Habit
February 12, 2016

Today is Dead Dad Day, as we call it in the Mari Household. What else should a person call it? "Death anniversary" sounds so awkward and straightforward; but then again, death in general is so awkward and straightforward. I was at a party the evening he died, and got the news in my inbox the following morning. I also got the news that Drake's new album dropped--the talk of my Instagram feed, which I checked after my email out of habit. I walked to my office as usual and picked up a muffin along the way. People asked me why I went to work, but I wasn't sure what else I was supposed to be doing besides eating a muffin at my desk. The next day, I flew to San Francisco, a flight I’d booked a week before to visit him in the hospital. My landlady saw my suitcase in the hallway and asked if I was off for a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway; I said “Yep.” The Southwest gate at the airport was decorated with pink and red paper hearts.

I’m marking Dead Dad Day by going up to my father's favorite city to see a Broadway show and have cocktails with my pizza. I’m also sneaking in a luxurious facial. To the people of New York, I’ll look like a woman about town--leopard coat and all--treating myself like any other single lady might over Valentine’s Day weekend. I’ll feel different from other people, but I won’t look different.

There have been many times this year when I wished that modern mourners would still be outwardly marked by obligatory dark clothing, or one of those slinky black lace head coverings that look like they could take you straight from Mass to the tango bar in 1940s Buenos Aires. I’d affix it to my hair every morning and it would (sexily) tell the world, “I’m going through something here. Treat me with a bit of extra gentleness.”

When you see someone on the subway in a cast, you know to give up your seat for them, and perhaps go farther to help them off the train. I’ve often thought that people going through mental or emotional health upsets should have their own version of a cast, so that others would know or be reminded to be more careful with them. Perhaps a color coding system of hats or buttons to announce the wounds that are unnoticeable to the outside world.

I recently read an interview with the Connecticut man whose family was murdered in 2007; he was the sole survivor. He carried around a large wound on his face from the beating that left him unconscious. After about a year, the wound began to heal over, finally recovering to the point where it looked like nothing had happened at all. The man was distraught over the loss of the outward marking because now he looked like a normal and okay person. And he was not normal, nor okay.

On the paper-heart-covered plane to San Francisco last Valentine’s Day, it seemed comical to me how normal I looked, how alike everyone else I appeared, when I felt so removed from the entire planet. That’s how I would feel the majority of the year, an alien presence in the body of someone who looks and acts just like you. There were times I longed for a marking, like the Connecticut man whose facial scar was his last physical connection to his family.

And yet, there were times I would have covered such a marking, or temporarily removed my black lace veil. I went on a dates, I went dancing, I drank champagne in the middle of the day, I laughed uncontrollably in the theatre. I fell in love with a guitar player in Portugal and I got wrapped up in little things that don’t matter. Those aren’t activities a person does while mourning. Over time, my descriptive verb “mourning” evolved into my identifying noun “mourner.”

“Mourner” had become my identity, and it manifested itself in a variety of surprising and life-rotating ways. People have asked me for my secret to becoming really proactive in a short amount of time. This year, I started drawing a daily illustration and haven't missed one day. I’ve written more than I ever have and lost the fear of submitting my writing for publication. I created two websites, took on a long-term photography project, and started accepting art commissions. I signed up for guitar lessons, salsa lessons, surf lessons, design lessons. I easily made many new friends, and peacefully distanced myself from relationships that should have ended long ago. Completely out of character, I actually finished books and completed DuoLingo levels and put the final touches on my apartment. I amped up my exercise and lost 10 pounds. I can do the splits in a forearm stand, which I’m positive would have sent me to the hospital last year.

“How did you get the motivation to do all that?” I answer, “Oh, easy: just have a parent die.”

Knowing death, every morning I feel a rush of energy and adrenaline at the sheer thought that I am alive. This is as wonderful and terrifying as it sounds. I am fully aware that my world could end tomorrow, which means I’m invigorated and also more anxious than ever before. I am living intensely and quickly and productively and richly, but, on the flip side, I get panic attacks during work meetings and I wake up several times a night. When I told my doctor about my increased anxiety and suggested that perhaps it was related to grief, she looked at me as though I'd just connected hunger pangs with a need for food. 

But where does my grief end, and I begin? I’ve always been extraordinarily sensitive. It’s a quality that keeps me up worrying about refugees, and it’s a quality that makes people feel comfortable sharing their problems with me. But now, I can’t tell the difference between my identity as a highly-sensitive person and my identity as a mourner. When I break down crying on the sidewalk because I see a Lost Pet poster, is it because I inherently feel all emotions very deeply, or because I’m subconsciously grieving my dad? Are my new skills and hobbies entirely connected to my awareness of mortality, or did I always have that determination within me and just have more time on my hands these days? Am I more aware of the fragility of my life since my dad died, or since I’m about to turn 30?

Ten months after my dad’s death, I had the opportunity to sell my daily illustrations for the first time at a pop-up market in New York. I got my hair professionally curled, I wore a metallic prom dress, I got my nails painted dark red, and I added my favorite gold name plate around my neck. At the market, strangers called me an “artist.” People I really respect (writers and Frenchmen, naturally) told me I had talent. At the end of the day, my heart was abuzz from the encouragement and pride I felt in facing my vulnerability and succeeding in being recognized for doing something I love.

On my way to a party after the market, I watched the skyline plod by through the subway window and eavesdropped on the nearby teenagers, happily reflecting on the evolution of my year and the courage I mustered to come sell my art in New York. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a shrill interjection disrupted my reverie: “Can you stop doing that?” I turned around and a tiny blond woman with dramatic eyeliner was twisting her face at me in rage. “Can you stop draping your entire body on the pole?” Her voice overwhelmed the subway car, which was only sparsely populated--plenty of poles to go around. The teenagers stared at us. I figured a calm “Okay” from me would pacify her, but she kept screaming: “Take your hand and put it on the pole!” I repeated a defeated “Okay.”

I moved away from this tiny demon to avoid repeated outbursts and continue my reflective enjoyment of the ride, but I was still shaky from being yelled at, and I reluctantly began to cry. As a highly sensitive person, it was the familiar routine I’ve done since kindergarten; my eyes soaked and my mind pit self-encouragement (“It’s not about you! She’s just a miserable person!”) against self-despair (“She’s ruined this special day. Was I really doing something so terrible?”). She kept sending me glares of vexation while I fumbled to laugh off a sitcom-esque interaction.

I wanted to pull over a mourners cloak or the lace veil and show her that she should have been more compassionate, that I’m not in any state to receive a screaming tirade on the subway. More than anything, I wanted her to feel sorry for me, and bad for her behavior. "My dad died!" I wanted to shout back at her. If I were wearing some kind of symbolic grieving costume, she’d be ashamed of herself for treating me so unkindly. But instead, I was wearing a metallic prom dress and a gold nameplate around my neck. Not the clothing of a mourner.

I stood in the corner of the subway, clumsily wiping mascara across my face. Was I crying because I was embarrassed? Because a pensive moment was interrupted? Because my dad died? Because I don’t know if my dad ever loved me?

This tiny blond subway screamer couldn’t have known that I’ve felt lonelier this year than ever before; the death of a parent to an only child is a tremendous loss of memory. Moreover, psychologists agree that the loss of a fraught relationship can be even more intense than a very close one. She couldn’t have known that harsh words and setbacks bring up this profound feeling of loss. She couldn’t have known how often I feel fearful and sad, and that a quick harsh interaction can set a whole week of mine into a depressive tailspin.

But she also couldn’t have known that I had just returned from doing something I couldn’t have done last year, for lack of courage and motivation. She couldn’t have known that I had triumphed over the pain that initially held me down in emotional mire. Actually, I had transformed into a more viable person than I was before I knew this loss. She couldn’t have known that my greatest accomplishment to date is bringing myself out of that mire and into the world by my own strength, becoming more creative, curious, engaged, and productive in the process. That, in fact, my mourner’s clothes were the metallic prom dress and gold necklace and red nails.

The ways we use the word "habit" in English are related; it originally meant dress; attire, and later came to denote an acquired behavior pattern. We still refer to a nun's costume as a habit. Etymologically, a habit is what one has. We mourners don't wear black clothing anymore when someone dies, but we carry our own markings around on public transportation, at work, at our desks at home. I am in mourning when I overreact to harsh words; I am in mourning when I take on another art commission. Mourning has become so hopelessly intertwined with my daily activities that I can't separate one from the other. Mortality awareness, increased sensitivity, nightly anxiety, a desperate need to create and produce: these are what I have. 

Today it’s been a year, and I’m starting to feel like I can’t really own the “mourner” identifier anymore. “My dad died a year ago” doesn’t carry nearly as much potency as “My dad died in February.” No longer the human-shaped alien I thought myself to be last winter, I’ve assumed my new traits and perspective as part of my personality instead of part of my grieving process. I still draw every day, I’m finishing my first manuscript, and I just signed up for Spanish lessons. When David Bowie died and many of my friends shared their novel awareness of mortality, I felt like I was observing a bunch of teenagers getting drunk on their first Bacardi while I sat back and sipped straight whiskey. 

No more a "mourner," I’ve turned back into a person: a person keenly aware that tomorrow isn't a given, a person who sometimes cries on the subway, a person who knows how to surf. The wound I carry with me has covered up, and now feels as much a part of me as my nose or my hands.  In many ways, it has brought me closer to who I want to be--perhaps closer to who I really was all along.

Right before the tiny blond woman screamed at me on the subway, I lost my focus in the shimmer of the New York skyline. I had looked at this same view a year prior. Before, the view inspired awe but intimidated me. This time, I felt I was a part of it. Now, I was an artist, and an adult, more fully human, and therefore more fully a part of my favorite city. Maybe the woman never would have yelled at me a year ago, because I wouldn't have carried the confidence worth screaming about. 

It occurred to me that, in the past year, strangers actually have been kinder to me than usual, despite my lack of mourning clothes. Sometimes, they'd even do miraculously kind things like give me my coffee for free or hand me exact change when I was short on bus fare. Perhaps they subconsciously saw my invisible wound, and acted accordingly--treating me with extra gentleness. Perhaps the tiny subway screamer didn't see the wound because, at that point, it was no longer my dominant identifier but had become as much a part of me as my nose or my hands. Instead of a mourner, she saw an adult, fully human, fully a part of the city, who would have never been on that subway if I hadn't found myself in mire and had to reach out for world.