As a teaching credential candidate years ago in one of my methods classes, our professor asked us to take the poem, “What If” by Shel Silverstein, and rewrite it with our own worries and fears that lurked in the backs of our minds. As a young woman in my early 20s trying to embark on a career and beginning to find my way in the world, I recall there were plenty of things to list. I’m not sure where my finished assignment ended up. More than likely I still have it in a box somewhere because I am still learning how to purge “important” papers. Incidentally, I’m also still learning how to define “important” when it comes to papers. At any rate, this is Silverstein’s poem which prompted the exercise:
I don’t remember everything I included in my version of the poem, but a couple of my greatest fears at the time remain vivid. I specifically remember writing the line, “What if my parents were to die?” The other one was a nagging worry about my long-term relationship ending. At the time both of those scenarios were unthinkable to me. Just the thought of my life with either of them happening felt world-ending. I’ve posted previously about my struggle with the need to maintain control over circumstances in my life, and these were two conditions that I believed to be entirely necessary for my continued happiness and survival, really.
Life had some big lessons in store for me soon after. Within the space of two years my dad died very suddenly and later, my wedding was called off and that relationship was over.
So… what if???
I was left to figure that part out.
My dad developed intense flu-like symptoms in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving in November of 1995. I was in the midst of my first student teaching assignment living in San Diego, and my parents had recently moved from Colorado back Orange County, California. In the early days of that November, I remember calling to talk with my parents over the phone and when I asked to put my dad on the line, my mom said he didn’t feel well enough to come to the phone and talk with me. This was back when our phones were attached to wall outlets. I was pretty shocked he couldn’t manage to get to the phone to talk to me. A college friend’s dad had passed away unexpectedly in the month prior, and I became anxious and concerned about what could be happening to keep my dad so debilitated that he was unable to even get out of bed to come to the phone.
A couple of weeks later when I arrived at my parents’ house the night before Thanksgiving, ready to head straight out to a performance of The Glory of Christmas at the Crystal Cathedral which we planned to take my boyfriend (future fiance) to for the first time, I was surprised to find that my dad was not home and would not be joining us that evening. My mom had taken him to see his doctor in Pasadena, and the doctor had determined he needed to be seen at the ER where they had admitted him for observation overnight. The three of us went ahead to the performance with plans for my mom and I to drive up to be with my dad first thing in the morning. I was very distracted throughout the entire program wondering what on earth could be going on with my dad. Would he be ok?
Within minutes of us arriving to his hospital room the next day, an undetected blood clot dislodged in my dad’s circulatory system and traveled through his heart, ultimately blocking the arteries in his lungs. We didn’t know what had happened until an autopsy confirmed the cause of death, but we learned that what he experienced was a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism. They are deadly but treatable and can be survived if the clots are detected in time. Mercifully, we were in the room with him: his last words were to tell both my mom and me that he loved us; and then he was gone. Just like that. And here it was, my biggest whatif like one gigantic question mark hovering over me and my mind a total blank as to the answer.
Some answers came quicker than I expected. Will I be able to breathe? Will I be able to even communicate? Surprisingly to me, the answers to both of those were yes. In my case, when my dad died right in front of me minutes after we had been casually chatting together with him in his hospital bed and me eating McDonald’s chicken McNuggets by his side, I learned that my mom and I would immediately be a visited by a kind, young, South African hospital chaplain with a soothing voice and almost ethereal, calming demeanor. I can still hear the gentle cadence of his words spoken with his elegant accent in his palliative tone. It was a gift. He was like an angel that day. And I don’t even think he was the regular chaplain. My recollection is that he was somewhat new to the hospital staff and put on duty to cover the shift for that holiday. It was a divine appointment for us.
We sat in the hospital cafeteria with this chaplain sharing about my dad, trying to process the initial shock, and feeling an unexplainable but very real sense of peace for what could have been hours. I have no sense of how long it may have been that we were sitting there with him. He was exactly the comfort my mom and I needed in those first hours processing our own profound loss before we had to share it with others who would also be personally impacted. I don’t even remember his name now, but he was the first tangible assurance of God’s provision after my dad’s death. I was breathing; I was talking; I was surviving the unthinkable. Even in those first hours, I was being reassured on a deep, unconscious level that life would go on. Not as it had previously, not as I would have hoped it would, but it would go on nonetheless.
The following January when I returned to student teaching and began my second and last required assignment, I was placed in the classroom of a personal friend and mentor. This serendipity helped to answer the question of, “Will I be able to finish my credentialing program and become a teacher as planned, or will the enormous weight of grief derail me?” The gifted and dynamic veteran teacher with whom I was placed had also been my own third grade teacher. It’s not often that practicum assignments work out like this, and my university was gracious enough to accommodate the placement. I survived, and thrived, in that assignment with a master teacher who had known my dad and our special relationship, was there to give me a needed hug on the roughest of mornings, but who also guided me in how to feel those feelings, then be able to compartmentalize in a healthy way in order to get in the zone for teaching the kids who were waiting for me to be mentally present and effective as their teacher. I found that the responsibility of lesson planning, grading, and fulfilling my final teacher credentialing requirements were a welcome distraction and enabled me to return to some sense of normalcy. Or they helped me find my new normal. I was functioning. Some days were very hard, but I was doing it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how helpful being part of a grief recovery group was during that time. My friend who had lost her father the month before I lost mine joined me in attending a weekly support group at a local church with several others working through a program based on Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief and led by a licensed therapist. We were in that group with men and women who had lost spouses, elderly parents for whom they had cared, and I especially remember one deeply grieving couple who had lost their small child. I’m thankful I was encouraged to pursue opportunities to process in that way. Empathizing with others in a community of sharing like that is tremendously healing. It was immensely beneficial and gave me a place to deal with the storm of emotions brewing inside of me while not being devoured by them.
Not all of the answers that came to me were as positive. For example, I learned that a less advantageous coping mechanism I developed came in the form of an unhealthy relationship with McDonald’s chicken McNuggets. Any of you who know about tips for quality writing may have wondered why I would have included the detail about eating McNuggets next to my dad’s hospital bed. It just so happens that day was the first time I had ever eaten a single McNugget. On any and every prior McDonald’s trip in my life I had always ordered hamburger, fries, and coke, never deviating. I have no idea what prompted me to order McNuggets on that particular day other than that it was Thanksgiving, and maybe the fact that my holiday meal that day would be fast food felt so pitiful that I at least had to mix it up a bit. I don’t know. But that seemingly innocuous decision had consequences as I came to associate those greasy, little mystery meat concoctions with my final moments with my beloved dad. They became my go-to comfort food in those busy, final months of my coursework. By May I had packed on an unwelcome 15 pounds that I’d spend the next couple of decades gaining and losing over and over.
Then there’s that second big whatif.
As for the wedding that was called off, I received wise counsel that you never make a big decision in the first year after a major loss. I was also advised that as a new teacher, you should not get married and attempt to take on a new marriage and a new classroom at the same time. Both are very sound pieces of advice. In retrospect, I would tell my younger self that there is nothing magical about a 12 month span of time after which your brain totally clears and you are then free to make all the big decisions. Just no.
Before my dad died, actually in the very days leading up to it, major red flags had gone up in my relationship which signaled its imminent demise. If not for the unforeseen circumstances which immediately followed, I don’t think we would have lasted to the new year much less another two years. I had major concerns, and they were compounded by the serious apprehensions of both my parents, especially my dad whose last letter to me the month before he died was a 4+ page, TYPED, explanation of all the reasons he was worried for me and the direction my relationship was headed. His letter had infuriated me on the surface. On a deeper level it confused me. How could someone who knew me and loved me and wanted only the best for me not see how happy I was? Or was I even really happy? It was frustrating when in the weeks prior to that Thanksgiving, incidences occurred that seemed to confirm the uneasiness my dad had shared. Here I was doing my darnedest at individuating from the enmeshment of my only-child/ parent relationship (or trying to), and circumstances were only serving to prove my dad right rather then me convincing him (and myself) otherwise?
If you’ve had a major loss or an extreme incident or life change suddenly forced upon you, you know how in an instant everything with which you were previously concerned flies out the window. In the months after my dad’s death, my boyfriend was an absolute prince to both me and my mom. He was there for errands or day to day tasks with which we needed help, and we were both greatly appreciative. He was comforting, providing a constant listening ear, and was truly a loving companion who helped me through the most devastating experience of my life thus far. That will always be true, and I will always be grateful.
Months later when some of the fog began to lift, the red flags were readily detected once again. This left me more confused than ever. At that point, I wasn’t wrestling only with the concerns that were weighing heavily upon my mind but with the notion that I couldn’t imagine being married to someone who had not known my dad. We knew our relationship was headed to the altar. Neither of us were interested in casual dating. To proceed would mean that we were headed toward marriage. One part of me felt very comforted to know that my future husband would have known one of the most important people in my life who was no longer here. That was a department in which no other potential partner could compete. And all those worries in my dad’s letter? I was comforted in my mom’s assurances that if my dad could only see how supportive my boyfriend was after his death, my dad’s opinion of him would have been very different.
But was my opinion different? Had it really changed? Or was I back in the frame of mind I had been in days before my dad passed, unable to overlook some serious incompatibility issues. As a Christ-follower, much emphasis had been placed in my growing up years on the importance of being “equally yolked,” or being in relationship with another believer. That box was definitely checked off with my boyfriend, but that fact only added to the confusion. Just because you’re both believers, you’ve been together a long time, and your boyfriend knew your deceased father does not a healthy, lasting relationship make.
I was back to whatif. What if that relationship ended? Moreover, what if I ended it?
Again, I will sing the praises of the benefits of therapy. Within 15 months of my father’s death, I was engaged to be married, and my fiance and I were involved in premarital counseling with a licensed marriage and family therapist. God bless that woman. Thank the Lord for the questions she asked us, the things with which she prompted us to grapple, and perhaps mostly for the words she DIDN’T say. She never said we shouldn’t get married. She never blatantly pointed out all the things that were obvious sticking points that would have resulted in years of distress for us both in a marriage. She asked the right questions and allowed us to come to our own conclusions. Had she been more direct, I think I would have been in a mental place set on proving her wrong, just as I wanted to prove my dad’s letter wrong. Again, what I believe was a divine appointment allowed this wise woman to say and not say exactly what I needed to hear. It didn’t happen quickly, and those sessions weren’t cheap. But that may be the best money I have ever spent.
Three weeks before the wedding was to take place, I called it off. The biggest whatifs that at first paralyzed me (what will people think? where will I live? whose side will our friends take?) all were placed on the back-burner, and I had to move forward in the peace and confidence that I was doing the right thing. Gifts were returned. A mailing was sent out to over 300+ guests using carefully chosen, Emily Post approved language to discreetly notify all our loved ones that the wedding would not take place. And you know what? I survived that, too.
Oh, it was embarrassing for sure. Many of the awkward moments I feared came. Some friendships were lost to me permanently or suffered for a time. But what did I gain? So much more. And within a few years, after a lot more healing and time to figure out who I was and what I needed (at least a bit better), the partner God intended for me became my husband. The life we now have together, the children we have raised, and the journey we remain on as husband and wife is more than I ever hoped for and so completely different than where I had been headed. And he didn’t even know my dad. I found out that it wasn’t a deal breaker after all.
So my biggest whatifs came to pass, and I lived to tell about it. I entered my mid to late twenties feeling prepared to face what was to come next, mostly. Some difficult circumstances I’d never even imagined followed. After that, I was prompted to get more imaginative with my whatifs as adult anxieties increased. Funny thing I’ve found with whatifs, though. In my life, it’s the smaller, less extreme whatifs that can cause me the most day to day anguish. The micro-whatifs, if you will. I was truly shocked by how many whatifs came slamming at me when we had our first child. Even more disconcerting was that so many of them proved to play out in front of me! “What if I can’t breastfeed? Will that make me a bad mom?” Answers: turns out I couldn’t (at least not with my first), and no, that did not make me a bad mom. Actually believing that took a while, however.
Nothing prepared me for the tsunami of whatifs that arrived with my forties. Worries ranging from great to small, and again, the ones seeming the most distressing to me, to others might seem like nothing at all. Those pesky little whatifs of anxiety thrive on ladies entering middle age. Incidentally, this weekend I picked up a recently published book, Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun, that explores some of the common psychological obstacles facing Generation X women like myself. I’m still just getting into it, but I find the examination fascinating because I know I am not alone in my mental gymnastics.
So where am I with my whatifs today? As I write this, it seems there is a cultural whirlwind of whatifs sweeping many people into a stupor. Nothing is worse for someone who is consumed by their own whatifs than watching others around them get caught up in this kind of thinking, too. Especially those who aren’t typically prone to getting on the band wagon. I’ve been going back to a lot of what I learned during (yep, here it is again) therapy during my early-forties mid life breakthrough. One of the most helpful tools I was given was the process of exploring my whatifs to the point of playing out, even sometimes writing out, every possible scenario on which my brain was fixating. What would happen if my child didn’t get into the school out of district that I wanted them to attend? What if a daycare situation we had chosen didn’t end up working out? What if I seriously flubbed an observation in the classroom and ended up with a less than positive write up? What if I was switched to a grade level I didn’t prefer? What if I was to decide I didn’t even want to be in teaching anymore?
It’s that last one that scared me the most. All my life I had only wanted to be a teacher. Education and working with children has been a huge part of my identity. I needed to bring in a paycheck. What on earth could I possibly do to make a living outside of classroom teaching if I decided it was no longer what I should be doing?
Giving myself the freedom to ask those questions and to see where the answers might take me turned into a far more positive exercise than I ever would have expected. I faced the nagging anxieties individually and systematically, taking each one down a path of tracing where it might lead if each worst case scenario played out fully. I found that there were solutions and ways to manage should any eventuality occur. It was shoving the thoughts to the back of my mind that caused me the most distress, as they tend to sit there in the back of my head taunting me and causing me to fear their possible manifestation like the whatifs in Shel Silverstein’s poem. For me, it is helpful to let my mind go there. I need to think about it, not excessively but intentionally. My fears are often far worse than potential realities. When I explored the idea of leaving teaching, I found that I did not want to do that at all. I just needed to know that remaining in my chosen career was indeed still a choice. I could make a different choice if I wanted to do so. Agency is a powerful thing, and we all need to feel like we have it.
I no longer need to practice this exercise with each worry that crosses my mind. In crisis mode, that was necessary for a time. Now I use the process as a tool when something is threatening excessive distress and starting to throw me off course. This tool, along with prayer, has greatly improved my quality of life and ability to cope.
On any given day, we have so many things competing for our attention and concentration. Some of them are delightful: hopes, dreams, ambitions, acts of service, and loved ones with whom to share our whole hearts. Other times, less desirable concerns can consume us and take any time and concentration we have and use them to destructive ends. A friend shared a quote this week online, and it has been on my mind ever since, drawing my heart and mind back into the calm of its truth. I recognized it from C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity.
What a powerful quote! And from such a great book. I need to add that one to my reread list immediately.
As we head into a new week, may your whatifs keep quiet. And if they don’t, may you have the strength and wherewithal to face them and intentionally let them play out in your mind… to go there… if it can help you as it does me. And to find that the worst case scenario isn’t always as awful as you have imagined. May you come out of the wind and the chaos and find a space of quiet and calm.
And before I go, if anyone out there happens to know a very kind South African man who would now be in his 50s-60s who worked as a chaplain at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena in November of 1995, please let me know. I would love to thank him for his kindness, and I will never forget him.