DSS Leadership – Assignment 6.2
Book – “Leadership from the Inside Out”
For the 2-3 most impactful and formative experiences and / or relationships, tell the entire story here:
Story 2 – Learning to Say Hello
My parents divorced when I was fairly young, around the age of 10 or so. The divorce was extremely hard for all of us. It fractured our family and none of us, my brothers nor myself, ever fully recovered from it.
My dad and I were estranged for a long time. Birthdays were missed. Christmases passed without phone calls or cards. Seats were left empty at significant events. My dad went on to remarry and to have two other daughters. Having been the only girl growing up, I had always wanted sisters, and now here I was, with not one, but two half-sisters who I didn’t know; two sisters which felt like had replaced me.
What did my dad need me for? He had two other daughters now who would grow up and have first dates and graduations and school events. They would have him to walk them down the aisle and hold their firstborns. They would have lives that he would be there for and I would forever continue to be this annoyingly weak little girl on the inside who just wanted daddy to say he’s proud of her.
After I graduated from college, a bachelor’s degree in two years, advanced achiever for my class, this amazingly successful student with yet another empty seat at a speech my dad was not present for, I had a realization. This was to be my relationship with him. He and I would always be a missed connection. This thing, this child-father bond, would always be an elusive thing that I was never meant to have or understand in this life. That’s what I resolved myself to. That was the closure I had thought I found after all of the hurt and pain I had felt due to his absence in my life.
Then came the day my mom was hospitalized.
I woke up at 3am on March 23rd for no reason. I looked at my phone morbidly curious about how much time I had let to sleep before having to wake up again to bike myself to work. Instead of seeing the time I saw an endless wall of text messages from my brothers and sister-in-law saying I needed to call my older brother, Jason. Countless missed phone calls where they all had tried to reach me while I slept.
I called my older brother.
“What happened?” No, “How are you? Is everything ok?” No minced words or beating around the bush.
“Mom’s in emergency surgery. They don’t think she’ll make it. I think you need to be here.” His tone was calm. No hint of fear or uncertainty. Just facts and information.
“I’ll let you know when I have a plane ticket,” I said. I was already getting out of bed, my partner sleepily stirring next to me asking me what was going on. My brother would not have used the word “need” unless it was a legitimate need. I wasn’t going to ask permission to go. I wasn’t going to wait for work to give me the green light to be absent. I was going and everyone would have to figure out their part in the situation on their own.
I called my boss. I explained my mom was in the hospital and I had a one-way ticket and I didn’t know when I would be back. He said to take care of myself and he would fill my spot while I was gone. My partner drove me to the airport so he could use the car while I was gone to get to and from work.
I spent four agonizing hours on a plane not knowing if my mom would be alive when I landed. You never really understand just how long four hours can be until you spend it begging the Universe with literally every fiber of your being. “Please just let her be there. Please just let her hold on. Please just let me say goodbye. Just one last goodbye. Take all of my karma. Take literally anything, everything, else. Please. Please just let me have one more goodbye.”
You don’t realize how alone you are, how much no one else cares, until you spend those four hours in your own personal hell, facing your greatest fear while the dude next to you listens to music on his iPhone casually skipping through songs on his playlist he apparently didn’t want to listen to or until the hostess asks you if you want something to drink or a single serving bag of peanuts to tide you over for the trip as if the trip is a normal everyday thing and not a sick, twisted version of Schrödinger’s cat where you’re the cat wondering if your mom going to be alive when you land and are finally let out of your metal box.
You don’t realize your own insignificance until you see the world continuing to relentlessly turn while everything inside of you screams for it all just to stop. Your wants, your begging, your inner screaming and soul-crushing fears mean absolutely nothing in the face of Universal power.
You, a mere mortal, cannot stop time. You are powerless, weak, fragile, fleeting and small. All you can do is breathe. In and out. In and out. One breath at a time. One heartbeat at a time. All you can do is beg over and over again inside your mind even though begging does nothing. You know it does nothing, and yet you cannot help it. You cannot stop it, no more than you can stop that relentless, continuous turning of the world. Begging is the only thing you have to cling to. The only thing you have to keep you sane while people skip their songs and chew on peanuts and sleep restful sleeps as all their lives continue while yours shatters around you into nothingness.
I remember seeing my sister-in-law, Lio, at the airport. My older brother had stayed at the hospital. Mom had made it through the surgery against all odds and was currently in ICU. I remember walking down the corridor with Lio to mom’s room. I wanted to run. My body physically hurt with how much effort it took to restrain myself, to walk calmly, collectedly, holding all of my emotional shit together as I drew closer and closer to the door where I didn’t know what I would find.
I hated life. I hate myself. I hated the hospital with its sterile halls and smiling, helpful faces. I hated society and its oppressive demand to be presentable and collected and in control all the time. I hated all of it and yet I couldn’t show any of it. I wanted to scream that it wasn’t fair. What had my mom ever done to deserve this? What I had done? What wrong had we committed and to who? How had that wrong been so bad that this was the only way for karma to atone?
At what point is it acceptable to not be presentable, to not be collected? At what point would people be sympathetic, empathetic and not think that you are simply overreacting or handling it poorly? At what point is it ok to not be ok?
Seeing my mom laying there in the hospital bed, surrounded by wires and machines with numbers I didn’t understand and beeping sounds all around her was hard. It was hard to breathe. My body didn’t want to. My mind didn’t want to accept this sight as real and yet there was no way to hide from it, deny it, or change it into anything other than what it was. This was my life. This was my mom. This was my reality.
She looked so tired. So weak. She hadn’t known who I was when she had surfaced briefly from her sleep. She knew who Jason was, my older brother, but to her, I was Lio. Not Jennifer. To her, I wasn’t her daughter.
Locially, rationally, I knew her confusion was from the fog of medications. It was still the worst feeling I had ever felt. My mom was so close. I could hold her hand. I could feel her and she was alive and she was talking to me and yet at the same time, she was so very, very far away and out of reach and I didn’t know if I would ever get her back again.
I stayed the night with her that night. During the quiet darkness, she woke up for the first time. Truly woke up. I watched as her eyes moved around the room before settling on me. I saw recognition tinged with confusion in her eyes.
I took her hand gently in mine, forcing myself to speak. I was alone. No one could help me through this.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked. I was terrified. Terrified of her answer. Terrified that she wasn’t back. Terrified that she was never coming back and this was Fate’s sick way of tormenting me. Four hours seemed so short in comparison to the handful of seconds it took for my mom to answer me.
She rolled her eyes at me the way only mom could as if to say, “What type of a silly question is that?”
“You’re Jennifer,” she said in a weak, but very distinctly “mom” tone of voice.
My soul had never been happier. I don’t know how I kept from crying the sense of relief I felt was so intense. No matter what else happened, my mom knew who I was and knew I had been there. I could make it through the rest of anything else because I had seen my mom one last time. The Universe had listened and heard my screams and given me the only thing I would ever ask for again.
Eventually, my younger brother made it back to the states from Germany where he had been stationed with the Army. When he got there, the three of us stood outside mom’s room trying to figure out what needed to happen.
“Does dad know?” I asked.
“I haven’t told him and I’m not going to,” replied my older brother with such a tone of finality I knew to not press the topic with him.
“I haven’t talked to him,” my younger brother answered sheepishly as if he wasn’t sure if that was the right answer or not.
“I feel like he has a right to know,” I said, and so I found myself being the liaison between my fractured family and my dad. I told him about mom being hospitalized. I kept him posted for the two weeks we were there, and in the end, I was the one to tell him about her death. I was the one who made the phone call while standing in front of a window looking out at the mountains surrounding Las Vegas with the sun shining in all of its afternoon glory, explaining that my sun had died. Mom hadn’t gotten better and we weren’t going home and I didn’t know what else to say because we were still trying to figure everything out.
It felt like the words would choke me. That I would die, strangled to death simply from speaking such information and yet I knew I would have to keep speaking it, over and over again to countless people until I eventually, hopefully, went numb to it and no longer felt the gaping hole within my chest that no one could see but that I could so clearly feel.
My dad said that he knew he wasn’t on good terms with “the boys” but would it be ok if once things were finalized if he came to pay his respects. I was taken aback in that moment. Even in my shocked, numbed, feelingless state over mom’s death, I could recognize the significance of him, the parent, to be asking me, the child, if he could do something. I was no longer a child. I was an adult, and if I wanted, I could say no.
No, you left us. You have no right to be there. No, you can’t come say goodbye. No, you were never there for us in the past so you don’t deserve to be here for us now.
I could have said so many cruel and hurtful things; all of the things I had wanted to say for so many years… and yet I couldn’t.
“This isn’t about what Jason or Jon or I want. This is about mom and what she would have wanted. I think she would have wanted you to be able to say goodbye and to have closure,” I replied because that was the truth. Mom would want everyone to have their own form of peace with her death, regardless of how life had played out. You can’t live with someone for however many years, have two children with them, share that many memories and moments, both good and bad, and not still have some sort of emotion for them. I had no right to deny my dad his closure regardless of how wronged I wanted to feel over our relationship.
We had a service for mom in South Carolina. I was the one who retrieved her urn once her ashes were back. I was the one who flew with her urn in my backpack because the only other option was having her urn shipped through the mail like a common UPS package. I was the one who watched as TSA scanned her urn while I shakily held out clutched papers saying through vocal cords that didn’t want to work, “I’m supposed to give these to you.”
“It’s ok,” he replied in an understanding voice as he waved his scanner over the blue marble verifying that it wasn’t some bomb I had planned to use to blow up the airplane.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. His words were heartfelt. I could tell they were and yet the only thing I could do was nod my head, silent tears rolling down my cheeks as I took the urn back from him. It was all I could do to not break down in the middle of the airport as I put the remnants of my mom back into my bag, shouldering the weight of the marble onto my back and continuing to my terminal.
I was so tired. Of all of it. I was tired of crying. I was tired of having dreams about spiders invading my room. I was tired of talking to people. I was tired of making phone calls and of explaining my situation and figuring things out and closing accounts. I was tired of breathing and yet there was so much still left to do. So much… so very, very much…
I met my dad the day before the service. He took me to get pictures of mom printed for the service and to buy picture frames for them since I didn’t have the money to afford a rental car. We went to the service together. I shook hands and greeted people and accepted their condolences. I was now the matriarch of my family and this is what I had to do. I had to be ok because people needed me to be ok. I had to be strong. I had to hold it together. I had to be an adult.
That night, my dad took my younger brother and me out to dinner with a close family friend who had also come to pay his respects. For the first time since mom had died, I had a drink. For the first time, I was finally not the one having to be responsible or figure shit out or pay the bill. I had another drink after the first one, and for the first time in two weeks, I didn’t hurt as much. It still sucked, but I found myself smiling as we shared stories and remembered good times.
After dinner, my dad drove all of us to a bar where I continued to drink. I didn’t have to worry about being the designated driver. I didn’t have to worry about being alone or how I was going to get back to my hotel.
For the first time in two weeks, I could be a hurt, lost child becasue through all of the trials life and forced me through in such a short amount of time, I still had a parent physically at my side to make sure I stayed safe and ok. He made sure I knew that even though it might feel like it, that I wasn’t alone and I would one day be ok and that both he and mom were proud of how I had handled myself throughout everything. That I had done amazing and they were so very, very proud and they both loved me great big bunches and it would be ok.
My dad may not have been the best parent growing up, but my dad was legitimately there when I needed him to be there. My mom’s death taught me that all of the hurt and resentment I had over missed marching band competitions and Christmas cards was so insignificant when faced with mortality and the realness of death.
Was I going to let petty childhood expectations steal the only parent I had left, or would I, could I, learn to grow past that in order to have a relationship as an adult with another adult; flaws and all?
While my mom’s death has been the hardest, “I’ll see you later,” I’ve ever had to say, it allowed me to legitimately grow up and to be an adult with clear values and priorities. It gave my dad the chance to step forward and to be there in spite of all the times he had chosen otherwise. My mom’s death gave us both a clearer perspective of how important and meaningful our relationship is. He learned how to say, “I’m sorry.” I learned how to say, “I forgive you.” We both learned how to say, “Hello.”