Three years

Tomorrow is three years since my dad fell ill.  That day there was a ton of snow.  Today it’s 66 degrees F out.  Go figure.

I have been having strange dreams in the last week.

In one, I was interviewing with a distinguished middle-aged white guy for something.  (I mention that because all the political stuff lately has made me very aware of race and racism.)  I realize now that he looked like one of the people I work with, who isn’t very friendly.

I also actually had a similar phone interview last week.  Both in the dream and in reality, the interviewer asked about my PhD, etc.  In the dream, I told him the truth–that pursuing an academic career was a risk and, in retrospect, a mistake that derailed my career.  In the dream, he told me that my going to graduate school would only have been a bad decision had I known ahead of time that there was a 100% possibility of failure.  I don’t think that is true, but in the dream it seemed a very profound statement and I woke up feeling a little comforted.

I had another dream last night where I got an e-mail from a stranger who had been renting  a property from my dad (not realistic; my dad never rented property).  The stranger said that nobody had come to mow the lawn and his grass had been growing very high and he was trying to reach my dad.  I sat on the e-mail for a while, and then realized I had to make arrangements for the lawn.  I thought about whether and how to tell the stranger my dad was gone.  Then I realized the house he was renting was my parents’ house, and that we had moved on.

I have started interviewing for stuff on the other side of the country, where my husband will go for fellowship.

Especially with my father gone, I feel so very alone sometimes.  Ever since he died, and I saw up close what happened to him (and to my mom, whose cancer was the impetus for this blog), I feel afraid of the future.

It’s been four years since my mom began chemotherapy.  Her oncologist told her last year she could stop with the CT scans.  My husband feels otherwise and I know he’s right but I don’t want to tell my mom.  Mentally, I just can’t cope.

In bed this morning I thought about how people in horrible situations–facing death, or man’s inhumanity to man, must have gotten through each day.  I guess maybe at the time you focus on surviving, in little chunks at a time.  Only looking back at the event in totality do you realize the horror of it all, and wonder how you survived.

I really miss my dad and want him back.  I can’t believe it’ll be three years, and soon five, and then (if I’m lucky) fifty.  I also can’t believe that life has gone on, but it has.  Back after it happened I remember spending so much time wondering whether there was an afterlife, and whether I’d ever see him again.  These days I don’t think about it as much.  I have learned to live without him.  There’s a new political administration that he didn’t see; he never got to see WhatsApp or my iPhone; he didn’t get to see his granddaughter walk or his grandson be born.  At first it hurt a lot that he was missing all of these things, and now although it still hurts, it’s normal; my post-dad world.

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I’ve come a long way

I had a physical yesterday, and an OB well-woman visit last week.

The OB exam felt weird–it was one of the only times I’ve visited an OB and not been pregnant.

I used to be very afraid of doctor visits, and avoid them.  I must have inherited that fear from my parents, who were the same way.

Neither checkup was a big deal.  I’m glad I’ve overcome my anxiety.

The doctor was very pleased that I’ve brought my BMI just about into the normal range, although it’s still at the high end of normal.  She says that ideally though, I should be in the middle of the normal range with a weight in the 130-140 lb range.  I am proud of myself.

I’ve been sick this week with a bad cold.

My baby turns 18 months tomorrow.

As far as having come a long way, that kind of cuts both ways.  I can’t believe I’ve been alive for 37 years…it seems like such a long time to do anything at all.

Since having kids, and since the loss of my dad, I’ve started to feel old, and like the best times of my life are behind me.

There won’t be any more kids, for one thing.  We can’t manage more.  So I feel kind of sad that I’ll never have a newborn again.  Sometimes I wonder where my life went.  I guess what ought to have been the best parts of my life all got squished together:  People date, marry, have one child, have another–the process takes a while.  For me it all happened in about two years, and was interspersed with my mom’s cancer diagnosis and my dad’s diagnosis and death six months later.

Maybe it’s that I’m nearing 40; if I die at the same age that my dad recently did, I passed the halfway point a few years ago and am already over the hill.  Seeing my parents the last few years struggle with cancer, it scares me that the second half of my own life might be like that.  Things like youth and good health, in the first half of my life I took for granted and didn’t really appreciate or enjoy.  And maybe they won’t be there in the second half.

Anyway, other than that feeling, life goes on.  It is stressful as always–my husband got a fellowship in another part of the country.  I don’t know what to do about that.  I guess we’ll figure it out.

Becoming a woman

I have changed so much in these last few years.  I used to work in a male-dominated field.  Most of my friends were men.  My mentors were men.  I dressed poorly; I ate out; I embraced being one of the boys.  I had an old boss who confessed years later that (although he would never act on it) he was very attracted to my femininity.  I was flattered but perplexed, as I didn’t think I had any particular femininity at all.  If I did, it was only relative to his other colleagues–who were almost all men.

Somehow, a lot changed when I had kids.  Part of it was that I had moved to a job that was 50% women.  But another part was that so much of my experience now consisted of things that a man just couldn’t relate to:  pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, all the endless invasive OBGYN exams, etc.   Meanwhile the women around me acted like I’d just been initiated into some secret club of moms.

After having kids, I slowly became interested in fashion (because in my new job, it seemed to matter).  I became interested in cooking, out of necessity after I came down with gestational diabetes.

My husband’s career became our primary career, because as a doctor his work directly impacts life and death, and also because he has the potential to earn twice what I do.  And because with several years of sleep deprivation, I stopped caring as much about my job, and idolizing people who did.  I slid into a job role where I was dealing with people instead of doing technical work–and I found that I really enjoyed it.  Some days, I felt like quitting and staying home with the kids.

I don’t recognize myself; the old tomboy who used to be a glass ceiling-breaker.  I didn’t totally choose this path; I left academia out of necessity.  I never really understood women who worked in female-dominated fields, whom it seemed to me spent more time “communicating” than actually doing things, who cared about their clothes more than their work product.

I feel like I have betrayed the person I used to be, and like I wasted a lot of potential–because I really am a crack techie and programmer.  But frankly going with the flow is easier than fighting it.  In a state of sleep deprivation and fatigue, doing a job that is easy is a lot less stressful than one that requires my full concentration.  It’s been six years since I left my old field, and although I’ve encountered discrimination, never once have I heard the explicit, crude sexual comments I did as a graduate student and postdoc.  I didn’t realize how much that environment sucked until I got out of it.  It’s easier sometimes to go with the flow than to fight it, and I certainly feel happier.

Two years on

It has been two years since my father died.  Some days it feels like a moment; other days like a decade.  There are days I don’t think of it much–and I feel like I’m moving on–and then I feel a jolt of guilt.

Many people said the second year of bereavement would be worse than the first.  It has not.  It has been easier.  I have forgotten a lot.  I was terrified of forgetting, but I guess forgetting is the only reason that time heals…as you get distance, you forget the details, good ones and bad.

As a working mom of two and a medical wife, life has sometimes been too busy and stressful for me to focus on grief.

People said there would always be a hole; that things would never be the same; that the pain would never completely be gone.  That has been true.  However, now having lived through it I also see how people can learn to live with a big part of their soul missing, and that the missing piece does not prevent them from being happy again.

The tenth anniversary of my dad’s death is also the tenth anniversary of my PhD defense.  It’s funny; I remember my defense very clearly.  I’d bought a suit the day before.  I never in my worst nightmares knew what would happen eight years later, to the day.

I miss my father.  The grief and loss are still present.  For the most part the acute pain and the horror are not.  Things that bothered me before it all happened (e.g., being passed over for promotions) seemed like small potatoes for a while, but I notice now that they’ve started to bother me again.  I still miss my dad and a part of me still looks for him on the street, when I pass the old bus stop.  I’m afraid to ever move away and leave behind the places that he was.   I still wonder what happens when we leave this world; whether I’ll ever see him again.

I just remembered how he would keep some cloves in his pocket to freshen his breath, and how they would break into little pieces and shake out of his clothes.  Little memories like that bubble up from time to time.

And that’s the way life is.  Terrible things happen, and somehow life goes on.

 

Dreams

I keep having anxiety dreams about graduate school.  I think it was the first time in my life where I really failed and crash-landed.

I’d attended a state school for college, so graduate school was my first time being very far away from my family.  It was cutthroat competitive.  I was very lonely, and ultimately tired of being single.

I realize in retrospect how depressed I was.  I really needed help.  I was in a male-dominated field, so I had few close female friends.  I struggled aimlessly under a terrible, negligent PhD advisor who did not feel any responsibility at all toward his students, and would disappear for years at a time.  Some of his brightest students were stuck there ten years.  Years later, he turned out to have had a slow-growing version of the same brain tumor that my father had–one whose symptoms for my advisor manifested as apathy.

I failed romantically.  Lonely and depressed, I fell in love (I thought) with someone and held onto him as though he were the only raft in the ocean.  Well, the “someone” turned out to have severe mental health issues of his own.  Long story short it went as poorly as a romance could possibly go–and worse, it dragged on for several years.  He never did marry anyone.  Meanwhile my advisor has not managed to send a single PhD student into an academic career in fifteen years or so.

Anyway, I didn’t fail entirely.  Despite it all I managed to publish a couple of useless papers, graduated with a shiny degree, and found a postdoc where I worked for a very good advisor and blossomed, and did very good work.  The problem was that I didn’t start with a solid foundation from graduate school, and that made it hard to find academic jobs.  I did find one, finally; it was unsuitable, and I left.

Looking back at it all, whenever I failed I always kept going.  Writing it all out for the first time, I realize that maybe it wasn’t failure after all.  I didn’t end up quite where I’d planned to go, but I did end up somewhere.  Possibly somewhere better for me.

If I’d stayed an academic, I wouldn’t have been around for my parents when they needed me.  I don’t know whether I’d have managed to get married and have kids.  I’ve seen women do it all, but I’m not sure it would have worked out for me due to the timing, and due to various other factors.

Looking back, I can also see that although I blamed myself for not ending up quite where I wanted, a lot of the things that affected my life and career were pure bad luck and external circumstance too.  One thing I’ve tried to learn is not to care what you look like from the outside.  Nobody is as invested in your life and career as you are.  Maybe somebody Googles you someday and says “oh, s/he succeeded,” or “oh, s/he failed” and for a moment they feel either jealous or schadenfreude.  But that’s a moment.  You have to live your entire life, 24/7.

So you may as well be true to yourself.

Life

Great column by Carolyn Hax today, here.  In summary,

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to you, but you can make the best choices available to you at any given time.

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to people you love, but you can be there so they don’t have to go through them alone.

I feel like I did do this for my dad.

My dad’s birthday

I’m not sure how to celebrate. I miss him.

This time, two years and a lifetime ago, he was probably close to beginning hospice. I remember he was able to come in my house one last time on his birthday, or just after. My mom had brought roses. I still have the roses, in a box.

It’s almost two years since he died.

This morning the triggers have been fast and hard. I was invited to a neurooncology seminar. My husband mentioned lymphoma. I met a woman who used to ride the subway with me and my dad. She remarked on the special subway-riding trick he taught me, and I taught her–exactly where to board so that when you exited, the train deposited you right near the escalator, and you didn’t have to push through a crowd. I had a work event at the convention center where I’d given a talk once and he’d dropped me off, before things all went wrong.

I visited a bunch of brain tumor sites again. I shouldn’t have. It brought back a bunch of really bad memories.

If he had just lived a year or two, he’d have seen both my children. But I guess in a way it’s merciful that it happened fast. I don’t know how I’d have lived for years with the knowledge that his days were numbered but that the number hadn’t come up yet. I guess all our days are numbered, but it’s really different when you know the number.

I miss my dad. There is a constant ache in my heart and he’s always on my mind. What I’d give to have a day with him; a day where we could chat, where he could tell me what it felt like to be diagnosed, what it was like to get the chemo, what it felt like once he knew (assuming he knew) that he was going to die. He lost his speech, memory, and communication abilities on diagnosis, so I never knew. If I had just one day with my dad, I could show him my daughter and son. They could interact with him as a human being and not as a set of photos. For a long time I was almost better, but somehow for the last few days the grief and pain have been unbearable again, and the fear for my own future and what may lie in it…more illness for myself and loved ones, more loss, more pain. I keep thinking how I’ll be 40 in the next few years; that if I go when my dad went, the midpoint of my life is in the past. I wonder where my youth went.

The loss of my dad changed me…the first half of my life was mostly about gaining things: Degrees, relationships, jobs, kids. Now I feel like the descent has begun.

But anyway, when you remember bad events, the memory isn’t quite as sharp as living the event itself. That’s how it’s better. And it is better.

Dad, I miss you. I’m hoping against hope that you still exist somehow in more than my memory, and that someday when my time comes, we can be together again in some more meaningful way than both being stardust that has gone back to the stars, or whatnot.

All my love, and my babies. They recognize you from your photos.