Three years ago, a fellow author and friend of mine, Jessica Spotswood, wrote an inspiring blog post about her life as a published author. It’s a beautiful, honest piece of writing about how things don’t always work out as you may have envisioned them and how that disappointment can shape your way forward.
(You can find the original text here: http://jessicaspotswood.com/2013/12/29/2013-a-learning-year-managing-expectations/ )
At the time it was posted, I read Jessica’s words and I felt an abundant (and essentially useless) amount of empathy for her situation. I also read it with almost no insight. I didn’t have any personal context to give it weight in my world. Later on, when I had my own struggles with writing and publishing, I’d revisit that post more than once. It felt like a familiar friend – a proverbial shoulder to lean against during some more difficult times as an author.
The truth is that, no matter what the subject matter, nothing hits us harder than when it hits us at home. Personal context is required, in all things, for any real clarity. That’s how we’re built. Knowledge through experience.
In some ways, this post I’m writing now is similar – it’s a reflection on a year gone by, a year filled with the kind of changes that would knock anyone asunder. It’s also the only thing I’ve wanted to write in months.
It’s the only story I can even imagine telling right now.
What does it feel like to watch your father die?
In the beginning, it feels like drowning in an ocean of endless and unpredictable waves. It feels like the meager amount of air you manage to take in isn’t nearly enough to sustain you. It feels like the violent drag and pull of the water is much, much stronger than any desire to keep breathing.
My father died five months, three weeks, and five days ago today. He was 70 years old.
For the record, 70 is not old. Dad had a condition called Myasthenia Gravis, a neurological disease that attacks your nerves. It’s an autoimmune disorder that ultimately requires strong medications. Most of us know from more common diseases, like terminal cancer and it’s reliance on chemotherapy, that the drugs used to treat aggressive illnesses can often break down the body in their own complex ways. In the end, my father’s decade long regimes of steroid medications, including fluctuating doses of Prednisone, kept him alive. They also broke his body down far faster than one would expect.
At 4:00 am on June 8th, my father went in for emergency abdominal surgery, at which time it was discovered that his bowel had perforated, causing a rapidly spreading bacterial infection to travel through his blood stream to the rest of his body.
In total, he spent 33 days in the hospital; 30 of them were in Shock Trauma’s Surgical ICU. For the duration, he was mostly unconcious and intubated, unable to speak or communicate. I only had one real conversation with him in the hospital – a day he was extubated for less than 24 hours. It was the best, most Dad-like interaction when the nurse said to him, “You been through quite a lot, Mr. Dale,” and my father responded with a hoarse and approporiately acerbic, “No shit.”
It was the greatest gift the universe has ever given me – I’d been planning on skipping the drive that day (it was two hours each way between Baltimore and WV) to take my son to a scheduled doctor’s appointment, but I left around 7:00 am so that I could see Dad for an hour. Had I not, I wouldn’t have ever heard my dad’s voice again.
On July 6th, the surgical staff called a family meeting. There were facts we had to face and decisions we had to make. The steroids Dad had relied on to keep him well had ultimately been his undoing, weakening his bowel enough to cause the tear, leading to the infection. They also prevented his body from healing itself – so much so that his month-old incision looked fresh, as though it had only just happened. A surgeon gently explained that, had we told him that the operation had taken place only a few days before, he would have believed us. It had been 30 days exactly since the emergency surgery.
So, that morning, we sat at a conference table – my mother, my brother, my husband, and me – and we made the decision to take my father off life support. We did what we knew was right for him. What was best for us. What was the most humane, decent option for anyone, let alone someone you love. It was the worst day of my life. Until two days later.
To be clear, taking someone off life support is nothing like the movies. It’s not fast. It’s not peaceful. It’s wretched. It wrecks you. It changes everything you thought you knew about death. It changes everything you thought you knew about life. (I’m going to stop here because what happened in that room is something far too private and precious to write about. There aren’t words. I’m not even going to try to go there.)
I don’t remember a lot of the month that followed. Apparently, I got through the formalities of writing an obituary and planning a funeral. Some people reached out. Many people didn’t. Some family and friends attended my father’s service. Many friends and family didn’t. Didn’t attend my father’s funeral. While my childhood best friend was near tears, trying to get a flight out of Colorado to be here, local friends couldn’t be bothered to make the 20 minute drive. And I’ll be honest – at the time, I was furious.
Why did I let it bother me so much?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and ultimately, I think it’s a fairly simple answer: it was far easier to be hurt and indignant than to admit what I was actually feeling – crushing, unavoidable guilt.
Now, though? It’s like childbirth: I can only remember the love. There are too many people to mention by name, but I absolutely must acknowledge one amazing woman – a former high school classmate, Melissa Garner, had also lost her father to illness while in her mid-thirties, and she was my touchstone for those first few rocky months. Her cards and her words and a bracelet sent through the mail buoyed me through innumerable moments where I literally thought my grief could actually kill me.
And, in the meantime, I started to function. I accepted a job teaching high school full time again. Josh and I started looking for houses in Maryland. I began the school year with trepidation, then immersed myself in it with unexpected vigor. My students have no idea how broken I was when they met me, or how much less broken I am now that they know me. They also have no idea what an integral role they played in that. In ways they probably can’t really understand, they brought me back to life. They were my reason for getting out of bed every morning.
But the biggest change happened inside my own house – and inside my own pieced-together heart. And it happened because of three dragons.
A year before Dad died, I started watching Game of Thrones. I’d heard about the phenomenon for years, of course, but never read the books (blasphemy!) or watched the show. When I started streaming the first few episodes, I was immediately hooked. The characters were so rich and full-bodied. I drank them in – all of them, really, but especially the women. Cersei, Sansa, Arya, Catelyn, Brianne, Margaery. The list went on and on. Bold women. Determined women. Unconventional women. Smart women. Cunning women. There were aspects in all of them that were admirable.
And then there was Daenyrus Targaryen.
Daenyrus Targaryen, played by the British actress Emilia Clarke, was probably the most beautiful character I’d ever seen on film, and that includes Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett in LOTR/The Hobbit.
Daenyrus started Season One as outwardly timid and complicit in her own victimization, first by her brother, then by her husband. By Season Five, she was a powerhouse. A queen in all ways. Daenyrus slayed. She was BORN to rule. She became a Khaleesi – the regal wife of a Dothraki khal, or leader. But, parallel to that ruling and slaying, as equal in measure to that ruling and slaying, was Daenyrus’s unplanned and unexpected role as a mother.
In one of the very first episodes of the show, the shyer and younger future Khaleesi is given three petrified dragons eggs that, through the power of her lineage (and, you know, fiction) she manages to bring to life in a fiery pyre. When the dragons are born, they are immediately and unquestioningly her children. Not her pets. Her children. And she becomes a mother of three in an instant. She’s known by many names – Daenerys Stormborn; Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea; and widow of Khal Drogo, the Great Khal of his generation.
But, above all else, she’s known as the “Mother of Dragons.”
A little over a year ago, I also became a mother of three, bringing a new husband and two daughters into my life with my son. But I’m comfortable enough to admit that, despite having the best of intentions, multiple motherhood was not a job I was born to do. It was a job I did not slay. So much about parenting three children under ten was beyond me. There were days when I felt completely ill-equipped to do just about anything; days when no one liked what I made for dinner (after taking hours out of my writing time to cook it in the first place); days devoted to kid’s activities and ignoring book deadlines. I broke down more than once. More than twice. I was sure I’d promised my whole life to a man who would always, always love me, but would remain quietly disappointed that I wasn’t more nurturing. More touchy-feely. More maternal.
And then my dad died.
It’s the worst kind of paradox, isn’t it? When the thing you are most proud of, the thing you tried so hard to be and never managed to accomplish, only happens when you lose the person who would share the joy and wonder and pride the most?
Dad’s death broke me. Not in half – into pieces. Into so many parts that it was impossible to salvage them all. Somehow, what survived morphed into an inexplicable new commitment to these children – a commitment to motherhood that I now felt as fiercely as anything I’ve ever felt in my adult life. It was like the best kind of miracle with the worst possible timing.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking often about a specific quote from Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones. The main character, 12 year old Susie, watches from Heaven as her family reels and spins off and wanders away from one another in the wake of her mysterious death. Just as her broken loved ones begin to reconnect their fragile bonds, Susie realizes where she still manages to fit within their midst. She says:
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.”
I can’t really explain in words how my family – my husband and my children, my mother and my brother, and me – are re-fusing ourselves into a cohesive whole. But we are. It’s miraculous and painful, like the healing of bone. It’s inexplicable, like walking into a fire with nothing but stone and walking back out holding dragons. It’s like falling in love with the life you were always living when you finally, finally manage to see it for what it is.
When Dad died, we all fell apart. For a long time, we stayed in pieces. Now, we are slowly coming back together, but in an entirely new shape. It’s completely disorienting, like waking up from a coma to find that ten years have passed and you don’t recognize your own face. You have to relearn things you were so sure you already knew – including yourself. Especially yourself.
Other parts of me died with my father. Unhealthy parts. Parts that prevented me from loving and living, the two things my dad did best. Now, in the wake of his absence, I just want to love my family as completely as my father loved his. Losing him made me able to focus on womanhood and motherhood in ways I never could have suspected. That’s the way I’ve been reassembled. That’s the way I’ll move forward without him. As a wife and a mother. As his daughter. And maybe, in my own way, as a Khaleesi.