Mama Bear Hugs
Sometimes, what you really need is just a hug and someone to tell you you're doing a good job at life.
If I had to boil it down to just one thing, the worst part about losing my father and getting divorced is having to rebuild my own support system. And especially as this has all gone down during COVID, it’s felt overwhelming, and sometimes just straight up impossible.
Everyone needs a support system. It's part of being human. We need community, we need care, we need love. We need hugs. I cruelly lost my father's support without warning. And then I chose to give up a marriage that wasn't supporting me enough.
My father was the person I'd call if I was happy and sharing great news, or if I was sad and needed a boost. He always answered calls from me and my brother, even if he was with a patient in clinic: he'd step out of the room, make sure I was safe, and then say he was with a patient and needed to call me back. (I can only imagine how incredible his patients thought that was, and how it must've built trust in him as their physician. I imagine him saying something like, "Excuse me just a moment – it's my daughter.") I remember a few times in undergrad at Duke, Dad could tell that I was struggling and would offer to meet me for lunch on campus. He was so cute walking across the quad in his white coat, so proud to be out with his daughter. That man loved being a father.
Dad was also my consistent support throughout highs and lows of my relationship with my ex…especially during the awful parts. When I wasn't proud of myself and how I handled a situation, he would say things like, "Falling in love is easy; Marriage is hard." Boy, was he right. And, ever the even-keeled and generous person, my father was also incredibly supportive of my ex, taking him on as a son to guide and support him when he most needed him.
A couple hours before he died, I had called Dad on my way into the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh to tell him the unbelievable work I was about to go do for our state as we were entering COVID lockdown. My dad told me how proud he was of me, and that he loved me. He was always there for me, right up until the end. I am very slowly learning how to simply *exist* in this world without my father's unwavering love and support, and let me tell you: it's exhausting.
When I visited my old school this week in Fort Worth, Texas, the site of my very first job out of college as a bilingual kindergarten teacher, I was surprised to feel the warmth and love of support when I didn't expect it. I didn’t realize how much I was missing it, how much I needed it.
The pre-k teacher from down the hall was there when I was visiting. She was a rock for me when I was a brand-new teacher, and she stopped me in my tracks when I saw her coming down the hallway.
Being a new teacher 10 years ago was the first time in my life I'd ever felt like a failure. I was at an extended-day school, meaning I was on-duty from 7:45AM until 4:45PM. We were a Title I (low income) school. I had no teaching assistant. My 28 students took no naps. Oh, and I was teaching almost entirely in my second language: Spanish.
I was depressed. I felt like no matter how hard I worked to serve my students, I just wasn't good enough. I was incredibly hard on myself. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and I couldn’t fall asleep at night. I wasn't really eating – pretty much my daily standard was a diet coke and a cup o' noodles while crying over the copier. I look back at photos of myself in my first year teaching, and I barely recognize that shell of a person who still tried to keep a smile on her face.
My fellow teacher, my hall-mate, was there for me all those years ago, always ready with a word of advice before or after school, or to support me in the middle of the day, or to help me with a student I couldn't manage. All without an ounce of judgment. She was a nurturer, and such a wonderful teacher.
When I ran into her in the hallway of my old school, she instantly scooped me up and said I needed a "mama bear hug." She said my parents would be SO proud of me. And I began to cry, right there in the middle of the hallway, with her sweet students in line behind her wondering when they were going out for recess.
I spent the end of my visit in one of the tiny chairs in her preschool classroom around her kidney table, just like the old days, soaking in all the love and support I possibly could. She said that I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I can just be and feel and do what I need to do for myself. Her support was freeing.
I've got to keep seeking out mama bear hugs and love and support from the people in my life who care about me, because I know I need it. Life is hard enough, and Grieve Leave is really, really hard. Nothing will ever replace my father's support. I know that. But I need to keep actively building a new network of mama and papa bears in my life who are there for me, even when I don't recognize how much I need it.