It is early Monday morning. I mean the before-the-dawn kind of early. I step outside into the cold and within the icy chill of the morning, my surroundings seem calm. Calm. Serene. Peaceful. There is hardly a noise except for the crunch of the snow underneath of my calculated steps as I carefully make my way to my car in my heels, my suitcase lagging behind. I have been here before. I remember the sound of the snow. I remember the moonlight. I remember seeing my breath in the air. I remember the stillness. I remember this same scene, sans the heels, only two short years ago. I wish I could go back, back to a time when life seemed within some semblance of my own control. Back to when Kass was still alive.
I have not written a lot over the past few months. In many ways, it continues to be a daunting time for us all. We are still wrapped up in sorting through the memories…the photographs, the cards, the letters, the paintings, the clothing, and all of the reminders of another time and place. I am convinced that the second year of grief is heavier than the first. The shock wears off a bit, but as it departs, reality is patiently waiting. Nights are filled with sleepless interludes of reliving that last day, the last week, the last birthday, the last Christmas, and sadly….the last words, the last smile, the last touch, the last moment. People say that time heals all wounds. I am certain that for me; I will never completely heal from the loss of my little sister. And, I am not sure I would ever want to. Part of Kass will live in me forever, way down deep inside my heart.
Yet, while all of this is happening around you, life keeps moving forward. There are bills to pay, there is work to do, there are papers to write, there are trips to plan, there are friends to see, and there are walks to take. Life does not give time off for those who are grieving. And, that has been the hardest part of the journey for me. I find myself living in the present with one foot planted firmly in the past. Wondering how we got to be in this place, at this time. Thinking about how it all happened so fast. The day the phone call came from my Dad and then almost exactly one year later gently rubbing my sister’s feet on that sad, sad day as she left us for Heaven. What sense did it all make? Why our family? Why Kass? Why cancer? Why any of it?
I remember this moment in the wee hours of the morning; on my way to link up with Mom and Kass to begin one of our numerous journeys to Philadelphia or Bethesda. On every one of those mornings, which was sometimes the middle of the night, we never lost hope that something good would come. We were going to beat this cancer foe. We were going to win the fight. And, as the months passed, and the news never seemed to get better, we had to narrow the focus and view hope from a more simple space.
We had to believe that if the worst outcome were to happen, that somehow, just somehow….everything would be okay. Not because we accepted what was happening to our family, but because we had no other choice. We had to believe this because it was the constant sentiment from Kass throughout her fight. She said it frequently, but most vividly I remember her saying it after yet another meeting with the team of doctors who held her in their care. “The drug is not working as we had hoped.” “The cancer has spread.” “We were hopeful to see better results.” “There is one more option we may want to try.” These were the moments that the conversations were occurring when I would have to leave the room. I was not strong enough to accept what was happening. I did not have the courage to endure the commentary. I guess I was somehow thinking that if I did not hear the words, then none of it was true. Yet, it was all true. Every word of it. And Kass, whenever the news would come from her doctors, would simply look at our Mom and me and say, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay.” It was almost as if she knew and had somehow had found the strength to make peace with the road ahead.
My most vivid memory of this occurred in Chicago, only two weeks before Kass left us for Heaven. It is not a time that I have had the strength to write about until now. We had driven two days to Chicago’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America. It was our last shot. Kass wanted to make the trip. She did not want to give up. “For Josie,” she would say. “I want to keep fighting for Josie.” “Maybe they can help me?” she said with tears in her eyes. So, we journeyed there for a consult and once again, the news was bad. There was little, if anything, they could do. I will never forget the moment as long as I live. The doctor came in and sat on a stool directly across from Kass and looked her in the eyes. I was seated to Kass’s right. As the doctor spoke it was as if time stood still. The cancer had spread, this time to her brain, and was extensive throughout her abdomen and on her liver. I stood up and said, “No, please God, no.” And, I started pacing the room. Then I felt her hand on my arm. I turned and Kass was holding a tissue out for me. No tears. No sadness. Just strength. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I knew it was going to be bad news. But, everything will be okay. I promise.” I reached down and hugged her and kissed her and took her tissue. I sat back down and held her hand. I will never forget the doctor’s words. She said “that is amazing, I wonder who is comforting whom here today.” And, that was our strong and brave sister. In the end, it was she who comforted us. We left that consult and I pushed her in her wheelchair to the chapel. We prayed. She wanted to call our Mom and Dad and our brothers. She wanted to call home to speak to Josephine. Not to tell her, but just to hear her voice. She wanted to go home.
And then two weeks later, on that beautiful, sunshine-filled Monday in July, we were there surrounding her with our love as she left this world for a better place in Heaven. And, then it was over. There was no going back. There were no more chances. There were no more words. No do-overs. The end of a beautiful life. The finality of death is powerful and painful. All of the sudden, the world seems softer and quieter, and more confusing. That was 17 months ago and to this day, still none of it makes any sense to me.
But, on this morning, I am headed in a different direction. I am driving to another week of work. Driving gives me plenty of time to think. I think about my own life. I think about my family. I think about Kass. I think about Josephine. I think about Jamie and our future. I think about what I want my legacy to be in this world. I think about gratitude and goodness and kindness and love. I think about all that has happened in our family over the past 2.5 years and I think about the lessons I have learned and how they have changed me for the better.
One of the things that I notice on my long drive to work is the sunrise. I look forward to it. I anticipate it. I always know by the time I make it to a certain spot along the river, it will have raised enough to shine brightly across the water. I am not sure if I just notice the sunrise and sunset more readily these days, but I am drawn to look towards the sky more frequently. I look there for connection with Kass. I talk to her in the stars, I look for her in the snowflakes, I see her in the morning light, and I remember her in the moon’s reflection of the sun’s light.
I accept that I must continue to live my life to the fullest as a tribute to Kass, and all of those we have lost. To shine a light on her life and to turn her courage, the courage that I witnessed time and time again, into my inspiration to not be afraid to live. Today. Here. Now. I know and accept that one day I, too, will be called to Heaven. On that day, whenever it may be, I will have to reconcile my life and how I used my time here to create goodness and kindness and love. I work each day to make peace with all that is still left in my heart after losing Kass. It has not been easy. Anyone who has lost someone they love understands this sentiment. But, I know that it is the only way I will truly be free.
But for today, I am going to focus on what is right in front of me: another blessed Christmas celebration with family and friends. There is an empty seat at the table again this year, but Kass is always in our hearts. I know she is with us. During 2014, I hope to turn a corner in my life. I want to use the lessons that Kass taught me in her life to do something truly meaningful for others. We will continue the work of the Team Kass Foundation; and we hope to develop some new initiatives that present real opportunities for us to make an impact on people’s lives. There is always more work to be done.
In the meantime, I have learned that love is the only gift that truly lasts for eternity. So this year, all of my gifts will be wrapped up in the little moments and in the love that we all deserve and treasure. Because no matter what life brings we know that everything will be okay.
Merry Christmas, and God Bless!