriage, family, and business.
A few days later while cleaning my apartment, I was dusting the shelf where our picture sat. I took a long look at Dad and the words “valium and alcohol” echoed through my mind. All the anger I felt over his drinking and its effects melted away when I realized that I was now the very age that Dad was in the picture. I now knew what it feels like to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. So maybe at that moment his thoughts were projecting ahead to my wedding day. Or maybe he was silently hoping that there would always be someone to take me by the arm and guide me to wherever I needed to go… And maybe he hoped that it could always be him.