Death, Then CrossFit
My father was an alcoholic. Most of my childhood memories are of him in varying states of intoxication. I spent the majority of my early adulthood trying to help him get sober just to watch him relapse again and again. I analyzed everything. Had I said something wrong? Was this my fault? Would things be different if my parents hadn’t divorced? Does he drink because he thinks I am an embarrassment? And the ever-famous, Why can’t he just stop? It’s easy! Just quit!
As his addiction worsened, so did my confusion. I was tired. At eighteen, fresh out of high school, I had a child of my own. I was taking classes at the community college and waitressing, my swollen ankles propped up on the chair beside me as I studied late into the night, checking on my son’s every fuss and whimper until I fell asleep in my chair. My physical stores had been depleted. I had to choose: take care of myself and my infant son or care for my father while he destroyed his own able body. I told my father he was a worthless drunk and that he could call me when he was sober. I thought that would be enough. That the relationship with me, his only daughter, would be enough.
It wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. We found ourselves in that awkward position when a lot of time has passed without speaking. Something is wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it. No one ever knows how to fix it.
Almost ten years later, on a spring afternoon in which I had promised I would take my three young boys to the park and then to a cookout, I received a phone call from a stranger identifying himself as my father’s roommate. Dad was dying from liver failure due to alcoholism and had no one to care for him.
And so, I did.
I thought it would be redemptive. I thought we could repair our relationship. At least I would “feel better” about the things—his drinking, my leaving him—those years had forfeited. Instead, it nearly killed me.
No one tells you what dying is actually like. It is not like the movies. It is grotesque. The human body, its shutting down, requires a level of care that I was not prepared for. I cut my father’s hair. I trimmed his yellowed toenails. I changed the diapers and examined the bedsores. I brushed his teeth and caught them when they fell out of his rotted gums. I talked him down from hallucinations caused by the ammonia forming on his brain. I explained, again, what the word “terminal” meant every time he forgot. I sat with the doctor as she drained the waste from his abdomen, the liver shutting down at age fifty-eight. She commented on how rare it was to see a family member at the bedside, “Really, especially with the alcoholics. They’re usually abandoned.” I nodded then went back to watching the long silicone needle pump toxins from his body.
I was also drinking way too much wine, averaging a bottle a night, sometimes more. I would start thinking about it around noon, making half jokes about having earned it then drink while I made dinner. I refilled my glass before it was empty.
I spent nights upright, my head racing. What was I going to do? What hadn’t I thought of? Was this my fault? What hadn’t I thought of yet? Was this my fault? Was I a terrible daughter? How can I fix this? Was this my fault?
I began eating poorly, oftentimes from the vending machines at work or at the hospice center. Sometimes I picked from my boys’ leftovers on the drive home: half a lukewarm peanut butter and jelly sandwich dotted with playground sand; browned apples or fruit snacks that I picked out of the creases of their matching, monogrammed lunch boxes. I drank cup after cup of black coffee, downed shots of espresso before getting in the car. If I couldn’t find coffee I would revert to Diet Coke, a vice I had quit years earlier, drinking two bottles at a time. I was also drinking way too much wine, averaging a bottle a night, sometimes more. Now, instead of the Diet Coke, I began to look forward to the wine. I would start thinking about it around noon, making half jokes about having earned it then drink while I made dinner. I refilled my glass before it was empty, with the idea that my husband wouldn’t know it was a new glass. Every time I found the bottle empty I was surprised. I slid the empties into the trashcan quietly, my eyes darting around the kitchen, hoping no one would see or hear.
Evenings when I couldn’t fall asleep, I took a handful of Tylenol PM. One weekend my mother came to visit and noticed how many I was taking, so I started rotating them out with Aleve PM. When neither worked, I swiped old muscle relaxers and painkillers from our medicine cabinet, my mother-in-law’s medicine cabinet, friends’ homes, co-workers’ baby showers, wherever I found them. Then nothing worked and my husband began to take notice. I stopped taking pills, and instead, I drank more.
For those first few weeks, I sweated wine, cheap food, depression, and self-loathing all over those gym mats, and the coach pretended not to notice. One morning, the workout consisted of burpees…Immediately, you begin to talk yourself out of the exercise, out of the gym, into your car, home, and back into bed where you can grieve your father and your lack of self-confidence in peace.
When my father died, I was devastated. Even when you know it’s coming, there is no way to adequately prepare for the death of your parent. I was not prepared for the forever of gone. I was so fixated on the doing, on the tasks of hospice and health care, on the preparing and planning and the new-home-for-the-cats-finding that I never stopped to think about the gone part. My kind, intelligent, strong father drank himself to death, despite my best and most desperate efforts to save him, to fix him, to undo the ten years I had missed.
I hosted a memorial service in a VFW by the beach. I ordered the things a memorial service requires. I counted the paper plates and fanned the napkins, separated the wax cups. I had programs made. I put out sandwiches and coffee and cookies. I made sure there were flowers and enough chairs. My best friend brought me muscle relaxers and snuck me little paper cups of wine. Every time my mother found a cup she poured it out until I snapped at her to stop. After the service my husband drove me home. I put my father’s ashes in my closet behind the summer dresses that no longer fit my tired, bloated body.
We had joined one of those fancy athletic clubs a few months earlier because of the pool. I loved that lifeguard-protected pool. I could take the kids any time I wanted and drink half a carafe of wine while they went up and down the waterslide. I read too much Marie Howe and Ron Rash, ordered cheeseburgers and pizzas, and made sure to never drink so much that I couldn’t drive the two blocks home. My anxiety was so out of control I drove with all the windows down amidst the oppressive heat. That fall semester I taught my classes outside, despite the change in weather, because the thought of four enclosed walls gave me literal hives. Students lingered nervously after class to ask if I was well. I spent nights sitting up way too late, swaying in front of a book or a crime show, thinking, thinking, thinking, and chewing my nails.
Almost a year later, with my father’s little yellow house sold, his belongings scattered, and the dust as settled as it ever would be, I decided I would go for a walk. My head was so crowded it felt as big as my father’s poisoned belly. I found my old running shoes in the back of the closet and I drove to our regional park. It is wide, wooded, and very secluded. There are loping paths around a fishing lake and you can go some distance without seeing anyone. I liked walking, being outside of my house. I loved the quiet. I loved that I didn’t have to do anything except move my goddamned feet. I decided I would continue the walks.
With grief, when someone asks you how you’re doing, the only socially acceptable answer is “Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine.” There’s no way to gauge growth in grief. But in CrossFit, I could measure my results in quantifiable increments. Today I got stronger. Today I got faster. Today I learned a new skill. Today I remained focused. Today I did not cry.
Those first few walks I cried. I balled up my fists and pounded my thighs, anxiety growing enough to force me to jog. Some mornings I was so hungover I almost puked from the jostling of running. I jogged the trails around the lake, the pounding of my feet matching the pounding in my head, and I would yell at myself, yell at my dead father, yell at the memory of his hands grasping the air, fingers grasping at nothing that I could use to save him. When I saw someone else coming down the path I stopped. I sped up and put my head down.
One day, on a half-serious whim, I said, “Yeah, sure,” at a girlfriend’s invitation to CrossFit. She held me to it and at that first six a.m. class I found bodies and barbells across every square inch of a mechanic’s garage-turned gym. The music was loud enough to drown out coherent thought. I watched a man twice my size bench-press what, to my uninitiated eyes, surely was enough to kill him on the spot. When I looked at the workout written on the whiteboard, I whispered, “I can’t do this.” My friend looked incredulous, “Of course you can!” Surrounded by badasses, I couldn’t believe I survived the class. That night, exhausted and sore, I cried in the shower where my kids couldn’t hear me. I went to bed and slept. No wine, no sleeping pills, just the delicious sleep of physical exhaustion. Thursday morning I definitely didn’t understand why I was going back, and on my own at that, but I did. The coach remembered my name and high-fived me. I finished that workout too, although in last place and nauseated, but when I came back in from the run that would complete my workout, every single person in the gym cheered for me. I felt acknowledged. I was actually doing something. Look at me doing something! I survived that second class too. That weekend, jogging the lake, I was so busy trying to duplicate the movements from the workouts that I forgot to cry.
I went to class every Tuesday and Thursday. For those first few weeks, I sweated wine, cheap food, depression, and self-loathing all over those gym mats, and the coach pretended not to notice. One morning, the workout consisted of burpees, a movement that asks you to fall to the floor, complete a push-up, stand back up, then jump while clapping above your head. When mixed with other components in a workout, it is easy for burpees to exhaust you. Immediately, you begin to talk yourself out of the exercise, out of the gym, into your car, home, and back into bed where you can grieve your father and your lack of self-confidence in peace. On the floor, I needed a minute before getting back up, my body writhing in frustration and exhaustion, the tears coming hot and fast whenever I thought of my father, even in the gym. The coach patted me on my shoulder and said, “You are okay. You’re okay.” And the thing was, I believed him. I was becoming okay.
I started showing up five days a week. I got a little faster, a little stronger every day. Something shifted. Going to the gym gave me something to do with the hours I’d otherwise spend on my father. It gave me a way to clear my head. It gave me a group of people who saw me, every day, at my absolute worst and liked me anyway. And if they didn’t see me, if I failed to show up, they reached out to me. Logging my scores and times every day, watching the weights on my barbell increase and the weight on the scale decrease, no longer needing a bottle of wine and a bottle of sleeping pills, I discovered an immense feeling of empowerment. Here was a thing that had a flawless formula: If I put the work in, I would get the results. There were no outside factors. There was only me. And I had the tools I needed to fix me. I had to make amends with both my mind and my body. CrossFit forced me to do that.
It was an explosion of knowing.
What CrossFit gave me was measurable results. With grief, when someone asks you how you’re doing, the only socially acceptable answer is “Oh, I’m fine. I’m fine.” There’s no way to gauge growth in grief. But in CrossFit, I could measure my results in quantifiable increments. Today I got stronger. Today I got faster. Today I learned a new skill. Today I remained focused. Today I did not cry. Having quantifiably measured results was growth I understood intellectually as well as physically. It fulfilled both needs.
As I struggled toward the end of a particularly grueling workout, doubting whether I would finish, my coach lay down on the ground, right there on the floor next to my sweaty face. He whispered, forcing me to calm my breathing and listen to him, “Danger, you cannot control what happens out there. You just can’t. But you can control what happens in here. You can. Get up.”
I stood the hell up.
CrossFit, I’ve discovered, is a microcosm for life. It forces me to become and remain uncomfortable, to face an unknown and still continue, to set a goal to task then quietly get to work. As such, three years later, the principles of CrossFit have transferred across all planes of my life: When I think I can’t bear my children’s whining for one more minute. When I think I can’t sprint that last one hundred yards. When I can’t get my elbow up high enough out of the water or cycle fast enough under the barbell. When mastering a new skill taunts me with failure for weeks. When I’m two seconds too slow or don’t pace myself well from the start. When I doubt my instinct in anything. When I think I can’t admit to being wrong. When I translate simple mistakes as absolute failures. When I think I can’t be kind and patient and loving. When I think I can’t forgive my father. When I think I can’t forgive myself. I tell myself that I can. And I just keep showing up.
This article was originally published in The Tishman Review.