Some of Us Struggle Like Birds

a blue parakeet
Image by Rafael Saldana / CC BY

A few weeks ago, someone I love very much passed away. I’m noticing that I get less sick every time I type that. Or every time I speak it aloud.

On one hand, this upsets me. Because as frightening as the pain of the early days was, this new shift troubles me. Because I don’t want to forget him.

But on the other hand, the shift is good. My body needs it. Because I was so exhausted the first few days, even the first week. I couldn’t even feel sad at first because I was just in so much pain. In my chest and my stomach. As though something important were being ripped from my body over and over again. And it didn’t take long for me to become utterly exhausted, after being assailed by that pain non-stop.

I did nothing for the first week. Didn’t write, didn’t even do my chores. I’m honestly not sure what I ate or how food even happened. I took the entire week off for bereavement leave. Frankly, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I was a mess. Couldn’t focus. Kept having strange attacks where my emotions spun out of control.

While I was off that week, in a twist of awful timing, three different folks approached me professionally practically all at the same time, to ask that I speak on the pandemic. “You’re an important leader in the kink community. You’re inspiring. You give people hope, and people could really benefit from that at a time like this.”

They wanted me to speak within the next few days. As I could barely finish most sentences without crying, this was definitely not an option.

I turned down the requests as gracefully as I could. Suggested replacement speakers in some cases. Tried to manage expectations, by letting people know that I had a “family emergency.” I hoped that would convey the seriousness of the situation while still being vague enough to maintain some semblance of privacy in the early hours and days of grief.

But that didn’t work. And some of them said things like “we can wait a few days for you, we really want you to be part of this.”

So I started being more blunt. “Death in the family.” “Bereavement leave.”

Or, once I was tired of having to explain further, to those who thought I’d lost some distant cousin or something and would be right as rain soon, I said bluntly: “My father died.”

That particular sentence still hurts to type and/or to say. The brain is mysterious.

I Have Trouble Writing About Him Because He Was So Exceptional

I have trouble writing about my father because everything I try to say about him sounds like an exaggeration. He was the kind of person who was so exceptional that you would doubt he lived up to what you’d heard about him, the kind of reputation he had… unless you knew him of course. Those who knew him, however, understood. And would agree that it was hard to talk about him without sounding like you were exaggerating. He was brilliant, incredibly hard working, and generous. “The smartest person I ever knew.” I heard that several times from other folks after he passed. And: “He taught me so much.”

Brainy as hell. No ego. Phenomenal memory. Worked hard. Took care of the people around him. That was Dad.

While we didn’t speak on the phone every day, Dad and I did text quite a bit back and forth the past year, and I spent the Christmas holiday with him. (It occurs to me that I’ll have to find some way to electronically archive those texts because they’re so precious to me now. I can’t risk losing them if my phone bricks.)

Dad was the parent I identified more with. While a lot of women are closer to their mothers emotionally, I’m not. I’ve always been closer to my father. The funny thing is that I never really knew if that closeness were reciprocated or not. It always felt a little lopsided to me. Like I admired him from afar (he worked a lot when I was growing up, was always traveling), and he responded by what on my end felt like his sorta tolerating me. Smirking, being hard to read. But not leaving either.

And I loved him (and still love him) immensely. Looked up to him.

Still, it felt weird that his death hit me so hard since he wasn’t a part of my everyday life. Since we lived in separate states and would talk and text meaningfully, but he wasn’t a chatterbox.

But it did hit me hard. It half-killed me.

I’m not sure exactly why, even now. Perhaps it’s because I idolized my father and never felt like I was quite good enough to be his daughter.

Or because I feel guilty that I moved away from Maine (where my family of origin lives), first to Ohio about 10 years ago, and a year ago to Texas, doubling what was already a sizable distance.

Or because he was the only person, aside from my husband, who ever made me feel completely safe.

I’m sure the pandemic as a background (which complicated funeral plans and made it so I couldn’t be physically present with my mother and siblings to grieve) didn’t help things.

But it did hit me hard. Harder than I ever would have expected it to.

They Want You to Think That Deathbed Goodbyes Are Always Pretty & Everyone Fades Away Like a Setting Sun

I keep having flashbacks to the last conversation I ever had with him, on his deathbed — something that had to be done by telephone due to the pandemic and the fact that he didn’t go into hospice until he was almost gone (which meant there was no time to travel).

In even just the short time since he passed, I’ve stumbled onto two different popular depictions of the “deathbed talk.” One in a book and one in a TV program. Each time I ran into one of these scenes I got angry because they always make deathbed goodbyes look so rosy and Hallmark-esque. The words spoken are profound. Everyone is sad but serene. The dying person closes their eyes, and that’s that.

Popular depictions want you to believe that when a person dies, they go like a sun setting.

It might happen that way sometimes. But my own experience was a great deal messier. I had no time to think of what I wanted to say. I was told by my brother that Dad had gone into hospice, was already slipping away, and if I wanted to say goodbye that now was the time to do it. I called immediately. A phone was held to his ear. And I had to come up with words RIGHT THEN AND THERE to let him know how much he’s meant to me. To thank him.

On the spot. In an environment where I felt like I was bound by a number of strange invisible rules that I wasn’t used to working around.

When you’re saying goodbye to a dying person, you can’t talk about the future. And you can’t say goodbye. You talk solely about the past. Because for them there isn’t much of a tomorrow. Not one that looks like what we’re used to tomorrows looking like anyway.

And none of the rosy depictions of the deathbed talk capture the intense pressure you feel to not ruin their last moments alive by saying the wrong thing. (No one tells you what the right thing is to say to the dying. And of course it’s different anyway, based on who they are and what your relationship is like.)

I did my best.  He even spoke back. What he said was related to what I said to him but garbled, as though he were terribly drunk. But it was clear he knew it was me. And I’m told he smiled at the sound of my voice. That he was clearly happy that I had called.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful for the chance to have said goodbye (without saying the actual word goodbye), that’s for sure. But at the same time, it was, second per second, the most stressful experience of my life. (And it’s not like I haven’t experienced stressful situations; I was treated for PTSD and had three major traumas between 12 and 19.)

I’m told I did wonderfully, said beautiful things. But I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like I said quite enough. Or that I rose to the size of the moment. Or the size of what he meant to me.

It was an experience that was more stressful and ugly than I ever would have imagined. And there was another big intense pain again particularly as my mother later shared the gory physical realities of his passing with me a few days later, when she was raw and reeling, deprived of a filter by her intense grief, and I was trying to be there for her as I thought Dad would have wanted me to be (regardless of anything she and I have been through over the years as part of a very rocky mother-daughter relationship).

She told me he was only conscious or semi-conscious for an hour or two after I’d called. But his body took a few days to stop working. It wasn’t pretty.

I’ll spare you the details that weren’t spared me.

I’ll just let you know it was nothing like a sun setting. The physical realities of death can be quite gruesome. I’ll leave it at that.

People Advise Me “Let Yourself Feel It” — As Though I Had Any Other Choice

I took the first week after he passed completely off work. That’s commensurate, more or less, with how people with normal jobs take bereavement leave.

The second week I returned to work on a part-time capacity. Writing as much as I could, which was considerably less than normal. I was still unfocused, still becoming exhausted more easily than I normally would be. The return to routine was helpful to me, however, even though I’m less productive when I’m in this much pain.

This all seemed pretty normal, about how most working people behave when a parent dies. They take a week completely off. And then they start back at work part time, as particularly professionals who don’t have coverage/replacement need to keep tending the store (managing their projects), even if they’re a little spooky from grief. (And I worked in a professional position, as a program manager at a psychological consulting firm, before I switched to writing full time a few years back.)

After returning to work, I wrote a few public posts explaining the situation (for example, this one).

I was amused when a few people wrote in, advising me, “Let yourself feel it.”

As though I had any other choice but to feel it. It’s not a conscious thing, this particular grief. There’s no cognitive component that forewarns the pain. My body does it without my consent.

This grief is nothing like anything I’ve ever felt — when it was a friend, grandparent, aunt, or uncle that passed away. Instead, it’s visceral, automatic. It seizes me without warning. And when it does, I’m at its mercy.

I’ve been experiencing paralyzing attacks where I have chest pain, and I have no choice but to feel it.

This is not coming from my frontal lobe, my conscious brain — but somewhere deep within my midbrain where primal automatic processes work on their own without my say so.

One night my throat closed up while I was eating dinner because I had a sudden attack. My epiglottis had swollen up with no warning. I almost choked.

So that advice, to feel it, isn’t really advice per se but more of an obvious reality. Because there is no choice but to feel it. My body is doing it to me and my conscious mind only notices it after it’s happening.

What I do get to choose is what I do while I’m feeling it.

The Parakeet Who Wouldn’t Take Our Help

My partner Justin is really into birds. He and his mother used to raise parakeets, and as a result, Justin has an uncanny affinity with the creatures. We have two birds at the moment, a cockatiel named Buddy and a parakeet named Galileo. Both birds are rather old for their natural lifespans. Geriatric. No spring chickens, so to speak.

The week before the pandemic started, Galileo the parakeet had a stroke. Or at least that’s what we assume happened. We went out for the day, and when we returned later that evening, we saw that he was convulsing in a rather strange way.

He’s suffered seizures in the past for much of his life, particularly when he flies outside of the cage and exerts himself too much physically, but this looked quite different. He was twitching rapidly while even at rest — as though he were a video game sprite encountering a bug and glitching graphically.

Neither of us thought Galileo would live very long after this happened. As Galileo tried to sleep, he would frequently tip over and wake himself up and squawk in alarm.

We felt very sorry for him, so Justin put a small box into the bottom of his cage. And he physically moved Galileo there so he could sleep on the box without having to worry about losing his balance (since the stroke had disrupted his equilibrium).

Shocking us both, Galileo rejected this gesture. He eschewed the box and climbed back up onto the perches, desperately trying to sleep in the top of the cage like always. He fell over and over again, squawking every time. Eventually, however, he found a spot in the cage where he could sleep fairly well, at least for an hour or two at a time, without losing his balance.

As the weeks wound on, he figured out new ways to clutch the side of the cage with a talon, putting him slightly off kilter to our eye, but making it stable enough so he could sit comfortably.

A few days ago, we noticed he had stopped twitching altogether. He’s resumed grooming again. He’s even singing. Perhaps his brain has healed, developed alternative pathways for blood flow. Or maybe he’s just adapted well enough that he once again functions normally.

He’s an old bird, so you never know what will happen, but it appears that the parakeet has recovered from his stroke. He’s at least learned to live with it.

Some of Us Struggle Like Birds

If you ever see a pet bird sitting at the bottom of the cage, Justin told me a long time ago, it means they won’t be alive for very long. Such was the case when a former bird of ours passed. She began to sit on the bottom of the cage and passed away shortly after.

In general, birds don’t show signs that they’re ill until they’re at death’s door. They look more or less normal until they’re dying. It’s likely something that has to do with not wanting to signal to predators that they’re weakened, until they literally have no other option.

When a bird’s suffering, they have to feel whatever it is they’re feeling of course. But they do get the choice of what they do while they’re feeling it. And they try to stick to their normal routine, unless they literally can’t do it anymore.

I’m like a bird that way. You’ll never see me at the bottom of the cage unless I’ve given up.

And because I’m my father’s daughter, I don’t give up easily.

*

Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Twenty one years since he died, and I still miss my Dad. Like you, I looked up to him so much, because he was an amazing person, and it seemed like there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Then the cancer came, and he was gone. It still hurts, now and again, but I concentrate on the good memories of him, and it helps.

  2. I’m so sorry. May his memory be a blessing always.

    I’ve sat with dying loved ones in their last days of life, and it is not pretty. Sometimes those experiences still haunt me. It was the right thing to have done, and I would not change having done it, but it broke me in ways that I’m not sure will ever heal entirely. Those two death watches happened in 2008 and 2016, and thinking about them still makes me cry. But they knew I was there for them, and that was the most important thing to me. Your dad knew you were there for him as much as was possible, and I’m sure that brought him comfort.

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