A happy (and weird) holiday

I just got home for the holidays, and I’m so happy to be back, but I was also prepared for this to be a pretty crappy Christmas. Or at least a weird one. My dad started dating an old friend from college in the summer, but she lived in a different province so I had only met her like once for five minutes. Two weeks after I left for university, she moved in.

Here’s the thing: I always meant to be happy for my dad when he started dating again. I knew it was what my mom wanted, because she told me. I also knew that my dad was lonely. I seriously thought I was going to be a grown up about it.

The problem is that you can’t control how you feel. In spite of the fact that I knew it was a good thing for my dad, I was mad.  I was mad because she moved in right after I left. I was mad because I barely knew her. I was mad because she wasn’t my mom.

Of course I would never let my dad know how I feel. Not only would it make him upset if he knew, but it’s also completely irrational. I decided that I would just be an adult and be nice to his girlfriend over Christmas holidays in spite of how upset I was.

And okay, so far it has been a little weird. Like it’s weird that there’s pictures of her kids sitting next to the ones of Paul and I. It’s weird that when I can’t find stuff in the pantry she knows where it is. It’s weird that my cats curl up next to her on the couch. But what I’ve realized is that her being here is also so good. The first sign was this morning, when I was listening to my dad work. He works from home and spends a lot of time on conference calls, which can often be really frustrating. I got used to hearing him yelling and seeing him throw up his hands in despair. 

He hasn’t been like since I’ve gotten back. I hear him calmly reasoning with people and that’s about it. That’s just one thing though; there are others. The house is cleaner, and full of more healthy foods than my dad would normally buy. And he has so much to say. He and his girlfriend have all these stories to tell about places they’ve visited and stuff they’ve done. They’re both musicians, so they’re in the church choir together and write music. 

He’s happy, I realized. Really really happy for the first time since my mom died. I forgot what he used to be like; for so long him being sad was the norm. Knowing that she makes him happy makes it really hard to be mad.

It’s still going to be a little weird, but I think it’s going to be a good Christmas, possibly the best in years. It’s been a long time since there’s been real joy in our house at this time of year. I’m ready to enjoy it, I think.

Strong

I was a major crier growing up. I would cry when I was sad, yes, but I would also cry when I was angry, or frustrated, or tired, or hungry. And I’m not talking about when I was five or six, I mean even when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember crying in a soccer game because a girl on the other team kept marking me so that I couldn’t get the ball. I remember crying in math class because I couldn’t figure out why I got a question wrong. I even recall crying when my brother ate the last of the ice cream.

I guess I’m wondering what changed. After all, I don’t cry over any of those things anymore. Except for the scene where Arya arrived at the Red Wedding in season three of Game of Thrones, I haven’t cried about anything in a very long time. I don’t exactly know what that means. I mean, I guess that’s what growing up is supposed to be about, right? You’re supposed to move past those childish habits and learn to deal with your problems more constructively. I guess I’m just wondering where that part of me went. I mean, the whining, crying Kay was not my best part, but it was part of me nonetheless. When you outgrow a piece of yourself, does it fall away into oblivion, or does it just get buried deeper within you so that no one can see it anymore?

I don’t know which possibility scares me more.

Well no, it’s not the crying exactly that I’m scared of losing. It’s the part of me that went with that crying. The girl who liked hanging upside-down on the monkey bars and writing fairytale stories. The girl who really only cried because she was so determined to be nothing less than perfect because she still believed that was possible. I was so hopeful; I was such an idealist. I really believed that if I just pushed myself more and tried harder I could be perfect at everything. My parents told me that I could do anything in life that I set my mind to, and I believed them.

I guess mostly I’m scared that I lost that girl too early. That I lost her when my mom came to my seventh grade awards ceremony with a scarf covering her shaved head, and no one said anything but they all gave us pitying looks. I’m scared that I lost it when I got my learner’s license when I was fourteen and one of the first things I did was drive my mom to chemo. By my sixteenth birthday I had pushed her wheelchair and cleaned up her puke dozens of times and I was an old pro and switching her from the home oxygen machine to bottled oxygen when we left the house. I’d be an idiot to think that that didn’t change things. That it didn’t change me.

For the last two years, my dad has tried to be everything for me. He cooks good food and takes care of the house and comes to my soccer games and helps me fill out scholarship applications. He’s tried so hard to make this all okay even though it just isn’t. And I? I got into university, I guess. I kept playing soccer. I wrote a little bit. But I’m so aware that I’m not the monkey bar girl anymore and I never will be again. I lost her at some point, and with her went that wide eyed idealism that used to define me. I used to think that I could do anything, but now I know how limited we really are. I understand that there are forces in the world that cannot be controlled, and that sometimes the story doesn’t end happily. Sometimes the evil isn’t vanquished, and justice isn’t served. And sometimes the good people die.

All anyone told me after my mom died was that I was so strong. It was written in all of the cards, and it was the sentiment that was constantly murmured in my ear when people were hugging me and didn’t know what to say. So maybe I am strong and maybe that’s why I don’t cry anymore. It’s just that I don’t really think of that strength as something I gained, I think of it as a symptom of something else that I’ve lost. I feel too young to have lost my idealism and my hope and the belief that I really can do anything I set my mind to. I just feel like the world has worn me down so much already and I don’t really know what I have left to give.

On growing up

I like to joke about how at 18 I don’t feel qualified to be an adult. However, the truth is that it’s been a long time since I’ve really felt like a kid. Probably at least since before I started high school.

I mean, I know that I’m lucky. I’ve never been poor or starving, and I spent most of my childhood with two parents who loved me. And at least I got to have a childhood. Most of the kids I met in Kenya learned to cook and do laundry and take care of their younger siblings at maybe four or five years old.

That’s why I’ve never let myself complain about my mom’s death, or use it as an excuse. It could be so much worse. I’m constantly reminding myself of that.

My mom always ran a tight ship. She was the one who enforced rules and made my brother and I clean up after ourselves and be on time for dinner and take responsibility for household chores. That feels so distant now. It’s been years since then.

Now that it’s just me and my dad, it’s different. Some days it’s easy. I like being independent and I like that at my house I don’t have a curfew and I can come and go as I please. I like that I eat when I want and go to bed when I want and when I need something I buy it myself and my dad just pays me back. I’m good at doing things on my own.

But every now and then, maybe every month or two, it hits me that there’s no going back. Gone are the days when I had someone to remind me to wipe off the counter or get ready for soccer practice. My dad loves me to pieces, but he’s never been good at that stuff. Now there are crumbs left on the counter and I remember to go to practice on my own.

In the past few years I’ve learned what it means to be an adult: it means freedom and independence, but it’s also tiring and lonely. Some days I wake up and think, I don’t want to do this anymore. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days before I drove my mom to chemo appointments and pushed her wheelchair and made her soup and cleaned the floor when she puked it back up. Back when she baked muffins for my school lunch and nagged me to practice piano. If only I could go back there.

These are dangerous thoughts to have; they’re the kind that could break me if I’m not careful.

Church: all the cool kids are doing it

I feel like I can talk to my school friends about anything and it’s awesome. However, there are two exceptions. The first is my mom’s death, because people who have never known someone who died get freaked out about the whole idea of like, dying and stuff. Plus, I think that the fact that I’m so cavalier about the whole thing even though it was only two years ago freaks people out even more.

The other thing that my friends get weird about is when I talk about church. I always forget that as a regular church-goer I’m a minority in my generation. For me, it’s always been a part of my life, so it rarely occurs to me that there are people who have never even walked into a church. I think a lot of people are scared of the whole idea.

I blame the religious crazies for all the church stigma. I don’t just mean terrorists and rapey priests either. I mean those regular people who feel the need to go up to random strangers and be all like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Everyone knows those people. That form of relies craziness bugs me so much because it doesn’t attract people to the church, it scares them away from it. I’m all in favour of evangelism, but you don’t get people to accept God into their lives by being all confrontational.

I want people to know that church isn’t like that. Or at the very least, my church isn’t. It’s not about being judged or knowing all the answers or memorizing the bible. A church congregation is supposed to be like a family; you’re supposed to make friends and build relationships and share your faith and ask questions and struggle together and triumph together.

Anytime it comes up, I love to tell people about my church. It’s a small place with maybe 300 members, which is cool because everyone knows each other. The service is an hour long, but we are usually there for two or three every Sunday because before and after we talk with everyone about their lives and our lives and whatever else comes up. Everyone genuinely cares about each other, no matter their age or background or income or culture or even language. There’s this one Japanese woman who speaks barely any English, but she’s been in the choir for years now and apparently she’s really enjoying it and everyone in the choir loves her.

I have all kinds of different friends at church. There’s a lovely lady in her fifties who is a bit of a shopoholic and is always giving me her hand-me-downs because we have the same shoe size. There’s a 13-year-old girl who I go out for lunch with sometimes and assure her that life gets better after junior high. Then there’s a hilarious couple in their twenties who sit in the pew in front of me, and a whole parade of old ladies who loved my mother and want to hear all about my life, and the assistant pastor who is always down for deep philosophical chats. On of my favourite people in the world is my friend’s grandmother, who always mutters sarcastic comments and plays with my hair in the pew behind me.

I know I don’t mention it a lot, but my relationship with God is really important to me and I know that He has a plan for me. He’s always been there for me, especially through the tough stuff like my mom’s death. I see Him working through the people in my church all the time. When my mom was sick, they were constantly bringing casseroles and checking in on us and offering to drive me places or cut our grass or serve us dinner. For most of grade ten my dad was too busy taking my mom to treatments to drive me into the city for school, so a different member of my church would drive me every day. Even now, so many people remember the anniversary of her death and check in on my dad and I to see how we’re doing all the time.

So maybe you feel like God is there, and maybe you just can’t see him in your life. No matter where you’re at, I hope you’ll give church a chance. It’s not just about showing up and reading a bible. Church is a safe place to land, it’s a support system when times are tough, and it can become family if you find the right place. For me, God is love, and I see that love every week in the faces that smile at me on Sunday morning.

The Hospice

I think that they tried to make this place feel as welcoming as your own home, but mostly it feels empty. And a little too alien.  The doorways are just a little bit wider than normal (wheelchair width) and the bathrooms all have funny railings and weird shaped instruments for which I don’t even want to consider the uses. 

This isn’t what bothers me though.  The nurses is are friendly, but not too prying.  There’s fresh baking that visitors to which visitors are encouraged to help themselves.  There’s books and a prayer room and jewlery making and a poetry board.  It should be a nice place to stay.

I guess it feels wrong because a house of death shouldn’t be friendly and comfortable.  It should be…I don’t know. I’m scattered right now. I’d like to write something deep and philosophical about my mother dying, but mostly I’m just so lost.

Crying has given way to silence.  Grief to emptiness. Sadness to resignation. This isn’t how I imagined it. Crippling pain? Yes. Red-hot anger? Sure.  But not this emptiness.

What am I supposed to feel? Anything would be better than this blackhole in my gut.