The Mercy Rule

I’m lying in a strange bed, at three in the morning, so tired I could cry. There is no man to reach for in the dark night, I feel lost, and alone. The sheets are unfamiliar, the bed laden with heavy blankets, and somehow I’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of the night that should be strange to my ears. I can hear the faint traffic on high way seventeen, the rain flowing through the drainage pipes just outside my window, the footsteps of the person living above us, who just used the bathroom. In three short hours my alarm will go off. I have allotted exactly thirty minutes for a shower, grooming, and coffee. This will be followed by six hours of formal instruction at Notre Dame, a meeting on curriculum, and prep time before I flee the campus, and return to mom. I’m haunted by the fact that the semester ends in two days, grades are due, and my anxiety is wound up like like a jack in the box. Self talk is not working. I can’t help but ponder what the hell happened to my life?

I hear her coughing, I automatically note the time, five minutes, ten, then twenty…finally all is quiet. I tiptoe down the hall, holding my breath, to see if she is holding hers. When she exhales, I’m relieved, but too weary to decide if she needs medicine or just sleep. Unable to return to my dreams I feel restless. This is week two after chemo for my mom and her home has become mine. She is a trooper but the effects of this treatment are brutal. My sister and I have been taking turns spending the night, prepping meals, and running for meds. I admit I’m not the best caregiver in the world, I’m cranky and sarcastic, when I should be humble and kind. Just what mom needs but I’m hopeless when I don’t get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Fyodor Dostoevsky says, “Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” Cancer does this to people. It’s corrosive to all concerned and I’m stellar at covering my pain with sarcasm. I’m human, fallible, and ever so weak. I pray, “A little help here, God.” 

I must have dosed off because when my iPhone sounded I was startled, groggy, and confused. I know my Dad was here, he died over five years ago, and now I only see him in my dreams. I try to pay attention when this happens, I’m aware of the rarity of Dad sightings, and I try to keep him with me as long as possible, or at least until I figure out what he is trying to communicate. They call that cognizant dreaming, or something like that, but dreams are difficult to control (like most things in life). He is always evasive, usually disappearing as one scene fades, and another takes it’s place, but his visitations are always memorable. 

I felt his familiar presence before I recognized him. He was wearing a Saints jersey even though he never watched sports in his life. I quickly realize he’s trying to coach me. I giggle at the set up. He’s calling the next play, ushering me forward with humor, and love. He did this for me in life and now from the grave. “Dad, I’m fifty-six, you’re done parenting.” I question my lucidity, but the memory is so clear, so discernibly real. We form this little huddle, he says, “Cheryl, it’s time to wretch up your endurance, rise above these minor discomforts, stretch the boundaries.” He was a good Dad and I believe he is trying to retain his title. I whine, “Dad, I’m tired. Go haunt Nancy.” He has a rather odd sense of humor so he could be messing with me, but he said, “Honey, life is a game, focus on the goal.” I’m cranky, “What goal?” He says, “You’re winning by a landslide, it’s the fourth quarter, what do you do?” Me, “put in the second string.” He laughs, “It’s called the mercy rule.” I’m perplexed, “You want me to give up?” He pauses before answering, “Honey, mercy is the rule.” In my dream I’m sweating, out of breath, exhausted. He holds up a mirror, in the reflection, I become my mom. He jogs off the field as I wake to the sound of coughing. My Dad, always the center of calm, is calling for mercy. It’s either real or I belong in a psych ward. 

Oh how he loved my mom. I don’t blame him. My mom is a lovely woman, independent, competent, and kind. I respect these attributes and appreciate how she has modeled these behaviors my entire life. She is bridging an enormous gap with such incredible grace. A gap we did not anticipate or expect. Isn’t that the way of life? I see how she tries to shield me from her deep seated fears, as the diagnosis turned dire, and her determination to manage this on her own became impossible. She is vulnerable, susceptible, and exposed but I recognize her urge to protect. She shields me from her response to bad news, she worries about my weariness, she tries to narrate from her chair, and I am aware that she sacrifices her comfort for my well being. She is an extraordinary woman. My sister has her attributes, but I am more like my dad, minus the calm and good humor. 

Well here I am, up at the lake, I’ve had several nights of good sleep, amazing how this improved my attitude. I’m ready to come home, take up my position next to mom, and trust that I am right where I need to be. I was a lucky soul, incarnated in the womb of a remarkable woman, married to an extraordinary man. I marvel that both of them continue to stretch me, right through my rigid years, with such a merciful love. 

There’s more at Living in the Gap

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