Last year at this time, I woke up every morning wondering if it was the day I’d get the call that my father had died. Every day, I’d brace myself for the news, while punishing myself with the question of whether I should hop the next plane out and be there with him in his last hours.
My father had made it clear to us (at least, as far as we could tell), that he didn’t want company. And his wife discouraged visits. I’d said goodbye to him on my last trip out, so it wasn’t like we had more to say. There was no guarantee I’d get there before he left, or that he’d be in any condition to even know I was with him. So mixed up in the dread of receiving the news, and the anticipation that he’d be finally out of pain, was the aching should-I-or-shouldn’t-I debate that took over 78% of my brain.
As I’ve written before, this time of year has always been challenging for me, but my normal seasonal doldrums have been intensified by the coming anniversary. 2014 was a difficult year— full of gifts and goodness and joy, but relentless in loss and disappointment. It would be no hyperbole to say it was among the worst years of my life.
It didn’t occur to me until mid-January that the upcoming anniversary of my dad’s passing away had a role in my wan, unmotivated daily slog. I knew I wasn’t at my best — that I was out of sorts, waking up sad and lost every morning, that my communication was lacking. I figured it was just seasonal stuff, mixed with the vestiges of disappointment from an unhappy end to the year. And then talk of Super Bowl Sunday (and the Broncos disappointing us again) brought up the emotions of that terrible, terrible Sunday last year when Dad woke up asking what would happen if he started to feel better, and ended it asking to die. That was just the first in a series of unhappy anniversaries I’ll be attending to in the next several weeks - today was the last day of the 11th Jewish month since his passing, which is the final day of the mourning period, and I was up early to attend services and say Kaddish one more time. Then we’ll have February 22, the day he actually passed away, followed by the one-year anniversary of his death on the Jewish calendar.
Most mornings for the last several weeks, it’s taken all of my will and energy to drag myself out of bed. The urge to burrow back under the comforter and send the world away has been incredibly difficult to resist. And on the rare days when nobody is counting on me, I’ve done just that, drifting between sleep and sadness, dozing the day away until I’m finally just too hungry or sore to stay in bed any longer.
But that’s not the whole story. Because people do count on me, and that’s enough of a reason to stay the course, to power through, to do what needs to be done. Yes, I’m blue. More blue than I can remember feeling for a very long time. But I need to keep my company growing, cultivate my friendships, and make sure that Simone is happy and fed and taken care of. Oh, and I need to keep paying the bills, keep the house from getting disgusting, and maintain my physical health.
So, though I occasionally indulge in hibernating and wallowing, I’ve worked hard to keep myself distracted and motivated — and I’ve found that a few key components are helping in a big way. The glib breakdown would be yoga, snowboarding, parenting, and bourbon. But there’s more to it.
Learning to breathe
When things started feeling especially bleak in January, even my every-other-day workouts at the gym weren’t helping. Between the resolution-fueled crowds and the mundane repetition, I hated every minute, even if I felt solid and strong after lifting for an hour. So I forced myself to go back to my favorite yoga studio, and happened to take a class from one of the most popular teachers in Denver.
I never truly understood how the right yogi could transform a practice until I met this dude. I generally leave a yoga class feeling revitalized for a little while, but that first session left me beatific for hours. In fact, one of my close friends, who happened to be there that day, told me I looked like a different person afterwards. She knew that I’d been struggling, and could see my near-transcendent glow as we walked out of the studio, the streetlights just warming up as twilight descended.
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” She bubbled. “I hope you go back again.”
And I have. Yoga for me has been about being focused on the present, pushing away the outside concerns and the traps that keep me muddled and unbalanced. Even if it’s only for an hour, that attention to my form has been like a mini-vacation for my mind while strengthening my body. It’s always a fight, of course, and a good teacher provides reminders to stay focused on one’s practice. But this teacher, whether he knows it or not, has been giving me tools that I can use every day, even when I’m not in the studio.
And it’s all about finding my breath. I’ve always said that taking a deep breath can provide your outlook with a soft reset. But what I’m learning in my new, weekly yoga regimen is that different ways of breathing yield different results. And, even more importantly, that just paying attention to how I breathe — and to the fact that I am breathing — can often be enough to put the breaks on the hamster wheel of my mind, shaking it loose from its recursive patterns. Add in the deep physical challenges of a sustained, mindful practice, and I’m suddenly able to call up the positive effects of a session days later. That’s huge for me when I get bogged down in the internal monologs that tie up my brain and distract me from focusing on the present moment.
Hurtling down the mountain
Speaking of being in the moment, there’s nothing like putting your body on the line as you navigate a steep descent with a fiberglass board strapped to your feet to keep you focused.
I never love snowboarding very much until the second or third time I’m on the mountain in a new season. It takes a few days before I start to crave the burn of the wind, the steady pressure on my lower back, and the adrenaline glow that comes from carving a pathway down a snowy trail.
My third time snowboarding this season finally brought me that sense of unbridled joy, that in-the-very-moment-nothing-else-matters happiness I forgot was possible. Sure, I missed having someone to enjoy it with me — my snowboarding tends to be long days of isolation. But with my bluetooth helmet speakers cranking old school Jane’s Addiction, my legs finally doing what I needed them to do, and my board stirring up a shimmering rooster tail of sunlight and powder, all I could feel was grateful, if only for the four minutes of delight until I was back on the lift, headed up for another go.
I realized, on one of my best runs of the day, that my joy came from an alchemy of confidence, denial of fear, and intention. That, when I just let go and trusted my skill, when I could be loose-but-focused, the mountain opened up to me, and I wasn’t fighting it anymore. If I could help Simone understand that surrender is the key to snowboarding, it all might finally click for her, too.
Because we’re still both holding out confidence that, after another lesson or two, we’ll be able to snowboard together.
But even if that doesn’t happen this season, just being with Simone is a balm to the daily ache I’m living with. It’s not so much that she comforts me — she has very little idea just what I’m going through right now. I would never weigh her down with that. It’s more that her presence makes my heart happy. I just can’t be unmotivated or miserable when she’s with me. Sure, we argue sometimes, and sure she can be a sullen or distracted teenager, but that doesn’t even matter.
It’s no secret that I’m grateful to be Simone’s dad, and that she enhances my life in all kinds of ways. But what I’ve noticed in the past few weeks is how essential her presence is to my wellbeing. We can be on a fun food adventure, taking an epic walk, or just hanging at a coffee shop together with our books. We can be in the same room, working on our computers, barely interacting, but I can still look up and see her familiar face and feel all sorted out by her company. I didn’t realize until lately that my depression is barely present on my parenting weekends. I might still wake up blue, but once I’m out of bed and making our breakfast, several layers of the ache melt away.
I have a couple of friends right now who actively get me out of the house. They’re the ones who, no matter how busy they are, make me go do stuff. And by “stuff,” I mean eat awesome meals and drink brilliant cocktails with them.
If I don’t have a date or an event to go to, my default position is couch + fireplace + movies. It’s not an unhealthy indulgence, but it doesn’t do anything to break through the cobwebs of my doldrums. In my current state, I’m not awesome at reaching out to be social. So I’m incredibly grateful to have pals who insist that I put on pants and leave the house to join them for carousing and hilarity.
I believe my seasonal doldrums would be much more paralyzing if it actually felt like winter around here. I wrote most of this column on the patio of a coffee shop, in short sleeves and jeans. The sky was deep blue and cloudless, and I was surrounded by herds of cyclists, packs of dogs and their owners, and other layabouts who were sitting around, enjoying a 75-degree day in February.
I can’t understate the effect that weather has on my emotions; how a gentle breeze or a sun-warmed bedroom can subtly overpower one’s incessant ennui. It’s harder to be super, super sad when you can sit outside with a book and a beer. It’s hard not to just smile and close your eyes and appreciate the gift of warmth and sunlight. This weather wears away at the sharp edges of my pain, leaving more of a soft, benign resignation, with the gentlest sense of hope. It’s like an early reminder that joy is making a comeback — maybe not as soon as I’d like, but it will be here, and all I need to do is stay strong.
I miss my father so much. I still experience moments when I just can’t believe he’s really gone, and the pain opens up like it’s brand new again. I relive the moment when I got the call that he’d passed away, and it doubles me over. Just as Akiva won’t be jumping on my bed to snuggle in the night, my dad will never be here to help me build something for my house or pull me close into a warm, loving hug. These are realizations that seem to sleep in my consciousness, revealing themselves in short bursts of grief and sadness.
But my gratitude for the joys and gifts in my life, and my intention to find the magic in every day, make my seasonal sadness and anniversary grief something I can live with, and even appreciate to some degree. I won’t always feel like this.
And knowing that my heart can still be broken, that my emotions are vital and available, is a comfort in its own way.