E.B. White said: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." Here’s what makes it hard to plan my day: I arise in the late morning torn between a desire to play solitaire on the computer all day or do the laundry before I have to go around bare nekkid (as my mother used to say). Improve the world? That isn’t even on my list, let alone on the top of my list.
However, I do what I can from where I am, which often means improving, say, the bedroom by making my bed every morning or the ceiling by pulling down cobwebs. And this morning I watered the garden. And I say “I love you” to the people I love, and to the people I don’t love, I say “How you doing?” and I listen to the answer. As I said, I do what I can.
The point is, I guess, that there’s so much we can do without having to go out and save the world, which sounds like a pretty big job, and I can be overwhelmed by the pretty-big-jobness of things like organizing my desk - again.
I heard an interesting statistic from one of the participants of a workshop I went to Saturday. He said, “Most people spend 85% of each day complaining, and 90% of those people do the same thing the next day and the next.” Just hearing that statistic made my ears hurt, and not just because it had numbers in it.
I’ve been having a rough week emotionally, all of my Dad-stuff crashing through my protective activities (like playing solitaire all day). He died a month ago, and while I was in Indiana, my brothers and sisters and I were busy taking care of business and loving each other. Then I drove home, and because it’s not a good idea to break down weeping while driving, even across the long, straight stretches of Kansas, I held it together. When I got home, I went numb every day - until I was almost asleep, and then the sadness would hit. This past week I think I peaked, so I went to a workshop on Saturday and a movie on Sunday and today I have my feet under me and I’m pretty sure I won’t cry forever.
The rough times that come up don’t involve complaining, but that statistic made me think of Dad - the real Dad, not the one I romanticize. Real Dad loved to complain.
Dad: I hate Oprah. What a stupid show. Stupid people go on there so they can whine about their lives - “Oh, boo hoo hoo!”
Me: Why do you watch it?
Dad: Well, there’s nothing else to watch, unless I want to see that stupid Ellen doing that stupid dance. What’s the matter with her? She can’t dance.Me: Ummm . . .
He told me once that he likes to complain because it makes him feel good, and I learned in one of the workshops at the Boulder Center that some people mistake an adrenaline rush for feeling happy. So I guess Dad complained, made the listener miserable, but hung up the phone feeling happy.
The first week I was in Terre Haute and Dad was in the hospital, I drove up from my brother’s house every day to just sit with him and hear whatever news the nurses had for us. He was sedated, on a ventilator, and surrounded by hanging bags full of the fluids that kept him alive.While Dad was in the hospital, my brothers and sisters and I talked every day about the possibilities: he could live with S and B; I would stay and take care of him, he’d gradually get stronger and maybe he could live in his house again. Sure, we knew he was a very sick man and we accepted that he could die, but we carefully skirted that minor detail. About midweek, the nurse told us that they were starting to reduce the sedative and his reliance on the vent. That’s good news, right? There was really lots of good news that week: his lungs were working, his body was healing from the surgery, there were problems with his heart but they would address those when/if he survived.
Sitting with Dad every day was easy. I’d talk to him, tell him hello from my sisters (who weren’t in town yet), tell him he was doing well. The doctors told us not to tell him that he had had a colostomy, so we didn’t. Then one day as he started to come out of the sedative and could track me with his eyes, I broke into a cold sweat: What if he gets off the vent and can talk? What if he finds out what the surgeons did? Suddenly I felt like I was about 10 years old and I was in big trouble: Crap! If he can talk, he can - and will - complain. If he can talk, he’ll do what he did the last time he was in the hospital: yell at the nurses and threaten to leave and yell at us and it would be all our fault - whatever “it” was. He had been a holy terror during previous hospital stays. When I was out there a year ago, I ran out of his hospital room and had to pace for half an hour to get my moxie back. And they hadn’t even done anything to him yet.
In the midst of a very painful time, I found humor in my response. This 65-year-old woman was watching her 84-year-old father dying, and I had an image of me and my siblings as little kids when, say, something got broken:
“I’m gonna tell.”
“I didn’t do it - you pushed me.”
“You’re gonna get in trouble”
“Am not. It was your fault.”
And so on. No matter how old we are, as long as we have parents, we’re still someone’s kids. That day, the terribly thin man barely hanging onto life still had the power we assigned to him as kids, and during the lasts two years when his health went to hell and his complaints increased, we did what we could to hold on to the idea of Dad even as we flinched from the outbursts of the dying man he was.
People say “It was a blessing that he went when he did.” I get that. He would have been hell on wheels trying to live with a colostomy bag. Aunt Hazel said to me one day, “This is going to be hard on your dad. If it were me, I’d learn how to take care of that thing myself and I’d just clean it up, slap it on, and go out and mow the yard. But not your dad. No."So Dad never knew about the colostomy. And after the surgery, he never spoke again. So the last things he said came from a dad who loved his kids very much. Among all the stories I have of Dad, I'll include this last one. For balance.