Girl School for Grownups

Like having a big sister, but better because I can't boss you around!

Barry

Barry died on Christmas day. He was 21.

I met Barry just once. He was tall and muscular and had a smile a mile wide. He gave off a feeling of rock solid goodness. He was a senior at UC Berkeley, studying business. He was fluent in Mandarin. He was going to make a difference in the world. He was already making a difference.

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Tucker and Barry, August 2014

In 1993, Wallace Stegner died. He was an amazing author who was still writing at 84. He died in a traffic accident. I remember feeling cheated when I found out about his death. There are millions of shitty people in the world, people who are doing nothing with their lives, and and many 80-somethings who are just waiting to die. Not Stegner. It seemed brutally unfair and empirically wrong that he was gone.

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Barry and Austin, October 2014

So now a bunch of college kids, at the height of their feeling of invincibility, are forced to deal with death and grief. They are learning the brutal truth that though it may feel like you have all the time in the world, the reality is that our time on earth is limited. Both my sons loved Barry. And my mom heart hurts to see them hurting. And when I consider Barry’s mom — the tears rise to the surface again.

Most things happen for a reason, but this? No way. I can’t go there.

My counselor Melinda lost her mom at age 17. Her mom was diagnosed with cancer and just a month later, she was gone. In my view of how the world should work, 17 year olds should never lose their mothers. Never. And yet the grief counseling Melinda received was what compelled her to become a therapist. And 4 decades later she was saving my life as I desperately tried to keep going while my father-in-law was dying and my dad’s Alzheimer’s was progressing and my mom was slipping further away into mental and physical illness.

So what do I know? Not much. But having lived through the deaths of 3 parents, here are some tips (that word sounds disrespectful in a way, but you know what I mean) on dealing with grief:

1. Take exquisite care of yourself. Grief is a motherfucker. It’s exhausting and at times all encompassing and can hit you out of nowhere, even on a good day. So eat good food. Rest when you need rest. When you can’t stop crying, put yourself in water and let the tears mix with the bath/shower/lake/ocean. Wear comfy clothes that feel like a hug. When your insides feel like shit, it’s important to make your outsides feel as good as you can make them feel.

2. Talk about the person who’s gone. This is most helpful when you can talk with people who knew them too. Somehow talking about them helps to ease the jaggedness inside, at least a little bit. One day just a few weeks after Troy died I had a wave of sadness overtake me as I was driving. I considered calling my mother-in-law and almost didn’t call because I didn’t want to make her sad. But I called. And I told her I missed him so much that it hurt. I could hear the relief in her voice as she said, “Oh, me too.” We were together in our sadness and that felt, if not good, at least less bad in that moment.

3. Make it mean something. Those who are gone can live on through us. My dad was friends with everyone he met. When I behave like that, it honors him. Mental illness stole much of my mom’s joy and I think a lot about how she never got to truly enjoy her adult kids (me and my brother). When I delight in the relationship with my kids I think of her and appreciate what I have even more. When you find something you learned from your friend and practice it in your own life, it keeps a part of them alive in this world.

4. It takes time. Lucky me — I have several close friends who are therapists. When I asked them what makes grief easier, they all answered “time.” Fuuuuuuuck. I want something to DO, something to make the hurt go away RIGHT NOW. As I write, it’s almost 2 years since Troy died, a year and a half since my mom died, 11 months since my dad passed, and just 5 days since Barry’s death. And I can say with certainty that although the pain is still there, it’s not as sharp and I don’t feel it as frequently. My promise to Barry’s friends is that this will happen for you too.

A local 19-year-old died this year from smoking Spice, an incense that’s marketed as a legal, natural alternative to weed. His story made national news as his parents fight to remove Spice from smoke shops in the hope that this will never happen to another kid. His dad got a tattoo with his son’s birth and death dates and the words “forever changed.” I recognize the truth of this. Barry’s friends are forever changed. Never the same. Much of the beauty in the world — the music, the poetry, the art — is birthed from brokenness. (Even as I type those words, they taste bitter. Barry should be alive.)

So what about God? People can say “it’s God’s will” or “God has a plan.” I hate people who say stuff like that. I believe the words I spoke at my mom’s funeral: God knows and God cares, beyond what we can comprehend.

The world was better when Barry was in it.

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What parents want for Christmas

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We live in a world of excess, and I’ve been just as guilty of it as anyone. In fact, as I consider shopping for my grownup kids I’m torn between my head and my heart. My head says that staying within a budget is good and the commercialism of holidays is ridiculous (has anyone else seen the adverts that suggest a car — A CAR — as the ideal gift?). My heart? My heart wants the delight I remember from when my kids were small.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I felt compelled to give “thing” gifts to my parents. Because I was in a stage of accumulation and building and it was hard to think outside of my own paradigm. Also I wanted to give back to the people who had given me so much.

Now that I’m on the other side of things I see that when my parents said “oh, don’t get us anything” they meant it. And I feel that way too. But just as I would have been uncomfortable with giving nothing to my parents, my kids are likely to have some of the same thoughts. So here are some gift ideas that would work for me, and might work for your parents too.

  • The gift of time. Nothing is better for me than time with my kids. Perhaps you can get a menu from a restaurant and wrap that, the gift being a lunch date. Or does anyone remember coupon books you would make for your parents when you were little? A coupon for a walk together would be delightful.
  • An addition to a collection. I collect flying pigs and kitchen utensils. If your parent collects something, find one of those if you can.
  • A little luxury they’re unlikely to get for themselves. Think hand lotion — something made locally that you use. Think really nice socks. The quality counts here, not the quantity.
  • A food they love. If your dad loves spicy, find unusual hot sauces. If your mom loves chocolate, well you know what to do!

When it comes right down to it, it’s simple. The best gift is one that says “I see you.”

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CIM Six Years Ago

In 2008, I decided to run a half dozen half marathons. I liked the symmetry of the goal. A half is a great distance. In early fall, Tim asked me, “With all the training you’re doing, why aren’t you doing a marathon?” I said, “I’m too old for that!” (I was 47.) He said, “That’s crazy,” and that’s how I ended up running the California International Marathon, 2008.

This weekend I’ll be following my crazy fast nephew who is aiming for a 2:40 finish. (Yes, he’s both crazy and fast.) In my own life I’m trying to get back to running after years of hip pain. If you’ve run for years, and then you can’t run for years, it takes a lot of humility to get going again. Thoughts of “this hill used to be easy” or “I used to be able to talk and run” or “I remember when 7 miles was my basic distance” are ones that I choose not to entertain. Meditation helps with this and the simple mantra “put one foot in front of the other and repeat.”

In the spirit of this weekend’s marathon, and to remind me of who I used to be, here’s my write up of marathon day from six years ago. I hope you like it.

California International Marathon, 2008

Got up. Did my normal computer thing. Got dressed and Tim drove me to the starting line (thanks again, Tim, for getting up so early the day after your oh-so-tough mountain bike ride).

5:50 am and nervously ready to head to the starting line.

Tim told me in the car, “You know how you’ve been wanting to run all week? Well today you get to run as many miles as you want to!” I kept that thought with me, and it helped me to remember that I really did want to be doing what I was doing.

So I got to the start with no problem. It seemed well organized and it was exciting being around so many runners. It was cold — I think 37 degrees or so. Sadly, I dropped a glove about 20 minutes before the race while texting. I looked for it and couldn’t find it, so I decided that maybe running with one glove would be a good thing, right? Right??? Then I found it a minute before the start and that was an even better thing. The Target sweatshirt was great, and I hung it nicely on a fence right before the race began.

I started with the 4:05 pace group, but after 5 miles, I felt good enough to go ahead and at some point before mile 10 I caught the 4:00 group. Note to anyone considering CIM: pace groups are the bomb!

The first 10 miles were easy as it was so exciting and I knew that my family would be at mile 10. When I got to that point, I didn’t see them and I thought I’d missed them. I was sad, but trying to convince myself that it was ok, and then THERE THEY WERE! Tucker gave me a huge hug, Tim and Austin cheered, and I dropped my jacket with Tim and gratefully accepted the banana and ibuprofen I’d asked him to have.

Although I had my iPod with me (security blanket of sorts), I never took it out. There was a man from Canada (I called him Canada, he called me Sacramento) running nearby and we chatted off and on for about 5 miles.

Around mile 12 and feeling good!

I saw Austin again at mile 12 — surprised and really happy. It’s true that family and friends can really pull you forward. The anticipation was good for a couple of miles, and the glow of “they’re here for me!” lasted for at least another mile.

Tim and the kids were planning to be at mile 20, so I had that to look forward to. Tucker managed to help hand out GU packs to the runners — that’s a very Tucker-like thing indeed. And unbeknownst to me, Tim’s parents were there too, but I never saw them. Wow — my MIL made veg stuffing at Thanksgiving, and then they were out in the 40 degree weather for over an hour? I have the BEST in-laws!

I’d read about running with your head to start, your legs next, and your heart at the end, and decided to run first 10 miles with my head, then the next 13 (not 10) with my legs, so after mile 20 when it started hurting, I kept telling myself, “I only need my legs to do 3 more miles, and then I’ll run with my heart.” It helped.

And guess what else helped? At mile 22 — SURPRISE! My bestest girlfriends, Laudon and Donna were there to run with me!!! I had no idea they’d be there, and it was perfect timing, as by that point, every step felt icky. I nearly cried when I saw them, and they talked and encouraged me for the next 3-1/2 miles — probably the toughest ones on the course.

Donna, me, and Laudon around mile 24?

Right before mile 26 I gave it everything I had. And when I could see the finish line and saw that I could come in under 4 hours on the clock, I pushed. Hard.

The finish line is in sight.

The clock said 3:59:54 when I went across, and after getting my space blanket and my medal, I dissolved into tears. And then there were my family and friends and hugs all around!

Tucker, me, Tim, and Austin — I feel so lucky!

My bestest girlfriends, Laudon (me) and Donna!

I AM A REAL MARATHON RUNNER!!!

I didn’t know my official time at the finish, as we had to leave pretty quickly after the finish. But the results have been posted and here they are:

LESLIE GANDY 2009 F45-49 93 F 761 47 03:59:54 00:09:09 02:00:20 03:58:05 ROCKLIN CA

What does it all mean? My chip time, aka official time, is 3:58:05 and that means I qualified for Boston! I am stunned, amazed, and oh so thankful to everyone who was here today, who sent emails of encouragement, and to everyone who took the time to write words of support via comments.

And look what I came home to, courtesy of Tucker. I may never clean my mirror again!

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Codependency hurts

For a very long time I hated the word “codependent.” To me it sounded like therapy speak and ranked right up there with other words I don’t like such as “inner child” and “issues.” The words made it seem like you weren’t taking responsibility for yourself somehow. But in the last year or so I’ve been working on my codependency issues (I can’t believe I typed those words!), and I’m finding a lot of emotional freedom as a result.

So what is codependency? Here’s an excellent essay from Mental Health America (MHA) that discusses it. According to this essay, codependency develops in families where any of the following are present:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
  • The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Ding ding ding! Growing up with a mother who was bipolar and had OCD definitely came with some issues. Again, from MHA:

Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t confront. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited.

Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.

I’m not sure what else to say, because it’s all fairly new to me. But I can say this: I’m finding a level of freedom and happiness that feels fantastic. And this: if you need more information about codependency and what to do about it, send me an email at gandy.leslie@gmail.com. I can point you in the direction of resources that are working for me.

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