What I Want You to Know About All the First Year Milestones

We’re a few days away from the one-year anniversary of your mom’s death, which means we are almost done with all the first-year milestones. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day; each of our birthdays; Thanksgiving and Christmas; the wedding anniversary; the one-month mark and the six-month mark; the first and last days of school. We’ve done them all. And on Wednesday we will hit the final mark and will have gone through a year full of days without your mom here with us.

When Wednesday comes, things won’t really feel any different. There will be no seismic shifts in our lives. Your mom still won’t be here. She won’t feel any closer to us or farther from us than she does today. It won’t seem like we have turned the chapter on our grief, or that we are any more ready to move on with our lives than we were, say, six months ago.

What will be different, I think, is that as we start to cycle back through all the milestones and holidays, things won’t all feel so foreign. “What does a Thanksgiving or a Christmas look like without her here?” “How do we remember her birthdays?” “What will you feel as your friends make Mother’s Day cards for their moms?” Now we know the answers to those questions. To some degree, at least. I’m sure each year will bring its own kind of uncertainty, but now we at least have a frame of reference. A means to assess and compare days. “Should we make breakfast for our Thanksgiving meal again so it becomes our new ritual, or should we try something different?” “How did it feel for me to watch her favorite movie Love Actually alone on her birthday? Not great? Well, maybe this year I’ll go out to a movie instead. Something she would have liked.”

There’s another way that the first year is harder: you inevitably look back at life a year ago and think about what you were doing at this time with the person you loved. Most of the year when I would look back, it was unfathomable how carefree our lives seemed a year ago, how little the specter of cancer recurrence bothered us. These past several weeks have been a different kind of remembering, as I’ve thought about how quickly the disease destroyed your mom’s body and wrecked the life we knew.

Now, as we head into these final days of a year without your mom, I inevitably remember the final days of her life. A year ago today, for instance, is the day she came home from the hospital so that she could be surrounded by people she loved as she left this world.

I remember how slow everything seemed at the hospital as we waited for discharge, and then how quickly things happened once the paramedics arrived in your room to begin the transport.

I remember how the paramedics chipped a part of the door frame wheeling her into the house. I remember thinking at the time how little I cared, while simultaneously realizing that a few months before a chip like that would have gnawed at me until I got it repaired. (The chip is still there. Happy anniversary to the chip.)

I remember how my sister took you out to pick up fast food for everyone so that you wouldn’t be home when the paramedics unloaded your mom from the ambulance and got her set up in the bedroom. I remember how you and your aunt came back with food to feed an army because she gets stressed out in drive-thru lanes and ends up ordering the whole menu. I remember how strange and how nice it felt to laugh about all that food.

I remember how your mom had been craving a frozen lemonade. I remember how you brought in her treat when you got home, beaming with excitement to see her again after several weeks apart. I remember being nervous that her appearance might frighten you. I remember being relieved when you gave her the drink, then hopped up on the bed and gave her a hug. I remember you showing off Ozzy to her, and I remember her smiling as he jumped up on her to give her puppy kisses.

I remember being anxious earlier at the hospital that your mom’s condition was deteriorating too quickly for her to have meaningful time with you and the rest of our family that was here. I remember my relief at how alert she was that afternoon when we got home, and how seeing everyone put her in such good spirits. I remember her laughing with her sister. I remember her making sassy remarks to her parents in her usual, loving way. I remember her making self-deprecating jokes about using a commode and I remember us all laughing again despite the somber occasion.

I remember how she was heavily medicated, sometimes closing her eyes mid-conversation before opening them a minute later and picking up where she left off.

I remember all the emotions pouring out of all of us, filling up the house. I remember the palpable relief to have your mom home, the dread of her dying, the sadness, the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the worry for you.

I remember how we slept together that night as a family, you and me in the bed next to your mom’s. Ozzy was in the room, too, hiding under one of the beds. I remember how, despite everything that had happened and everything that loomed ahead, it felt good to be together.

This time last year, I was preparing for the loss and the heartache, mine and yours. I was gearing up for grief. Over the past year, that grief has poured forth, like water after the breaking of a dam. It has tread its course, a river winding its way through our lives. Some of the days it has flowed calmly and surely, and we have been surprised to find some comfort in it. Other days, it has been rocky and dangerous, full of whitewater that threatens to capsize us.

The river will continue to run throughout our lives, I suspect. We will continue to learn its ways, its meandering bends and its treacherous falls. Its familiar presence will always lend some certainty to our lives, though from time to time its power may still catch us off guard. But now, at least, we have started to know its course.

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