I feel a little bashful writing about Kaila again. When I wrote about our last day in the sunshine, I thought it was just my own small remembrance in my little corner of the internet. I think of this space as a place where I’m talking to myself, current and future, and about 30 or 40 others who know me well. What I didn’t realize is that by putting in a link to one of her memorials, my post was being shared on that post. (The workings of the interwebz are still a mystery to me).
Within a couple of days, I had a few hundred hits coming from the memorial post. I felt a little embarrassed, exposed. I didn’t want it to seem, especially to her family, that somehow I thought her death was about me and my pain. But as a few people reached out to me because of that post, I realized that other people were aching to read about her, talk about her, hear anything related to her in the same way I was. My post meant something to them; feeling exposed is okay in pursuit of the greater good of connection and catharsis. Also, the fact that the most action my blog has seen in several years was because of her made me proud to have had a friend that was so beloved.
When you have a history of serious depression and are faced with a tragic event, your husband is pretty much willing to do anything you want and your mother is biting her fingernails waiting to see if this will push you over the edge. Your irrepressibly joyful 4-year-old, on the other hand, will wake you up each morning with, “Are you still sad about Kaila? Can you play with me today?” I’m not immune to that tugging at the heartstrings, but the answer for a couple weeks was, No, not today.
It may be strange, or even pretentious, to say that I am deeply affected by death, but it’s hard to articulate it any other way. (I am highly sensitive, after all.) I remember feeling the same way around the death of each important person in my life: life must stop completely. Anything less would be a betrayal of all they meant to me. So I kind of closed up shop for a couple of weeks. I worked some, but took days off, came late, left early. I let some things slide in my online classroom, thinking I would just have to settle for sub-par reviews this semester (though as it turns out my students and supervisor have been amazingly supportive). One night I even hid in a vacant classroom at church during an activity I was supposed to be responsible for; I just couldn’t face real life responsibilities.
Four things filled those suddenly cleared-out days: thinking, crying, reading Daring Greatly, and watching Psych. During those first couple of days, I was convinced that I should stop fostering such deep relationships. I have put a lot of effort into cultivating close family and friend relationships and sometime in the middle of the night on September 25th, I decided that that was a terrible way to live. I should stop that immediately! Because the pain. Oh dear God, I could never live through this pain again! Of course, I instinctively reached out to several friends, probably strengthening those relationships — very counterproductive when you’ve decided that the safest thing is to cut all ties with other humans.
I don’t believe it was coincidental that I was reading Daring Greatly for my online book club at precisely this time. Though not a perfect book, it was the perfect read to remind me to lean into the vulnerability inherent to human relationships. Even if I successfully cut ties with ALL THE PEOPLE, I would still think about them, probably frequently and beyond all reason. (I know this because for years Neal has been telling me I need to just forget about an old friend. He’s very subtle: “She doesn’t want anything to do with you! She’s cut off all contact with you!” Still, every November I think anew about sending her a birthday card.) The book also helped me recognize and face head on some shame I was experiencing related to “survivor guilt.”
We had only barely started watching episodes of Psych (I never caught it in its original run), but it will always have a special place in my heart now (although it might have earned that just from Dule Hill’s tap dancing alone). I would wake up, open up a browser to log into work, and promptly start crying, at which time Neal would call it a Psych day and turn on episode after episode. It was strangely effective in increasing my productivity. I’m still trying to understand how my brain works — Neal has some theories — but I think it is almost always in at least two places at once. If one of those places was Kaila’s death, I was darn near paralyzed. But if one of those places was Shawn and Gus, I could manage to accomplish some of my work tasks.
Life went on like this, doing the bare minimum for survival and job maintenance, until two things happened: a beautiful dream and Kaila’s funeral. It wasn’t what you might call traditionally “beautiful;” there was all the strange randomness inherent to dreams: several layers of leotards that Kaila wanted me to try on (she gave me many clothes over the years, so that’s not as weird as it sounds), a microscope and spare set of glasses that she begged me to store for her in my sock drawer until she got back. As in real life, there was SO MUCH laughing as I tried to determine why exactly I needed to store her microscope in my dresser. I woke up from this dream, slowly, very slowly. It was cold and dark and 5:00 am, but I felt warm. Like I’d just been for a visit to North Carolina. Like I was soaking in the sun at Duke Gardens. I could hear her unrestrained laugh all over again.
I knew that I had to attend the funeral but when the day came, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have a great respect for the power of that public farewells, but this was the hardest one I’ve ever attended, at least in part because it was preceded by a 3-hour drive to get there. I know plenty came even farther, but man, it’s just awful to drive that far for an event you wish in the worst way was not even happening. As I walked in the door of the church building where her service was held, we were greeted by a poster-sized picture of her, a truly stunning picture I had never seen before. In what felt like a very violent reaction, I turned around and buried my head in Neal’s shoulder. It took me a few minutes to reemerge and greet her family. The funeral was more or less a series of these sudden sobs and leaning on Neal, but it was incredibly important. I think I left at least some of the pain there. The next day I graded 45 papers with no Psych-crutch to get me through.
I’ve often thought what would happen to all my online accounts, social media, chat programs if I died. Should I make a list of all these applications along with my passwords so that in the event of my untimely death Neal can delete each one? (Please tell me I’m not the only one that ponders this at least quarterly . . . ) That’s been one of the distinct things about losing Kaila in comparison to all the elderly people I’ve said goodbye to: she’s always there. In my phonebook and “most recent texts” list. On gchat, Google+, and Facebook. When I log into Skype, and on this mysterious “People” page that my laptop created on its own apparently based on who I seem to have the most contact with. Her pictures and contact info still show up everywhere. My first instinct was to delete her from all my various contact points. I took her out of my phone, but felt a pang of guilt as if I was trying to erase her. I decided to leave things as they were, but have questioned that decision after a couple of times seeing her in my contacts list while at work and experiencing sudden waves of nausea. That instinct to cut all ties with people was wrong, and I think it’s just as wrong to bury all the things that remind me of Kaila even though that feels entirely logical at times. But how selective should I be in what things I keep around? How much control should I try to exert over how often I’m reminded of her? I hung the program from her service on our hallway tackboard, which in a 964-square foot house is one of the most frequented spots, and so far it is doing a beautiful job of reminding me of all the love, light, and happiness that was part of my relationship with Kaila.
I can’t only give Brene Brown credit for helping me through the turtle-hiding-in-its-shell phase. In my music-as-therapy efforts, I put on R.E.M.’s Reveal on the drive home from a client visit. I got to “I’ll Take the Rain” just as I pulled into our driveway and predictably broke down in tears. I seem to come back to this song periodically for its reminder: rain and shine, a package deal.
I used to think
As birds take wing
They sing through life so why can’t we?
You cling to this
You claim the best
If this is what you’re offering
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain.
I never did finish anything I wrote about my Grandpa or his death in 2011. I regret that now, both because he was a remarkable person that is so dear to me, and because I feel compelled to study my own grief to know how to get through what lies ahead (I think of this post as the real beginning of that study). The morning of Kaila’s funeral I found out my Grandma was quite ill; she was diagnosed with terminal cancer 6 days later. This cycle of grief is just beginning.