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Don’t suffer before you have to

I worry.  I’m not obsessive about it and I enjoy my life, but I like to feel prepared.  Most of the time when I worry, it’s merely a way of analyzing a concern and getting a jump on addressing it.  If I didn’t worry about my kids getting cranky on a long outing I wouldn’t have thought ahead to bring a snack.  Many moms in particular spend time worrying as a kind of preemptive strike.  Worry now prevents a meltdown later.  As long as it doesn’t drag you down, worry can be constructive.

But there is a limit.  Worry with no endpoint can be debilitating.  If something is too large or unsolvable worry can gnaw at you until you are ragged.  And if worry stretches on too long it hurts.

My family found out this week that my dad’s health is in trouble.  He went into the hospital on Christmas day, and recently had surgery.  I don’t have enough significant details to write about even if they were mine to share, but suffice it to say we’ve all had to stop and shift what we are doing to accommodate this new situation.  My brothers and I are all looking at what responsibilities in our own lives can be set aside, and when, so that we can coordinate a tag team effort to go out to Michigan and help.  I’m in line first for when dad gets out of the hospital.

My first reaction to the news that my dad was in pain and my mom was possibly overwhelmed was akin to panic.  There is nothing more upsetting than feeling helpless, especially where loved ones are concerned.  A serious situation deserves a serious response.  And I am in a different state with nothing to offer from here and it’s frustrating and scary.

But the night we got the news my brothers and I tried to communicate using Skype.  The group conversation was too awkward, so Barrett Skyped me directly.  He’s in Germany at the moment, and it was really the only way to talk to him.  We said the couple of important things that needed saying, and then we started to laugh.  Not in any riotous kind of way, but Quinn was lining things up on the bed and Mona kept appearing and calling Barrett the wrong name the way she usually does, and, well, seeing my brother makes me happy.  So we laughed a bit.

I was really conflicted about that.  It seemed disrespectful of my dad’s troubles.  If his pain mattered to me, how could I laugh?

The truth is that life is more complicated than that.  I remember crying during my first miscarriage and feeling as if I would never smile again, but at some point you can’t keep crying.  Eventually you sleep and you eat something and you get dressed and move on.  And if you have small children as funny and sweet as mine, you laugh.  Whether you want to or not, you laugh.  Because it’s disrespectful to ignore that side of life, too.

The morning after I talked to my mom and my brothers I got an email from my friend, Sarah.  She has had more than her share of dealing with long term illness and hospitals, and she gave me practical advice based on her experience.  All of it was interesting and insightful, but at the moment the most invaluable thing she said was, “Don’t suffer before you have to.”  Because if a fight is long you can burn out on suffering and not be useful.  She also advised me to not turn away humor when it presents itself.  A good laugh is sometimes the best thing.

This has been immensely helpful to me.  I feel as if I’ve been given permission to laugh.  I didn’t realize I needed that until it came.  The same way it was all right to enjoy the company of my extended family at my grandmother’s funeral, despite the sad circumstances, it’s okay to laugh with my brothers even if our dad is sick.  When I think about myself when I’m sick, do I prefer it if my kids are in some kind of mourning because I’m in bed, or giggling together down the hall?  When my kids are happy my world is better.  I’m still someone’s kid. I can’t imagine my dad wouldn’t choose the sound of his own children laughing together over our worried mutterings.

So when I need to cry I will cry, but if I feel like laughing I will allow that to happen, too.  Because if I didn’t, what is the point?  Of anything?  I will not suffer before I have to.  And I will worry in small doses–just enough to keep the meltdowns at bay.

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