I am trying to learn how to untoughen. Is that a word? People say things like, learning to be vulnerable, but that's not what I'm doing. Not really. I've been vulnerable my whole life. I'm the youngest in my family, I'm shy around new people, I'm bad at crowds, and I can't run very fast or very far.
But I've always been tough. Strong-willed. Opinionated and loud-- outspoken. Brash. I've slammed a lot of doors. And it earned me a reputation as a person who you can't break. Tough, strong-- the kinds of words that almost sound like compliments. And in the last few months I've learned that this reputation has followed me. Through school, through college, from Seattle to New Haven to LA. And I think it's time I put an end to it.
I am learning to untoughen. To be breakable.
Or, I guess, more accurately, I'm trying to let people in on the secret that I've been breakable this whole time.
If you're one of us people who for whatever reason had to grow up sooner than is ideal, you know a lot about trying to hold it together. You know about smiling through it, you know about not crying too much or in public. You know about shaking it off so you can deal with it later. You know what the inside of being strong feels like. For those of you who didn't have to grow up too soon, it feels a lot like being left all alone, or being sent to bed without dinner. It feels like less than what you'd like. It feels like something you learn to survive because not surviving it isn't an option.
This week I asked my mother to have my father sign a DNR and complete a will. Two days ago he did. Last week I planned out what I will do when my father dies. Last month my dad had his leg amputated. Last summer I stopped speaking to my father. Last winter he called to tell me he has diabetes, and I explained to him what that means. A month before that call, I was told my dad had been poisoned. Last summer I spoke to him for the last time. Two years ago, the last time I saw him, my dad couldn't walk on his own. Six years ago, my dad had his third stroke. Ten years ago my dad was homeless and legally blind. Seventeen years ago, my dad nearly paralyzed himself, damaging his spine irreversibly in a drunken fall. Today, my dad has one leg, an open and infected wound that isn't healing well, he has diabetes, is bed ridden, has had three strokes, is legally blind, has nerve damage in his spine, is virtually homeless and cannot move much or feed himself on his own. It's not clear if he will make it out of the hospital. And suffice it to say, it may be better for him if he doesn’t.
I am not as strong as I need to be.
Last year I was congratulated a lot on making the "strong/brave/tough" choice not to speak to my father anymore. A choice I am standing by, even though I know in my heart that the window of time I have to change my mind is dwindling. People congratulate you a lot when you do something they can't even fathom. But people who can fathom it know better than to congratulate you. Because they, like you, know that it doesn't feel like an accomplishment.
On the phone with my family these last few weeks, talking about hypothetical (and inevitable) funerals, I do not feel like I deserve congratulations. I feel sick. I feel strongly like something is wrong with me. I feel angry when I'm assured he may still be okay, because I no longer understand what the definition of "okay" is. I feel nothing so much of the time it frightens me. I do not want to be congratulated on that. I do not want assurance that I will make it through this, whether or not that is true. I want people to stop telling me how strong I am, for someone to recognize that I am going crazy trying to be anywhere close to strong enough. I do not believe my dad will get better. And I do not think I am any stronger than he is.
So I have no choice now, it feels like, but to let people know. Hi, yes. I am very easy to break at this point. There is not a whole lot of tough left. There is not a whole lot of me left, whoever you thought that was. I am doing everything I can to scrape together things that feel like whatever I used to be... is it working? Do you believe there is still a person here, it is hard for me to be certain. Do you recognize me anymore? Tell me, what am I like?
I cry, but sometimes I can't. I write, but sometimes I can't. I have made sure he knows that I love him, though I hardly understand what that means now. And people continue to tell me that I am strong. And I hate them for it. I am breaking, I keep trying to say. You didn't think I could, not me, I'm tough-- but not really. Let me promise you, this is breaking me.
And at the same time, I am terrified of people who tell me to pause. To give myself time to grieve. I do not know what that would look like either. When I look at this life my dad and I have had, it is hard to think of a time that I wasn't grieving. And in that time I graduated high school, went to college, wrote some plays, moved to LA, have had several jobs, have made friends, lost friends, dated people and stopped dating them, moved apartments, had a mohawk, been bald and not bald, blonde and not blonde, stupid, drunk, sober and weird. And the whole time I was grieving. The whole time in the background, I knew that slowly, so excruciatingly slowly, through every step we took further down this rabbit hole, my father was dying. And I have been breakable the whole time. I've been breaking the whole time.
Never once have I felt I was as strong as I needed to be.
And here, at this point, I am beginning to think there is no such thing. I am starting to think the trick isn't being strong enough to get through it. It isn't about not breaking. How laughably impossible. And it isn't about pausing. It isn't about taking time to grieve. There isn't enough time in the world.
It's only about breaking. Believing that breaking is just part of being alive. Not for a little while, not just while you're taking time for it, but for your whole life. The whole thing of living is just breaking and breaking again, and breaking some more. And still keeping going. Going and breaking, breaking and going. Because that's everything there is. Anyone who tells you otherwise has no idea. They have absolutely no idea, but be kind to them. Because one day they may feel they aren't as strong as they need to be. And they will need you there to tell them that it's okay. They will need you to say, you aren't strong enough for this because it is impossible to be strong enough for this. Go ahead and fall apart. Fall all the way apart and stay broken as long as you'd like. Being strong is a fucking myth.
I am going to lose my dad. I am losing him. Just like I’ve lost him so many times before, and nothing like that at all. I will not be strong enough, no matter how many dress rehearsals we’ve had for this. No matter how long I’ve known that of course this was where we’d end up. There is no solution, no quick-fix, no band-aid. There is just this, happening.
Life, in all of its insanity, will not wait for you to be strong enough to keep going. Nature doesn’t give a shit about you and your journey. But you will keep going. Not because you’re strong, not because you’re tough, but because the thing that’s breaking you isn’t the pain. It’s all the beauty, the love, the impossible joy that’s lost. And you’d be a fool to miss it the next time it comes around, even if it breaks you all over again.
for my dad.
I do love you. Forever.
And I love you more. And I said it first.