When I was a kid and I’d fall and scrape my knee or get the stomach flu, my parents would comfort me, because that’s what parents do. But they had different approaches to this. My mother was a very gentle person, someone who worried a lot about my sister and me, and she would gingerly pat my cut dry or give me a cool washcloth. I have such embodied memories of her touch, especially when I was sick, and how it felt to have her sit next to me and comb her fingers through my hair. Every time, it soothed me.
My father was not like this. As any child of a doctor or a nurse will tell you, there was not a lot of pity in our household. If I was hurt or sick, he attended to me, but there was no drama around it. In fact, it was always my dad who got up with us in the middle of the night, holding my hair back if I was throwing up or giving me a bit of medicine if my fever got too high. But while he was helpful, he did not let me carry on. If I had a slight headache or one of the many aches-and-pains of just being a kid, he simply sent me back to bed with little fanfare. If I came home from school and complained of a sore muscle from sports or a neck that hurt from bending over a desk all day, he’d nod his head and say, “you’ll survive.”
As a child, this was maddening. I mean, could he not see the discomfort I felt? If I kept complaining, he’d remind me of how my grandmother suffered terribly from her physical ailments, and how I shouldn’t whine about things that weren’t major. I learned quickly to only complain to my father when I was actually hurt or ill. If I just needed a bit of sympathy, I turned to my mom.
I know it sounds like my dad was a stern kind of father, but that’s not it at all. He was – and is! – a jovial man, someone who would always hug me close and cheer me up, someone who I’ve frequently seen laughing with my kids and pulling them close when they needed it. He has always been a father and a grandfather who loves deeply, and shows that love.
Part of showing me that love was teaching me an important lesson. “You’ll survive,” he said to me, over and over again as a child.
It was as though he knew that both of us would need this wisdom someday. That we would both find ourselves in middle age without our spouses, staring into the rest of our lives and thinking, “how can I go on?”
The thing is, my dad never said, “you’ll survive” to me right after Shawn died. He knew firsthand the pain that I was feeling. But that phrase kept repeating over and over again in my head. For years, my dad had said, “you’ll survive” to me when he needed me to keep moving, and ignore pain or discomfort. He said it simply, without fanfare, and when he did, I knew the conversation was over.
But when I was going through the worst pain of my life, I thought about that phrase in another way.
What I remembered was not the dismissiveness of “you’ll survive,” but rather a belief in me. I heard the part of that phrase that said, “you’re stronger than this, Marjorie.” I heard him remind me that I could make it through pain and even through grief, even if I felt like I couldn’t. I heard him tell me that I would make it. I heard him believe that I was strong.
And yes, when I was a kid, my dad was talking about ignoring tiny aches and pains. But the bigger lesson stayed with me, and carried me through the years after Shawn died.
“You’ll survive,” he said to me. And he was right.