The email flashes across my screen in bold, black type: “B got married on the weekend. So…how are you doing?”
How am I doing? My initial response is: “Fine. Happy for him. I wish him wellness and joy!” But then, my face cracks and suddenly I can barely breathe.
My once son-in-law is marrying his new love, but all I can think about is the bittersweet memory of 18 years ago when he stood joyously beside my living, breathing youngest daughter and said, “I take you, Sara Ann Taylor, in sickness and in health.” And he did, for the next two and half years. He didn’t desert Sara, as so often happens in the young adult cancer community. He stayed and watched his beautiful, witty, long-haired wife, the love of his life, shrink to skin and bone, puke her guts out, and go balder than a billiard ball. He stayed, loving her and true to her — until her last breath and beyond. He lost part of his youth to her, and never complained.
So, all these years later, how do I feel? Happy for him, sad for me. Sad, and weary. I feel like I am losing one more person who knew and loved Sara with me, beside me. I feel alone.
Over the past 16 years since Sara’s passing, other family members and close friends have moved on, opening a new chapter in their lives. Like the other members of “Sara’s Team” before him, B now gets to breathe again, laugh spontaneously, and make love with fresh joy, unencumbered by the shadow of death.
During the last four years, I have experienced tiny moments when I can see bright colors again, breathe deeply, feel fully alive, engaged, playful, joyful, and fearless. But those moments are still few and far between. When I witness others “moving on,” I find myself holding tight to the familiar, unable to let go of my connection to Sara, my life, my breath. Yet, I know I, too, must move on, or die a slow death and be left behind. These dear friends and family members are celebrating Sara, honoring her life by living theirs to the fullest. She would have done the same, had the situation been reversed. If I stay stagnant, half dead, then cancer will have claimed another life, and Sara wouldn’t have wanted that either, or so I tell myself.
How do I feel? Honestly, I am envious. Lost. Wishful. I wish that I had never experienced such a devastating loss. I wish that I, too, could take a deep breath, laugh out loud, be free of the shadow that always hovers in the corners of my mind.
If I dig deeper, I feel abandoned. Does no one miss Sara as much as me? Does no one else still feel the huge sense of loss I live with every day? I find it difficult to express, this deep, innate sadness that reaches up and grabs me when I least expect it, making my breath hitch, disrupting a joyful laugh, a fearless thought or idea. I curl back into myself, back into the shadows where bright colors are gray and bland. It’s a safe place, where I can walk alone. Cry alone. I find it is easier to hide from people than to pretend social courtesies and enjoyment that I no longer feel. Yet, this “safe” place is slowly sucking the life out of me. I want to choose life.
Yet, when I do choose life, I often feel anxious, fearing that I might have to face another debilitating loss, wondering if I could survive, if the horror repeated itself. I have become hyper-vigilant in my desperation to keep all my loved ones safe — almost to the point of demanding my grandsons wear their bike helmets when they get up to use the toilet in the night in case they fall and hit their heads. My husband teases me about my vision of the huge rock that rests half a mile above our wilderness home, how I worry about it breaking loose and tumbling down the mountain to crush our house like an ant underfoot. I hear about an earthquake in Italy and start counting down the seconds before I wake up in our apartment in Vancouver with the walls shaking loose around me and burying me alive. “What are the odds of any of these things happening?” my husband asks me. Extremely small. I know. Yet, the odds of having one of your children die before you are small, too, and it happened.
Tiny steps. Slow steps. There is no time limit on grieving or healing. Or on loving and letting go. My love for Sara is unique to me. That is why I stand alone, not because others care less than me. It was unique for B. We both will carry memories of Sara in the deepest part of our being, forever and beyond. Getting married doesn’t change that. Getting married doesn’t erase Sara’s life.
Is that what I think “moving on” is? Do I react so strongly to the term because I take it to mean erasing, forgetting, leaving behind? It makes me think of pioneers crossing the Plains, and how they had to toss out prized mementos and family treasures to lighten their load so they could “move on”to their new home. I do not want to leave Sara behind, abandoned on the side of a dusty trail, forgotten and lost forever, just so I can reach some unpredictable destination. Or…maybe I fear that if I don’t obsess about her every day in some way, she will leave me. I can’t bear the thought of that. And then again, what if Sara is ready to let go of me, and move on? Where will she go? Who will care for her when she is afraid and lonely? If her husband is no longer free to be there for her, shouldn’t I be there? Isn’t that my role as her mother? And, if she moves on…where will I go?
But the wonderful thing about memories is that no one is abandoned. No one is lost or left behind. Our memories weigh nothing, but they carry great comfort. They travel with us no matter where we go or how we get there. Even the pioneers took their memories with them. Anyone who knew and loved Sara can not possibly forget her. In my memories I will continue to care for Sara and she me. So, perhaps, instead of using the term “moving on” to mean “leave you behind,” I can reframe it as “carrying on, with you.”
How do I feel when I hear B got married this past weekend? Grateful that he gets to carry on, that he has a second chance to feel alive, filled with a heart-pumping joy! Grateful that he has the freedom to love deeply again, without fear. (How brave he is.)
The wedding announcement has triggered sadness and loss beyond words, but maybe, in processing it, I can give myself permission to join B and other members of Sara’s Team in “moving on” — or, no, “carrying on.” This doesn’t mean I am letting go of Sara. It means that as I move forward, she will travel with me, encouraging me to breathe, laugh, and love. She would, if she could.
So, how am I doing? Public face: “Fine!” Internal voice: “One step at a time. Carrying on. Thank you for asking.”