“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
This is one of those oft-quoted lines of science fiction, and it always struck me as a tad bit overblown. Until recently, that is, when I finally realized that I have allowed myself to become immobilized by fear in nearly all areas of my life. Not that I’ve let on that’s what is happening. To be honest, 2014 just hasn’t been a good year for me.
My last post talked about my emotional struggle with the idea of putting my grandmother in a memory-care facility. In reality, it was not nearly as awful as I had feared. Her time in the hospital to get her meds leveled out was brief, and we were allowed and even encouraged to come visit her. The most exhausting part of moving my grandparents into their new home was the manual labor required. She settled in pretty well, and someone from the family was with her there every day for the first few weeks, on top of my grandfather’s daily visits. So everyone started moving on with their lives, getting back to their regularly scheduled lives.
Every year my parents go to Florida for Christmas with my dad’s family – his mom, brother and sister-in-law and my cousins. When it was nearing time for them to leave, my mom invited me to come see her mom for her last visit pre-vacation. I admit it, I had not been down to see her as often as I should, but still, it had only been a month or so since I’d seen her last. And sure, I had heard how terribly her hair had been mangled by the nursing home’s in-house stylist. But nothing prepared me for the vast change in her demeanor and awareness.
When Mom and I arrived, they were just finishing up dinner in the main dining room. There sat my grandmother, staring mutely at the table in front of her, until her friend pointed us out. She looked up, but no sign of recognition lit her eyes, no greeting smile graced her lips. Not until Mom went over and hugged her and told her we’d come to play some Yahtzee with her did she react at all. She nodded briefly and said, “Okay.” My mom looked at me and asked me to grab Grandma’s walker and help her back to her room while my mom went down there and got the table and stuff ready. For an able-bodied person in charge of their faculties, that was probably a fifteen-second walk. But I knew Grandma wasn’t moving so well – the appearance of the walker gave that away – so I was perfectly patient with her as I guided her around the dining room tables and down the hallway.
We made it halfway to her room when I noticed I was holding up more of her weight than the walker was, so we stopped at the little sitting area at her end of the complex and let her rest. She looked confusedly around, and then at me, and I said her, “What is it? We’re just taking a little break because that’s such a long walk.” She didn’t really say anything, but looked a little more relaxed. We finally got moving again when Mom came out to look for us, and together, Mom and I got Grandma settled into her recliner. As I was putting the walker by the door, I whispered to my mom, “I don’t think she knows who I am anymore.”
“Nonsense,” my mom replied. Turning to her mom and gesturing to me, she asked, “You know who this, don’t you, Mom?” My grandmother looked at me for a moment, then said, “No.” My mom, a little worried, then asked, “Do you know who I am?” Another pause, then Grandma replied, “You’re Betty.” I saw my mom’s shoulders relax a little as she started setting up the Yahtzee game. We basically played for my grandmother, but somehow, she still won the first game, and my mom walked away with the second, as was their usual record. As we were cleaning up and getting ready to leave, something tugged in my brain.
“Mom, get down next to her so I can take your picture,” I said as I pulled out my phone. A couple of snap shots later, we traded places, and I sat next to Grandma while Mom took our picture. While my mom struggled to operate the camera, I whispered in her ear, “I love you, Grandma.” It’s the last photo of us together.
Grandma and me
My parents and son left for Florida the next day. I was relieved, as I had just started a new temp job, and having them rumbling around the house while I was trying to get used to a new sleep schedule and new job strained my patience. Christmas was four days later. As normal, I spent the day alone at home, playing video games with a little liquid cheer and fielding the obligatory phone calls from family. Since the next day was a work day, I went to bed after watching the Doctor Who Christmas special, feeling like the day had gone as well as it could have.
The next day as I was on my five-minute drive home – the new job definitely had a few perks, including that – Mom called me to say that Grandma was in the hospital, with what they thought was pneumonia. My aunt Debbie spent her days down at the hospital as they treated my grandmother, and that was how I had my last conversation with Grandma. When Debbie accidentally Face-timed me instead of my mom, I was laying on the couch, trying to take a nap after work. When she showed me to Grandma, she recognized me that time, and though she was exhausted, she told me she loved me, and I told her the same.
I got daily updates and worried phone calls from my mom, trying to decide if she should come home early or finish out vacation. She ended up coming home on New Year’s Eve. Two days later, Grandma was released from the hospital so it seemed the danger had passed.
But, unbeknownst to us at the time, Grandma had a heart attack while she was at the hospital. That, combined with the rash she developed from them bombarding her with antibiotics to fight the pneumonia, left her unable to get around and in constant pain. She lasted three weeks like that. At times, it seemed like she would recover, but most nights, my mom was at the nursing home until the wee hours of the morning, and came home in tears, after spending hours listening to her mother beg her to make it stop, to help her, to get my grandfather.
The Monday before she passed away, my mom called me during my lunch break to say that the hospice nurse said it was getting close. I talked to my very understanding new boss, and flew out of the building, rushing to get to Grandma’s bedside. When I managed to get there, I found my dad sitting on a folding chair outside the room. I tilted my head wordlessly at him, and he shrugged. “It’s a full house in there. Just giving them room,” he said.
My uncle, his wife, one of their granddaughters (and her stroller), my mom, my aunt and my grandfather sat in chairs crammed around Grandma’s bed. There was one empty seat on the far side of the room and I scooted my way around the foot of her bed, trying to ignore the horrifying sounds she made as she struggled to breathe. She moved very little, but her eyes were wide open.
I’m sure it makes me a terrible person, but I wish more than anything that I hadn’t gone. As people trickled in and out, I just sat there and looked at her and felt so small and powerless. When the hospice nurse came in to moisten her mouth and change her diaper, everyone but my mom got up and left. I headed for the door myself, but my mom stopped me. “If you want a minute alone with her, you can have it when the nurse is done.” So I stayed, fortunately for the nurse, because I ended up having to help her turn my grandmother over and hold her up during the diaper changing.
That was the only time I was there that I heard Grandma make any noise besides the loud rattle of her breathing. She moaned and cried and feebly struggled against the nurse every step of the way. My mom was on the verge of tears, they stood freely in my eyes, and I knew that I had reached my limit. When the nurse was done, my mom started to leave the room, but I stopped her. I leaned down over Grandma, gently put one hand on her shoulder and kissed her on the top of her head lightly. “It’s okay, Grandma. We love you, but you can go now,” I whispered.
And then I hurried out to my car and drove home before the tears came and I couldn’t see to drive straight. Knowing what was coming, I sort of ran away from home. I hid out at my boyfriend’s house with him and his roommates to keep myself distracted. That’s where I was when my mom called that Friday night. After disconnecting from her tear-drowned voice, I just stood on the stairs for a moment, expecting my emotions to come bursting out of me. But mostly, I just felt empty.
The funeral and all of the family obligations that come with such an important death were not the egregious chores I made them out to be, but I was just running on empty the entire time, trying to keep myself together. I cannot thank my friends enough for their support during that week – I often wonder if they think I’m a monster because I never really broke down over the loss. Even in the midst of chaos like that, I tried to hang on to my unspoken number one rule – Never let them see you cry, because that is weakness and emotional blackmail.
(Yes, I know that grief is generally an exception to all those things, but I also know that if I had let it go that week, I might never have stopped. The service was the worst, with the open casket, seeing her lay there as people remembered her kindness and gentleness. I could feel my face trying to crumble apart but I just couldn’t – my tears wouldn’t be the delicate sniffles and light sobbing of the rest of my family. It would have been flat-out bawling and wailing – and I wanted to make sure everyone heard all those good things about Grandma, even though we all already knew them.)
Nearly two months passed in a brain-numbed fog. There were moments of sobbing, striking randomly when I was alone, followed by numerous naps. I did not go back to the cemetery, in large part due to the polar vortex, until her birthday. I planned to go with just my mom, whose birthday is the following day, but she insisted we bring her sisters along with us. What should have been a simple trip to pay memory to my grandmother turned into a day long adventure, punctuated by sibling squabbles and another kick in the metaphorical stomach.
Before we could leave for the cemetery and lunch, my aunt called to tell us she was taking my grandfather to an emergency doctor’s visit. He hadn’t been doing well recovering from back surgery the week before, and the doctor was concerned about the swelling in his arms and legs. So we met her at the doctor’s office and it was there that my grandfather told them all – my aunt, my mom and his doctor – that he wanted to be done. Stop poking and prodding him, and just let him go.
And so it was not a great shock to any of us that he passed away three weeks later. While I loved my grandfather very much, his death did not rock me in the same way Grandma’s did. Mostly because I knew how much he missed her and wanted to be with her again. So this time around, I flew mostly solo, stepping into the role of family referee and comic relief.
What does all this have to do with fear, you’re probably asking yourself (if you made it this far lol)? Death makes you think about life, that whole flipside of the coin thing. And as we put together my grandfather’s service, and talked about our memories of him, I found myself wondering if he’d ever regretted living his life for other people. He was about as traditional a man as you can imagine, working three jobs to support his family when times were tight, working six days a week (10 hours a day), with little time for hobbies or outside interests. When my grandmother was gone, he literally had no reason to be here anymore – his job was to take care of his family, and that was done now. But did he ever regret that?
Probably not. He placed a great deal of importance on being a hard worker and a bread winner for the family. To him, that was a person’s number one responsibility – not to change the world or make it a better place, but to provide for the people you love. And he taught that lesson to his children well – they are all very responsible adults, who take their roles as providers and caregivers very seriously.
But somewhere along the way, that priority of what I sometimes – in my snarkier moods - see as “Money, money, money” skipped over me. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to have a good paying job and take care of your loved ones (be they family or friends). Somehow, I have simply prioritized having a positive impact on the world and a passion for whatever it is you do for a living as far more important than the size or reliability of a paycheck. But these priorities have warred in my head for years, and have left me all but paralyzed to do anything now.
I accept that depression has a lot to do with the initial pause – I sometimes just fall apart. But usually I am able to pick myself up, dust off and get back on track. But right now I keep going back and forth in my head about what I should do now that I’ve lost yet another temp job (four days before Grandpa died, no less). I have been a somewhat functional adult for the last four years, earning a steady paycheck, and able to provide for myself at least. But in the turmoil of the last four months, one question keeps badgering me – “Don’t you want to create something that will last beyond your days on this rock, and have impact on people far beyond your circle of friends and family?” (Yes, my brain is a little pretentious.)
The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes – but I continue to let my fear of disappointing my family, my fear of being able to provide for myself, my fear of failure and my fear of loss shut me down. Some days I will have an open, blank Word document open on my computer all day, and manage to type nothing into it at all – can’t right a letter, or a background, or even a list. Words simply won’t come.
So I do nothing – and feel my life slip a little farther away every day. It is like the world yanked the carpet out from under me in January, and I’m simply laying on the ground stunned. “I’m fine,” I say when asked how I’m doing – because I simply don’t have the energy to explain it all and really don’t feel like anyone needs or wants to hear my crazy spilling out in a river of words.
I am not fine. I am an excellent liar. As for this floor I’m laying on right now, not sure if I’ll get back up again anytime soon. But I promise to try. One way or another. Feel free to hold me to that.
P.S. If you ever want to find some good explanations for what depression is like from the inside, I highly recommend this group of comics and the blog at Hyperbole and a Half.