Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where Grief Leads

Grief leads a lot of places, and you don’t want to go to most of them. I’ve written blog posts about how my daughter’s death led me on a Roller Coaster and Down in a Hole.

I think it will probably always lead me to these dark places. Rather than fight to not go there, I’ve decided to just make darkness a part of who I am - to live with it and do the best I can. I choose to walk around inside-out and vulnerable.

For me, that works much better than burying my truth. I’ve buried enough already. So, rather than hiding it or sugar coating it with nonsense like “time heals all wounds” or “everything happens for a reason,” I embrace my darkness in hopes I can help someone.

Such idiotic statements had to be made by someone who doesn’t know anything about losing a child anyway. By sharing what this journey is really like, maybe someone out there who is experiencing the intense pain and hopelessness of child loss - a pain which doesn’t ease even long enough for you to catch your breath - won’t feel quite so alone.

Maybe they’ll even be comforted knowing someone else is enduring a similar experience. Maybe they’ll hang on and fight to see what’s next.

Because there is a “what’s next.” Until we’ve drawn our last breath, new challenges, new experiences, and new mysteries will continue to unfold whether we’re ready for them to or not.

Life might not be at all what we pictured, but there’s more to the story than just the darkness. In fact, maybe darkness and light can’t exist without each other.

Perhaps out of desperation, grief also led me to Just Try. It led me to realize she’s Gone, she’s never coming back, and I have to grab all the good moments and cherish them right here and now, before they too pass like she did.

And guess what? I have something really good to share. It’s so good I’m still almost scared to speak of it for fear of jinxing it.

Time to just blurt it out. My girlfriend and I are buying a gym and will be the official owners on August first! We’re scared shitless, too, and we barely even comprehend how we got here.

Roo died May 18, 2013, just shy of her sixth birthday and a little over four years ago. Life has been a whirlwind since then, as my mind and events have spun at a rapid pace.

I met Christina at a seminar in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, only a few months later. I don’t even know why I went. My friend Marty didn’t need me there; he’s a training guru. He probably dragged me along out of pity.

As you might imagine, I was mostly a disaster and have no idea why she liked me, but she did or she didn’t but decided to fake it and see if things might improve. I’m not sure they did at first, except in little glimpses.

One of those glimpses occurred when she asked me to vacation with her on Maui. It was a gorgeous week, and I loved soaking in her knowledge of the islands she’d been amassing over many visits dating back to her childhood.

Sometimes I vacillate between almost irrational self-confidence and crippling self-doubt. For some reason still unknown to me, in this instance I was supremely confident I could land a job in Hawaii and said as much aloud.

I'd been a professional fundraiser for nonprofit organizations for the last ten years and needed to get out of the small town where my daughter died and start something new. Where better to do that than Hawaii?

It took a few tries but I soon made good on my claim, landing a fundraising position at a Honolulu homeless shelter. Having known me all of six months, Kris picked up and moved with me. She probably figured I needed a caretaker for the inevitable crash.

Hawaii offered plenty to like, but I only lasted a year in the job. Turns out I still hated being a fundraiser, even in paradise.

The best thing about Hawaii wasn’t the gorgeous scenery; it was a crash course in getting to know Kris. Dating someone is easy when you only see them on weekends and have the whole week to look forward to it. Try being around them every moment you’re not working and with no other relationships to divert attention. You find out a few things about compatability real fast.

One thing I learned is that we’re both way into this strength training thing. One of our happy places is in a gym, sweating and straining and forgetting everything else for an hour or two.

Maybe to fill some time and maybe because it’s where our energy gravitated, we talked incessantly about our dream of opening a gym. When we weren’t talking, I’d ask her what she was doing and she’d look up from her laptop to reply, “Working on my business plan.” I’d never seen so many danged spreadsheets.

She even took the step to rent time at a small gym and begin teaching a kettlebell class in hopes of building a following, but I didn’t last long enough in my job to allow her to grow it. We also trained at two independent gyms with interesting operating models that seemed insignificant at the time but would become important later.

Okay, so maybe not everything happens for a reason, but maybe some things do. I’m still trying to work that one out in my mind and arrive at a conclusion that isn’t a cop out.

The problem I’m having is that you can’t say the good stuff happens for a reason without acknowledging the bad stuff, even the really bad stuff, does too. Serial killers and war lords rampage for a reason? Children die for a reason?

Maybe some events are just random and some are about opportunities that present themselves and our free will in taking advantage of them or taking a pass. That’s all I have for now.

Anyway, when I couldn’t make Hawaii work, I moved back to Pennsylvania for a series of missteps as I tried to maintain an income to support myself. I had two, maybe three, fundraising jobs in a little over a year. The fact I don’t even know how to count these follies tells you all you need to know.

When a second opportunity arose in Hawaii, I had nothing compelling enough happening at the time not to jump again. So it was back to paradise in fall 2016 for another fundraising job; this time at a health center.

Kris was in a good administrative job by this time and had learned her lesson about my whims. She decided to "wait and see" how the new gig panned out before joining me.

Good thing she did, because I was back in Pennsylvania in seven short months. Duh, I hated it again and wasn't raising any money.

When I returned this time, we still talked about the gym but didn't really see it as a realistic option. Instead, I started focusing my efforts on writing. To finally get out of fundraising, I'd build a small portfolio of published works and apply for communications jobs.

Though I didn't get any offers as a full-time writer - a blessing in disguise - I did manage to get five articles published in the span of a few months. True to form, I like writing what I want to write, not what some twit tells me to write so he can make money while I do his bidding.

While I click-clacked away at the keyboard, a great opportunity dropped into our laps. My friend was closing his gym to focus on other pursuits, and we saw a potential opportunity to make the prospect of owning a small business a little less daunting. This gym, you see, was already turning a small profit.

On top of this, our financial picture had improved with my latest Hawaii jaunt. Kris had paid down some debt; the health center had given me a small severance package (probably to get rid of me without a hassle); I was eligible to collect a few months of unemployment at fairly generous Hawaii rates; and Pennsylvania now had an option for domestic partners to count as family members for health insurance purposes.

These details might sound rather mundane, but I point them out for a reason. People often gloss over the story of how they travelled from point A to B, sort of implying they’re so much smarter and harder working than the rest of us.

I’m not saying I’m not smart and hard working, particularly when I’m immersed in a project that interests me, but I also had plenty of luck and timing to help me along here. I may have made a few of my own breaks, but I didn’t make them all. As a good friend pointed out, however, plenty of less deserving people have had more luck so maybe it was just time for me to cash a decent hand.

If I was in complete control though, don’t you think I’d have made this move years ago? The health insurance component, over which I had absolutely no control, was particularly critical for me to even think about working for myself, as I've been diabetic for over a decade and take some astronomically expensive drugs.

All this to say, if we squeezed and if Kris held onto her job for the time being, we felt we'd have just enough money to buy the gym and pursue our dream. Serendipitously, I was also offered a job as a part-time strength and conditioning coach this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.

That added bit of good fortune will help with gym expenses and will also give me some cachet as a trainer. The dominoes had fallen into place, making the next logical move obvious even to a guy with the intuition of a shower caddie.

So here we are, though we’re still making sense of how we got here. In four short years, my precious daughter had died; I'd fallen in love with someone who shares my dreams; I'd moved to Hawaii and back twice; I'd found a small voice as a writer (I co-wrote a book somewhere in there, too); and I'd stumbled into an opportunity to finally do something I'm passionate about rather than just trudge to work to collect a paycheck.

All we had to do is reach out and grab it... and scrape together a tidy sum of money to make that happen. Courage, fear, or desperation? Maybe they're all the same sometimes.

Everyone’s grief journey is different. A big part of mine has been my quest to lead a more authentic life. So here I am throwing caution to the wind and starting over with something brand new.

I’m just as scared as anyone else of taking chances. Emptying my bank account to buy a gym has kept me awake many nights and will probably keep me awake many more. Since the rug was ripped right out from under my vision of how I pictured the next couple decades of my life, I’m also probably a little more determined than most people to try to “get it right,” whatever “it” is.

The page turned and the next chapter began, whether I wanted it to or not. When I threw out the manuscript and started over, I detested the thought of beginning with, “After he buried his child, he kept right on doing the same boring job and being miserable about it. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer had a reason to justify enduring the drudgery.”

Believe what you want about fate and the amount of control we have over our own destinies. I’m just trying to write part of the story myself and have a hand in how it develops, rather than letting someone else write the entire thing for me.

Maybe I also have a little less to lose than most people in making a change. For sure some important people in my life will be impacted if I fail, but I’m not throwing away a college fund or dragging an entire family down with me.

For many years, I almost led some kind of split existence. By day, I was a mid-level manager. I was okay at it but just okay. I certainly never excelled, and most of the stiff way in which I conducted myself in order to fit in with corporate culture felt fake and oppressive.

After hours, I became a different person. I trained with weights and wrote about training. I swore when I felt like it. I could be louder and sillier and rougher around the edges without offending my gym friends. I tried to help people along the way, and I just generally felt more like the “real me.”

I think about Ruby every day. My lasting impression of her is the immediate sense I always had when I was in her presence of how much she loved her life. She attacked every little activity with everything in her and was always present right in the moment - a lesson we all could heed rather than trudging through our lives like zombies or slaves to our social media accounts.

Her infectious laugh immediately let you know she was fully engaged in whatever she was doing. Even small tasks, like inspecting a bug no bigger than a speck of dust as it crawled across the concrete, would capture her full attention. Her little forehead would bead with sweat from her determination to learn to eat solid foods; a skill most of us take for granted but one that didn't come easily for her because of some of her developmental delays.

A lot of my thoughts now revolve not so much around specific memories, although I certainly smile and agonize all at once over those on occasion too, but around what she might think if she could see me. I guess she'd see me trying to move forward and live a good life to honor her, but she might also giggle at my sideways and backwards stumbles.

I’m sure I still do things that would disappoint her, but I also think I’m closer to being on a path that would make her happy for me. She knew me. We had a bond that is difficult to explain. If anyone could understand what I’m trying to do and where this grief has led me, it would be her.

One day, it will all lead back to you. But not now.

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