Sometimes I think of posting this at my local coffee shop. You know, to mix things up.
About a month ago, my dad appeared at the doorway to my bedroom. He was smiling like usual, wearing his favorite striped terry-cloth robe. It’s still hanging in my closet. I was happy to see him; I’d been struggling with something and whether it was with words or a hug, his presence is always a help to me. He entered the room quietly and sat on the edge of my bed. I began speaking and started to cry. The grin he was wearing didn’t waver at all, he he waited and listened with total attentiveness, the kind you rarely find. His calm demeanor and ease despite my tears comforted me, as though he knew something that I could not. When I paused he said “Be strong Mary,” like some kind of Indian warrior, but less warrior-like. He continued to smile as he spoke and reminded me, “You want to make sure you’re loved for the right reasons.” This felt like both a question and an answer. It sounds a little vague, but I could feel distinctly that I was heard and he understood me. His words were minimal but powerful; they gave me what I needed. I felt lucky to have him. Then, it was over.
The brash sunlight in my bedroom bursted in through my blinking eyes as I left one world and awoke firmly in this one. It’s bizarre but it usually happens the same way: In the first moments of consciousness, the dream plays out in its entirety in reverse, in maybe one or two seconds. But this recollection doesn’t seem to happen in my mind. It’s as though it comes from the center; my gut or chest. Then, it arrives in non sequitur bits and pieces and my mind immediately begins to reassemble them in order. In those first moments of wakefulness, the experience feels so entirely tangible and fresh, so within reach, I’m convinced if I close my eyes tight enough it will all come back to me. But most of the time there’s no going back. While the dream itself is sacred, there is something Holy in waking from it too. I have felt God there. It’s as though dreams give access into the eternal, and in those first blinking moments, the human mind hasn’t caught up yet. In this little pocket is where we can sit with the phenomenal before our thoughts flood in and diminish it into something digestible; something that makes sense.
The dream visit is like the Cadillac of post-death interaction. It’s a chance to see and hear and feel someone that you don’t have physical access to anymore. I feel extremely grateful when I have dreams with my dad. Beyond the refresher for my senses, there is power in them. I was given advice and comforted yes, but I felt actual love through that dream. I drew strength from it and I’ll treasure it among the other great memories I have of my dad. And that had me thinking. I’m always hearing people say that dreams “aren’t real” or shouldn’t be examined because they’re just imagination or a meaningless summation of random events and mostly just aren’t true. Of course, this has roots in pragmatism. A dream that your best friend is living in your refridgerator doesn’t mean that they are, hopefully. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately of dreams I’ve had with my dad, especially this most recent one. I’ve been recalling it, as though it were a real memory. And I’ve been trying to discern what the difference is between an actual conversation like this and the one we had in my dream. Didn’t it really happen? Isn’t it now a real memory? When you read the first paragraph, did you have reason to think it wasn’t real? It did happen. Not in our dimension but in some dimension. However unorthodox, there is still meaningful interaction between us. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I know it is true. It feels as real as a phone call with my brother last week, or the heat of the sun burning on my neck.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated his 67th birthday. We always cook his favorite meal and group-text photos of the food like a bunch of nerds. We caption them with the funny things and phrases he always said. It’s happy. It’s a chance to remember him and hear his stories and the awesome things he did or the weird songs he sang on his guitar. It’s all an opportunity not just to celebrate but to know him better, which I’m perpetually trying to do. For a long time I didn’t allow that to happen. Since I didn’t truly grieve him until college, I entered my twenties still knowing and remembering him as my 12-year-old self. There was a chunk of time when I shied away from talking or hearing about him, afraid it would make me cry which I hated to do in front of other people. It pained me to see other people cry over him too. Grief was something I had to learn, it didn’t come naturally. And whether I had cut myself off intentionally or was just too young to process it all, I had also cut myself off from getting to know him further. I unknowingly stunted our relationship, which I assumed was something that couldn’t grow once he was gone anyway. I was wrong, as it were, and so occasions and stories were just reminders he was gone.
It wasn’t until after facing and enduring the big parts of grief that things changed in a big way. I could finally begin to know my dad as my older self, not as a 12-year-old. I began understanding and appreciating him in new ways, and my love for him grew. It was then that our relationship began to evolve past sentiment and allowed for interaction. He existed as more than just memory, which was so fulfilling in my life. I found myself looking forward to any occasion regarding my dad. I love(d) to hear peoples stories about him and the wide open way he loved and lived. New stories and photographs all offer another glimpse into his life and who he was. I’m still putting the pieces together. Even the stories I’d heard before took on new meaning, because unsurprisingly, you process a story or memory much differently as an adult. I allowed other peoples sadness and I allowed my own because I knew it meant we loved him well, and that was in itself a comfort. A connection. All of it, including the dream, reminded me that he was still my dad and some part of him wasn’t gone, he or it was still there somewhere, maybe in that pocket between life and the dream.
I know that enduring the pain of losing him and reaching out to him again as though he could still hear me is what opened up our “line” where things like the dream happen. But truthfully the contact is not always so blatant. Most of the time I have to look in the minute, the subtle, in things that are easy to dismiss. And I find him there. In heart shaped leaves. In a fly that won’t leave. In being so unconditionally loved and taken in by my family, including my stepdad, who my mom says my dad helped arrange. I find him in my nieces and seeing my brothers as fathers. In the morning. In rain. He loved the rain and was always reminding us that it was a sign of balance. Since his death he has continually shown up to special occasions with rain, if even a two minute shower. It’s raining now.
Getting to know my dad so many years after his death is a surprisingly positive and treasured experience for me. It’s been a privilege, really. Death is mostly talked about in hushed tones and at the risk of sounding morbid, which I’ve been accused of once or twice. But my dad has made death feel less serious, somehow. When someone dies we label it as “bad” and when someone young dies we call it unfair. And while losing someone you love is one the hardest experiences in life, grief is not stagnant. Nothing stays the same, including the pain. And when you endure it, you also open the door for incredible things to happen. You’re brought intimately close to the lifecycle and there’s a sacredness there too. I don’t think it’s over when it’s over. I also don’t think people die and stick around to play with light switches. But I do think the line of communication is still there. It just involves reaching for it and experiencing someone using a new kind of language. It means being open to things you don’t completely understand.
I’ve always been aggressively curious and sometimes the weight of life and the worlds mysteries become too heavy and I get discouraged. Even mad sometimes. But getting to know my dad after his death and developing our relationship and talking with him while he sits on the edge of my bed…it superseded the comprehensible a while ago. It left me with far more questions. It’s made me an implicit part of something I don’t fully understand and for that I am so grateful. Because that’s most of life, anyway. We don’t actually know why we’re here or what happens to us when we’re not, but we go after it and love people and try to have a good time anyway. Knowing him has been a humble reminder that life and love and the infinite universe unfold despite our human comprehension. It reminds me that we don’t always need the answers in order to experience the fullness of life. Sometimes we get so caught up with thought, intent on answers and knowing that we limit ourselves from the phenomenal. Some things are beyond the realm of understanding, beyond words and category, and these are all but reasons not to embrace and cherish them as the miraculous treasures they turn out to be. I am looking forward to more. The rain has stopped now.
This post is many weeks late. Chronic tardiness was my beloved dads only vice and he passed that on to me. So I’m sorry dad, but also I blame you. -Love, Rudy
Health, Happiness, Happy Birthday!
You know in those movies where the main character is down and out after shit hits the fan and they’re nearing rock bottom but then comes this pivotal moment, a complete momentum change where usually an offbeat sidekick character busts out the tough love and tells them only they can change the course of their lives and no one else can do it for them? Suddenly this head-boppy motivational song chimes in and so begins the montage where down-and-out becomes up and coming and bad choices are replaced with healthy ones followed by inspiring shots of her showing kindness to strangers and looking bright and happy and you know, you know, that everything is going to work out for her. Her life trajectory rockets into the stars where her potential is limitless. And all the shit that hit the fan has settled and disappeared. It’s all going to be OK. It’s going to be good.
I find myself on the cusp of my own Hollywood game-change montage. In the movie of Mary, it’d start with me rolling out of bed… onto the floor.Then Monty enters, pulling me by my shirt collar into the kitchen, and scoots me a plate of pills with his nose across the floor. Then begins my momentum shift song, potentially this one by The Killers
…followed by shots of me lifting three-pound weights and flexing my “muscles” in the mirror. I’m drinking green frothy stuff and throwing away prescription bottle after bottle, high-fiving doctors and crossing off lifelong goals. Suddenly I’m the one waking Monty up to play, and I’m helping sick people and giving speeches in front of the president demanding healthcare change for the chronically ill. Then the camera slowly fades in to me typing at the computer in the hazy blue of night; a question appears across the screen: Are you sure you want to change this URL? It asks. I click YES, only to reveal my new web address word by word: Zero.Pills.A.Day.Com BABY! (Scene) For some reason this hasn’t happened yet. So weird.
OK so yes this is more Hollywood than reality and there are a lot of flaws to the fantasy, like me “exercising” for one. And vitamins curing me, for two. But the other half contains actual hopes I have for my life. There are real changes that I can feel waking from dormancy, and ambitions I know I can achieve, all that’s required is that I jump off. Dig in. But when it comes time to leap, I feel hijacked by my own dumb brain. Maybe it’s more of a lump; a dense rock in my depths that thinks of a million other things to do besides the one thing that matters. Sometimes it’s a total jerk of a rock and suggests I’m incapable or unworthy, or that someone else could do it better. And the worst part is, I listen! I think yeah, I should definitely attack my nails and cuticles until they bleed instead of trying to change my life and others for the better and for forever. Smart, real smart.
When it comes to writing, I encounter the same consensus among writers, which is painfully simple: That writing every day is obnoxiously hard and often achingly lonely, but you just make yourself do it. The writer Anne Patchett writes in The Getaway Car that the key to completing artistic endeavors is forgiveness. Before she begins, “I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. …Forgiveness is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again I will forgive myself.” I’m working to keep this in mind, since so many words and pages I write on this computer end up in the trash bin. It’s hard to know whether I have a discerning eye for quality work, or if I just don’t trust myself enough. It’s beginning to feel like the constant editing is just another guise I’ve unconsciously created to keep me from the jump. Amy Poehler advised in her recent memoir that in order to write you have to symbolically remove your brain and put it in a drawer, then listen to it throw a tantrum until it wears itself out–meanwhile you get going on the real stuff. “The doing is the thing. Talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing. Writing the book is about writing the book.” See? Basically to achieve what you want, you just have to do it. Brilliant. When I’m not in denial and I’ve let go of excuses, I am well aware that the only thing in my way, holding me back, is me; and knowing that almost paralyzes me even more. But I also know that change starts with awareness, so I think it’s time I take out a hit on myself. At least on the part that’s so lost in thought it leads to stagnancy. I can’t believe the trouble thinking causes. Has Tolle taught me NOTHING!?
So many days I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going or what’s going to happen to me and it results in either laughter or becoming totally overwhelmed. Where I used to fear change in life, I guess when things were stable and I was happy, I’ll sense an aching fear that things won’t change. That I’ll live and die in my parents pool house, an unpaid blogger with 37 chronic conditions. I can’t grasp where my place is among the world. Furthermore I can’t decide whether our place is made or reserved. Do we discover it or carve it out all our own? I don’t know. I only know that most days I feel far from either. Other days I feel close to a major turn-around; like something huge is about to sweep me up and change all of this for the better. But by the next morning we’re back to the ordinary. I’m taking my pills and moaning and Monty is doing his best to get me out of bed. Often my life feels like a raft drifting in the ocean in no particular direction, and the wind in all its thoughtless surprise is steering the boat, not really taking me anywhere at all.
Monty and I roam around this town I’ve historically hated more like tourists than anything else. No one knows us by name, besides the pharmacist of course. We spend a lot of time at this coffee shop with the angry barista where I’m writing from now.There are girls here wearing the same uniform I wore in high school. They look so young and cute in their plaid skirts and Mary Janes. They seem happy and untainted and I like the way they burst out laughing at hardly anything. I can’t remember looking that young, a sure sign I’m getting older. Since turning 30 last year, I wonder a lot whether I’m really growing up or just getting older every year. I am surprised to have found the first grey hairs on Monty’s snout this year and I feel like a mother watching her kid go to the prom.Where did the time go?! There’s all kinds of proof that time has moved forward and carried me with it. And yet my life could easily fit the bill of a 17-year-old in many ways. Some days that’s exactly how it feels. As my friends are advancing their careers and getting married and having babies, I still bring my mom to doctors appointments and often shop at American Eagle.
I understand the circumstances of my life are different and I have to make peace with that every day. But I also want to make sure I’m growing through all of this and not just surviving it. I guess I thought there would be a day when I reached adulthood, as though it were some test you passed, like the BAR, and then were a certifiable adult. I definitely figured as a child that by age 30 I’d have it all figured it out. Of course, I was young and blissfully stupid then. I couldn’t know how obscenely larger and deeper reality would become. I feel like I know less than ever before. Every answer springs up ten more questions. I’m uncertain of mostly everything except for the aggressive love I have for my dog. In short I have no idea if I’m getting it right. And I can’t imagine the day when I’ll feel like an adult.
However, I did notice something of note at Victoria’s Secret last week. It was a routine underwear buying trip and my spirits were high because there’s something weirdly exciting about getting new underwear. There I was at the 5 for $25 wrack; my go-to section for cute and economical briefs. But I found myself all disgruntled making frowney faces as I browsed the huge selection. They were all Lisa Frank colors or animal prints. But worse, there was writing across the butt. Things like “No Peaking” and “Shopping Burns Calories!” adorned their backsides. Dear. God. The colors were blinding and I felt out of my element. I then spotted the sophisticated 3 for $33 wrack out of the corner of my eye, where the colors are muted bronzy tones and the designs are laced in floral maturity. More expensive yes, but, as I held a silky pair in my hands, modest, pretty and free of TEXT on the ass, I felt at home. This is where I need to be. I bought my favorites and left smiling. So that counts for something. I think.
All these thoughts weigh heavy in my mind; stupidly, uselessly. But they can be thick and hard to control. So I take Monty to the river, where he is immediately in his element and I can catch my breath. Monty finds the largest stick in the vicinity and makes me throw it in the water again and again and again. His enthusiasm is contagious and I laugh out loud watching him put his whole head underwater to find the waterlogged sticks. Something about returning to the spot and seeing the river flow in the same direction it did last time we were here quiets my head. Watching Monty run full speed and splash clumsily reminds me to chill out. That life is supposed to be fun, and it only moves in one direction.( See above) Collapsing under the weight of those thoughts makes me feel dragged by the current instead of floating downstream. I don’t know exactly who I am, and maybe it’s something that grows and changes until the day you die. I only know that life and happiness aren’t somewhere over there, and I need to stop assigning them to a future I can’t know. Times will be hard and times will be easy, but there is peace to be found in all of it if I can just trust myself and forgive the experience. More than that there are dreams to be made! I just need to move out of my own way so I can finally jump off. Over the cliff–that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the Hollywood montage begins.
Health, Happiness, the Edge.