On a difficult pair of days, I wore a pair of high heeled boots, hid behind a costume, became vulnerable, wept, prayed, painted my nails, felt incredibly lonely, connected with special people, remembered those who are gone, and was visited by a winged messenger.
There has been a long silence from my end. Again. It’s been a few weeks of logistics such as deadlines, papers due, mid-term exams, and also … yes, pushing through difficult milestones such as the birthday of a departed friend and the anniversary of the fifth year since Jessie died.
Once upon a time, I wrote every day of Jessie’s treatment, and continued every day after she went on ahead of us, recounting the journey of the living. Now it takes me a week to reflect, in writing, about such moments.
Two days come close together last week. Both are difficult. One is the birthday of my friend Rebecca, who died of breast cancer a few years ago, after a long and gracious life, making a difference in the world of so many people, but especially her family, and most of all her two beloved children Ben and Anna.
Her headstone is only a few yards from Jessie’s, beneath a row of maples, at the top of the hill in the cemetery. Rebecca knew their spots would be close together. We visited those cemetery locations together. Stood while Rebecca was alive under the long shadows of old maples on young green grass, listened to songbirds, felt the stir of the wind, heard its murmur through the leaves. Made memories up there. Had conversations we often couldn’t share with anyone else, about worries and wishes, realities and dreams, sorrows and hopes. Rebecca lived with a persistent form of breast cancer, and navigated a fine balance of hope in the possibility of a cure or new treatment, the wish for longevity and survival, edged with awareness of a threatening and mortal condition. Rebecca talked about a visit she had made to the cemetery with her family; wanting them to have a living experience with her there, as well as a place to visit in later days. We talked about where she and Jessie would both be (Jessie had already died, but we hadn’t interred her ashes yet), and how they’d be close to each other in the spaces between the maples, and imagined how maybe they’d find each other in the place beyond this one. We believed that Rebecca and Jessie would continue to visit those of us that they left behind, back here on earth.
The very next day marked the morning, five years ago, when my daughter Jessie died. Every year our family approaches this milestone differently. It is a markedly individual and separate experience for each of us as sister, father or mother. And of course, it is a day marked by our extended family, friends or her community, too.
This year, on the eve of the anniversary of Jessie’s death, I found myself locked in memory loops and traumatic flashbacks of the last 24 hours of her life. Vivid images or sensory memories came back. They blur together like this: her lung x-ray looking worse that last full day in ICU, followed by visits of specialists to her bedside, and a phone call conference from a small meeting room to consult with Chris and several medical team leaders to decide a recommended course of action, an evening visit from one transplant care team nurses who believed she’d make it, Jessie waking up that night and braking through sedation to kick and reach for me as I told her we loved her and named each member of her family, holding tight to her hand, 2am worries and conversations with a night-shift nurse as we changed her bed padding and checked IV lines and monitors and breathing tube, later kissing her as they took her off the floor — still medicated to a level of unconsciousness while on a portable ventilator — to undergo a lung biopsy, pounding on doors to get through to the room where a doctor waited to tell me she was dying, sitting in a numb disconnected state while a white-coated medical fellow knelt before me to deliver the unthinkable narration of events that transformed a scan room into an emergency operating suite, knowing our friend and minister Rebecca was beside me every step of that morning, and that Rebecca made the calls I couldn’t make, knowing that Jessie died while Chris and Sarah were en route to the hospital, walking with Chris and Sarah together as if through a gauntlet one final time down the hallway to her room in ICU, where it wasn’t Jessie waiting anymore, just her lovingly arranged body under a quilt, so we could say good-bye.
This year, those scenes – running on endless replay in my mind — recurred over and over. Sometimes scene-by-scene as they really took place. Sometimes as if I rewrote history and changed fate.
If only we had the power to change the script, stop the camera, halt the action, decide to make a different ending, give all the actors new lines, new roles … if only it was make-believe, fiction, theater … not real. But it isn’t. It happened. And there are no sequels or second versions of this particular story.
Of course, I have other beliefs about what comes next. About a spiritual life beyond this one … but admittedly, there is a difference between that spiritual and emotional comfort and the very physical and mortal reality of a child you can read to, speak with, hold close, argue with, sigh about, worry over or dance with.
During the anniversay of Jessie’s death, I always set aside productivity. I don’t do school work or client projects. I cancel any appointments, skip most commitments.
Instead, I give myself permission to be in the moment and experience whatever comes. To make space and go through this, because it will catch up to me one way or another.
It isn’t a day when someone needs to fix what’s wrong. It is simply … an unspeakably sad and moving day. A time when we are permitted to weep or pray or be pissed off or act off-the-charts giddy or stay silent. A time when we experience the feelings that are natural to such milestones; and almost every possibly emotion is likely to surface, visit and be expressed along the way.
On such an anniversary, I don’t have many expectations about what will or should happen. I may lose myself for part of the day. Or find Jessie all over again. Connect with Chris or Sarah, if possible, on this day. Retreat. Or be in the company of friends. Mourn. Remember. Acknowledge. And yes, celebrate.
We often try to experience some of Jessie’s best-loved activities on this day. For instance, my friend Martha got me started on the self-care and healing of pedicures and manicures. You may scoff at this self-indulgent choice, but it is a place of respite where no one expects anything of you, someone takes care of you for a little while, you float and let go, and you even feel a little better (or prettier, or something) on the other side of it. I did it again this year.
And this year Chris and I attended the Rotary Masquerade fundraising ball that evening. It happens every year; it just fell on the same night as Jessie’s anniversary. And what better way to celebrate her vibrant spirit? She loved dressing up, going out to dance, to be with friends.
I dared to wear a pair of black high-heeled boots and a short skirt and a wig. I was someone else: pretending, letting go, running away, wishing, and forgetting. And I was myself: grieved, sad, lonely, determined, giddy, connected, remembering, and living ‘in the moment’.
Underneath the black lipstick, fake eyelashes and sequined outfit, I was a mother thinking about both of my daughters: my beautiful intelligent grownup daughter putting away her textbooks and going out with friends to the night-life of cafes in Thessaloniki during her first semester abroad in college in Greece and my younger child whose ashes rest beneath a headstone graven with her name, marked that day by a blossom and a crimson leaf. Under the red-and-black wig, beneath the black spider rings, I was a friend who asked the opinion of girlfriends about makeup and party outfit, wanting someone to cheer and encourage me for risks to self-image when I wore an edgy costume. In the black boots and red silk top, I felt like a vamped-up sexy wife on a date with my husband, spending time together on a day that holds deep and surreal connotations for both of us, in a year that has been full of exhausting transitions, some wonderful, some challenging. Dancing among peers in masks and feather boas, capes and fedoras, applauding the band and jumping to the rockin’ music, I was one member of a club and a community that showed up to raised funds for local causes.
We aren’t binary: black-and-white, one-or-the-other, either-or. We, as humans, are so much more complex and layered and intricate and impossible to unknot or explain. We are just … who we are. And different, every moment, every day.
The next morning, I woke to the rush of wings as a bird fell or was knocked down my chimney. It emerged, eventually, from the hearth in our bedroom to circle and perch in our room. A common bird, familiar and full grown. Dark-tipped, pale-chested, bright-eyed. We caught it in a net and released it safely out the front door.
What do I believe about the sudden fall and flight or that common backyard bird that often visits the feeder outside our kitchen window? For me, its sudden arrival represented the visitation of a winged messenger, a spirit guide. A reminder that she’s here in many ways, and somewhere else, too. (You’re welcome to your own thoughts about it … whether you believe its coincidence or meaningful.)
The eve of Jessie’s anniversary, I relived nightmares. The day of her anniversary, I ‘got by’ in fancy nail polish and high-heeled boots she would have liked a lot. The morning after her anniversary, I participated in a startling and sacred moment.
And I am reminded, and I remind you, that we are connected. Body, mind and spirit. This world and the next world. All of us, always on a journey, perhaps in different places along the way, but not so far apart as we sometimes feel or imagine. Nearer than we suppose.