The longest and the shortest year ever.
Sooooooo. (Insert deep breath here.) We are almost at the one year mark since Ellie died, and I've been thinking. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know what's coming next... a LONG post. It's sad that I have only written a couple of sentences and I can already tell that it's a doosey. I may even take a few days to get this one out of me. We shall see.
I think that number of preconceptions on my part have led me to assume that the one year anniversary is a magical deadline that marks the official end to grieving. Even as I type the words, I can hear the outcry through my computer of hundreds of voices yelling at me, in unison, "it is NOT!!" I do know in my heart that it's just not true. Still, for some reason, it feels like it's supposed to be that way. While in this day and age we don't adhere to the tradition of wearing black for a year, or any of the other "one year" mantras, we all know of them. We've all heard the stories and remember Scarlett O'Hara's dancing feet behind the skirted tablecloth as her rebellious heart pulled against the confines of a society that made her mourn in stoic blackness. I've also read websites of other grieving parents who have had tactless loved ones infer that they should be "over it" by now. I can go no further in my ponderings before stating, for the record, that not one of you has ever made us feel badly about our grief over Ellie. No one has even implied that we should feel anything other than deep sorrow for as long is it takes. And not one person has made me feel guilty for learning to sing and dance and laugh again before the calendar reaches December 19. You all have been the most amazing listeners ever. Which is why I feel so comfortable attempting to put words to the un-quantifiable.
Here goes. December 19th is nearly upon us, and I am looking forward to it with equal parts of anticipation and dread. The anticipation comes from feeling unlimited freedom to revel in all things "Ellie." I know it shouldn't be this way, but I feel like there needs to be a reason - a special day or anniversary - to give me the permission to just jump in with both feet and immerse myself in photos and videos and memories and sadness, as well as joy. I guess I just have this inner limiter on how much I "stick" on Ellie, and perhaps how much I think others can tolerate. I have this fear that I will wake up one day thirty years from now and realize that I have allowed the tragedy of my daughter's death to color every other event in my life. That I will eat, sleep, and breathe Ellie. That this one event will be the groove on the record of my life, into which the needle has worn. And so I'm wary. Which is why days like her birthday and death-day are sort of free days to me. Those are the days when I get to go Ellie-crazy. They are her days.
The dread part comes in when I realize that, oh my goodness, they are HER days! The full reality rushes in on me that I will never again, on this Earth, get to hold my little girl's hand or touch her face. That she should be the size and shape of all the other little ten year old girls that I see at church, but really she is forever frozen at nine. That crushing reality is something that I dread with every fiber of my being.
There you go. Equal parts of anticipation and dread. It makes me feel edgy and uncomfortable. I'd kind of like to know which way I feel - happy or sad. You know... pick a lane! It's just not that simple. Grief is messy and unpredictable.
And then there's John. He has found his lane. He is SAD. I have to admit, I kind of envy him that. I suppose it sounds a little strange, but when I look into John's eyes and see the pain that's always there, I wish that I could join him. I spend so much time doling my emotions out in little controlled bits, all the while fearing the great and terrible unleashing of that irreversible tide. I think if John had a motto, it would be "unleash it baby!" That amazing man grieves with all of the ferocious intensity of his loving nature, and I'm telling you, it's a tsunami.
This brings me to my next topic. Marriage and grief. Oh yeah, I'm going there. I have been working this out in my heart for weeks - what to share and how to share it. What has come to the forefront of my mind of late, is that you have been involved in our lives from the beginning of Ellie's battle with NB. And over the past year, you have been a witness to our grief. Part of that grief process is how it impacts our marriage. As you know, I tend to shy away from talking much about John on this blog. I do realize that it can be kind of one dimensional, and I don't do it because I just like talking about myself. I am very acutely aware of the privacy of another individual's feelings. I figure that the only person that I can speak for with any kind of authority and accuracy is myself. And so I tell my story. I just never know what to do with it when my story blends into John's, and since we're married our stories are seriously intertwined.
Before I go any further, I need to give you the framework from which I will describe our marriage. There is one and only one concept that you need to take in and believe before I go on: THERE IS NO VILLAIN IN OUR MARRIAGE. We are two uniquely flawed individuals who fell in love nearly 16 years ago. We have all kinds of weaknesses and habits which have impacted our marriage to varying degrees. But above it all, lies the realization that we are on the same team. For instance, in nearly 15 years worth of morning coffee, John has carefully rinsed the stirring spoon off and neatly laid it on the drainer - every time. And I have flung it into sink with all of the other dirty dishes that I will eventually deal with. Some days he has to ask for the millionth time, where the spoon went. Other days I shake my head when I have to remove the spoon from the dish drainer to wash it (because that's where clean dishes go, not rinsed off dirty ones). But do you know what really matters to us? The fact that we both love our morning coffee. Seriously, LOVE it. And just for fun, this week I've been rinsing the spoon and placing it neatly on the drainer. Because it makes him smile. (I'll probably return to flinging it in the sink next week because I really don't like adding two more steps to my coffee routine. I'm actually allergic to the word "routine" and the fact that I have anything resembling one, irks me.) What does this have to do with anything, you ask? Nothing. I just thought we needed something to cut the heaviness... and I just wanted to make the point that "different" doesn't necessarily mean "wrong." In fact, one of my favorite quotes says "If both of you were the same, then one of you would be unnecessary."
Once upon a time, a quiet, sensible (at least in her own mind), stubborn, laid back girl met an intense, loving, slightly O.C.D., thrill-seeking boy. Oh yeah - instant fireworks... in a good way. Surprisingly, given our vast differences, our marriage was pretty easy. Our most difficult thing is, and always has been, communication. I avoid confrontation like the plague and would rather have my teeth pulled than try to come up with how I'm feeling on demand. He believes in meeting the issue head-on and talking for as long as it takes to resolve the problem. On top of that, he has some sort of extrasensory perception because he can always tell that something's bothering me, often before I know it. (I mean, he can tell if someone else is in the room with me when he calls me on the phone. Who does that?) This generally leads to my having to come up with feelings on demand (shudder). It's not pretty. But other than the communication thing, our differences have complimented each other nicely. I have always been timid and fearful, while he is strong and capable. And my easy going stability has soothed his intense nature. I am reserved and he is demonstrative. You know the feeling you get when you feel like someone's watching you? Sometimes I would turn my head to the right only to find his eyes one inch from my face. Then he would smile and kiss my cheek. And this was in church.
Our marriage pretty much hummed along for years. It wasn't perfect, but it felt wonderful to us. When Ellie was diagnosed with NB, there were stressors that we had to deal with, but for the most part we pulled together even more and worked as a team. And then Ellie died. We began hearing how stressful the death of a child can be on a marriage, but we didn't feel as if ours was in danger. We had a solid foundation, and good history. Early on we felt united in our grief over losing Ellie. But over time, we started growing apart. Just this past week, things kind of came to a head and we have done some "re-connecting" for lack of a better word. It has prompted me to look back over this year a bit to sift through and try to see if I can make sense of things. What I've found is that our difficulties have come from a combination of just doing what comes naturally, (which has been exacerbated by an extremely emotional situation) and the fact that who we are as individuals has been changed because of the loss of Ellie.
It's funny how hindsight is 20/20. When I look back, it's easy to see things that I didn't pay attention to when they were happening. I think that the first thing that both John and I did was to simply have no expectations of each other. When we looked at one other, we had compassion on the fact that we had just lost our daughter, and silently gave each other permission to grieve in our own way. Doesn't that sound good? In theory, it is. I suppose it's the way that we should view each other. But in practice, we just drifted apart in our grief.
True to my reserved and non-communicative nature, I simply turned into my own head. I sorted out my thoughts and feelings quietly. There have been so many times when John has had to read the blog to figure out what is going on with me. (When I read it right there in black and white, it makes me want to cry.) John's nature, being opposite to mine in every way, led him to spend hours upon hours crying in his office over photos and music. And he had no problem articulating the pain he was drowning in. I desired to make life "normal" again. I strove to regain balance and harmony because I didn't want to feel the pain. John, on the other hand, felt as if his guts had been torn out and life would never ever be normal, let alone livable again. He would alternate between living in the depths of despair, and attempting to numb the pain.
Honestly, the way that we have handled our grief is no great surprise to me. It is exactly how I would have expected us to do it. But what has thrown us for a loop is how we have each changed over the course of Ellie's sickness and death. I don't think that a person can go through such things without coming through changed. I have faced great loss before, and lived through it. It is probably the one thing that has helped me regain my equilibrium since Ellie's death. I already knew that it was survivable. God has taken me deeper and deeper into His love through this whole experience, and I have come out on this side feeling stronger. It is a strength that comes only from knowing how weak I really am, and that it is God alone who does the work in and through me. There is this feeling of being indestructible, emotionally speaking. But what has happened in my marriage is that John has felt un-needed by me. I used to be so needy and fearful, and that side of me fit perfectly with John's strength. But now I am simply not afraid anymore. And honestly, I just don't miss the old me. I didn't like being that girl. I didn't like being afraid all the time. But with this new lack of fear, I am also less afraid of confrontation. I can take a little buffeting and push back. And this is a very new dynamic in our marriage. This is not to imply that John is aggressive. He is not. It's just that I am better able to speak up and communicate through issues now in a different way than ever before.
John has changed as well, but when I look at him, I realize that many of his changes are still in process. Bluntly put, he has been crushed. This is the type of crushing that simply does not heal overnight. It certainly doesn't heal in the magical one year time slot. It is messy and excruciating. And, I get it. I don't mean to mix metaphors here, but Melanie told me that it's a lot like what happens when someone is badly burned. They have to continually scrub off the layer of skin on top that's trying to heal over, because in order to heal properly, the burns need to heal from the inside out. I really think that this is what John is going through right now. Unfortunately, this constant pain and agony has made John feel very disconnected from our family. He feels so alone in the pain. His emotional skin is so fragile and easily hurt. God is ever so tenderly and gently loving him right now. I think that it can be easy for us as humans to decide what another person "should" be feeling or thinking, and how they "should" be finding comfort and strength in God. But we are all different. John's journey with God is different than mine. Not worse or better. Just different. God is always faithful, and because of this I know that he is carefully healing John's pain from the inside out. Very slowly and patiently. I desire to simply get out of the way and let it happen. And love them both.
I've given you just a glimpse of our lives over this past year. It is so much more complicated than this. But I hope that you have a small idea of what things have been like. Over the past couple of weeks, John and I have come closer together. We've been communicating better and turning towards each other instead of away. We are adjusting to a brand new relationship and the hope that things will not just go back to normal in our marriage, but actually be better.
When I began this entry yesterday, I really didn't know if I would ever post it. It felt good to write it all out and pin some of my thoughts down. When I finished today, John read it and we talked about it. We decided that it is good for you to hear how we have struggled. Maybe there are others who have experienced similar loss and are struggling in a similar way, and will know that they aren't alone. We don't really know. But we hope that God will use our lives, our pain, and even our struggle to help someone else. Or maybe it will help you to pray for us with some direction. I don't know. But we feel like we should put it out there... Thank you so much for loving us and praying us through this. Please don't stop. In many ways, as this first year is coming to a close, we are struggling and hurting even more than we did 10 or 11 months ago.
This has been one long year, and I can't believe it's over. So long, and yet so... not.