The Halfway Path http://thehalfwaypath.com Navigating The Landscape Of Parental Grief Thu, 22 Feb 2018 14:37:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.4 11 Months http://thehalfwaypath.com/11-months/ http://thehalfwaypath.com/11-months/#respond Thu, 22 Feb 2018 06:00:36 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=84 She’s not coming back. At first, I counted her death in days, then weeks, then months—soon it will be years. I marked each turn of the moon with small changes, tears, and disbelief that another month had passed. I observed ... Read More »

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She’s not coming back.

At first, I counted her death in days, then weeks, then months—soon it will be years.

I marked each turn of the moon with small changes, tears, and disbelief that another month had passed. I observed the entire year as a spectator—her 16th birthday, the summer solstice, the day she would’ve started tenth grade, the autumn equinox, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and each day in between. The globe turned and I counted the sunsets, waiting for her.

Sometimes I have to think about her last breath, remember the pallor on her face in the hours before she died, force myself back to the moment I stood beside her body in the funeral home and touched her forehead, her hands. They were cold as stone. It’s the only way I know that it’s real, that it happened at all.

She’s not coming back.

My grief is not a feeling or a thing. It’s not a weight that will lesson over time or a wound that will heal. My grief is a place, an altered dimension. I entered it the moment she died (her breathing shallow, her hands cool, her feet swollen, her eyes—closed for most of the day—flickered open one last time to find mine, and her soul fled from her failing body with one final exhale).

I couldn’t follow her, but I wanted to. Instead, I entered the place where I still linger, where the blue sky hurts my eyes, but the grey sky hurts even more, settling into my bones, exhausting me.  I get tired of the day too soon. All I want to do is sleep. I usually lay down for an hour or so, sometimes less, sometimes more. Then I force myself to get up and move through the rest of the day, waiting for it to be over, waiting for the moment when I draw a heart on her wall and whisper her name, waiting to close my eyes again and wondering (hoping) if this will be the night my heart stops beating.

In January, I found a dead sparrow beneath the tray feeder in the yard, its tiny body perfectly still, a few sunflower husks stuck to its head and beak. I wept as I wrapped it in paper towel, not for the life it had lost, but for its luck—to die suddenly in the night among an abundance of seed. Where did it go? Can it reach her?

She’s not coming back.

A year is nothing to Ana now, but when she was alive, each year marked incredible, almost unfathomable, transformation. She was a child, then an adolescent, then a teenager just old enough to look back on her life wistfully (we had her cremated in a faded sun dress she’d loved, her favorite stuffed animals tucked under each arm—the last vestiges of a childhood that she hadn’t quite relinquished.) A year is nothing to me either. That’s another casualty of wandering the grief-place—I can’t pretend I understand time anymore.

Grief ripped the filter from my perspective, showing me the futility of my obsession with time; calendars, clocks, dates, days…all useless. Even so, I can’t stop counting. I’m still waiting. I can sit outside and watch the birds for an entire day. Once, this would’ve felt like wasting time. Now it’s the only thing that feels worthwhile. There are no days anymore—just another blue sky, another sunset, another 12 hours closer to her.

She’s not coming back.

There must be meaning in the rest of my life or else why am I still here? This new perspective feels like a revelation. That I ever wanted to live forever, to grow old, to hold onto life as long as possible—seems absurd.

Last week I read an article about a 75-year-old man, accomplished in his career, whose cancer was missed by radiologists. Six years later, he was finally diagnosed, but by then it had spread. He was terminal. I’d stared at his wrinkled face in the photograph, his bright eyes, his thin frame and wondered if the error had given him six years of relative health, if avoiding the brutality of treatment had actually afforded him more time. I wondered if he understood how lucky he was, to have lived to the age of 75, and to now be on the road to death. I envied him the way I envied the sparrow. Does that make me a monster?

She’s not coming back.

I think I’m going to stay in the grief-place forever, but I want it to have a better name. For the dead, there is no undying.  For me, grieving the loss of Ana, there is no ungrieving. It’s been nearly a year, but it feels like a day.

It’s been nearly a year, but it feels like a lifetime.

I loved her more than myself. I can’t reach her, which means I can’t reach the part of me that followed her into death. My love for her, cut off from the living world, is an ache in the center of my chest. I can only count down the months as another year without her begins and hope that some day, in a place where that dead sparrow still flies, I’ll see her again.

She’s not coming back.

Ana opening a gift she received last February. This is one of the last pictures I have of her.

 

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Essay On Mother’s Always Write http://thehalfwaypath.com/essay-on-mothers-always-write/ http://thehalfwaypath.com/essay-on-mothers-always-write/#respond Mon, 05 Feb 2018 15:46:10 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=78 I wrote this in November, but it feels like a hundred years ago. I’ve burned through all of Ana’s  candles by now, except for the biggest pillars and some votives. This makes my heart hurt a little bit, but it ... Read More »

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I wrote this in November, but it feels like a hundred years ago. I’ve burned through all of Ana’s  candles by now, except for the biggest pillars and some votives. This makes my heart hurt a little bit, but it was worse when the candles sat around collecting dust.

“It seemed like such a terrible injustice that these objects of wax and fiber should exist forever, waiting for my daughter’s slender fingers to light them. That’s how the candles helped me realize that I was stuck. They weren’t waiting for her to come back. I was.”

Letting the Candles Burn Down – Mothers Always Write

At the start of autumn, we welcome the holiday season with rituals focused on light and fire. From glowing Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires in October to festive string lights, twinkling Christmas trees, menorahs, and wood stoves in November and December, we bring the light inward when there is less light outside.

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What’s Worth Remembering http://thehalfwaypath.com/whats-worth-remembering/ http://thehalfwaypath.com/whats-worth-remembering/#respond Sat, 27 Jan 2018 14:57:50 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=71 Cousin Chloe, Ana & Emily (ages 7,6 and 3) Emily performed in her eighth grade play yesterday, in the small performing arts center (lovingly dubbed “The PAC”) where I’ve been watching performances for the last 11 years. Ana was six ... Read More »

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Cousin Chloe, Ana & Emily (ages 7,6 and 3)

Emily performed in her eighth grade play yesterday, in the small performing arts center (lovingly dubbed “The PAC”) where I’ve been watching performances for the last 11 years.

Ana was six when I saw the first performance. We’d pulled her out of public school mid-year because she’d been so unhappy. A window gazer, a dreamer, an artist, Ana had a hard time paying attention and she’d been constantly getting into trouble. So, we moved her to High Meadow because she’d begun writing daily letters to her teacher. “I’m sorry I’m bad,” they said. “I love you and I’ll try harder.” High Meadow focused on play and individualized learning, not forms and regiment. Classes were tiny. The kids went outside to play three times a day. They had a dance program that (at the time) the entire school participated in – about sixty kids total from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Back then, I sat in the PAC, heart-in-throat, and wondered how my shy little girl could possibly get on stage and dance in front of the entire school community. The first graders went on very early. I remember they were dressed in bright colors. I remember the kids tumbled onto the dusty stage with a kind of frenetic grace, twisting and galloping, their faces alight with the excitement of this performance. And Ana was among them, fearless, those wide eyes full of pride. Emily, age three at the time, was snuggled up in my lap.

As the now 13-year-old Emily appeared on stage, I snapped back to the present. This was the last school play, nearly the last performance I’d witness in the PAC and I didn’t want to be there. It hurt so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ghost of those long-ago first graders, all of them, except Ana, approaching the age of 17. But I forced myself to watch the play (Guys and Dolls) because I want to remember every performance—even as they begin to fade into nothing more than color and sound. I can’t remember exactly what Ana wore during that first dance. I can’t remember every single dance or play or show she performed throughout her life and that scares me–the forgetting.

Maybe it’s okay to remember Ana’s childhood not as specific events, but as a swirl of color, laughter, jubilant excitement, and joy. Yes, cancer cast a shadow over her for five years, but I don’t want to remember her as a child that suffered. Cancer didn’t define her. She worked very hard throughout her life to make sure of that. She’d be pretty pissed if I let grief define her now.

I will remember that Ana danced and painted and sang, that she was a big sister, a best friend, a dear cousin. I will remember her desire to learn, her impatience with pretense, the delight she got from visiting a new place. I’ll remember what I can and let most of the pain go (or try to). That part is not worth remembering.

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10 Months http://thehalfwaypath.com/10-months/ Mon, 22 Jan 2018 00:42:52 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=55 It will be ten months tomorrow. Ten months. I remember everything about Ana’s last January. By then we knew she was dying, but we didn’t know how to say goodbye. I wish I could fast forward through the next two ... Read More »

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Willow tree in front of a frozen lake

It will be ten months tomorrow. Ten months. I remember everything about Ana’s last January. By then we knew she was dying, but we didn’t know how to say goodbye. I wish I could fast forward through the next two months and get to spring, but of course time takes as long as it needs to take. There is no circumventing this most painful of seasons. I tried though. I took a walk on the rail trail with Roo. We only went about a mile on packed snow, up to the first part of William’s Lake. Roo loved it, but it hurt my feet to walk on the snow for so long. Anyway, I tried. I got a poem out of it too.

William’s Lake

I’m on the winter trail
plodding forward with aching feet
blinded by sharp sunlight
on endless snow,
alone with my burden.

The lake offers no relief.
Its frozen water mocks my thirst.

Every part of me longs for spring.

I tell myself the lies of the lonely
Imagining that someone, anyone
might slog along with me,
and ease the thick links
of this heavy chain
from my bent shoulders.

By my own reckoning,
my sorrow is so cumbersome,
you will flee from me,
appalled.

 

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If Grief Were A Person… http://thehalfwaypath.com/if-grief-were-a-person/ Sat, 13 Jan 2018 16:41:39 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=16 They’re waiting for me when I wake up every morning, perched in the Yew tree where the feeders hang. I wonder if the neighbors notice their chatter. “Of course they do,” she whisers. “No one likes the birds but you.” ... Read More »

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They’re waiting for me when I wake up every morning, perched in the Yew tree where the feeders hang. I wonder if the neighbors notice their chatter.

“Of course they do,” she whisers. “No one likes the birds but you.”

“I don’t care,” I tell her, but it’s a lie.

She starts to speak, but a cardinal’s undulating song cuts her off.

I look up at the pear tree, bereft of leaves on this icy January day. “Thank you,” I say, searching for him. He bows his scarlet head in my direction.

She remains silent as I replenish the feeders, but not before shaking her fist at a dole of doves gathered on the ground. They retreat to the trees, an explosion of white and grey feathers, cooing their alarm.

“Jerk,” I say. “They’ll be back.”

The house finches begin to congregate, dozens of raspberry-breasted males and soft grey females that look like tiny clouds. She vanishes for a few weightless seconds as I watch them.

When this chore is done, I sit down to work. She sits beside me and whispers about longing and loneliness.

“How can you work when Ana’s gone?” she asks and I wonder the same thing. She changes shape, wrapping around me like a fog, rolling along the spine of my sadness until, weeping, I give up on work.

A flash of movement from my office window breaks her hold. The doves are back. They gather beneath the hoppers like chickens, tiny heads bobbing. There are goldfinches and house sparrows among them, each bird intent on the singular goal of filling their bellies with my gift of seed. I wipe the tears from my face and feel her stiffen with frustration, but before she can pull me back down into despair, I see a flash of red amid the grey sea of doves.

“Cardinal,” I whisper, smiling.

She curses and retreats. “Not for long,” she says.

She runs outside, changing shape as her feet hit the frozen lawn, becoming a lithe marmalade tom cat. The cardinal is oblivious.

“No!” I run outside, clapping my hands to scatter the birds.

“I’ll get one eventually,” she says. Her eyes are bright, expectant. I turn away from her, pretend I don’t care, but my heart feels heavy.

The starlings arrive as the daylight fades, filling the trees. Their chatter sounds like rain. The light fades as they flock, their dark bodies casting speckled shadows against the purpling sky. I watch, transfixed, wondering what it’s like to perch among the trees. I wish I could grow wings. I am staring at them when she comes.

“They’re so ugly, aren’t they?” she asks, her brow creased with worry. “Do you think they’ll chase all the good birds away? What if they damage your house?”

“They do that?” I ask, knowing I shouldn’t engage. Panic rises up from my stomach to my throat. I’ll have to take the feeders down!

“Yes,” she says and shakes her head. “It’s the only solution.”

“But then I won’t have the birds.”

“You’ll have me,” she says, touching my arm. A lump forms in my throat, but I don’t swallow it down. I let the tears flow, salty and cold, the starlings forgotten. She wraps her arms around me as I stand in the driveway, desolate, the birds forgotten.

The sweet trill of a white-throated sparrow breaks her hold. I step back.

“I’ll always have you,” I say. “With or without the birds. Can you watch them with me?“

She looks uncertain. “But you’re crazy to love them—a crazy bird lady. I’m the only thing that’s real.”

I surprise us both by laughing. “Listen to yourself! You can be so narcissistic and clingy.”

A spot of crimson blooms on each cheek and she looks down at her feet. “I know,” she says. We both begin to shiver.

We go inside. I stand at the window and count six cardinals in the tiny nectarine tree where the suet feeder hangs—three male and three female. She stands behind me, her breath hot on my neck. “You’re too close,” I tell her.

“That’s what everyone says,” she replies.

“It’s easier for you to get my attention now, but spring will be here soon.”

She shudders as she reads my thoughts. I’m thinking of the hummingbirds.

The hummingbirds are gone until April, but I know how to bring them home again. They’ll float through reality and make time stop. They are hope wrapped in joy, alive with the promise of nectar, but fragile and fleeting. Even now, they hover at the edges of my vision, not quite here or there. My world has changed now that I’ve learned how to see them.

She trembles and takes a step back.

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Longreads Essay http://thehalfwaypath.com/longreads-essay/ Tue, 02 Jan 2018 02:28:48 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=35 I wrote this piece over the course of three of four months last year, starting shortly after Ana died. It is, in many ways, my post personal and meaningful of essays (it’s also the longest, at over 5000 words). Thank ... Read More »

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I wrote this piece over the course of three of four months last year, starting shortly after Ana died. It is, in many ways, my post personal and meaningful of essays (it’s also the longest, at over 5000 words). Thank you, Sari and Longreads for the opportunity to share this piece in its entirety. I’m still on the journey I began when I started writing this. The spiral of parental grief is endless. I’m coming to accept that there’s no getting over Ana’s death, not for me. She is a part of my heart forever.

My Daughter Died, But I’m Still Mothering Her

In July 2016, when we got the results of my 15-year-old daughter’s CT scan, my friend Babs introduced me to a new term: “anticipatory grief.” The scan showed that tumors in Ana’s lungs were noticeably larger than they’d been three months earlier, and masses in her abdomen had multiplied.

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Nine Months http://thehalfwaypath.com/nine-months/ Fri, 22 Dec 2017 02:09:42 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=32 Today marks nine months since I’ve seen her face. Before Ana died, I never realized how many parallels there are with birth and death. both events are transformative, life changing, life affirming. Yes, even death is life affirming. There is ... Read More »

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Today marks nine months since I’ve seen her face. Before Ana died, I never realized how many parallels there are with birth and death. both events are transformative, life changing, life affirming. Yes, even death is life affirming.

There is a sense of expectation, of waiting, in both cases. I knew what I was waiting for when I was pregnant with Ana, and I think I know what I’m waiting for now–to reconnect with her, to discover new meaning in my life, new purpose, a new will to move forward. When I was pregnant with Ana, I couldn’t wait to meet her, couldn’t wait to be a mother, couldn’t wait to have my body back again. She was ten days late, although in retrospect, she was born exactly on time. She came when it was time for her to come.

Does that mean she left when it was time for her to leave?

I don’t mind waiting now. I don’t have the desire to rush forward before I figure out how to absorb the loss of Ana in a way that lets me carry her with me into the next year, and the next. It’s so fascinating, even comforting, to absolutely sit still in a moment and without feeling the least bit impatient for the next moment.

The obsessive need to chronicle time–to label every minute piece of it–is a human construct. I keep saying that to Jim, that this or that is just a construct, as if I’m some kind of existential shaman that stepped out of the Matrix or something.

Christmas is a construct.

Politics is a construct.

Work, play, lawns, dog sweaters, social media…all of it’s just a construct.

Nine months after she died, I’m still trying to figure out what’s real. Ana wasn’t a construct, so how can she be gone? My children are the only things in my life that don’t feel constructed–they are (were) fully fledged beings shaping themselves. My life has formed around them, the way a tree grows around a stone, adjusting the roots and the trajectory of its trunk to accommodate the immovable object. What happens if someone takes the stone away?

The tree falls.

Except Emily is still here and I’m still standing.

So…nine months (just a construct). I woke up this morning feeling as though Ana was close–her spirit, her joy. In the last months of her life, she took a lot of comfort from creating art. She drew in a small sketchbook nearly every day. She also created a few paintings and I want to share one with you. I think this was her last painting and it’s entirely complete. She used metallic acrylic paint on a tiny 5×7 inch canvas. When I look at it now, I think that this is absolutely the place where her spirit is happiest–standing on a beach, looking at the metallic blue ocean, in a body that’s beautiful and strong.

Heaven is just a construct, but Ana’s soul is real and I know she’s somewhere beautiful.

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Snow http://thehalfwaypath.com/snow/ Thu, 14 Dec 2017 02:04:52 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=29 It’s December and, well, I’m not okay. I start each day with the best of intentions: I will be more productive, I will be present and mindful, I will bring Ana with me into the new day… Oh, but I ... Read More »

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It’s December and, well, I’m not okay.

I start each day with the best of intentions: I will be more productive, I will be present and mindful, I will bring Ana with me into the new day…

Oh, but I miss her. This is about much more than feeling sad because it’s our first Christmas without Ana. I just realized it today. We’re rapidly approaching winter, the final season of Ana’s life. The snow brought it all back – how she struggled each day to go to school or Rock Academy, how she secretly took oxy because she felt guilty for needing it, how she slept all day (and felt stressed and sad about it), how she was incredibly thirsty. It’s horribly unfair that my clearest memories of Ana are of the moments when she was dying.

And the snow…THE SNOW. She had an insatiable craving for eating the snow. Last winter we didn’t get much of it until February, so (out of desperation) I started shredding ice in Emily’s slushy maker. I’d bring Ana heaping bowls full of shredded ice and sometimes that was all she’d eat for days at a time (in addition to cotton candy milkshakes from Stewart’s).

These memories are like a weight around my heart. It is exhausting to function in and around them. I feel like I’m fighting with my own brain sometimes. It’s THAT hard to concentrate.

Today I stood outside and watched Roo gingerly pick his way across the frozen snow. He was so cute and ridiculous, so of course I cried. I was absolutely stuck (frozen) with the memory of digging through the  crusting snow to get to the powdery stuff underneath, scooping it into a mug, and bringing it up to Ana’s room where she’d smile that sweet, grateful smile.

My poor fucking heart. It’s just not fair. I wanted the ending to be different. I want snow to mean something so much simpler–snow days, snowmen, snow angels…That shouldn’t be too much to ask, you know?

But of course we don’t get to write our own endings.

It’s not all darkness and despair. I am enjoying a wonderful time of connection with Emily–her grief isn’t getting in the way of her determination to celebrate the holidays with light, presents, and lots singing. Thank god for her.

I think this is a learning process, this living with grief thing. I want to carry Ana with me into each new day, each new season, and not get stuck (frozen) in the last few months of her life. But I’m balancing both of these things right now. This first Christmas without her, the first snow, the first winter–they’ve shaken the memories loose and so Ana, as she was (Ana ALIVE!) feels so real, so close, but then I remember she’s been gone nearly ten months and that’s when I feel the longing that I’ve managed to control.

That’s when I let my mind drift to a different ending:

What would be on Ana’s 2017 Christmas wish list?

What songs would she be learning to play?

What would her hair look like?

What colleges would she be looking at?

All of these questions are like bright coils of ribbon, unspooling in my mind, creating false paths, trails of longing that lead nowhere, but that’s where I want to be–with the path that leads to Ana and that’s where I feel like I exist…nowhere.

But this is just one day and tomorrow is a new one and eventually the snow will melt.

It’s just so hard sometimes, you know?

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Because I miss Ana and Hummingbirds http://thehalfwaypath.com/because-i-miss-ana-and-hummingbirds/ Mon, 11 Dec 2017 02:41:08 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=38 I found pieces of this poem in an old notebook. I don’t remember writing it, but half-finished piece was written in April 2000 (before Ana was even conceived.) It wasn’t finished then and I doubt it’s finished now. A Long ... Read More »

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I found pieces of this poem in an old notebook. I don’t remember writing it, but half-finished piece was written in April 2000 (before Ana was even conceived.) It wasn’t finished then and I doubt it’s finished now.

A Long Time Ago…

I dreamed of hummingbirds
and a field of flowers
painting the yard behind my house
Purple and pink and white.

When I woke, the ground still clung to winter,
and there were no hummingbirds
drifting through naked branches.

If I close my eyes I can see their wings,
a blur of busy motion, lost between worlds,
hovering on threads of time and space
carrying souls to the other place.

Out of mist and early morning light
when sunrise is a heartbeat away,
when night fades like the end of sleep,
I might see them
suspended above the trumpet vine
and sweet honeysuckle.

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Modern Loss Essay http://thehalfwaypath.com/modern-loss-essay/ Mon, 04 Dec 2017 02:47:06 +0000 http://thehalfwaypath.com/?p=41 This is my first piece in Modern Loss. I wrote it in October (also the last time I saw a hummingbird in the yard). Rereading it reminds me that I’ll have something very special to look forward to in spring. ... Read More »

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This is my first piece in Modern Loss. I wrote it in October (also the last time I saw a hummingbird in the yard). Rereading it reminds me that I’ll have something very special to look forward to in spring.

The Hummingbirds Who Lightened My Grief

When my daughter died, I hated the sun for rising without her. I wept as the world turned green and flowers burst open. But the backyard birds were a different story. My 15-year-old daughter wanted to get a hummingbird tattoo before she died, but tattoos are illegal for children under 16 in New York State.

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