Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My Grilling Hat

Before we dive into today’s article, I have to point out that I have started and stopped writing this one several times now. I believe firmly that an important step in both addressing depression issues and making you a better you is confronting anything that might be getting in your way, eyes open and walking forward. As such, a recurring theme here will be discussing some of my own issues to examine what they mean to me and, hopefully, how I address them, using that to find broader applications that we can all put into play. It’s a grand plan, but grand plans are almost always easier in theory than in practice.

Sometimes, confronting personal issues can be quite difficult. That is pretty obvious in hindsight. If it were easy, none of this would be necessary. We would all be confronting our issues on a regular basis, and no one would need help from anyone else. I’m not sure what that would be like, but I am sure that it is not the reality we inhabit.

Consider this a courtesy warning: today’s article will be more deeply personal than what we have seen so far. The squeamish may want to look away now (though I do hope that you won’t). They won’t all be like this - I don’t think the human mind is quite that resilient - and I promise that there will even be articles that are pure happy, just not this one. We are here to examine the entire picture, and that includes the lows as well as the highs.

Now that you have been sufficiently warned and I have been sufficiently psyched up, let’s get on with the actual article, shall we?

I don’t post selfies very often. I have no philosophical objection to them. I’m just not very good at taking them. I do try occasionally. It can be a good way to share pictures with people you don’t get to see very often and, living as far from family as I do, that justifies a little extra effort from time to time. To be honest, I usually take several pictures, hate them all, and end up thrusting the camera or phone into the nearest unsuspecting hands, requesting help. Once in a while, though, I do get one that I will actually let out into the public.

The image attached to this article is an example of one that made it into the wild. It was a picture that I took while grilling a couple weeks ago, and it made it all the way to my Facebook profile. This prompted a couple people to ask about the hat.

Most people who know me are used to seeing me wearing a hat. If I’m outside, I’m usually wearing a hat, and I will even grab my hat for photos when inside, if that is an option. This hat, however, is visibly different from the others. It is rather crooked and dented up from copious amounts of handling, for one thing and, for another, it doesn’t really fit me. It’s too big. Still, if I’m grilling at home, this is the hat I will be wearing. It’s my grilling hat.

There is a reason for that.

You see, this was my dad’s hat, before it became my grilling hat. I snatched it from him once at a family reunion, and we made quite a few memories passing it around. This was back before I was routinely wearing hats, and was part of what led to my adopting that fashion. When my dad passed away in April 2013, my mom was good enough to let me take his hat as a keepsake. (Thank you Mom. I love you.)

If you knew my dad, you know that he loved to grill. It was one of the things he was known for when I was growing up. With that in mind, I wore his hat as a tribute the first time I grilled after I got home from the funeral. Then I wore it the next time, and the time after that. It quickly became a ritual. If I’m grilling at home, I’m wearing my dad’s hat. My grilling hat.

I miss my dad very much, as anyone who has lost a loved one will understand, but some parts of this are so hard to put into words.

We didn’t always get along, my dad and I. I was not always an easy teenager to handle, even in relative comparison to other teenagers, and this did not get better as I moved into my twenties. You might remember that it was in my early twenties when I began to deal with some of my own hangups, and that transition period is never a fun thing to share. My dad had his own issues to deal with, and neither of us was very good at talking about such things back then. He loved me, and I have never had a moment in my life when I doubted that (which I fully realize makes me far luckier than so many people), and I never had a moment when I doubted that I loved him, but we did have many moments where we didn’t really know how to say so. So many moments, in fact, that we spent a period of time not talking to each other at all.

We both grew as we aged (a trick that more people should probably try), and I believe that, in later years, we became closer than ever. Our time apart probably helped to teach us both what is more important but, if so, I don’t recommend using that method. That time apart is time that we will never have back so, if you can find a better way to recognize your priorities, use it. Don’t lose time that you don’t have to lose. Time is one of the most precious commodities we have, and we waste so much of it. Don’t waste time. You can’t get it back.

As things turned out, just as Dad and I were getting closer as people, we got further apart in physical space. I moved to Washington, where I spent the next several years, met the woman who is now my long-suffering and very supportive wife, and put in a lot of good time raising a family and living a good life. Then, due to realities resulting from the recession and employment requirements, we moved to Phoenix, where we currently reside.

We joked at the time of the move about this bringing us closer to family in Texas, and it did, in a strictly literal sense, but it didn’t really make any difference where it mattered. We were a solid thousand miles closer, but that still left a gap too wide to close nearly as often as we would have liked. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2011, my dad invited us to join the family for a Caribbean cruise. Cruising was something he had developed a passion for in recent years, and he wanted to share that passion with the people he loved. To be honest, Heather and I were not entirely certain that we wanted to go - being on a boat for a week surrounded by strangers with no way out seemed pretty daunting to people who had never done anything like that before - but we knew what it would mean to Dad and, because of that, we never even considered declining. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made, not just because we had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat if it were more affordable, but also because the memories we made were unbeatable. Seeing my dad in that environment he had come to love so much was amazing. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I will be smiling about that trip for the rest of my life.

There are days, many of them lately, when I need that memory.

We still live in Phoenix, so this is where we were when my dad had his heart attack. If you have never had such an experience then there is no way I can make you understand the impotence of being 1100 miles away from the most important man in your life while he is lying in Intensive Care, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you have been through such a thing then you understand, and you have my deepest sympathies. If the universe were fair, no one would ever need to understand such a thing. The universe is not fair, though. That is a truth you have to feel all the way down in your bones if you are going to find your balance in this life. The universe is not fair, and wishing otherwise is as useless as wailing at the sea. It is up to each and everyone of us to make the best of things despite that fact. That’s how we do this thing called life.

I know this; I teach this; but sometimes it is so very hard to practice this.

My mom and I spent time on the phone, trying to make plans, trying to determine the best course of action. We knew that I would go down to Texas, but we were having some trouble figuring out When. Dad’s condition was very touch and go, and often seemed like it could go either direction at a moment’s notice. We knew that he might not make it, but we also knew that if he did pull through then there would be some heavy recuperation time on the other end. I went back and forth with the idea of heading south right away, but there was a financial limit to how much time I could take away from work, and we wanted to make the best use of what time I could get. We hoped for the best, of course, and tried not to think too hard about the worst, while planning for it all the same. I wanted to see my dad, in case I didn’t get another chance, but I wanted to be there when he really needed me, if it came to the best, during his recovery. We waited and we tried to parse the information coming from the doctors. Things seemed to be looking up, and we had hope. Dad had another heart attack on April 26, 2013 and, though they did all they could do, the doctors were not able to save him from that one.

My dad died, and I was still in Phoenix, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.

That may have been the most difficult sentence I have written in my entire life.

I want to make something perfectly clear: no one is at fault for my not being there, and I don’t blame anyone. We all did the best we could with the information we had. At the same time, though, not being there is a regret that I have had to work through every single day since Dad died. Such is the paradox, sometimes, of being human. We are often masters at carrying guilt that doesn’t even rightly exist. I miss my dad every day, and every day I have to work through the pain, the guilt, and the regret that stems from not being there with him at the end. Some days have been easier than others, but none have been easy. I’m not convinced that any ever will be. Grief has its own rules, and the universe is not fair.

We will all deal with grief at one time or another. Most of us will do so many times over. If you live and you love, you will lose. There is no getting around that. Whatever lives will die, but whatever dies must also have lived. There is the trick. That is the secret. The loss that causes grief reflects the love that will help you make it through.

Sometimes the only answer you can give to grief is your tears, and that is perfectly fine. Cry the tears you need to cry because they are an honest tribute to the love you felt, the love you feel, and - if you are very lucky - the love you will always feel. Pay your tribute, and then remember why you are paying tribute. Remember those memories that shine so brightly, they can never fade. Remember what made them special, what made them happy, and let them remind you how to smile. That is how we get through grief, not one day at a time, but one smile at a time.

I can remember my dad at the grill while we played baseball in the backyard. I can remember how much family meant to him, and how much doing things with and for his family meant to him. My grilling hat is a touchstone for that memory. When I’m having a bad day; when I’m missing him so hard, it’s a physical pain; when I’m so angry with regret that the world blurs around me; at my lowest points, I can look at that hat and be instantly reminded of some of my highest points.

That is why I wear that hat that is crooked and dented and too big for my head. It makes me smile. Sometimes that’s the best reason there can be.

I love you Dad.

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