Relationships- IV

I wanted to spend a post talking about being a parent, but I realized I don’t know how to do that. We delivered our first six months ago to the day. People say things to us like “Well, you’ll understand when you’re a parent,” or “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you have kids.” Some days I only want to scream “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you’ve buried your children!” I had a lot of ideas of how I wanted to raise the kids, and what life would be like. Now I mostly just hope that I get the chance to raise them, or at least hear them cry once before they’re gone forever. So, like I said, I don’t know how to be a parent yet. But I know what happens when that parent-child relationship ends early, and I’m starting to get a handle on how to get on with life. There are still bad days–a lot of them–but the last half-year has shown improvements.

The first thing I had to learn was to stop asking “why,” both in the mechanical and metaphysical senses. The gross physical examination didn’t show anything specifically wrong, any biological cause for the death, and I’m probably not getting any answers from the Big Man about where Jamie Shannon’s death fits into The Plan. It was hard to stop asking, because that meant accepting the death and moving on. Some days I still catch myself mulling and puzzling, but the simple fact is that nothing went wrong.

I’m also learning how to deal with criticism again, especially from people who default to being critical. Criticism was hard for two reasons, which were really two sides of the same coin. The first is that when our child’s life could go so wrong for no reason, how much worse are things when people can point out that things are wrong? Second, we’d already been through one of the worst experiences possible, so minor issues paled in comparison. Slightly-less-formal-but-still-correct-comma-usage, words-that-only-encapsulate-90%-of-the-idea, lifestyles-that-are-slightly-harmful? Dead baby, don’t care, shut up. Of course neither of those interpretations are correct, they’re excuses at best, but it’s hard to cut people slack when you can’t find any footing in life.

The crutches will come back out in full force. The excuses in the last paragraph were the kind of crutch I mean, but I’m really talking about the big stuff here. I’ve struggled with sarcasm, procrastination, extreme introversion, skipping church, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol at some point in my life, and booze and smoking are the only ones that I really ever licked. Guess what came out to play? All of them. I shut myself in, doing nothing, lashing out, bringing out the pipe, drinking half the time, and dosing on coffee the other half. My circadian rhythm was interrupted, progress on my thesis stopped, I fell behind on grading, lesson plans were executed half-assed, coughs and headaches filled the day, and I snapped at everyone. The worst part is that you just have to break those habits again before anything can get better. I tried waiting it out, to see improvement. I would have been fired first, and fallen even deeper. I’m still overusing coffee, and I’ve made my peace with that for now, but the rest are mostly gone. Get back into your healthy routine as quickly as possible.

Everyone wants to help, pretty much nobody knows how, which means you need to figure out some stock responses. I defaulted to “nothing.” People were great about offering food, friendship, comfort, and other things that we genuinely needed, but I’ve never gotten the hang of asking for or accepting help. I felt bad about it, like I was denying people the ability to be useful. Some people just helped anyway (Kristen, Angela, Keith, Heidi, Family), while others waited for a signal from us (Joseph, Hillary, Crystal, Eric). I appreciate all of it, even when I didn’t accept. I was stuck on the big picture issues that there was no help for, things like work. So find the small things people can do, and ask for help. It’ll save a lot of time.

Don’t rush it. I’m still trying to heal, six months later and with another one on the way. Do what you can, but don’t worry about what you can’t do. As long as you’re trying, and happy for any progress, chances are that things will be okay. But that means not giving up. There were days that I imagined driving down the road and just…failing to turn. I would have sailed over the edge of a few hundred foot cliff, and I don’t think our Hyundai is rated for that kind of driving. I could have kept up the heavy alcohol or nicotine. I could have given all my students an A- for the semester. There were a hundred ways that I could have given up. I didn’t. Emily didn’t give up on hers, either, and she’d just lost grandma a couple of weeks before. I think that’s really how things improve in general: a lot of small improvements or stagnant days and a big change every once in a while.

That’s it for relationships. There’s a lot more that I could write about: mom, teachers, thesis committee, friends, extended family. They all have an effect, but I don’t know how I would write about them. Thanks to all of you I didn’t mention in great detail, too. Everyone I’ve ever met has made me a better person, even if it’s by showing me who I don’t want to be.

I hope this series has done some good for readers, either in helpful advice or at least comfort. Good luck out there.

Relationships I

I started thinking about this set because two events happened to intersect in my life. The first was that I didn’t have wi-fi set up on my kindle at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, so I couldn’t download my loans from the library for a little while. To pass the time until I found the network password, I read the first chapter of Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” In the opening of the book, he talks about his conception of God the Father, and how it related to his memories of his own absent father. The language and imagery sparked my imagination.

The second event is that we just ended a week long trip to watch the house and dog for the Aunt and Uncle, and then visit my family in the Ozarks. This will be the first time I’ve seen my parents in almost a year, but I started a project in March to record some of dad’s stories for posterity. With the visit being so close, I wanted to mimic Miller’s idea and write about my own family.

My dad was a phone man for the first eighteen years of my life, first for AT&T, then in business for himself. As a kid, I remember thinking that whatever he did must have been very hard work. He was deeply tanned from years of working on telephone poles, and I was convinced all that sun must have burned most of his hair off. He carried a massive tool belt, and it seemed like all the things he carried around his waist had been made from missing material elsewhere on his outfit: the elbows of his striped, button-up shirts were always threadbare, his jeans never had both knees for long, and the steel that reinforced his boots’ toes always gleamed through. It never seemed like his clothes were shabby or in need of repair, but like he preferred them that way. His day-to-day attitude made him who he was in more than just clothes. As a kid, Dad’s adopted father had chickens, and the swagger of those bantam roosters rubbed off. As a scout leader he was always assured, whether we were splicing rope or stuck behind a trailer that jackknifed on an icy road. Even when he was in rehab from his stroke, he would strut around in his bright stocking cap, crowing and checking up on all the hens in the ward.

They say smells are the strongest sensory trigger for memory, and I think there’s some truth to that. The combination of coffee, sweat, and cigarette smoke leaking into my room meant Dad was home for the day, and it was usually followed by the smell of light beer when I wandered into the living room. If I could stand the flavor, I would probably keep Natural Light in the fridge for the memories it inspires.

He started the business when I was young, and the weird hours of phone technicians combined with the long hours a new business needs meant I don’t remember him being around too terribly much. When he was around, he was exhausted a lot of the time from ten hour days. There wasn’t much time for horseplay, but he made it count when he could. I remember playing with a little cocktail sword for hours one night, and he played “dead” for what felt like half an hour after I “stabbed” him. Once I was in the Boy Scouts, he found ways to get away from the business more often. He was at meetings most weeks, camp outs every month, and at least one summer camp every year.

That was when I really got to know Dad, not as a man who had to work long hours and came home frustrated that the house wasn’t clean enough, but as a man who was under too much stress while still trying his best. In late night talks around the campfire or on anchor watch, he told me about how he thought the world worked, and how our family fit into it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have a best friends kind of relationship, but I don’t think we need that. We’re father and son, and that seems to work pretty well for us.

Next time: how family relationships affect conceptions of God.