I remember that awful day like it was yesterday. Walking out of my twin sister’s house as my big sister walked in, she was returning from an MRI scan with her oldest son. I smiled at her, I felt light and happy as I walked out into the sunshine behind her. I said, “I guess we’ll know in a week?” and she said warily, “I guess.”
She called me on the phone a mere 3 hours later. She was breathless, I was clueless. The next few words from her would change my life forever. She said, “I’m on the way to the emergency room with V, they found a mass in his brain and they told me I need to get there immediately.” I instantly felt that awful punch in the gut, the breath now stolen from me as well. I felt panicked, I felt my throat constrict, my mind a mess with a million thoughts, but I got words out. “What do you need? Can I bring you anything?” Somehow calm, focused.
I then called my twin to give her the news, and as I said the words out loud, the ones I’d just heard from my big sister, I heard my voice rise up with an awful hysteria that wanted to escape, the shakiness and sickness I felt inside revealing itself in my voice. My sister told me No, stop that. I can’t cry, we can’t do this, we have to call our parents and we can’t lose it. I pulled it together, knocked that wave off it’s tracks.
Then began the mad dash to do anything, everything, that I could do to help. Arrangements for kids, bringing clothes and more books than was reasonable to the hospital, anything! Just. Do. Not. Sit. Still….or pain would take hold. I felt numb but still breathless, you can’t catch your breath…full lungs might give you the oxygen to cry, and I felt like my body was only rationing just enough to function.
In the hospital I saw my nephew relaxing in the bed, and I joked with him. I was calm and cheerful and gave away none of my heartache or fear. To this day, that is what he gets from me even though I sometimes dive around a corner to quell tears, he only gets my smile, my light.
As the days tumbled along, I got used to using the medical terms to describe it with a dullness that belied my sadness, but as each day brought worse news, I felt despair creeping in. I kept doing what ever was needed, anything to keep going. I had shut off the grief and wasn’t giving it an inch, for fear it would take too many miles.
Then one day I was at the farmers market, my alterior motive was to find organic meat to bring to my big sister, who had altered their already quite healthy diet. At the end of the row of tents was this woman selling meat. I will always and forever remember her as ‘Farmer Sue’. It is not her name, it’s just the one I gave her in my head that day. She looks like a Farmer Sue.
I told her I needed organic meat, and she told me hers is farm raised, grass fed…and asked why I needed ‘organic’ specifically. To my utter surprise I answered her more candidly than I expected, those difficult words that don’t tumble out easily escaped me before I could even think. I said, “My nephew has brain cancer, and we just want the healthiest food we can get.”
She beat me though, she took my candid and raised it to ‘blunt’. She got more blunt with me than I could have ever seen coming from this thin, petite, weathered salt-of-the-earth woman with long brownish/gray hair and tan summered skin. She asks, “Is he going to die?”
My mind went blank. I stared at her. NO ONE had asked me this, and I hadn’t been faced with answering it. Sometimes you meet someone, a kindred soul, where bullshit just never exists. I love those people. She instantly became one of my no-bullshit soulmates. I didn’t think I could, but out of my mouth one word dropped so softly into the air, but it felt like a brick landing hard on my heart, “Yes.” I hated myself for saying it. Still do.
She then shared with me something that bonded me to her forever. She said, “My nephew died of cancer two years ago.”
I looked at her, really taking her in now. I respected her openness, and was surprised by the easy way she shared what must have been sheer hell. Honestly, I then asked her what I thoroughly believe is the dumbest question of my life…so stupid…but in no-bullshit zone it squeaked out quietly, “What was it like?”
If she had tortured me there that day to show me what it was like, I would have accepted every bit of pain. If she admonished me for asking a question with an obvious answer, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But instead she said something I NEVER saw coming, not so obvious at all. She looked at me plainly, and in her soft but somehow laser-focused way, she said, “It was a beautiful thing.”
It was too much. I couldn’t take it. All the sorrow, fear, anxiety, the sheer inability to breathe, it all just came tumbling out of me in one wild cry. I heard a sound escape me, like a pressure valve finally being released. I felt her grab me, pulling me in and I laid my head on her little shoulder.
I finally found my grief right there on her shoulder, in the middle of a farmers market with a woman who had been a complete stranger one minute earlier. I cried, shook, gasped for air, and held on tight like I might fall over.
Eventually I calmed down and we talked, she told me her story and why it was beautiful and ever since that day I’ve been able to see the beauty of it in spite of the pain. She gave me a gift, the ability to finally allow myself the sadness, and the ability to see something strange in the middle of a storm…the silver lining.
The truth is that I still can’t go ‘there’ often, those emotions can only be faced in small doses. I still talk about the medical terms and his condition like I’m a doctor reading a chart. I can’t fall apart. I have people to be strong for and I smile and bring laughter like there isn’t that brick on my chest.
Grief is sneaky, we try to control it, but sometimes unexpectedly a cry will jump out of me. I grab it with my throat and silence it, and push the tears off my face to erase the moment…sometimes I don’t want to feel it. Grief can be avoided, sometimes we can feel numb to it, like we wouldn’t know how to feel it even if we tried…as if our mind is sparing us from feeling anything at all. Then when we least expect it we get knocked off our feet by it, a song, a memory, a moment triggers it and you are suddenly helpless to it. I found it that day on Farmer Sue’s shoulder.
I saw her the other day in a store, she didn’t notice me, and I wanted so much to say hi. But I was afraid I’d cry again and I just didn’t have time or energy that day to feel sad. Honestly, there are days I’d give anything to sink myself into someone and let it all out…but life has this balance, it forces us to keep living, to keep doing, to be strong. You’re on the ride and it slows down for no one.
Until one day it let’s up for a moment and delivers you a gift you didn’t see coming, a moment to just feel your grief, to be comforted in it. For me, Farmer Sue’s shoulder was a gift. Sometimes we need moments like that.