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  • Writer's pictureSherri McCarthy

Building Resilience Even When You Hurt

I’ve been floundering lately.

My dad was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in May and died 62 days later, on July 12, 2017. As far as tragedy’s go, this was not like losing a child, I imagine, or having someone pass way violently. He said of himself after his diagnosis: “I’m not worried about it. I’m 75. If I was 25 with young kids, it would be different.” While he had a point, it didn’t lessen my own fear of losing him. And then my greatest fear was realized.

My dad was resilient. He lost his mother at 10 to cancer, was virtually abandoned by his alcoholic father, was treated as a servant by his aunt who stepped in to help raise him, quit college before getting his degree when the money to buy books wasn’t to be had, stuck by his wife when her affair landed her pregnant with a child not his own, raised that little girl with as much love as he gave his older three biological children, lost his father to suicide, conquered alcoholism and retained his sobriety for 27 years, battled mental illness.

My dad was RESILIENT. He taught me that trait. You see, I was the child who was the product of my mother’s affair. He didn’t have to love me, but he did. I asked him once when he started loving me and he answered with a father’s heart, “the first time I laid eyes on you, Sherri.” So, to say that losing my dad was painful doesn’t describe my loss in full. I lost the guy who talked a stubborn married woman out of an abortion when the product of conception she was carrying threatened to expose her affair to her family and her friends. I lost the guy who stifled his ambition and took a low-level, dead-end job in a town 350 miles away from where I was conceived so his wife and his children wouldn’t have to face the shame of adultery. I lost the guy who chose to love me. CHOSE to love my mom.

Their marriage sucked. Their alcoholism sucked. Their physical aggression towards each other sucked. Sleeping on the floor outside their bedroom door to try to keep them apart so they couldn’t fight the whole night sucked. Calling the police on them when things got out of control sucked. But what didn’t suck was my dad’s love for me. He believed in me like no one ever has. He believed in my ability to do things, to change a tire when girls didn’t really do that, in creating a life for myself that was something I could be proud of. He was an imperfectly noble man.

He died with his four children at his bedside: boys on one side, girls on the other. It was the way it was supposed to be, I guess. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I think it would not be too far from the truth for all of us to say that we were exhausted mentally, physically and spiritually. Silent tears slid down our faces and we hugged each other after his last breath, not really knowing quite what to do. We called our stepmother, his wife of nearly 15 years who he had met and married in 12 hours--that story is a great one and I hope you’ll indulge my going off topic for a bit to tell you:

My mom and dad divorced in 1988, after he honored his commitment to raise me as his own, and my dad became a sort of serial-dater. He loved women and he loved to dance. He spent a lot of time at AA dances getting his groove on and meeting people whose path led them to sobriety as well. He never carried on a long-term relationship, really. He was an unpredictable, affable and gregarious soul, and would simply show up at my home or my sister’s home unannounced (he lived 3 hours away) on his way to or from an AA event. He helped an awful lot of people during his time in AA—networking, securing cars or household goods for people in need, making sure folks had a roof over their head as they entered that scary land between addiction and sobriety.

One October day in 2002, I got a call on my cell phone from my dad. After a quick greeting I asked him what he was up to and he said, “Well, I just got married. Here, talk to my wife.” Taken off guard, confused, and totally flabbergasted, I immediately launched into my “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND” mode with a woman I had never met who had now become part of my family. “Are you insane? He could be a serial killer! He’s not, but he COULD be! You have NO IDEA about this man! What were you thinking?” She stammered her reply, “Well, I was lonely, and NED was lonely. And why should NED continue to be lonely and why should I continue to be lonely if we could be together?” Just as I was thinking, “Ned? Who the hell is Ned?” I heard my dad’s voice in the background, “Uh, It’s KEN.”

Despite the insanity of their beginning, they were good for each other. She helped expand my dad’s horizons, got him to travel to places I’d never heard of (like Rarotonga), took him to the symphony, to plays and musicals. He taught her how to gamble, took her to water parks and brought laughter back into her life. They were quite the eccentric pair, but they were devoted to one another.

Our step mother was at home with my dad’s sister getting some rest when my dad died. We kids stayed with my dad until she, her children, and my aunt arrived to say their final goodbyes. Our uncle was in a hotel not far away, not feeling well, and we arranged to all meet the next morning for breakfast in honor of my dad at his favorite restaurant: Denny’s.

As the sun rose and set over the next few weeks, I became more and more apathetic towards life. I didn’t want to hurt myself per se, I just didn’t care about anything at all. Nothing mattered. I struggled to explain cancer and death to my 7 and 8-year-old little boys, assured them that mommy’s tears were because I was sad about missing my dad, and that they should not be frightened. But they were frightened by my sorrow. I turned to writing to express myself. Although not a poet in any sense of the word, this is what flowed onto the keyboard:

I Am Unmoored

I stand at the cliff edge of grief

Looking down into the churning abyss of sorrow.

I refuse to jump.

I look for a rope, a pole, a bridge, a damn helicopter—ANYTHING to help facilitate my escape.

Nothing but darkness behind me,

Closing in.

I am unmoored.

On a journey I never set out to sail;

Orphaned as an adult.

No longer a little girl, a daughter.

Both parents gone now, I see my siblings in my periphery,

Fellow orphans.

Who, now, can answer my questions from childhood?

Who, now, do I call to touch my beginnings?

Who, now, will remind me of my infancy, my growing up, my emerging as an adult?

No one is left.

I take my place in line, unmoored.

I am unmoored.

Grief is Exhausting, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. You go to bed aching inside and out and after a night of “sleep,” you wake up feeling even more tired. It’s as though your soul has been left to fend for itself in the middle of winter on a raft in the center of Lake Baikal. You know the shore is there—you can see it, but it is just out of reach. You notice the beauty of the shore, recognize the peacefulness of the snow, but you are in so much discomfort—inside and out—that you can only focus inward, and do all you can to survive.

Maintaining a resilient spirit in the middle of grief is a painful experience, mostly because as you rail against the pain and hurt, you bang your heart into absolutes. He is gone. She is not coming back. There is no waking up from this, so you fight. You fight to make it stop, to move forward in a world that suddenly looks unfamiliar. Here’s a tip for you: you are not going to win that fight. What must happen is exactly what you don’t want to happen: you must stop and face the loss. When you stop, face it and deal with the grief in a healthy way, you will find and build your resilience.

I was taught to handle things myself, to be entirely self-reliant. From learning to change a car tire when I was 15, to replacing fan belts with pantyhose while in a pinch at 16. Among many other things, my dad taught me the value of self-sufficiency. Psychologist/therapists/counseling was frowned up. We only needed to “buck up” and we could handle anything ourselves.

But my dad was not always right. I cannot imagine where I would be without solid counseling and the tools I’ve learned to care for my own mental and emotional health over the years. Being resilient has nothing to do with relying solely on yourself to make it through trying times—the resilient decide for themselves when they need outside help to learn the skills and coping mechanisms they need to live a healthy life. It’s simple, really, but it isn’t easy.

A few weeks after my dad died I burst into tears in a build-your-own pizza shop because the worker put the wrong sauce on the wrong dough, and I realized maybe handling this whole grief thing on my own was out of my league. So, I sought help. I literally looked up grief counselors on Yelp. Yes, really. And I called one whose biography and outlook resonated with me. My first instinct is always to recede inside myself and reaching out, admitting pain, is exceedingly difficult for me. But I can do hard things. I called, she was awesome and weekly sessions helped me through the holidays and on to figuring out how to move on to the next phase of my life.

No one ever promised that life would be fair. It isn’t fair. My dad repeatedly told me from the time I was very small, “Life isn’t fair, Sherri. The sooner you figure that out, the better off you’re going to be.” My dad, unknowingly, was teaching me resilience. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression: I still don’t have it altogether. Still evolving. Still seeking the best decisions for my life, still doubt I’m as good a parent as my kids deserve, still hope to be a better wife, a better sister, a better person. I still struggle with fear, disappointment, resentments. I still cringe mightily at some things in my past. It still takes effort to treat myself with kindness and understanding. I am, indeed, a work in progress. I am willing to share myself to hopefully shine a light for those that come later—to prove that being perfect isn’t the goal: being resilient is the goal.

Do I still miss my dad? God, yes. Sometimes the pain is so acute it takes my breath away—like when I saw a man recently who looked strikingly like my dad. I gasped and for an instant, thought it was him. The blow is crushing when reality dawns. Most of the time, the loss is a dull ache I’ve decided to look at as a constant reminder of the love I had for him, and he for me. I hope it never dissipates. I hope the ache remains in my heart to remind me every day of a man who may have been ordinary to others but was extraordinary to a daughter he didn’t have to love. Ken Boone. My dad.

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