The Torture of Normal
So it's just... this? For the rest of my life?
Today I woke up and went to the post office. I wore two masks, obviously. The postal worker who helped me was extremely kind; I am trying to figure out the best way to mail 200 zines all over the country and she was happy to walk me through all my options. It was a really pleasant interaction; when I left she said, “Have a great day,” and I said, “thank you, you too!” Then I got into my car and drove home.
Now I’ll sit at my computer for a few hours and try to write. I’ll answer some emails and schedule some meetings. I’ll work on gathering all my tax documents. I’ll attempt to stay off twitter. I’ll hope to stop before it gets dark so I can drag myself on a walk before it starts to rain or snow. Then I’ll have dinner and go to bed.
If the first few days and weeks after my dad died were excruciating because of the acute pain I felt, the days and weeks following that initial period of grief are soul-crushing because everything is just so normal. I have to wake up even though my dad is dead. I have to eat even though my dad is dead. I have to work even though my dad is dead. I have to shower even though my dad is dead. I have to go to sleep even though my dad is dead. I have to do this even when I feel awful, and that is painful enough. But sometimes… I do not feel awful. Sometimes I feel fine. And actually, that is the most painful part of all.
What the fuck am I doing feeling fine when my dad is dead?
Grief is a journey. Grief is not linear. Grief does not have to look any particular way. Grief is different for everyone. I know all these things.
It’s okay to feel happy even when you’re grieving. It’s okay to laugh even when you’re grieving. It’s okay to let yourself forget for the length of a stupid TV show or a hot date or a really engrossing book that you’re grieving. It’s okay to do your stupid little tasks and get through each day even when you’re grieving. I know all these things, too.
My dad would want me to be happy. My dad would want me to keep writing. My dad would want me to keep living. Yeah, I know, I know, I know.
I guess what I’m talking about is guilt. I know all of the above is true and I still feel guilty.
If I were still in Massachusetts I think I would be more consumed. My dad belongs in his house, and the month I spent there with my mom and my brother was defined by his presence and his absence in a way that kept the pain fresh, kept it right underneath the surface, kept it accessible in a way that felt all consuming but that I actually liked. It felt correct: I would fall apart at any moment because I encountered something that reminded me of my dad. That felt like honoring him. I want him to know I am not okay without him here; it is the least I can do.
My family moved into that house in 2000. It was our home; he is all over. His sneakers by the door — he had so many pairs of the exact same shoe because he refused to throw any of them away — his pile of sun hats in a basket — he’d become obsessive about avoiding the sun as he’d gotten older, it was so important to him to keep his head covered and his face shaded — his Gatorade bottles stacked on top of each other in the freezer — all his colleagues recalled his frozen Gatorades, his post-morning-workout beverage of choice, from when they were still allowed to go into the office together. There’s more: His entire home office. His books next to his bed. His tea in the kitchen cabinet. His picture in so many frames. And his ghost lingers, too. I see him shoveling snow in the driveway, nose dripping, determined to finish all in one go. I see him grilling on our deck, teasing my mom that he’d be sure to cook all the flavor out of her steak until it was well done, just the way she liked it. I see him knocking on my closed bedroom door before dinner, inviting me to eat. I see him at the head of the dining room table, hosting Shabbat meals. I see him in the basement, stretching after a long walk. I see him late at night, wandering the hallway, narrowing his eyes in dismay and asking me what I’m doing up so late.
I’m getting upset thinking about this. I was “fine” all day, whatever that means, but thinking deeply about my dad and what is left on this earth from his life is making me focus on the fact that he is gone, and that is unbearable. Which is what I mean when I say I know I’d be more in it, less normal, if I were still there.
I’m cheating, because I live in Portland. I came back here at the beginning of the month because I chose to build my adult life here and I wanted to return to that life, and now I am no longer surrounded by my dad and his physical things. He visited Portland once, back in 2015. He came to this house I currently live in, but I lived in a different bedroom when he was here. It rained for 19 days in a row that winter and I know he never really understood why I love this city. While our house in Massachusetts pulses with my dad’s day to day life, Portland aches with things I wish I could have shown him. He was supposed to visit this spring, or whenever we were all vaccinated, whichever came sooner. But he did not spend a lot of time here. The truth is, as I wrote last issue, my life is always intertwined with my family, but at the same time, because I live far away my life is different, is separate.
In Portland there are no sneakers, no sun hats, no Gatorade bottles. My dad’s books are not here. His tea is not here. His ghost is not here. This just wasn’t his place. He doesn’t belong here the way he belongs in our family home in Massachusetts, so it’s less jarring for him to be absent. I can lie to myself for stretches of time, tell myself he isn’t gone, he’s just not here, and he was never here, you know. My brain can pretend he is still in his house with all his things. I can compartmentalize.
It doesn’t feel good to do that. I feel guilty. My mom and my brother do not have this problem, part luxury, part devastation. They are still so close to him. My mom tries to soothe me when I describe how I’m feeling, says my brother has had to reach for normal too, as his classes have started back up, as he works hard to stay on top of his homework, as he’s taken over shoveling the driveway. But still — they’re there. Together. In my dad’s house.
And I’m here in Portland. Going to the post office, chirping thank you, you too when I’m told to have a great day, as if that should ever be possible again. I mean, I know, I told you, I know my dad doesn’t want me to be miserable forever. But also… I mean, I want him to know how much he meant to me. I want him to know I’m not okay because to be fine would ultimately feel like a betrayal.
For the first couple of weeks, I simply ran on instinct and raw hurt. When the adrenaline spike started to subside, I panicked. Suddenly my body was the opposite of energized. I texted Taylor one morning in mid-January as I listlessly boiled the kettle: So it's just... this? For the rest of my life? She confirmed that unfortunately, yes, that’s really how this goes.
What an indignity.
Not to make my own grief too universal, because I was being sincere earlier, I really do know that grief looks different for everyone, but forgive me — I think part of our collective outrage and sadness and overwhelm when it comes to the pandemic is the relentless assault we’ve all felt to capitulate to the torture of normal during this time of crisis. It’s fucked up. We deserve better. Our dead deserve more.
I don’t want normal. I don’t want to be in the post office cheerfully wishing the kind worker a good day (I mean, I do hope she had a good day, but you know what I mean). I want to be sitting on the sofa next to my mother weeping. I want my friends to text me to make sure I’ve eaten. I want to show that I am flattened, that I am broken, that I will never be myself again, that I miss my dad, that I love my dad, I want it to be really clear that I am not okay.
But that’s not how grieving works in America. We have things to do.
To its credit, in Judaism, a child does get some time carved out for exactly what I am describing. Shiva allows for one full week of deep morning; shloshim is the first 30 days after death, with its own sacred rituals and customs. Children are instructed to grieve a parent for a full year; I will say the Mourner’s Kaddish twice a day for my dad for 365 days. I appreciate the ritual.
But aside from my twice daily prayer, I exist in the space of normal. I’m teaching multiple virtual classes. I’ve set a deadline to finish my novel. I’m writing and editing work for Autostraddle. I play with my boyfriend’s puppy. I watch a documentary with my boyfriend. I go on a walk with a friend, then another, then another. The days go by.
This could just be a short lull. Perhaps by the time I next write to you I’ll be sob screaming in my car again. Maybe I’ll still feel nothing, like I’m blank inside. That feeling, too, is a reaction, though it’s one that doesn’t feel very good to me.
I am trying to remind myself that my dad knew I loved him, and that I don’t owe him eternal sadness to honor his memory. But I am also realizing slowly that I do not control grief; grief controls me. I am learning to sit with pain, with guilt, with seeming okay, with seeming not okay. I am staring normal in the face and thinking, fine — this is what we’re doing right now? I don’t like it, but alright.
Grief is in charge; I simply do my best to show up.
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