I sleep like a rock. Anytime, just about anywhere, I can bank some zzzz’s. It drives my wife crazy that I can sleep through alarm clocks, crying kids, construction and the weekly trash truck. It’s also a necessary life skill as an ER doc with a constantly changing shift schedule. I began crafting this skill in college during late nights at Dunkin’ Donuts, honed it in the medical school library, and mastered it during my residency.
So when I abruptly woke up at 2 a.m. clutching my chest this winter I was concerned. It was a turning point in life that signaled fast approaching middle age. Rummaging through the bathroom medicine cabinet I found an old bottle of tums that my wife had from pregnancy and popped two in my mouth, grimacing through the grit and chalk. Awaiting the cool relief I lied back down, propped myself up on two pillows, and thought about the year (yes, it was a long December Counting Crows fans).
Last year sucked. You can probably recall a year in your life when Murphy’s law reigned. If you haven’t had one yet, you will. The truth is, I saw it coming. I had supported and prayed with many friends who had gone through hard years but I had remained mostly unscathed. In the last few years I had made it through medical training, married my favorite person, started a family with two beautiful daughters, and accepted my first dream job. Things were good, life was blessed…and I knew it wouldn’t last.
THE STORM BUILDETH
We moved back to the southwest a few years ago to be closer to family. My dad started having lung problems, and we would drive the 7 hours to visit him and the rest of my family when I had a few days off. Working in the ER I am no stranger to tragedy — I could feel it building. Have you felt that before? Life is sunny and clear but you know just beyond the horizon thunderheads are building. Those clouds became 2016.
As summer began my last living grandparent died taking with her an entire generation of our family. At the same time my dad’s health had gotten worse. My mom was trying to navigate working full time while caring for her housebound husband on hospice. At home I was an overwhelmed father of two preschoolers and at work I was on the verge of complete burnout. I was teetering but still standing, fighting the waves to keep my head above water. Then, in September, my amazing dad died. His death was like the tsunami wave wrecking into the shore and obliterating all the smaller waves in my life. Until that moment I had shouldered the burdens of the year with veiled strength. But now I was broken.
I’ve never really cried at death. Even before I became a doctor, confronting death on a daily basis, I was numb to tears. I don’t know why. I bawl at stupid sports movies like “Rudy” and sob at inspirational stories on the news, but the tear well runs dry when a friend or loved one is lost. I’ve always worried that I wouldn’t be able to cry when it mattered most, when I lost the person I loved most. Not that I would “hold it in” but that the emotion wouldn’t even be there, and then I’d feel guilty. Turns out those fears were unwarranted. The clouds rolled in that night and a flood of tears fell.
They continue to fall unexpectedly when I’m reminded of my dad…running on a treadmill watching a baseball documentary about Dodger great Sandy Koufax, sitting at work when “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain” comes on the radio, making a call and scrolling through “favorites” on my iPhone unable to take my dad off that list, or while rummaging through documents on my desk I find a letter my dad wrote to me in college on an old typewriter without spellcheck.
I’m thankful tears came that late September night, and honestly I’m thankful they still occasionally come. They are cleansing. Like the sun breaking through after a storm, a smile almost always comes after a cryfest when I think about some sweet memory of my dad. I’m thankful my dad is home and free, but I miss him every day. I don’t miss 2016. Someday I’ll find the courage to write more about my dad, maybe when the episodes of tears and Tums are a little less frequent. Maybe this year will be better than the last.
This will give you some laughs if you’re having a cryfest (some profanity and insensitive words)