Saturday, October 24, 2015

Airplane Musings and Kind Strangers

I wrote most of these notes in a journal on the airplane on the way back from the Grace Hopper conference in Houston (please note, this was on an almost four hour flight that arrived at 11 PM). They all tie to my Dad's cancer diagnosis. I'm reluctant to share them since they're a little all over the place, but since my previous written in one sitting post was so well accepted, I am going to go ahead and post what I wrote then, and then post my one-week-later follow-up thoughts (so please read to the end).

- I'm never entirely sure how to break the news to someone. People at work ask me how he's doing, and I don't want to deal with their sense of loss, so I fake it. I tell them the positives, tell them there are no new tumors, tell them about his leg wound healing - am I lying to them? Not really, I'm just letting them believe that things are OK. I'm selfish. I want people to just BE NORMAL. I know I have more of the facts than you do and that you want the facts, but just let me be normal! I want my dad to come back to work so they can ask him, not me, I want to hide. I want to push the responsibilities and the everything off onto other people.

- I don't know how to use time the between now and the mysterious "then", how to use the time we still have because things already feel a little different. For example, Stephanie saying "Dad, don't eat that!" doesn't seem relevant anymore. Why worry about dieting when you're worrying about dying? And I hate the feeling that we have to take a family photo at EVERY opportunity. We didn't used to be that way!

- I freak out often thinking about the future where I can't ask my dad for help or advice or anything,where I can't say, "Dad, I need this advice". Is that making me loose my chances to get that advice now? Do I even know what pearls of fatherly wisdom I want to get while I still can?

- I'm afraid of people's pity. I don't want to be the daughter with the dying dad, don't want to think I owe anything I get to that circumstance, don't want to use it as an excuse for failures. But by not talking because I fear pity, I shut people out.

- I'm afraid of what this means for the rest of my life, of what it will do to the life I always expected, to the life I thought I deserved, And I'm angry I'm not getting what I thought I deserved. And then I think, you know, we don't deserve anything. And then I worry I'm taking other things for granted and that I don't know precisely what it is that I take for granted, that might not be granted, and yet I do nothing to appreciate what I've got any more than before.

- Knowing the impact of other people's loss makes that anticipation all the worse. It just seems like it's going to be soul crushing. For example, at the conference I was just at, Sheryl Sandberg told a story about how after her husband died she continued a challenge ge gave her about writing three things you did will everyday, and some days her grief was so dark that the best thing she could write was "Made Tea". Everyone dreads pain. I don't want to hear how they've felt what I feel, because even if it's true, I'm so obsessed with my own experiences with it that I cannot imagine that anyone else can have felt exactly this way before.

Here is one quick retrospective note on those thoughts. I wrote those notes as a reaction to a book loaned to me by a good friend (the book is called "A Grace Disguised"). Before I picked up the book, I spent some time talking to my airplane seatmate, a young man who had graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and was on the plane for a weekend where he was planning to talk with his girlfriend's father about proposing (so he was understandably excited). He and I had talked for a while about his elaborate proposal plans and then had split off to our separate books to read. He had asked me what I was reading, and I said something like "A book about grief", which he remarked was, "an interesting choice", at which point I said, "well, my father is dying of cancer". That's a pretty good conversation killer, so he expressed his sympathies and left me to it. As I scribbled my above notes, he tapped my arm and asked if I wanted to talk about it - and I said no. At this point, he pulled out a rosary (he was Catholic) and told me he would just pray for us instead.

This airplane experience isn't the first time some stranger has expressed genuine concern for me and my family. About a year ago, I was interviewing for a job that would require me to move around the country. A year ago, my Dad still had to undergo leg surgery, and I was reluctant to take a job that would have moved me away from family. When I explained this situation to one of the interviewers, he immediately expressed his empathy (his mother had just died of cancer the previous summer) and volunteered to pray for us - and I know he meant it because he wrote down my father's first name and the type of cancer that he had. I recently saw this gentleman again at a professional networking event, where he remembered to ask for an update.

While these stories don't invalidate the feelings expressed in the notes above, I wanted to add a general positive note to the end of this otherwise emotionally draining post. I know you all hurt for and with us - it doesn't change how I feel, but I do know and notice. Even with two strangers, I know and notice and appreciate.

PS - to my airplane buddy, I hope your talks with your hopefully-future-father-in-law went well and that you and your lady have a wonderful, enriching marriage :)

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