A Year of Dad: Making Sense of the Senseless

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

I once read this quote on a whiteboard outside of one of my professors’ offices. I’ve always admired her endless positivity, viewing it as some far-off destination I’ve circled on a map that maybe, someday, I’ll get the chance to visit. It’s hard sometimes to separate yourself from your backstory–to rise above the pages of narrative that trail behind you each day. I spent many years believing that the past was something I couldn’t escape, its poison-ivy fingers wrapping themselves around my ankles and slowly pulling me backward into the shadows. I was, for a long time, what happened to me, and I felt about as much in control of my destiny as I was of the weather.

There’s an inherent value in believing that everything happens for a reason: it allows you to believe that there’s a method to the madness that is life–a kind of stability within chaos. I tried to frame my father’s death in these terms, trying to divine a reason for tragedy. When karma is a didactic tool used to teach children to be kind and just, facing something that seems anti-karmic is a jarring experience. What had my dad done to deserve dying so young? What had I, in my short life of fourteen years, done to warrant such a harsh punishment? For years I sat writing my way through an event in an attempt to make sense of the senseless. If everything happens for a reason, what was the justification for this?

The professor to whom the whiteboard belongs met me when I was still defining myself in terms of the effect my father’s death had had on me. I spent a decent amount of time relating my backstory to her as if that were a means of introducing myself. Since her academic specialization was religion, I implored her for a reason why God would put my family through something so terrible. One day, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Those who have suffered are called to a higher purpose.”

This was the first time I was presented with the idea of choosing what I could become in the face of what I had been or what had been placed upon my shoulders. If we’re being honest, I didn’t like it. In my mind, her response did nothing to answer my question. I didn’t care what my purpose was–I cared what the purpose of my backstory was. Looking backward for years at a time had stiffened my neck to the point where it had forgotten that “backward” wasn’t the only direction in which it could turn.

It’s interesting to me how epiphanies happen so suddenly, but once they do, it’s as if no other way of thinking has ever existed. There’s “before epiphany” and “after epiphany,” but they seem miles apart from each other even though, temporally, they’re separated by a matter of minutes. Although many conversations and a lot of introspection lead to my understanding what all of these threads meant–even though it took me years to weave them together into something real–it happened as dramatically and suddenly as a bolt of lightning. One moment I was the past, and the next I was the future.

There will never be a reason for my father’s death. It happened, and it’s not my job to determine why the stars aligned the way they did or what lesson was supposed to be learned from spiderweb of cracks that radiated from the impact. That’s beyond my control, anyway.

Accepting the past for what it was was a radical enough development, but I took it one step further: I chose what to do with it. In that moment, I chose to use my experiences to help those who can’t imagine a life other than being defined by circumstances that were beyond their control. 

Psychology was always an interesting thought to me, and all of my writings throughout high school related to the amazing capacity humans have to relate to one another. Becoming a psychologist existed in the town next to my professor’s optimism on the map of places I hoped I’d end up one day, but when that lightning bolt of realization jolted through me, I picked up the map and drove.

I can’t change what happened to me, but I do, absolutely, get to choose what to do with it. Like all humans, I have the ability to create light where there’s only ever been darkness, and that’s what becoming a psychologist is for me. It’s making sense of the senseless and turning tragedy into a higher purpose, if such a thing exists. My future clients will never know this event that defined me for all of my adolescent life, but they will know I walk with them in a way no one else has. Because I have suffered and cursed God and lost my way, I know–in a way I never would have understood otherwise–how to sit with someone who no longer follows the plot to her own life. 

Throughout his life, my father gave me the gifts of patience and presence. Through his passing, he encouraged me to give those gifts to someone else.

Thank you, Dad. Always.

—–

(I realize I didn’t post for February. This is mostly due to school work but my inability to think of something “good enough” to write definitely factored in. This project also serves as a reminder to cut myself slack when things go awry, so that’s what I’m chalking last month up to. I will make an honest attempt to double up for March.)

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A Year of Dad: Driving

My dad was good at a lot of things: writing, research, being a dad, etc. One thing my dad was not good at was driving.

Being absent-minded is a quality I inherited from my dad. For me, it manifests as getting endlessly sidetracked and forgetting obligations. For my dad, it manifested as… not being the greatest behind the wheel. That’s not to say that he was a danger to himself and others per se, but he had some bad habits that would preclude him from any driving awards, if there were such things.

For example, my dad picked me up from school a few days a week. At least once a week, we would be in mid-conversation, halfway home, when my dad would nonchalantly put down the parking brake. (To be fair, I would do that myself if my car didn’t yell at me for having the brake on while driving.) By the time I started driving his car, I’m pretty sure the parking brake was nothing more than decoration, its efficacy having been worn out by miles and miles of being used incorrectly.

One day, while my dad was apparently zoning out, he rear ended another car. I mean, not in a huge way–just tapped the bumper–but it was enough that the driver in front of us immediately threw on their blinker. I must have been in middle school at the time. My dad mumbled, “Shit.”

We pulled over, and before my dad got out of the car, he turned to me and said, “Just… don’t tell your mom, okay?”

Nothing came of it, so it was relatively innocent, like the rest of my dad’s driving infractions, and almost all of them happened on these after school commutes home (a drive that was probably three miles or so). My favorite driving moment, though, happened outside of this tradition. Once again, it involved Bonnie.

My dad and I were taking Bonnie home one afternoon. I was sitting in the front seat while Bonnie was nestled in the back next to a pile of empty boxes my dad had for his business. Toward the beginning of Bonnie’s road, there was a massive curve that was marked by chevrons and a huge arrow. We had navigated this road several times before without incident, but this time, we approached the curve with a decent amount of speed, went off the road into the gravel shoulder, and skidded to a stop perpendicular to the road.

Without missing a beat, my dad turned to me, and then swiveled around to Bonnie, who was lost under a mountain of boxes, and said, “Well, ladies. It looks like we ran out of road.”

What more is there to say after something like that, really? We continued on as if nothing ever happened, and we never spoke of the incident again. (Or any of the incidents, for that matter.) My dad’s driving habits were an implicit understanding.

Luckily, it seems I drive more like my mom. Mostly.

A Year of Dad: The Slip-n-Slide Incident

(This is part of a year-long series, the rest of which can be found here.)

For Christmas, I wanted to recount one of my favorite stories involving my dad. Appropriately enough, it has nothing to do with Christmas.

My dad worked from home as a bookseller and a finder of rare books. Basically, if you wanted to find a really obscure book about the military—especially T. E. Lawrence or the French Foreign Legion—you went to my dad. He was very well known in his field and was one of the founding editors of T. E. Notes, a newsletter that has archives in Oxford and Harvard.

Because he worked from home, he pulled double-duty as a kid wrangler while my mom tended her store. I was pretty easy to wrangle, as I enjoyed making stuffed animals have conversations with each other and writing stories. However, when I had friends over, it unleashed some kind of inner child demon in me, which rubbed off on my friends. We caused a gentle sort of chaos, and most of the time my dad didn’t interfere, possibly because he didn’t realize our devious ways but more likely because he was a secret lover of chaos himself.

For example, my dad didn’t ask any questions when my friends Casey, Bonnie, and I marched through the house in our bathing suits carrying every liquid soap product the house had. Obviously when three ten-year-olds are swiping things from the house, there’s no real good that can come of it, but he turned a blind eye (or maybe winked in our direction) as we started setting up what can only be described as a bad idea.

We had a slip-n-slide. Every kid had a slip-n-slide, but most people, at that point, had fancy slip-n-slides with pools at the end and arching jets of water the length of the plastic. We had the most basic, prototypical slip-n-slide that ever existed, so we needed to rely on gravity, soap, a garden hose, and desperation to have any fun.

Our 1.5-acre yard had many hills. On the left side of the house, the hill was terraced for my mom’s garden, but the right side had one sizable hill, perfect for a slip-n-slide. My dad’s office also had a window overlooking the right side of the property, so we were somewhat nervous my dad would catch on and stop us, but at the same time, a slip-n-slide is pretty innocuous, right?

Of course, it wasn’t enough to just have a slip-n-slide that was lubricated with half a bottle of Dawn—we also had to put a skateboard ramp at the bottom, because what’s life without a little mystery? We also rubbed liquid soap all over our, uh, bottoms, just to make sure the slip-n-slide offered enough slip.

The spigot to the garden hose was directly under the window to my dad’s office, so it was impossible for him not to hear the squeak squeak squeak whoosh of the valve. He didn’t care. It was summer, and the girls were outside making noise instead of inside making noise.

For a good half an hour or so, our plan was genius. The ramp was kind of a dud—it slid with us rather than allowing us to fly like we initially thought—but the water pooled at the end in a muddy, grassy mess. And when you’re ten, a muddy, grassy mess is the Best Thing Ever.

One thing about the slip-n-slide we neglected to care about was the fact that it had a giant slit in it. Halfway down its yellow runway, the slide sported a foot-wide gash that gave a glimpse of July grass underneath. Since we flew past it on our way to the makeshift ramp-pond at the bottom, it was nothing more than a flash of green on the journey.

Until it wasn’t.

We decided to go down in a line. Casey went first, followed by me, and Bonnie came close behind. We tried to hold onto each other—clutching ankles and wrists—but it was a jumbled, soapy mess. Bonnie had been trailing her hand behind her to stay on the slide, and in doing so, her pinky got caught in the slit. She kept going, as bodies in motion tend to do, but her pinky didn’t. That damn law of inertia.

We knew it was bad. Bonnie’s face screwed up in pain and tears leaked from her round eyes as she looked at her pinky, which jutted out an an angle just odd enough to be unsettling. We ran inside and called frantically for my dad, our bathing suits dripping puddles at our feet. He appeared in the living room, took in the scene, and stopped.

Unless specifically trained in medicine, dads don’t really know how to deal with health emergencies (or at least mine didn’t). Moms kind of have an instinct for bandaids and bruises, and dads have an instinct for calling Mom. But, as misfortune would have it, Mom wasn’t around.

We explained to him what happened, and he was silent, staring at the pinky with an intense look—not one of disgust but of a man trying to solve a complex calculus equation.

It’s important to note here that my dad had a horrible sweet tooth (one that I unfortunately inherited). He was especially devoted to ice cream, but during the summer months he sometimes opted for those Pop Ice pops—the ones that come in long, plastic strips and are essentially frozen Kool Aid. As kids, we loved it because it gave us an excuse to eat things we probably shouldn’t.

On the surface this seems like an extraneous detail, but you may sense where I’m going with this.

Hit with a sudden epiphany, my dad held up one finger, said nothing, and disappeared. He returned several moments later with a strip of three Pop Ice, a rubber band, and a pair of scissors. Again, without a word, he wrapped the ice pops around Bonnie’s finger, making a little triangle, and secured them with the rubber band. He then cut the tops off of the pops and said, “It’s a splint. It’s ice. It’s also edible.”

And he smiled to himself, because it was just the kind of insane, chaotic genius my dad was known for. He laid the scissors on a table next to the couch, and from the doorway to the living room he said, “And there’s plenty more where they came from.”

He promptly left the scene, satisfied with how he handled it. I guess we weren’t too concerned, either, since Bonnie ate the ice pops and Casey and I got ourselves some, too. She ended up going to the hospital later on, and they told her the finger wasn’t broken. Months later, though, I think she went back and found out it had been broken and healed slightly crooked, but rebreaking it would have been massively painful and definitely not as fun as the initial slip-n-slide, ice-pop pinky breaking.

So that’s the story about how my dad was simultaneously the best and worst at being a parent under pressure. Bonnie still laughs about it, thank God.

A Letter to Marywood University’s President

In light of the changes to Marywood in the past few weeks, I’ve decided to take action. I’ve written the following letter, which I will deliver to Sister Mary Persico, IHM, Ed.D. sometime in the next week. If you are upset or angry about the current climate of the school, please share this letter or write your own.

Dear Sister Mary,

I have been a student at Marywood University since August of 2011. I received my B.A. in Comparative Language and Literature, was inducted into both Delta Epsilon Sigma and Phi Sigma Iota, and served as the president of World Language Club for a year and a half. I am currently working toward my master’s in psychology with intent to apply to the Psy.D. program. I have dedicated myself to this school tirelessly because I believe in its promise and its mission.

However, as both a current student and alumna, I am deeply concerned about the direction in which my institution is headed. I realize that the financial situation and inner workings of the university are vastly complex, but that does little to undo the frustration I feel in learning of the cuts being implemented. As a former member of both the Spanish and English departments, it is incredibly discouraging to find that Spanish is being devalued so heavily. To take away its status as a major is to completely go against the global mission you spoke of during your inaugural speech. How can students ever hope to be global-minded if they cannot speak the languages of other countries?

These cuts—to departments, to staff—are being conducted under the justification of budgetary concerns, which is understandable given the mess left by the previous administration. I fail to see, though, how cutting the Spanish, Religious Studies, and Philosophy majors will help shore up funds. These disciplines are still part of the core and still have minor programs, which means they will continue offering the same classes they offer currently. Therefore, no money is being recuperated by eliminating their major programs. Even given low enrollment in these degree programs, just one major brings in money for the university. (Also, many students enrolled in other majors choose to have a secondary major in these areas, since liberal arts classes complement nearly every discipline. Incidentally, these double majors are not “counted” when tabulating how many students are in majors such as Spanish.) It is difficult for me to understand the financial—or logical—justification for eliminating these degrees.

The only explanation I can conceive of is that the university is preparing to make cuts to its core curriculum. A revamping of the core was obliquely mentioned in the SRA report, though the details of that process have not been revealed. Because the financial reasoning behind eliminating the three aforementioned majors is shaky, I would postulate that their elimination is a way to ease into cutting them from the core. This would be a detrimental mistake.

As I mentioned earlier, I am currently a master’s student in psychology. When I changed disciplines, I was afraid I would be behind, not having studied psychology during my undergraduate career. However, it became quickly apparent that I was better prepared by my background in English and Spanish than I would have been receiving a degree in psychology. Classes in the humanities teach more than the names of philosophers or how to say “chair” in another language—they teach students how to digest information, transform it, and apply it to novel situations. They teach students how to write, communicate, and think critically and deeply. In essence, they teach students how to be better students—and people.

I can say with complete certainty that I would not be the student or person I am today without the humanities classes I took at Marywood University, from Latino Writers in the U.S. to Climate Justice to Social Morality. All Marywood students deserve that experience; they deserve to receive an education that is as well-rounded and deep as the world into which they will enter post-graduation. To deprive them of that by way of eliminating classes in the liberal arts core is to do them a massive disservice in their future endeavors.

Finally, the reason I have chosen to complete my master’s degree at Marywood is because of its faculty and staff. The individuals who work at Marywood and interact with students on a daily basis are brilliant, compassionate people who truly love what they do. They are the backbone of everything the university does and the vehicle through which students are transformed from eager freshmen into learned, prepared graduates. As one of my former professors eloquently said before leaving Marywood to take a job at another university, “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

When the school administration decides to eliminate nine positions and gives those terminated thirty minutes to clear out their offices, it not only affects students, but it also violates the compassion that underlies our Catholic mission and identity. When two deans are told to decide amongst themselves who will continue to serve as a dean come August 2017, students and faculty alike feel the effects in terms of negative morale and a lack of faith in their administration to make firm and just decisions. I understand the need for budget cuts, and that might explain why my professors have watched their hard-earned benefits get reduced, but as the administration chips away at these professionals—devaluing their disciplines by eliminating their degree programs or leaving their buildings in such disarray that a projector screen falls and breaks their foot and leaves them needing stitches (which happened just before Thanksgiving break)—they are chipping away at students and the quality of the education they are able to earn.

I can appreciate the fact that you inherited a convoluted financial and administrative situation when you took your post, but please, for the sake of our institution and its students and staff, be just and compassionate. Please hear the pain that we are feeling. Students are angry. Staff are demoralized. Money is a bottom line, I know, but the numbers, in the end, do not add up. I realize the decision to cut Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Spanish degree programs is final, but please do not cut them from the core. Students need the skills taught in these classes in order to be competent workers and, more importantly, fair people.

Thank you for your time, Sister Mary. I appreciate your willingness to read the letters of the students you serve.

Sincerely yours,

Megan McDonnell

A Year of Dad: The Eulogy

(This is part of a year-old series, the rest of which can be found here.)

A couple weeks ago I found myself at the funeral of my dear friend’s mother. I was surrounded by people I had never met hearing stories of a woman I had never known, yet I couldn’t have felt more love surrounding me. This was my ninth funeral, but I had only ever heard one eulogy in my life. As I listened to my friend speak of her mother’s beautiful life, I couldn’t help but realize that my father was not sent off with words from his family. For better or worse, my family doesn’t do eulogies, but, being inspired by this touching funeral mass, I’ve decided it’s time we did.

So to start my year-long series devoted to my dad (albeit a few days late owing to the election insanity), I’m writing his eulogy. It makes sense, in a way, to start here; I’ve just documented his passing, so to write something about his funeral is the next logical step. I guess I just never realized how powerful and meaningful a eulogy could be until this month.

How do you start one of these? I guess something like…

Hello, family and friends. (In my mind, the church is packed with my dad’s business associates and long-lost friends, even though in actuality the people in attendance that day all fit comfortably into two pews, and the service consisted solely of my mom’s family and my dad’s brother and wife.) You all knew my dad, Denis, in one way or another, and I’m sure you could all tell stories of his deadpan sense of humor or his dedication to his work. These are stories I will never know, but luckily I have stories of my own.

You see, there’s a lot I don’t know about my father. Fourteen years might seem like a lot of time to get to know a person, but when you’re six, you’re not interested in your dad’s rich backstory so much as smashing rocks with a hammer to see if there’s quartz inside. At the same time, I know everything I need to know about my dad through his fourteen years of supporting me and shaping me into who I am.

When I was younger, I used to love climbing trees. Being chronically short of stature, I liked seeing things from above, looking down on the world and marveling about how small everything ultimately is. I liked the challenge of hoisting myself up and testing my weight on increasingly shaky branches. I could have lived my whole life in a tree and been happy. My usual haunt was a Japanese maple tree on the edge of our property. I knew it like it was the lyrics to a favorite song, and even now, I remember the easiest path to my favorite branch.

One day, though, I decided to take on a new adventure. I left the comfort of my Japanese maple for a more complicated but exciting prospect: the enormous magnolia hanging half over the garage roof and half over a small hill in our backyard. None of its branches were particularly high, but they spread out like cracks in a windshield, reaching out in tangles across the lawn. I didn’t get particularly far in my quest to climb; although the branch I was on was more than sturdy enough, I slipped. Somehow, I managed to wrap my little arms and legs around a branch that was almost the same thickness as me.

There I was, hanging like a sloth six or seven feet above the ground. I didn’t have a good enough grip to climb back up, and if I let go with my legs, the force of their falling would pull my hands off the branch, too. I couldn’t see a way out of the situation that didn’t involve snapping my neck. With my heart in my throat, I yelled, “DAD!”

I didn’t have to yell. Somehow, the moment my fingers slipped from the bark, my dad was there to catch me. I fell softly into his arms, and he hugged me close to him. I cried.

That has been my father’s presence in my life. No matter the circumstance, my dad has been there to sweep in and catch me before I hit the ground. Even when it seemed like our relationship was based more on silence than words, he was present in a way that most others weren’t. If that were the only thing I knew about my father, it would be enough. While I cherish every restaurant visit he made better by being unruly, that one afternoon he saved me from falling gave me everything I need to know about him.

Nothing gives me more pride than the ways in which I am similar to my father, not just in trying to proverbially catch people in their most emotionally charged moments but in the little things. Every time I bring my eye up to the viewfinder of a camera, I see his eye staring back at me—green flecked with light brown, just like mine. Every time I sit down to write, I feel him leaning over my shoulder. Even struggling in geometry made me smile because I remembered my father telling me it was the only class he had ever failed.

Maybe I don’t know as much about my dad as I want to, but I only have to check in with myself to understand who he was. I share his love for learning and books, his analytical nature, his sense of humor. I share his nose and his height and his habit of eating ice cream in the dark.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my father was a good man—a man I will always remember for his dedication to me. When I was diagnosed with asthma, he quit smoking. He had tried to do this for decades (unsuccessfully), but knowing that his vice was affecting my lungs, he stopped. He bought the patches and gum, and while he ultimately succeeded in quitting, he did find himself suddenly addicted to gum (after he transitioned from Nicotine gum to Trident), which was convenient as I also had a pretty serious gum habit.

He was not perfect, and God knows I wasn’t, either. But he tried. Every day of his life he labored over choices, always trying to find the one that would best benefit his wife and daughter. Everything he did, he did for my mom and for me. So maybe I don’t know what my dad was like when he was a kid, and maybe I don’t know where he grew up or what he dreamed of being when he was in high school, but I know that he loved me with everything he had.

And that’s all anyone needs to know in the end, isn’t it?

Now if this were a real eulogy, I would have included some of my favorite stories about him—ones that involve laughter and hijinks—but that’s what the rest of the year is for. In this moment, I want to honor his life in a way that would have been fitting when I was fourteen and lost in a world I couldn’t recognize without his presence. The world still doesn’t look the same without him, but the colors get richer every time I connect with him through writing.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah: Living in Trump’s America

I thought I was okay, or at least on my way to okay, but I was wrong.

No matter who you are or what your personal ideology is, this is a strange and uncomfortable time to live in. Elections always bring out the best and worst in us–create new wounds where old ones have healed, sow seeds of discords and frustration, ramp up tensions until they’re almost too much to bear. That’s normal. We clash and use our votes as our weapons, but when the battle is over, we come together to repair the damage caused.

Until now.

The truth has been an illusive beast this past year, which isn’t altogether uncommon for politics, but this election cycle was beyond the norm in every conceivable way. Allegations abounded: of foreign leaders interfering with our elections, of the FBI interfering with our elections, of classified information in unsecured emails, of sexual assault, of rape, of fraud, of racism, of crookedness, of being in bed with Wall Street. We all found our own version of truth amidst the fragments of information we could gather from varying news sources, and that truth led us to cast our ballots.

I’ve been nervous for a while. I’ve seen Trump’s loose-cannon personality steamroll entire groups of people. I’ve watched his narcissism prevent him from staying on track, derailed at the mere suggestion of personal attack. I’ve listened to him vacillate between viewpoints and spew hatred like a poem he once memorized for a middle school English class, so ingrained in him like it’s tattooed on his heart. The idea of this man leading my country made me uncomfortable, but I prayed that my fellow Americans would hear the same warning bells that had been ringing inside my head for months.

It wasn’t the case.

At first, I was in disbelief, which is an emotion I’ve carried with me through much of this election cycle. It all felt like a joke that went one step too far. My nervousness turned to fear for the first time, not for myself but for many people whom I love and respect–people who were reeling in the news, wondering how best to protect themselves from the inevitable surge of violence. I tried to be an ally, an advocate, a friend. I tried to believe that this was a temporary phenomenon and that there couldn’t possibly be enough people in the country to believe in the darkest hate. I fixed my face in grim acceptance, hoping that the man I so vehemently opposed would bring my country prosperity and hope.

It’s too early to tell if my optimism was unfounded. I have to believe that the future holds light because the alternative is too much to bear. But right now, my boundless optimism is crushed beneath the weight of hatred. I see photos of swastikas painted on community dugouts and read stories of Mexican children being tormented by classmates and teachers alike and wonder how to exist in a world so contrary to my own beliefs. This time in my life is marked by a thousand little internal battles and the process of trying to integrate this experience into my existence without having to rewrite everything I knew about myself and the people around me.

That undertaking was something I thought I could do with ease, but it’s not turning out to be that way. Until this morning, I truly believed I could stand by my principles and be the person I want to be, but my foundation has been shaken too much to be able to stand with confidence. The hate around me is seeping into my pores and fighting its way to my heart, and I don’t know if I have the strength left to fight it. I stand on my soapbox and preach acceptance and tolerance, but how long can you continue to speak those words when no one is listening?

I’m trying with everything I have to understand where Trump voters are coming from. I’m a democrat, but that doesn’t mean I believe that my party is correct about everything. I understand limiting the size of the federal government and giving more rights to the states. I understand concerns over the morality of most forms of abortion. I understand fears of economic instability. If this were any other election, I would not think twice about anyone filling in the oval for the republican nominee, because there are facets of policy on which I agree solely with republicans. Voting is a complex thing, filled with research and learning and viewing situations from every possible vantage point. If there’s anything I can say with certainly that I resent, it’s when people accuse me of not doing my homework or of believing everything the media says. I’m a rabid consumer of knowledge, and I don’t take voting lightly.

That being said, I’m still having trouble coming to terms with the idea that people could overlook the immaturity and hate Donald Trump has displayed throughout his campaign. I have reasoned with myself and given justifications of what would lead someone to vote for a personality like Donald Trump, and I understand the rhetoric: anti-government/anti-corruption candidate, Washington outsider, restore the country to some former state of glory. But even if you believed in every plank of his platform, I still have trouble understanding how you could, in good conscience, ignore his instability of demeanor and his unending hatred for nearly everyone. I’m not even referring to allegations of sexual assault, because until there’s an indictment or conviction, they are only allegations, just like the FBI case against Clinton was only an allegation. I’m referring to things that were directly observable to the American public without the lens of any media–without any interpretation handed to us by left- or right-leaning news outlets: undoctored footage of Trump mocking a disabled reporter, unedited audio of Trump normalizing the objectification and sexual assault of women, his suggestion of making an entire ethnicity register with the federal government, his call for the mass deportation of Mexicans (with the rationale being that all Mexicans are ne’er-do-well rapists and drug dealers), and on and on…

I will not–and will never–equate voting for Trump to being a racist, a bigot, etc. I can, however, say that voting for a candidate who actively endorses those things means that they’re not so egregious that you would consider an alternative vote. It means you’re not upset enough about it to let it change your mind. In essence, there are more important things to worry about. Maybe that’s true, but I can’t wrap my mind around being comfortable with bigotry being the face of our country–not just at home but around the world.

At first I was only upset in the sense that Trump’s victory offered legitimacy to radical groups of people rooted in violence and intolerance. It wasn’t Trump so much as the minority of his followers capable of doing real damage without, in their minds, fear of repercussion. It was the fear of people believing that, in Trump’s America, it’s okay to beat up LGBT youth because of their sexuality, or it’s okay to rip hijabs from Muslim women’s heads. That was my fear, and even though I felt like I was allowed to be afraid for myself, I wasn’t. I was afraid for my friends and classmates.

While this may sound trivial, I wasn’t able to address how I, as a woman, felt about the election results until I watched Kate McKinnon perform in SNL’s cold open.

I should have known the day after the election that I wasn’t okay on a personal level. I wasn’t able to watch Clinton’s concession speech because I knew it would stir in me a disappointment that reaches well beyond seeing my candidate lose. For many women, this is deeply personal, and I ignored that as if focusing on other people’s pain would somehow erase mine.

Then I heard Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton sing, and something inside me broke.

I did my best–it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I told the truth; I didn’t come to fool ya. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but ‘hallelujah.’

I did not want Hillary Clinton to be my president because she is a woman, nor is that the reason I voted for her. I truly felt she was the more qualified candidate, and when you compare her 30 years of public service to Donald Trump’s zero, she was, in every respect, wildly qualified to win this election. Her loss is more complicated than attributing it to one variable, and I’m not enough of a reductionist or cynic to believe that her gender was the only thing holding her back. However, I am enough of a realist to know that it was a factor.

I recognize that being a white woman in America holds its own privileges, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Hillary Clinton’s loss, in a way, speaks to every woman who has ever lost out to a less-qualified man. It harkens back to every time I was told as a kid that only boys were allowed to do certain things. It underscores every “I want to speak to a man” I endured as a service technician at an Apple store. Unless you’ve been treated like a second-class citizen for an aspect of yourself you can’t control, you can’t possibly fathom what it’s like to be “less than.” Clinton came into this race with a resume several pages long, and Trump had a sheet of paper with his name on it.

And, with a collective voice that still reverberates in my head as I try to sleep at night, we chose the latter.

Hillary Clinton’s heartbreak is my own. I have to own it–wear it on my sleeve like a badge of honor, if only to remind myself of how long of a road I have left to walk. She feels like she has let me down, but she gave me hope that one day I might not be treated like my ideas are less legitimate because of my 23rd chromosomal pair.

I will still continue to promote tolerance, even if that means shaking hands with people whose ideals I cannot–and possibly will never–truly understand or be able to support. I will promote peace on both sides of this divide: no swastikas, no burning flags, no threats, no destroyed police cars. I will try my hardest to embrace all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.

But that does nothing to rid my mouth of this sour taste or to staunch the bleeding of my stubborn, complex, and confused liberal heart.

A Decade of Grief, Part Two

(If you missed the first part of this series, you can read it here.)

For a while after my father’s death, everyone treated me differently: spoke to me as if I were damaged, touched me as if I were made of glass, looked at me with their heads cocked to the side. It wasn’t bad, necessarily—just very different. And then, all of a sudden, they stopped. For them, life continued as it always had, and they expected the same would happen for me.

The thing about life is that it’s like a merry-go-round, except it’s going at 200 miles an hour. It doesn’t feel so bad when you’re on it and you’re strapped in; you get used to the pace because it’s all you’ve ever known. I had been tossed off of the merry-go-round, though, when my dad died. I sat on the ground, dizzy and disoriented, and watched as everyone else just continued spinning onward. It’s tempting to just sit and watch, but the longer you wait, the more you miss. Of course, the idea of leaping onto something that’s spinning at 200 MPH is terrifying, so that’s a factor.

I didn’t know how to jump back on. I faked it. I faked it so well that people believed I was okay. Even I believed I was okay, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t okay for a very long time, but faking it became so second nature for me that I convinced myself I had processed the loss and was moving forward.

The whole processing thing was complicated by the fact that we opened a lawsuit against the hospital. The moment that happened, a gag was placed in my mouth. I was forbidden to talk about anything related to my dad with anyone other than my mom. Any time I even mentioned him to someone else, I was looking over my shoulder, waiting to get caught. I needed to talk about it in order to process it, and I couldn’t.

The few times I did tell people what had happened—the actual details—any relief I could have gained from it was replaced with crushing guilt, wondering if I had just jeopardized the entire case. At fourteen, fifteen years old, my shoulders already ached from carrying the burden.

For the first year or so, no one knew about the lawsuit. Once the local paper got wind of it, though, it became common knowledge.

The first article was the worst. The writing made the implication that our case couldn’t hold water even though all we had done at that point was file the lawsuit. The comment section of the online version of the article was worse. My family was accused of being gold diggers and of profiting off of my father’s death. We were dragged through the mud by strangers. Students at my school—ones that I even considered friends—stopped talking to me or, at worst, were openly hostile. One girl told me it “wasn’t a big deal” that I no longer had a dad and that “everyone dies.”

I wasn’t allowed to defend myself. I had to keep my mouth shut and my head up, but nothing inside of me wanted to do that. I wanted to scream at these people and remind them that I never chose this and had no control over any of it.

I still feel uncomfortable talking about the lawsuit because there are people around me who are connected to the hospital and get frosty when I make reference to it. However, this is my experience. I own it. It happened to me—not anyone else—and I’ve earned the right to talk about it.

The hospital lied. They lied from the moment the surgery happened to the final days of the trial. They changed numbers on my dad’s chart and cited “pen malfunction” as the reason the numbers didn’t match. They lied under oath and changed a narrative that had already been written and done. They said things like, “I didn’t know Denis, but I could tell he was a great man.”

I watched my mother go through hell as she listened to deposition after deposition of varying accounts of how her husband died. Every deposition happened at the hospital rather than a court house or a lawyer’s office, forcing her to essentially relive my dad’s death for years.

I, too, was deposed. It was the first time I had stepped foot in the hospital since my dad’s death, and I felt dizzy and sick the entire time I was there. They asked me endless, probing questions about my relationship with my dad, my life, that month he was in the hospital, and ended up subpoenaing all 25 journals I had written from grades 7-10. My “homework” was that I had to read each journal and mark every single reference to my dad.

In preparation for my testimony, my lawyers took it upon themselves to remind me of all the things in my life my father would miss—graduations, weddings, births of children, every career milestone—as if I didn’t already think of those things all the time. At that point I was 18 and had already felt his absence at my high school graduation, three talent shows, countless softball games, and several other accomplishments. My heart was already scarred, and in some places I was still bleeding.

Some wounds never heal.

The night before the trial started, my team of lawyers took over the entire basement of Settler’s Inn. I called it The War Room because everything about it made it seem like we were preparing for this bloody battle. There were papers and files strewn about over several tables, with boxes lining the walls. The lawyers kept asking us if we wanted anything to eat or drink, and there was an entire table laid out with snacks and bottled water.

I didn’t take any of it, even though I knew we were footing the bill for it. Oddly enough, I wasn’t very hungry.

One of our attorneys took me aside to prep me specifically. He handed me photocopied pages of my journals, marked with neon flags indicating where I was supposed to read. I looked at him blankly. “I’m reading these?”

“Yes.”

For four years I was told to stay silent—to box up and put away everything I knew about my father—and now I was being asked to split myself open and spill my soul out to a room full of strangers, some of whom had a direct hand in my father’s death. The numbness I had experienced for so long came back full force, because if I had felt the terror of that, I would have collapsed under its weight.

I was free to go after I was prepped. I didn’t want to stay and listen to the strategies or catch snippets of what happened on that operating table. My aunt was there, and I remember her crying and hugging me and saying, “This is for Denis.”

I mean, it was. The whole point of the lawsuit was to force the hospital to take responsibility for their actions—to have some kind of justice in my dad’s name. What happened to him deserved to be brought to justice somehow, and maybe that should have made me feel better, but in that moment, knowing what I’d have to do soon, it didn’t bring me any comfort. I stood stiff as my aunt sobbed into my shoulder, and as soon as I was able, I got into my car and drove home.

On my day to testify, I had to get to the courthouse sometime in the late morning. My mom and aunt were already there, so I had to try to figure out the courthouse alone. I ended up in a sort of waiting room on the top floor. It was January, so snow was falling outside, making the whole day seem gray and dismal. I watched the school closings ticker at the bottom of a TV screen mounted to the wall, seeing if Honesdale had an early dismissal, even though at that point I was no longer in high school.

The wait seemed endless. During the trial’s lunch break, my lawyer went over my testimony with me one more time.

I don’t remember how I got into the court room or even being sworn in. Everything else is crystal clear to me, though. The jury was to my left, and behind them were long windows with ancient, yellow curtains. Directly ahead of me was my lawyer, and behind him sat my mom and my aunt. In front of me and to the right was the entire panel of defendants and their attorneys. To my direct right, almost so close I could touch her, was the court stenographer, whose clicking keys distracted me, but not nearly enough.

Being on a witness stand is like being in a small cage, which was appropriate because I felt like a sideshow act. My hands trembled as I held the xeroxed copies of my journals—fragments of my fragile soul that had been transformed into paper. My lawyer instructed me which passages to read, and I began.

At first I thought I could compartmentalize like I had for the past four years. After all, I had gotten good at pretending, and this was just the olympics of trying to pretend that I was okay. But that wasn’t the point. I was there to prove pain and suffering, and I was reading my pain and suffering. There’s no getting around that.

The emotion built up inside of me like bile, starting in the pit of my stomach and burning my chest on the way up. It burst out of me like vomit, wracking my body with tremors. The words in front of me blurred through a torrent of tears, and my voice croaked out every last private detail of those pages. I tried not to look at my family, knowing that seeing them would crack whatever stability I had left. Instead, I looked at the jury, trying to catch their eyes and make them see the pain buried inside of me that was finally gushing out—four years of festering wounds now being bled for the benefit of their judgement.

Not one juror could look me in the eye.

When I was finished, the judge asked the defense if they had anything they’d like to ask me, and all they said was, “We’d like to thank Ms. McDonnell for her honest and heartfelt testimony.”

White hot flames of anger licked my insides, but I was too drained to say or do anything other than step down from the stand and walk out the back of the courtroom. The door lead into a dark staircase carpeted in royal blue. I made it down half a flight of stairs before collapsing in the corner of the first landing and sobbing. The wall I leaned against was the only thing keeping me from slipping into the ocean of grief inside of me.

I allowed myself to be there no longer than five minutes. At that point I straightened up, caught my breath, and walked out of the courthouse, leaving it all behind.

The hospital ended up settling, which meant that my dad’s passing was ruled a wrongful death caused by the hospital’s neglect. Interestingly enough, though The Wayne Independent reported on the opening remarks of the trial, they never reported the outcome. That falls to me. Consider this to be the article they never bothered to write.

With the trial over, the gag was finally taken out of my mouth. I was free to talk about it, which meant I was finally free to “move on” and process the loss. However, I had gotten so used to being silent that I didn’t know how to talk about it or understand it. I hadn’t been allowed to grieve at the appropriate time, so grief felt very removed and foreign to me.

To be honest, it still does. I have moments when I’m able to fully understand what happened to me and my family, and those moment are immensely difficult. I have others when I can’t conceptualize that this is a real thing that happened in my life, and in those times, my dad is nothing more than a character in the story of my childhood—a childhood I have trouble believing I ever had.

I used to think that, because I never really broke down over my dad, I didn’t love him. It’s the opposite, though. When people get into car accidents and are seriously injured, they stop feeling pain. They go into shock in order to protect themselves from the trauma they’re experiencing. The same thing happened to me, but since I couldn’t physically see the wounds, I had a hard time coming to terms with my lack of emotion. The problem was that I loved my dad so much that his loss cut too deeply to be felt. I lacked the capacity to feel something that painful and profound, so my brain just shut it off.

His loss is still a daily struggle—one that I work on both actively and passively. It took me a long time to find meaning in it. It still is—and always will be—a senseless tragedy that could have been avoided. There will always be times when I’m angry at the universe for taking my dad away from me because it wasn’t necessary, and neither he nor I had done anything to deserve it.

That being said, my way of making sense of the senseless is to try to turn it into something positive. I know very intimately what it’s like to lose someone you love. I know what it’s like to fall deep into depression—to shake hands with the demons that live inside of you. I know what it means to suffer. If I can take that knowledge and use it to help other people, then my dad’s death serves a purpose. He can continue to influence me and guide my life if I use his passing as a way to help others through the same traumas. This is why I’ve decided to be become a psychologist.

I miss him. Nothing will ever change it, and no amount of insight or processing will ever make it okay that he was taken from this earth. He was 53. He had so much life ahead of him, and it’s not fair that it was stripped from him.

On the tenth of every month this year, I’m going to write a blog about my dad and all of the wonderful things he was. I want to honor his memory, and the first step of that was to tell the story of how he died.

Now I get to tell the story of how he lived, and as his daughter, I’m proud to have that honor.

A Decade of Grief, Part One

On October 10, 2006, I lost my dad, and in the ten years since, I have carried the weight of his death on my back like Atlas carries the earth. I’ve grown accustomed to the heaviness that predominates my life—wear it like a cloak, like an armor. Sometimes I can’t feel it. Others it threatens to flatten me to the pavement, causing my joints to groan and ache. My life is divided into before and after, and there are moments when I can’t even remember a before. That scares me.

I was fourteen when my dad walked into my room in the middle of the night and asked me where my asthma inhaler was. He had been battling what a nurse practitioner had told him was a nasty cold, but that night his chest was constricting. It didn’t take long for him to decide to go to the hospital. My mom swept into my room and took him away, promising she wouldn’t be long.

It was 3:12 AM on September 11, 2006. I climbed into my parents bed, trying to feel the warmth in the sheets, but the house was already cold. I had never been left home alone overnight, and I didn’t realize then that being home alone was something I was going to have to grow comfortable with. That night I didn’t sleep much—it was a blur of endless tossing and turning, jumping at any noise that might be my parents coming back.

My dad would never cross that threshold again.

In the morning my mom came back to take me to school. I don’t remember anything about that day other than walking outside in gym class and feeling this vague sense of dread.

That night I think I remember visiting him and sneaking in supplies like juice and cake. His bed was next to the window. Night had already fallen and the glow of the streetlights outside served as a backdrop to the small TV that was on a mechanical arm.

It all comes back to me in fragments. The next thing I remember was visiting him in the ICU, which he got moved to when his blood oxygen levels dropped too low. I hung up a campaign poster on the ledge below his window since I was running for freshman class president—an election he’d never know the result of. My dad never got to see me serve my term. It was the first of many milestones he’s missed.

At one point he started choking on an ice cube, and every machine in his room struck up an orchestration of noises so unsettling I had to run out into the hall. Outside his room I mentally shut down, and sometimes I think I never started back up again. In that moment there was something inside me that knew he would never come home. The nurses rushing past me, the endless beeping, the palpable panic…

That wasn’t the night he died. It was much more complicated than that. That was, however, the last time I ever got to speak to him. When the beeping stopped and the nurses all filed out, I went back in to say my goodbyes. A lot of people end up putting a lot of emphasis on the last thing they say to someone they love at the end, and while I know that doesn’t make or break years of other words exchanged, I think it’s human nature to place so much stock in that final exchange. It brings me comfort to know that the last conscious interaction I had with my dad was my squeezing his bright, hospital-white socks and saying, “I love you, Daddy.”

The timeline is fuzzy after that. He went in for surgery the next day, and since my mom wanted to be there for it, I had no way to get to school. The principal came to get me in a light blue pickup truck. We had to pass the hospital on the way to school, and I’m glad I didn’t know what was going on inside its walls.

The next memory I have is of my mom sitting me down in the living room. I remember everything about that moment, from the light streaming through the window to my left to my mom crouched down in front of me and to my right, her hand on my knee. She told me that my dad was in a coma—one from which he’d never wake. Looking back, I can’t imagine how she had the strength to deliver that news. I was calm, mostly due to denial, and asked if they were sure. They were.

I’m still shaky on the particulars of what happened, and maybe it’s better that way. My dad had strep pneumonia. There was fluid accumulating around his lungs, so he had to have a surgery to insert a drainage tube. During the pre-op vitals and paperwork, my dad couldn’t manage to sign his name to the consent form. My mom joked with the nurse and asked, “What kind of drugs do you have him on?”

The nurse was confused. “He’s not on anything.”

It was the first of many warning signs. Years later I found out that my dad begged for them not to put the mask over his face for the anesthesia, but they did it anyway. Somewhere in the procedure, his heart stopped. They didn’t read his chart, so no one realized he was difficult to intubate. I imagine them ramming a plastic tube down his throat over and over. He was dead on the table for eight minutes before they got him back. Irreparable brain damage happens after five minutes of oxygen deprivation.

When my dad got back to his ICU room after the surgery, my mom went in to see him. She asked why he wasn’t awake, and the nurse told her that they had him on sedatives so he wouldn’t pull the tube out. She left to get me from school, and when she dropped me off at home and went back to see him, she asked the night staff how he was doing.

“Well, he hasn’t had a seizure in a couple of hours,” a nurse told her. That’s when she was told he was in a coma, though they told her he had flatlined in surgery for 30-45 seconds and they expected him to come out of the coma soon.

And then there was the truth: my dad was clinically braindead.

I found this out in bits and pieces later on. At the time everything was a giant blur, and inside I was numb. Parts of me still are and probably always will be. I continued going to school, but I remember none of it. In fact, I only remember chunks of my freshman and sophomore years. The only way I can recall most of it is by reading my journals from those years (but we’ll get to that later). The one thing I remember from that period of time was watching Whose Line is it Anyway, lying on the floor of my living room with my sheepdog. My mom went to the hospital after dinner every night and sometimes wouldn’t get back until after midnight. She would read to him and talk to him, hoping that her voice would somehow bring him back. We knew what the doctors had said, but visions of hope and miracles and Hallmark movies danced in our heads. We prayed. We waited for that miracle, but it never came.

We needed time to process. TV shows joke about “pulling the plug” on a relative, but it’s not simple. My parents had made an agreement that if either one of them were on life support, they would want to be taken off, but we needed time. One of the physicians didn’t understand this and, on more than one occasion, urged my mom to pull the plug.

I try very hard not to hate the people involved in what happened to my dad because we’re all human. The surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists were all human, and as humans, we make mistakes. It’s more how you handle the mistakes that define how you should be judged, and for that, I feel I’ve earned the right to feel at least a deep contempt for the handful of people who made the series of mistakes that lead to the death of my 53-year-old father.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It wasn’t until October that I could bring myself to visit my dad. The ICU nurses buzzed us in on sight; no need for us to state our business, since they knew my mom from her being there every day for at least three weeks straight. I know that if I had never gone to see my dad I would carry that regret with me for the rest of my life. Instead, I carry the regret of actually going to see him, because that man in the hospital bed with the tube sticking out of his trachea was not my father.

Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I see him like that, with the tubes and his bloated face and his lopsided mouth. I remember the way his eyes opened when he heard my voice, like there was a glimmer of recognition, and then the unbelievable pain of watching his unfocused, roving eyes, knowing that he was already gone.

He was dead before he died, but I went back a few more times as if I needed more proof. Each time I went, it further burned that image into my brain, like when you leave an LCD TV on for too long and the image on it becomes a permanent part of its screen. Every time I try to call up his face—his real face—it’s like the image of him in the hospital is superimposed on top of it.

Late on October 8th, my mom made the decision to take him off of life support. He was given morphine and disconnected from the respirator. I continued going to school, wondering when the call would come that my dad had stopped breathing. He made it through October 9th. On October 10th, my mom left the hospital for the first time since making the decision (my aunt had been taking me to school). We went to Walmart to get food, and as we were leaving, my phone rang. I guess my mom had given the hospital my number since her phone was dead or lost.

It was The Call. We only had minutes to get from Walmart to the hospital, and my aunt, God bless her New York roots, sped and ran every red light on the way. My mom leapt out of the car as soon as we pulled in front of the hospital. My aunt found a parking spot and ran after her.

I was alone and waiting, like I had been for almost a month. I sat in the back of my aunt’s Subaru, not feeling anything. Nothing around me felt real, yet I knew it was happening. My concept of time was kind of skewed after that. At some point my aunt appeared at the window, her face red and streaked with tears, and just nodded. She hugged me, but I felt nothing.

I think I cried once for maybe thirty seconds, but it’s like my body couldn’t grasp the concept of grief. I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near where my dad’s dead body would be. I called Casey, who is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sibling, and she stayed on the phone with me, presumably for hours, since it was light when I called her and it was dark when the conversation was over. I only remember that she was there—not what she said. I also remember pacing on a curb over and over again, teetering like I was on a balance beam. I remember the orange glow of the lights of the parking lot. I remember Casey’s steady presence and that, at some point, she got off the phone to take a shower but called me back as soon as she was done. The rest is buried.

It’s strange to realize what I remember and what I don’t. There are so many things I can recall in shocking detail and even more things I don’t remember at all. I don’t remember going home that night. I don’t remember my mom coming back.

It was the most pivotal moment of my life. My childhood was taken from me that night and was replaced with the burden of trying to step into the shoes my father left behind. A giant chasm opened up inside of me, and it will exist in me until the day I die. I’ve tried to fill it with relationships, food, positive life experiences, writing… but that emptiness will always exist in me—and it should. It means that my dad is someone who can’t be replaced.

But a decade of emptiness is not an easy pill to swallow.

(You can find part two of this series here.)

How Being on Fire is Actually Good: The Philosophy of Phoenixes

“Standing on a golden perch behind the door was a decrepit-looking bird that resembled a half-plucked turkey. Harry stared at it and the bird looked balefully back.” -Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

DISCLAIMER: I promise this isn’t just for Harry Potter nerds like me; no prior understanding of the Harry Potter series is necessary to read this post.

As a kid I think I was aware of phoenixes in a vague sense, but they paled in comparison to other mythical creatures like unicorns, who had associations with magic and rainbows. I was a Lisa Frank girl, so anything colorful was enough to capture my attention for an unreasonable amount of time. Phoenixes, with only a portion of the color wheel to their feathers, just weren’t as interesting.

It wasn’t until I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as a preteen that I considered the actual mythology behind phoenixes, but even then, with the majority of the book featuring strange beasts and fantastical spells, phoenixes once again faded to the back of my mind.

I struggled with depression in middle school in the angsty sense that every young teen experiences depression: isolation, hormonal imbalance, and a touch of existential crisis for good measure. I wasn’t a stranger to feeling down, but I had never reached a rock bottom, so my understanding of depression, while real, was limited.

When I lost my father at age fourteen, I hit rock bottom so hard I think I made a cartoon-like, full bodied imprint in it. I suddenly understood the full scope of things like depression and grief, but instead of figuring them out through gradual exposure like most people, I was instantly saddled with the entire scope of negative human emotion.

In other words, I was that half-plucked turkey looking balefully at my surroundings, no longer containing the energy or will to continue. There was effort involved in existing now—in doing things like pulling my covers off in the morning or getting myself into clothing that didn’t remind me of sadness. All of my feathers had been ripped from my skin, leaving me raw and bleeding. And unlike a cat or dog or other mundane animal, phoenixes, as extraordinary as they are, can’t lick their own wounds.

When Harry, while wandering around Professor Dumbledore’s office, encounters this sickly phoenix, Fawkes, it bursts into flame. This prompts Dumbledore to say,

“It’s a shame you had to see him on a Burning Day […] He’s really very handsome most of the time.”

What I didn’t know in the period following my dad’s passing was that I needed a burning day. It took me a long time to realize the cycle into which all humans fall—of getting wrapped up with our inner demons, ruminating, and then ultimately overcoming them—before I realized what a burning day was for me.

At many different times in my life, like after my dad’s death, I’ve been faced with seemingly more than I could deal with. Some people handed me platitudes like, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” as if that’s some kind of sword I could bring into battle with me. Others told me to suck it up, as if I hadn’t already tried that. Even more people told me that happiness is an attitude I choose, as if I’d actually choose to be depressed and overwhelmed.

What I needed in those moments was to set myself on fire. Not in the literal sense, of course, but I needed to let myself be engulfed in flames. I fought against my invisible foes for so long that my energy got completely drained, but I didn’t realize—not for a long time—that it’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel negative emotions, even though people around me sometimes might want to make me think otherwise. It’s okay to feel depression and pressure lick my sides with long tongues of fire.

Why? Because the human spirit is a phoenix. All mythological creatures are based on some truth or human understanding. A unicorn is just a magical horse given properties humans find alluring. A mermaid is half person, half fish, appealing to the parts of us that want to explore the mysterious depths of the ocean. Phoenixes are birds that can be reborn—and what human being doesn’t want that kind of resilience?

From the ashes of my former self I would start again, time after time. For a while I would feel raw and vulnerable—too small for a world that loomed larger every day—but in the coming days and weeks, I would start to grow feathers. Beautiful ones, in the most vibrant hues of red and gold. I would gain strength I never knew I had and marvel at the fact that I had once caught fire—that I had once thought life could never be anything other than the war I fought inside myself.

There’s nothing glamorous about a burning day; it’s a tear-streaked face, trembling hands, echoing isolation that hurts as much as any flame. It’s messy and terrifying and means letting go of control, but it’s necessary. Without the flames, there’s no rebirth.

When you’re nearing a burning day, it’s hard to remember or believe that you can start over and become stronger from the experience. In order to keep a reminder for myself, I got a tattoo of a phoenix (of Fawkes, to be specific) on the inside of my right forearm.

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Last week when I had to have my heart chemically stopped in the hospital, the nurse commented on my tattoo as she was putting the IV in between the tips of the phoenix’s wings. “It’s really beautiful.”

I knew that it was a burning day and that the flames were about to wrap around me, so I gave her a short explanation of the tattoo’s meaning and said, “You’re gonna see me crawl out from a pile of ashes soon, but I’m gonna look like that bird some day.”

Maybe she thought it was crazy—that they had given me a sedative or something—but I think somehow she understood. I think we all understand the idea of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” but I like the philosophy of the phoenix because it emphasizes the cyclical nature of life in general.

There will be burning days. At certain points in life, you will be consumed with negativity—some kind of tragedy or overburdening or anxiety. You will reach those pinnacles when you can’t imagine things ever feeling differently or the sun shining through the windows of your soul again. You will scream and cry and swear at God for putting you through it, but when the flames subside and you’re born again, you’ll grow into your feathers and realize that you’re a goddamn phoenix.

The human spirit is a phoenix, constantly being reborn and transformed and reinforced, and there’s nothing more life-affirming—or badass—than that.

Adventures in Flatlining: A Tale of Adenosine and Tachycardia

I am a ticking time bomb.

I guess in a sense we all are, but some of us are more aware than others of the numbers counting down to the inevitable, final blow.

From the time I was in elementary school, I knew there was something wrong with my heart. I would come home from playing with the neighbors, and for an hour my heart would keep pounding away. My mom taught me to close my eyes and imagine a place I enjoyed, and for a time I remember that being on a tube slide at a nearby waterpark.

Most of the time, though, it wasn’t just a reaction to playtime. In fourth grade, as my teacher read to the class, my heart took off like a rocket. I remember staring down at the large butterfly screen printed onto my blue shirt, watching it quiver with the pounding like it was ready to take flight. By the time I raised my hand to tell the teacher, the episode had stopped as quickly as it had started.

The episodes continued in that fashion very sporadically—once a year, maybe—until a particularly frightening one in eighth grade made us seek a cardiologist. Finally, I thought, we’ll get some answers.

Of course it wasn’t that easy. My EKGs were normal. My echocardiogram was normal. It was a matter of catching an episode while it was happening, and as they were so random, I had my doubts. I was given a monitor to wear, and if I was having an episode, I was supposed to press a button that would record the electrical patterns of my heart.

Being in eighth grade isn’t easy. Being in eighth grade with a bunch of wires hanging off of you is even harder. I had expected to hear some kind of commentary from my classmates, but the joke actually came from one of my teachers. I walked up to him to ask to go to the bathroom, and on seeing the bundle of black wires sticking out from the bottom of my shirt, he said, “You’re going to have to try a little harder to hide your MP3 player.”

I stopped wearing it. The next day I had an episode, and it went undocumented.

Because we were unable to catch it, my cardiologist basically shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s not a fatal arrhythmia. It might be uncomfortable, but you can live with it.”

Instead of answers, I came away from my appointments with more awareness of my numbers ticking down to the next cardiac episode.

Every year in high school I had to leave in the middle of our spirit games because my heart would lose control. It was like a bongo drum played by a delusional crackhead, soft and hard, slow and fast all at once. Then it would level out in terms of the rhythm but would be hammering along at 150-170 beats per minute. After experiencing this for three spirit games, I skipped the games my senior year—the only year my class won.

My life has been ruled by this fear in the back of my head that at any moment—at any place or time—my heart could lose control. While driving. While on stage at a talent show. During an exam. Once it happened during a choral rehearsal, and I remember so vividly sitting on the asphalt outside of the church, propping open the door with my trembling body, praying to God to keep me alive, to make it stop.

The first time I went to the hospital for it was in 2012. In the waiting room for the emergency room, I tried to count the beats, but it was so fast I couldn’t keep track. Every 30 seconds or so I’d feel a beat so hard I genuinely thought my heart would explode, as if such a thing were possible. I clutched onto my mom’s arm, thinking that, if I had to die, at least I would be there with her.

By the time they took me back to get an EKG, my heart had already done its first attempt at calming itself, which meant 156 beats a minute instead of 200. It was enough that they gave me a beta blocker “to put the brakes on this thing” so I could see my cardiologist. The same cardiologist who was so nonchalant about it in the first place.

Even after seeing a documented episode, he just said to stay on the beta blocker and see what happened. I was 20 at the time, taking a beta blocker for a sporadic arrhythmia I hadn’t even gotten a diagnosis for. I was scared and frustrated, but clung to some shred of hope that this medicine would stop the madness, even though my own cardiologist wasn’t convinced.

It didn’t. Several more hospital visits followed, more frequently as the years went on, and each was the same: they would do an EKG when I got there, would hook me up to a monitor, draw blood, take urine, and leave me alone in my room for six hours. The episode would break on its own, and they’d send me on my way. “It’s not a fatal arrhythmia. There’s nothing more we can do for you here.”

I was tired of hearing it wasn’t fatal without anyone telling me what it was, and when it was happening—when my heart lost any and all control—it didn’t feel as benign as they made it seem.

In December of 2015, in the few minutes I got to spend with the ER doctor during my six-hour stint at the hospital, he mentioned that my cardiac episode was an SVT without explaining what that was or what it meant. At least I had something to go on, so I took that information to my primary care physician, who told me to see an electrophysiologist.

On Friday, September 2, 2016, I went to see Dr. Vijay, whose full name is so long and unpronounceable that everyone, including his staff, just calls him “Dr. VJ.” He explained that SVT, also known as supraventricular tachycardia, happens when the heart starts beating along rogue electrical pathways. There are a few different pathways that can cause the heart to beat quickly or abnormally, and the way to treat SVT with the highest efficacy is a procedure called catheter ablation.

So I asked this kind man, who looks like an Indian Ray Romano, what a catheter ablation is, and upon hearing the answer, I wish I hadn’t.

Catheter ablation is when they make an incision in your groin and run a long, flexible wire up through your vein and into your heart. The tip of the wire sends electrical impulses through your heart, stimulating the rogue pathways so the doctors can map where the improper beats are coming from. Once they’re relatively certain which circuits are abnormal, they use the wire to burn them.

I mean, it’s all well and good to have parts of your cardiac tissue literally burned to death, but the great thing is that you’re awake while they’re doing it. You get a local anesthetic for the incision site, but other than that, they sedate you but keep you conscious. So yes, you can feel when they make your heart go on its crazy circuit, and you can certainly feel them burn your cardiac tissue.

I was, understandably, freaked out. The idea of it was insane, but with a 95-98% efficacy rate on the first try, I couldn’t not consider it. I took the weekend to think it over, and by Monday I agreed to have the procedure, which he scheduled for October 6th. He also gave me a monitor to wear so they’d have more information about the type of SVT I had, and he encouraged me to try to induce one episode just so they’d have the data.

“You’ve been having them for so long. What’s one more?” he said.

I did not have any conscious plans to induce something so uncomfortable and terrifying, but my body had other plans. On Thursday morning, not even a week after my appointment with Dr. Vijay, I felt the telltale kick of my heart and knew an episode had begun. Since starting the beta blockers four years ago, I have to say that the episodes are at least more manageable. They don’t have the bongo drum phase, and they settle at around 120-130 BPM rather than 150+. They’re so manageable that I grudgingly go about my day and wait for them to end on their own. Apparently this is a bad thing, because Dr. Vijay said any episode lasting hours can cause damage to cardiac tissue, so if it’s been hours, I should go to the ER.

My episode started at 11:00 AM. By the time I had to leave for my 1:00 class, my heart was still chugging along at 125 BPM. I didn’t want to miss the class, so I ignored the palpitations as best I could and made it through an hour and a half of the three-hour lecture. During the break, I approached my professor, who was at least aware of the impending ablation procedure, and just pointed to my chest. She knew. She told me to go to the ER.

My boyfriend and I are down to one car at the moment, so I had dropped him off at work before going to class. He wasn’t due to get out until 9:30, and it was only about 2:45 when I got home. It’s not like he could have gotten home anyway, with my having the car. And I certainly wasn’t going to the hospital alone.

I tried what they call vagal maneuvers, which can sometimes cause a physiological response that lowers the heart rate. Nothing. I tried calling my boyfriend at work, but it was busy and he didn’t feel his phone vibrating. Finally I called my mom, who lives 45 minutes away, and she closed her business to come take me to the ER.

By 4:30 we were in the waiting room, and my heart was still going a steady 125. At 5:00 I was brought back to have an EKG in the triage room. They lead me to a bed in the corner of a room I shared with someone who was hidden behind a curtain. My monitor showed my heart fluctuating from 117-130 BPM, and when you consider that my resting heart rate is usually between 55-65, that’s not great. (It’s also not the worst I’ve been by any means.)

I settled in at around 5:20, expecting the usual six hours of waiting for the episode to break naturally with the occasional nurse checking in or a phlebotomist coming for blood. However, within a half an hour the ER doctor, Dr. Dave, came in to check things out. When he heard that this episode had been happening for six hours, he said, “We’re going to have to break it.”

In my 15 years of struggling with SVT and God knows what other arrhythmias, I had never heard that sentence, and it scared me. “What does that mean?”

“We’re going to give you a medication that’s essentially a reboot of your heart.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we’re going to have to stop your heart.”

I’ve had anxiety my whole life. I’m accustomed to the feeling of panic, but up until that point I had never felt so much fear in one singular moment. He went on to explain that the drug is very fast acting and your heart stops beating for only a second or two, and it immediately starts back up. It’s completely safe, he’s administered it 200-300 times, and he’s never had a problem.

That did nothing to alleviate my concerns, because they were going to stop my heart.

He left to find me a bigger room since they were going to “need a lot of space” for the procedure. My mom reached over and held my hand, and I went to my default state when I’m overemotional: numb and in denial.

Because I’m me, I need humor in order to deal with traumatic situations. When the nurses came to wheel me to my new room, I told them I felt “regal” because I was being escorted by a team like a princess in a carriage. I kept making jokes with them, and Carmen, an Irish wiseguy himself, said, “She seems pretty asymptomatic.”

They wheeled me into a single room with a TV, which, I commented, was the height of luxury. I laughed with Carmen, trying to forget that this move brought me closer to potential (and technically real) death. Another nurse, Monica, came in. She was a beautiful black woman with meticulously curled hair, and she and Carmen bantered about going to bars and the length of their shifts. It was easy, then, to believe that I was just in a bed watching Newswatch 16 and listening to some friends get over a play argument about something insignificant.

Monica expertly put in the IV, which started to bring me back into the awareness that something was about to happen. Another man, whose name I never learned but who looked even more Irish than Carmen, came in wheeling a crash cart.

That’s when it became real. That’s when every cell in my body lit up with a terror I’ll never be able to describe. My heart rate shot up to 165, and with a shaking finger, I pointed to the cart and said, “Why is that here?”

“It’s standard procedure, just in case.”

Dr. Dave came in as they were putting the shock pads on me. I stared at the crash cart, which looked like one of those red tool chests, tears distorting its edges, and said, “This is the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.”

Time seemed to be speeding up, and everything was happening in an adrenaline-fueled blur. I was vaguely aware of my mom crying next to me, kissing my temple and saying over and over, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Ten years ago, she watched her husband—my father—die in a hospital after a case of medical malpractice. That thought was an undercurrent to everything that happened, that piled terror on top of fear and made everything—even this “safe” procedure—seem like a death sentence.

Carmen and Monica were on my right, attaching equipment to my IV line. The unnamed Irishman was to my left, trying to restrain my mother from draping herself across my body. Dr. Dave was behind me, his hands gripping the top of the bed behind my head.

“I’ll be able to see it on the monitor before you feel it, so I’ll tell you when to expect that weird feeling.”

“That weird feeling” meant the cessation of my heart beat.

I didn’t really get a warning when it was going to happen. I heard them say “Adenosine twelve” or something similar, and then I felt it enter my body.

It started as a deep, heavy ache spreading up my arm and into my right shoulder. Then everything felt heavy, like I was being compressed from all angles. It’s like when your vision goes black at the edges and you feel everything closing in on you, but there was no blackness. I felt my body shutting down, like I was a toy who needed its batteries replaced. My legs felt the strangest for some reason, almost warm… almost like I could feel the blood slow to a crawl. They were lead, and I felt like I’d never be able to move them again.

They always say that, when faced with death, your whole life flashes before your eyes, or you think of loved ones and remember them fondly, but this wasn’t the case. The only thing my brain grabbed onto was, “Stay conscious. Keep breathing. Stay conscious…”

Over and over this was my mantra as I felt my body slow, felt my heart near its flatline. This all happened before Dr. Dave said, “Okay, you’re going to feel it now.”

It was all a matter of seconds—maybe less—but it felt like the fabric of time had been stretched out and wrapped around me too tightly. At last I felt a final thump, and then an almost echoing emptiness filled my chest. At that moment, I was half-dead, no longer sustained by a heart beat. Had I been looking at the monitor above me and to my left, I would have seen the straight green line signaling the “weird feeling” that was the absence of my pulse.

The heaviness was deepest then; an ache so deep it was only a whisper, like I was accessing it through a concrete wall, crept into my arms and legs. Then, as they had explained, my heart did a “reboot” and slowly started beating again, and the rest of my body felt remarkably similar to the concept of a computer going through its boot sequence. It’s almost like I could feel the blood start to circulate again, and the weight started to come off incrementally. The nurses around me were breathing sighs of relief, even saying, “It’s down,” but I felt it before they saw it. My heart broke through its shackles, pounding its way back up to 167.

My visual awareness of anything other than my own feet and the crash cart was nonexistent. Even though I knew who was where, I didn’t see them—not because I couldn’t, but because my awareness was focused so far inside of me that the outside was close to an illusion. I was living inside my body, trying to will it into submission.

“You’re doing so great, baby. You’re taking it so well,” Monica said as she slipped an oxygen mask over my face. It had a bag on it, like the kind you’d use for a resuscitation.

“We’re going to have to go again,” Dr. Dave said.

I was so tired and still very heavy, and I tried to say, “Please wait,” but they were already prepping the next injection.

“Six?”

“No, twelve.”

My mom was trying to hold onto my arm, I think, but Irishman pulled her off again right as the second injection hit my bloodstream. The oxygen helped my brain feel less like it was going to slip away, but every other sensation was the same, if not more intense because my body was already exhausted from having been shut down once.

Again Dr. Dave told me the feeling was coming, and again I felt my heart stop. Oddly enough, the sensation of my heart stopping was the least uncomfortable of all, half because I was less aware of it than the other symptoms and half because I had experienced skipped beats before, and this just happened to be a very long skipped beat.

The psychological aspect of knowing that my heart had stopped, though, was the most traumatic by far. As my systems came back online, as it were, there was again a sense of celebration in the room since my rhythm was in normal range, but I knew it was temporary before it even happened: it broke through again, immediately racing to the 160s and scaring everyone in the room.

“We’re going to have to try something else,” Dr. Dave said, which to my panicked mind meant using the shock pads.

“It’s called cardizem, and it takes a little longer to work… maybe two or three minutes.”

If their first line of defense was stopping my heart, I was afraid to ask what this new drug would do.

“What will I feel?”

“Nothing,” Dr. Dave said.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” the Irishman answered, smiling at me.

I didn’t feel the cardizem enter my bloodstream, but within thirty seconds I felt my heart slow gradually until it rested at around 75 BPM. “It’s holding,” they said.

They took my oxygen mask off. “Thank God,” I heard. My mom threw herself across me as Monica said, “You did so well, sweetheart.”

“Most people swear or scream or try to fight,” Carmen added.

I made up for it by swearing a lot the rest of the night.

A lot of things come into perspective after you’ve half-died twice in a matter of minutes. Priorities make themselves clear in the coming days. Your own strength and resiliency are confirmed. Your loved ones seem all the more dear to you. Life itself is more vivid.

I’m no longer afraid of my ablation. I figure feeling a doctor burn electrical circuits in my heart can’t be as bad as feeling my heart actually stop. The only thing I’m afraid of now is waiting until October 6th, since, as the cardiologist who saw me in my room the next morning said, “You can try to avoid basic triggers like bending over and heavy lifting, but we both know that this thing could happen at any moment.”

So for now I have uncertainty hanging over my head like I have for the past 15 years the SVTs been happening, but at least people are taking it seriously and no longer trivializing the fact that sometimes my heart freaks the absolute fuck out. There is an end in sight, as long as the catheter ablation works.

I wish I could end this with a “happily ever after” and say that the experience fixed my heart forever and that it’s taught me everything will work out in the end. I’m not there yet. Struggling with the trauma of having legitimately flatlined and knowing it could happen again is not easy, especially when doctors tell me that, until the ablation, I’m at risk no matter what I do. However, I’m grateful to be alive—to be able to tell this story from the other side of what could have been a very different ending. I’m grateful to be sitting next to my dog and thinking of how fortunate I am to still be with the ones I love.

It worked out, but don’t think for a second I’d wish this experience on anyone. There are other ways to find gratitude in everyday life, and most don’t include having your heart stopped.