Monday, October 10, 2011

Letting go is hard to do

Decades ago my sister was hit by a car while walking past the exit of a downtown parking garage. The impact threw her into the street, where a crowd immediately gathered. Had she survived? Her first words: "I need to get to the subway station or I'll be late for work."

I know this syndrome, born of shock and denial. Even while waiting out the standoff that would result in my first husband's suicide, I kept thinking: as soon as I get home, I'll file the newspaper article that had been due that day. Our plans are important. They organize our lives and make us feel safe; we know what to expect.

So when I broke my ankle two weeks before the fall Writing Partner retreat I was to host at our summer home, my immediate inclination was to forge on. For a variety of reasons I'd had to work hard to do it but I'd finally pulled together an awesome group of women. And after planning my father's memorial service, living all summer with my mother who suffers from dementia, and working 12-15 hour days to catch up with the most editing work I've ever had in a year—adding to that now, the ankle injury—I really needed to retreat, in every sense of the word.

I assured everyone, even from my hospital bed, that the retreat would move ahead as planned. I had two whole weeks to get better. I could do this, I thought.

That was before I realized just how far I would have to retreat.

My first inkling was how exhausting it was for the fiercely independent woman I'd become to ask for every little thing I needed: That a pillow relocated to another room be delivered. My pills, please. More water. Food? My whole life my mom had been dutiful in the nursing department, and she still was, but she couldn't remember where to find anything; I constantly had to fight through my medicated brain-numbness to find the words I needed to help her locate what she needed. Often more than once. Then again.

And let's just say that to depend upon a walker, using only one leg, was akin to walking on your legs your whole life and then being told to instead walk on your hands. Muscles rebelled.

Although I ferried between only two locations—the bed at night, and the couch on the porch by day—at every meal my mother would set me a place at the table, sometimes even starting her meal before saying, "Oh, you're going to eat over there tonight?" As if I was inconveniencing her by my sudden decision. And here I was supposed to be taking care of her. Dave was a big help, but caring for me in such a way was new to him, too. Rather than patronize me, he erred on the side of waiting to be told what to do.

Even as guilt and impotence drained me, lack of sleep screwed with my head. Part of me felt I had to stand guard all night lest Dave—who has no trouble sleeping despite his jumpy leg syndrome—strike out at my ankle. Yet I wouldn't ask him to sleep elsewhere. What if I needed him? I sandbagged a barrier between us with an extra pillow but couldn't fall asleep. And when I finally would I'd jerk awake with continued flashbacks—the slip, the sudden fall. The snap of the first bone, the crunching of the others. The rain, the shivering. In the middle of the night, with nothing to distract me from my hot ankle pain and stranded between pain pill dosages, I'd lie there softly crying for as much as an hour and a half.

My days, once a multi-tasker's mishmash (blogging, social networking, writing on my own book-length projects, editing for others, booking future speaking gigs) were now simply mash: clomping to the bathroom, sponge bathing, getting to the couch, eating, resting, and trying to find new ways to get up from the couch. Every single thing required creative problem solving that sleep deprivation left me poorly equipped to tackle, from washing my face (I put a stool beside the sink to kneel on, effectively creating for myself another leg) to tentative forays into food prep (I could chop veggies if someone washed and dried them, brought me a knife and a cutting board, then came to retrieve them).

It was clear I couldn't provide the type of bed and breakfast retreat experience my ladies signed on for. So I could contact them Dave rigged up this system so I could sit at my computer: a bench-like coffee table shoved beneath my desktop table, with a pillow on it that I could slide my foot along as he pushed in my chair. I went online to negotiate with my retreaters. I'd go ahead with the retreat and return some of their money, I said, if they'd agree to an alternative, commune-like experience where all pitched in.

Turning on the computer meant hitting the wall of hundreds of e-mails missed during the three days I was in the hospital. I opened a few, wondered how the hell I'd ever handled dealing with so much mail, then shut it off. Ten minutes sitting up had my ankle throbbing; I needed to lie down and elevate it. Above my heart; above my passions.

My awesome retreaters quickly agreed to the new terms. But as the days wore on, I was still only capable of staying up until 8 pm, the time when our evening readings would usually begin. My sleep was so fractured I couldn't make it through the day without a nap, either. I felt incapable of leading anything. And for the first time in many years, I needed rest more than I needed to write.

Uncle. I had let go in stages, but I finally faced my limitations: this retreat would not be anything like the experience I wanted for my guests, and further, it would fail to feed my own writing soul, now held captive and inaccessible in some parallel universe. I canceled the retreat, and while I was at it, all but one of my fall speaking engagements.

I had to face my new reality: not only was I no longer the multi-tasking modern writer, I couldn't figure out how I'd ever even lived that life.

For now, I was a simply a woman trying to figure out how to survive, and how to ask for help doing so.

I love that saying, "Life is what happens while we're busy making plans." Have you ever tried to hold onto a plan despite an extreme change in circumstance? I'd love to hear your story.


Anonymous said...

Now, that's inspiration for us to embrace and hold dear! Great job, Kathryn

Kerry Gans said...

Two instances of trying to hold on when circumstances change come to mind.

The first is when my best friend and writing partner of 18 years died of cancer at age 32(a whole other kind of letting go). My social ties and writing process simultaneously shattered. I'm still rebuilding both 8 years later.

The second is when my daughter was born. I foolishly thought I would still be able to churn out a good deal of writing. Ha! It's amazing how much time a little person takes up. So I have to eke out what I can when I can. I think I need one of your retreats! :-)

As a person who is "highly routinized" (as my husband kindly puts it), I have a tendancy to hold on far too long to things that are no longer workable, causing myself much angst along the way.

I'm glad you are on the mend!

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Susan.

And Kerry: Great examples, thanks for sharing them. Even in the case of my father's death, which at 86 was way more expected than the loss of your friend--I thought I could simply carry on at first. I couldn't. Especially in today's marketing oriented world: I just had nothing to sell. And as for your thought about holding onto things no longer workable? That was me, in my first marriage. Sometimes, even things we've vowed need to be re-examined under changing circumstance.

Kate Brandes said...

I don't have any extreme change of circumstances. Just a whispering that my over-stuffed life is not what I want. Something has to go. I want to notice the color of the sky and talk to my neighbors rather than rushing to the next thing. I'm working on a change.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I hope each day gets a little easier.

off kilter said...

This is a wonderful topic for all of us. My story: I broke my foot and insisted on hostessing a mom's club a few days later, setting up snack plates by hauling cookies around my living room in plastic bags artfully hanging from my crutch. Totally nuts in my determination to measure up to other harried new moms!I say, bring back creative napping. ;-)

Kathryn Craft said...

Kate: Thanks for your good wishes! Now that I'm at the six-week mark I am seeing some noticeable improvement. And I know what you mean about the harried life. For a variety of reasons, I wonder if I even want to return to the full force of mine. Problem is, I love everything I do--what to remove?

Kathryn Craft said...

Linda: Loved the story--could just picture you! Isn't it amazing what we'll attempt, at times, just to show others how strong we are? I'm finding it can take a greater strength to say, "I need some time to myself right now."

Mimi78 said...

My letting-go-story is certainly not the life and death stuff mentioned, but it taught me something. My family re-located from Washington DC to Louisville KY last year due to my husband's job. I left a very fast paced --- sometimes too fast --- life: two kids in elementary school, a full time sales job, harried travel, sleepless stress. Louisville was a slower town, and I was determined to slow down our lives, and make them more meaningful. We moved during the summer, so once the boys started school, I started getting antsy. I decided to pursue a Masters of Communication. I got the referrals, applied, got in, got my books, got my first assignment. The day of my first class my son's third grade teacher informed me that he was having trouble writing (both fluency and cursive). He would have a school tutor, but needed more work at home. I suddenly realized the incongruency of a Mom getting a Masters in Communication when her son can't write. I deferred that day. The university was very kind about it, but it was still tough to let go.

Kathryn Craft said...

Wow, Mimi: I don't know if I could have been that selfless! I would have hoped I was being a good role model as concerns valuing education, stayed my course, and "done our homework together" at the same table or something. In other words, continued my mad multi-tasking existence! I'm sure he'll thrive with the added attention from you in ways you might not even see just now.

I find it interesting that an elementary teacher in a modern school thinks cursive is anything to worry about. In our PA school district it's all about keyboarding, and has been for some time. Since second grade I think the only thing my high-achieveing 22- and 24-year-old sons have ever written in cursive are their signatures. Even in grade school, written reports were expected to be typed and printed out. So if he doesn't master it? This too shall pass.

Recovering Church Lady said...

You are amazing and I know the tiny details of inconvenience this type of accident brings. My 25 yr old son recently broke his femur and just moving from one spot to another takes a lot of planning, but he is determined as you are and life will not be compromised !

I hope you will be able to take some serious down time and just relax and get better soon!