Last Saturday morning I was sitting in my last two-hour class of a three week intensive program towards my MEd. For all intents and purposes, it should have been an exhale. I had worked really hard leading up to that point. All my work had been turned in and returned. My bags were packed in the dorm across the street, waiting for me to pick them up and head out. All I had to do in this one last class was to present my research topic for the following year–a topic I had clearly written on the paper in front of me–to a group of people who I had become very close with over the previous weeks. No stress, no sweat, easy-peasy.
But as my turn came closer and closer, I began to have trouble concentrating on my classmates’ presentations. Nerves, one would think…but it wasn’t nerves. It was the overwhelming feeling that I was going to cry…sob…that if any “constructive” remark was made concerning my research topic, I would fall apart right there on the spot.
Fortunately my turn came and went quickly with only a few reassuring and positive comments, and tears were held back. I left the class, attended the graduation ceremony for finishing students, ate a quick lunch, helped clean up the campus, and then found myself again in the same room with my classmates for our final farewell…an event that could be said to stir emotions, but decidedly, for me, did not. I sat in the room with my eyes glazed over, barely present as I said goodbye (sang, really) to people I had lived with closely and come to care about dearly in our time together.
What is wrong with me? The thought again flooded my mind, but I had reasons: I hadn’t slept well the past few nights, my body was tired, my mind was tired. It had been a long three weeks. I was ready to go home.
But that wasn’t it–this I realized as I was finally in my car, en route home and crying uncontrollably. I am quite often tired, quite often mentally spent, but this having a complete emotional breakdown for no reason…this was new. Frightening, really.
As I entered my house after three weeks away, everything seemed dark and surreal in the evening light. Although my family was sitting around the table eating dinner, happily chatting, excited to see me, something seemed off, and rather than feeling the urge to sit down and join them–to hug them and kiss them like I had dreamed of those past three weeks–I wanted to retreat to the bedroom, pull the shades and go to sleep.
Then I knew. I had felt this way before. It was on this day, one year ago, that my father died.
One year ago, I walked into my house after having spent three days in a hospital, making decisions no one should have to make and ultimately watching one of the people I loved most in the world perish. I hadn’t left the hospital at all except to get a few hours of sleep at a nearby hotel room in the wee hours of the morning. I had stayed up all night with my father in a dark room, eaten all my meals in the hospital cafeteria, made a community out of the doctors and nurses in our company. As I drove home the day after my father died–in fact, for months after my father died, every time I drove past the exit for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center–I had to fight the urge to turn my car around and drive back to the hospital.
If only I could move into the room where my father had been, with my books and my computer. I could spend my time with the third-shift nurses and the quiet hours of the night. I would spend the days sitting in the hospital atrium in the comfy chairs, eating chocolate croissants from the hospital’s Au Bon Pain, dozing intermittently, and crying. In the hospital people don’t judge you when you’re crying–in fact, it’s expected.
The hospital–that biosphere that somehow suspends reality and lets you live instead in a world that is cloudy and cushioned; a place where pain is held–by people walking by, by cafeteria workers, by nurses and especially by doctors–especially my father’s doctor–the tall, lean Scandinavian looking neurosurgeon, the man of few words with clear emotion in his eyes, the one who was sure, who was in charge–a pillar in his blue-green scrubs. (If only I could go live with him there would never be any questions, everything would always be clear…) The hospital to which I had become habitualized–the rotating shifts of the nurses, the busyness of days and silence of nights, the sounds of footsteps, monitors, my father breathing…
But then this last sound stopped…and it was okay while I was still in the hospital–still in that bubble that had become my world. It was still okay while I sat on that precipice where I had made myself at home–with my chair and my ottoman, my table, lamp and books, my blanket and my pillow. But with the first step I took into the outside world (because what else was there for me to do?), this haze lifted. Suddenly everything was clear and raw. The light of day in the world outside seemed harsh and unnatural. When I walked into my house, all I wanted was to retreat to my bedroom, pull the shades and go to sleep…
…but I didn’t. I curled up with my little girl, who was reading on the couch, and squeezed her tightly. It was her birthday. She was six years old.
I didn’t slink into the bedroom this year either–at least not right away. I sat down with my family and laughed–albeit a bit half-heartily–and told them stories about my three weeks “on the hill,” and listened to their tales of three weeks without mommy. I knew I would truly be back home soon, but at that moment there was still a part of me existing someplace far away.
I find it uncanny that one year later I am also re-entering the world, albeit from a different dream. This latest retreat included days of color and verse, singing and music; evening swims to cool me off before I sat down at my desk to work, uninterrupted by children; a warm breeze blowing in my window through which I had an uninterrupted view of the sun sinking behind Mt. Monadnock and spraying its colors–oranges and violets–throughout the summer sky.
At no moment during the last three weeks did I compare Dartmouth-Hitchcock with the High Mowing campus. At no point did I correlate my classmates and friends with the hospital staff. But as I sit here now, with a small amount of perspective, I wonder how different these two worlds are? Is there really a finite line between the sound of my father’s last breaths in the dead of night and the sound of twenty people singing in a room of windows? Is one less powerful than the other? Less beautiful?
The day after I arrived home from school, we celebrated Emerson’s seventh birthday. There was still something unreal about the day (maybe it was all the seven-year-old pirates running to and fro), something a bit foggy, but it was then that I realized the similarity between these two places, between these two times. Both of them were powerful…yes. And transformative. But the real transformation occurred not within the bubbles–not during my times away–but upon my return. The real transformation happened, as it always does, in the doorway leading from one world to the next, when for a moment you are not living in one world, but in both.
As I watched my daughter lead her friends in a search for buried treasure–she in the front of the pack, the one holding the map bringing up the rear–I understood that in this rawness, in this naked space that I temporarily inhabited, I was given the gift of lucidity. Not only was I able to experience pure pain, but pure joy as well. Authentic beauty, unadulterated love. My goal, my job, as I step more fully into my everyday life, is to grab hold of this beauty–this force; to bring it with me as I step through that doorway. I need to embody it–to live it–lest it slips away.