On the Many Ways People Leave our Lives

On co-facilitators

Today I arrived at work to hear the deeply saddening news that my dear colleague an, friend had passed away. This was so unexpected that it took nearly two hours for me to understand. For all of us it was a shock and the job of picking up and carrying on with the carrying on was an ordeal. Especially given our line of work. As the staff at a community resource drop-in center for people with HIV/AIDS loss is not new to us or the people who come in form meals, classes and other services. So not only do we have to carry on for ourselves but we must carry on for those we are here to support. So we carried on with our day and were there as much as we could be for our community members. Near the end of the day I was quietly collating and sorting papers into folders and supplies into bags for the first day of our 13 week mind-body course. The last time I did this task I did it with my co-worker who was also my co-facilitator in the program. An already tedious task became entirely not fun. I sat and recalled how my friend and co-facilitator would make up games to pass the time and crack jokes to make the task go more quickly. He was a joy to work with and as the news settles the more I realize that he was a joy to co-facilitate with as well. And now I am sitting with the loss of a friend and a co-facilitator and I’m finding that I never quite appreciated the weight and importance of a co-facilitator relationship. We didn’t just co-facilitate every now and again. We were a pair. He was my co-facilitator and I was his. That defined us and as I sit here now I can look back and see how what a special bond can be created between two people who are working as co-facilitators in an ongoing way. We grew into the program and curriculum together, teaching each other and helping each other to learn. He made me feel so skilled and competent through his feedback and support and also through the way we grew to complement each other in our different approaches. We became a near perfect balance and our flow was uninterrupted and natural.

Tomorrow class starts and I’m with another co-worker, who is also dear to me, but who is not my co-facilitator. It is interesting…the many ways people leave our lives.

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My May Day 2012

My dad up at the house in Annisquam some years ago.

Early the other morning as I was monotonously chugging away at my morning work out on an elliptical machine at the gym I took note of how inflamed and painful my body felt. I slowed my pace and made a decision. I would spend this May Day on the sea shore, which is exactly what I did on this dark and stormy May Day.

Lately I have taken to popping a couple of Tylenol PM’s before bed to dull the pain in my neck and shoulders; pain that is exacerbated by nights of fitful, restless sleep, which in turn are brought on by vivid and upsetting dreams. Nearly always it is the same dream, one that I have had for nearly four years. In it I am always running, always crying and always frantic. I’m in a place that looks somewhat like mix between the Spokane city central bus station and this odd part of downtown Spokane that doesn’t exist anymore since they built a mall. I am running to meet my dad, late and incredibly frustrated. I am meeting him in an ice cream shop of sorts to apologize for burying him alive. In my dream he never speaks, he sits quietly not looking at me directly as I try to choke out between sobs that I am so sorry for what happened to him, for not believing he was still alive. There are other jumbled scenes that come and go on any given night. A scene with a doctor explaining the he will die soon anyway. In another scene set in my dad’s house where I am completely upset about trying to get my dad to sit down and rest. In this scene I can see his heart through his chest, as if it’s open to the world. I am desperate to get him close so I can cover it up. There is another scene in a park near the house I grew up in where my brother is with me and says he has seen our dad. We frantically look for him but no matter what, whenever we spot him we can’t run fast enough to reach him.

Throughout every incarnation of this dream my dad never looks at me or speaks. At times in my fear and hysteria I scream at him to talk to me. To hear that I am sorry and that we should talk about it. But he is always looking, calmly at some spot on the floor or a wall, always sipping a small cup of coffee. This image is familiar; a pose I frequently saw my father take while living – at a table in a coffee shop, on the couch or at the dinning room table. The dream is terrifying in its ability to make me feel both frustrated and hopeful. In the dream my dad is alive, though unreachable. When I wake he is neither alive nor reachable.

This dream exhausts me. I sit with it throughout my days and think about it before bed. I never know if I’ll dream it or some new version on any given night.

After leaving the gym and getting to work I was chatting over the computer with a good friend. I said I needed him to tell me it was ok to bow out of political observances of May Day in favor of heading north to Annisquam and to my Aunts house on the shore. My thinking was that sea air, a warm fire; some napping, quiet and thoughtful reflection would help to clear my head. I wanted some space devoid of the everyday to think about my father. The month of May marks not just his birthday but the anniversary of his passing.

My friend, being a good friend, said of course it was alright for me to do what I needed to do. He then imparted upon me some useful wisdom. As a Unitarian minister he knows a lot about many different faiths. He told me that in Jewish traditions there are times set for grieving, and that grieving for parents is the longest. Generally speaking we’re not taught to grieve parents. Instead we are supposed to believe it is okay for them to pass on, that it is inevitable. But in the Jewish traditions, it is understood that with parents there is complex and important grieving to do. So I should take all the time and ways I need to grieve for my dad.

This got me thinking about how little I talk about my grief to myself or anyone else. Parents do grow old, sometimes they do get sick and then they pass away. In between there is a sort of passing of the torch as the kids become grown up and take on the role of care giver to the parent. This is all natural and normal. Even in sudden instances. Parents just die before kids, this is a normal progression of the life span…except, it is completely not normal to have a parent suddenly be gone from your life.

I have written before about my regrets surrounding my dads passing. How I regret not having come home sooner to be there with my family in his last few months. I think these feelings are tied up in my dream and the dream is a part of these feelings struggling to come out and be heard and acknowledged. I am all for processing emotions. I may not be the best at it for myself, but I full in support of processing. But this dream has got to stop. I am putting time limits on it and what ever processing I have to do to move beyond it, well I’m game. I need a new dream, where I hear my dad’s voice and whatever barrier keeps us from seeing each other is gone. I imagine it’s a process that means I need to be more honest with myself and everyone else that four years into this I am very much still grieving for my dad.

New Issue of The Worst: A Zine Compilation on Grief and Loss is Out!

Don’t worry I won’t count this towards my 10 posts in 10 days. But I just wanted to make sure folks know that the latest issue of the Zine the Worst about grief and loss in radical communities is out and ready for you to get a copy to read. Its a truly beautiful zine full of compelling and thoughtful essays. I can’t tell you how much this zine has helped me! This issue also includes an essay by me!

Check it out and get a copy today!

Two Years Ago Today

Some two years ago yesterday a dreadful movie version of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian opened. In Adherence with tradition I traipsed down to the theater for opening night. Meeting up with pals for a light dinner of sushi, I complained endlessly about how itchy I had been. I was itchy all over all the time. Over sushi and Sake we all developed a dozen or so itch explanations, each more outlandish than the next. The evening would have been a right success if it hadn’t been for the deplorable nature of the film. Yes, the acting was minimal, yes the editing was scattered and the script nearly non-existent but it was the barely there story line that presented itself in the first few minutes of the film that really ruined the experience.That and the overt and somewhat overbearing Christianity.

This is, of course, a shame. The book Prince Caspian is not a badly written book. In fact, it has a well structured story, which is both interesting and compelling. The characters are each engaging and well developed. After all C.S. Lewis was no unskilled at writing. He was a christian and very deliberately worked the story of Jesus and the bible into his writing. But in the realm of fantasy fiction this is not unusual.  The messiah, the savior, the sacrifice – are all  themes, which various ways find their way into works of fantasy and science fiction. Not to mention that the Bible and the story of Jesus have always been alluring to fiction writers as an example of these themes and worthy of at the minimum influencing story development and at most worthy of being retold in new contexts and on new worlds.

C.S. Lewis was a friend and colleague of J.R.R Tolkien. The two were part of a writers group, the Inklings. The friends often wrote letters to one another and differed greatly in their thoughts of how to work religion and Christianity in particular, into their writing. C.S. Lewis took a much more direct route. But Tolkien too, had elements of Christian theology in his writing.

I am not offended by C.S. Lewis for incorporating Christianity into his books. I enjoyed them well enough when I was younger and would recommended them to other young people to read. The ideas aren’t inherently offensive to me, perhaps outdated and too conservative. But the ideas of faithfulness to cause, loyalty and kinship are not deplorable, just easily used to also convey to the reader that Christ deserves your undying devotion.

But the film. The film. It was so over the top proselytizing that it made me feel pity for the long dead C.S. Lewis. A gifted writer, he used his talent to eloquently write his Christian faith into his work in a manner that while sometimes obnoxious, was at least well done. This film version just packed together a cheap Sunday sermon with bad acting and over-the-top special effects.

My friends were all in agreement upon leaving the theater. The film was a dud.

My bike ride home was uneventful. My mind was preoccupied with the lengthy list of things I had to do the following day. I was in the midst of planing a move to Boston and a summer of traveling. I was scheduled to leave DC in just a couple of days for a direct action training camp in Montana, followed by some time with my mom in Washington state, a train trip to California to spend a good two months with my dad and then a bike ride to St. Paul for the Republican National Convention where I was going to be helping with legal support for the protesters. My little basement room was mostly packed and ready to be moved into storage for the summer before being moved to my new home in Boston. The flurry of activity required of me to accomplish my many tasks had taken a great deal too much energy.

I went to bed among the boxes with the thought that my friend would very well make good on her threat to wake me up at 7:30 in the morning for breakfast with another friend from out-of-town. So when my phone rang in the wee hours of the morning I rolled over and didn’t get up. I knew it would be her too chipper for that early hour voice willing me to go to breakfast. Eventually I did get up though and listened to a voice mail message. It was not, in fact my friend, but my step mom. She sounded upset and told me to call home right away. My father had been quite sick for some time. This was the reason I was going to spend the summer with him in California. My heart sank. He must have been put back in the hospital.

The story from here on is not new to most. My father was not being readmitted to the hospital  but had in fact passed away in his sleep.

My dear friends surrounded me with such love and support on that day. They guided me through the steps of getting my things in order enough to leave on a plane that afternoon. They sat with me as I talked to my family. They held my hand as I told my brother that our dad had passed away. In those tendered moments I so cherished having friends to lean on.

Today it is two years since that horrible day. Sometime I wish I could go back and do it all again. This sounds awful but from my position it would mean being able to live in the moment of such raw emotion that seems neither misplaced or confusing. Two years out from that day I find the emotions to muddled in time to clearly feel and I can hardly say that I live in the moment.

Two years is some substantial amount of time. But when compared to the 27 some years that my dad was a part of my life and I a part of his, two years is a blink. I have perhaps processed a teaspoons worth of the grief I feel. I keep myself from crying because I imagine that if I started what good reason would I have to stop? There isn’t a starting point really and there is no real end point that can be reached through a clear and easily navigable process. Some large part of me feels like I would have to entirely give myself over completely to the effort or not at all. I’ve, for the most part, chosen the not at all option.

The analogy that I have used so many times is to compare my living to being in a vast and unknown wilderness. I entered on the day my father passed away and have yet to emerge, let alone find a path. It seems to me that I may be to wounded to make much progress. I must spend a great deal of time tending to myself in order to simply maintain my course through this wilderness. A path would nice, but there is also something to be said for having to wonder a bit. Getting scraped up, having to double back and sometimes slog through unpleasant things is not horrible. It’s just terribly hard sometimes.

Two years and I would have thought I’d be more capable of understanding what it is I have to due to mend myself a bit more. But maybe its just something that time heals and sometimes like with other things it gets worse for a bit before it gets better.

I do know that the omnipresent feeling I have of missing my dad will not abate soon. And perhaps if I live a little more in the present – in and among my thoughts and feelings – I will be able to settle more comfortably into knowing that I can’t simply call him up but rather must take time from my day to sit with him in memory.

Working on a Ship that I may never sail

Ship Gonna Sail

I stumbled upon this while cleaning out some folders on my computer. Early last summer I wrote this essay for the second issue of a zine on grief in radical communities called the Worst. The zine maker hasn’t been able to finish the next issue it seems, so here it is.

For more then a decade, I rehearsed getting that phone call from back home telling me my father had passed away.  I was still in high school when my dad was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. The doctors gave dire predictions of an early death in the next 5-10 years. Well, my dad surpassed all expectations and thrived for over a decade with only half a working heart.

My dad was a radical….a radical singer, artist, historian, story teller…so many things. He was U. Utah Phillips. He was also (more often to me) Bruce Phillips the comedian, French fry lover, prankster, gardener, and fierce little league fan. His lessons, many of which I and others learned from watching him on stage, and his grace, kindness, songs and stories are blessedly enduring because he kept on working after his diagnosis.
Onward!