Sunday, November 29, 2015

Where Strength is Found

When I was a little girl, my Dad took me to the campus of Notre Dame right around this time of year.  He and I would occasionally go on little excursions.  My mom was a stay at home mom, maybe he was taking me off of her hands for a bit, admittedly I was a handful.  Or maybe he genuinely liked spending time with me. I like to think the latter.  I remember walking down the sidewalk by the Hesburgh library right as the sun was setting and our shadows grew taller as we walked.  I let go of his hand and jumped on his shadow. He fell over in pain like he could feel it.   I did it again and again... and again. Each time his reaction was greater and more dramatic.  I began to wonder if I was actually hurting him, so I stopped.   It was then that he began laughing, scooped me up and put me on his shoulders. He pointed to our shadow, "Look, we're a giant!"  he said.  Now nobody can hurt us; we are unstoppable.

I have never forgotten that.  I work on the same campus, and whenever I walk by the library, I always think of that moment when my Dad and I were one big shadow giant.  Most daughters think their Dad is the strongest man in the world, I knew mine was.

As I grew up, I realized that physical strength is a genetic trait that I was blessed with from both sides.  Crazy strong women who liked getting dirty doing what was considered a man's work.  And the men in our lives have always stepped aside and let us do it, even celebrated it.  Don loves the fact that he doesn't have to call another guy to help him carry a refrigerator into the garage.  Just let me put down that baby, and I'll get it.

After my Dad had an accident about a month ago, he has been mostly paralyzed.  We had to move him to a rehabilitation center in Chicago that specialize spinal cord injuries.  Everyone tells me he is making huge strides.  He can move his right arm now. He can also move his left foot, which is a huge improvement from not being able to move at all.  But what he can't do is swallow, eat, walk, jump, sit up, move his hands... hug.

You don't realize how much you miss something as simple as a hug until you lean in to get one and feel nothing in return.

This is the man who carried me on his shoulders.  This is the man who could do anything and now is left laying in a bed doing nothing.   Even if I were to jump on his shadow, he wouldn't be able to feel it.  All I have left to do is just watch and cry.

But that is not what strong women do, at least not this one.   It took me a couple of weeks to understand that no amount of will or determination was going to make him walk again. At least not right now.

My mom has not left his side.  She is his muscle for now.  But don't get me wrong, he works hard.  Every day he is in physical therapy the same amount of time as my sons are in school .  He has never worked harder in his life for something that used to be done without thought.  The next time you brush your teeth, know that my Dad has been working countless hours to do that same thing and has failed.

So when all of your physical strength is gone, where does the strength come from?   I was right about my Dad; he is the strongest man I know, emotionally and even physically.  My strength, on the other hand,  has atrophied right along with his body, at least my emotional muscle.  But it's not because of lack of use. I have stretched my emotional integrity to its limit.

This kind of situation is hard on a family. When your foundation has a crack in it, the house begins to fall.  One by one my siblings and I have hit our low point.  Outside pressures and elements only add to the crash.  We still have jobs; we still have families to take care of. We still have people who love us that we hope to God forgive us for being "off" the last couple of weeks.   The truth is, when your foundation is cracked, you will do anything you can to fix it because your entire house needs it.

There are several things that lead to emotional strength depletion.  It can be heartbreak. The kind of heartbreak that hurts so deeply that it feels like your heart has been cracked open and exposed for the cold air to fill it and you are so chilled to the core that you don't think it's possible to ever feel the warmth of love again.

There is the death of a loved one.  There is frustration.  There is hopelessness.  Very different situations but all leave you feeling empty.

Not having control of this situation has at one point made me feel all of those things.   One of the things I love to do is exercise and not just a little thirty-minute cardio session.  Like my Grandmother liked to get her tiny hands dirty, I too like to work hard.   The tension and pain  I feel on the outside temporarily alleviates the pain I feel inside.  After one particular workout, I went to my car and cried, so gutturally that my throat hurt. On a different occasion, I went into my co-workers office, shut the door and collapsed into tears.

This was when I realized that I had been successful in letting everything out, but hadn't let anything in.  Friends had offered help, and I hadn't taken it.  I didn't want to admit I was weak.  But the truth was, I was emotionally dehydrated, and I needed to accept help.

Previously I had always relied on my mother or my husband for help, but they are in the same familial house that's foundation is cracked, and they are trying  just as hard not to fall too.

So I decided to lean in.  Accept invitations to go for a run, or have dinner made for us.  To go for a drink or get a coffee or to spend the day after Thanksgiving with people other than family.  It was the first time we had ever done that, and admittedly, I was hesitant.  I doubted why anyone would want to include an additional six people around the table.   But we went.   We played a football game and within moments each of our four boys had fought, cried, gotten hurt and stormed off.   It was just like we were home. I slowly began to feel stronger.

So to answer my question as to where strength can be found when you feel like you are completely out, it is found in friendship. True friendship that doesn't have to be pretty or funny all the time.  Friends that just show up, and lift that burden off your shoulders and carry it for a little while, even if the moment is brief.  Then you realize that when you put it back on your own shoulders, it doesn't feel as heavy.

In fact, if you were to take a walk with that burden on your shoulder's and look at your shadow you might even see an unstoppable giant that can face anything.

Strength is found in family and friends who will let you fall, but help you stand back up when you are ready.

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