Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Of Grief and Fear

Like most people, I have a few phobias, but there is one particular terror that makes me tremble to my soul.  I usually don’t think about it deeply, though I do pray five or six times a day that my fear is never realized. I keep it at the surface, even when I pray, because it is too awful to delve into.

I am terrified of leaving my children before they are fully independent.

Does anyone expecting a child truly consider the question, “What if my child is orphaned?” What are the odds, after all? But, when one parent dies when the children are young, this weighty question becomes much more real.

When I disclosed this fear to a friend, he said. “You have a will, right?” Of course.  If something happened to me, would my children be raised by loving and good people? Yes. But it wouldn’t be me, and that would leave my children with terrible holes in their hearts.

My husband died of complications of cancer treatment when our children were 4, 6, and 7. He was in treatment for a good part of the 5 years prior to his death.  We discovered he was ill before I’d even taken the home pregnancy test to confirm we were expecting number 3. The two youngest do not really remember their father, despite my constant efforts to reinforce memories. This breaks my heart.

One of my friends aptly describes our family as “a pack.” When your kids are not legally old enough to be left alone, there is no reasonable choice but to take them with you everywhere.  Sure, I could hire a babysitter, but would it really be effective to get all 3 kids in the car, go pick up the babysitter, bring them all home, go grocery shopping, go home and unload, pile everyone back in the car, and drive the babysitter home? Nope. So, they go with me, everywhere. Efficiency is key when you are time limited.   

Why am I time limited? Having 3 children who, sadly, are not legally permitted to work all day in sweatshops to support themselves, I must work full time. In the movies, the frenzied life of a working parent involves arguing with people on a cell phone from home while a child hangs on to your leg as you load perfectly bleached whites into the dryer, leaving you ample time to make dinner from organic vegetables harvested from your garden, help Junior with his science project, work out, direct the school play, coach soccer, deliver meals to invalids, refurbish the house, march for world peace, and sew the children’s wardrobes from self-designed patterns. In my world, it involves spending 50 hours a week as a ball of stress in an office, barely fitting in dinner, homework, and baths before bedtime; spending Saturdays driving in carefully orchestrated circles, depositing and fetching children from various sports activities, lessons, birthday parties, and school events, while trying to fit in errands, grocery shopping, and an occasional bathroom break; and reserving Sundays for worship, laundry, bill paying, school projects, and (very occasionally) seeing family or friends. 

So, we are a pack. Our lives are a jigsaw puzzle of activities that all must fit tightly together to make the picture. Though I’m usually exhausted, I wouldn’t trade a bit of it. I adore my children. And, due to their age and the fact that I am their sole parent, I am, at present, the center of their world.

Twelve years ago, one of my husband’s fraternity brothers died of cancer, leaving behind his wife, Julianne, and their two babies.  My husband and I did not have children until several years later. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, Julianne was immediately on the phone coaching me through the initial terror. She repeated the words of encouragement that I had offered when her husband, John, was diagnosed, and told me how those words and my faith in them had lifted her many times. She told me that my non-judgmental ear when she was struggling with practical and emotional burdens had offered her relief from the expectations of others. Indeed, we’d had frank and lengthy discussions about pressures and awkwardness of uncoupled life and parenthood, but I hadn’t realized how much it had meant to her. And, as Julianne disclosed her feelings during and after her husband’s demise, she unknowingly prepared me for my parallel future experience.  By then, she had become an example of triumph over fear and struggle that I desperately needed to see.  At different critical moments, we’d given each other exactly the right support.

When last I spoke with her, our conversation led us to disclose a shared wish, our deepest and most profound desire as solo mothers:  To see our children through to full independence.  This was not spurred by any particular concern. It just came up.

On February 17, Julianne died at home of a stroke. Her children found her. Their earthly pack was broken.  My heart aches for them intensely.

It would be a lie to pretend that Julianne and I were best buddies. We weren’t. We didn’t call each other weekly or hang out having coffee on Saturday mornings.  We shared a common bond and engaged in meaningful conversations, usually at social gatherings.  But, that connection of similar life experience, overlapping circles of friends, and a 20-year history makes the loss of Julianne very hard for me. She bravely walked down a difficult path that neither one of us ever would have chosen to tread, giving me courage with each of her footsteps as I walked a few paces behind.  I realize that my grief is based in my identification with her life. Grief, after all, really is about one’s own loss.

Julianne told me that when people called her “brave” after John died, she thought, “What alternative do I have? That’s not brave, it’s just doing what you have to do.” Like her, I, too, learned that lesson the hard way.

Julianne is a powerful soul. One last time, she blazes an immensely difficult trail, not by her own design, but because that is simply what is. Her children, during this tragic experience, have shown that the content of their characters, like their mother’s, includes faith, determination, and wisdom. They will live extraordinary lives. Through them, Julianne continues to demonstrate that you just do what you have to do. As I reflect on this, I do not feel brave, yet my terror begins to recede.

For a wonderful tribute to Julianne, read this article by her former neighbor, Robert Nozar.

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