But here's the other thing experience has taught me (in spades thanks to you, 2016): life never goes as planned, and there will always be hurdles to clear. At least a few of them will lead to face plants or otherwise non-graceful demonstrations of our adulting prowess. So I'm not going to sit here and write about how wonderful and amazing the last year has been, because in truth it was kind of a nightmare.
Here's the thing though...you usually learn more from the things that challenge you than you do from the things that go right. And to the credit of 2016, despite it bascially being a raging, out-of-control dumpster fire, all of the really terrible things did have their upsides. I learned a lot.
The Challenge: My dad died.
And it was, as I'm sure I don't really need to explain, the worst. I've been to a lot of funerals in my life (thanks to my grandma having 12 brothers and sisters), but no amount of understanding that death is a process will prepare you to stand by the bedside of someone you love and hold their hand while they take their last breath. Nothing will prepare you to buy a cemetery plot, or call a funeral home, or write a eulogy for the first time. Nothing -- and I truly mean nothing -- will prepare you for all the little moments that deliver blows reminding you of the enormity of that loss. Like when you go to open a Christmas present and it reminds you of how dad always had his pocket knife ready, because he always insisted on cutting the tape on his presents instead of tearing the paper like the rest of us. And then you spend an hour crying on Christmas morning because you really, really could have used a pocket knife just then.
The Lesson: Things like this show you who your friends are.
When I think back on the months immediately surrounding my dad's death, there's a clear contrast between the grief and how blessed I felt to have some truly amazing people in my life. There is the friend who dropped everything to drive me to the airport, kept the cats alive, and did a million other things so I didn't have to worry because I knew my house was in good hands. There are the colleagues who took over my classes without question, allowing me to be there with my dad for his last few days, to actually hold his hand in those last moments, and plan a funeral I know he would have felt honored by. There are the friends who drove for hours just to provide hugs and tell me it was going to be okay (and let me cry on them, like a lot). You know that Tracy Lawrence song, "Find Out Who Your Friends Are"? I did. And that's as amazing as they are. Beyond that simple fact, which is kind of a big deal in and of itself, this is the first major life event I can remember really facing as an adult where I needed support, and the people around me really came through. That to me means I've learned from the past and surrounded myself with good people. This bodes well for times ahead.
The Challenge: Adulting is stressful. And way too complicated sometimes.
As I've posted about previously, my dad left a crazy complicated estate that it looks like I'll have the joy of dealing with for years to come. There are multiple parts to it in multiple states that require multiple lawyers and multiple court dates. There is currently no end in sight. The whole situation is high-stress, and it requires a higher level of adulting than I initially anticipated or was prepared for. When someone close to you dies, it seems like there should be a grace period during which you're permitted to adult at a minimal level and just deal with your grief. It turns out the reality is basically the exact opposite of that when there are a bunch of people counting on you to be the mature, responsible one in the family.
The Lesson: Things like this teach you trust, delegation and time management. Seriously.
If I had to deal with all of this on my own, I'd go crazy. I'm historically bad at delegating tasks to other people, and time management has never been my strong suit. A lot of this comes back to perfectionism, which as an academic is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing for things like thorough research, strong writing, relentless editing and the like. It's not so good when the struggle with perfectionism becomes so real that you destroy your productivity with constant second-guessing and the need to revise just one more time. Dealing with this estate has successfully destroyed the roadblocks that used to prevent me from delegating things to other people, because I no longer have that luxury. Being forced to delegate because you can't physically do it all yourself is excellent exposure therapy. You learn to choose people you trust and let them do their job. It really does make life easier once you get used to it, and it also leaves you more time for focusing on the things that truly need your attention. This is the exact reason at least one of the lawyers will get a shout out in my book ackhowledgements...thanks for dealing with all the lawyery stuff so I had time to write, Sullivan.
The Challenge: Grief is not a linear process.
This was probably my biggest take-away from 2016. Somehow I expected that once the actual death occurred, it would be a relatively straightforward (but still terrible) process of denial and anger and acceptance and then I'd be able to emotionally move on. I did go through those stages, and I did move forward, but they were not what I expected. Sometimes I see something that reminds me of my dad and I forget he's dead for a second. I'm often angry that cancer is a thing we still can't cure. I've sort of accepted that my dad fought as hard as he could and it was just his time. But these things are not linear. They overlap, curve back on themselves, and throw you for loops you didn't see coming. They will catch you by surprise and send you reeling (or into tears) when you least expect it. But you'll learn perseverance from that. And also to carry tissues.
The Lesson: Life is short. Be fearless and try things.
I found dealing with grief easier while on the road, and I was fortunate enough to be able to travel in the months after my dad's death. But there was more to it than just seeing some new things and finding distractions. Nothing will force you to confront the reality that life is short like dealing with the death of someone close to you. You will have a moment when it becomes crystal clear that you can either try the things that scare you and find out what they actually feel like, or you can sit around wondering what it would be like if you did. That is how I found myself traveling through Paris alone, watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon (also alone), and jumping out of an airplane (not alone) this summer. And all of these things were worth it. Beyond that, overcoming fears is a self-fulfilling process -- do it once, so you know you can, and you tend to keep looking for things to reaffirm that new-found sense of freedom you find when you conquer something you never thought you'd do. My dad was always very afraid to try new things, so this kind of feels like something I'm doing for both of us, and that's a legitimately special and rewarding feeling.
I have lots of friends and family members who are firm proponents of the idea that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Judging from 2016, I'm basically superwoman.