I hate March and I dread its annual rotation. Once upon a time I’m sure I loved it. Now I just can’t wait for it to be over. It isn’t just the fact that I live in Alaska and by this time of year everyone up here is itching to see and feel the warmth of the sun. It has nothing do with having already endured 6 months of winter and knowing at our northern climate there is still a couple of months yet to go. It has nothing to do with spring flowers already starting to pop up in my news feed from friends and family that don’t live in the “frozen north,” as my Grandma likes to say, or the small tinge of jealousy I feel that it will be months before I can get my hands dirty and they already have flowers. No, it doesn’t have to do with any of those things; it does have everything to do with grief. Even though a lot of time has lapsed and my heart has been quilted back together and the memories are more good than heart wrenchingly sad and don’t always rip me to pieces, I still could do without March.
March is the month when I lost two of the most influential men in my life; my Dad and my Grandpa. And somehow “memory March” makes me not only think about those two but my Granny and my Wanda Wanda too. Obviously I don’t think of them just in March but this month has a little extra heaviness to it for me. I have had a conversation with a friend of mine who doesn’t think she will be able to live after the closest person to her passes away. All I have been able to tell her is that you don’t think you will be able to live but you will; somehow your heart will keep beating. Somehow you will laugh and smile again. Somehow you learn how to navigate life without them. Somehow you find a new happy. I am a living testament, as are so many others, to these facts. How do you prepare someone for the eventuality of losing someone you treasure? Such immense and overwhelming heartbreak is hard to define because it is so unique to every person.
My Dad had been sick for many years because he never placed priority on his health. As early as fourth grade I can remember that my Dad had a hole the size of the tip of a pen in the bottom of his foot that he would mess with occasionally. My Mom, a registered nurse, was pretty convinced he had diabetes and she pleaded with him to go to the doctor but her requests fell on deaf ears. Fast forward 10 years my parents were long divorced and my Dad finally got help from a doctor but only after his foot became so infected and bothersome he had no other choice. Unfortunately by this time it was too late, the doctors had to amputate a couple of toes and then eventually half of his foot. My Dad still continued to ignore medical advice and ate what he wanted; chain smoked his menthol cigarettes, and didn’t adhere to a medication regime with any regularity. As a result the infections in his foot never went away for long and eventually his left leg was amputated below the knee. We hoped this would have been an eye opener for him but over the next 8 years we got a handful of calls from family and hospital staff telling us my Dad was likely not going to make it so we needed to say our goodbyes. Somehow he would always pull through, though much worse for wear.
For eight years we walked on pins and needles and were constantly being pulled back from the precipice of grief. During this time my Dad’s right leg was amputated and he suffered several heart attacks which led to quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2006. Time never went as slowly as it did when we were told he was being put on the heart/lung machine. I swear an eternity must have passed before we were told that his heart was beating on its own again. I felt fortunate I could be there for my Dad during this time. While he was in the hospital my brother, sister, and I would have conversations with our other family members and my step-mother about how to proceed once he was discharged. I felt like this stint in the hospital was a great starting point for a new beginning. Take away the salt. Don’t buy soda or sweets. I researched recipes with a low glycemic index. If you smoke don’t smoke around him, and by all means DO NOT GIVE HIM A CIGARETTE. My Dad was the kind of smoker who lit one cigarette off of another and smoked several packs a day. I was hopeful being in the hospital, with a nicotine patch on his arm would have lessened his withdrawal symptoms when he got out. I was delusional and I think this was a case of me wanting to control a situation that I had absolutely no control over at all. It was a very harsh reality for me. The day my Dad was released from the hospital, my step-mom picked him up and the first time he asked for a cigarette she gave it to him. Being mad isn’t something new to me. I’m a Scorpio, I have red hair, I’m a first child, I know mad. But I didn’t know this mad. I had never been so angry in all my life. The kind of mad where words come out sounding like a foreign language in between gasps for air and where all I can do is cry. The trip to go see him and possibly say goodbye, was a miracle. People came together to make sure we could be there during that time for him, but I’ll be damned if I was going to sit there and watch my Dad kill himself. I flew back to Alaska.
In August 2007 when I was seven months pregnant with my son, we got another phone call telling us that my Dad wasn’t doing well and again we flew to North Carolina. The story that would unfold during the month we were there was horrific and nothing I was prepared to hear. It was discovered my Dad suffered several strokes and before my step-mother picked up the phone and called 911 she took the time to get him out of bed, in the bath, cleaned up, shaved, and his haircut because she had neglected him for so long. She was more worried about staying out of jail than about my Dad’s life. The doctor told us the bed sores my Dad had were the worst he had ever seen. He had been left in his own filth for so long, not moving, that his body was literally wearing away. There was no way he was going home as it was now apparent he wasn’t being taken care of. So at 27 years old I was touring nursing homes with my brother and sister and trying to make the toughest decisions so far in our lives. At 57 years old my Dad was placed in a nursing home and we knew he would never make it out. Even though we knew he wasn’t ever getting out of the nursing home, we were all still surprised when on the morning of March 27, 2008 we got the final call that he died – he had pulled through so many times before. Now he was really gone. No more opportunities to say goodbye. The end.
One way or another I managed to marched forward. Then on Thanksgiving Day 2008 my sweet Granny went to be with Jesus. I was crushed. Again. And again I survived. By then Hiatt and I were living with my parents in Albuquerque after deciding to move there just before Hiatt’s first birthday. My Grandpa’s health was failing and after spending the majority of my childhood not having the opportunity to be around my Mom’s side of the family it was the gift of a lifetime to have the great fortune to get to know him and my Grandma better. It was the biggest honor to be with my Grandpa in his final days. Born and raised a cowboy in the vast spaces of New Mexico my Grandpa rode off into his final sunset on March 21, 2010. It hurt so much to watch my Mom and my Aunts and Uncles experience the pain I had already felt losing my own Dad and to see my Grandma’s heart break. I think by the time my Grandpa died I was numb. I had experienced so many close losses by the time my Grandpa died I was feeling anesthetized somewhat to grief. But really, as it turns out, in order to march forward I just repressed everything. I’m not even sure now if I have processed everything fully; I feel like if there is even a little crack in the façade the entire wall I have built to protect my sanity will crumble.
These experiences have changed me; they have changed the nature of who I am. They have attributed to increased anxiety, fear, and pushing people away. It hurts so much to lose those you love that in some wild, twisted way I think I’m protecting myself from inevitable future heartache. Like if I keep my distance it will somehow hurt less in the end. In my logical mind I know I should cling to my remaining family members and friends because I do have a full understanding that life is entirely too short. I know it will hurt one hundred times more if I miss these connections with those I love. I think of this from time to time and I make an effort and reach out but I am my own worst enemy and I always pullback. I don’t like this about myself. I don’t like that I’ve allowed myself to be so changed by grief I am missing out on engaging in life.
Just when I am recognizing my own self sabotage and the need to work on my behaviors my cousin Wanda died unexpectedly on February 18, 2015. I have a lot of cousins but no two was I closer to than my older cousins Rhonda Rhonda and Wanda Wanda. Wanda was only 43 years old when she passed away and I had many hopes of getting to visit her again and making a midnight run to Krispy Kreme. She had married her prince charming not even a year prior to this and she was happier than I had ever seen her. It seems so unfair that she was robbed of her happily ever after. When she died I dropped all the way back down to the bottom again.
I understand the cycle of life involves death but I never expected to lose so many people I loved in such close succession. But would you ever want to expect that? One day March will hold the promise of spring and new beginnings again and it won’t be so heavy on my heart and mind. Until then I’m going to take a huge leap outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself to reach out and love my family and allow myself to be loved by them.