My dad is a cat. My mom is an owl. I’m a butterfly. That is if you believe in spirit animals. It’s not that we have ever specifically assigned my dad a spirit animal, but it’s a collective agreement that the man absolutely has nine lives. We solidified this fact over the summer while sharing dinner on our back porch one evening. My dad is agile and smart and knows his way around all kinds of situations. He has taught me to have no fear of the dark (I still kind of do!), to be curious, and to live on the edge. And my God, the man always lands on his feet. I imagine old John (pre-accident John) was an alley cat you were lucky enough to befriend.
I recently took a break from BrainLine, from blogging about brain injury and yoga and my dad, from sharing bits and pieces of He Never Liked Cake, because in the past two years he’s blown through a few of those nine lives. No one is counting, but he’d be on about 7 or 8 right now. In hindsight, I see how much I didn’t want to write about any of it. It was 2015, and I had found the man I would marry, my dad was moving through his life quite smoothly with the help of yoga and Dr. Joe, and my parents were in a good place. The tension brought on by brain injury and a life gone awry for John and Claudia wasn’t as potent. Or maybe we were all wrapped up in an October wedding at a botanical garden. Either way, I had left my dad with his tailor-made yoga book, and we could see that he had some ease when he walked down the street and some flow when he shared in conversations. Success by all measures.
By June of the following year, he’d start ticking off lives, and we’d start the slippery slope downward. First, it was stage 3 lung cancer. Yes, the mystery mass in his left lung was indeed a malignant tumor that spread to the lymph. I can still feel the sensation that felt like trying to swallow golf balls, which was my reaction when the kind and to-the-point doctor shared this news with my mom and me in a tiny and drab ‘family room’ in the Grove City hospital. While my dad recovered from his left lung lobe removal, my mom and I went out for cheap wine (Claudia), cheap beer (Janna), and cheap Mexican food. We were two dumbfounded and hurt by life to cry. Instead, we planned how we would tackle this and then talked about our own lives until it was time to go back. We were both numb.
The next few weeks were a tug of war with the insurance company, only to be tugged over to the side of chemotherapy to blast everything rather than one pill to target the lung cancer cells. Turns out he wasn’t sick enough for the pill. A day after his first treatment, he was mowing the grass and feeling fine—all levels A-Okay—when he got whacked on the head by a low-hanging branch (we surmise) and landed by way of life flight in a hospital in Pittsburgh on a hot July day. It was 20 summers after the first life flight to Pittsburgh, and again Steely Dan was in town, and again my parents had a vacation planned. This time it was a broken neck. A clean crack of C-1 that never touched the spinal cord. His living was yet another miracle. He spent his months stiff as a board in a neck brace, while his entire body was rocked and ravaged by chemo. Heart-breaking doesn’t even describe it.
He lost so much again. He lost his ability to easefully walk through life, his ability to take care of himself, his personal hygiene, his motivation, his interaction with others, his emotions, his quality of life. It’s dizzying to make the comparisons between his incapability of 2016 and 1996. It’s maddening. If I’m not careful, I’ll enter into the tailspin of anger. What the @#$* is life doing to my parents? They are such good people! This unfairness is un-$%^ing-real. Yeah, I’m a sailor, sorry.
This time he lost yoga.
Now back in 2013 when my dad started to practice yoga, he did not care to control his impulsivity or improve his mobility. Or to increase his autonomy or his ability to relate to others. He didn’t try yoga to understand his injury or improve his quality of life. Nope, those were all the effects my mom, Dr. Joe, and I hoped for. My dad began practicing yoga for the sole purpose of ditching his foot brace. Hey, yoga will meet you exactly where you are, and that was exactly where he was—fighting a daily battle with a foot brace. When he wore the brace, his shoe didn’t fit, and it rubbed in the most uncomfortable places causing pain. Without the brace, he walked with a limp and put pressure on all the wrong joints, which created pain. Yoga could work to even this out.
My dad couldn’t feel his heel. The nerves were dead, and that was simply something that he could not change, but what he could change is the importance of feeling his heel. If we could lessen that fixation over time, learn to use his foot in a different way, and rely on other ways to create stability, then we’d be getting somewhere. After a few months, of yoga 3-4 times a week (Move Feel Think), my dad no longer fought with a brace or walked with a limp. Plus! He was less impulsive and so much more mobile—a huge increase in range of motion. He’d increased his autonomy and his ability to relate to others. He was beginning to understand his injury, and we saw improvements in his quality of life. The beginning of some ease for all.
Five, six, seven lives later—cancer, chemo, neck break—and now we are back to the brace. Back to walking wonky and back to the fight for smooth. Yoga has fallen far to wayside, and his physical therapists fight to find in him what I (yoga!) found in him over one summer. Autonomy and range of motion, which opens all the doors to all the rest. The problem is my life is wildly different than the summer of 2013, and I don’t know how to give him yoga as I gave it to him then. I feel like we’re on separate sides of an abyss. The yoga crosses the darkness.
Christmastime is on the horizon and it always has me thinking about what I can give to my parents. I want to give my Dad his life back, his shreds of agility and curiosity. I want to meet him at his edges and help him reconnect to his cat-like traits. I want to show him once again that yoga will meet him exactly where he is and help him go where he wants to go. Last time it was hours of private practice, phone calls when I wasn’t there, and two dozen computer print-outs that he encouraged me to turn into a book. This time I’m going to have to come up with something more creative. Perhaps I should ask him once again what it is he needs. Though I’m afraid he’ll say “a yoga video.”
I am curious, though. What do you need? You, meaning you reading this blog. Because I promise that there is a way that a yoga practice can give you part of what you need—if not all of it. And I rarely make promises. Ask me. Test me. Try me. In the meantime, I’ll be asking my dad, and maybe I can give him something he needs for Christmas this year.