Thursday, March 7, 2013

Comparing Losses

I'm feeling introspective today; please indulge me.

Once upon a time, I was a psychology major in college. I was young and full of hope in those days and I hadn't yet realized that a bachelor's degree in psychology isn't worth anything; that more advanced degrees are required for any sort of enviable job in the field of mental health. Anyway, during one of my courses the instructor discussed stress. For fun (she had an odd sense of humor) she had each of us take a stress inventory. It was a list of life events - both good and bad - that are stressful and each event had an assigned point value. If you had, in the past twelve months, been through a life event on the inventory, you gave yourself the appropriate number of points, and you added up your score at the end and the total was, presumably, supposed to give you a good idea of how stressed you were. 

Personally I felt that if you needed a psychological inventory to determine whether you were stressed, you probably weren't. But I mention this because a few years ago I think I broke the stress inventory. In the space of twelve months I experienced the death of a parent, an unplanned pregnancy, the dissolution of a romantic relationship, the birth of a child, and the placing of that child for adoption.

I've been asked by more than one person whether it was harder to place Roo than it was to lose my dad. Without context the question seems a bit insensitive but I'm not bothered by it. I can see where people might wonder, as these two events occurred exactly a year apart, and both caused a grief, and both have shaped me, and both have left me to live my life without someone I love dearly.

But I can't say with any certainty that one was harder than the other, because they were such different experiences. I'm not even going to say they're apples and oranges, because apples and oranges are both fruits. Let's call them apples and roast beef. At the time, each experience was the hardest thing I've ever gone through. The difference is which I struggle with, several years out.

I once thought that placement was harder. My dad's death was a single event, with a very clearly defined end point. He was dying, and then he died – a medical fact. The rest of us were left to arrange things, because my father was gone. I remember being amazed at how quickly he was gone. One second my father was in the room and the next he wasn't, even though his body hadn't moved. My father's heart stopped beating and he was gone, his body a foreign object.The room had changed, just like that.

Plenty happened for those of us left behind, but it was the end of the line for my dad and for our lives with him. It was an end.

Placement, on the other hand, was a beginning. It was the start of a whole life of not being Roo's mother, a life of things that I'd miss and wonder about and mourn. Every day she'd grown a bit more, changed a tiny bit. For nine weeks plus nine months I was an expert on all things Roo. I knew her better than anyone. Placement marked the end of my being the Roo Jeopardy champion. I knew less and less about her. P and M took my place as Roo experts.

At first each day without her felt like an injustice and I almost longed for the relative simplicity of mourning a death. It seemed so much easier to handle, its trajectory so much neater. I had decades of memories to cling to in mourning my father. I had sympathy. In this sense, and at this time, placement absolutely was harder.

I find now that I have changed my mind completely. I prefer not to have to compare the two experiences but if I must I'd say that my dad's death was the hardest and continues to be the hardest and probably always will bring out the lost little child in me.

I am not Roo's mother, but she's still alive and happy and healthy and growing, and I get to see her and know her and love her. I have read books to her and been to dance recitals and I woke up on Christmas morning to a phone call from her. Roo makes me happy. Thinking of her brings joy. She is, as a friend of mine remarked, an affront to frowns. Roo is still here, and I still get to see her and be a part of her life. Placement was so hard, but it got better. I got better. I still have the occasional bad day but by and large the hurt is gone.

It is a million times harder to miss my dad, because he is gone not just from me but from this earth. I can't phone him when I get stuck on my taxes, or ask him to fix something on my car, or tell him that I love him, and I can't get a hug from him – the kind of hug only a dad can give, the kind that makes you feel completely safe and loved and okay, even if just for a moment. I miss those hugs. 
I can't write about him without crying. I miss him terribly. I kept thinking it would get easier, but it hasn't and I don't know that it ever will. I don't know if I'll ever get over the utter injustice of my father's absence. 

When you don't see someone for a while, you develop a mental backlog of things to talk to them about. My brother, for instance, lives in Utah now, and I find myself making mental lists of things to tell him and show him and ask him about the next time I see him. When he was in town for Christmas I didn't shut up for a few hours because I had so much to say.

When the person you want to talk to is dead, that backlog never eases up. The unasked questions, the unspoken conversations keep piling up until they become overwhelming, an entity, sentient. I've lost count of how many times I have thought or said, “I wish I could ask/tell Dad ...” More than once I've caught myself saying, "Dad will love this!" And then I remember: would have, not will. He has been in the past tense for 4 ½ years.

If I want to know something about Roo, I ask her parents, or Roo herself when I see her. That option is pretty much always available to me. But my dad's thoughts and opinions and memories left this earth years ago and I can't get them back - any of them. Every now and then I'll realize I've lost something more of him – the exact color of his eyes, his laugh, which of his front teeth was chipped – and I mourn him all over again. I dread the day when I lose the bigger things. What will I do when I've forgotten the sound of his voice or the feel of his arms wrapped around me in a hug? The less of him I remember clearly, the more gone he seems. 

I chose adoption, and so much good has come from it. Lives have changed for the better. There is so much joy! I can see so clearly how it fit into God's plan for the happiness of a few of His children. There was and is a purpose to placing Roo for adoption, and it is beautiful, and it is good. I can see that. All of that makes the sporadic bad day much easier to bear. 

I'm still waiting for that kind of reassurance in the loss of my father. I'm still waiting to see how it's been good for me or my mother or anyone else on earth. If I was supposed to have learned something by watching my father die, I'm sorry to say that I missed it.There's very little to cling to on days when I miss my dad. There never will be. It's okay that I'm not Roo's mother. But it's never really going to be okay that my father is dead.

I think this is the difference between the losses we choose and the losses that are chosen for us. We spend our lives learning to make choices and accept the consequences of them. We learn to be okay with our choices, good and bad. We learn from then, we're shaped by them, we let them make us better. I can see the good in the loss that I chose in part because I know why I chose it. 

I can't see the good in being deprived of my father. I never would have chosen this loss. It is monstrously unfair, and more than four years later I still struggle with accepting the consequences of his death. Part of me thinks if I always will.


Rachel said...

I just said to my husband today, as I was sobbing in my bed, "After ten years, you'd think I wouldn't miss my mom so much anymore." She passed away from breast cancer. I will NEVER stop missing her. I think about her every day.

You are an awesome writer and an awesome advocate for adoption. THANK YOU for sharing your voice and experiences.

The Blessed Barrenness said...

You continue to awe and inspire me your writing and the way you so openly share the beauty and the pain of Roo's placement.
Thank you!