Monday, September 2, 2013

the summer of fears

“How was your summer?”
I’m pretty sure I’ve been asked that question at least 78 times since I arrived back at school.
“It was okay.” My standard response.
It wasn’t okay, though. It was the worst summer of my life.

Facing your fears is not an easy thing to do. They’re called fears for a reason; they’re fucking scary. Just thinking about the things I’m about to talk about is making my heart race and my stomach drop and my eyes tear up. Fears are no joke.

One time I wrote this poem (here) about my fears and how my biggest one is saying them out loud. It scares the absolute shit out of me. I’ve always been like that. But I guess sometimes you don’t have to say anything. Your nightmares will eventually catch up to you, whether you’re ready or not.

On June 24th, my dad woke me up at 9:30 in the morning. Except he wasn't his normal self. He was slurring and stumbling and couldn't turn his head to look at me.
On June 24th, 2013 at 9:30 in the morning I woke up to my biggest fear: my dad dying right in front of my eyes.

“911: What’s your emergency?”
It’s always taught that when you call 911 you should try to remain as calm as possible. But I. flipped. shit. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t talk in complete sentences. I was so frantic I’m surprised I didn’t pass out right on the spot. I could never be a 911 operator. I could never listen to person after terrified person as they call in desperation for help. I could never sit at a desk and listen as people’s lives crash around them and crumble to shambles.

An ambulance, fire truck, and rescue squad showed up at my house. They took my dad to our local hospital and the EMTs had me ride with them in the ambulance. I remember that drive so clearly and how the only thing I could think about was if this was exactly how my dad felt as they rushed my mom to the hospital the day she died. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the next time I returned home, I would be doing so as an orphan.

I think by that point the terror was so overwhelming that nothing anyone said to me would calm me down. I paced up and down in the ER having an anxiety attack while a million things went on around me: paperwork, nurse, questions, nurse, doctor, more paperwork, MRI, nurse, major stroke confirmed, too late for reversal medicine, University of Michigan life flight called, emergency procedure needed, more doctors, more panic, panic, panic.

The University of Michigan Health System commercials are my absolute favorite. I cry just from hearing their song. I lived on north campus last year and I secretly loved having to take the bus because the route goes right passed the hospital. I love U of M’s hospital, especially at night. The big illuminated M’s on top of the building have always been so beautiful to me, standing so strong and mighty; the hospital an invincible fortress protecting everyone inside.

I never thought I would spend a week sitting in a room right next to one of those M’s. I never thought I would meet the life flight from the commercial or the doctors and nurses who truly are the leaders and best.

I spent a week sitting by my dad’s side in the stroke ward. I stared out his window almost all day, counting the minutes one Blue Bus at a time. I could see the bell tower from north campus and I’m pretty sure being so close to the place I consider home is the only thing that got me through the week without full-on freaking out. Everyone there was so genuine and encouraging, and my family was so supportive; coming up everyday, making sure my brother and I were never alone while my dad continued to make an incredible recovery.

I remember the day before it happened so clearly, my dad seemed so normal. My best friend and roommate Lauren was over at my house and we were planning out the layout of our dorm room for this year. I remember how my biggest concern that night was how I told my friend that I liked him and he clearly did not feel the same way, and how for those few hours it seemed like the world was crashing down, before it really did. But what I remember the most is that I was awake right before my dad had the stroke. I went to bed at 5:30 that morning. I heard him get up to go to the bathroom. I was slowly drifting off to sleep as the stroke began to wake my dad into a nightmare.

My dad has recovered a lot since then, but he still has a long way to go. He is almost always tired, and he gets confused without realizing it. His mind isn’t all there, and I worry constantly now that I’m gone. For those two months before I moved back to school, I was a full-time caregiver. I did absolutely everything around the house while trying to take care of my dad at the same time. And while he can do a lot of those things now, I still worry that he’ll forget to pay a bill or his mind will drift while he’s driving or he’ll get confused and won’t remember what day it is or what he’s supposed to be doing or where I am.

Which leads to fear #2: driving.
My dad only got permission to drive about a month ago, which means that I had to get my license so I could take my dad to therapy and do errands and such.
I. hate. driving.
I have avoided getting my drivers license for almost four years. Car accidents are so terrifying to me. You hold so much responsibility when you get behind the wheel, and I wasn’t ready to face that obstacle yet.
Well, lucky me. I didn’t have a choice.

Contrary to what many people think, I am actually a very knowledgeable and good driver. I took segment one of driver’s ed and passed it no problem. I spend so much time analyzing what other people are doing wrong, that I know what to do and not do. I stop slowly as opposed to slamming on the brakes and make my turns cautiously. Before the written test, I read the driver’s manual twice and took 5 full practice tests. I got 100% on the written. It was the actual driving test that caused me problems. I practiced with the cones and made sure I knew the answers to the questions the instructor would ask during the test. I made my dad stand outside the car while I tested each light and blinker numerous times before leaving the house. When I practiced, I never went over the speed limit and made sure I stopped at every yellow light. But none of that mattered because
I didn’t even get passed the parking segment. The guy left me sitting between the parallel cones while he went in to talk to my aunt Carla for half an hour. I called my best friend sarah sobbing because who the hell fails their driving test at age 19? Apparently I do.

Don’t get me wrong, I KNOW I’m a good driver. Carla argued with that old man for 30 minutes straight about how I deserve another chance. The guy didn’t give a shit. I knew he wouldn’t. I read the reviews for MG Driving. I had heard about all the people he failed. I just never thought I would become one of them.

Long story short, I waited a couple weeks, practiced my butt off with parking, retook the test, and came one (yes ONE) point away from failing parking again. But I made it.
I, Stephanie Alexandra Wineland, passed the driving test. And while I still don’t like driving, and I still get extremely nervous behind the wheel (and in the passenger’s seat), I faced yet another one of my fears.

Which leads me to my last extreme fear of the summer: the haircut.
The last time I cut my hair was 6 (YES THAT IS A SIX) years ago. Before this summer, I had only cut my hair about five times. I hate hair cuts. No, not hate. Despise. Those scissors are so menacing and final. You can’t cut and paste hair. Once you chop, there is no going back.

But alas, in the wake of my dad’s stroke, he thought it would be a good idea for me to finally get my hair cut. A treat, I believe he called it. And most girls (and guys) jump at the chance to go and get “pampered” at the salon. Many people look at it as a fresh start. After all, Coco Chanel once said “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”

I think I’ve had enough change already this summer, thanks.
But I went. And along with me went five precious inches of my hair.
“But stephy, it’ll grow back!”
That is probably my most hated phrase that anyone has ever said to me. And trust me, I have heard it plenty of times. Because, no, actually, you cannot confirm that it will grow back. And while that seems ridiculous to say, I know it’s true. Because do you know whose hair did not grow back? My mother’s.

My mom died from a cancerous tumor. She went through chemotherapy and treatment right at U of M hospital. Sometimes I would go with her and draw her encouraging pictures in the waiting room while she got treatment. She had cancer for years, but no one ever told me. I was only 11 when she died, even younger when she first started going for chemo. Before she got really sick, to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed, there was only one indication that something was wrong.

And that was that she started to lose her hair. She never went completely bald, but I remember when it started to thin. I remember how she started to wear this hair piece on top where it was starting to fall out. It scared the absolute shit out of me.
I would freak out when I watched her get ready for work, because she was no longer the mother I recognized. I remember my entire family going up north one summer and standing outside of the master bathroom while listening to my mom and her sisters and brother sob while she started losing the first chunks of hair.

And the day before she died, you know what she did? One of the last things that she ever did? She got a haircut. My friend Alexa’s mom was the one who cut it. I remember my mom coming home and saying that she saw the mother of one of the girls in my class and how they were talking about all of the places that had lost power from the weather that day. I remember the haircut being so completely different from the way she normally cutt it and telling her how she didn’t look like herself anymore. I remember going to my room and crying because all I wanted was the mom that I knew, who never missed a recital because she couldn’t get out of bed, who slept with me when I was afraid the monsters would get me, and was always up for a happy meal on a gloomy day.

When people ask me why I’m afraid of getting a haircut, I’ve never really given them an answer. “I just am,” I respond. But the real reason is because I’m afraid my hair won’t grow back, just like my mom’s.

My friends are always telling me to not worry, but I think once you experience fear on a large scale, even if it happened years ago, you can’t help but become fearful of life. After losing one parent, the thought of losing the other one multiplies to a level that is impossible to explain. I’m suddenly having nightmares every night, watching my dad suffer and slowly die over and over again.
I feel like I'm reliving my childhood fears. I’ve started sleeping with my light on again, because once my dad had a stroke I suddenly became afraid of monsters under my bed again. I have never been so fearful of life because I’ve seen how fragile it is. I’m constantly panicky and I don’t like turning my phone off, for fear that my dad will call needing me and I won’t be able to save him.

This life stopped becoming a wonderland and turned into living nightmare the moment I woke up on June 24th. Sometimes fears are harder to conquer than one might think.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

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