One year ago today, Matt returned to work at his office. Or, he tried to return to work at his office.
He’d been so nearly himself the day before—engaging with G and H, taking conference calls, interested in returning to normalcy—that when he’d broached the idea of heading into the office, I’d supported him wholeheartedly.
Because Matt wanting to go to work was normal. And Matt believing he could reach for normal, even though normal had fallen so far out of reach, was almost the only thing that could settle the fluttery ever-present anxiety of living with the unknown.
But he’d had a rough night. The ease of yesterday afternoon had not transferred into the evening. The pain and confusion, the frustration of being unable to speak the words in his mind. All of it returned.
He went to work anyway. He was determined and full of hope.
Matt lasted about an hour in the office. I remember how he looked when he came home and went to rest out on the deck, his eyes squeezed closed against the pain, his forehead creased with disappointment in himself. He’d had a good day just the day before. We were both disappointed that yesterday’s step in the right direction was today’s two steps in the wrong direction.
I sat beside Matt and told him it would be okay. We would keep following Duke’s instructions—Tylenol, physical therapy, and acupuncture—and we’d wait for the October 15th MRI. Everything would be better once we made it to Duke. Duke would fix him. They’d fix him and this and us. After all, at Duke, there is hope.
He agreed and we discussed the evening’s plan. While I took the kids to activities, he’d have another round of acupuncture (the acupuncturist agreed to make house calls.)
September 28, 2017 might have been Matt’s last time in the office, although the story may prove me wrong in the coming weeks. September 28, 2017 was definitely Matt’s last time trying acupuncture—the appointment ended up being long and slightly strange. September 28, 2017 is also a truth about Matt I noted in my very first post: his grace and his bravery in this fight. I don’t know the true reality of his internal struggle, the depth of his pain or the extent of his confusion; I know only that when given the choice, he chose to keep reaching for hope.
Yesterday, I struggled to write about Post Hope. It was an impossible day. But in truth, I haven’t written much about Post Hope recently. Partially that’s due to the fact that the story of our year of hope has picked up speed—September 2017 was simply unforgiving in the way it battered us—so I haven’t had to search through emails or photos and ramble. But also, Post Hope has been difficult to describe. Even to myself. For a few reasons.
For one, firsts have piled upon firsts. G’s and H’s first visit to the cemetery—they handled the solemn undeniability of our new life the way any kids might: by playing hide and seek in the car to avoid feeling the worst of the heartache. My first finished Post Hope manuscript—I typed “the end” and wasn’t sure what to do next. (Matt was always my first reader—my first champion, my first critiquer, and my first editor.) Birthdays. Anniversaries. (Thirteen miles later, I was still sad—and fairly sore.)
But also, paradoxically, because Post Hope is calming down. We (G, H, and I) can talk about Matt—I can tell them stories, make sure they know all the great things about him—and the tears don’t come as quickly. G doesn’t cross her arms over her chest and scream for daddy to come back as often. H doesn’t act out every time his grief becomes too overwhelming. We can set up lemonade stands and go apple picking without falling into a wave of grief afterward. The tears and the screaming and the acting out still happen. (Maybe they always will, which is okay.) But we are learning. We’re learning how to live with this hole in our lives. We’re learning how to co-exist with the hurt, sometimes, even, how to smile and laugh and enjoy the moment.
And that feels like a betrayal. To say we are sometimes okay seems wrong. To say we are adjusting to the new normal—well, I simply don’t want to adjust. But we are. And we have to. If only to honor Matt’s story. Because I know if given the choice, he’d choose to keep reaching for normal. Despite the pain and frustration. Despite the bad days (not unlike yesterday) that send us flying backward to those very rawest days of new grief.
And I think, maybe, the truth I’m just beginning to understand is that adjusting to a new normal, learning to live in a new world we never wanted, is inevitable. We’ve done it before. We have no choice but to do it again.
I think, maybe, the truth I’m just beginning to understand is that reaching for hope in Post Hope doesn’t lessen the heartache, but it also doesn’t diminish the story. Instead, reaching for hope in Post Hope may be the only way to truly honor this story.