It’s almost the middle of April, and I wonder where the year is running off to.
Spring brings us sunshine and renewal. All the old dead-looking plants and trees are putting on new growth and bursting forth with beautiful buds and leaves, reminding us that our world is constantly changing and transforming. If we take the time to look at life, we see that we are changing too — we change from the time we are born until the moment we draw our last breath. That change isn’t just physical….it is spiritual as well.
I believe that our life transformation is about balance and pruning. Just as we prune our plants and trees in the spring, we must prune ourselves and the things and people in our lives. In some cases, unexpected life events can do the pruning for us. Unfortunately, that kind of pruning can often be harsh and lead to our getting lost in the darkness of depression and anxiety.
Today I want to speak to you about the delicate dance of balance, pruning, and mental health.
Before I move forward, I want to say that my husband Lee and I spoke extensively about the conversation that is to follow. Lee was ashamed of his struggles for a long time because mental health issues are often stigmatized. We have come to believe that Mental Illness is no different than having any other health condition. Our hope is that sharing this experience we have just had in our lives will bring hope and help to others.
Lee lost his Mama 20 years ago in March. Losing her was not just a few snips here and there; it was a significant cutback to the core of Lee’s very being. I didn’t fully realize the breadth of his grief until my own sweet Mama passed on in December of 2017. I thought I did. I said I did. But I did not.
When Loree was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, Lee began to have major depressive episodes. As I am sure you know, the word cancer makes everyone feel helpless and afraid. In Loree’s case, her cancer was aggressive, and the long-term prognosis was not good. Knowing this crippled Lee. He could not deal with the fact that his sweet mother was sick and would die, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
Feeling helpless is a horrible feeling and, sadly, one that I believe is an inevitable thing for us humans. Does anyone of us get through life without feeling helpless at some point or another?
When Loree finally took her last breath on March 6, 2002, it was more than Lee could bear. His depression became even worse. There were many days when Lee could not even get out of bed. It became so bad that I worried Lee might not make it. Thankfully, by the Grace of God, he did. We’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years working for Lee to make it through — helping him not crash and burn in the months leading up to his Mama’s death anniversary.
To truly understand the reason, one must understand the connection between Lee and his mom. They were like two peas in a pod. They were cut from the very same cloth. Unconditionally loving, giving to a fault, and kind beyond measure. Loree was the epitome of love. You could feel the love emanating from her anytime you were lucky enough to be in her presence. Without a doubt, the world grew dimmer the day she took her last breath. And on that day, I know that some part of Lee went with her. After Loree, Lee never dealt well with death again.
When my Mama was about to pass on, Lee volunteered to come to be there with us. I knew that would trigger his emotions about his Mama, so I thanked him for the offer, but I told him we would be okay if he stayed home. He thanked me for considering how he felt. Of course, I wanted him there with me, but there was no way I was willing to risk a setback for Lee.
On the nights I wailed about losing Mama, Lee held me and cried with me. He loved my Mama as his own. It was also apparent that fifteen years after losing his mom, he was still triggered by her death. But, this time, I understood his emotions more fully.
Every one of us deals with death differently, and different deaths affect us differently. Lee and I have lost many people through the years. People like my Granny Lollis, my Gramma Arrowood, and Lee’s Granny Allowee that we expected. They had all lived their lives to the fullest. We missed all three, but we knew it was their time. The deaths that I have deemed “complicated” were the hardest. “Complicated” deaths seemed unnatural or, at the very least, came as a surprise. Loree, Mama, Griffen, my cousin Jim, a friend who died by suicide, two dear people we loved died of massive heart attacks….one at 38 and the other at 45. And just this past week, our old friend Heidi succumbed to a brain tumor at the young age of 57. Heidi reminded me of Loree. She was sweet and thoughtful and a friend who didn’t change with the wind.
Before learning of Heidi’s passing, we had just seen another death. Lee’s daddy, Jerry, passed away on March 25, 2022. I don’t know about you, but death always makes me reflect, and I have found myself doing a lot of reflecting.
Jerry had been on dialysis for many years and began to decline.
There was a time when he and I were close. When I first met Lee, Jerry called me Punkin, his version of Pumpkin. I called him Pop which is what Lee calls him. I will never forget going to the Parrish home for the first time to meet Lee’s mom and dad. We had a lovely dinner, and they welcomed me with a lot of love. There was no arguing between Lee’s parents, which was the norm with my own.
It was evident from the start that Jerry was direct. I appreciated that trait. We butted heads on more than a few occasions because I would be direct back, and Jerry did not like to be challenged. He would express his dissatisfaction with my opinion, and he would often pout, but it never lasted long.
Jerry was a lifelong Masonic Lodge member. He was the secretary and asked me to help him with some of his bookkeeping at the Masonic Lodge. Of course, I was happy to help. Lee and I would eat lunch with him and Loree every Sunday, and we visited with them three nights a week. Jerry and I would strike out on equipment deliveries for our company, where he told me stories of his father’s issues with alcohol and of growing up poor on the mill hill. Jerry talked of his days playing baseball for the textile mills and then in the army. He expressed his disappointment that he could not complete his dream of playing pro baseball after breaking his ankle sliding into second base on the mill team. Jerry told me his dad would have loved me because of my love of plants and nature. In fact, he passed on his father’s collection of plant and bird books to me as he thought I would be the one to appreciate them the most.
After Loree passed, Lee and I made sure to do extra things to make sure Jerry wasn’t lonely and felt loved. I’ve never forgotten a trip we went on to Georgia to celebrate Loree’s brother’s birthday. We took her other brother along with us. We all laughed until we hurt listening to Uncle Henry tell Jerry about dating after being married his whole life. “Well, buddy, it was a whole different ballgame,” he said.
Jerry drove our company truck for a good long while. After stopping driving, he visited our company regularly. He would always make it a point to stop in my office to visit after visiting Lee out on the plant floor. I still remember when he came to my office after reading All the Way to Heaven and Back. It wasn’t just tears trickling down his cheeks; he was crying like a baby, saying he understood me entirely differently. As time went on and it was harder for him to get around, he would drive up and blow the horn, and I would go outside and chat with him. He once threatened to disinherit us for not coming to church. I rebutted his demand with this poem.
The church that I love best is small
It is no grand pretentious hall
Set round with works of Holy art
It is the chamber of my heart
Where else but in this secret place
May I catch glimpses of Truth’s face
And even find however dim
A sense of being one with Him
I have no church until I find
Holiness in my own mind
Once found wherever I may be
Becomes the house of God for me
I told him that I loved him, but one didn’t have to be in church to have a relationship with God. He said okay and gave me his look, and drove off. That was Jerry.
After he remarried, we spent time with him and Elsie, his wife. We took them on a beautiful trip to the North Carolina mountains to see the snow and on trips to the coast. We saw them on holidays and took them to eat at other times as well.
Unfortunately, one of our family members told Jerry something that wasn’t true about me, and apparently, he believed it. As a result, his attitude towards me changed drastically. I did what I do; I smiled and pretended despite the deep hurt it caused me. I went when we were invited, but the invites pretty much dissipated, and I was okay with that because I was moving beyond the place of being with people who didn’t want me.
Before we knew it, Jerry was in his late eighties and declining. When I saw that Lee’s daddy’s time was coming, I secretly worried about Lee. He said he was fine, but that was his pattern. He would always say that, and I would know differently, but he couldn’t see it. Then, before he could see it, the darkness would engulf him. It would take weeks and months for him to find his footing again.
Watching Lee struggle with depression and anxiety and related issues has been more challenging than anything I have ever lived through. To see him cry breaks me half in two. I had spent years trying to help Lee prepare for the moment when his daddy passed on, hoping that Jerry would not have to suffer as Loree had and that Lee wouldn’t suffer before, during, or afterward with depression or anxiety.
There were many calls that we needed to come to the hospital through the years. They always turned out to be false alarms, and Jerry would bounce back. But after many of those trips, Lee would still fall into the anxiety/depression pattern. Nobody would ever know but us and the very small few in our circle. Despite my being able to tell the world my stories, I hold some things close to my chest. Those moments were some of them. Lee didn’t need any extra pressure, and I wasn’t about to share with someone who didn’t understand his depression and inadvertently make it worse.
When we visited Jerry in the hospital the last time, I knew this was it. I could sense it in his demeanor and will. He was tired. His body was worn out.
The following Thursday, I went out to find Lee on our dock at our business, bawling so hard that he couldn’t speak. He’d gotten a call that Jerry had decided to stop dialysis, and Hospice was being called. Again, I saw panic in Lee’s eyes.
When we got to the house, and the Hospice nurse talked about two years, I knew there was no way. I’d read about stopping dialysis, and everything I had read gave a week to ten days. So when we left that day, I did my best to delicately feel Lee out as to how he was holding up while at the same time letting him know that the end of his daddy’s life was coming sooner rather than later. I could see that he knew that.
One week to the day that Hospice came out, Jerry Raymond Parrish passed on.
I was filled with anxiety myself with worry for Lee. I had seen him struggling. I felt sympathy and compassion for everyone who loved Jerry, but Lee was the only one I had an intimate relationship with, and Lee is and will always be my first priority.
I wasn’t sure how he would handle his father’s passing. I knew Lee had spoken of how hard it was for him to see his dad declining, and it pained him on the many days they spoke, and Jerry spoke of not wanting to live anymore. Lee and his dad’s relationship was completely different from Lee’s relationship with his Mama. He was and is a Mama’s boy, without a doubt. It wasn’t that Lee and his dad were at odds. Their relationship was close, but they had always been two totally different people — opposites. Jerry could never really understand Lee’s depression issues. He was brought up when men were expected not to show weakness, and he looked upon Lee’s mental issues as just that.
The preacher summed it up at the service when he said Jerry was a manly man. He was, and he had some really good qualities.
Maya Angelou said people will forget what you said, and they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. What I remember most about Jerry is that his life experience didn’t give him the ability to have empathy for Lee when he was suffering.
We are all a by-product of our life experiences. Sadly, Jerry’s life was one where he learned to shut off any emotion and never show it. I operate from the other side of the pendulum. Sharing is healing, and walking through our complicated feelings helps us heal and helps others know none of us are alone.
Jerry was never able to show Lee the compassion one needs when they are in the midst of a nervous breakdown. He didn’t understand that when you are in the pits of hell battling a mental illness, you cannot just get over it. It’s not like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth.
When I read the obituary and saw that there would be a separate visitation rather than what has become the customary habit of doing the visitation before or after the funeral, my heart raced. When I read it to Lee, I was in full-on panic mode and shared that with him. I asked what he wanted to do. He teared up and said, Well, I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. If I go, I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle it, and if I don’t go, I’m going to be looked at like a bad person who doesn’t care, and I am not sure I can handle that either. So I told him I would do whatever he needed me to do.
Then I gave him my life litmus test and asked. Lee, if you were going to die yourself tomorrow, would you go to visitation? No. From where your dad is now, would he expect you to go? No. Okay then. That is our answer. I asked him how he felt about speaking to his stepmother, her daughter, and son-in-law privately and telling them the truth. He said that would be much better than enduring an hours-long line of people trying to pay their respects for two days.
He asked me if I would let him tell me what he wanted to say and have me tell him if it was okay. Of course. I looked, and he had his iPad out writing. I asked what he was doing, and he said he would never be able to remember all that he wanted to say. He knew he would be emotional, and if he wrote it down, it would help him. So he spent the rest of the evening writing and rewriting what his heart felt. On the way over to the house the following day, he practiced reading it to me. It was beautiful. When we got there, he followed through. He cried as he read, but he made it. Thankfully, it was well-received.
I was so proud to see that instead of crawling into a bed in a puddle of tears and being unable to function for the first time in his life, Lee was actually doing things differently. At almost 60, he embraced his feelings instead of denying them and running away. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
I’ve gone around the world, and I know it. Everyone does deal with death differently. For those with Depression and Anxiety, it could very well trigger an episode that will be going on long after the loved one who has already passed on has been memorialized.
I knew right away that I wanted to write about this experience in the hopes of helping people who do not have Depression/Anxiety/Death issues understand the side of those who do suffer. In addition, I wanted to encourage those who have Depression/Anxiety/Death issues not to feel like horrible people if you decide you can’t handle things and withdraw. Protecting yourself does not make you terrible. On the contrary, it makes you healthy and leads to making you whole.
With Lee’s permission, I am sharing the message he conveyed.
I love the last line. I can’t go backwards. It’s too painful. Lee finally found the place to speak his truth and loved himself enough not to put himself through what he knew would be torture to please others.
It’s been a couple of weeks now, and Lee continues to hold his balance. I’ve waited a long time to see him be this comfortable in his own skin. Lee isn’t a manly man, but I wouldn’t want him to be. I love that he is delicate and genteel. He is one of the sweetest and kindest people I have ever known, and the world is better because he is in it.
Thank you for reading!
With much love,
P.S. I would love to hear about any spring pruning you’ve been doing….message me.