Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On Grief

"The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television – you don't feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it's all television." - Andy Warhol



Last night, I cried myself to sleep. I shuddered and sobbed myself a headache to wake up to in the morning. I haven't cried like that for a long time. But I was alone in my brother's house and there was no one around to gloss over my grief for.

The winter of my fifth grade year, my grandfather Art died. He used to call on the telephone all the time, and then suddenly his voice was gone. My dad got on a plane to LA to go pack up Art's stuff and clean out his old apartment. We skipped Christmas that year. I didn't talk to anyone about what had happened.

A couple weeks later, Geoffrey Dickhaut's grandpa died. He got a call during the middle of the school day. The whole class sat in a circle on the floor while Geoff cried. We listened to him, and comforted him. And I felt a stinging in my eyes and hardness in my throat because Geoff could talk about his loss when I couldn't talk about mine. I never did place what the difference between us was.

Last year my brother was diagnosed with cancer. At first we thought it was pancreatic cancer, he called in November to tell me he thought he had "lived a good life." There was a chance it was a different type of cancer that had simply migrated into his pancreas. We'd find out in a few weeks. My thumbs were kept busy then  scrolling through forums of pancreatic cancer survivors the way some people scroll through Instagram - Whipple surgery. Six months chemotherapy. Five years remission. Life prolonged. Cancer free. I had accepted the worst, but still wanted to find hope in that situation.

 As you can imagine we all breathed a heavy sigh of relief when it turned out to be metastasized testicular cancer instead - a few months of chemotherapy to get through, but the survival rates for testicular cancer are extraordinary. I didn't think we were facing death anymore - just bleomyscin injections that caused spiked fevers and platinum running through his veins. A few months of treatment and he'd have his beard back.

I cried sometimes during those months too. I cried for James' narrowing frame, jaundiced skin and hairless head. I cried on my way home from a family gathering because James had yelled at me, and he had sounded like my father did while we were growing up. I didn't stop crying until he called to say he was so so sorry and explained that the treatments made him irritable. When I cried during those months I felt weak and unjustified - he was going to be okay. In my mind people were only allowed to cry if they were suffering more.

Even now, despite the persistence of his tumor with fingers wrapped around an artery in his liver, the chances of him surviving are in our favor. A portion of James' tumor was unaffected by the cycles of chemotherapy in Utah, and he has since relocated to a specialized cancer treatment facility in Houston, Texas. At MD Anderson, James receives stem cell transfusions to bolster the strength of his immune system. It's a Captain America kind of medicine - he can now endure doses of chemotherapy so high that they would otherwise kill him. Cancer is such a bizarre ailment to treat - as one is supposedly recovering they only show signs of growing more ill. It's a matter of one poison winning over the other.

James called me while I was in Germany on a study abroad to ask if I would be able to come out with him to Texas for the few weeks before his family could join him there. I, standing on a sidewalk in Berlin a few feet away from a Donner stand, agreed. Between James' cancer and my sister's manic-depressive disorder wreaking havoc this year, I feel like I'm playing a bit part in a Mexican Telanova. In June I acted as caregiver and companion. I cleaned up bodily fluids, adjusted pillows, kept track of medications, watched too much Netflix, drove to the ER at four in the morning and spent days and days sitting in hospital rooms listening to a symphony of beeping machines.

I'm back in Utah now, and James' wife, kids and our mother are out in Texas playing caregivers. I returned to stay at the Goldberg's house to take care of it while they're gone. It's in American Fork, three towns over from my home in Provo where I work, go to school and all my friends live. The distance and loneliness didn't hit until last night. The week before had been a flurry of overtime work hours, graveyard shifts and my father and brother Stephen briefly sweeping through town on a cross country move.

There were a lot of little things that built up to last night's tears, very little of it had to do with James at all. I felt emotionally exhausted after having my father here, who failed to meet my expectations of a parent's visitation. I felt physically exhausted too after a busy week at work in which I had mostly one am to noon shifts. And it felt surreal to be stepping back into my familiar life in Utah after two months of traveling.

I came home to an empty house last night and even though I had a phone full of contacts, there was no one that I felt like I could call. Just as often as my dad has fallen short, James has been there to pick up the slack. During my time at BYU whenever I have been overwhelming stressed out, I've called James. He'd drive down to Provo and pick me up. I'd stay up late perched on the end of his and Nicole's bed and they'd give me practical and grounding advice. I'd spend the night in their guest room, and wake up to my nephews jumping on me the next morning. I'd go back to Provo with Nicole on her way to work. I remember one night after I went down to the guest room to sleep, James came down dressed up in the giraffe costume he'd worn at Halloween and started dancing. He's done that kind of thing since I was a kid. I would get upset and storm off to my room, and he would come in and be a goof. I'd laugh so much I'd forget to be mad.

That's when I really started crying. I cried because I was alone in the Goldberg's house and I couldn't even call James. It's my turn to be goofy and reassuring. I cried myself asleep because I felt an immediate kind of grief, not in losing someone forever but in things being different and disorienting right now.