Today is my birthday. I am a big fan of birthdays. I usually love my birthday and always find a way to stretch it out over the entire month of April.
I know that I am supposed to feel happy on my birthday. I know that I am supposed to live in the moment each and every day. I know that I am supposed to believe that there is a greater purpose to my life. I know I am supposed to be here and now, today. I know so many things, but all that I truly know is that I cannot stop thinking about my last birthday with Kass. Let me tell you why:
On Sunday, April 1, 2012, my Mom, Kass and I left for NIH for what we thought would be a routine week, if there is such a thing on a cancer journey. I packed enough clothes to be home by that Friday, April 6. However, we did not arrive home until the following Thursday, April 12. I will spare a lot of the details of this trip that I captured in my journal as it was all happening. Let’s just say that things took a bad turn during this trip to NIH. Kass had to undergo emergency surgery and we found ourselves in this new territory.
I stayed in Kass’s hospital room with her for almost every one of those 11 days. I slept on a chair in the corner of the room. Sometimes, I lay next to Kass in her bed. Other times, I sat with her and listened to her talk. I know she did not sleep. I know that I did not sleep. It wasn’t that we did not sleep because of the hospital noise; we did not sleep because we were both scared. For the first time over this period, I saw a new sadness in Kass’s eyes.
From my journal, Saturday, April 7, 2012: “When I come back to the room I realize that Kass is very sad. She says, “I want to cry but I can’t.” I sit with her in the bed and hold her hand and tell her it is going to be okay. “I will never leave you.” I say through the tears. “I don’t know why this is happening to you, and I feel so helpless. I am not sure what I can do except love you.” It is the look of sadness that is the most difficult to deal with. We talk about God’s plans for us and not understanding them now. I will never forget the look in her eyes, almost as if she was saying “why is this happening to me?”
I hear the nurses come in and do their checks throughout the night. I saw the look on their faces. I know Kass did, too. I would ask them questions “Is everything okay?” “How is she doing?” I was so emotionally drained. I remember leaving the room to go cry in the hallway, only to dry my tears and return to the room trying to be upbeat and positive. I knew I had to be strong, but I was way out of my league. Looking back, this is the first time I allowed myself to think, “I am going to lose my baby sister and I don’t know what to do.” Quite frankly, I was terrified.
So, I will never forget my birthday that year. And, I know that no matter how many years pass, I will always equate this day, my day, with this experience.
Kass needed some new clothes to deal with the road ahead. So on that Wednesday, April 11, I went to Target to pick up some new clothes for her for the next few days and the trip back home in the morning. I told Kass I would stop by the Cheesecake Factory to pick up dinner.
When I got there, I walked up to the bar, looked at the menu, and placed our food order. While I waited, I asked the bartender for a drink. He and I started chatting, and he asked me if I was from around here. I told him that I was staying with my sister and my Mom at NIH. I told him about Kass. I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. We kept chatting. I had so many emotions bottled up inside, it was so nice to have someone that just wanted to listen to me talk. I eventually told him that it was my birthday. A few minutes later, he comes back with a cupcake and a candle and brought it to me at the bar. He and the other bartender sang “Happy Birthday”. He asked me if he could take my picture. “Birthdays are good days. You have to remember this one,” he said. Here is that picture…
When I came back to Kass’s room, my Mom and Kass were waiting with cards and gifts. They sang to me, too! I think we all cried. Of course, I had to take a selfie to capture the moment:
Kass gave me an NIH sweatshirt as my birthday gift that day. I wore it a lot after she left us for Heaven, but now I treat it as a treasured gift – the last one I ever received – from my beautiful sister.
But, it was her card that was most compelling. The words still haunt me to this day. At the bottom of the card, she wrote, “Next year, I hope that we will both be in a better place…I love you, Kass” I have no words for how this moved me then, and what reading her message still does to me today.
But, looking back, not everything that happened on this trip was sad. There were many amazing moments. Here are just a few: My Dad and both brothers (Tim & Tom) made a surprise visit to NIH on Easter morning. Kass was so happy. When they walked in the door, she just sat there in disbelief and cried. I was so happy that we pulled that off! It is a moment I will never forget.
Also, the quality time that the three of us were able to spend together during those weeks was amazing. Before we left to go home, we took Kass out to the courtyard in her wheelchair to get some fresh air for the first time in many days. As we sat there, she looked up and said, “Do you hear that bird?” Mom and I heard nothing. She turned her head and said, “There. It is over there.” And, sure enough, there was a bird in the tree.
It was a beautiful, red cardinal….my Mom’s favorite bird. I captured the moment. Although difficult to see, the cardinal is in the center of the tree. She said to us later, “It is like my filter is gone. I see life much clearer now.”
When we arrived home with Kass on that April 12, 2012, I slept in my bed for the first time in almost 2 weeks. I was drained. But, I missed Kass. We had spent so much time together, I was missing her and wondering if she was okay.
That was a Thursday. The following Monday, Kass and Josie came to my house and spent the entire week with me. I took care of Kass and played with Josephine. It was an amazing week filled with light and love. More time. More love. More memories.
So, this is why birthdays will never be the same for me. Last year, I tried to have a happy birthday. It was my first with Jamie, and we had a lot of fun. He took me for sushi, which is another of my favorite treats. The next night, he had arranged a get together with some friends, a fun night of celebration. Jamie is hands-down, the most amazing gift in my life. I treasure him and our time together. Every moment of it. I am not sure what I would do or where I would be without him?
But, I cannot seem to explain it in a way that seems adequate. Those who know grief will know. Even when I try to be happy, there is always a layer of loss, and sadness, and pain inside of me that never goes away. People say that I am having a hard time dealing with my grief. You know what? They are right. They are right and I make no apologies for it. Losing Kass is not something I ever want to “get over”. I am searching to understand a way to live without her, and I find that each day continues to be a struggle to see the best path forward.
I read this quote on Facebook just this week: “It has been said, “time heals all wounds”. I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissues and the pain lessens. But, it is never gone.” –Rose Kennedy. Oh, how true. The pain is never gone. On that day in July, I lost a piece of myself when I said goodbye to my sister. Like losing my right arm, a piece of me has been taken away and it is never coming back. Life will just never be the same.
We were supposed to grow old together…sharing stories from the past and celebrating the moments yet to come. To this day, still none of it makes any sense to me. But, one thing is for certain. Kass is no longer in pain. She now walks with God in Heaven. And, just as she predicted on this very day just 2 years ago, she now finds herself in a better place. I miss you, my sweet sister! Oh, what I would do for just one more birthday hug from you.
As I recalled this story with my Mom just this afternoon, after we spoke, she sent me the most beautiful email. She reminded me of all of the things I already know about living my life, finding happiness, moving forward, and knowing in our hearts that Kass knew how much we loved her, and that she wants us to be happy. These things I know and accept, but it is sometimes difficult to reason with the sadness.
I know I will walk beside Kass again someday. But, today, on this night, I will take my Mom’s words and I will try to live them. I am headed out the door for another birthday dinner with the man I love. He is right here in front of me. Today. Now. And, I do not want to miss a moment with him.