What I’ve Lost

We all lose our parents, eventually. But I’ve discovered that the very ordinariness of it flies in the face of the actual experience. And describing that loss is almost as challenging as describing what happens to you in the first few weeks after your baby is born (well, except the words “give up on sleep” still relate).

It’s been just more than one year since the crisis that engulfed my family of origin began, and I’m flying through all the anniversaries right now: A year since my mom’s surgery for an unidentified tumor that would turn out to be invasive pancreatic cancer; a year since she came out of the hospital after 28 days unconscious in ICU caused by 3 emergency surgeries following the first one; a year since my father called me in a quiet panic: “Your mother won’t eat; she needs to eat to get well. I don’t know what to do. Can you come down?” And then, the unthinkable, my perfectly healthy father, working overtime to make my mother well by his own will (in complete denial about the remaining piece of the tumor inside her, inoperable), is overtaken by a freak infection that causes an abscess in his brain, which bursts as my younger brother is with him in the ER. He is instantly gone; alive, but gone.

A year ago I resigned from an absorbing and challenging job I really loved, working with a team I’d been with for six years (some of them for 10, from a previous position). As I stood before my team that sad day, I said, “I hope all of life’s hard decisions are as easy for you as this one has been for me.” I’d been in magazine publishing for 20 years, and that day I had the heavy feeling that I might never go back, that I was closing a door. (Or that a door was closing on me; I’m still not sure which.)

A year ago my son, terrified by the illness of both of my parents and by my sudden, protracted absences as I drove to Philadelphia to try to manage the chaos of my parents’ care, said to me, “Mommy? Why does life hurt so much? And not the kind of hurt where I need a band-aid, but the kind of hurt where I want to cry and cry?” He broke down at school, and said he wanted to die. My heart was breaking, but all I could do was hug and hold him, and panic and address his reactions with therapists and experts and prayer.

A year ago on Mother’s Day, at a time when we were now sure my father would never recover, I drove to Philadelphia and brought my mother flowers, which I put in a vase at the end of her bed, before crawling into bed with her to thank her for all she’d done and been for me, for my brothers, for our family. There was no brunch, no celebration, no cards. Just silence and breathing and waiting for the inevitable to happen, all around.

This weekend I got up on Mother’s Day—my son at his father’s house for the night—heavy with memory and got up and went to the park. I ran for a bit, then walked, then stopped and stood and thought about the potent mix of all that’s happened in a year. I waited for the fear to recede, for me to remember this was all in the past, but I felt shaken as if it were all new. When I got home, I plopped down on the bench outside my apartment building, next to my boyfriend who was reading the paper, and I cried, slow tears streaming down my face. Afterward, I felt cleansed, washed clean by the simple truth that the pain is the price to pay for the love, the foundation, the memories, the lessons, the years and years of having two people be my anchor, my occasional agony, my forever and constantly constant in a whirled world.

I can’t believe the pain is all so fresh. But in many ways I so feel I am just now starting to put everything behind me. I’ve always heard that it takes a year, and now I understand why. Every day of every month is like opening a jewel box: I lift up and take out these images and memories that seared my soul, hold them up to the sun and find their sparkle once again. Even the most beautiful brooch has a pin on it that can prick you, but that doesn’t keep us from bedecking ourselves in our finery and marching on.

About stacy

I am a writer, author, mother, former magazine editor (last at Redbook), optimist, and, above all, a searcher. I'm still searching for whom I'm really meant to be, after a series of very jarring losses. Since then I've been trying to figure out what's next. Or, in other words, how to fill in the blanks.
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17 Responses to What I’ve Lost

  1. Wow, Stacy! Having lost both of my parents, as we all eventually do if we’re fortunate enough to outlive them, this piece hits so close to home for me. When my mother passed away it was much as you describe the situation with your father. She was a healthy and vibrant 72, and so active and full of life that she was what made me think the 70’s were young and would be a “piece of cake”. Then one night in April 11 years ago she suffered a gastrointestinal hemorrhage and was gone in a flash. The shock from that is something that was unbelievably hard to recover from, and every Mother’s Day it still is. I feel ripped off on an annual basis because I have no mom to glorify and celebrate with!

    A parent(s)’ death is also something that puts our own mortality in view as more real. I’ve lived the past 11 years feeling like I’m in a race against time to get everything done on my “bucket list” before time runs out. I never even had a “bucket list” before losing my mom, but now it’s there, loud and clear in my brain, every single day.

    When I lost my father it was a much longer tougher struggle before it happened, with him having an inoperable tumor that took him 12 years to die from. Lots of ups and downs took place in that journey so when he passed it felt much more of a relief, for him, and selfishly I must admit, for me because I had been his primary caretaker. I still think of him, and look when I see a car driving by that looks like his, thinking he’ll magically be there, but it’s so different than the sudden loss of my mom. Both of them still visit me in my dreams on a regular basis, but the time with mom in dreams always feels like so much more of a gift because of her abrupt departure.

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece. You have such a beautiful way of painting a picture with your words, and I so relate to everything you said. It’s not an easy road, this recovery from loss, and you’re much fresher in your trip than I am, but talking about it always helps. Bless you. It’s been so many years now since you and I had the pleasure of spending a little time together in your office at Conde Nast one afternoon, and I’ll never forget you. Wishing you well on your continued “adventure” and I hope you get back to doing what you love! I head to New York for National Stationery Show in 3 days, and I’ll be thinking of you and “back in the day”. Cheers!

    • stacy says:

      Gayle, thank you for all your words and sharing your stories of loss. There is such good company to be had, even in the hard stuff! Enjoy the Stationery Show! I love that show and hate to miss it.

  2. KG says:

    Beautiful post, Stacy.

  3. Neil says:

    My father passed away about five years ago, and I still remember how chaotic it all was at the time, and how you don’t even get much chance for grieving when you are involved in it. Even a funeral is like throwing a bizarre party. We were as much focused on the food served to the others as the service! But in a way, maybe that is good. It forces you to stay focused on the present, and the living. I feel the loss more now, as time has passed.

  4. The life you wanted to live …
    Why does it take jarring upheavals in our lives to sit back and reevaluate how we live.
    We always seem to have to have our backs to the wall before we make changes. I am glad I found this blog of yours today, this tribute to your parents – I look forward to sharing the journey you take from here, with the knowledge you have from the road you traveled before.

    • stacy says:

      Fortunately for me, I’m the overly thoughtful type, rarely on autopilot even when things are sailing smoothly. That aspect of my personality, the watchfulness, has helped me get through these crazy years of upheaval. So I’m careful to feel lucky about the many blessings I had and have that have ushered me through. But yes, my attempts to “float” and discover where I should be have been challenging for me. I was so driven for so long! And now I feel very sure that being driven keeps me from hearing the call of what’s next. So I’m listening… waiting…. Thanks for finding me here and for leaving a comment. Let’s all wonder and wander together, shall we?

  5. heather says:

    I had the opposite a year ago in a lot of ways. My Dad married his teenage sweetheart after reconnecting 40 years later. My own life was the opposite of that kind of happiness and a year later I’m just not even sure what happened to all that time. I think there is a gift in openly sharing our heartbreak to a knowing audience. I don’t have to tell my exact details, but can sit hear and feel my own past year well up all the same.

    • stacy says:

      Yes, the welling up. There is guidance there, I know it. So I try to feel my welling ups, instead of avoiding them. But I fail at that quite regularly, I must admit!

  6. Annie says:

    What a lovely, heart-rending piece of writing, Stacy.

  7. I lost my father last October. This just hit me in the chest — so beautifully written, so true.

    I am terrified for the one year anniversary.

  8. Nancy Eichler says:

    Stacy – Thanks for bringing this topic to light during the Mother’s and Father’s Day Seasons. I lost my mom suddenly this past Thanksgiving. Her bday was Saturday and Mother’s Day Sunday. These back-to-back holidays used to break the bank each year – and I would wrack my brain trying to come up w/ two unique creative gifts to be delivered w/in days of each other…this year, the only thing broken was my heart. If my son grew an inch, my mother was my first call. If my daughter got a ribbon for horseback riding, she was my first call. If my youngest said something sassy, she was my first call. If I got a new client / lost a client, she was my first call. She was always my first call. And she was often my only call. I still reach for the phone desperate to share and then feel literally empty remembering there’s no one there to tell the stories to…no one who really cares, anyhow. My safety net is gone and I stand on my own. The vision I keep seeing is me as a child running down a hallway after my mother as she gets on an elevator unaware I’m behind her. The doors close as I’m on the other side…alone…scared…and utterly devastated. What will I do without her? Who/what could possibly fill that gaping hole in me? This is pain most of us will endure at some point. I know time helps the healing process, but I’m not sure that hole ever will disappear. I stand alone at the elevator…scared and devastated.

    • stacy says:

      Nancy and Miguelina, I share with you the confusion and ache of the grief and am so sorry for your recent losses. Nancy, such a beautifully written statement of your relationship with your mother! We have to let the memories and the love carry us forward, always. It’s what they would wish for us, no?

  9. Kristin says:

    Anything I can think of to say feels like it would trivialize this touching, thoughtful post. After so much loss and change, you’ve still managed to put it together beautifully. Thank you for this, and thank you for sharing it so publicly.

  10. stacy says:

    Thank you for your lovely words in response.

  11. Stacy,
    Clearly your gift as a writer goes well beyond your professional achievements. It is your heart, soul, and courage to disclose your innermost feelings that comfort and heal all of us who know you when we suffer our own losses. Such a beautiful tribute to your parents who also brightened my life.
    Josie Kingsley

  12. Laura Lohr says:

    Oh, Stacy, this post was so beautifully written.

    I haven’t lost my parents, but we have experienced the upheaval, sickness, and loss over the past three months and I can relate to your pain in many ways.

    Sending you many kind and warm thoughts.

    • stacy says:

      Laura, thank you. I so appreciate the company, the reminder that we are all in this together, even when we are alone. Best to you, SLM

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