What does strong look like to you?

I’m feeling conflicted about posting this one because I don’t want readers to think I’m seeking attention or intervention. I’m really okay. But if you are not comfortable with talk of death or suicide, I encourage you to skip this one. 

The first time I remember being called strong, I was ten years old, and it was the day before my father’s funeral. I was spending the nights at my uncle’s house rather than in my own bed at home. I’m curious what the thinking was behind that arrangement. Was it to keep the child out from underfoot while there was so much else to deal with? Was it to protect the child from the emotional upheaval at home?

My teenaged cousin was taking care of me. Now as an adult, I can only imagine what kind of burden it must have been to have her ten-year-old cousin foisted upon her, particularly a kid whose father has just died of heart attack.

But I was well behaved, as best I can remember, not crying or anything. I was just being a kid, bugging her to take her Barbies down from the shelf where they were stored in their original boxes. She refused to take them down, and although I thought that was mean I didn’t say anything. The only extreme emotion I remember expressing was at bedtime, when my uncle mocked my request for warm milk on my Corn Flakes, I burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughing.

The next morning, two of my sisters picked me up and we went to see my dad’s body, and I cried too much to stay in the funeral home. But the second morning as they picked me up again, I said, “I’m going to try not to cry today.” We went into his viewing parlour, I walked up to his casket, leaned in and kissed his forehead. The cold skin was surprising to me at ten. I know this description of a dead person’s skin is cliché. But my adult lips still know how that sensation is different from the kiss-taste of a red cheek just in from shovelling snow. I kissed my dad’s forehead, and learned what dead cold tastes like. And I heard one of my sisters say, “She’s some strong.”

This is what strong means for me. Playing obediently at my cousin’s house when the rest of my family is sharing in grief back at home. Laughing uncontrollably over soggy cereal.  Knowing the taste of death and refusing to cry. This week, as I’m hearing of celebrity suicides, and I’m learning about the sudden hospitalization of two people I know in real life, the voices in my own head say things like death isn’t the worst thing, better to die while you’re healthy and happy than to live in uncertainty. I find myself wondering about Anthony Bourdain’s death the way I wonder about a traveller’s experience: How did he get there? Was it a difficult trip? What is the cost of living in that place?

The cost of living, indeed.

These are the thoughts that go through my mind sometimes. And I am a strong person. Being strong for me means being prepared for the worst case scenario. Being strong means getting out in front of the bad luck, controlling the damage. Being strong means drawing first blood, even when the blood I draw is my own. It’s not always healthy, this kind of strength, but sometimes that’s the approach my strength takes.

To be honest, when my strength is doing its best work it can look like a hot mess. At my strongest, I am swollen-eyed bawling because I’m confessing something about myself that I’ve been keeping secret for too long. At my strongest, I am confiding in a friend about my insecurities, adding fuel to our friendship. At my strongest, I am putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my sister, because it’s the only way I can talk about our mother’s terminal illness without losing my temper.

If you’ve made it past my little warning at the beginning of this post and held out to this paragraph, I dare say you are one of the strong ones. And because you’re strong, I know you sometimes need reassurance. The future is unknown, and sometimes the unknown is terrifying. Sometimes it’s more comforting to imagine a future where you control your own outcome, take matters into your own hands. But let’s just hold steady for today. I’ll have your back and you have mine. Let’s try to be strong for each other. You are not alone.


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