My dear and beloved T.S. Eliot begins his epic poem, “The Wasteland” with the line, “April is the cruelest month,” and for me, the end of April through the beginning of May feels like a wasteland.
On April 23, 2013, my dad received a radiation treatment that was a last resort for us, for him. Beginning in October of 2012, as his lymphoma spread, his chemo treatments failed. In the month of April, we received two big blows. We were hoping that he would go to San Diego for stem cell therapy, a treatment that held the hopes of really good results. The day before he and my mom were supposed to leave, they got the news that his cancer was growing, rendering him ineligible for the treatment. I was with my parents when they got the call and it was the first time, during his whole bout with cancer that I had seen my dad truly break down and cry.
The second blow came the day before the radiation shot. The hospital called to inform him that this particular treatment isn’t covered by Medicare, and would cost $40,000. They then asked if he would like to go ahead with the treatment. For the second time, my father cried. He told us that he didn’t want to use that much money. He cried in the kitchen where I had eaten every breakfast of my childhood. Where he fixed chocolate malts in the summertime. At the table where we laughed. Where we fought. Where we three now cried together.
The dates are hard for me. On the 23rd he got that shot, which had the most negative of side effects. On the 28th, we went to see him in the hospital where he was in treatment for extreme pain. Mazie and Violet picked him a white rose and brought it. His face lit up with joy to see those girls. May 3rd, he collapsed at home and my mom realized she couldn’t care for him alone and he went back to the hospital. May 5th, a CT Scan showed lung caner and we stopped all treatment. May 7th, we decided to bring him home. May 9th, he left the hospital. May 11th, he left us.
The days leading up to April 23rd, then to May 11th, wear at my soul. I feel physically different. My anxiety picks up. It’s hard to breathe sometimes. My body aches. I told my friend and dance instructor that my muscles are so tight lately and that even though I’m faithfully in yoga classes, my flexibility seems to be getting worse. “It’s because you’re not releasing.” He said matter-of-factly. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know.” he said, “Emotionally and physically. You can’t do it right now.” And he’s right. Don’t you love friends who know? I feel like if I release these emotions, I’ll drown.
But what is the lesson? What I am learning is to be gentle with myself. I don’t fake being ok. I don’t overcompensate with loud laughter or a huge smile. And that’s all right. My friends who know are loving me right through this. Many of us feel like we always have to be strong, like we can’t be the ones who break down. But right now, I am broken, and that is ok.
I spend my days not stressing about what didn’t get done. Right now, that stress is too much for me. My girls and I take longer at dinner, listen to French music, dine by candlelight. In my sadness, I delight in them.
Many people tack on to their grief advice the phrase, “your dad wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and I hate that. Because deep down in my heart, I think he would want us to be a little sad. Who wants to be forgotten? Who wants to be not missed when they’re gone? What I don’t do is allow my grief to stop me from living. There can still be smiles among the tears. There can still be bursts of light in the darkness. We do a poor job of thinking that things must be black or white. There are not only two choices.
So during these 18 days from April 23rd to May 11th, I’m remembering that. I take my girls on outings and we have fun, but I also allow a space for my sadness. We talk about things that Zsa-Zsa would have loved and I let them see the tears flow from my eyes. We go to Disneyland. We opt for a little longer of a walk and push bedtime back 15 minutes. We live gently. But at night, when the house is quiet, the hole that he left in my heart opens up and I feel utterly lost in a world that just doesn’t make sense without my daddy.
If you are grieving, if you are struggling emotionally, please be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself a space to grieve. Forgive yourself for your moments of sadness or anger. Embrace your struggle. Avoid people with whom you have to “fake it.” If you take a hard look at it, they probably aren’t your true friends, anyway. Surround yourself with your definition of beauty, with things that make you happy. Get a latte. Or a beer. Or a vodka gimlet (the drink Dad and I had together in New Orleans) and raise your glass to us. Smile and cry. And know that the sun will rise again tomorrow.