When Hope is Too Much to Ask For

Lately with everything going on—the tanking economy, rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, a federal government that toggles between authoritarian overreach, lies, and violence and complete inaction, climate change continuing unabated, increasing racial and economic division, in case you’d forgotten—I have been having some trouble feeling hope. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I want to feel hope. I want to cling to it like a foam ring in stormy waters, like a teddy bear in the wake of a nightmare. I search for it, sifting through news and data and scenarios, but it eludes me and I’m left feeling even more alone and overwhelmed.

For some, I know, gratitude helps by bringing focus to the things that are going well in one’s life. I like gratitude, but it’s got some limitations. Sometimes, for example, things really are very, very bad and trying to find gratitude is as futile as trying to find hope. Seeking a sense of gratitude and not finding it can itself feel like a failure. For those of us inclined towards anxiety, depression, or ruminative thought, this easily turns into a cudgel: I have all of these good things in my life but I keep letting them be overshadowed by the bad, therefore there must be something wrong with me. I am ungrateful, my mind insists, irredeemably flawed, and it won’t take “shut the hell up” for an answer.

So, I’ve stopped asking myself to feel hope or gratitude. I gave myself permission to stop struggling for those things that feel so unattainable. Instead, I try to bring awareness to the whole situation: not try mentally to beat it into a shape resembling good news, not try to argue myself out of a grief that is completely warranted, but just observe all aspects of things as they are. When I’m wearing my mask while on a walk, I continue to notice the humid environment building up around my lower face and notice the irritation that arises when the unmasked people coming toward me on the sidewalk show no sign of allowing six feet of distance, but at the same time I also notice the breeze on my forehead, the ground supporting my feet, the waxing moon rising in the late afternoon, the smell of dinner cooking in one of the homes along my route. I avoid labeling any of these things as “good” or “bad;” I just give them my attention and move on.

This isn’t hope; it’s just a more complete picture.

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Too Heavy

When my daughter was 7 months old, she woke up retching. I felt her forehead and she was red hot. The thermometer told me her temperature was more than 105 degrees. The doctor’s office wasn’t open yet, my husband was already at work. I was alone with her in our apartment. I’d studied Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book cover to cover, so I ran a tepid bath for her and set her inside. As I undressed to get in the tub with her, I looked at her sitting upright, tiny in the bathtub and I thought, “Oh, God. Is this all the time I get to have with her?”

Of course, she was fine. After a dose of Tylenol, a lot of nursing in the bath, and some vigorous rubbing with the wash rag to draw the heat to her skin, her temperature was down three degrees.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

The daughter of a friend of ours was born with a rare mitochondrial disease that affects her digestive organs. Until she underwent the successful transplant of four of her organs when she was seven, she’d been on IV nutrition for six years. Over the past three years, she’s been in and out of the hospital for various procedures and illnesses, but she was attending school three days a week and basically living a life much closer to a “normal” child’s life than she had before. Then last month she had surgery to remove a malignancy from her abdomen. There were complications and she’s been in the hospital for a few weeks now. She’s doing better than she was, but she’s still not well enough to go home.

Her parents seem to be handling the situation well. They’ve arranged their lives around their daughter’s condition and seem to have quickly moved back into a schedule of juggling who’s going to be at the hospital, who’s going to be working when, and who’s going be home with their other daughter.

I feel helpless in this situation. I want to connect with them to let them know how much I think about them. I want to share some of their pain. As I type that, I know it’s trite and probably isn’t even true. Even that tiny moment I spent looking at my baby’s back as she sat in the tub floored me. I pushed it away because I couldn’t handle the enormity of the thought. What must this little girl’s parents carry with them every single day?

I want to hug them, but I know I’ll cry and then I’ll feel selfish because I worry they’ll feel like they should comfort me. I withdraw, but that doesn’t feel right, either. I feel mute and sad and helpless because I am, because this has nothing to do with me and yet I feel it so much. I can’t help them carry their burden, and I suspect I don’t really want to. I just want to hug my healthy children and go back to complaining about daily hassles rather than ruminating on my children’s fragility.

I’m sure that’s what they’d like to do with their daughter, too.

One of my managers back in my corporate-working days was a sweet man from the mountains of North Carolina who felt deeply and cried readily. He was one of those people I just felt good to know and to count as a friend. I learned when my daughter was about a year old that his teenaged son had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The disease progressed quickly and his son died not long after. I thought back to a comment he’d posted on my daughter’s birth story about how similar that story was to the story of the birth of his son. Counting back, I realize his son must already have been diagnosed when he wrote that comment. What must he have felt to comment about the birth of his son as he was preparing to say farewell to him? Was it a comfort to him? Did it pain him? Or was it both?

He wrote a beautiful eulogy for his son. I donated to the charity mourners were asked to donate to. I wrote him a note. It was nothing. It was so little and couldn’t even begin to explain how I felt, couldn’t begin to help his family carry this thing. He wrote back thanking me for my words.

There’s not really a point to this post except to express my disappointment in myself and my fear of ever being in these parents’ shoes. I don’t want to make this about me. It’s not at all and yet it feels…I don’t know. It just feels like it’s a part of me in a way.

Last week my kids and I were part of a service project to decorate and stuff goodie bags for the young patients at a local children’s hospital. This isn’t where my friend’s daughter is right now, but I thought of her as I put coloring books and building sets and colored pencils and card games into the bags on which my children had drawn pictures. It’s so little, it hardly seems worthwhile to do. And yet I have to do something. I have to connect in some way.

It just hurts.

From Waiting for a Superman, by Flaming Lips (covered by Iron & Wine)

It’s a good time for Superman
To lift the sun into the sky
Cause it’s getting heavy
Well I thought it was already as heavy as can be

Tell everybody
Waiting for Superman
That they should try to
Hold on the best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift

How I Long for That Egyptian River

Nile delta, and the entire course of the Nile
It's not just a river in Egypt. Image via Wikipedia

Now that my feelings have shifted, I’ve figured out the word for my reaction to my husband’s layoff. It’s not “happy,” “relieved,” “excited,” “hopeful,” “positive,” or “optimistic.”

The word for what I was feeling until sometime last night: denial.

At first, I was confused about the change in emotional state. I tried to blame the coconut milk in my raw “porridge” last night (which I’m not sure is allowed on my not-crazy diet) or staying up late researching affiliate programs and disclosure statements.

But then I recalled Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grieving. (To refresh your memory, they’re Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, and they’re not chronological stages as one can jump back and forth between them during the grieving process and even skip stages entirely.)

I didn’t recognize that I was grieving my husband’s job loss until my husband and I both shifted from denial to depression at the same time (although my husband calls his mood “despondent,” and I call mine “down”). It was unlikely that a particular food or a lack of sleep could account for both of our moods. After all, my husband doesn’t seem to be bothered by any foods (except American cheese), and he went to bed with the baby last night around 8pm.

I looked up the Kübler-Ross Model to refresh my memory (I could only remember four stages of grief. I kept forgetting “bargaining”), and it all seemed to fit.

So far, I think I’ve felt two kinds of denial, anger, and depression. And maybe a little bit of bargaining. But that could be just magical thinking. Like, if I really foster my friendships here in Utah this month and declutter and keep the house clean, my husband will be employed by the end of May. (Conversely, I worried that moving my daughter’s birthday party up a month and postponing signing her up for soccer camp this June would cause him to remain unemployed.)

The first thing I felt when he called with the news was denial of the reality of the situation. Specifically, I thought he was joking.

Then, as I talked with my friends and my husband, anger set in. Both my husband and I engaged in angry talk and said lots of mean things about those sons of  mothers as we reflected on the past months and realized that they’d known they were canning half of the company for at least two months.

Then the day after the news, I started feeling much better. This was my pleasant, hopeful stage. I thought it was a healthy acceptance of reality. In retrospect, I can see that this was just another type of denial. My husband and I weren’t denying reality, we were simply denying that it was that bad. He’d find a job in a couple of weeks, we assured each other. Things were quiet because it was the weekend, but once Monday hit, the calls would be rolling in.

Then came Monday morning. All day I’ve just wanted my kids to leave me alone. I’ve felt like if I could just get the house cleaned and have some peace I would feel better and be able to establish a “new normal” rather than this hodgepodge non-schedule we’ve been keeping for nearly a week.

I called and canceled the housecleaner, as planned, and then my son helped remind me how impossible it is to mop the floor with him awake (and got a nasty goose-egg on the back of his head when he tried to run across the wet floor).

I noticed that my daughter had written a note on the calendar stating, “On the 6th fo [sic] April I will say goodbye to my first friend.” (I don’t know why she thinks she needs to start saying goodbye to people so early, nor do I know which friend she’s planning to bid farewell on Wednesday, but I felt sad to see the note.)

I escaped during lunchtime to the library while my husband watched the kids. I was going to pick up the cookbook I want to use for my daughter’s birthday cupcakes. But the copy at the branch I went to had been lost. I can get another copy, it will just take a couple of days to arrive. I had parked in front of a book store, one of the big ones I knew would have the book in stock, but I forced myself to turn the key in the ignition and return home empty-handed rather than buy the book.

Then on the way home, I had to listen to The Band. OK, I could have changed the station, but what’s the point? It all sucks anyway.

And I think that was about when I figured out I was in the “depression” stage.

There have been happy things today (I mention these not only to help improve my mood but to redeem this blog post from my incessant whining). Our friends came over and played for a couple of hours this afternoon. Another friend called and asked for instructions for making onigiri, which left me feeling pleased that she’d liked them so much when I made them for her that she wanted to replicate them. I had left a message at a business I was certain I owed money explaining our situation and that I wanted to clear all of our accounts now, and when they called back today they insisted that my balance with them was zero.

I tear up a bit when I think of all of these things. I’m so grateful for all of the love and care people are giving us.

I just wish it were enough to bring back that pleasant, euphoric denial.