I’ve had survivor’s guilt for the past seven hundred ninety-nine days.
Cancer killed Dad on a bright blue, cloudless Wednesday afternoon, June 24, 2009, and I’ve not been right since. I struggle each day. I wonder what I could have done better or different. Should I have gone to Beaumont and Houston more frequently from wherever I was working at the time, to sit with Dad during his treatments? Had more meaningful telephone conversations with him? Taken our son, Karl, to see him more often, so they could play trains together, as they loved to do? Done something – anything – more?
Dad always told me to take care of my job and my family, and not to worry about him, and I, the obedient son, did what he told me. He was proud of me, he told me so many times. I told him I loved him, and him, me. Still, I can’t escape the guilt of failure or the regret of things undone.
We buried Dad on a hot, humid, Southeast Texas Saturday, June 28, 2009, in his crypt in Magnolia Cemetery, on the banks of the Neches River, where my mother’s father fished as a boy. I sweated through my dress shirt collar and would have ripped off my tie if it didn’t mean violating some unwritten principle of mourner’s decorum. In teary silence, we watched, through dark sunglasses, the Army honor guard from Fort Polk, Louisiana, execute a twenty-one gun salute and precisely fold that crisp cotton flag and present it to Mom. Thanks from a grateful nation.
I dutifully returned to work two days later. I carried on in stoic silence, as is the wont – and curse – of Pearson men.
Hindsight shows me that I did not take enough time to grieve, to get my head screwed back on straight. I plunged back into work and ratcheted up my cancer advocacy and fundraising efforts. I worked hard at doing everything well except taking care of myself and my family.
I did nothing well.
My job performance suffered. My advocacy efforts, strong at first, seem stagnant now. My relationships suffer. My ability to communicate, to emote, to share myself – already tenuous – grew weaker as I threw up the Great Wall of Erik. I hide behind that wall today. Seven hundred ninety-nine days later.
I have my good days. I allowed myself to relax for the first time in years on our ten-day family vacation to Seattle and Alaska. I unplugged – no cell phone, Twitter or Facebook. June 24 came and went while we were in Ketchikan and except for a fleeting, private observance within my mind, the significance of the date passed on by.
But days come and go where I encounter a problem and think, “Let me call Dad.” I whip out my cell phone, finger hovering over the phone book entry for “Mom and Dad Pearson.” It’s just Mom now, but I can’t bring myself to change it. I stop, my chest constricts. Icy cold fingers grip my heart and slowly squeeze. My breathing becomes agonizingly short and shallow.
My Four Horsemen – guilt, grief, failure, and regret – return to haunt me once more.
The moment passes, but any momentum I had up to that point is gone. I stumble through the remains of the day.
I take a pill each morning, my little, oval, salmon-colored happy pill. It helps keep me from getting torqued, too wound up.
I know I should turn my guilt and grief into something meaningful, to act on them with a sense of purpose and responsibility. But uncertain inertia paralyzes me. I know I must live in the now, not in the past, and the future is but a fading dream. How do I move forward? Seven hundred ninety-nine days later I’m still trying to move beyond putting one foot in front of the other.
What would Dad say to me right now? In his firm Master Sergeant’s voice, he would tell me to get off my ass and get moving.
People ask me how I am. “Better than I deserve to be,” is my standard answer. Some days that’s a true statement. Some day’s it’s pure delusion.
I live, but am I alive?
I’ve spent the past seven hundred ninety-nine days trying to figure that out.