In the wake of my father's death, I struggle to stay in the moment — and focus on the job in front of me instead of my anxiety and grief.
by Frank South
It’s Memorial Day weekend and I’m at the bottom of our hilly Georgia backyard, raking up piles of dead leaves, pulled weeds, tree-killer vines, and trimmed branches and piling them into the wheelbarrow. Full load, so now back up the hill to add to the mountain of dead vegetation at the front curb. Hope to God I pulled the gate closed after the last load or Danny Boy, our standard poodle, will have escaped and the rest of the day will be spent running him down through our neighbors’ yards. According to Danny boy, obedience training doesn’t apply if you break out into the front yard — it’s all Easy Rider and wind flying through your floppy ears.
Halfway up the hill, I pause beside the only large tree that I have to cut down this week. It lost a major branch in a storm a couple of years ago and is down doing the slow old tree lean — looking for support from its younger brothers, who want nothing to do with him and his old greedy sun-grabbing leaves. I’ll get the chain saw on the way back down and get it over with. When I grab the handles of the wheel barrow and start back up the hill, my heart starts racing and I’m short of breath. I set the wheelbarrow down again. There’s no cardiac issue here; it’s just another panic attack. This isn’t scary — it’s just damn irritating.
And I had these handled. Hardly had any during the terrifying months leading up to and after my sister-in law’s death last fall. Maybe it was because people needed me and I was distracted from my favorite subject: me. But now this spring, they come in unpredictable flurries. There’s no rhyme or reason to the onset; you could be peacefully reading a fulfilling book, or watching a classic movie on TV with growing irritation as it’s chopped into non-sensical scenes by erectile dysfunction and reverse-mortgage commercials. The solution is the same: deep breathing, conscious calm. Or last resort, Xanax; not a good choice if you’ve got pressing lumberjacking plans. Which are plans I know I could just not do. I could reschedule, take a break — but I really can’t. I have to accomplish this today. I have to push through my own BS and accomplish something worthwhile and visible. And Danny Boy might be out the front gate I left open. He could be hit by a car all because I’m wasting time with my self-obsession.
So I dash up the hill pushing the wheelbarrow, ready to face whatever disaster I’ve caused. But the gate is safely closed and latched. Danny Boy raises his head from the warm sunlit bricks on the other side of the patio, checking if it’s anything important. But it’s just crazy Frank, panting and wild-eyed, so he sighs and lays his head back down. I unlatch, go out with the wheelbarrow, push the gate closed with my foot, and roll toward the curb with the branches, leaves, and weeds.
My wife Margaret and my therapist Dr. Ellis say the flurry of panic is part of the grief I’m feeling since the death of my father a couple of months ago. I guess that makes sense, but though I love him still and spent my life with his overpowering intellect, courage, and strength as a frame to model and build what I could out of my life, I’d recently seen a whole other side of him. And I felt myself pulling away even as I helped care for him. His constant drinking clashed with my sobriety. His increasing dementia scared me witless. My ADHD leaves me scattered and memory-challenged continually, and trying to help my mother and my dad navigate his own mental and emotional wilderness made me feel like I was stumbling into a dark passage of confusion, blame, and regret that was destined be mine as well, dragging my own wife and children down with me.
Doesn’t sound like grief to me. At both of his funerals — the one at the local church and the military service at Arlington National Cemetery — I felt my grief was for my mother and brother’s loss, not mine.
I realize I’m standing, staring vacantly at the street, like Boo Radley. I shake my head clear. All this obsessing about my dad isn’t helping me get the wheelbarrow unloaded. Focus on getting the load on top of the pile, so you have room for the next. Pull up, and good. “Nice job, son,” my dad says. I can feel that big hand that patted my shoulder after stacking two cords of firewood behind the garage when I was twelve.
As I roll the empty wheelbarrow back toward the gate, I think that ADHD isn’t like dementia. It’s not like my dad where your focus arbitrarily shifts and you completely lose track of time and place. He’d have to constantly regroup, popping from the present to an ocean liner docked in France after World War II to a train taking him home to Nebraska to see his grandmother when he was eight.
Pushing the wheelbarrow onto the driveway, I stop to look back across the front lawn at the mountain of yard debris at the curb to make sure it hasn’t fallen over into the street, and I think that the problem with ADHD isn’t necessarily being distracted away from your focus.
The ADHD problem is keeping whatever you're focused on in front of you in the moment — maintaining that focus on what's happening now, instead of being distracted by the insights it sparks about what has happened before, what might happen in the future, and what all that might mean to others or you (usually my primary concern).
The problem is keeping that focus while all of these possibilities and emotional traps are intersecting in multiple layers: focus on top of focus, concentrating on connecting threads so intently that you forget everything that suddenly becomes trivial, like rent or flight times or that last year on Memorial Day, I was with my Dad in Delaware, and we took a picture for his few surviving WWII Ranger war buddies.
Oh, great. Now I’m Boo Radley in the front yard staring at the street crying.
Wait, what’s that five-foot-long branch doing in the middle of the lawn? I didn’t drop anything. I’m crazy as a bed bug but I keep my landscaping neat, damn it. Besides, well, branches don’t move. That’s when I notice the birds screeching and swooping down, and the black head of the big snake rears up, flicking its tongue in my direction.
I stand still, not sure what to do. My first thought is to ask Dad.