|Dinner out in May 2012|
2002: Mike and Danna Engaged
2003: Mike and Danna Wed
2004: Mike and Danna welcome Baxter
2005: Mike and Danna move to suburbs. Mike is diagnosed with brain tumor
2006: Mike Dies
2007: Danna meets PJ
2008: Danna and PJ Engaged
2009: Danna and PJ Wed
2010: Danna and PJ Welcome Edie. PJ adopts Baxter
Well, Holy shit. No wonder I'm tired... and unsettled. 2011 was the first year in about a decade that... I didn't get engaged. I didn't get married. I didn't give birth. I didn't move. And my husband didn't die.
So, my life has become "normal." Sort of.
Wednesday morning, I was sitting in my office at the University of Delaware, meeting with my bright, friendly undergraduate summer research assistant. She is completing a literature review for me about the psychological - and neuropsychological differences between liberals and conservatives. Much of the latest research involves fMRI studies of people's brains, and requires an understanding of brain regions and structures.
As I brought images of the human brain onto my computer screen and explained to my student how the amygdala governs fear and threat responses, the prefrontal cortext governs higher-order and executive level functioning and the fornix is where information from working memory (incoming messages) is filed away in the appropriate network in longterm memory, I felt it: the familiar feeling of post traumatic stress responses associated with Mike's time in the hospital. The racing heart, the sweaty palms, the shortness of breath, the difficulty concentrating. All because of the painful familiarity of images of brain scans and recalling those regions of the brain that, once impaired, slowly took Mike away from us.
I stopped for a second, and decided it best to tell my student what was going on in my head and heart (so she wouldn't think I was just a crazy person). I generally find a way to disclose my story to students during the semester. Usually a sentence or two explaining that Baxter's biological dad is my late husband who passed away from a brain tumor when Bax was a baby. Often in the context of lectures about cognitive psychology or persuasion. And since my research assistant has been my student for two years in two different courses, I was certain that she must already be familiar with my story.
"I'm sorry if I start to get upset. Dealing with these brain scans just brings me back to when my late husband battled his brain tumor."
Wide eyed blank stare. Her face suggested this was all new to her. Well... this is awkard.
"You knew that, right? That Baxter's biological dad, my husband Mike, died in 2006 when Bax was a baby."
... "Ummm.... No. I had no idea."
I proceeded to give the 5 minute account, trying desperately to use it as a teaching moment, rather than just an awkward overly-disclosive moment, explaining how the lack of functioning of the fornix meant that Mike had no link between the present and the past. No ability to anchor anything in long term memory. Only the ability to process one thing in working memory at a time. Once that concept node or schema was replaced... poof. Gone.
My RA and I continued to explore other regions of the brain relevant to our research, and I stumbled upon the notion that memories that include particularly emotional responses are anchored in a distinct region of the brain, something that I learned several years back, that I still hold onto dearly. I remember hearing a story on NPR about how alzheimer's patients who are shown sad or funny movies have been found to retain the emotional impact of the movie, but not the episodic memory actually watching the film. So, if you show someone a sad movie, a few hours later they'll feel sad, but won't know why - and they won't recall having seen the film. But more importantly, for my purposes, the same is true about happy or funny or romantic films - or experiences.
Rediscovering this literature struck that chord in me again, I reminded myself that even if Mike didn't know where he was, when it was, what had happened those months, those weeks, that day, that morning, or five minutes ago - he was always surrounded by people he loved and he felt that love. Dozens of friends - different friends each day. They fed him. They read to him. (Kevin read to him every evening after work). They joked with him. They playfully mocked him. He would nod, respond, smile. Sometimes he would joke in painfully witty ways given his lack of understanding of his present situation.
And me... I came to Jefferson every morning after leaving Baxter at daycare. I brought fresh fruit and yogurt. I brought Dr. Pepper (when he was allowed to have it). I snuggled with him in the hospital beds. Even the one he was zipped into like a big netted cage at Magee so he wouldn't escape. I stroked his arm to calm him when he was tied down in the bed. I tried not to be afraid of his scary scar on his head as I touched his face and hair. I washed him. His hair, His face. I shaved him. I cut his nails. I helped him stand up. I got him dressed. I brought him clothes from home. I brought Baxter on weekends. I played his favorite music with speakers and a subwoofer in every hospital room he inhabited. I hung up pictures. And on weekdays, I left at 4:45 to go pick Baxter up from daycare and go home, knowing that someone would be there to keep him company at dinner. And knowing that I would do it all again the next day.
For 16 weeks. From March 17 until July 18 when he died.
If emotional memories are anchored by some other means than the fornix (which in Mike's brain was inoperative because of that Stupid Fucking Tumor - S.F.T.) then Mike may not have "known" what was going on.... but he felt it, right? He felt the love and warmth around him. He must have.
My poor research assistant. And she thought she was doing some boring project about the neuropsychology of political ideology.
I find it interesting that my RA has been a student of mine in two different courses over two years and yet, I hadn't shared my story. Maybe that says that the salience of my identity as "widow" must be retreating. Now perhaps I am "mother" first, or "wife of PJ" or "media effects researcher" or even "improv comedian" - all things my students do know about me.
...and now I feel guilty.
You see, there are a few drawbacks to my beautiful, healthy, nuclear family, and my busy but largely routinized life.
1) The guilt. The guilt that I am not grieving enough. Then the guilt when I do grieve. The guilt of loving two men, even though the one who is alive and well assures me that it would be weird if I felt any differently. The guilt of loving Edie so much I could (and almost do) eat her cherubic little face up... and knowing that I wouldn't have her if Mike had not died. The guilt of marveling at Baxter's Mike-isms and simultaneously missing his dad's subtle eyebrow lilt or the slow glance when I'd say something stupid or naive - and wondering if it's messed up that sometimes being with Baxter makes me feel like Mike is right here.
Baxter put the feeling into words himself - the struggle of wanting two mutually exclusive realities:
We were reading the first Harry Potter book in which Harry finds the mirror of Erised (the mirror that reveals what your deepest desires are). Harry looked in the mirror and saw himself standing with his deceased parents and other family members. His mom waved and cried. His dad comforted her while smiling back at Harry. Professor Dumbledore explained to Harry that he ought not get entranced by the mirror. That it's not reality. It only shows you what you long for, not what's real. Then Dumbledore explained: When the happiest man in the world looks in the mirror, he only sees his own reflection.
So, about a half hour after finishing the chapter, Bax came back down from his bed to talk. "Mom? You know what I would see if I looked in the mirror of Erised?"
I smiled, anticipating what was coming.
"I would see me, you, dad, Edie... and Daddy Mike. All together."
"Maybe I would too, Boo." I replied. He turned to head back to bed then paused, raising a finger as if having second thoughts.
"Or maybe... maybe I would just see my own reflection. Because maybe I'm the happiest man in the world."
It seems my son and I are both torn.
2) I find it difficult to give myself permission to experience my grief. After all - life is good now. What is there to be sad about. But when the pain is here, it's here. And when I feel my love for and missing of Mike it's always the same. It aches the same.
As Sasha told me in referencing her grief for her mother's death: it won't get easier, you'll just get used to it.
3) The tedious, frustrating and stressful aspects of my professional and home lives once again seem real and consequential. It is as though I now have the luxury of "sweating the small stuff."
|Bubby (Edie's pet name for her brother) and Edie eating corn.|
I lose sleep over whether or not I'm a good enough mom and simultaneously feel guilty for not spending more time on a manuscript I'm trying to get out the door. I'm always rushing to get the baby or get Baxter and wonder if they would be better off if I stopped working so I could attend every school event, game, lesson, and party. I'm always juggling 13 different academic projects at the same time and wondering if I would be a better scholar if I worked on research after the kids went to bed each night - instead of finally taking a moment to relax between Baxter's 8:30 bedtime until my 10 pm bedtime.
Where did that self-compassion go? Do I only deserve it when my husband dies? Or can I find a reason to give myself a break and be kind to myself just because I am me?
As Sarah Palin once famously said to Katie Couric, "I'll have to get back to ya on that one."
About a month ago, we reached a milestone with Baxter. Not a good one or a bad one, but a necessary one. And, like most things, it happened almost by accident.
|Summer 2005 Photo Booth in NH|
But, I realized there was one part of the video Bax always asked to watch again. It was at the end of an improvised scene with Jen Childs for the film "This is a Breakup" in which Mike played Jen's therapist. After they say "cut" in the film, the camera continues rolling for a few seconds. Mike smiles, laughs, and tucks his hair behind his ear.
It felt to me as though Baxter wanted to witness an organic moment of his dad. Not a "Mike in character" moment, but "Mike as Mike." So, I thought, I don't have a video that's in the right format for him to watch right now, but I have the beautiful photo montage that my friend Afton made for Mike's memorial comedy show. And in that montage, half way through, Afton edited in an audio file that my sister had saved on her answering machine. It is Mike's message to her left the night that Baxter was born.
So, I explained to Bax and Jamie that if they wanted, we could watch the photo montage to get to the voicemail message, but that I would keep the audio muted until the voicemail because the song made me sad (Willie Nelson's stardust, which Mike sang to Bax before bed at night). The were chomping at the bit.
We watch the photos. Many of them I hadn't seen since the memorial service. Then, we get to the part with the voicemail. I unmute the computer. Jamie and Baxter sit up and listen. There's Mike. With us. Bax's eyes get big. Then the message ends, the montage continues to music (which I quickly mute again).