Writing through grief

This is totally what I look like.

When Aunt Kathy first passed away, I was reluctant to write about her. I wanted to be respectful of her family, and I never wanted the perception to be that I was using her for sympathy or attention. As time went on though, I realized that I was having trouble with the grief process and I suspected it might have had something to do with my decision not to write about it. Writing is how I best express myself, and I was missing a big opportunity to heal.

I also realized that I was maybe being egotistical – it’s not like anyone actually reads this blog! And again, Aunt Kathy loved my writing more than anyone else. So I began to feel like she would be OK with it. I was also really inspired by a personal essay, “Our Last Home,” written by Jesse Soloff, a young guy who had lost his wife to ovarian cancer. I thought that perhaps if he had the strength to share his grief with the world, then maybe I could too. I asked her family if they would be uncomfortable if I shared my writing with others, and they were nothing but encouraging. So finally I allowed myself to open up about my grief on paper (well, Microsoft Word) and let it all out.

I first shared this writing with others on Marathon Monday last year, and I’ve included it here. Marathon Monday is a big sports day in Boston – it takes place in mid-April, when the Boston Marathon is run, and it symbolizes the unofficial start of spring in New England. There’s always a Red Sox game earlier in the day too. Aunt Kathy loved it, and I was missing her extra on that day. So that was the day.

Writing about losing my Aunt Kathy, and how much I had loved her, was very helpful. I suppose writing is more or less always for yourself, and that’s probably never more true when you’re writing about your own grief. I had bottled up so much of it for so long. So I would encourage anyone who is struggling with grief to just write it down somewhere and let it out. I didn’t have to share it with others, but I’m glad I did because part of grieving is also leaning on the people who care about you for support. You could never do it all by yourself. The people close to me knew I was hurting, but they didn’t really know – after all, I had been unwilling to share. But their love and support was so uplifting. The best feedback I got was from her son James’ girlfriend, Daisy. They met after Aunt Kathy’s passing, so Daisy never got the chance to meet her, but she told me, “this makes me feel like I did”. When your writing can help others, I think that is the most gratifying feeling of all.

Any sort of advice that I ever have to offer will always come with the disclaimer that I’m very much a work in progress as a person and have no idea what I’m actually doing. But I can say that writing about my grief was very helpful to me, and if you’re struggling then chances are it will help you too. You don’t have to share it with anyone else! Even if you don’t think you’re a good writer, I’d encourage you to try. You never know who you can help, and even if that’s just yourself then that is more than enough!

Here is what I wrote about Aunt Kathy on Marathon Monday. I still mean it:

No one was a bigger fan of my writing. Or me in general, really.

I had written just about nothing, except for the occasional blog about whatever book I was reading at the moment, or reminding everyone that Drake got his start as Jimmy from Degrassi: Next Generation (a fact that I still think deserves more attention if we’re being honest). But if you had asked my Aunt Kathy, she would have told you I was the best writer on the planet. On average, maybe 10 people were reading any of these posts. Aunt Kathy never missed one, and she would always leave a comment about how talented I was, and how kind and smart and beautiful I was as a writer and a person, according to her. Of course, she would tell me those things in person too. They were never really connected to anything I was doing or accomplishing — it was all about the qualities I simply had as a person. She was almost always the only one leaving any comments. I suppose hers were the only ones I needed.

I don’t know if she was so supportive of my writing because she could tell that it was the one thing that brought me the most joy. Or if it was because she loved me so much. I suspect it was both of those things.

Because it was like that with everything else I did, too. I was never really the best student, and I didn’t exactly take corporate America by storm once I moved onto that phase of life. Plenty of people close to me had opinions about all of that. Aunt Kathy never cared. She was too busy focusing on all the things she loved about me -she just thought everything I did and touched was wonderful. I always loved playing sports. I’d like to think I was pretty good at them. That was the metric that everyone else seemed to be most concerned with. When I became the captain of my high school field hockey team, that seemed to impress some people. Hard work pays off, and all that. Aunt Kathy was simply delighted that I enjoyed playing. My mom had been her best friend since they were four, and the story they loved to tell was the one about Aunt Kathy, their class’ best female athlete, always picking my mom second to last for their schoolyard teams. Not last, of course, to show solidarity for their friendship. My mom would occasionally still get a little miffed. “I want to win,” Aunt Kathy would tell her. So I think Aunt Kathy saw a little of herself in that part of my personality, and loved that we could share that interest together.

Being from Framingham, Massachusetts, I loved the Boston Red Sox. So did she. Maybe that was part of why I loved them so much — because watching the games with her, either in her living room or at Fenway Park, scorebooks in hand, laughing together, were some of the happiest moments of my life. Aunt Kathy was the one who had taught me how to score the games. She’d had three older brothers, who were big into sports, and her dad had been the high school coach in their town. Two of her brothers became coaches too. So it was always a part of her life. Both of her kids could do it too if called upon while she took a bathroom break or something, but for me it was like poetry. She loved that I loved it as much as she did, and was almost beside herself with happiness to nurture that interest.

That was her way, really. Just about everything about being alive was so exciting to her, she almost couldn’t stand it. I’d tell her a funny story that I’d heard, and she’d cut me off several times to be like, “nope! Stop!” as if the information were almost too exciting to process all at once. Of course, she was my favorite person to share news with. Got a new haircut? Some good-looking guy asked me to hang out with him? That was an EVENT. Like, you’d think the Sox had just won the World Series or something. Almost like an excitable puppy. That’s always what she reminded me of when I’d show up at her front door and she’d practically scream with excitement.

When I think about Aunt Kathy, that’s the first thing I see in my mind’s eye — me walking up to her front door, ringing the doorbell, heart racing with excitement — and then she comes to the front door. She’s just gotten in from a run, or she’s in the middle of making pancakes for the elementary school where she was a special education teacher’s assistant. “Oh my God!” she exclaims, as if it’s been years and not days since I was last there, and wraps me up in a hug. “Look at me!” she says, gesturing to her clothes and hair, peppered with sweat or flour. I wave my hand dismissively. All I can see is the goodness and light she radiates.

The thing was, she didn’t just treat me that way. It was the same with everyone else she interacted with. She was above projection. She would look at that person and past all that to see who they truly were, and would celebrate whatever that was. She lived in Natick, Massachusetts and everyone seemed to know “Mrs. V” and have a story about working on a fundraiser with her, or her attending one of their town sports games, or just running into her at the grocery store and having her put a smile on their face. They all just gravitated to her.

So when Aunt Kathy was diagnosed with uterine cancer in the fall of 2013, these same people wanted to do anything they could to help her. They brought her meals, wrote her cards, the students at her school would sing her songs, people constantly offered to take her to chemo — anything, really. This wave of all the good she’d put into the world coming back tenfold -it never stopped.

Of course, Aunt Kathy never saw herself as a person in need of any help. Her focus remained on helping others, bringing out the best in them, and directing her positivity towards getting healthy. The night I got the news, I sent Aunt Kathy a text. “Fuck that C shit,” was her reply.

The Sox won the World Series that fall. I scored all the games in the scorebook she’d gotten me for my 21st birthday. I told her not to worry about scoring the games and just to focus on her treatment, because I would take care of it for her. We still texted during all of the games. The scorebook happened to run out of pages during the Series. I sent it to her through overnight mail as a keepsake, believing that if she got it too late, it would have been bad juju. She cried when she got it. And when they won it all — at Fenway, for the first time in 95 years at that point — I savored it more than any Boston sports championship before or since. We’ve been on a fabulous run here the past 15 or so years, and we’ll probably never see it again. That may make some people sad. But enjoying that World Series win with Aunt Kathy — if I never see another championship out of any of my teams as long as I live, that will have been enough for me.

Nothing got in the way of doing the things she loved — going to Florida and Houston with my mom and the girls they’d grown up with, taking walks together at Elm Bank Reservation, watching the Sox. Someone had given her a giant cardboard cutout of David Ortiz’s head, and she called it “Flat Papi” and brought it with her everywhere. With the team being World Series champions that fall, Flat Papi garnered a lot of positive attention. She brought it to a Boston Celtics game that fall, and they put her on the Jumbotron. Mike Carp was at the game, and came to her seat to tell her how much he loved Flat Papi. “I wanted to get one of you, but they were all out,” she told him.

Her attitude and demeanor were so inspiring to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center that they chose her among thousands of patients from around the world to be the Mile 16 Walk Hero at the Boston Jimmy Fund Walk. She completed the walk with her trademark bounce in her step, carrying Flat Papi, dancing the whole way and rapping her favorite song, “Started From The Bottom”.

Unfortunately, things went downhill health-wise pretty quickly after that. When the reality of her situation sank in for me, I was despondent with grief and self-pity. When the doctors told us there was nothing else they could do for her, I pretty much spiraled into that. Even though I knew that was not what Aunt Kathy would have wanted. I just couldn’t believe I was going to have to live without her, and wasn’t sure I had the strength. But when I saw her on pretty much her last good day, about five days before she died, it was Aunt Kathy who was cheering me up. She’d gotten a couple of wigs when she’d started chemo, and referred to them as “my weave”. Someone had given her one that was an Afro. When I walked into her hospital room that day, she was wearing the Afro wig, holding Flat Papi, and greeted me with “started from the bottom now we’re here”.

After she passed away, I pretty much held it together until the wake two days after her passing. I was all dressed up and standing with my family. The funeral home brought us into the room where we’d be receiving guests, and Flat Papi was prominently displayed at the front of the room. Seeing him, and taking in his expression, I just broke down. I tried to regain my composure, but it never really happened. People came from all over to pay their respects, and the original visiting hours of 4–8pm didn’t wrap up until 11. It was right after Christmas, and the weather was terrible. Just bone-chilling cold. Everyone who came to see us waited in line for 3 hours, most of it outside. I noticed, and I appreciated it for sure. But I spent most of the evening sitting by myself, bitter and angry. Not that this had happened to me. I’ve never asked “why me”? In my opinion, a more appropriate question would be “why not me”? Life involves suffering. I’m not so great that I should be immune to it. Just angry at the universe in general that this was how Aunt Kathy’s beautiful life had ended. With sickness and suffering, and leaving me feeling broken. I hadn’t yet begun to see myself the way she saw me, and I was at a loss for what I’d do without her unconditional love.

To everyone who waited in that line for three hours in the blistering cold to support all of us, including me: I’m sorry I was not more gracious. I think about your kind gesture often. Thank you so much, and I am sorry. To one visitor in particular: the very last one, the then-10-year-old former student of Mrs. V., the Yankee fan who wore a Dustin Pedroia jersey out of respect, the boy who looked my dad right in the eye when he told you “you know Mrs. V. is loving this” and without hesitation said “I know,” — you gave me hope when I really had nothing else to hold on to. Thank you.

Some months after that, I decided to start looking at myself the way she saw me. I had never done it in the past — I internalized all that pressure on me to be the best at everything I did, and took other people’s criticisms to heart. I actually thought she was wrong — that she was just biased because she was my aunt, that she was mistaken, that my true nature was this girl who just never measured up. I eventually realized that what Aunt Kathy had thought about me was right. It was everyone else who was wrong. She was on a higher level of understanding, and the community seemed to think so and revere that. So by that logic, shouldn’t her opinion have mattered the most? Well, it does now. That was truly the unlock for me — once I embraced that, I shed all the fear, anxiety and self-doubt I’d been hanging onto and just pursued everything I was after with confidence and self-acceptance. That’s when everything began to fall into place for me. I finished my first novel, I changed careers, I was as happy as I’d ever been in my whole life.

I wish I could have enjoyed that gift with her, the greatest gift I’ve ever received — the gift of learning how to unconditionally love myself. It’s a bit sad that that never happened while she was still around. But I’d like to think that wherever she is, Aunt Kathy is proud of me.

For a long time, I refused to write about losing and missing her. I think I felt like I didn’t want to use her for attention. I think I also wasn’t ready yet to totally grieve and deal with all of that pain. But it’s time to let that go. Writing is how I process everything, so here we are.

Aunt Kathy always loved Marathon Monday, so I’ve been missing her extra today. I know how lucky I was to have had her in my life for 27 years. And that death is a part of life. But you know what? Sometimes that just sucks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: