Two years ago my life was irrevocably altered. I stepped off a plane in Toronto ready for a week of celebration for my daughter’s second birthday and my mother’s sixty-first. I stepped into my dad’s house and was taken aside and told my mother was found dead that morning from a stroke. Nothing has been the same. My heart keeps beating, I keep going, but for two years I have struggled, feeling stuck in place, not wanting to move too far forward for fear of what I might forget.
In the two years since, I have also said goodbye to both of our family pets who had resided with mom until she passed (and who we have had since I was in high school) and both of my grandmothers – each of whom I was so close to, I wasn’t ready to let them go despite them not being afraid to leave at all. My mom’s mom was the most recent, on May 10th, the day before mother’s day, and she died of the same type of stroke as my mother. Just a week earlier I’d booked our summer trip for me and my daughter to go visit her. I never imagined I’d be the “matriarch” of our family at 34.
For two years I have felt anger mixed with grief at the events we have faced, wondering when and how things will change. I wanted to crawl into a ball and wallow in self-pity, forget that there are people with worse situations and harder challenges and just curse the world for what has happened. In those moments, I felt nothing but rage pulsing through me, not at any person or event, but at the sheer helplessness of it all… I don’t know a worse feeling that not being able to do anything at all, so what could I do?
It has taken two years, but I have realized that I have to find ways to love this world so that my daughter grows up loving the world for all the pain that it may cause her (because I don’t think it will be pain-free despite my deepest desire that she not know this type of hurt). I have to teach her that despite the feeling of wanting to pack a suitcase and run away, it won’t help; all that will help is being able to look at the state you are in and find something to love. Something to hold onto. So I have learned that I am not helpless, but rather I have a choice in this matter.
In the past two years, I have lost three of the women in my life that I loved more than I can say, and have been challenged by other events as well, but I have learned to wake up and look around and love what I see around me…
- I have my ever-wonderful husband who can convey his love and care in every touch and every hug and who makes me feel safe and loved when I want to scream at the world.
- I have my brave and outrageous daughter who can make me laugh and feel like my heart will burst from the love I feel for her. She who manages to win everyone over with her personality that is bigger than any room she walks into, but also she who shows us such love and empathy that it can break my heart in the best possible way.
- I have my stepson who remains a loving and caring individual who helps care for his sister and those around him; a kinder boy would be hard to find.
- I have my siblings who live far away but who I can talk to in times of stress and talk about those who we’ve lost and just share our grief while making each other laugh; there is also an unconditional love there that is hard to find amongst siblings.
- I have my cousin who is like a brother and who has always been there for me and continues to be there whenever needed; he has earned his nickname of “captain” quite readily.
- I have my friends who are supportive and kind and non-judgmental and all the things you hope to be surrounded by even with all the different situations and choices we’ve all made.
I could look at the voids that are missing, but I am trying to look instead at the people I have gained…
- Since my mom died I have “adopted” one of her best friends (and oddly my father’s second wife – my mom was his third) as a surrogate Aunt to my daughter. We chat regularly and when my grandmother died last month, she was someone I spoke to multiple times a week as I tried to handle everything that was going on. She sends cards and gifts to my daughter and as the holidays roll around I don’t have to cut short the family gifts we do by one, I just now send them to her instead of my mom. She has my daughter’s artwork on her fridge and framed photos of her in her house. She is family.
- When my grandmother died this past May, I finally got to really sit down and get to know her neighbour who I had known most of my life but never well. Akiko and I spent most days talking about our lives over a glass of wine while my daughter played with her cat Taro (meaning first-born son in Japanese), who we have agreed to care for when she dies (a state she is confident isn’t soon as she’s just simply too busy and too needed, as she tells me). She survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and did not have children of her own but has stories that every living human being should hear. She is kind and generous and oh-so-strong. She claimed our family calendar and photos of all of us for her own house and once again, when I make these gifts, I no longer have to make one less, but have just a different address to send it to.
- There is also the new member of our family – my cousin’s son – who has the bluest of eyes and a smile that can kill. A new life always seems to make everything much better, even if it means stressed out and wide-eyed parents to go along with it. I was finally able to meet him at nearly 10 months of age on the 2 year anniversary of my mother’s death and I couldn’t think of any better thing to have happen on that day.
The world will continue to throw us curveballs that we aren’t prepared for. These aren’t the times when we’ve been given lemons to make lemonade out of, but rather the times we’re handed poison and have to figure out how to turn it into an antidote instead. These are the times the world seems like it will crash down around us and we want to crawl into a hole and hide. I still have moments of intense grief and pain that is so visceral I feel it is ripping a part of my heart out. I still have days when I wake and feel the weight of self-pity. What I have learned in the last two years is not that those moments have to disappear, but that I can choose to look at it differently. I can choose to find love and happiness in the midst of loss and pain and that that love and happiness is what those who have left would want for those of us left behind.
It may have taken me two years, but I am finally able to choose love in the face of pain. Even when it’s not that easy.