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Six months on

Today it’s been six months since we lost Rana.

My therapist urged me to do something today to honor the day and honor Rana. I decided to write about her, about her funeral, and about how I’m doing. But first, this photograph.

Rana (then Ross), me, Damion, and Garrett, Christmas 2003.

This photo is from the last Christmas before Rana’s mom and I split up. Rana (still Ross then) a was a senior in high school. We were gathering for a family photo and someone pressed the button to grab this candid shot. I just love seeing this interaction between Rana and me. Just look at our faces. Those are two people who love each other and are happy to be together. I’m going to cling to this image today.

I don’t think about Rana every day anymore. But often enough something will remind me of Rana or our time together as a family, and I’ll be sad and irritable the rest of the day.

I’m still seeing a grief counselor, and will for some time to come yet. Yesterday we talked about Rana’s funeral, really plumbed the depths of that day. It helped me finally unpack and process it. It was difficult, of course, as the funeral for any loss like this will be. But that day I was the ex-husband in a room full of people primarily from Rana’s mom’s world, and I was very anxious about it. The end of that marriage was 100% my fault and 100% her fault; we both did very destructive things. What did everyone know? Was anyone judging me harshly?

I saw Rana’s biological father for the first time in 20 years, and a great deal of his family. I knew many of them a long time ago, because they were surprisingly open and welcoming to me. A couple times I even visited their farm in rural Illinois when we dropped off or picked up Rana/Ross for a long visit there. They treated me like family.

I also met some of my ex-wife’s new family for the first time. I wasn’t prepared for that, even though I knew it was going to happen. It was awkward for me.

I was extremely disappointed for my ex-wife that none of her family came. She has two sisters, and her father is still living. They live in distant states, but apparently none of them could figure out how to fly in for the funeral. As much as I worried about how I might be judged in that room, I judged her family very harshly for their failure to support my ex in this time of extreme loss and pain.

But the most surprising thing about the funeral was how much time my ex-wife spent with me. She sat with her husband during the service, which lasted all of 20 minutes or so. 75 percent of the rest of the time, she was either with me or within five feet of me. I had not spent that much time with her, or spoken with her that much, since 2004.

There’s no denying that we will always share an important and deep connection because of our children. Even though I didn’t enter the picture until Rana/Ross was 7, I was present and active during the majority of Rana/Ross’s childhood. I was far more involved than Rana/Ross’s bio dad was. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that my ex wanted to spend time with me. Because of that connection, I also was comforted to be with her.

But it was also challenging to be with her, because she was cruel and abusive toward me, especially in the last few years before we split. Appropriately, I’ve since maintained a strict separation of our lives and strong boundaries around our interactions — boundaries that on that day came tumbling down, if only for those couple of hours.

The last time I wrote about Rana I said that I was about to try an antidepressant. The first one we tried improved my mood considerably, but gave me strong anxiety at bedtime and made sleep harder to come by. The doctor added a second antidepressant that he said for most people reduces or eliminates those side effects. The combination is working well for me. I’m happier, I feel hope and optimism, and I’m brighter and more cheerful in the world. It’s the first time I’ve ever had SSRIs/SNRIs not lead to frightening, serious side effects, let alone work. These two meds absolutely make life a lot easier while I continue to grieve.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that this anniversary of Rana’s death falls on the last day of Pride Month. I wonder how she would have participated. I’d like to be able to ask her.

Rana lives on in my heart and mind, but isn’t there anymore to visit, call, or text. This is the most challenging thing for me day to day, knowing it’s not possible to reach out anymore.

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The fog lifts

I was in a fog for almost two months after Rana died. I just didn’t know it until it lifted.

Foggy trees
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor, Kodak Tri-X 400, 2017

Actually, I thought my fog had lifted after the first two weeks. It turns out that was abject shock. Once that cleared away, the fog set in.

Thank heavens my job didn’t demand too much of me when I returned to it. My new boss was busy setting the stage for some changes he wanted to make, and asked me only to manage the team managers and make sure the in-flight project delivered at the end of the quarter as scheduled. The teams were handling their work well. It took only a light hand on the tiller to keep things on track.

That was a relief, because I was so tired all the time. Because I worked from home most days, I could get away with taking a 30-minute afternoon nap. I wasn’t able to function after a certain time of day without it.

My diet also went to crap. Unrelated to Rana’s death, I started counting calories and exercising more to try to lose the 15 pounds I gained during the pandemic. It’s been working, slowly; I’m down five pounds since January. But I’m eating a lot of junky frozen meals to do it, and when I’m out for a meal I reach right for pizza and cheeseburgers.

I’m reading a book on grief called Life After Loss, and it tells me that the naps and bad diet are incredibly common among grievers.

I got a grief counselor right away. I have the Director of HR at my company to thank for that. I had been trying unsuccessfully to find a counselor — it’s crazy how booked up they are these days — when the Director of HR reached out to see how I was doing. When I told her I was having trouble lining up a counselor, she swung into action and somehow got me an appointment with a grief counselor for that Thursday. She even had the company prepay my first ten visits.

Talking it out with the counselor has been helpful, but I have plenty of people to talk it out with. What has made counseling valuable is the questions the counselor has asked. They’ve been innocent little curiosity questions that have caused me to explore my thoughts and feelings, often for hours or days after the appointment.

She also had me write a letter to Rana. I was surprised how much anger came out in it. I started it with, “How dare you do this to all of us?” Writing the letter was enough for me to process a great deal of those challenging feelings and let them go.

It was after I wrote that letter that my fog lifted and my feelings started to settle. Rana is no longer on my mind all the time. I feel some energy returning. Not all of my energy, and still not most of my willingness to deal with the everyday challenges life throws my way. The little things that go wrong irritate me disproportionately.

My whole life I’ve lived with some level of general anxiety. I’ve worked it over with any number of therapists and I’ve improved that all I’m likely ever to. I will always feel on guard against some threat. Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself, it doesn’t cause me distress and I’m able to do the things I want to do. But last autumn, intense pressure at work pushed me to burnout and my anxiety kept spiking. Sometimes it caused me to freeze up and not be able to act. That was new.

So I visited my doctor, who tried a medication called BuSpar. It’s supposed to be a wonder drug for anxiety, but it gave me up-all-night insomnia. She discontinued it, prescribed me some Klonopin to use when anxiety was strong (with no refills, because that stuff is habit forming), and referred me to a psychiatrist.

Twenty years ago as my first marriage was falling apart I was deeply, dangerously depressed. Under a psychiatrist’s care I tried antidepressants for the first time. Every last one I tried had crazy, ugly side effects. The first day I took Zoloft, for example, I straight up passed out, just fell over unconscious, and was out for something like eight hours. I tried and abandoned eight or nine different drugs in rapid succession, each with some new and frightening side effect. It was a horror show.

The doctor finally tried lithium, which is normally prescribed for bipolar disorder. It gave me no side effects, and put a floor under my depression so I could function. It didn’t make me happy, but at least it made me not want to drive my car into a bridge abutment anymore. I took it for several years, until the worst of that time in my life was over.

When this new psychiatrist started talking about the various antidepressants that also have good effect on anxiety, I interrupted him right there and told him about my history. He said, “Ah, you’re treatment resistant then.” He described a number of options that didn’t exist 20 years ago. One is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain and alleviate depression and anxiety. Another is ketamine, which is primarily used as an anesthetic and also illegally as a party drug. Administered in small doses as a nasal spray, it is said to have incredible positive effect alleviating depression and anxiety. The third option is genetic testing to determine which traditional psychiatric medications do and don’t play well with your genetic makeup, and with the enzymes that are and are not present in your system.

The first two options were very expensive and time-consuming, so I tried the genetic testing. The results made me laugh — every last antidepressant I tried 20 years ago was not recommended for me based on my genetic profile. I lack a couple of key enzymes that would let me metabolize most of those drugs. So the doctor steered me toward a medication that my test results said should interact well with my body.

I hope this medication works. I am depressed since Rana died. Between low mood and anxiety, I really don’t want to do very much. I get through the things I absolutely must do, but not much more. I’m grateful that my new boss at work has recut my job responsibilities — I was carrying far too much before, and now my job is do-able by one human being. The things I’m responsible for now, I am good at and enjoy.

You might be wondering how I keep publishing here six days a week. Some of that is sheer stubbornness — I’ve kept this schedule all these years and I don’t want to stop now. But most of it is that I know from experience that to keep depression from getting worse, I must keep doing the things I enjoy. I make myself do them. So I’m still getting out there with my cameras, still writing about the things that come to mind, still working on my next book. I don’t feel terribly creative right now, and so far this year I haven’t produced anything (words or photographs) that feel like great work to me. But I know that keeping at it is part of keeping myself together, and that I’ll start producing satisfying work again in due time.

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Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.

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Farewell Abigail

The family I grew up in, we’re dog people. We had a couple hounds when I was very young, but then we got a Labrador retriever and stayed with the breed from then on. The first was Missy, and then came Shadow. The last of them, Abigail, was a rescue. She died recently. It was cancer. She was 12.

Here are photos from the day Mom and Dad brought Abigail to my house so we could meet her. It was March of 2011. That’s my brother in there, also with my dear friend Gracie, who passed in 2013.

Abigail’s muzzle almost immediately began turning white. By the time she died, her face was largely white. Here’s a black-and-white film photo I made of her in 2014, her muzzle about half white.

Abigail

Abigail was a quiet and gentle soul, a perfect companion for my quiet, homebody parents. Since Dad died, it was just Mom and Abigail at home. Now it’s just Mom.

My, but do we become attached to our dogs. We’ll all miss Abigail. Thanks for indulging me today as I remember her.

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One year on

“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.

Father and son, about 1970

I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.

But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.

I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.

But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.

I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.

The last photo of my dad, with his sons and grandsons. 2017.

During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.

In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.

That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.

Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.

North into Plymouth
The Michigan Road entering downtown Plymouth, IN

So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.

The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.

It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.

By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.

What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.

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“You are five times the father I ever was,” my dad said to me

I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.

That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.

The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.

I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.

And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.

Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.

Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.

Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.

Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”

Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”

Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.

Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.

I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.

I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.

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