Sunday, March 3, 2013

I Love You from a Distance

My younger son attends a local Catholic school.  He has really enjoyed his time there and is thriving in the classroom environment.  My family and I feel blessed by his experience thus far, especially since the kiddos in his class truly supported him and loved him through his grief after Ella died.  Catholic school has been great for him, but as is the case with any private school, we do pay a price for sending him there.  In addition to the obvious costs associated with Catholic school – annual tuition and book fees, uniform expenses, gas money driving him there and back – there are some not-so-obvious ones, such as fundraising “opportunities” that pop up every few months.  Another less obvious cost arises from service hours that each family is required to fulfill.  Each family must volunteer 20 service hours during the school year.  If we can’t meet that requirement, we must pay for each hour we fall short.  I think this is fairly common practice for most private schools, but that doesn’t stop those hours from somehow sneaking up and “surprising” you as the year creeps closer and closer toward summer break.
I have absolutely no problem offering my time and energy as a volunteer.  I know that, just as parents are instrumental in their children’s educations, they also play a vital role in the life of a school.  Those parental volunteer hours help to keep the cost of tuition down.  Because of my husband’s work schedule and my kids’ sports schedules, I knew that the better part of the service hour requirement would fall on my shoulders.  No problem.  What I didn’t really anticipate, though, was how overwhelmingly unsocial (anti-social?) I would still feel, even more than a year after Ella died.  How can I volunteer my time and my service when I’m a semi-reclusive home body?  How can I give of myself when that self is still pretty withdrawn, being more drawn to solitary quietude than public service?
Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Between donating items for use by the after-school program and collecting, clipping, sorting and organizing the school’s Box Tops 4 Education and Campbell’s soup label stash, I managed to accumulate a little over 19 service hours with barely any human interaction at school or otherwise!  Yep, 19 hours of helping a school full of people without actually being with, near, or around a school full of people.  Check. Me. Out.
Wait.  Did I just brag about that?
Yet, that’s sort of where I still am over a year after Ella’s death – more content to stay at home than be out in a crowd, more comfortable with electronic interaction via text and computer than actual human interaction, more willing to miss out on the company of friends than to give up the safe haven that is my own home.  That’s not to say that I never leave my house!  I’m not agoraphobic by any stretch of the imagination.  I have no problem going out for errands or for specific events like church and hockey games.  I’m just really, really selective about where I go socially, why, with whom, and for how long.
I probably sound like either a snob or a head case or both.  I realize that.  But I don’t keep myself away from people because I think I’m better than anyone or above keeping their company socially.  I just get so tired of feeling like I have to paste a smile on my face when what I really want to do is mope alone or even just be.  It can be emotionally exhausting, trying to exist among others without pretense.  Though the really awful, dreadfully bad days are fewer now – the days that have me crying at the drop of a hat or at the first note of an emotionally charged song - the blah days are still aplenty, and so often I don’t feel like smiling or making small talk.  I know so many friends don’t expect me to have sunshine shooting out my butt all the time, but I also know what a drag it can be to hang out with someone who’s more down than up , who isn’t fake in her friendship even as she fakes her smiles, or whose entire focus seems to always be turned inward.
Lest my friends take this personally or think I’m avoiding them, please take heart and know that it’s not’s me.  I’m also avoiding strangers and acquaintances!  It’s a unique conundrum I’m in as the still-grieving mom.  Friends know exactly why I’m down, but I avoid them because I know what a drag I can be.  I don’t want my pre-social interaction dread to come across as either personal dislike or the reason why they might not have fun, or worse, the reason why they feel like they can’t have fun around me.  Strangers and new, post-Ella acquaintances don’t know about my sweet girl, so I avoid them.  They don’t know about the most awesome baby that ever graced this planet, and that’s all I can think of when I’m with them.  Though I think I’ve done a decent job of it (read: didn’t break down crying) when my daughter has come up in past conversations, I always worry about it.  The simplest questions, like “How many kids do you have?” or “Two boys?  Why no girls yet?”, are no longer simple.  What’s left to do but endure some self-imposed solitary confinement?
Last year I wrote about my triumphant return to the homeschool mom social scene.  I was proud of myself for finally venturing out to spend time with friends.  And I have to admit that I was impressed because a few short months before that moment, you couldn’t have paid me any amount of money to leave the house for anything other than God.  I had stepped out of the house and out of my comfort zone.  It was a slow return, the pace of which I likened to a slug’s, but it was a return nonetheless.  It turns out, though, that a social slug doesn’t experience the lovely metamorphosis that might eventually turn someone else into a social butterfly.  Nope.  Most days being a slug feels exactly like it sounds – sluggish.  And I swear to pete, for every slide forward I make, I sneak in a bit of self-sabotage by shaking some salt out on my path, giving me an excuse to turn tail and hide.  I can think of so many excuses for why I can’t do this or be involved in that, even though the biggest reason that I’m often afraid to admit is that I am still just sad.  And so often it feels as though sad days make appearances just as the going finally gets good.
I know that I could make more of an effort to be socially active, to give my family and friends the time they deserve.  I know that I should make more of an effort for my own sake because – NEWS FLASH! – happy people are happier.  People who make the effort to be positive seem more content.  It’s just hard.  I’m not known for having much patience and that includes having patience with myself.  I think I’ll get there someday.  I just don’t know what to expect, I guess.  I don’t know what the “right” amount of time is to be in this funk.
Do I grieve a month for every month she lived?  A year for every month?  Every other day except for Sunday?  Honestly, and not to make light of it, but how long does one grieve such a loss?  I think I know the answer even before I ask the question, but is there a right amount of time to grieve?  A socially acceptable amount of time to get back to “normal”, even if you feel as though your world will never be normal again?  At some point, I think people expect more outward normalcy from you, even if you can’t get your inward self to bear any semblance of normal again.  Is this a process that happens in waves, even if the process feels more like an endless trough?  Or does all of this talk just come across as wallowing or, God forbid, as though I’m using Ella’s absence as an excuse to excuse myself from everyday life?  I don’t know, and if knowing is half the battle, then some days I feel like I’m frickin losing this war.  Certainly not losing every day anymore, but still more days than I’d like to admit.
I may not know much, but what I do know is this:  I am an imperfect person learning slowly how to live again after my sweet baby’s death.  I am learning not just how to live but how to embrace living again.  Though I have very little patience with myself – with the social dread, the drive to isolate myself, the reluctance to put myself out there – I am trying.  More than that, I am more and more willing to try.  I hope my friends can understand this.  Actually, I know they can.  Though they may not know exactly what I’m living through, they know that what I am going through is so difficult and so life changing, and so they wait.  They take the time that I can give them, and they don’t push me for more.  They continue to hold me up and to love me.
I hope they know how much I appreciate them.  I hope they know how grateful I am for their patience with me.  And I hope they know that I love them, too, even if only from a distance for now.
St. Ella, pray for us!

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