The Worst Best Thing That Happened In 2020

The only good thing about grief is the wonder of it all

Jen McGahan
Oct 27, 2020 · 10 min read
Photo by john vicente on Unsplash (cropped by the author)

It’s been almost nine months, yet every morning I lose her again.

I wake to a world without Katie, and that’s still my first cognizant thought. As soon as my eyes open, it’s “Oh, crap. Here we go again.”

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I hurry through the stuff I already know how to do, alert for some small opening — some pinpoint of light — into a future where I feel some control again, or where I can make some blind headway at least.

If I learned anything from my daughter’s death, it’s that now I know for sure, no one really has any control. Every day, you’re just along for the ride. Some days I slip backward and some days I move ahead, either a lot or just a little. My life is one big Chutes and Ladders game since February 2nd.

I’m beginning to formulate some sort of strategy for staying in the game.

This morning wasn’t so bad. I was moving through it, but then it got worse…

I read a story about toxic masculinity.

Actually, it was about toxic femininity, if that’s even a thing. The story and the ensuing comments explore the issue.

I don’t know what “toxic masculinity” really even means because as a natural health practitioner, massage therapist, and student of life, I know that too much of anything is toxic. So toxic masculinity is as damaging as toxic greed, or toxic guilt, or toxic laziness.

But then I realize no, that’s wrong, because masculinity is also a good thing, whereas greed, guilt, and laziness are not.

I try to think of a time when I thought of Katie’s “boyfriend,” that man who was hanging around her too long, as a toxically masculine character. I admit it didn’t occur to me. I didn’t have the foresight to look for trends or labels to describe him. I had never seen the Power and Control Wheel.

He had yet to make a statistic of my daughter.

Toxic grief: Is that a thing?

At what point does grief get the better of you? I’ve had my moments. Lashing out at stupid people, cussing, drinking too much wine, and then calling people to talk too late at night.

Grief can look pretty ugly. They say it’s only natural, to go with it. Everyone gives you a pass, but no one tells you when it expires. So you push it. My pass is looking a bit ratty. I know Katie would be shaking her head.

Fiercely independent, Katie never asked for money, but let me buy her dinner a couple of times a month if I was lucky. That last day together, Katie and I agreed Kyle was a jerk, the second bad boyfriend in her life. My daughter was 21, almost 22. She was trying to come into her own, I could see that. As we drove to the dinner theatre, she told me how she was working on some jokes to try standup comedy, and how ridiculous it was that Kyle claimed he wanted to do standup, too.

“But he’s not even funny,” I pointed out. “I know, right?” She did her signature exaggerated head bob.

“He keeps trying to steal my jokes and say they’re his,” she complained. She went on to explain the premise and the set-up behind a joke about men being color-blind. Only she could have thought of it, as it was born of her experience. She was so frustrated, I told her I was sorry.

I felt I owed her some accountability, a mom's confession to her adult daughter, a woman now. I apologized for choosing an emotionally absent man to be her father. (Yeah, I made that leap.)

“Oh mom, he has his good points.” She bounced right back, reminding me how her dad taught her how to play the guitar. I left it at that, knowing it was a sore point last December when Kyle and her dad left Katie hanging as they jammed without her.

I know how it feels to be drowned out by louder, drunker people. Like shouting behind thick glass. I know how it feels when masculinity, or insecurity, turns toxic. Katie was learning that, too. No wonder she wasn’t afraid to try standup.

When was she was going to break up with this one, this Kyle? I asked her. “I’m trying,” was what she said.

Toxic masculinity is hidden in plain sight.

When she invited me up to her apartment after the movie that night, our last evening together, I said, “Not if Kyle’s up there,” and I felt the smallest of beats, a remote sliver of resignation in my daughter’s eye as she looked away and said, “OK.” A brief thousand-mile stare before she put her hand on the car door and let herself out.

I only look back on her behavior that night as slightly odd because it was the last time I saw her. She wasn’t quite the Katie I know; she was forgiving of everyone, not her usually edgy self. She said, “I want to look put together — like you.” I told her she did look put together. “You look beautiful,” I assured her.

I should have said, “You are beautiful.”

Toxic regret will erode your life

She really did look pretty that night. Normally so comfortable in her natural beauty, Katie was always so easy in her skin. But tonight she was trying hard for a different effect. She had put some extra effort into her appearance and makeup, up-doing her hair and dressing to the nines. She had new boots on.

There is a time in every mother-daughter relationship where the girl becomes the woman with equal strength, equal ownership of her presence in the world, but with way more potential. It felt like we were there. I was so proud to be her mom; I held that space for her all evening.

When it was over, she shut the car door and I checked my phone. I waited to snag one last glance as she disappeared up the stairwell. I never doubted that we would be together again. We’d come so far. We were a force now. Together.

After her death/murder that looks like suicide/assisted suicide/blatant murder — whatever it was that morning — I scrabble backward every time I’m confronted with another sign that I might have helped her avoid her fate that morning.

So. When I read Linda Caroll’s story about toxic masculinity, I slid back to a place where Katie’s smiling picture on my bathroom vanity mocked me. I shiver when I see her face. She was always so brave. Sad, angry, jubilant, funny, and brave.

I commented on Caroll’s story: “I ask myself every damn day why I pussyfooted around when she mentioned his gaslighting, his passive aggression, and his little control issues. I always figured she would find a way to lose the guy. It was only after she was dead that I found her Spotify playlist called “Choking” and that she had been trying to make a clean break with him for months. Toxic masculinity is hidden in plain sight.”

The last time I saw her I sent my daughter into a cesspool of what I now know was “toxic masculinity” or (just call it what it is) domestic violence; and there’s nothing I can do about that.

The day stretches out before me, full of shame and regret. It’s going to be a bad day. I just know it.

I heard her voice in my head yet again saying “You’ve got this, mom,” just as I heard it the morning of her funeral. But I wasn’t feeling it.

Toxic masculinity is masculinity as Kryptonite. It reverses what is good and powerful in real men. The opposite is also true. Tiny expressions of peace… can disarm these heavy thoughts of regret and anger.

I work part-time as a massage therapist at a wellness center. As I prepared for a 2 o’clock appointment today, I squeezed in some housework. I moved a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. As I opened the cupboard door above the machine to reach for the detergent, I stopped short.

There was a note from Katie, clear as day, telling me, from wherever she is, to suck it up. To do better. Not exactly in those words.

This note was actually a prayer that had been posted to the inside of my cabinet door all along. The only reason I saw it this morning is that the prayer had lost its stickiness.

Bearing Katie’s signature on the back, it came off the cabinet door and landed against the bottles of soap.

This is how I know her spirit exists. She is still teaching me things.

On the flip side was the prayer of St. Francis

If you know it, you may read the first line as a melody. It’s an old church song. “Make me a channel of your peace...”

Eighteen months ago, when I moved into this place, I stuck this piece of paper to the inside of my laundry room cupboard. When I want to keep certain things (but don’t always want them in my face) I tape them to the insides of cupboards and cabinets so that I can view them at odd moments. I get this from my mom, squirreling away reminders, poems, tips, and words of wisdom where I’ll see them again.

This morning, there it was, just when I needed it. I was going down that swirly hole, mentally jabbing my parenting skills and everything else, when I saw Katie’s name, written when she was about seven or eight— which is the best age to be yourself — and what looks like a small leaf or feather.

“PEACE” (wrote Katie)

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hated, let me bring your love.
Where there is injury your pardon, Lord,
and where there’s sadness, ever joy.
Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand.
to be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
in giving of ourselves that we receive
and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

So it goes.

Katie’s note came unstuck from the door. Image courtesy of the author

Taking it day by day

Sometimes I’m up for this hard work. Some days I’m not.

Today, apparently, I am… therefore this story. I try to strike while Katie’s spirit is helping me flow toward love and creativity. Because some days I lose sight of her and her life.

Sadly, some days, I can’t see her face. I only know that I am lost without her.

If toxic masculinity is hidden in plain sight, Katie reminded me today that so is Peace. Her message, literally hidden in plain sight inside my laundry room cupboard, is a wormhole into something I can affect. I nod to my control issues again.

When awful things happen, you can only control how you respond. It’s something I can at least work on today, and then again tomorrow, and then again the neverending tomorrows that are so gruesomely similar to the day before.

Toxic masculinity is masculinity as Kryptonite. It reverses what is good and powerful in real men. The opposite is also true. Tiny expressions of peace, as described by St. Francis, can disarm these heavy thoughts of regret and anger.

There’s a scene in the movie Labyrinth where the young girl comes to her senses and remembers how to beat the Goblin King at long last. As a young, idealistic feminist in the 80s, I loved the part where she declares, ”My kingdom is as strong as yours… You have no power over me.”

Maybe Katie says this to Kyle, “Enough, finally; though I remember your face, and what you did… you have no power over me. I am released.” Maybe she says this to his family, too, who colluded to help him decide what to do after the awful thing.

I don’t believe Katie died feeling peace. I believe she probably died miserably. I’m betting she still has a bone to pick with Kyle’s soul. Karma’s a bitch. I’m rooting for her.

Maybe her message of peace is for me alone, after the fact. I aim random, negligible peace darts at life, going through the motions. Hoping to fake it ’til I make it. Those tiny dart holes are the only light some days.

There are no great moments in healing

A lot of bad things happened this year: COVID, ugly politics, and the death of my favorite girl. I can’t see anything good in all of that. People say I’m strong, but I’m not. I’m only curious. It’s the wonder of horror that absorbs me; that keeps me moving these puzzle pieces around. I could do this my whole life, and probably will.

In the house where I grew up, my mother clipped inspirational quotes and self-improvement reminders from magazines and posted them in plain sight in the kitchen and bathrooms. One of them was “Watch your posture; everyone else does.” Some things you can’t hide.

I think my daughter is trying to help me get out of this rut. I could keep her message folded up like a tapestry in a closet or I can put it on and wear it out.

If nothing else happens but I read something interesting, or lift my head, or keep opening cabinet doors, I can usually turn something small into a connection to tomorrow. Tweaking the minutia is how I’m finding my way out of the tedious repetition of the previous day’s grief.

I’m going to sleep now, hopeful that a tiny message from my kid is moving mountains. Leaf by leaf, or feather by feather, changing things for the better.

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Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here:

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here:

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

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