Extended Family

Back in August Mom, Aunt K, Gram, and Grandpa drove north to visit Grandpa’s siblings. I always enjoyed spending time with Mom’s cousins and their kids growing up, so I jumped at the chance to join them. We met at a bar and grill by the lake and spent over 2 hours talking, laughing, and trading stories – about 30 of us, covering 3 generations. Mom and her siblings were pretty close to their extended family growing up, so her cousins didn’t hesitate to bring me into the fold when I drove up. (Side note: Mom’s cousins are among the few people left in the world who still think I look like Mom) Even though I’m a generation younger, I got to sit at the grown-ups’ table, conversing with the adults.

Near the end of the meal, as Mom was engaged in a different conversation, one of her cousins pulled me aside and asked, in all earnestness, how Mom was doing since 3’s death. At this point, it had been nearly 20 months, but the cousin was just as concerned as ever. I answered honestly, saying that the second year has been easier than the first, but that Mom still has her bad days.

It was oddly comforting, hearing this kind of concern for Mom over a year and a half later. Of course, we all still live with 3’s death every single day. They’re certainly not all bad days, but the fact remains that my brother, Mom’s son, is dead, so it was nice to realize that people are still thinking about Mom, at least occasionally. I’m glad, because Mom definitely deserves the thoughts and prayers, but it also made me wonder if people are still asking about or thinking about me.

Two huge caveats to that thought: 1) Mom obviously deserves concern more than I do. I know she has more bad days, and I know the experience of losing a child is entirely different from that of losing a sibling. And 2) my friends have been off-the-charts incredible. I’m thrilled and exceedingly blessed with all they’ve done for me. It was just a thought I had. Personally, I know that I didn’t think about KP’s dad after he died, so it’s unrealistic to think that anyone who doesn’t have first-hand experience with death would know that it still matters, even almost 2 years later.

These Dreams, Part IV

A few nights ago, I had another dream about 3. We, along with RJ and S, were on an ice floe in the ocean. We were paddling, trying to get to shore, but the waves somehow kept pushing us further out to sea. Finally, we managed to ride out 2 waves in a row and made it back to land. Much excitement ensued, and 3 made his way down the line, hugging each of his sisters in turn.

As soon as 3 hugged me, I realized it was a dream. Of course, I wanted him to stay. I wanted him to come back to me, to talk to me, to tell me that he’s OK. He gave me a knowing smirk as he continued toward RJ, as if I’d come upon him playing a role in a theme park and he had to stay in character, keeping up the pretense of the dream. Since I haven’t mastered the art of lucid dreaming, I couldn’t stick around to see what would happen once the scene was over, and I woke up.

I know I’m incredibly lucky to have 2 dreams where I got to hug my brother within a few months. I don’t know a whole lot about the science of dreaming, but I can’t really think of a reason for why 3 has popped up in such a positive manner. The spiritual side of me wants to think that these dreams are gifts (OK, regardless of reason, I definitely think the dreams are gifts), but with nothing particularly exciting happening in my life, there’s really no call for presents, dream or otherwise. Yes, job hunting is making me a bit anxious, but certainly no more stressed than writing my dissertation, applying for the last round of jobs, or any of the international moves of the past 2 years.

Like I said, I’m grateful nevertheless. Part of the reason I started this blog is so I could write down and remember the events after 3’s death: my thoughts, my feelings, all the incredible things people did to help me. I’m pretty good at remembering dreams (seriously – I still remember a couple of dreams I had when I was 5), but when it comes to posthumous encounters with my brother, a little electronic backup can’t hurt.

No Patience

For the past week, I’ve been experiencing the heightened anxiety that comes with being on the job market. Within two hours, I got an invitation for a phone interview to one of my top choice universities (giving my just 24 hours notice), then found out that at least half of the places to which I applied have already chosen a candidate. The former was very exciting; the latter, a significant bruise to my apparently fragile ego.

When I first got the interview request, I was hesitant to share the news too widely. It’s just the first step, after all, but I still wanted some sort of comfort or support. I tried texting SL, who also works in academia, but she didn’t respond. I tried texting Dad, who would have no way of telling the rest of the family, but he didn’t respond, either. Finally, I texted my darling Kay and straight-up demanded “COMFORT ME!!!!!” She did, immediately, complete with an adorable picture of her nephew, because she’s amazing.

Of course, after the initial excitement came the realization that at least half the places to which I applied don’t want me – probably more. Later in the week, one of the committee members told me during the interview that I’d be a risk to hire because of my lack of experience applying for grants. With this likely being the only interview I get, it suddenly became a real possibility that I won’t get a tenure-track position this year. Huh.

I’ve talked to a few people about the interview and my lack of prospects, but it wasn’t until my ever-optimistic advisor e-mailed me earlier tonight that I was able to accurately describe my reaction. I am deliberately not caring. Like my football-watching realization a year ago, I just have no patience. At first, I had no patience for Dad and SL not responding; I demanded attention. Now, I have no patience for any truly negative emotions. Fear, intense anxiety about the future? Terror that my career, the one thing that’s consistently gone right amidst the rest of my dysfunctional life, might now be off-track? No time for that shit.

I think maybe I’ve decided that I’ve had enough negative emotion to last me quite awhile, even though it’s been almost 2 years. So now, I avoid it, deny it. I’m not going to freak out, but I’m also not going to hide beneath false optimism. OK, my resume isn’t attractive to universities right now. Start making another plan and move on. My first contacts don’t text back when I decide I need some comfort? Move on to the next likely responder. I have no patience for dwelling on things that don’t work out, for things that are out of my control. I’ll just fall back on my usual coping mechanisms of sleep and junk food, and move on to tomorrow.

Class Reunion

This year marks my 10-year high school class reunion. Somehow, I ended up on the planning committee for the event. Granted, I actually enjoyed high school, for the most part; I have quite a few genuinely good people in my class who I’m looking forward to seeing again, but still. I never thought I’d be the kind of girl on a planning committee, seemingly holding on to school spirit 10 years later.

It didn’t occur to me until several months into planning that this would have been 3’s 5-year reunion. Yes, I knew he was 5 years behind me in school, but the fact that our reunion years would have lined up never crossed my mind until he was gone. So here I sit, receiving group e-mails from former classmates to put together our 10-year party, knowing full well that 3 should be doing the exact same thing.

3 was his class president, a fact that might surprise people who didn’t know him in high school. He wasn’t exactly the paragon of organization and administrative structure. He loved his school, though, and his classmates loved him. The principal refused to let 3 give a speech at graduation, but the other teachers rallied and convinced the principal to let 3 lead the class in their final singing of the alma mater. When we held the calling hours in the high school chapel, some of the seniors at the time came through the line, saying they wanted to let us know what an impact 3 had on the school.

3’s class was a lot smaller than mine was – just over 1/2 the size, actually – but I’m pretty sure he would have been right in the middle of any efforts to put together a reunion, though such efforts might only extend to a few messages on Facebook or Twitter. A 3-led reunion might have taken place over a weekend, with he and his classmates gathering at a football game, cheering on the current team. They might have gone to one of his favorite bars afterwards. He almost certainly would have ended up sleeping with at least one of the girls who showed up.

It’s such a small thing. Like I said, the fact that I share reunion years with 3 wasn’t something I ever thought about before this year. He and I probably would have talked about it, but now we won’t. As for my reunion, I might have told a few of my classmates about what I knew about the class of ’09, but that would have been it. Now, I’m almost certain 3 won’t be brought up at all. Even the few classmates I know are aware of 3’s death aren’t likely to say anything. I barely speak to most of these people, so I’m sure my brother’s death isn’t anything they think about.

I suppose I still have a few more of these “what if” moments to work through in the coming years. They’re certainly fewer and farther between since the first year, but they’re still there. Check this one off the list, anyway.

I See Crazy People

I have quite a bit of experience with mental illness. My dad has never been what one could describe as “mentally stable,” and many of his brothers and sisters also show distinct signs of psychopathology. In addition to his probably clinical levels of anger, 3 was also a pathological liar. I’d say he was a bad lair, but then again, who knows how many of his lies I actually caught? All of his stories could have been fictional. Who knows?

Growing up in the shadow of such a prime example of mental illness is bound to leave an impact on a girl, let alone living through a sibling’s suicide, the epitome of unhealthy behavior. I know Dad’s persistent refusal to acknowledge reality has made me less trusting, and 3’s suicide has heightened my control-freak nature, but, this past weekend, I added another quirk to my list of family-influenced behaviors.

I see crazy people. Everywhere. I mentally diagnose others with all manner of psychopathology, praising those who seek help and judging those who seem to lack the self-awareness necessary to get better. I came to this realization while collecting data for my current research study. I’m working with families of children with intellectual disabilities to improve sibling relationships. As I visiting one such family, the mom chatted at length about the new job she was applying for describing in detail her myriad skills that aren’t being utilized at her current job. Now, I don’t know this woman very well. I’ve only met with her 4 or 5 times. She’s incredibly nice, and I love working with her kids, but I didn’t believe her. While the mom was talking about her work history, I kept thinking “You’re not as good as you think you are. You’re probably a bit narcissistic, tunnel vision, blaming others for your problems,” etc.

As I walked back to my car after completing the visit, I considered my reaction. How very unfair I was being. I have no right to silently judge this woman, to paint her with the same brush as my father and his siblings, to think her a liar like my brother. Yet, I do this kind of thing all the time. A friend discusses her husband in aggrieved terms? He must be depressed. Get him help or divorce him as soon as possible, lest your poor infant children grow up to resent him the way I resent my father. Someone tells a marginally strange story? They must be lying. I bet they lie about everything. No one can be trusted.

Of course, I am not exempt from my own mental diagnoses. If I get caught in traffic and show up late or forget to return a phone call, I assume the offended party won’t believe my excuse. They must think I’m lying. Who really gets stuck in traffic? Sophomore Year Roommate can’t possibly be OK with the fact that I rescheduled a trip to see her at the last minute. She must think me terribly self-centered and arrogant.

It’s exhausting see crazy everywhere. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even know if I’m wrong in all my judgments, but I do know I’m not doing myself any good by making them. Some people are healthy; not everyone has to deal with the same psychopathologies that seem to permeate my existence.