|The author's photo taken for my book dust jacket. (2008)|
When you find out your child is sick and will die, you must go crazy. As a sociologist, I have taken to studying the madness grief brings. There is no singular form of it, some people cry, others vomit or lose control over their body functions (you might actually pee, or worse, in your pants), some stop eating, others eat constantly. Some wail and cry all the time, others barely speak and hardly shed a tear. More than a few try to run away from the horror show, thus the 80 percent divorce rate among married couples who lose children.
You get the idea.
Once, I had judged those people who lost their minds as weak. After Cal got sick, the shattered were the only sorts of people I understood.
The fact that I would lose Cal meant I would never fit in again, and, as a result, a liberating lunacy descended. Charles Dicken's Miss Havishem sitting in the ruins of the her life wearing a wedding was no longer a literary device, but a lifestyle choice.
In this mix of resignation and choking despair, I found myself studying the ladies you see in the market, the ones with their blush put on like a child's red crayon scribblings, the ones who smell funny and dress in wool sweaters during August. I kept my own inner-bag lady in check because of my children, but she was always there.
I took valium and anti-depressants to tell myself I was doing something to stave off the crazy. All the pills did was smooth out the jaggedness. On the good days, I am just not so acutely aware of my anguish. Walling off the worst of my agony meant I managed to drag myself into the shower most days of the week to avoid smelling too bad and forced myself into the office for work. I would actually tell myself, "you should not wear pajamas to Wawa at midnight to get donuts because you are letting the inner-bag lady show too much." I cared enough not to seem too crazy and broken, that's hardly the same thing as being okay. Most days, appearing okay is a self-conscious performance for the benefit of others who find it too hard to face the real me.
A few friends waded into the swamp with me, but even the most courageous could not stay too long. Who could blame them? If I could have never had this happen I would save myself and never think about leukodystropy and CHOP and hospice ever again.
For me, insanity was letting myself go, and just not caring anymore. Besides the manic plans and letters to the Duchess of Cambridge, there was the eating.
I have not been trim since my college days. When I fell in love I stopped eating, but even though I stayed in love the eating like a bird didn't last. After Pat and I married, the life of a graduate student was so sedentary and it was fun and easy to cook and eat. I gained weight for my three pregnancies that I never bothered to lose. I had enough confidence in myself not to care about such standards of beauty. I would laugh at the women who starved themselves to be impossibly thin. Here among the yoga pant- clad Main Line moms, I stood out with my size 16 self.
It was not binge eating so much as a lifestyle without structure or order when it came to the consumption of food or drink. If I wanted a donut or a cupcake, I never denied myself. When I couldn't sleep at 3 in the morning, I would eat something that made me feel better. I found myself indulging in my favorite cravings from pregnancy: bowls of cereal, toast and peanut butter, cheese and crackers...But I ate at all times of the day without any thought to the consequences.
Even my internist, Dr. Kearney (a mother of four who could probably fit into her high school prom dress), who once joked that a woman with my intelligence surely knew there were no fat old people, ceased her scolding about heart disease and diabetes after Cal's diagnosis. As far as my doctors were concerned, the fact that I was still standing was a medical miracle and no would deny a woman like me whatever solace I could find. It seemed cruel to suggest I join Weight Watchers.
But, three years in, I find want to reclaim my old self.
I look at the photos of myself and am horrified at how the pain and grief seems to seep out of my pores and just lingers in my eyes. Now, I long for someone to say I look nice and for it to be true. I hit a bottom (not the bottom just a valley) a few months ago when I threw out all my clothes. I have taken to wearing a uniform of my late father's sweater, a rotation of three pairs of fat pants that don't pinch too much, and the Ugg boots that I wore when I was pregnant with Cal.
It was my equivalent of the black dress my Greek grandmother wore every day for the rest of her life after her husband had died.
And yet, without any explanation, vanity started trickling back. I started to notice if I wore the same sweater and pants two days in a row when I taught my classes. I went to the hair dresser to take care of my roots and even returned to the cosmetic counter to save my skin from the worst of three years of neglect from not using a moisturizer or sunscreen. I went back to the gym and resumed a modest routine.
Then, about a week ago, I started to be rather choosy about what I ate, and thing that made me tackle food was the dinner with the Kellys. Jill Kelly is one of those beautiful women who even managed to look lovely and stay trim when she was living in a hospital when her husband underwent radiation. Jill Kelly's genetic good fortune and the resources of an above average income surely helped, but, I told myself that if Jill Kelly could be pretty, I could do.
So, I stopped eating the junk food and drinking the wine. There has been no dramatic change, it's just a different direction. There are bad days when I want to get that food to feel better, but, overall something has changed and I can make myself feel better without the antidepressants, valium and it is a just bit easier to say no to the donuts.
A friend asked me what was different, I said I had gotten used to the grief. He suggested a different explanation, as he took note of me eating a veggie burger on salad greens instead of my usual cheeseburger with sweet potato fries, "Have you considered that maybe you have just figured out how to be grateful about what is possible and seeing how well Pat is doing well and that Cal is okay and comfortable. Maybe you are just spending less time being afraid?"
"Yes, I have just gotten used to it." I said again.
"No, I hope you don't get used to this. It's something else." My friend insisted.
"More managed, maybe. Is that the right word?" I said, poking at my salad.
"That's better," my friend said, "managed."
I think the person I was before Cal got sick isn't totally gone, there is enough of the woman I was who is still there, and, to my great amazement, she is trying to come back.