Surviving a Year of Firsts

It began with Thanksgiving of 2019 -- my very first holiday without a daughter who loved all holidays and special occasions. Beginning at the age of seven, Emily wrote a Thanksgiving play every year. It was the story of the Pilgrims coming to America and Native Americans befriending them. Every year, Emily brought that play back out and made it better. She created costumes and on the day of the big performance, she cast family members into the part as she directed the show! Even as a teenager, she humored her younger siblings and cousins and kept the tradition alive by narrating the play as they acted out the parts. Her sister Abby or I were often cast the role of the turkey! “Gobble, gobble!”

Mom as the turkey!

Mom as the turkey!

Emily directing her family in the annual Thanksgiving Play

Emily directing her family in the annual Thanksgiving Play

This Thanksgiving I couldn’t bear to stay home, so we packed up the car and headed to visit my aunt and uncle in Iowa. I felt as if my the pain in my chest would literally rip my body in half as my husband steered us down the interstate. And just then, a song that I played for Emily every night as a child before she went to sleep came on the radio: “I Love You Always Forever,” by Donna Lewis.

I love you always forever

Near and far closer together

Everywhere I will be with you

Everything I will do for you

I love you always forever

Near and far closer together

Everywhere I will be with you

Everything I will do for you

The dreamcatcher Emily made for me for Christmas 2017

The dreamcatcher Emily made for me for Christmas 2017

I burst into tears. This ‘90s song isn’t one you hear on the radio much at all anymore. But in the days and weeks after Emily’s death I heard this song over and over again--when I got into my car and turned the radio on, over the muzak at Walmart, during a workout class and again on the two-month anniversary of her death. That song has deep meaning for me and hearing it on Thanksgiving made me feel as if she were still somehow with our family that holiday.

But the signs on Thanksgiving didn’t end there. We were spending the night at a Victorian bed and breakfast, and hanging on the wall of our room was a dreamcatcher. Emily used to make amazing dream catchers. She had given me one as a gift for Christmas the previous year. Not only was there a dreamcatcher at the bed and breakfast,  but there was also a small blue butterfly framed on the wall. I gasped. Someone I had met had told me I would see a sign from Emily and all I need to do was ask for it--like a “blue butterfly.”

Do I know for sure these are signs from my daughter? No I do not. They could all be explained away as coincidences. But as my grief counselor has so wisely said, “What does it hurt to believe in signs?” And she’s right. If you have lost a loved one and receive what appears to be signs that they are still with you, what is the harm in that? And if you find comfort in it, all the better.

My family once again left home for Christmas, Emily’s very favorite holiday. Even after she had grown up and left our home, she never missed a Christmas with her family. For this holiday we all went skiing in Colorado with other family members. The change of scenery helped, but we all still missed her terribly, especially since snowboarding was something she really enjoyed. Her stepbrother was her snowboarding partner and he missed her companionship on the slopes. As I skied down the hill, I imagined her on her snowboard (ahead of me of course, as she always was!) and I felt as if she were almost there with me. Her sister wore her ski pants. I wore the ski coat I got for her her last Christmas. It was our way to keep her close to us as we felt the pain of the loss of her physical presence.

Christmas Eve was a long painful night for me and I shed many, many tears. But there was still joy in the night:  a shared meal with those I loved in a little Italian restaurant in a picturesque mountain town; thoughtful presents purchased with love in a Secret Santa gift exchange and a tenderness and understanding between those of us who loved Emily, who must continuing living and somehow celebrating without her.

A Valentine for Emily

A Valentine for Emily

There is no roadmap to help navigate through this year of “firsts” for any of us. On Valentine’s Day, I bought Emily what I always purchased her while she was alive: a Snoopy and Woodstock, heart-shaped box of chocolates. She collected Snoopy memorabilia. I ate all the chocolates in the box, thinking of how much she loved sweets, just like her mom.

Soon came the Ides of March and what would have been Emily’s 22nd birthday was approaching. For a week or so before the 23rd of the month, I found myself having crying jags for no particular reason. My mind was also stuck on one thought that played over and over again: she will never have her golden birthday at 23! We had talked about this so much over the years; how she would be 23 and what that may be like for her. My other daughter’s golden birthday was when she was 13, so I threw her a big celebration and gave her earrings with her birthstone. I planned to do the same with Emily, but now I will ever have that chance. Everyone should live at least as long as their golden birthday,  I thought, after all that is only to the age of 30 or 31. It seems unjust and unreal that Emily will be forever 21.

The anticipation of the day may have been worse than the actual day itself. I woke up and it was much like the one on which she was born--a decent March day with temperatures into the 40’s after a long, grueling winter. I made my way to the store to buy balloons -- one white and two rose-pink -- along with flowers for Emily’s memorial site. I cried a little bit in the store at the thought that I had to go visit my daughter on her birthday in the cemetery. It just isn’t right and it never will be. After arriving, I held the pink and white balloons in my hand as tears streamed down my face. I let them go and watched the wind quickly scoop them up and carry them high into the clouds, to my daughter in heaven.

Releasing balloons to Emily in Heaven on her birthday

When I returned home, I made her favorite lemon cake, as I have done for the past seven years or so. I thought about how last year she was so happy when she came to our house for her birthday celebration with her family. I made that cake. Her stepdad bought her flowers and I  wrapped up a number of pretty packages. She shared it all on Snapchat and she seemed genuinely just as excited, on her 21st birthday, as she had always been as a young child. I never would have imagined two short months later I would get the call that would change our lives forever.

This year, I frosted the cake and placed two number-two candles on top and lit them. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her in tears and I blew the candles out. Then as life does, it required we turn our attention to it. Our other teenagers were attending a high school dance and there were shirts to be ironed, ties to be tied and pictures to be taken. I’ve come to realize what a blessing life’s distractions can be when you are mourning the loss of a child. You may want to stop the clock at the hour of their death, but time marches on and demands that we do so too.

Spring is supposed to represent new life and new beginnings. But for me, spring’s brilliant colors are veiled in the darkness of death. On the day Emily died, May 16, 2018, I took pictures of flowering trees in full bloom and posted on Instagram, “Beauty is all around us.” I could never have dreamed that a day so beautiful would turn so ugly. The last day I saw my daughter alive was Mother’s Day, three days earlier. Our last words to one another were “I love you.”  I have yet to get through May. My year of firsts continues.

Faith, Hope & Courage,

Angela