10 July 2016

The Road Less Traveled Delivers Me To Charlotte...

I'm interrupting the timeline for a non-commercial break, and a huge personal break-through.

On Monday Evening of January 11th, 2016, after kissing my Mom goodnight for the evening at Lower Cape Fear Hospice & Life Care Center. I walked out of the building on that chilly January night at about 8:00 PM and I remember looking up in the sky and seeing a shiny crescent moon. I  recall my shock at seeing it dangling up in the sky. My sweet Daddy had died two days earlier in the same building I was exiting, and I had spent all day with Mom on what would be, unbeknownst to me at the time, her last lucid day. I had no idea I'd just had my last interactive conversation with my sweet mother. I'm grateful I didn't know.

I was exhausted, my head was foggy and my heart was broken. I honestly hadn't had time to process my Dad's death. It still seemed completely surreal to me that he could possibly be gone from this earth. When I looked up at the moon as I made my way to the car, I clearly remember wondering how in the world the moon could be shining? I'd lost the most amazing man I ever knew in my life and, frankly, it seemed inconceivable that the moon could rise and I know that sounds strange, but I literally stopped and stared at it for a moment or two wondering how the world could continue to spin without my Dad.

This would turn out to be one of my first lessons in grief. That night I realized that life was crazily determined to keep going on, even if everything in my life was completely turned upside down and my heart was aching from a place so deep I'd never felt anything like it before. Maybe it wasn't an ache as much as it was a heaviness, a deep, drawn out silent scream. But it was also a sign - a moonlit sign that no matter what deep shit we have to trudge through in this life, the world keeps turning and the moon still shines. The sun rises. We breathe. We learn to live again.

I've always had a bit of a panic problem. Driving in particular can sometimes make me a wreck (pun intended). I was diagnosed with panic disorder before there even was a "formal" diagnosis of panic disorder and scored my first panic attack when I was 13 years old, about a month before my sister died. As luck would have it, my first attack occurred on a spring break vacation with my parents and grandmother to Chicago to visit my aunt and uncle. Hyperventilating, palpitations, feeling of impending doom - I ran the full gamut and it scared my Mom to death. She didn't know what in the world was wrong with me but fortunately we had a very astute family doctor who listened and had, himself, a history of dealing with panic disorder and he assured her I wouldn't die from it. In 1994 Zoloft was approved for the treatment of panic disorder and a physician in El Paso, Texas prescribed it for me and it literally changed my life. I was able to do so many things that I'd never been able to do before. That's not to say that the symptoms completely disappeared, but they certainly became much more manageable and I've been on a small dose ever since. It's made things like driving, navigating crowds, flying and just living life much easier and most of the time enjoyable.

After my parents passed away, I was invited by my sweet friends, Jayne and Keith Cannon, to come visit them in Charlotte for a few days. Initially, I honestly couldn't imagine I would ever be at a point where I could see myself driving alone to any point more than an hour away, and the idea of driving to a huge city like Charlotte seemed completely impossible. They say that time heals all wounds and I take exception with that because I don't think time heals the void of losing loved ones. I don't think it's possible to completely "heal" from losing folks we love so much. I think what time does do, is afford us the chance to put one foot in front of the other, allow the searing ache of our losses to eventually recede and makes room for the flow of happy, comforting memories to move toward the front. Time gives us the opportunity to think about rejoining the human race and learn how to live again. After enough time, we can even find ourselves smiling and laughing again. 

When Jayne initially made the invitation, I had to decline because I was at a point where I truly didn't want to leave home. I felt shell-shocked, as if the very foundation of my life had been shaken because, well, it had. Life as I'd known it for the past three and half years was no more, and I had to find my bearings and figure out where and, to some extent, who I was. I'm still working on that part. 

Being a full-time caregiver for several years is a very cloistering experience. The world shrinks, particularly if you can't be away from your home for more than twenty minutes at a time. Even though I was busy taking care of a lot of things and multi-tasking, it was in a very confined space. The world outside of my home became much more distant and there were a few times when I'd go several days without starting my car; I'd find myself in the grocery store and feel as if I must be in another country.

However, time ticked on and when Jayne again invited me to visit, I found myself saying "yes". It wasn't like me to make such a quick decision, but I had spent several weeks searching for jobs, going on interviews, completely cleaning out my garage (huge!!) and my confidence was slowly beginning to resurface. I'd also started dipping into my Dad's diaries, reading entries about how he and my Mom had felt when my Mom's Dad died which was, coincidentally, on January 9th, 1962, fifty-four years to the day before I lost my own Dad. I had no idea until I read that entry. My Dad wrote so poignantly of the pain of that loss, the memories it evoked for him and gave a glowing account of the man my Grandpa Sturgill was, but he also noted that as hard as it is to lose loved ones, the best thing we can do to honor them is to pick up our lives and move forward. Reading those entries, I could hear my Dad's distinctive voice, the cadence of his writing was almost the same as if he was speaking to me. In fact, I know he was.

Another huge sign that this trip was a "go" came courtesy of my amazing neighbors AKA as Cleo and Sailors Godmothers, who were available to sit with my furkids. In fact, they enthusiastically encouraged me to go for it. Cleo and Sailor LOVE Pat and Ginger so that was a huge relief. I've loved my dogs since the day I adopted them from the shelter, but I must confess that I would not have been able to get through the silence of these past six months without these two irascible creatures. Just as they kept me sane during my 3 1/2 years of care-giving, they've been with me every step of the way as I've grappled with the grief. I am devoted to both of them and I know they're devoted to me. Their unconditional brand of love have made these past few months bearable, silly and sometimes funny. They demand I go outside, throw the slobbery tennis ball and take in the air and sunshine. What gifts they are. 

When I set out for Charlotte, after the steering-wheel-gripping fear of crossing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge which, in my twisted mind, was three times the length of the Golden Gate Bridge and ten times as high, my grip began to relax a little. I had my iTunes cranked up and I began looking around. It had been years since I'd been on any kind of road trip and I began to notice vaguely familiar sights and, along with it, lots of sweet memories. I wore the necklace I have with my parents wedding bands, and I grasped it several times. I had them with me.

When I got to Whiteville, I stopped at a produce stand. My mom would have LOVED that. I stopped and looked around and wound up with peaches, blue
berries, a watermelon and fresh corn to take to Jayne and Keith. I got back on the road and realized I was actually feeling a little more relaxed and comfortable behind the wheel. It wasn't one startling moment, it was gradual. But it happened. Each mile became a little easier. I realized I was heading toward friends who understood very well what this little trip represented for me. I was breaking the ice and through a combination of iced tea, James Taylor songs filling up the silence, every single mile registered on the car odometer was a silent but strong affirmation that life DOES go on. That's a wonderful gift of a realization.

I thought back to that January night and the moon...crazy as it seemed, the moon did rise and I could drive to visit friends. Initially both of those things seemed impossible, but they weren't. It just takes time. Precious, not-to-be-rushed, time.