My wonderful friends at Eating Recovery Center reached out to me last month, asking to feature me an Eating Recovery Day writer.
The task was simple: write a #myrecoveryletter. I was touched they thought of me and began to wonder who I would write my letter to. My initial ‘easy’ thoughts soon turned to writers block and, of course, procrastination.
I have countless people and moments deserving of a recovery letter. How do I just pick one? But when it boils down to it, my journey began and continues on one solid foundation – embracing my imperfections.
To my beloved imperfections,
I first noticed you at ten years old. I went from being confident in my skin to seeing my stomach as ugly and imperfect. My hair was frizzy and I was weird and different.
A few years later, I began odd exercise routines to ‘fix’ my imperfections, running in my room and vowing to ‘cut back’ the bad food. I saw my grades as markers on my worth, never good enough, never smart enough.
Soon thereafter, the downward spiral into my eating disorder began. While the weight and imperfections fell off my body, happiness never came. Instead, my imperfections were replaced with secrets, lies and self-hatred. My beautiful and sensitive heart was numbed with my eating disorder. I felt nothing, but I had my eating disorder and all of its secrets to keep me company, reminding me that perfection was the only way to live.
Fifteen years later, my secrets were outed. My imperfections exposed into the light of day. It was too much. They were too ugly. All I wanted was to crawl back into the hole of my eating disorder.
My recovery journey is one that is marred with blood, sweat and tears. I fell over and over again in attempt to hide my imperfections, but then I kept getting back up. Again and again, each time seeing my imperfections for what they really were: beauty
I no longer starred in disgust at the rolls on my stomach, wishing to cut them off. I saw my stomach as a vehicle that helped me stand tall and a beautiful place that created and carried life.
I no longer viewed my thoughts as dumb or my writing as unworthy to sit on the page. Through practice, my thoughts became my words that I proudly put on the page and posted for all to see.
You, my beloved imperfections, were no longer something for me to hide, but something for me to be proud of because my imperfections make me human. You make me…ME.
My body and mind are just that now – MINE. And they are made up of you, my wonderful imperfections. You give me the ability to live free from the pressures of perfectionism.
Because of you, I know that life is not black or white and that there is no such thing as a perfect person or mother. I get to embrace my so called flaws, take chances in life, dare greatly and show my children that failure is not a bad word.
You will never be hidden again behind a mask of perfection. I wear you proudly and loudly and promise to love you always, my precious imperfections.
My eyes opened well before the sun rose, knowing what today was. My heart ached that same ache I have been experiencing for the last 365 days. A distinct void that will never be filled.
I lie in bed and suddenly felt the need to see the sunrise. I threw on my clothes and drove the three minutes to the beach.
As I walked passed the dunes and saw the expansive beach unfold before my eyes, I laughed. It was cloudy. Only a small pink sliver of light could be seen where the ocean meets the sky.
Sigh. So much for the perfect sunrise I pictured in my head, I thought. But in more ways than not, today’s cloudy non-existent sunrise was the perfect finale to my first year in grief.
At this exact moment one year ago, I learned that my best friend, my grandmother, had passed. It was a shock to my system and my soul. At 36-years old, I had never experienced such a close loss. Losing GaGa was the equivalent of someone losing a parent and/or best friend.
After the whirlwind of writing her obituary, eulogy and funeral, grief settled in my heart weeks later. Some days the gut wrenching loneliness and physical pain felt more than I could bear. Unable to get out of bed and with no desire to in sight.
But, alas, I kept waking up and trying to put one foot in front of the other. Learning, little by little and day by day, the hard ropes of grief.
1. Grief is POORLY TIMED & MESSY.
It is not what you see in the movies. Grief is not a scene out of Beaches with “Wind Beneath My Wings” playing gently in the background while you cry watching the (perfect, non-cloudy) sunset.
Grief is ugly crying into a hotel pillow, letting all the feels out because you have to get on stage and speak in an hour.
Grief is sobbing in the carpool line, knowing you have ten minutes before you have to pull it together to pick up your kids, but also knowing you just need to cry.
Life goes on, whether you want it to or not. Most days this year, I wanted to skip out on life and wallow in grief. I finally learned that I had to schedule my time to grieve, giving myself the permission and space to put aside the to do list and making grief my first priority.
2. Grief is LONG & CONSTANT.
There isn’t a timeline. I learned this early on with my recovery journey, mourning memories and life lost to my eating disorder.
My lifelong best friend lost her brother in 2010. In 2011, I went to see her on the one year anniversary of his death. I expected her to be so upset and having a tough day.
Lauren stood in her parents’ kitchen as graceful as ever. I asked her how she was doing. She softly replied,
“It is just another day without him. My heart hurts the same as it did yesterday and it will still hurt tomorrow.”
I have thought of this day on repeat lately. Little did I realize years ago how much her simple words would teach me that grief is constant. Sure, some days hurt more than others. But the void is (and will always be) there, we just learn to manage life around it.
3. Grief is EXHAUSTING.
I am tired. It has been an exhausting year. Grief brain is real. I have forgotten phone calls, meetings and mom duties left and right. But after the 45,987 dropped ball, I finally learned to give myself some grace. One foot in front of the other.
4. Grief is IMPERFECT.
For most my life, the word ‘grief’ was synonymous with the ‘5 stages of grief’ (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). My other go to thought was red birds and ‘signs’ from our loved ones.
I kept waiting to tick off each stage, moving forward in the perfect order while waiting for a pretty red bird to come sit on my lap.
Yeah, those things did not happen.
I paid zero attention to the ‘stages’ because what the hell does it matter. They all hurt. I moved (and continue to move) through grief in my own imperfect and poorly timed way. I have dropped balls, forgotten to call friends, sunk away in my grief hole and then rose back up out of it. I have done (and continue to work on) what I need to do to navigate life without my best friend.
5. Grief is BEAUTIFUL.
How can it not be?
Between connecting with family and friends who loved GaGa to having followers send me cards and notes of love, this journey has been incredible.
While I have not the quintessential red bird sit on my lap, I have had countless small experiences that signify her presence. From appearing in my dreams to discovering something small in her furniture that now resides in my house, she is with me.
365 days gone and a lifetime of lessons later, this past year has been a count up. Now that the one year mark is here, I will stop the clock.
I thought today would bring a hot mess of emotions, but like Lauren, I am calm. I type this while looking at my favorite picture of her that sits on my desk. She is smiling her big GaGa grin, with a glass of her favorite chardonnay wearing her matron of honor dress she made for my wedding.
The photo makes me smile. Today, I will cry and I will smile knowing she is with me. Always.
I have been feeling heavier than ever these past few weeks. My anxiety high and emotional fuse short. I knew this time of year would be hard – my first holiday in grief, but I had no idea just how much the heaviness would weigh me down.
My grief has manifested in an array of emotions. And, like most people, I find it 10,000 times easier to lean the other way rather into the hurt. I have spent much of this year leaning into work, family, busyness or color coding my cute planner…basically ANYTHING to distract me from the real pain and hurt.
My GaGa is not coming back. It has taken me almost a year to truly accept this. I have been waiting for the perfect signs. I peer slowly around corners in hopes to catch a sunflower in a sidewalk or the proverbial red bird sitting perfectly waiting to chirp directly at me.
The funny thing is that I have seen countless red birds and witnessed beautiful sunflowers, but none were ‘perfect’ enough. They weren’t her talking to me. I needed to lean into the hurt, but was afraid. I couldn’t muster the energy or find the support to do so.
In early November, I knew it was all starting to be too much. My anxiety was through the roof and I was isolating away from the people I love most. I needed support and had to take the brave steps to find it. Just like people can’t read your mind, the perfect therapist isn’t going to call and invite you to her couch. You have to go out and find them.
I drew on some inner strength (and Google) and did just that. My new therapist and I have been talking a lot about leaning in – leaning in to the grief rather than run from it with to do lists and busyness, carving out time to sit and ‘be’ (ugh! I hate ‘be’ing) with GaGa and my grief. As well as realizing ‘signs’ (like life) do not appear in perfect forms. GaGa is with me when I open her dining hutch that now sits in my dining room. GaGa is with me when I see my son holding the blanket she made him seven years ago. She is always with me AND it still hurts.
I cried (and cried…and cried) days leading up to my birthday. And on my day, I was at peace. I was okay.
As Christmas approached, I was met with the same heaviness, knowing it was a year ago that GaGa wasn’t just here on earth, but at my house. I renovated a bathroom just so she could come and in hopes she would come back for longer periods of time.
I had a funny feeling last year would be a year of lasts. I didn’t outwardly acknowledge it, but I felt it in my gut. That is why I impulsively flew from Delaware to Baton Rouge to surprise her for her 94th birthday. It is why I renovated a bathroom so she would come for Christmas.
And this year was a year of firsts: first Easter, Mother’s Day, kids’ birthdays, her birthday, my birthday, Christmas without her. I gained so much (emotional) weight this year trying to muddle through life without my best friend.
And finally on the 25th day of the last month of the year, I shed the weight. I leaned in. I leaned in all the damn way in and it hurt like hell.
So how did I do it? How did I finally lean in all the way?
Last year on Christmas day, everyone went to nap – everyone, except Gaga and me. We sat out on what was a bluebird perfect day and talked. That was GaGa and me, we could talk for HOURS on end. I would ask her to tell me about her days as a welder in WWII, how she left home to help for the war, how she raised three kids, and a million other questions.
As she recounted her life story, intuition knotted my stomach and told me to hit record on my camera. I clicked the red button on my phone and secretly filmed her telling me her life story.
I didn’t tell her because she would have killed me! But I knew in that moment that I wanted to capture it (and her) forever.
Nearly three weeks later she was gone.
I have watched the video from time to time over this year, never getting through its entirety. When I really missed her late at night, I would play it and go to sleep with her talking to me.
Christmas afternoon 2018 was eerily similar to 2017 – picture perfect sky and a quiet house. I stood over the kitchen sink cleaning. I felt exhausted and heavy. I decided to stop what I was doing. I poured a glass of GaGa and my favorite champagne, Verve Cliquot, and headed outside.
I wadded up on my outdoor couch and hit PLAY.
I cried. I hurt. I laughed. And I cried some more. But I smiled. I smiled as it felt like she was there with me, talking directly to me. I watched both videos, over thirty minutes, while sipping champagne and wiping my tears.
The video ended. I stood up, walked inside and resumed cleaning. I felt lighter and more at peace than I had this entire year.
I had finally lost the weight. I had leaned in, really leaned in and let go, knowing there will never be a ‘perfect’ sign and even worse, knowing she is not coming back, but also embracing that I will be okay.
I’ll never forget the morning of GaGa’s funeral. I put on my white coat and draped GaGa’s pearls around my neck. I looked in the mirror and felt beautiful and confident, as well as absolutely heartbroken. I felt grounded as I shared her eulogy because I knew GaGa and I said our good-bye without a single regret. I stood at her grave, sunflower in hand feeling both confident and about to crumble – such is the dichotomy of grief and life.
I am entering 2019 with those same feelings, especially with the one year anniversary of her death is just three weeks away. But this year I will continue to lean in, knowing I will be okay.
So you want to lose that extra baggage? Lean in to what scares you most. Embrace the hurt and the ugly.
We can either choose to push our hurt away, letting it affect our relationships and life or we can lean in. It took me a year and some really hard therapy sessions these last two months, but I’m doing the work and leaning in.
If life were up to me, GaGa would still be here. Unfortunately, life isn’t always up to me, but how I handle these moments are my choice.
I’m leaning in and losing the weight. Won’t you join me?
And PS…the day after Christmas (after I stopped searching for ‘the perfect’ sign) Jordan, the kids and I pulled up to the house and all together spotted a red bird sitting perfectly on the edge of the roof, staring straight at us. I had to laugh. I see you GaGa, and love you. Always.
But rather than go back to what was safe and comfortable (my eating disorder), I took the massive blind leap of faith and walked back through the Carolina House doors.
And I’ve been choosing recovery and life every day since.
Prior to my recovery, my fear of failure was so great I played life safe, staying in the comfortable lane and living life according to other people’s expectations. I went with the safe college major, the safe job, checking the boxes I was ‘supposed’ to check, rather than asking myself, “What do I want to do in this life?”
THRIVE was not a word in my disordered vocabulary. I merely survived (ish), gliding through life, clinging to my eating disorder for comfort.
Today, I choose to THRIVE. I choose to take risks. I choose to stand up no matter how many times life knocks me down. And good grief, life has knocked me down!
On this eighth year of recovery, I am finally starting to thrive again. My mind is clearer than ever on what I want to do next and, more importantly, how I want to live my life. My goals are falling into place and my desire to thrive is bigger than ever.
But thriving is confusing!
What defines thriving versus simply living?
We all have different definitions of what thriving looks like in our life. But one thing I know for sure is that we don’t have to succumb to society’s definition of thriving: being productive, being ‘on’ 24/7, never resting, having your shit together, perfect Instagram filters, perfect body, money, success, travel…the list goes on.
If that is what thriving is to you, then I am O-U-T.
For me, thriving means living each day with intention. It does not mean summiting Kilimanjaro (although, completing required lunch duties at Manning’s school is similar to climbing a mountain with little oxygen).
Thriving to me, means making it through the not so great days with intention and grace. Grace to myself and to others. Grace in knowing we are all doing the best we can with what we know.
This year has been a year of the highest highs and the lowest of lows. I have muddled clumsily through this grief journey, ultimately coming to understand how grief and thriving can co-exist.
Thriving through the grief does not mean hopping my car running errand after errand, answering call after call, avoiding the sadness. Thriving through grief means allowing myself to curl up in bed and cry in the middle of the day, feeling the empty hole and knowing note very day will hurt.
Thriving does not look like a superhero mom cape or the most popular girl at the party. Thriving means living your truth and embracing where you are, asking for help and taking a damn nap when you’re tired.
Thriving means setting boundaries and saying no (something I am working very hard on).
Thriving means leaving the baskets of laundry and list of emails to be present with your kids at the park.
Thriving means honoring your body with nourishment, rest and joyful movement.
Thriving means loving yourself– the good, the imperfect and the messy.
Thriving means taking chances, failing and getting back up.
Thriving means surrounding yourself with people who fill you up and not tear you down.
Thriving means being who you are and living life unapologetically.
And during the holiday season, thriving means that some days you forget to move that damn elf.
Today I celebrate my eighth year of recovery. Eight years of living life. Eight years of falling and thriving through.
As I enter into my ninth year of recovery I plan to do it with intention. I am beginning to realize (and embrace) thriving, for me, doesn’t mean having a bestselling book or saying yes to every opportunity. Thriving is being present and living my life with intention, intentions to be present with my family, taking care of myself and learning to say no.
So here is to year eight. I am excited to continue down this beautiful (and hard) path of recovery and self-discovery. Thank you for following along and sharing your story and heart with mine.
And I would be remiss not to say, RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE. Wherever you are, no matter how hopeless you feel, recovery is possible. Trust me. Eight years ago, I never dreamed my life could be this imperfectly amazing, but it could and it is. Hang in there. You are worth recovery and LIFE.
With love and light,
This photo was taken moments after I finished my last talk of 2018. I was in awe as 1000+ students at GPS stood and gave me a huge standing ovation. You can see the tears welling in my eyes. There is so much in life I am unsure about, but if there is one thing I know for certain is that sharing my story is why God placed me on this earth. Forever grateful for this day eight years ago and every messy day since. Photo Credit: Emily Lester
Maybe it is because her house is empty or maybe because it is Christmas, maybe it is because President George H. W. Bush’s funeral is all over the news or maybe it is because my birthday is tomorrow or maybe because it is another day that ends in ‘Y’…
Lately, I have been missing her more than ever. My heart feels broken all over again.
I recently realized that I will not hear her voice on my birthday. There will not be a bright colored birthday card with her impeccable handwriting in my mailbox. There will not be a glittery birthday card with her signature underlining of special words on the cards like ‘greatest friend’…’granddaughter’…’I love you always’. And worst of all, there will not be a birthday phone call.
Obviously, I knew my birthday would come and go without all of these things, but it didn’t hit me, like really hit me until recently. And when it hit…it HITS HARD.
GaGa was 94. It was a complete shock to the system when she passed. People that didn’t know her said, “Oh but what a wonderful life she lived.” And those of us who were blessed to really know her said, “I can’t believe she is gone.”
There are people in life (few people) that match up to the character that was GaGa (and former President Bush). They were powerhouses. There is something about that generation that is just indescribably awesome.
This week has left me in a puddle of emotions, feeling all the feels, missing my best friend and feeling like she is gone all over again.
How does one even celebrate a birthday without hearing from their best friend?
I don’t know.
I sobbed to Jordan and my mom this week, “I wish I could skip Friday and erase December 7.”
Alas, I haven’t figured out a way to sleep away my birthday, but I have the next best thing…speaking and doing what I love.
I will spend my first birthday without her with one thousand middle and high school women and I honestly can’t think of anything better.
Tomorrow, I will proudly stand front and center with the extraordinary young women at the Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga. There is nothing I love better than speaking to young women not just about body image, but breaking the barriers and learning that failure is NOT a bad word.
Basically, telling them to live boldly and bravely like GaGa and many other women – think: Rosie the Riveter! GaGa was a welder, but these women were truly pioneers and the greatest generation.
Yesterday, I had the utmost pleasure of doing just that at the Baylor School (and had the added bonus of boys too!). I ended my day with a scale smash at Focus Treatment Center where the patients were scared and showed up anyway, doing the hard work anyway.
So, tomorrow will be hard AND it will be wonderful. It will be both.
I always say a little prayer before I speak, asking God to use my voice as an instrument to help others. Tomorrow I pray that I can share the strength that GaGa gave me through her story.
While part of me wishes to crumble under a table and cry in fetal position, I will rise up. I can hear GaGa now, “Come on, McCall. Don’t cry. Go and talk to them, tell them your story.”
GaGa might not have understood eating disorders and the depths of my struggle. But she did know my struggle was real. She never minimized my suffering. After I started Southern Smash, she was the first to donate. She really didn’t understand what the hell I was doing, but neither did I!
Once after speaking at my high school, I went to her house and showed her a picture from the assembly. She took a double look at the picture showing two-thousand young women listening to me. She asked what all did I talk about. I told her how I shared my journey through recovery. She thought for a minute and responded, “You are really helping people, McCall.”
So that is what I plan to do tomorrow. I’ll keep sharing even though my heart aches. I will rise even though I want to lay down and grieve. And I will grieve, I do it every day, but tomorrow I will keep marching on knowing she is with me. I rest on faith that she is watching with the same pride in her eyes that day.
This trip to Chattanooga has been a surprise blessing. Speaking and connecting with young people is my passion and my escape from grief.
This grief thing is so hard. It physically hurts and doesn’t seem to be letting up. There isn’t an answer or a cure. The only thing I know to do is to keep moving forward, one foot in front of another, honoring the sadness and broken heartedness..AND finding the joy, the light and the love along the way.
The oncology number flashed up and I almost dropped my phone trying to answer it.
“Hello…hello?” I said.
“Hi, Mrs. Dempsey, this is Katie from Nemours. I’m calling with test results.”
“Yes, yes. Go ahead.”
“Dr. Sandler reviewed Marjorie’s ultrasound and said everything looks good.”
I exhaled, taking my first breath since answering the phone.
“Thank you so much. Blood, urine…everything okay? You’re sure? Everything is normal? Good?”
“Yes m’am,” the nurse kindly replied.
“Okay, thank you so much,” I said and she replied the same and wished me a wonderful day.
My girl did it!! My baby girl BEAT CANCER!
My heart felt similar to Marjorie’s face below when she finally got Chick-fil-a after having to fast for her ultrasound on Monday.
I’m still numb while I type. Is this really it? Is it all behind us now? No more scans? Just an oncology clinic visit here and there to give blood.
To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t seem real. Marjorie kicked her way into this world three months early and it has been a whirlwind of hospitals and doctors appointments since. I am pretty sure we have seen just about every speciality Nemour’s hospital has to offer.
So could this be *it*?
I realize kids come with illness and God forbid broken bones. But could we, for the first time in Marjorie’s short life, be done for a while?
I knew deep down the scan results were going to be fine. My momma gut told me so. Marjorie is a HEALTHY and thriving (and sassy) four year old. But cancer puts that dent in your soul that leaves a constant fear of ‘What it?’
The fear will remain with me, but will not rule my life. These last few days were an unwelcome reminder of the nightmare we have lived through. I pray to never return.
While I can’t plan or detour tragedy, I can live my life in the present. I can look ahead without cancer looming in every corner.
Yesterday, I saw a woman who was 31-weeks pregnant. She had a beautiful round baby bump and we chatted about how far along she was and the excitement to come.
Even four years later, I still wonder what my belly bump would have looked like. I wonder what the experience of Manning meeting his little sister in the hospital would have been like had my water not broke at 25-weeks. I wonder what would it have felt like to leave the hospital with my baby.
I wonder how different experiences would have been without Marjorie’s tumultuous first year of life. And on the other side of the coin, I wonder what our life would be like if we had not gone through pProm, the NICU and cancer.
How would we know what it feels like to have thousands of prayer warriors across the globe praying for you? We would have never seen the proof that angels exist here on earth. We would’ve never met the incredible people, doctors and nurses whom we now call friends (and angels). This ride has had plenty of dark moments, but each and every one were filled with people who became our light. You all lifted us up, laughed with us, prayed with us and cried with us. We are forever grateful to each of you.
Well, I’m going to pick up my girl from school and squeeze her tight. I’m going to pick up big brother and tell him how proud I am of him. I am going to do homework, practice for spelling tests, watch Marjorie perform “Let It Go’ for the 45,689 time, make noodles with my tiny chef and later fuss at her to go to bed at a decent hour.
I plan to live out today, tomorrow and every day thereafter with as much extraordinary normalcy as possible. The past is the past. I am beyond grateful and proud of my Miraculous Marjorie and our family’s story, but our story is FAR from over.
So stay tuned…the best is yet to come. But for now, this is cancer’s LAST chapter. Cancer messed with the wrong family!
From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for the endless love, prayers and support you’ve given my family and me these last four years. We remember them daily and I vow to continue to pay and pray it forward. This part of our journey comes to a beautiful close because of you. God is so very good and we are blessed beyond measure.
This blog has always been a place of comfort and my personal way of therapeutic processing. Through my eating disorder recovery, Marjorie’s early birth and of course, Marjorie’s cancer. It is only fitting that on this day, I find myself back here, trying to process the surge of emotions bubbling inside.
Ever since I heard Marjorie’s oncology doctor say, “Last scan” at our appointment three weeks ago, I’ve been dreaming of writing about the relief that would come with finally closing this chapter.
Two days after our (hopefully) last scan, I wait with massive scanxiety. Elephant on my chest, heart racing and knot in my stomach.
I called today to see if the results were in…twice.
The assistant confirmed the results are in.
But I have to wait for the nurse to call me.
The wait. It. Is. The. Worst.
It opens my memory to a flood of what happened and the nightmares of what if.
What if the cancer is back?
What if there is a spot?
What if it’s bad and they have to wait for Dr. Sandler to call me and he is busy?
What. The. Eff. If?
Suddenly, I remember all of the other scanxiety moments in this journey. The times when we were still deep in cancer’s trenches. Times I would give anything to forget.
It’s almost 5pm. Chances of getting a call back today are dwindling by the minute.
I write this paralyzed in my car, waiting for Marjorie to finish dance.
My precious (and sassy) four year old ballerina. Surely, we will be closing this chapter. Right?
And if not, we keep marching or in Marjorie’s case…dancing.
Praying for results. Praying for not another restless night because of scanxiety. Praying that I will be writing the final chapter to Marjorie’s cancer journey this week.
Praying and dancing this (hopefully) last scanxiety away.
I knew today was going to be tough – returning to GaGa’s house for the first time. Little did I know today would put me to the ultimate grief and trauma test.
Mom, Marjorie and I drove to GaGa’s home. I felt good, but nervous. I entered her home through her back door and immediately noticed the silence. The TV was not blaring Price Is Right and the wood floors didn’t click as GaGa walked to greet me. There was darkness and silence.
I stumbled to GaGa’s chair and sat in the dark. The silence was broken by my sobs, as I clutched her blanket. I traced my fingers along her side table and all the little knick knacks she used every day: her letter opener, opened breath mints, note pads and pens. It was as if she was still there.
But she wasn’t. And my heart broke.
Suddenly, I heard the click click of the floors and there was my Marjorie. Coming to cuddle her broken hearted momma. We rocked in GaGa’s chair and sang our favorite songs.
Marjorie hasn’t been herself since we arrived in Baton Rouge. She was up all Monday night with stomach pain and has remained very lethargic since. I assumed constipation, but as a former cancer mom, that c-word began to lurk in the back of my head.
GaGa’s house visit did not end without a few laughs – who can resist Sally Jesse Raphael glasses? Mom and I dug through drawers filled with memories. Cards and letters spilled out, along with our array of emotions.
In the very back of a bottom drawer, I found a box with pens, nail files and a pink post it note. The note said one word:
My heart stopped. I remember trying to explain to GaGa Marjorie’s cancer. She kept asking me to say the name, “neuroblastoma”.
I felt content as we left GaGa’s house. Marjorie was extremely tired, but I thought a nap and another night sleep she would be back to her energetic self. She went right down when we got home and I was looking forward to get some work done whileshe rested.
Twenty minutes later, a loud cry echoed down the staircase. I sprinted up the stairs at the speed only a mother can run. Marjorie looked at me with tears streaming down her face, “My tummy!” She yelled. I am pretty sure all the color drained from my face as I scooped her up.
All of the worst case scenarios came flooding into my brain as I rocked my girl on the couch. Marjorie settled down and began watching TV while I started texting my pediatric lifelines – our oncology nurse ‘Two Knock’ and Dr. Liz Seiter, a dear friend and extraordinary pediatrician here in Baton Rouge.
Both agreed with me that the lethargy was concerning. I jumped at the first time slot Dr. Liz offered. I ran upstairs to change clothes and grab my purse. I just wanted to change out of my sweaty work clothes and into shorts. But then my mind started turning…
I shouldn’t wear shorts. We will probably have to be admitted tonight and hospitals are cold. I should be in something comfortable. Should I go ahead and pack a bag? Jordan will have to wait and fly tomorrow. Maybe I should go ahead an buy his ticket? Well, maybe not because we will want to go back to Wolfson’s for our treatment.
I remained completely calm as I changed in and out of outfits. Finally, I realized what I was doing, threw on a maxi dress and headed down the stairs. I told Marjorie we were going to the doctor and then went to hide in the dining room where I sobbed. This can’t be happening again. Not again. My spirit was already hurting from acclimating to being home with GaGa and now this?
I know what you’re thinking, “Don’t you think you’re jumping to conclusion? It is just a tummy ache.” I know. In a normal brain tummy ache would be no big deal. But to me, a tummy ache and lethargy is what catapulted us into the cancer world.
I quietly drove Marjorie to the Baton Rouge Clinic, praying the entire way. When Dr. Liz entered our patient room, she already knew how I was feeling. She knew I was in a state of panic survival. “Just give it to me straight, doc”
Dr. Liz pushed on her belly and with a smile that only Dr. Liz has, boldly says, “Nope, it’s just poop!” I laughed with tears in my eyes. How lucky am I to have such amazing people in my life?
But she went ahead and had us go for an X-Ray just to be double sure given her history. I gladly agreed and told Marjorie we were going to take ‘a picture’. Thankfully, Marjorie’s picture confirmed a simple diagnosis of constipation with ‘no abnormal mass’.
I was literally crying tears of joy over constipation – pretty sure that’s never happened before. As I drove home, I felt weak, tired and grateful. Reminded once again at how precious life truly is.
My day started in grief and in death – a new beginning and it ended with gratitude.Leave it to my two Marjorie’s to remind me that miracles do happen and that every day is such a wonderful gift.
I go to bed exhausted and full of wine and Jesus and gratitude for the extraordinary people in my life.
I’ve always been curious about cemeteries. I think it’s human nature. They always seemed so peaceful to me, but I was so afraid of them, always shuddering at their perfect mix of death, serenity and beauty.
When I was in grade school and middle school, I spent every weekend at GaGa’s house. Literally, every weekend. One afternoon, we drove out to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave. GaGa told me all about Papa Jimmie and how he would have loved me so. Then she lightly stomped her foot on the grass next to him and said, “And this is where I’ll be one day.”
In utter shock, I quickly replied, “Don’t you ever say that GaGa!” For my entire childhood and much of my adult life, I refused to accept her mortality. You’re supposed to live your whole life with your best friend and that is just what I planned to do with mine. Of course, most people’s best friend’s don’t trump them by 58 years.
The only time I have been to GaGa’s grave was two weeks after her funeral when my sister came to town from Cambodia. I did not want to go, but it was important to my mom for both of us to be there. So I went along and did my best to not fall to the earth below sobbing. I was still in such a state of shock. I honestly remember very little of that visit.
In the five months since that day, I have dreamt of (and dreaded) returning to GaGa’s grave. My mom told me last month that her grave plaque had come in. Unable to bear the thought of such a final (and tangible) piece of her death, I quickly changed the subject.
My children and I landed in New Orleans this morning. The kids faces lit
up when they saw their Annie and Pops waiting for them at the airport. It is a sight that never gets old. We drove to Baton Rouge chatting about theweeks ahead and the fun things planned.
We arrived at my home, I quickly changed clothes and grabbed the keys. My mom knew where I was going and knew that I wanted to go alone.
My heart pounding and hands trembling, I stopped to get sunflowers at the store. Two perfect sunflowers were waiting for me as I walked in the store. I prayed not to see anyone I knew because I felt like I was floating and was going to burst at any moment.
As I turned into the cemetery, I was struck with an unexpected tidal wave of peace. I parked, grabbed my quilt, flowers and tissue and began walking to visit my best friend.
I knew my mom had been out the day before because GaGa and Papa Jimmie had the most perfect arrangement and in GaGa’s was a single sunflower for me.
This scenario has played out in my head the last few weeks. Would I collapse in tears? Would I sit stoic, afraid of the grief that might overcome me?
I did neither.
I knelt to the ground and noticed the grass had grown over the once fresh dirt. It’s almost been sixmonths – seems like a lifetime and yesterday. I traced the letters G-A-G-A with my finger and began to quietly cry.
“I miss you so much,” I began. “I have so much to tell you.”
I stood and unfolded the quilt that was once Manning’s when he was a baby. GaGa loved that quilt. I laid it on the ground in front of her marker and sat. I placed the two sunflowers down and continued tracing the letters with my fingers. After a few minutes, I decided to lie down on my quilt and fill GaGa in on life.
I filled her in on the kids, smiling at what her reaction would be at Manning and Marjorie’s silly stories. I cried to her and told her how unsure I still was/am about life without her. I asked her about PaPa Jimmie and her best friend from war, Roddy. I told her I would miss keeping her company on my parent’s terrace while she smoked. I told her about Jordan and how she would have loved seeing his player win on tv. I told her to give me strength as we begin to clean her house this week. I told her to send me a sign and let me know she is with me.
I could have stayed there forever. It was an indescribable feeling of comfort and closure. Not the end of a relationship closure, but closure of what was and peace about what is the new normal in our relationship.
There’s been quite a bit of avoidance in my life lately. I have avoided thinking about this trip and what was to come and now that it is here, I know I am going to be okay. Sometimes we build things/events up in our heads, letting our doubts get the best of us.
This grief in death is a new one for me. I am also not great with the unknown. Rather than accept that I can’t plan my feelings and the future, I spend waste energy creating scenarios centered around self-doubt. I tend to do this in many areas of my life.
These next two weeks will be filled with every emotion under the sun. As much as I wish I could perfectly color code and schedule each feeling in my calendar, I’m just going to let it go and embrace that life is both joyful and sad at times.
And when my heart is sad and hurting, I know where I can go to find peace. It is a place I would never in a million years dreamt to be my happy place, but I’m thankful I found it today.