"Time, be my friend." - Home, The Wiz
"Time, why you walk away / Like a friend with somewhere to go / you left me crying." - Time, Hootie & The Blowfish
"This too shall pass." - Abraham Lincoln, quoting ancient Klingon proverb
"The Lord in His kindness, He gives me what you always wanted. He gives me more time." - Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, Hamilton
(Mom and me. Swingin' at Byron Lake Park.)
[Author's Update: I wrote this 2 years ago for a website that has since gone dark, so I wanted to lightly edit and repost it here. I've had several friends lose parents in the time since I first wrote this. If you are dealing with a recent loss or continuing to learn to grieve with one as old as mine, these words are for you.]
In my life so far, I've run six marathons. I plan to run more. [Author's Update: I've now done nine.] I like to run them. I don't know why. I don't run just to go running. It's not my go-to form of exercise, but I do like running marathons. I enjoy the challenge. They're tough, but not impossible. Like most things in life, if you find a comfortable pace, do your prep work and keep yourself in a good head-space, you'll make it to the end and feel good about the journey. One trick I have for staying mentally strong is to think about making it to the halfway mark. After that, I'm fine. From then on, I tell myself that each step that I still have to take is less than what I've already done regardless of how much time it might take me to get there. Somehow knowing that helps me keep going forward.
In truth, I evaluate a lot of experiences by asking the question, "What half of this am I currently on?" Tasks at work, writing projects, plane, train and automobile rides - they all get measured this way. But the biggest half and half situation I've been measuring in my life has to do with my mom and when she passed away. Margaret Anne Panettieri (known to all who loved her as Peggy) died on Friday, February 13th, 1998 from complications of advanced cancer. It was a relatively quick illness. Less than a year, but at the time the days themselves felt very long. Peggy was the sweetest person and a great mom. My sisters and I were fiercely committed to having her attention, which was funny because she was very gentle and a non-competitive person (and I was obviously her favorite, so why compete girls??) She was very smart. She knew how to budget and save money and make it stretch (and there were times when we definitely needed it to stretch.) She encouraged us as kids, but also worried about us A LOT. She made this great macaroni salad in the summer with homemade Italian dressing and I swear I've never seen it's equal anywhere else. She was 54 years old when she died. I was 18 at the time. As I write this, it is Saturday, February 13, 2016. 18 years have passed. I'm 36. And this means that I now face the reality that when I wake up tomorrow morning, I will have lived more than half my life without my mom being alive.
Pretty much from the day she died, I have been aware that this day was coming. A mental "Save the Date" was programmed into my head. Every year that passed, I would feel the balance of time shifting and now my adult life matches my childhood life in length of years. I've lived exactly the same amount leading up to my mom's death as I have leading away from it. And you know what? There's a part of me that is really not okay with it. There's still the 18 year old version of me in my head who lives in that heartbroken space. I can see him in my mind. But at least now when I see him standing there reeling from the loss, I can send the image of 36 year old me to embrace and console him. I can understand how he feels because he's a part of me. It seems highly unfair to him that Mom shouldn't still be her own thriving person. That she shouldn't be able to be a part of her husband's life, her children's lives and her grandkids' lives. That she shouldn't be pursuing things that made her happy outside of her relationships to us. I can't argue with him. I feel that absence. I feel that grief. And grief is one hell of a smorgasbord of emotions all rolled up together. It's not easy to unravel, nor to see where one feeling ends and the next one begins. The only thing that you have at your disposal to sort it out is... time. And 36-year-old me has had time.
People often don't give themselves the luxury of time in dealing with a significant emotional loss. We face an internal and external expectation to get over things, to move on from them and bravely go forward. I do not view grieving along those lines. And so today, I want to write a little about what I have taken away thus far from the experience of my mother's life, her death and my relationship to her in both instances.
After my mom died, there was a very long phase where it felt like I was in a fog. Pretty much my entire college experience exists in that fog. Not that I didn't have fun. I had great experiences and built friendships that are still vital to my life to this day. But underneath all of that, my brain was still trying to process what the hell happened and what it meant to me. So for anyone out there that is reading this who has recently experienced a loss, I tell you with love and empathy that the struggle through the fog can last for years. Like, many years. It takes as long as it takes, but at some point you'll be able to look back and say, "Okay. I was there, and now I'm here. And now I can find a way forward." But it will take a long time. And I reject the notion that you have to get there on anyone else's schedule. I'm not saying your life stops during that time. It won't. You have responsibilities and you can meet them. I'm simply saying I believe grieving is about learning each day to live with loss, not about getting over it.
(Mom and me outside the Beatles Museum!)
Grief expresses itself in a very wide range of emotions, not all of them related to sadness. There's joy. There's laughter. There's silliness. I think it's important to give yourself permission to feel what you're feeling and not judge it. At the same time, let it try to be something that washes over you like a wave, instead of covering you like a blanket. Holding on to pain is not holding on to a person. Acknowledge what you feel. Experience it and release it, so whatever the next feeling is can come in. Also, relationships are complicated, so you might have very complicated feelings to sort through. Just because a relationship was incredibly important doesn't mean everything was perfect. As you find yourself in different places in your life, you'll continue to use your life's experience to examine that relationship. That process does not end.
The sneaky victory I feel over the situation comes from one of the huge benefits of having time, and that's knowing that my mom has never not been with me in these past 18 years. Death tried and it failed! Suck on that, Death! If a person is in your DNA and they are in your flesh and your blood and your brain, are you ever apart from them? If you actively think about a person every day, can they really be completely gone? I don't think so. And being able to still feel my connection to my mom makes me feel that I am connected to something bigger than myself. And yeah, sometimes a memory hits me and I really cry. I wish I could talk to her as the adult I am now and better understand who she is as a person - and who we are together - from my adult perspective. But if the half of my life since she passed wasn't filled with her physical presence, it was no less filled with her love. These years have been filled with my own achievements and adventures that were inspired by her life and her love. Can that be enough? Can we look at what is there instead of what is not? It may not always be easy, but there is a lot of joy in the pursuit of it. I already said I enjoy a challenge.
I watch friends and family now who are dealing with both aging parents and little growing children. The refrain is the same: time moves too damn fast. It goes by so quickly. It's easy to feel that way. But I also think: you're only in the moment you're in. So love that moment for as long as it lasts and then love the next one for its uniqueness and possibility. I don't think you do yourself any favors by thinking of time as an adversary - as something acting against you that is speeding up or running out or that can't get here soon enough. Welcome time as a friend, it will always be right there with you.
Last week, I was going through some old papers I'd saved from college, and I found a handwritten letter that she had sent to me at the beginning of my freshman year. There were a bunch that were typed too, because as she got sicker I think she had a harder time writing in her very pretty cursive and the word processor made the messages neat and easy to read. But I love the handwritten one, (note to parents: write your kids handwritten notes - they are special!). This is what she said to me.
Do my best and I'll always be proud of myself... I will try to carry that with me over the next 18 years, Mom, more than even I did during the last 18. Should I be so fortunate to get that much time, I will be 54 years old. Two thirds of my life will have been lived since your death and I'll be the same age as you when you passed. That is a crazy fact to wrap my head around. But I look ahead, and think of all the things I can do with that time. I know you will remain with me throughout it. And I feel so much love. And I feel so much gratitude. And because of that, every moment is so full.