This semester was easily the hardest of my life. Did you catch the irony? My strength was tested in ways that I had never expected. In part, I grew up. I no longer feel like the 26-year-old girl with no life experience, the girl who flittered about unaffected and unaffecting. I learned a little about letting go of expectations. I learned a little about grief and loss. I learned what it meant to accept imperfection, the hardest lesson of all for my approval-seeking self.
It wasn't like anything tremendously unusual or different happened in my life; it's just that I became different. I didn't transform overnight, and it isn't even noticeable on some days. But overall, I feel differently. Part of this may be attributable to Wayne's death, part of it to Family of Origin; part of it due to a difficult class experience, part of it because of changing relationships. I can't even pinpoint the ways in which I feel different. I still have my sense of humor, I still care what others think of me, I still give everything my all, and I hopefully always will. But my approach is different.
I think it all started, honestly, while I was walking the Breast Cancer 3 Day. An amazing experience, for sure. However, extremely dampened by the voicemail Laurelle left on my phone that Friday night in August. We walked all day, arriving in Anoka at 5:00 a.m. and walking until 3:00 pm, ending in Maplewood. We kept referring to the Twin Cities miracle - how it had rained for four days straight but the skies opened up that morning to a warm and breezy day, not too hot, not too humid. We walked and walked. I got to know Jen, a friend from college, better than ever before, and met some amazing women. It was a day of girl power. By mile 18, we were hurting, but we just kept walking. I was proud when I got to camp and received "camp mail" from my friends and family. Taking a shower in the truck, just like three years before, felt wonderful and healing and strengthening and everything good in life. By the time dinner was over, my muscles were tight with stress and my cold had reemerged. But nothing that a hot cup of tea couldn't fix. Laurelle called and I distinctly remember screening her call because a survivor was sharing her story with the whole camp. Jen and I walked back to our tent, so thankful for our air mattress we had packed. I checked my voicemail. Laurelle had left a message, saying she was certain I had heard about Wayne, but just in case, she wanted to make sure I knew. I was in complete shock.
8:58 and cell phones weren't allowed after 9 p.m. It kept running through my head that this wasn't happening to me. But of course it was, things like this always happen to me. My mind was so selfish that night. Well, selfish in some ways but not in others. I called Laurelle, no answer. I was dying to know details, to make sure it was true and not some silly prank - to make sure she hadn't meant that he was just ill and in the hospital or something. I spoke with Kristin and my mother. My mother was in the same shock as me when she heard. I knew she worried about me, and Kristin was helpful, but laying there in that tent, next to a new friend who didn't really know me, not in the way that I needed to be known, was painful. And it wasn't her fault by any means...time just hadn't allowed us that relationship. I tried to explain what an advisor is to a graduate student, but found the words to be lacking. I was so frustrated, like always, by trying to explain the world that is graduate school. And after all, Wayne wasn't just my advisor. I was incoherent. I put my face mask over my eyes and silent, hot tears trickled down my face as I tried to push the thoughts out of my mind. I worried about his family, his mother, his son, his ex-wife. I worried about me...where would I go? Would I graduate? Did I care anymore? What did this mean? I probably fell asleep two hours later. For one of the first times in my whole life, I don't remember dreaming...
I woke up that morning, to the sound of honeybucket doors slamming in the dark and the shivers of my body on that early August morning. My body protected my mind, kept me in shock so I wouldn't have to handle the emotional distress. Walking the 3 Day, while healing and empowering, is emotionally turbulent enough, without adding the complications of my first human loss as an adult. My mind was so confused. How could I feel so alive and emotionally present at the 3 Day, but feel this sadness creeping around the corners of my mind? Until those moments, as I tried to explain who Wayne was to me to complete strangers (though I gave up when I learned that would be impossible), I had never understood that grief is ever present but feels almost...temporary? I still cannot find the word. I found it almost too easy to push it out of my mind...but I was just pushing away the rawness...not the entire situation. It was so odd. So awkward to not be at comfort with my own self. To be angry at myself for not being broken down and needing to go home, to not be able to perfectly describe what this meant to me. Looking back, I know now that I was merely processing his death. That it still hadn't become real to me; it was a fact that I could say but it meant nothing on my tongue. My voice seemed unfamiliar. I felt unattached from my own self. I see myself in those memories and want to reach through and hold me close.
The two days passed, slowly, so slowly. I cried. I didn't cry. I didn't know if I cried. The third day, the physical pain and exhaustion of the 60 miles (and the lovely sunburn of my cursed fair skin) overwhelmed me to the point that grief was buried temporarily. My mind kept repeating to myself that I would finish and I could crumble when I saw my mother. Oh, how young I feel, and how lucky I am, to still yearn for my mother when life is unbearable. It feels so human and real. And I made it. I remember crossing that finish line when I walked three years ago, it was so rewarding. This time it felt empty and non-momentous. As if I were just meeting my family on any day of the week. Everyone was looking at us, and I felt as if I should be having some reaction about finishing the walk, but I just didn't care. I wasn't there. My parents and Steve were cheering with a stuffed flower in their arms, smiling and waving. I could see the worry in their faces, their wondering of exactly when it would happen, when I would fall apart. How I love my family, that they knew me well enough to know that their sensitive little Libby would fall apart at some point in their presence.
We were separated for the ceremony. A man proposed to his girlfriend after walking all that way with her. It was so romantic and my head felt happy for them but inside I felt numb. So tired and emotionally spent that I just couldn't process anything happy or unhappy. The speaker presented and something was just missing. I think it was starting to sink in. I became almost angry and cheated that the speaker couldn't be more moving! That she couldn't break me. Years before I had been crying like a baby, unable to deny my feelings. But that day, that hour, I felt nothing but heat and discomfort and a want to be anywhere but there.
Like years before, my family made plans to celebrate afterwards. Usually with a cheeseburger. We met at a restaurant downtown. One look at the menu and I lost it. Sitting there, my mother knew what was happening. My sister was worried, insisting we could leave at any second, making sure I didn't feel like an inconvenience. My poor dad didn't even know what to do with me - I actually think he thought I was upset about the 3 Day for a minute. And in part, he was right. I was upset about everything. It wasn't just Wayne. I simply couldn't stop crying. I felt like I had been run over and every piece of joy had flown out of me. I was so tired and I just couldn't do anything...breathing felt insanely difficult. My body felt as if it were being pushed from both sides, as if I were sandwiched between invisible stones. And for the first time in my life, I let my family take care of me. I let them pay the bill and get the car and make arrangements to go home. I told them I just couldn't do it. My mom relieved the pressure from my chest by telling me that she knew he was the first person I had lost as an adult. It felt nice to be known by them, to be understood. In that way, letting my family soothe me, but still feeling so individual, a piece of me grew older.
As I pulled in the driveway and got out of the car, my neighbor was at the mailbox. I grew up in her household, in her backyard, playing night games with her kids. She saw me and I told her why I was upset, thinking she might understand as a past graduate student. But as she is a breast cancer survivor, I wanted to say to her, I walked for you. But I could say nothing. I simply cried more and more. I was partly angry that Wayne took away that celebratory moment, partly just didn't care. Somehow, I showered, and the warm water tasted salty from my tears. I had never been so tired but so afraid to sleep, to feel even more alone, in my life.
As the next days passed, I did some things that were difficult for me. I spoke at his wake, because I knew I needed to, because I knew Wayne would have wanted me to, because I was a 26 year old young woman who had a responsibility. I shared our stories although I was so afraid they would defragment and disappear into the air as I spoke, worried that I would betray them by saying them out loud. I let myself be angry and I let myself be sad. My birthday passed, the marking of my first anniversary of this next quarter century, and I half-heartedly celebrated. Or tried to. But I was scared. If the next year would be like that week, I wanted none of it. My graduate school experience was forever and ever changed. But days, weeks, followed. I was fine some days, not-so-fine on others. Some days, I kept my loss to myself - others, I did the best I could to communicate what I was feeling. There were some who understood more than I could ever expect and some who missed the boat more than I ever thought possible. And still other days, I didn't do very well. Mid-semester, I overheard a fellow graduate student teasing out loud about her advisor, as I used to do about Wayne. I not-so-subtly warned her not to say anything she might regret. After all, you never know what might happen. She looked at me weirdly, and deservedly so. I felt terrible, not to mention embarrassed, as soon as I said it. Where had it come from? Ahhh, grief. The pink elephant enters the room again. I wanted to say, but you have no idea what happened to me, what happened to all of us for losing him! What it is like to not open up your thesis for two months because it is just too painful to see the work you developed together. But I simply apologized good-naturedly and smiled. That was the last of my noticeably awkward moments, at least until next time.
People say that time heals all wounds, that to everything there is a season. In some ways, I suppose it is true. Life goes on, and it does not wait for us to catch up. Things become bearable again. We start to feel again. I started taking the same things for granted that I always did, making the same mistakes, working on one thing at a time. But then another loss occurs, and that same wound opens up, so raw and torn that one wonders if it will ever completely heal. In that way, time heals nothing. Once we feel that loss, that acute pain, it never really goes away. It is part of us, like a scar that fades over time but burns in the sun and makes itself seen again. And I suppose that is the nature of life. We would never, after all, really want to forget. And that is what I am learning. That everything becomes part of us. Every situation, every person. It all just combines to become "us". In that way, I am permanently different.
I think, for me, my changes this year come from feeling more mature. Not in the sense of more responsible or more appropriate, but in the sense of feeling older, weathered, seasoned. Like I have a right to be here, now, because I understand some element of pain. That now the feelings of protection and empathy I feel for my friends and family are justified in some way. I felt that before, once, with a shattered heart, but eventually it came to pass. But I feel this change is permanent. Like because I have lost, I have lived in some new way. Morbid, yes. Honest, moreso. Wayne's death was not only the loss of Wayne for me. It was the loss of a mentor, someone besides my family members who had complete faith in me and my direction. Now, in his absence, I have learned that must come from myself. I suppose I always knew that. But Wayne's death forced me to do something about it. And it was a loss of something that had nothing to do with Wayne. It isn't so great as a loss of youth or naivete, but it is some element of that. Of now knowing that life is fragile and tenuous but that we can do something about it - that we don't have to ignore how we impact each other. My family of origin class emphasized this for me...the combination of that clsas and Wayne's death forced me to confront how everything and everyone in my life is a part of me, but that I also get to choose what I carry with me. I'm still learning exactly what that means, but for now, I know I am different. That the me I am creating is an amalgam of my family - my loving and amazing parents, my loyal and caring sister, my comforting and silly pets; my friends - the lover, the supporter, the cheerleader, the teacher, the comforter, the joker; and my past - the memories I choose to keep in my heart and protect, the stories that I allow to define me as I continue my journey through this next quarter century.