On this fourth anniversary of my mom’s death, I wake up to an email from my dad. Written at 2:19am, he says he cannot sleep, as she’s very much alive and busy in his thoughts. I picture him seated at his desk, alone in the spacious home that once safely held our family of six, with the glow of the computer screen revealing the etched grooves of joy and sorrow on his sixty-nine year old face.
It guts me, imagining him pecking along on his keyboard, thinking of just the right balance of words to deliver to his children– words of grief and loss on the wings of hope and gratitude. I don’t envy his position; being the man who is left to grieve his wife and also the father who remains as the thread trying desperately to keep his family woven into one tapestry of wholeness, however frayed, worn, or weathered.
He writes about how reality is what we make it and how in every moment we are given the gift of choice. He says to choose to make it great. That he chooses to believe in his very bones that his wife, our mother, has transitioned to the other side and is doing what she’s meant to do; how she wants us to do what we’re meant to do here. He says to ask her for guidance when we need it and to offer gratitude for the countless gifts she has bestowed upon all of us.
Toward the end he says, “We are very fortunate, life is good. I think of you all everyday– 3 living adult children…”
You see, he has to address us as his living children, because his youngest is no longer.
And with salty tears rolling down my face, I am at once struck by the beauty and brutality of this world. More specifically, the microcosmic world of our nuclear family.
It boggles my mind that any of us are carrying on with life. We go to work, we raise our children, we grocery shop and fill our cars with gas. We’re doing it, I often think to myself. Look at us, we’ve experienced such tragic loss and we’re still standing.
This four year anniversary means everything and nothing. Everything because, holy shit, look at us! We’re still moving forward. Even without her here, we’re getting new jobs, the family is growing, we’re making new friends, and nesting in our new homes. Because for four years, we’ve lived with the undeniable active volcano-like rumble of indescribable loss in the space between our thoughts, the pause between our breaths, and the layers within our words and actions. For 48 months, 1,460 days, and roughly 35,043 hours, we have carried the weight of her death with us everywhere we go. Some days the load feels light and manageable and some days it feels like we have cinder blocks as shoes and a suit of medieval armor as clothes. And we’ve each discovered that we do need to wear some sort of armor in this world now, because it hurts too much when the winds of the outside world or even the loving touch of a friend makes contact with the raw, exposed lesion that is the absence of such an effervescent and larger-than-life woman. The woman who was the nucleus of our little family. She was the bright, warm sun around which we all spun. Do you know what happens when an actual sun in outer space dies (which they all eventually do)? It vaporizes the surrounding planets. Everything around it dies with it.
But here we are, each of us carrying her light and warmth within our hearts; holding on fiercely to the pieces of her that she generously left behind, because she knew we would need them to survive.
So, it’s amazing that for four years we’ve been this way; all at once devastated and grateful, brought to our knees and hopeful. We’re resilient and sad, lost but finding our way.
And yet, I cannot help but feel distraught by this four year mark. Each year, I think Wow, we made it through another year, we’re getting there. But there is no there. We’re not racing to a finish line, there is no end goal. The goal is to just keep moving. We’ve made it through four of however many years until each one of us makes that transition from human body to formless spirit essence.
Another level of understanding sets in today. This is how it will be for the rest of our lives. Contrary to the fantasy I have spun in my mind, we do not get a 5 year reward next year of her coming back to life just for 10 minutes– just for a hug or a smile, or a mundane conversation about nothing. No, this is it. Next year will just be five years, then six, and so on.
So how do we go on? What keeps us from crumbling into a heap of brittle, tired, destitute pieces on the floor?
We let ourselves be sad, to feel the pain and give it permission to help us grow. And we are the keepers of the pieces my mom left behind, so we guard them with our whole being and share them with the concentric circles of our family, friends, and our children who will never know her in the physical form. Like my dad said, we have a choice and we make the choice to go on.
Life is beautiful and brutal. I recently heard a term that Glennon Doyle Melton coined: brutiful. And that’s life in a nutshell: fucking awful and irresistibly extraordinary.
So here we are, we’re doing it. And we’re able to do it because we shared her when she was here and now we share her memory. And with each other, we continue to move forward. One step at a time.