Being something of a literalist, and having encountered versions of the "Hero's Journey" in more than one context last year, I decided to look closely at the ways in which my own journey resembled that described in the directing course I completed last year. (My very basic understanding of the hero's journey is due to my teacher John Jacobsen, and any gaps in understanding are my own.) I can't speak for the others in my family, but if I am at all heroic, it is because my journey followed this pattern:
- The hero starts out in the Old World, the place where expectations are already known and perhaps already burdensome.
I always found it challenging to spend time talking with my father. Dad's sentences and stories could be exasperatingly drawn-out and detailed. He enjoyed what we called the "thought-you-said" game, in which his mishearing was repeated back to the listener as nonsensical syllables. I've described my father's attitude toward me as more avuncular than invested. I wanted more but I never knew how to create it.
- There is a Call to Action, which the hero disregards repeatedly until
- a Compelling Action, often instigated by
- a Mentor, makes staying comfortably in the Old World no longer possible, and
- the hero chooses to cross the Threshold.
Dad once mentioned that although he'd gone through a period of unhappiness, he was a happy person, and furthermore, that his marriage to my mother, though it had ended in divorce, represented a significant time of his life. He was open, he said then, to talking about what happened between him and my mother.
I took more than 25 years to take up his offer. After two hospitalizations in 2011, when I decided he might be going to die soon and I didn't want to lose any of his stories, I decided I didn't want to die wishing I'd asked him difficult questions. I started the conversation I wanted to have.
After further hospitalizations, culminating with the stroke we'd been looking out for and its subsequent rehab, my family consulted with Tony Back, a doctor my family relies on. Tony wasn't treating Dad; he just offered to help us out with a conference call and a family meeting, both of which were instrumental in preparing us for home hospice.
That's how I became one of Dad's caregivers when he came home to die. And from there, I started recording his stories, some of his phone conversations, and several readings of poems that meant a lot to him.
- Now the hero is in the New World,
- where there are tests and challenges that culminate
- in the depth and darkness of the Cave, where the hero encounters the challenge that can make or break her.
I couldn't do my work because I couldn't sit without thinking about Dad and crying, so I told my writing clients good-bye for a while. I took on a new job: Dad's memoirist (a position I shared and continue to share with Amanda). The New World meant spending about 20 hours a week in the house with Dad, helping him stay hydrated and well-turned and entertained as needed. It meant meeting with hospice personnel and hunting down lost relatives and joining Carol and Amanda in the kitchen for tears and whispers. It meant asking Dad questions and helping him chase down his elusive yet repetitious memories. It meant reading to him, loudly and slowly, from the book Charmed Lives by Michael Korda. It meant searching through his photos for the one elusive shot of Aunt Gert that I never found.
The New World was that Dad was going to die, sooner rather than later, yet if he lived long enough and didn't seem close enough to death, we'd lose hospice care. Damned if you die, damned if you don't.
The Cave was chock-full of challenges. I was challenged to be present with Dad's wandering mind. I was challenged to be honest, clear and firm with him and others—and myself—about how near his death was. I was challenged to take care of myself, and in lieu of taking care of my kids and husband, to at least not deliberately try to make them feel as sad as I did by lashing out.
One foot in front of the other, every day, whether I needed it or not.
Mostly, my challenge was to confront my biggest, oldest fear, the fear of death. In a way, it was easy, since the family had talked Dad into reinstating his Do Not Resuscitate order, believing it would be better for him to die at home soon rather than in a hospital with his ribs broken hooked up to machines so we could get a few more days or weeks. There are worse things than death, and lingering, painful, technologically mediated death is one of them. Yet it still seems like a miracle that one night I looked in the mirror and told myself, "No more fear of death," and it worked.
- At times, especially in the Cave, the Hero will consider turning back to the Old World without completing her mission.
There was no turning back. I mean, I could have quit taking care of Dad, and thereby taking care of Carol and Amanda, and hunkered down unmoving in the Cave. But there was no way to stop him from dying, and my mission was to be with him a lot before he died.
- The Hero finds the strength to find the Road Back and bring her journey to an end.
My strength was that every time I met with somebody, I told them the truth about what I was going through, and I cried, and nobody ran away screaming. People were loving and supportive and humane.
In my return to the Old World, I bring the New World values of vulnerability, endurance, and patience. I bring the ability to speak the unspeakable and to let go of the things that died with my father, the leftover stories and memories that didn't get recorded.
Asking for help is the most heroic action I know.