Today is November 30, the last day of a month that many people spend reflecting on the blessings in their lives. For me, November was the 6th month of living life without my daughter. So in ways, November has been hard for me. And yet I’ve found that my own great loss — the loss of my favorite girl on the planet — makes my gratitude feel bigger and more profound. It’s a kind of gratitude that starts in my heart and pulsates outward. It’s a gratitude meant to be shared. So here goes.
I’m creating a list for you, and I’m calling this list 30 Things. It’s basically a list of 30 things that kept me going during this difficult year. It’s meant to be a love letter to life, a love letter to my tribe, and a way to show you how I experience both joy and grief. In fact, I think now that grief and joy are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. And maybe that’s the beautiful oxymoron of our life on this planet.
30 Things…in no particular order (except for maybe #1 and 2).
- I’m thankful for Ally. We had the kind of mother-daughter relationship that I had always hoped for. We didn’t get to have the longevity that I wished for, but still, I have the most wonderful memories of time I spent with Ally. Ally was smart, kind, funny, and uniquely herself. I am thankful every day for getting to be Ally’s mom, even on the hard days when we fought her cancer together. Even though I wish daily that her cancer journey had ended differently, I would not trade my fifteen years with her for anything.
- I’m grateful for becoming a mother, for having two children raised in the same way, but with completely different temperaments. Joel keeps me on my toes. He banters with me and makes me laugh. And sometimes makes me want to pull out my hair. Ally supported my crazy whims and was so proud that I was a teacher and her mom. She loved me unconditionally, and that itself is a gift. I wasn’t sure when I was younger if I wanted to be a mother or if I’d be a good one. I’m sure glad I took the plunge. I am softer (and yeah, sometimes a little crazier) because of my children.
- I am thankful for my parents. They were my first and best supporters. When I wanted a pink playhouse, my dad made me one. When I wanted a one-of-a-kind prom gown, my mom sewed me one. When I was first teaching and crying every night because I thought I sucked, my mom was the first to come over, sit with me on the couch or drag me out for a Sonic drink. And now, although they don’t always have the words, they still show up for me when I’m having my saddest days.
- I’m thankful for my sister. I cannot tell you how much Jaime has supported me through life and through this year. When I was in high school, I went to Girls State one summer. I was literally just gone for a week — barely enough time to even miss me. During this time, my sister wrote to me and included the lyrics to “Wind Beneath my Wings.” Even then, my crazy little sister had my back. Friends, this same pesky, blonde-haired sibling of mine who I tormented back in the day has stuck with me in the best and worst of times — through the R.C. years (personal joke), through weddings and college and having babies. When I knew Ally’s time was nearing an end, the hospice nurse told me to call someone to be with me. I called my sister. Sisters always come. They always know. And my sister — well, if you know her, you know there’s pretty much nothing that she can’t accomplish.
- I’m thankful for the power of music. After Ally died, I started playing the piano again. Being in my piano teacher’s house, relearning the notes, playing songs with meaning — these things all bring me a little peace. And when I want to escape or recall my past, I go to my favorite bands for inspiration and solace.
- I’m thankful for my job. For the past few years, I’ve had to miss a lot of work so I could care for Ally. I was glad to do it, and I will always be grateful for this time. While I was home, my work family helped my substitute in many ways and also encouraged me to put family first. They encouraged me, brought meals, and showered Ally with gifts. After Ally died, I was able to return full-time to my job as a librarian/computer teacher. Even though I’m teaching in a global pandemic, the work I do fills me up. It’s hard. There are tough teaching days. But I love what I teach, who I teach, and who I teach with. I have been with many of these kiddos since they were in preschool, and I have worked with many of my co-workers going on 15 years in May. I know that I am lucky to have a job I love.
- I am grateful for Nancy, Ally’s hospice nurse. She helped our family through the toughest of times, and she shared with me WHY she became a pediatric hospice nurse. I admire this woman to the moon and back and couldn’t have gotten through April and May without her.
- I’m thankful for my in-laws. They love me like their own, and I’m blessed with many bonus siblings. But I’m thankful most of all for their gift to me — Rich. The past few years haven’t been easy for our family. It is hard on a marriage to watch your child suffer and know that you can’t fix it. But Rich has been a shoulder for me to cry on, a source of laughter, and a friend. When I returned to work this fall, he took to cooking nearly every night as I was wiped when I got home. He encourages me to write and exercise and spend time with friends. He’s a good man and father and husband.
- I’m thankful for the wonderful escape that books provide. Books offer me knowledge and distraction, a soft place to go to when I’m struggling.
- I’m grateful for my friends and neighbors in my cul-de-sac. We have a pretty great crew of folks here, and we enjoy hanging out. And how else would I get sugar for a recipe when I’m too lazy to run to the store?
- I’m grateful for my “oldest and dearest” friends from high school and college. K, I know you hate this wording, but it always makes me smile. And of course, by “oldest” I am speaking in terms of longevity.
- I’m thankful for the cards that still pop up in my mail. Thank you for never letting me feel alone.
- I’m thankful for my bonus daughters, who check on me regularly and take me out for coffee. Ally would be proud of the kindness you show me. My door is always open to the two of you.
- I’m grateful for yoga. Right now this is an activity that gets me out of my head and lets me feel good and strong and whole.
- I’m grateful for the many friends who have walked with me — in life, through our cancer journey, through my grief. I love you all.
- I’m thankful for the Foo Fighters…because, you know, I love them! Listening to Dave, an authentic lover of music, does make my heart happy!
- I’m thankful for finding the Saki Lounge this year, a little place in Olathe that makes the best, prettiest plates of sushi around. And I’m thankful for a special lunch there with Laurie, Liv and Ally!
- I’m grateful for Joel’s success in the military and at KSU. I’m happy every day to see that he’s found his own tribe and he’s growing into the man he’s meant to be.
- I’m thankful for my hair stylist. She’s outspoken and smart and fun to talk to, plus she takes fun risks with my hair. It’s like therapy/coffee with an old friend every time I go see her.
- I’m thankful for writing, which allows a place for my thoughts, joys and heartaches to land.
- I’m thankful for my “book club” — a wonderfully eclectic group of women who’ve kept me sane the last few months. We’ve read books, tackled short stories, drank some wine, played trivia, and Zoomed just because we wanted to talk. I’m glad we formed this group!
- I’m thankful for my church home, St. Andrew. This has been our home since Ally was a baby, and there is no place more peaceful than its grounds or its sanctuary. I truly love the building and the people.
- I’m thankful for New Girl and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Gilmore Girls. These shows represent comfort and escape, and the women in these shows are my quirky, TV wannabes. Lorelai, you know we would be besties if you were real!
- I’m thankful for my extended family who have checked on us, donated to causes Ally loved, and supported us through our cancer journey and our loss. I’m not sure if I’ve told you enough, but Joel and Rich and I love you all and appreciate all that you’ve done.
- I am grateful for all things girl-power and Wonder Woman because they remind me of my sweet girl.
- I am thankful for the times I’ve had with Joel this year — riding in his car, joking around, watching a show. He has become protective of me, and whenever I get sad, he immediately comes and hugs me or squeezes my hand. I love my boy.
- I’m thankful for mornings when Joel is asleep. He can’t see me sneak into his room and look at him. He’s 19 — practically a man. But when he sleeps, I still see the three year old boy who loved to read in the closet and snuggle with his mom.
- I’m thankful for Bentwood Elementary School, California Trail Middle School, and Olathe East High School — places that have supported my kids and enriched their lives. We have built lasting relationships with some of the most amazing teachers and administrators. These schools will forever be a bright spot in my kids’ upbringing.
- I’m grateful for Dr. Max, our first oncologist. To be honest, I hated her at first. You would too if she told you that your beloved child had aggressive brain cancer. But she took great care of my girl and still checks in on my family. I will never forget what she’s done for our family.
- Finally, I am thankful for all of YOU. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are part of my tribe or you know someone in my tribe or you’re morphing into my tribe. Thank you for the million little things you’ve done to support us and show us love. Texts. Calls. Cards. Hugs. Meals. Walks. Cries. Laughs. Everything.
“Joy and grief are never far apart. In the same street the shutters of one hosue are closed, while the curtains of the next are brushed by shadow of the dance. A wedding party returns from church, and a funeral winds to its door. The smiles and sadness of life are the tragi-comedy of Shakespeare. Gladness and sighs brighten the dim the mirror he beholds.”
-Robert Aris Willmott