The other day I was in the car with Emily. She’d been chatting about her upcoming fourteenth birthday and I’d been letting her excitement wash over my soul, content because she was content.
“I can’t wait for my party,” she’d said.
“Mmmm hmmm,” I’d replied. “It’s going to be epic.”
“Don’t say epic, mom.”
Emily had suddenly looked thoughtful, “You know, the only thing that makes life worth living is looking forward to things.”
Emily’s words made the persistent ache in my heart, the ache I always carry with me, blossom with fresh pain. I immediately recalled that one of the last things Ana had written in her journal was about looking forward to her own death.
“I don’t really have motivation anymore. All I want to do is wait for death. I hope I’m happier there.”
She’d felt so guilty for not wanting to do the things she once loved. She’d been so sad. I’d had to continually remind her that it was okay for her to rest, to give in to the demands of her illness, but it broke my heart because what I was really telling her was, “It’s okay to let go…”
“I hate when you ignore me,” Emily said when I didn’t respond.
Of course Emily couldn’t know that I was waging an internal war with myself, trying to find the right response without bringing up Ana (or my own despair.) I’ve been doing that a lot lately—mentioning Ana to relate to Emily.
“I’m not ignoring you,” I said. “I was just thinking about what you said.”
“I’m right, don’t you think? Life is about looking forward to things.”
Life isn’t about that for me anymore, not after living with five years of perpetual heartbreak as Ana’s cancer progressed, powerless to do anything as the results of every CT scan worsened. That’s a long time to be afraid of the future, terrified of what each passing day had meant for Ana. Living in the moment had become a habit.
Emily was still waiting for me to weigh in.
“I agree, it helps to look forward to things,” I’d said, carefully. “But it’s not the only thing that makes life worth living.”
In truth, it seems miraculous to me that Emily still looks forward to mundane things like birthday parties, that she can still smile with genuine joy. Her loss is as big as mine, bigger in some ways. She’s been cheated out of a lifelong relationship with her sister and left to deal with two heartbroken parents. Kids really are resilient.
I’m less resilient.
When Mother’s Day rolled around in 2017, with its new spring growth, Ana had been gone for only 53 days. I barely remember the day. What I do remember is that I’d felt like a failure. Ana had died. I hadn’t been able to save her. How could I feel worthy of a day devoted solely to mothers?
At the time, I questioned my identity in the world. I felt purposeless. I was in the midst of deep, early grief, still feeling the loss of Ana as a freshly carved hole in my life.
In retrospect, I’d completely stopped looking forward to everything—Easter, Emily’s birthday, my birthday, getting up in the morning. None of it mattered. It had all been overshadowed by immense pain. Emily had turned 13 by then. Ana was gone. What would I be in a few years, when Emily was in college and my empty house got even emptier?
It turns out that Emily is right—looking forward to things makes life worth living.
Tomorrow, on my second Mother’s Day without her, Ana will be gone for 417 days. The hole is still there, but there’s a fragile skin over it now. To my absolute astonishment, I am looking forward to spending the day with Emily and to remembering Ana in some way.
In the past year, I’ve constantly questioned my purpose in life, my identity, and whether I will recover (in any significant way) from Ana’s death. During this time, I’ve grown much closer to Emily. I’ve recalibrated my center of balance so that there is ample room for her, despite my grief. It has taken many months, but I’ve also made room to explore a new relationship with Ana, one that I plan to maintain until the day I see her again, but not at the expense of Emily.
Even so, I am forever changed. Heart in my throat, I feel each moment as I never did before Ana died. I feel each second, each day, each week that passes and Emily grows a little older, becomes a fraction more independent, and begins to stretch her wings, testing them for flight.
One of the questions I’ve agonized over since Ana died is whether I can still call myself the mother of two girls. I’ve dreaded the moment when an innocent stranger asks me how many children I have. How will I answer that question?
But over the last couple of months, I’ve come to realize that there’s only one right answer. I am the mother of two children, one living and one dead. I will always be the mother of two because I will always make room in my life to remember and connect with Ana, just like I am making room for her sister.
So, yeah, I’m looking forward to Mother’s Day—to spending time with Emily and remembering Ana with joy.