My rude awakening to the fact that life was not going to turn out at all as I had envisioned took place in a small, cold, bare walled conference room inside Huntington Memorial Hospital with particularly uncomfortable chairs. I can’t remember now if my mom and I talked much as we sat in that awkward space wondering what would happen. I only remember certain distinct images and feelings from that day but few words that were actually spoken.
Earlier, I recall being in my dad’s hospital room, sitting waiting for him to come back to the bed when we began to hear him call for us in distress from the private restroom off his room. We could hear what sounded like hypervetilating, and I remember my mom rushing to the hall calling for a nurse. Then there was calm and I think he said something to the effect of, “It’s ok, it’s over. What was that?” Then the distressed breathing started once again. When he could speak again, his last utterances were, “I love you Sara! I love you, Katie!”
Moments after saying those precious words two nurses assisted him back to his bed, but I don’t think I saw his feet actually touch the ground as they “helped” him walk.
He was already gone.
Nurses scrambled in the hallway calling code blue as they ushered my mom and I out of the room. I can still picture one of them stopping a doctor carrying a tray to his office for a working lunch. The nurse grabbed him, and his food tray fell to the floor as it dropped from his hands. I wasn’t completely sure what code blue meant, but it was evident it wasn’t good. And it was clear no one had been expecting this. My dad had just spent the night on a regular floor for observation due to flu-like symptoms and a strangely low body temperature.
I really have no idea how long it was between when the code blue was called and when a small group of nurses and a doctor came into that small conference room to tell us that they had done everything they could, but they had lost him. I knew the situation was serious, but when they said those words to us I was in complete disbelief. “But he’s my best friend!” The words jumped out of my mouth reflexively. It was incomprehensible that I had seen, spoken to, laughed with, and hugged my dad for the very last time.
On that dark Thanksgiving Day in 1995, any notion that I could place a tight, protective grip on those people and things most dear to me and be assured of their constant presence in my life was gone. In retrospect, it’s silly to think I ever held that belief inside me. But some people, some things, in our lives become so precious to us that their loss is devastating to the point that the fabric of our lives is altered.
2020 has been filled with that kind of loss.
I’m writing on a Saturday morning after a painful week filled with shattering testimonies coming forward about sexual abuse in the youth theater company my children have been involved in for the past seven years. While the sexual abuse occurred years before my own children’s involvement, the patterns of denial and absence of any justice for victims has tainted an organization we have trusted and loved. I am crushed by the victims’ stories and so very grieved that their pain (and the criminal behavior that caused it) was brushed aside. This paragraph does not do the situation justice. There appears to be much, much more to this. Emotional abuse, racism, classism, homophobia… story after story of pain. It is all so HEAVY. And now, rightfully, our beloved theater company is closed indefinitely. Forever? Who knows at this point.
It feels like another rug pulled out from under us moment. It feels like a death.
Readers who have followed my blog since February know that my childhood was filled with constant change and uncertainty in terms of frequent moves, ongoing need to establish new friendships, etc. In my efforts to create a more stable and consistent kind of upbringing for my own kids, this sense of family we found in our youth theater world has been a godsend. I know many of the relationships will continue. But change is hard. I am trying to process all of this myself so I can help my kids process it.
And those are all the words I have on that matter right now, but I am left with two thoughts as I work to process and move forward.
1. All of the bad that has been revealed does not negate the positive experiences many of us have had. I think this basic principal can apply to many situations, not just our specific circumstances with our theater company. In reality, we all experience both positive and negative in our various life circumstances. For example, when a couple divorces, just because their marriage has come to an end doesn’t mean they have to discount the good memories they shared. This is an instance of a need for “both/and” rather than “either/or.” I can be angry and sad about abuses within an organization I love, AND be thankful for cherished memories our involvement afforded us. It is not simply one or the other. Our hearts can and do hold both.
Sometimes it feels easier to cope by just allowing ourselves to be filled with one emotion, as in the case of anger. If I allow myself to be filled with rage, it can dull some of the pain. But that is a very dangerous way to go, because I think that is what also allows for abuses to continue when others do just the opposite and deny the anger and only want to focus on the positive emotions. If we don’t want to face the painful and difficult, that is how abuse gets covered up. Cutting ourselves off from a range of emotion, whether we’re denying the painful or the positive, is damaging. I want to do the hard emotional work that allows for the presence of both the feelings of righteous anger and the appreciation for the good that did (and does) exist. To do so, however, requires a willingness to feel all of the emotions. It takes vulnerability. It isn’t easy. To my friends feeling this so deeply right now, my heart is with you.
2. I am finding myself returning to a quote that has meant a lot to me over the years. I first heard it attributed to someone else, but I have learned that it was written first by the 20th century American poet Sara Teasdale. I have come back to these words time and again when I’ve experienced different types of loss, great or small.
I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.Sara Teasdale
While I want to hold and honor the full range of emotions within a difficult circumstance, I also need a way to move forward without getting stuck in a tsunami of feelings. Further, I hope to be able to model this emotional fortitude and resilience for my kids. 2020 has felt like one blow after another. Schools closed, theater productions cancelled, inability to spend time with friends, summer camps called off… it has been never ending. And it continues with no end in sight at this point. How do we navigate this? For me, this quote is helpful. I must honor my feelings and truly feel them. The notion that it is good to suppress negative feelings is a fallacy. They are going to come out one way or another. We can feel and also practice the mind shift. What has gone is painful, yes. But what positive is coming? What good is there on which I can dwell? What purpose can I find to make my days feel well spent and meaningful even in these strangest of times? These are the questions I am asking myself and prompting my kids to ask. Full disclosure, some days are better than others. I in no way claim to have this mastered. Yet when I frame my thinking in this way, I regain perspective.
I first learned in that cold hospital room at the tender age of twenty-two that life would not turn out as I had envisioned. That lesson has been repeated for me many times since. I have also learned that in many ways life is richer and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. It has also held a whole lot of pain. In this life, we don’t get one or the other.
I’m going to leave you with one more quote from poet Sara Teasdale. As we move forward in wisdom, I pray with hope for what’s to come.
It’s strange how often a heart must be broken before the years can make it wise.Sara Teasdale