The Year of Exceptional Changes

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A writer’s brain looks for meaning.

In the angle at which a bare branch grazes winter’s sky. In the gesticulations of two women catching up over coffee. In moments extraordinary or mundane, the writer digs for answers. And where meaning can’t be found the writer superimposes it with metaphor.

But what of events that defy meaning and budge not an inch to metaphor? What of questions that don’t have answers?

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my brother Rob’s death. His doctors never knew the origin or the cause of his cancer, nor did they really know how to treat it. In our competitive and success-obsessed culture, cancer is supposed to mean battle and rebirth. It’s supposed to end with a ribbon and the well-earned wisdom of surviving. But sometimes cancer just means death.

Long before he was diagnosed, Rob had proven himself a fighter and a survivor. He was quiet, more apt to listen to others’ problems than unload his own, but he had plenty of wisdom to share if you were lucky enough to get it out of him. He noticed the lump on his neck in the spring, when the promise of nature mirrored the promise of his own life. A top score on the GMAT. A niece he would teach tennis to. The perfect girlfriend about to walk into his life.

This is where I come to the questions. Why Rob? Why then?

There are no answers but still I look for meaning. It’s a habit too ingrained to quit.

First, the facts: My daughter was born in October. Six weeks later I moved from Philadelphia to a small town in North Carolina. A week after that my brother went into the hospital and died six weeks later. Back and forth I travelled with an infant, by car, train and plane. In May my husband applied for a job back in Philadelphia and in August he was offered the job. We moved in with my parents until our house, which had been rented out, was free again. I returned to teaching, my daughter turned one, and we experienced the first holiday season without Rob. Now we are about to move back into our Philly house and it is the anniversary of his death.

It was a year of sorrow and of joy, a year in which one family member was lost too soon and a new one was born. In short, it was a year of exceptional changes.

Here is the meaning: I couldn’t have made it through without family and friends. To quote an Ani DiFranco song, “I owe my life to the people that I love.” Friends new and old, family close and distant; so many people brought food, listened, visited, called, and helped that I continue to be humbled by the love and support my parents and I received before and after Rob’s death. Throughout this crazy year I never had to stand alone, not in my grief, not in my fumbling to become a good mother, not in moving, not in my petty complaints or my moments of elation.

And in all of these moments Rob stands with me, too. When I enjoy delicious food, when I try to be a good friend, when I admire my muscles after a workout. Being his sister continues to inform my life. And I am compelled to write about his, to conjure him and make meaning from my brother, who fought and survived and fought again, who never complained about the crappy hand he’d been dealt, whose last words were, “I love you guys.”

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The Empty Seat at the Table

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

This Thursday my family will spend our first Thanksgiving without my brother Robert, who passed away in January from melanoma. Many other grieving families will face the same specter: the empty seat at the table. So how can we balance the grief we still feel with the feelings of gratitude and joy Thanksgiving invites?

Celebrate the things that bring you joy in your daily life.

Holidays are notorious for making people feel pressured to be happy and have fun while doing unusual amounts of shopping, eating, cleaning, cooking, and socializing. Give yourself permission to step off the holiday rat wheel and you’ll have space to honor your loss while still celebrating simple pleasures. My mom decided not to cook and host the Thanksgiving meal this year. Now instead of stressing out over cleaning the house and cooking, my mom can visit friends, play with her granddaughter, and slow down the usual pace of her life in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Last year my daughter was born, the first grandchild in the family. She’s brought us boundless joy, and has been a welcome light in the darkness of Rob’s illness and death. I’m not sure she’s old enough to “get” Thanksgiving yet, but she’ll no doubt make us smile on Thursday just as she does every day.

Instead of expecting yourself or your grieving loved ones to muster over-the-top holiday joy, turn to the things that make you happy in your regular life. Eat your favorite foods on Thanksgiving instead of the traditional foods that many people don’t even care for. Watch football if that makes you happy. Or go for a walk. Curl up with a good book. End the day with a hot bath. Do whatever relaxes and nurtures you. Skip the malls and the websites. Curl up with loved ones and appreciate a day off from work, a day to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Create new traditions.

With my mom off-duty, we planned to go to a restaurant instead. We made reservations at one of our favorite places and looked forward to the treat of a delicious meal without prep or clean-up. But an invitation from a family friend was even more appealing, so we will go to their house on Thursday.

If you’re dreading the prospect of sitting down at a familiar table without a beloved familiar face, consider changing the scenery entirely. Go to a restaurant, ask a different family member to host, or see if a friend will have you over. Make new traditions at a new table and eliminate value judgments–different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

Change won’t eliminate your grief but may ease it. However you spend the holiday, find a meaningful way to honor your loved one.

I’m grateful that Rob was in my life.

This year I’ve decided to honor my brother’s memory by focusing my gratitude on having him in my life. Rob was a wonderful companion to share childhood with. He looked out for me. As an adult, he inspired me with his many achievements and the quiet determination with which he overcame major obstacles. We bonded over my pregnancy, as Rob looked forward to being an uncle and teaching his niece how to play tennis. Throughout his illness and treatments, Rob never complained of pain. Now when I think of him I’m inspired to work harder, follow my dreams, treat others with love and compassion, and appreciate this life I’ve been given.