As we baby boomers are inexorably discovering with increasing frequency, "Death happens!" Sometimes the grief process is ignited by an unexpected tragedy, for example, a favorite uncle in his early 60s having cardiac arrest on a racquetball court. Working through the shock and overwhelming loss are the immediate tasks. Other times, though, grieving for a loved one begins considerably before the end of a life.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
My 78-year-old father had another mini stroke the other day. Apparently, a K-Mart employee illegally charged several hundred dollars of merchandise using dad's credit card number. Another K-Mart employee called saying he would take care of the problem. Alas, nothing was done. (Hello, K-Mart…might this quality customer service be a contributing factor to the bankruptcy morass, duh?) Some time later, again over the phone, a K-Mart supervisor aggressively questions why my father had not called the police about the matter. My father's assumption that the matter was being handled internally did not initially satisfy this skeptical authority. Dad's inability to grasp quickly all that was going on pushed his level of frustration and tension to the implosion point.
At one time, dad, an aggressive New York salesman, would have had this supervisor for lunch. Now, this confrontation was enough to set off a stress attack, a rise in blood pressure, loss of memory and general disorientation along with the familiar cycle of, "Will dad have another serious setback?" In the past two and a half years he's had five mild to significant strokes. Plus a bout of Bell's Palsy which really was the precursor to all these brain attacks. (And while we're at it, let's throw in his bout with Prostate Cancer, which was diagnosed six months before the Palsy.) Yet amazingly, with a determined will, careful eating and moderate exercise, he seems to crawl back to some vital semblance, not just a shadow, of his essential self.
Still, each attack ignites a double-edged emotional process: a feeling of anxiety, sadness and fragile vulnerability at the impending loss of a man, who, before these last three years, since giving up smoking and playing tennis thirty years ago, has always been a physical rock. (Emotionally, however, perhaps less a rock than a maddeningly neurotic, yet loveable, wreck.)
At the same time, each stroke upheaval evokes a sense of, "Here we go again." One more nail in the anticipatory coffin. Perhaps a slightly calloused edge is inevitable after recurring bouts of "been there, done that." Maybe the edge is for grabbing onto and crawling out of the vulnerable depths.
The Baptism and the Legacy
Despite the "just handle it" demeanor, the memory of his first stroke is very tender. Shortly after the "trying hard not to panic" call from my mother…"Dad's in the hospital," "Don't come down (to Florida) right now," I crumbled into that seemingly empty black hole. Then, soon after, collapsed on the bed, curled in the proverbial fetal position, wrapped under covers, wave after wave of memory and emotion hit: how dad survived years of shock therapy for depression; in my mid-20s crawling in his lap and crying in his arms asking him to explain why he needed shock; and my sharing similar fears and tormenting self-doubts; his years of group psychotherapy which enabled him to leave the family and come back and rebuild a healthier marriage; the knock down drag out fights in my mid-thirties as I felt compelled to explore the past family dysfunction; finally, the burying of past guilt along with the great sense of love and trust that these father-son battles ultimately engendered.
Alive or dead, Dad will always be "the last angry man": someone who quickly battles when feeling threatened; a fighter for what he believes in and feels entitled to. Whether he is defensively overreacting or is actually entitled is another matter. The best and worst of him are interred in my bones and mind, in my heart and soul.
Every anxious episode is also a time for anticipatory grieving. There's the sadness, of course, but also some rage. I want back that Type A, aggravating yet challenging, old man; the enigmatic guy I once confronted for seemingly going easy on (and favoring?) my younger brother while jumping on me. His reply: "Yeah, I fight with you…I know you can take it. Larry gets defensive."
But with each psychic quake there's a sense of peace and integrity as well. My world will hold; his complex and compelling essence is of and in my blood forever fueling the drive to be my genuine self in a world that, to paraphrase poet, e.e. cummings, night and day is trying to make you like everybody else. Cummings also exhorted: "And never stop fighting!" Dad never stopped. Dad was like nobody else. And I am my father's son.
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker and syndicated writer, is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ The Doc runs his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City DC Stress Chat . See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com Stress Doc homepage. For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email email@example.com or call 202-232-8662.