Thursday, February 05, 2009

I Don't Even Know Where to Begin

When I started this journey five years ago, I was fresh-faced, young, inexperienced, incredibly frustrated by my position as a young adult trying to make it in the publishing and graphic design world, only to find that I was not prepared for the realities that would come crashing down on me and didn't know how to respond to differing personalities from my own in the world of business (read: my boss terrified me). I resolved to express my creativity and entrepreneurial wanderlust in a small stationery business. I joined a (now-defunct) forum of small stationery business owners. I started a blog to trace my steps. I quit my job of six months, moved back in with my parents, told people I was branching out on my own, and began racking up credit card debt to buy a job interview suit, pay bills, eat, and cover gas expenses.

I found a graphic arts job at an hourly rate barely above minimum wage (I had to pay the bills somehow, and that business had not taken off yet). I loved the job and the people, though finances were still a concern. Three months later, just when I was about to sign a lease for a small studio apartment in Knoxville, TN, I was laid off and was, for the second time in six months, unemployed.

This unemployment thing was becoming a trend.

I finally found a couple of part time jobs and things began looking up. But a year of working in retail and cooking in a kitchen only fueled my desire to get out on my own and realize my dreams. My parents bought half of a duplex in Murfreesboro, TN. I moved back to the town of my alma mater, shared the duplex with my younger brother until he moved to take a job in Connecticut and get married, and took an assistant job at a small Nashville advertising and marketing agency. Car issues plagued me. More debt. Medical bills when I broke my foot. More debt. Low income didn't cover my living expenses well. More debt. Depending on the season, I was either miserable and bored or stressed and energized by the fast-paced environment of the office. I had to learn to readjust my attitude. My car broke down one final time and I had to find one to replace it. You guessed it, more debt.

I tried selling vintage finds at an antique mall and actually started doing well at it, but had to drop my micro-mini business venture during busy seasons at work. My stationery dreams were labeled as "history" and shelved. It was just too impossible to start something in my financial state.

There were good things that happened, too. I made new friends, and strengthened old relationships. I found a family of peers that would later be used by God to support me and get me through the hardest months of my life. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I left my old job at the tea room behind in East Tennessee, I had already trained my replacement: my mother. After years and years of homeschooling her children and sacrificing her own dreams to do so, Mom was finally getting a job outside of the home as the assistant cook. But two months into my new job over four hours away, I got the phone call that changed my life. Mom was sobbing, breaking down from the stress of complications at the new job, and a mysterious pain in her side that would not go away. I rushed home immediately—didn't even pack a bag. And when I arrived, I could tell the two months had taken a toll on her. She had lost an alarming amount of weight. She looked weary. Less than an hour later, after the hugs were over and we were sitting in the living room together and I asked what was going on, my Dad looked over at me and said four terrifying words:

"Your mother has cancer."

If time can stand still, it did at that moment. All it took was one look at Mom, who confirmed his statement with a short nod, and I began to weep. I crossed the room to hold her in my arms and cry together. In that first weekend, I went through all the stages of grief and mourning in a mere two days.

For two years, she fought a battle against the disease that had begun in her colon and then invaded surrounding organs and tissue. Her lungs, liver, chest cavity—all had spots of cancer that could not be surgically removed, not even when the original tumor had been removed from her colon by emergency surgery.

My first real sense of what my loss would be like occurred in May of 2008, when I attended my grandfather's funeral. And then again June, when I attended my grandmother's. In two months, my mother had lost both of her parents. I know she must have been thinking ... this could be me some day. For me, I witnessed the events of my grandfather's funeral and wept for knowing this was what was ahead one day ... if the cancer could not be stopped.

Then, on September 22, 2008, my mother wrote her own last blog entry, detailing the news that she had gone into liver failure from the cancer. Less than a month later, she died at home. In that month, our family went through the hardest days and hours and minutes we could ever imagine as we watched her rapidly decline. Within two weeks of being told she had two months to live, she was no longer able to fully communicate with us. She slept constantly. She was jaundiced ... yellow all over, even in what should have been the whites of her eyes. She began to lose balance and require assistance to walk even a few feet. Motion and smells made her sick to her stomach. She threw up multiple times in an hour, eventually vomiting fecal matter that could not be processed by her liver. Three days before she died, she was confined to a wheelchair. The day before she died she was semi-comatose, in and out of consciousness (but not cognizant of much at all) in a rented hospital bed in our home.

I was in the busiest season of my work year. The stress level was unfathomable. I worked as much as I could, and drove home to be with Mom on the weekends. Each new trip out brought a wave of grief over me when I saw my mother's face again and realized just how much worse she was. The day she could not continue a conversation with me, I wept uncontrolably in my room. I knew then I had lost my mother, even if she was not yet deceased. During this time, the friends and family that God had given me over the years took care of myself and my father and brothers. I learned to accept help from people I knew I could not repay.

During the last six months of 2008, I was also going through my own trials. I was in an undefined long distance relationship of sorts for ten months that had me confused and feeling ridiculous for wanting to believe it could work out even though I knew, deep down, if I had to try to make it work, it wasn't happening. Two weeks before my Mom died, the guy I had dated and was talking to on a regular (if unpredictable) basis called and, for lack of a better word, "broke up" with me. Strangely, though dissapointed, I felt relieved. I finally had the answer to the pressing question that had hung over me for months: did he really want to be with me? He told me I needed to focus on my Mom and not worry about things with him, and he was right. I have the utmost respect for him for calling and initiating that final conversation. He knew, as well as I did, that we needed to move on. And I did. After a few days of mourning what could have been, I set those thoughts aside and focused on Mom.

But that was not the only pressing issue on my mind. I also had gone through some rough patches at work, and the stress was building up and threatening to overwhelm me, especially when combined with the anticipatory grief that I was experiencing during Mom's final days.

The day before she died, I drove home and spent hours watching her by the bedside, pressing a wet sponge to her lips for water (if she took a sip she would choke), wiping drool from her slumped head, and trying desperately to keep the oxygen tube in a comfortable position so she would not try to knock it off her face. A few times, her eyes opened and looked at me, and I think she saw me. But mostly, she was a vacant shell struggling to breath. My shift with her ended at 1am. Two hours later, my father knocked on my door, and my brother's, and my aunt's. He said, "She's gone," and we clung to each other and cried so hard and so long that we choked on our tears.

The days afterward blurred by. Funeral home. Travel to Pennsylvania for her bural and graveside service. A memorial service in Tennessee. More work for busy season. Before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving. I made it through two meals with other families, but the Monday after, I began to cry at work and had to go home to let the tears fall uninterrupted. I had pushed them aside to get through, but it was time for them to take over and work out the grief. Then it was Christmas. My niece was born. We all gathered in Connecticut to celebrate the life of this precious little girl and spend time together as a family in peace and quiet. We visited New York City just before New Year's Eve. I went home to Middle Tennessee, revivied, looking forward to a year without sorrow.

I have avoided blogging much until now. I wasn't ready. I couldn't express what I felt. I needed time to heal. I didn't have the strength, energy, or drive to move forward. But I know, with absolute certainty, that God has good planned for me and my family this year. Already, the joys have multiplied continually. It began when I unexpectedly met and began to date an amazing man who has since added to my happiness with each new day. It continued with the birth of my lovely niece in the beginning of December, just barely after my brother made it back from a lengthy business trip (he literally drove from the airport to the hospital to witness his daughter's birth). It was added to when I realized that my relationships with my brothers and my father had grown stronger and had patched up spots of contention that had haunted us for years. I finally humbled myself and asked for (and received) help from my Dad to eliminate my debt in a responsible way. And now, to see that he is also healing, bit by bit, as he mourns the loss of his best friend and soulmate. His eyes have a bit of a light again.

God is good. And I have grateful tears in my eyes as I type this. Never, in a hundred years, could I have imagined this would be possible, but I have joy and a hope for the future ahead of me. I truly do. And it is all because of Him.

I'm ready for the year ahead. And I am beginning to dream again. Despite the rumblings of a wounded economy, I believe it is possible for me to continue to press ahead. I feel like I am awakening from a deep slumber. A hibernation. Creativitity like electricity is bolting around inside, sparking, working to get out. I desire to seek God. To renew my interests. To use these gifts He gave me. To LIVE again.

Ruby Red ... is back.