Recovering from Caring

Saturday we went out and bought a croquet set for the front lawn. I haven’t had a lawn in so many years, and I have fond childhood memories of neighborhood croquet games on summer evenings. It seemed like a great idea, unfortunately I didn’t realize how stressed out we all were. Call it croquet-mageddon, call it rugby with wooden mallets, it basically turned into a 2 day melt-down-fest.

First the balls were too heavy and the grass too tall for Truly to get anywhere. Swinging the mallet like a formidable helicopter blade (yes I did try to teach her how to do it properly but the girl’s got spirit) she occasionally make contact. After moving her ball only a few feet she would scream, throw down the mallet and pout. Repeat. After an hour of screaming fits we pretty much gave up. Tomorrow we’ll get a lawn mower.

{Next day}

Tadg did a great job of mowing the lawn with our new mower. True still couldn’t get anywhere, more fits. Finally she tossed her mallet aside and started to bowl instead. Perfect. She had found her calling. The previous screaming seemed to have lightened her heart considerably. Her form was pretty good. Bonus: now most people in the neighborhood know exactly what her voice sounds like, even the ones waaaaaaayyyyy down the road. If she’s ever attacked by a cougar or bear they’ll know which house to run to.

Sadly Tadg came in second three times in a row (after 3 games.) On the last stretch of the 4th game, he hit his ankle with his mallet. As he was laying on the ground crying, rocking back and forth, I asked True to get him an ice pack. She returned with two frozen burritos (she called them casseroles) wrapped in a napkin. Tadg declined the healing casserole pack through his tears.

“OK bud, let’s call it a day.”
“NO!”
“But you’re injured, we always stop things like this after the first injury.”
“I’m fine! Let’s play,” he spat through his long tangled hair.

Gritting his teeth he managed a few solid hits. He had almost caught up to me when his ball fell into a divot. His wind up turned epic – rivaling Truly’s. Slamming into the ball his mallet shaft split, sending fragments whipping across the lawn missing True’s head by a few inches. Of course in my eyes it all happened in slow motion – the jagged shaft still connected to the mallet was spinning like a battle ax from Lord of The Rings as True ducked and ran for her life.

“THATS IT! We’re DONE!” {Time for Papa’s meltdown.}

“I THOUGH THIS WOULD BE FUN! I thought BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH….” You get the idea. Now the neighbors waaaaayyyyy down the road know what it sounds like when Papa throws a shit fit!

I guess we were all wound a little too tight for a game as potentially violent as croquet.

Its been a month and a half since the kids summer camp ended. Since then we’ve moved to a new town with nothing to do for weeks but unpack. I’ve been working, the kids time has been largely unstructured, with too much screen time. New neighborhood friends help. Trips out help. Visits helped (thanks Pablo and Darwin!) On top of everything else I think both Tadg and I have been nervous about his new school starting. The village that held us all, AKA his first school – Santa Cruz Montessori, was his first and only school. He would be entering into a new world; a different state, different population, different rules and approaches to learning. This could in fact be the end of everything. OK, not really, that already happened. But this could really suck. Not as big as THE major life suck to end almost all life sucks, but still, it could be sucky icing on top of the massive sucky cake that caused us to move in the first place.

And on top of everything else, I am still recovering from caregiving if you can believe it.

At the Hospice drop in group I was going to back down south, all of the older men, the ones who had been caregivers for their wives for years leading up to their deaths, walked into the room with an extra gut leading the way. Each one had a sizeable belly, almost as if it were another person. Separate.

Was it their grief or joy walking into the room before them?

I was working on my own belly at the time, noticing the layers I’d built up. A good amount of it was food and beer, eating poorly and self-medicating at the end of a long day as a caregiver for Terry. I never realized how good alcohol was at masking exhaustion, mimicking restfulness for a short time, all the while stitching depletion in deeper. I started to name the layers of my belly as they began to fade months after she passed; first was the fear layer, then grief, then sorrow. I think many of us who lose a spouse, especially men, swallow our feelings in favor of pushing on to the next task. “Keep busy,” we tell ourselves. That place of hiding takes on a life of its own, it has a physical presence.

We start to hold the door for it, when we walk into the room. May as well, not like we can hold the door for her anymore.

I still have extra layers, mostly the tired Dad flesh-shirt I wear. I pass the mirror to the shower, surprised that middle age swallowed me up so easily while I wasn’t paying attention. And there are other weights to carry. An arrhythmia triggered by low electrolytes and digestive issues kicked up badly. I’ve had it for years, mostly food related, easy to address if I pay attention. I had a hard time digesting most food toward the end, I’d become almost incontinent for a few months.

Sorry guys, Papa has to pull over again today –  hand me the little shovel and the baby wipes!

The worse the digestion, the worse the arrhythmia, you get the idea. I would sit up after putting the kids down, waiting for my heart to calm so I could sleep. Maybe make an extra trip down to the house to sit on the toilet, again. I got floaters in my eyes (mostly gone now.) Whats falling off next? I was starting to feel like a train wreck on two feet.

I’ve had to learn to handle these changes from the inside out. I have a physician who has supported me, and her work has been priceless. First she helped heal my gut, then everything else started to fall into place. Posture, diet, portion size, stress and alcohol all play a part. But the answers are not to be found in discipline so much, as balance. The spirits point out how important writing is to me (needs to be every day), and of course happiness and a sense of trust.

True has started creating new trust exercises for herself. She’ll find a high place at the playground and coax me to stand a few feet away from her. “OK, there!” Then she’ll fling herself off her perch with ecstatic abandon. There is a moment, when she hangs in the air, that I can drink in her joy. Her eyes turn to glowing gems, her smile reflects every bit of her soul. She is completely free – flying, without limits.

“OK Papa, step back a little more…right there. OK!”

Trust has been harder to come by for me. Many widows and widowers with kids I talk to cycle through fear about the passing of their children. Armoring ourselves against more grief we run through scenarios – a shark attack, cancer, a croquet mallet impalement… Somehow we’re sure that a new, sudden death will rock our world once again. That fear always lays there, in the spacious hours of pre-dawn when you’re trying to calm your heart to get back to sleep, when you’ve pushed too hard and your life is out of balance again. Kids and cats and dogs help. Smell them, snuggle them.

Cuddle up and breathe.

I’m still gaining my strength back a year and a half out from being a caregiver. I do yoga in the morning for 20-30 min, it feels so good. Its helped my spirit to center so I can begin my movement practice again. I danced swan in my circle in our new garage for the first time since June. I felt like I was feeding myself, not just depleting myself. Not forcing, taking things slow has worked.

The yoga teacher on youtube talks about balance. I’ve been stressing, holding my breath until we were moved in and the kids were in school. Balance is close, I can touch it some days. Just a few more exhales away.

{First day of school.}

Croquet served as the last great blowout we needed. The kids were ready for school come Tuesday morning. I think on some level they both know if the three of us can make it through losing Momma, we can pretty much deal with anything. True and I walked Tadg up to the front desk, signed him in, found which way his room was (first door on the right), then he was off. He was way too cool for a wave goodbye. True was a little rougher at drop-off, basically the opposite.

“No Papa I won’t let you go!” She actually pasted herself to my leg.
“You must my love, we all have to do our work, even Tadg. We’ll come get you at 3.”

Somehow Tadg starting school gave her courage. She saw how big his building was, how many students were there. She was getting off easy! Her arms relaxed a little. I looked her in the eyes and promised her again three o’clock instead of four. A bit of that trust she gathered at the playground showed up and she let go, off into her new world. Its a small Montessori, but the woman who runs it, Bobbie, lost her mother when she was 5 years old too. She knows what its like to grow up with just a Dad. Truly spends her days surrounded by teachers who are all Mothers. She’s found the quiet, well mothered nest she needs for now.

I couldn’t wait to pick up Tadg. It was my first work day totally alone in weeks, and that did feel good. But what if Tadg hated school? What if he couldn’t relate to any of the kids? {Those of you who know Tadg know how insanely ridiculous this idea is. Tadg could make friends with ANYONE.} What if they were too strict or there was too much homework? His self esteem is in such a delicate place right now, I didn’t want anything to knock him off his center.

“I LOVE THIS SCHOOL!”

He could not stop talking about new friends, the classes and the teachers. He swam out the front door in a river of kids when I came to get him. Of course he belonged here! He fit right in! How great that his Dad moved the WHOLE family up to Oregon just so HE could go to school here!

Every cell in my body had a little party while I listened to him retell his day. The electives were great, days were short, homework was almost unheard of! His new friend Jack loved many of the same things he did. In fact Jack was going to teach him how to ski! I kept taking deep breaths and letting them out. Over and over again. Breathe.

That was it. Now we’ve arrived. Home.

Suddenly I’ve started to process things again. My God – we’ve moved to a new town! Did you know I have a new truck (actually I bought it months ago for the move but I must have been asleep when I did it.) Somehow, now that my last kid was settled, I could take it all in. “Will you look at this house? Its pretty nice. This is a great kitchen – and the washer and dryer are work horses!” The pendulum had swung the other way from croquet-mageddon. Apparently now we’ve landed in Nirvana and according to me I am the greatest hero that ever lived!

Its so strange what constitutes the pin that you put in the calendar for the day you finally arrived, finally started anew. It could have been anything – the arrival of the lawn mower, buying toilet paper, setting up croquet. It was Tadg connecting with his new school that did it. He’s always been the heart of this family. I shouldn’t be surprised.

The other great insight I’ve learned? Perhaps croquet is best left in the past.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.