The Mourning Before

When my mom called me on Halloween of 2011 to tell me that dad had died, I didn’t cry. I did feel the immediate hollow in my gut and the sense of sinking followed by pangs of hurt of guilt and relief. Who wouldn’t? But there was not enough left in me to move me to shed another tear because I had already mourned the death of my father nine months prior.

The hurt in me had been festering for well over two decades. While in my master’s program it manifested in a widespread skin rash. Red and hot leaking wounds marked my arms and legs. Hives broke out on my back. I was forced to wear bandages for shame of my ugly crusty spots. After consultations with two dermatologists and a trip to the ER, modern medicine had come up with cortisone shots and antibiotics. I was even prescribed a drug that is used in chemo therapy. As if the doctors just shrugged and suggested carpet bombing my body to rid it of its ails and perhaps of its life itself. It was tossed around that the rash was psychosomatic, that it was in my head. But no doctors cared to look at my head. They didn’t ask me questions. They just wanted to kill whatever I had with fire.

As with things that may be stress related, there is a certain vicious cycle that compounds the bad. Something, or things, were stressing me out—the master’s program, family stuff, moving to another country—and this stress was finding its way to my skin. The sight of the rash and the itchy and weeping mess it left on my body was also quite stressful. The perfect destructive feedback loop. Though while other stuff in my life were contributing to the stress, the biggest factor was my dad and the associated cesspool of fear, shame, guilt, frustration, fury, sadness and fatigue fermenting in my gut.

It was while we were already living in the Canary Islands when I first went to the witch doctor. That’s what I called her but in reality she was an M.D. and N.D., and she practiced homeopathic and holistic medicine. With gauze and bandages covering the worst of my rashy appearance, my first appointment with her was two hours long. She looked at my skin and gave me a very cursory look-over in general. Then came the questions.

How are you?

How do you like it here in Las Palmas?

Where are you from?

What do you do?

How is your job going?

How are you eating?

What do you eat?

You like spicy food? How spicy?

Do you eat a lot?

How are your bowel movements?

How is your mood mostly?

Do you have friends here?

Do you have contact with your friends back home?

How often do you talk with your family. With whom?

How do you sleep? Hot or cold?

Do you wake up during the night?

Do you sleep during the day?

When you sleep, do you dream?

What are they like?

How often are you intimate?

Do you exercise?

Tell me about him.

Did you really adore him as a child?

How about as a young adult?

When did your negative feelings begin?

How often were you afraid of him?

How many positive memories of him do you have?

Negative?

Can you describe how you feel about him now?

Interesting…

According to my answers and her little notes she looked at her book and gave me her opinion and a prescription.

“Take this liquid in this vial. You must energize it first, pound the vial against your hand 20 times. Then get a glass of water and let one drop of the energized liquid into the glass. Stir and drink one spoonful from the glass. Discard the rest. Do this twice daily.”

That was my introduction to homeopathy. What a difference. It went from “take two of these, they might kill you,” to “take almost nothing, and we’ll see you in a few weeks.” So I took almost nothing for a few weeks. It was refreshing to see another side of medicine. On the way to the pharmacy I had my first glimmer of hope that something about my skin would finally improve.

The witch doctor made it clear: the prescription would help but the main thing keeping me from getting better was that I was holding on to something inside and it was going gangrenous. It would have to exit my body before I got better. She did not know how it was to leave, or when. But she did know that it was close since it was literally oozing out of my body—I couldn’t physically take on any more emotional punishment, self inflicted or otherwise.

I started my treatment with the energized placebo water and after about a week I had the feeling that my rashes were slowly getting better. Some particularly hot spots were calming down, some of my normal skin was reclaiming territory against areas that weren’t terribly bad. And my hope grew and grew forming its own feedback loop but this time one that fed off the tangible results and increased hope gained from them.

For a few months I had seen good progress (infinitely better than none) but the improvement plateaued and I was still with hot spots that needed bandaging. Recalling my diagnosis, I had done little more than drink the juice as prescribed. There was no release of anything from within. On my birthday we went bowling. There was day drinking involved. There was much reveling and there was quite a bit of slurring by the end of it. But it was an early night and we were home by ten or so. That night the mix of emotions with a bit of alcohol as a catalyst was the recipe for the healthiest cry I had ever experienced. At first I felt the shallowness of breath as I naturally tensed to keep control, as if a deeper breath would crack the precariously brittle crust of my container. Then I felt the first pang, it sliced vertically in my gut and gashed and compromised the structure. Tears welled up and as they fell they took with them layer after layer of the protective bullshit I was telling myself in order to contain and control my emotions. So the night of my 28th birthday I turned two decades’ worth of rotten canned emotional soup into four hours of sloppy ugly crying and drunk wandering. I gave my overflowing reservoirs of black emotions a fast pathway out.

As quickly as this release started, it was over. Two-thirty in the morning with all the lights in the apartment on. Amaia looking at me like an owl, bright eyed not knowing what to expect next. What came next? Laughter. An unexpected giddiness. A levity that came with the offloading of 25 years of pent up emotional tar. I felt physically lighter, too. It was, truly, a transcendent moment in my life, one in which I felt I had finally left the burden of the past behind. Now the future felt much more manageable. Stepping forward felt as easy as the first steps on pavement after walking miles on a sandy beach.

Within a couple of days my sores and rashes started to recede. Within a few weeks my skin was entirely back to normal. It’s not 100% gone, however. Even now, during times of high stress, I will break out into a little rash on parts of my body. A patch of rough skin the size of a dime on my hand, actually, serves as a very accurate barometer for how much stress I am feeling in my life. When things are going well, it’s gone. When we travel or over the holidays, for example, it’ll make a cameo and remind me to chill out.

***

In the end I learned how important it is not to bottle up emotions. I learned that it is OK to be mad. And sad. I don’t like being mad because it reminds me how deep my anger has run in the past and it scares me. Yet I realize that the ability to become blindingly mad is part of who I am, and so is the ability to get angry and get over it before the light from the mouth of the well looks like another unreachable star in the vast blackness of my own pity. Unloading the bits of the past that were holding me there kept me from keeping up emotionally with the passage of time. I work hard not to ignore my feelings anymore. I’m not one of the “my body is my temple” type people, but I am vain enough not to want to look like one large road rash. If being on top of my feelings will help, then I’m all for it.

Going one level further, I feel the biggest lesson learned was that I had to accept that my dad was no longer part of my life. Whether this happens before, at the time of, or after death is arbitrary; what matters is that it happens. Back in early 2011, at the time of my birthday, I already spoke of my dad wholly in the past tense. In reality, I could have mourned the death of my father anytime after 2008 under the right circumstances. Though I wasn’t ready to accept my life without him until 2011 when everything came to a head and boiled over.

Looking back at the experience I am glad it happened, but very much happy it’s over. I am stronger for it. I am smarter for it. I know myself better and I feel I know a bit better how this world works. Mourning is not fun, yet is is necessary to move on. Dad, I miss you. The good bits, of course. The bad bits, well they taught me much about you, family and myself. I let go a lot of bullshit that night back in 2011 but don’t worry, I didn’t expunge you completely from my life; how could I? I hear you every day when I talk to my son. When Chester runs and grabs my legs, I see myself grabbing yours. And now that I have learned to keep myself from being overladen with emotional baggage, I have room to keep you in my back pocket without fear that you’ll drag me down but rather with the joy in knowing that you’re propping me up on your shoulders giving me guidance on being a father, husband and decent human being.

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2 comments

  1. Excellent writing and touching story, as always!!

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