One morning when I was 16, I heard a sound I’ll never forget. It was the sound of my mom howling, something that sounded so much like laughter. As I stumbled down my attic stairs, I saw my dad clutching my mom, collapsed in his arms. It took my brain a few seconds to process the noise I’d heard — primal, guttural sadness. Grief in motion.
She’d just heard that her best friend was dying. In what would be a year of cancer diagnoses in our household, Sandee had been diagnosed with a fast-growing, stage four cancer. For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never shake that image or that sound, but not merely because of that moment, that moment of seeing your parent as a raw, full human. It’s mostly because of what came after.
One of my favorite photos of my mom and Sandee is from those few months that followed. Sandee is in a hospital bed, guffawing, and my mom is lying beside her, holding a bunch of grapes above her head. I’m pretty sure she was quite literally peeling grapes for Sandee, but mostly, she was making her laugh through the messiness. My mom has that way about her.
Six months ago, I left a man I’d loved for my entire adult life. He was and is a good, good man. We grew up together, shared a life, a home, a cat. But eventually, I had to listen to the growing voice inside that whispered “go.” As Cheryl Strayed said — in what became a mantra of sorts — sometimes, you have to have the courage to break your own heart.
But, in the weeks and months that followed, only one word kept rising to the surface. Unravel. It felt like the very foundation of me and my life had unraveled. In loss, of whatever kind, so much of what we lose is the person we were in relationship to the other. Without a partner, without a father, what kind of person was I?
One of my clearest memories in the final days with my dad was actually not with my dad at all. I had dashed out for some mid-morning caffeine for my mom and me at Starbucks. As I waited for our drinks, I stared around at every person in that store. I was going home to my dear dear father, hours away from death. What unspeakable pain was everyone else carrying as they waited for their lattes? Surely, in my 20 years on earth, I had stared someone in the eye going home to just as much pain. Or just carrying it within them.
I’ve never put much stock in the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m not convinced that where ankles twist, hearts break, or bones shatter that we are ever stronger in that place than we were before. But standing waiting for my coffee that day, I did know one thing. Whatever doesn’t kills us, well, it makes us better humans. Or at least it can, if we let it.
A few days later, after my dad had passed away, I remember making a promise to myself. I promised that I would never let myself get hardened by loss, not let myself get hardened by this world that sometimes tries to break you. It’s a lesson I saw firsthand every day in my mother, who in the years since I was 16 has laid beside people as they leave this earth. She brings candy, drinks, and whatever else she can smuggle in. She’s a bigger, better person because of all that she lets in (cue Indigo Girls), even if it hurts her.
In looking at my mom, a woman who lost the closest thing to a soulmate I’ve ever seen, I’ve thought a lot about the unspeakable worlds people carry within them. And, frankly, it’s made me in awe of the human spirit. Of what so many people live with, through, amidst. It can be so easy for pain to feel singular. But that line of thinking would eventually harden me. Because while each person has lived their own unique collection of moments, each person has also experienced pain. And each person has made a choice, an active choice, about what to do with that pain. The best among us — as the wise, late Carrie Fisher said — take their broken hearts and make it into art. My mom’s art was and will always be carrying on, showing up, and bringing the gummy bears.
This weekend, my mom and I will fly to see my grandmother, my dad’s stepmom and my sole remaining grandparent. We’re celebrating her 90th birthday. In her 90 years, she has suffered a debilitating stroke, lost two husbands, one young son in an accident, and two adult stepsons to colon cancer. For so long, when I thought of the Nears, I thought of a family steeped in silent, unspeakable pain — Nana most of all. But in the past two years as she has lived as a widow yet again, I’ve seen her continue to forge on through bouts of illnesses that could have taken her. She rises each day. She reads, she watches the trade winds rustle the palm trees, she visits with her nurses.
The silent story I didn’t see — the story that was there all along — is the same story of my mom that summer. It’s the story of resilience. These women with whom I share a last name or some chromosomes, they’ve held hands of people as they’ve left this earth. But they’ve also woken up the next day and made a cup of coffee. They’ve lived. They’ve built communities. And they’ve borne witness to the stories of hundreds of others who have suffered much more, and who’ve woken up the next day. And the day after.
On the days when it can feel so easy to let loss, struggle, or grief close me to the world, I think of these women. Of that moment in the coffee shop, of my grandma rising each day, of my mom peeling grapes, and I know I — we — are never alone. So, thank you mama — and countless others — for taking your broken hearts and making them into the most wonderful art. We are all better people because of it.