Grief Kids

Eighty Percent

During my 12 years of teaching, I’ve taught high school juniors for 11 of them. I’ve got that age group dialed in.

Junior year. ACT/SAT year. Really thinking about college year. Definitely driving year. Things tend to get more serious junior year. So it’s not without surprise that most juniors are stressed, anxious. And who better to take out all of that angst than… Mom and Dad! Oh, and their teachers. But mostly Mom and Dad.

My juniors do a capstone project where they research any question they want. They conduct research and write an inquiry paper and give an inquiry presentation. This serves as their final exam.

Every year, including this one, that angst comes out in their inquiry questions when they ask things like, “What determines parenting styles?” and “Why do parents try to live through their kids?” and “Should parents push their kids to play sports?”

And so this year, after one inquiry presentation from a kid who was especially hard on his parents, I had to say it.

“Hey guys… as the only parent in the room, I have some limited experience that I can share. And I can tell you that every single parent – every one – loves her child as much as she can. The problem happens when the love doesn’t line up. When the parent doesn’t love the child how the child needs to be loved. Your parent might even love you how you want to be loved — that’s easier. But loving your child how they need to be loved. That’s hard.”

“You have lots of friends. But if you’re lucky, you have two parents. They have to be your parents. And if you’re lucky, you get to be friends with your parents. But ultimately, they have a different role than your friends do.”

And then I added: “My goal as a parent is to make good choices 80 percent of the time. Grade your parent that way. If they are getting a B-, they are doing a pretty awesome job.”

I walked out of school that day, wondering if I had been too soapbox-y. If I had been too heavy-handed with my parenting perspective.

And then I thought: “Crap! Do I do that? Do I grade people that way?”

Ah yes. Just one of the many times when my students have taught me more than I taught them.

Before Jeff had cancer, I think I was expecting a 90 percent from people… maybe 95 percent. But now, it’s not even that I have a perspective that I didn’t before: I’m just too tired to get bothered about it. Most of the things that I used to get upset about simply aren’t that big of a deal.

Most things aren’t a big deal, when compared to cancer.

This time last year, Jeff had just completed his second chemo infusion. Things were hard. However hard things are now (I mean, I never planned on being a widowed single parent of two kids at 37), I actually think they were harder then.

People have told us that we’re suffering from post-traumatic stress. I’m not qualified to agree, but it sounds right.

As I reread the Caring Bridge posts from last year, I’m struck by how impossible it was: to be faced with death and still live life. I have no idea what it’s like to go to war, but if we can experience other worlds through reading books, I’ve experienced war the most I can without being there. I would imagine it’s something like watching your spouse die.

You laugh with a kind of heaviness. You walk like you’re in quicksand. There’s something weighing on your chest and shoulders that is worse than lifting weights. Eating is both a chore and a luxury. You know that survival depends on a group of people — there’s no way you can do this by yourself. And you watch those people you love — the ones who are trying to save you — get eaten away by stress or disease, and know that it’s all being controlled by something much larger than yourself.

And yet — you have to live. You learn to deal with the cognitive dissonance of loving people who will die; of making plans that may not be experienced; of doing laundry and daily tasks that seem so inconsequential compared to the existential questions that pound on the side of your skull all day.

JUNE 8, 2018

There was a chance of rain when we left today, but it held off until we were in the hospital. The ride downtown was easy… and fast. (Jeff: “I don’t understand Chicago traffic.”) We got there in time for each of us to have an egg, cheese, and avocado bagel sandwich at Au Bon Pain.

Jeff first had his blood drawn to check certain levels. Everything looked good. He met with the nurse practitioner, and she answered a few questions. All was in order. Uneventful, which is always what you want at the doctor. 

Watching Jeff get chemo was… dare I say… peaceful? There were some “rooms” with chairs, but only half walls. So, Jeff opted for the more private room (surprise) that also had a bed, a sliding glass door, and a curtain. This worked out well: Jeff took a pain pill and a benadryl right before chemo, so he took a nap.

The room was like a typical exam room: TV, bed, sink, requisite hospital hookups behind the bed in various colors. We didn’t turn on the TV. I kept quiet while Jeff slept. I checked my online class and researched options for Jake’s fourth birthday party (stay tuned!).

The infusion took about two hours: the first drug is the one that creates the sensitivity to cold, and that happened right away. Jeff tried to use the hand sanitizer in the room, and it hurt. So, yeah. That’s a thing.

And now, poor Jeff has two hookups to his body: his chemo, which will be disconnected around 1:30 PM on Sunday; and his liver drain, which causes him the most discomfort and consternation. BUT – silver lining is that his bilirubin has gone down from 13 to 7.8 in a week. The goal is under 3. So, hoping for more progress in that area.

JUNE 9, 2019

I cannot drive on any Chicago highway without feeling like I’m driving to UChicago. I’m still gathering data for a post I want to do: Jeff’s Cancer by the Numbers. I want to list the number of days he was in the hospital; of CT/MRIs; of his blood counts and tumor markers; maybe even of an estimated number of drives downtown.

We lived by these blood levels. I recently got a disc with all of Jeff’s UChicago medical files, and I am eager to dive into those.

I vividly remember typing this post. I remember sitting in that room, feeling close to Jeff, even though he was asleep. It felt not unlike when I took him to have his wisdom teeth removed; or when he had his gallbladder removed; or when he had his pilonidal cyst removed (wow — he had a lot of things removed!).

Jake’s fourth birthday: omigod. He had a Lightning McQueen birthday. Jeff barely made it there… he was downtown the day before. They wanted to admit him for an infection, and Jeff said, “I will not miss my son’s birthday.” So, nurses and staff crying, they shot him up with super duper antibiotics and whatever else, and he did – in fact -make it to the last birthday party he’d ever attend for one of our children. That day was exhausting for him, but he tried so hard. He was excited for every gift. He went to the hospital and was admitted the day after the party.

Here was Jake’s Lightning McQueen bouncy house, per request. With Jeff’s shared joy.

Since Jeff’s diagnosis, so many times – so many times – people said things like, “There are no words” or “I don’t know what to say.” And it’s true: it’s impossible to know what to say. I’ve been there too.

I’ve been reading about how other cultures approach death, and what different religions teach about death. I was reading an essay about Judaism’s approach, and I came across this passage:

The shivah brings the mourners together to retell and relive their experiences of the death and to share once again the memories from the past when the family circle was whole. The condolence call provides the mourner with the opportunity to tell his story many different times to many different people, each of whom are enjoined to allow the mourner to speak first so that his interests are allowed to be the focus of conversation. The visitor is not asked to say platitudes, but only to listen and by listening to enable the griever to vent his feelings. If a mourner cannot find the words with which to express his grief, then the comforter comforts him with his silence and with his shared physical presence. At a time when there are no words, the comforter should feel no need to fill the air with chatter or to divert the mourner. Silence has its own kind of eloquence and sometimes it can be more precious than words.

“The Jewish View of Death: Guidelines for Mourning” by Audrey Gordon

I read that, and my jaw dropped.

I, too, have been the mourner who felt the need to say the right thing. But how? And even as I read that – and replayed my times at visitations and funerals – I’m not sure that silence would’ve been received as comforting. It might have been received as… weird at best, and rude at worst.

I can tell you, though, that at Jeff’s visitation, I held it in. I was guarded. I was a robot. I saw it as my job to comfort others, and I was exhausted.

But there were a few times – with just a few people – that I let my guard down. And sometimes, that emotion wasn’t reciprocated. And I felt betrayed and naked and angry. But how could those people have known? How could they have been expected to emote at a time when they, too, felt so awkward and grief-stricken?

Maybe a tighter hug? Maybe an audible sob? But that passage about Judaism… it’s right. I didn’t need words. I needed emotion.

It’s impossible to know exactly what people need. But what a gift – and a blessing – when you do know.

After Jeff died, someone told me that grief happens in waves. I think that’s true. I’m on a sad wave again, and I’m riding it out rather than letting it drown me whole. I picture myself getting on a surfboard (if I could surf!) and riding a wave on the north shore of Oahu in January. I’ve seen those waves — they’re enormous — and I can’t help but imagine that the surfers are experiencing an overwhelming simultaneous joy and terror.

When I remember Jeff, I feel joy. I remember him as his whole self. I scroll through my phone, looking for a particular image or video of one of our children, and I inevitably come across videos and pictures of Jeff.

I look around our house – at the pictures that I once described as an emotional minefield – and I remember how much fun we had, and how much we loved each other and our kids and the life we were building.

I also scroll through pictures and remember terror. I see the ones where Jeff was sick. I organize my year by how sick Jeff was at that point in the year. At 10:20 am on many days, I think about how it’s the time that Jeff died. I ache to know where he is now, and what he’s doing, and if he is here with us. And I wonder if I’ll ever be truly happy again.

My friend Adam came up with the perfect word: happysad.

Most things are happysad for me. They’re happy, because my life has an abundance of blessings; and they’re sad, because Jeff shouldn’t have died and because it’s not fair that we’re all left to keep living when he got to peace out and go home early.

And in these sad waves, my life isn’t getting an 80 percent. But it feels like someone or something is in charge of that grade. I can’t win more percentage by effort, other than riding that wave like a surfer champ and letting the waves take me where they will… trying to use those fins on the bottom of the board to guide its direction.

I don’t know when I’ll come back to shore, or when I’ll be taken back out by the tide, but I do know that – just like my students conduct an inquiry every year – I’ve embarked on an inquiry project that will take much longer than a semester to complete. Last week, a student asked me, “Mrs. Thomas, if you did an inquiry, what would your question be?”

So glad that someone had asked, I said, “That’s easy: I’d ask, ‘What happens when we die?'”

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