I met a guy at a brewery recently. He was a friend of a friend of a friend from Detroit. He was a close talker - and not in the charming and intimate kind of way, but in the too-drunk-to-pay-attention-to-boundaries kind of way. After a couple minutes of small talk, with his warm alcohol breath in my ear, he slurred “I heard about your husband.” Apparently moving 200 miles north was not enough distance to separate this new life from my old one.
“Yeah. How did he die?”
I had zero interest in sharing the most affecting part of my life with this stranger, but I must admit, I did respect his complete drunken disregard for platitudes and his desire to jump straight to the juicy details.
“Cancer,” I replied, leaning away.
“Did he smoke?” he asked, leaning back in towards me.
The question hit me like a punch to the gut. That was my cue. I stood up and walked away.
“Where are you going?!" the drunk friend of a friend of a friend yelled before getting distracted by a nearby buddy with a fresh pitcher of beer.
If Brad smoked, did that mean - from this stranger’s perspective - his terminal diagnosis was justified? That somehow he deserved to die? If Brad smoked, did this tragedy somehow make sense?
The truth is, when we first met, Brad did smoke. I’d walk by his ground floor apartment on my way to class and see him sitting on his patio with his just-woke-up bedhead - a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, scribbling in his journal. Even though he had quit shortly after, and been a non-smoker for the majority of our decade plus relationship, when I think of Brad, that version still vividly pops up in my mind.
I get it. I get why this stranger wanted to know if he smoked. Healthy 35 year olds aren’t supposed to die without cause, right? One day he was fine, the next day he wasn’t. It’s not supposed to happen that way. So we create a “reason” so we can assure ourselves it could never happen to us. That drunk friend of a friend of a friend wasn’t actually asking how Brad died. He was asking why Brad died. So he could reassure himself that he wouldn’t - couldn’t - die the same way.
I don’t think that friend of a friend of a friend meant to be offensive. Whether he was aware or not, he was asking the question that would allow him to continue living in blissful ignorance. He was asking the question, so the other question - “could that be me?” - wouldn’t linger in his mind. He probably left that day and never thought about Brad again.
But his question stuck with me. And if I’m being truthful, I had my own period of time, wondering similar questions. Why did he die ? Was it a medication he was on? His alcohol consumption? Something in the water? A hidden toxin in our home? His diet? The way he carried his stress?
I was desperate for answers. I too, wanted to know why Brad died.
I understand where this friend of a friend of a friend was coming from. I do. But still, it made me feel like shit. It made me rage with anger. It made me want to stand up and scream at him, “does that make it ok?!”
Instead, I stood up and walked away.
People say a lot of unintentional shitty things, completely unaware of the effect it may have on the recipient. And I’m not necessarily mad at them for asking the insensitive question, no matter how valid/invalid it may be. I’m mad because it triggers my own anger and my own desperate desire for questions - questions I’ll never have answers to.
But even if the questions themselves aren’t “wrong,” for the sake of the grieving, I’d encourage you to really try to avoid being the person that triggers such rage in another.
So to help you out, from my experience, here are things you should probably avoid saying to someone who has recently lost a spouse (especially if you are a stranger. Or even a friend of a friend of a friend):
"Did he smoke/drink/do drugs/eat fast food/etc.?”
Even if he did and even if those lifestyle habits did lead to an illness, it’s not helpful. It provides zero comfort. As mentioned above, it triggers a Daenerys-Targaryen-just-lost-her-dragons level of rage. Even if I could connect the dots as to why Brad got a terminal illness - even with those answers - I’d still be just as sad/angry/shocked about his death. Ask it to yourself. Use that question to educate yourself on healthy lifestyle choices that can help you avoid future illness. But don’t ask me.
"At least it was quick.” “At least it was slow.” “At least you’re young and can meet someone else.” At least you had a lifetime together.” At least you didn’t have kids to take care of.” “At least you have kids to focus on.”
If your sentence starts with "at least…” just stop (unless it’s “at least I showed up with tacos and beer”). Saying “at least” is an attempt to put a positive spin on a negative situation. Let’s just all agree that losing your spouse is fucking negative.
“My grandfather/sixth cousin/pet parakeet also died from cancer, so I get it.”
Sharing grief stories is great - it’s healing, it allows you to feel less alone, and relate over a shared loss. We use our own experiences with loss to try and connect. But don’t let those be the first words out of your mouth when you are trying to support someone who just lost their partner. Comparing grief isn’t productive. We are different people who lost different people and who process loss differently. None of us get what someone else is going through. And bringing up your loss, shifts the focus to your own loss, instead of the person needing immediate support. There will be time for that later (if you're an actual friend and not just a friend of a friend of a friend).
“He’s in a better place.”
Sure. Maybe there is a heaven with all you can drink margaritas where you spend your days flying through the sky and your nights sleeping on a pillow of clouds (Maybe I’m confusing heaven with Care-a-Lot). But in the midst of my grieving, I don’t care. I'm selfish and think there is no better place (not even heaven - or Care-a-Lot) than here with me (and I believe Brad would agree. Because I'm fucking awesome.). Plus this brings up an assumption on an entire set of beliefs that you don’t know we share.
“I can’t imagine…”
Yes you can. You absolutely can imagine. It’s actually really easy. You can do it right now. You just imagine the person you love most in the world walking out the door today and not coming back tonight. You just imagine going to sleep in your shared bed alone and then waking up alone over and over again. You just imagine opening up your closet and realizing he will never wear those shoes again. You just imagine spending hours sifting through old videos just to hear his laugh one more time. It’s not that you can’t imagine. It’s that you don’t want to imagine. It’s that it’s too hard to imagine. It's that you are uncomfortable imagining.
So what can you say if you just met someone whose spouse has died?
"I’m so sorry.”
Look them in the eyes, don’t squirm in discomfort, actually imagine what they must be feeling, and say, “I’m sorry.” It’s direct. It’s simple. It’s thoughtful.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who had lost his wife last year. He asked me about my experience “running away” and when looking back, if it had ended up being the right choice for me. He was craving something similar but, understandably, scared to make a move.
Here’s the thing. They say not to do anything drastic after experiencing such a loss - don’t move, don’t switch jobs, don’t spend your money, don’t change. But I’m starting to believe that maybe “they” (whoever they are) have never actually experienced loss and that maybe “they” are sometimes full of shit.
When you lose your spouse, everything changes. Everything changes. Everything that was previously familiar suddenly becomes foreign. Your home, your social circle, you job, your routine. None of it makes sense anymore. It feels like waking up in a stranger’s bed. The smells are different. The sounds are different. Everything is different.
For me, the easiest way to cope with this feeling of unfamiliarity was to physically insert myself in new unfamiliar situations. To deal with unwanted change I needed to continue experiencing change (change of scenery, change of location, change of people). For me, that meant getting in my car and spending two months driving across the country and another month traveling through Iceland and Norway. For me, the best chance I had of moving forward in a life without Brad was to start outside of the place we had spent 10 years living together.
People may have thought my decision was irrational, but running away allowed me the opportunity to deal with this unwanted change on my own terms. It was space away from the closet filled with Brad’s clothes. And the bar where we would grab drinks after work. And the river where we would take morning walks with Dune. It was space away from eyes of pity and stares of concern. More than anything, running away allowed me the space to grieve.
And it was hard. Really hard. At times I was scared and uncomfortable and really fucking sad. But something unexpectedly beautiful also happened during that time. Without the pressure of expectations or outside influences, I stripped down to the barest version of myself and began to learn who I was and what I wanted, not as part of Brad and Dana, but as me (and yeah, that was hard too). I threw myself into the unknown and came out the other side, changed.
So yes, running away was the right choice for me. “They” all say not to do anything drastic, but if your heart is pulling you to change, you change. It’s your life. Don’t let “them” stop you from living it. And if you’re lucky. running away can actually lead you towards some changed version of yourself.
“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
For two years I’ve had this Samuel Beckett quote at the top of my notes. Each morning, as I began my writing for the day, I'd read It and feel the truth of the complexities of loving and losing and living in the aftermath. For two years it has been the quiet back-and-forth of my inner dialogue. For two years, I have had to verbally remind myself that, in spite of it all, I must go on.
Two years ago, I didn’t think I could.
Two years ago, my vocal, opinionated, extroverted husband whispered his final words. I held his hand and said, “I love you.” Brad looked me in the eyes, smiled, and replied with this one small word: “yes.” His body would hold on for another day, but that would be the final verbal exchange between the two of us.
When I think back to that day two years ago, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t think I could live through the pain of not having Brad in my life. I didn’t sleep. I sobbed on the floor for hours. I drank away my pain. I regularly thought to myself, “I can’t go on.”
But two years later, I have gone on.
I went on, not just because of my own strength and desire to live. But also because Brad deserved nothing less. I refused to waste my life when Brad’s was so unfairly cut short. I went on, in part, because of Brad's profound influence on me. Brad didn’t ever choose the easy path. He could have easily made more money, but chose to work in non-profits, serving his community. He could have lived in Boston or DC or Portland, but chose Detroit. He could have married any one of his many admirers who demanded less (hi ladies!), but he chose me. He could have talked his way through anything, but he chose to listen. He could have played it safe, but he chose risks. He chose courage. More than anything else, he chose a life of meaning.
Leading by example, Brad challenged me to be courageous. He emboldened me to ask the tough questions. He encouraged me to use my voice. He chased high expectations and big dreams. Witnessing someone reach for a life that substantial was infectious and it inspired me to reach further too.
Two years ago, Brad looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said, “yes.” That yes wasn’t just about loving me. It was about all the choices he had made - all the choices we had made in our life together.
And in the past two years, when I’d lay in my bed and cry and think “I can’t go on,” I inevitably think back to Brad's “yes” and I know: I will go on.
Earlier this summer, I spent 5 days backcountry camping throughout the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. Over those 5 days, as I struggled with the weight of my pack, the pains, the moments of joy, and the elements, I realized how similar a trek in the wilderness is to the grief journey. Along the way, I wrote this post.
Grief is a lot like a backcountry trek. The weight of the pack, like grief, becomes deeply ingrained in you. Whether you are aware of it or not, it becomes a part of you.
In the beginning, the weight feels unbearable. You ask yourself how you can possibly make it past the first day. How you can possibly lift the weight by yourself. You sit and stare in disbelief. Frozen in shock, you initially refuse to carry the weight. You tell yourself you can't. But eventually you realize you have no choice. So you pick up your weight and take a single step. And then another. And another. It is heavy. You feel the pain with every inch forward. But you keep moving until you have survived your first day and are able to rest.
The next day, as you put the pack back on, you immediately notice the discomfort - the soreness and bruises from the weight - a reminder of the previous day’s struggle. You feel it in every single new step. Eventually, you settle into the pain and are able to move through it. Eventually, it becomes a part of you. You carry it and you feel its presence, but you also start to notice other things besides the pain. Eventually you start to notice the joy.
As time goes on, you still feel the pain, you still know it’s there, but it’s less acute, less piercing. If you’re lucky, you have people that can help lighten the load and carry the weight with you. But for the most part, you know you have to rely on yourself to keep moving. You know the weight is yours to carry.
The heaviness of the weight takes its toll on you physically. You are no longer as bright and shiny as when you started. You are more worn. But soon you will start to embrace this full and messy and imperfect version of yourself. Your life will become bigger as you learn to feel it all. You recognize the beauty in places you never would have been able to before. You begin to find light in the darkness.
Sometimes your path is through miles of muddy shit. You slip. You lose your balance. You fall. But you keep going. Sometimes barriers have blocked your path. You must lift your weight and climb over them. The terrain becomes rocky and you must learn how to navigate your unsteadiness. You wander off your path and get lost. You fall again. You rest. You keep going. You try and stay present through this new and foreign terrain because you begin to learn that inevitably there are respites of beauty that make the struggle bearable; that allow you to keep going, in spite of the pain. You begin to embrace the beauty.
At first the weight is a burden. You long for the familiar past and yearn for some different future, where the weight doesn’t feel so heavy. Because the weight will exhaust you - in ways you never thought you could be exhausted. You will ache, physically and emotionally, because of it. And you will thirst for lighter days. But you will learn to find different ways to cope with the pain of the weight, so as not to be crushed by it.
You will face many uphill battles and the weight will feel impossible to carry. Don’t think about the entire uphill journey. Don’t focus on the top of the mountain. Focus on the first step. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. When necessary, slow down. Take a break. Pause. Remind yourself of what there is to look forward to, even if it feels unreachable.
Eventually the weight becomes second nature. You learn to balance with it. You learn to carry it through the ups and downs of the terrain. As time goes on, you don’t become weaker, as you first suspected. No, the extra weight makes you stronger, more capable. You become more resourceful, relying on yourself and the elements around you.
In the end, you’re not the same person who started the trek. Not better. But different. Changed. And as much as you might want to at times, you can never go back to the previous version of yourself. Embrace this new, stronger, messier, more human version of yourself. Connect with others who have walked a similar path, and who have carried their own weight. Find those who see your weary eyes and are able to recognize your bright soul.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” -C.S. Lewis
It’s been 18 months since Brad’s death and I still feel full of fear. Grief tends to do that - bring up all kinds of fears, some more rational than others. Fear of getting sick and dying of cancer seems to be an obvious one. Fear of an unknown future ahead is another. Fear of loneliness. Fear of public perception. Fear of failure.
But so many fears within grief seem to be wrapped in an impossible duality, one where you feel stuck between two opposing forces - like being both afraid of the dark and afraid of the light. At all times the pain of the loss is also, concurrently, connected with the joy of remembrance.
Living life in this duality of grief isn’t easy. But the only way to prevent those fears from holding you back is to feel them, acknowledge them, and eventually let them go.
So in an effort to release them, here are (some of) my (many) fears.
I am afraid I will never get over the loss of Brad. That his death is so entwined in my body and in my soul, that I will be broken forever.
And I am afraid of feeling his loss less. Of continuing on with my life and not thinking about him every waking (and sometimes sleeping) second. I am afraid of the day I wake up and his absence feels normal.
I am afraid of forgetting. Forgetting all the tiny little things that made up Brad. His mannerisms. His expressions. His witty banter. His laugh.
And I am afraid of remembering. His diagnosis. His rapid decline. All the trauma that still haunts me surrounding his death.
I am afraid of being alone forever. Of never connecting with anyone the way I did with Brad. Never again being seen or understood. Never being supported. Never having a partner to go through the joys and pain that life inevitably throws at us.
And I am afraid of not being alone. Of being open and vulnerable enough to let my guard down. To let someone else in. To allow another into my grief. Into my joy. To let someone else see and understand and support me.
I am afraid of never feeling like myself again. Of old traits - that used to come so freely - now come a little slower and with an extra weight of heaviness.
And I am afraid of this person I am becoming. This person that I have grown to respect and admire, but is inescapably different. I am afraid of changing so much that I would be unrecognizable to Brad.
I am afraid of the future. Of everything yet to come. I am afraid of planning a new future built for one, instead of the old future, built for two.
And I am afraid of the past. I am afraid of feeling stuck in the past and forgetting to fully live in the present. I am afraid that every future joy will be compared to every past joy.
I am afraid of how much I feel pain. Not just my own, but in other’s who are experiencing loss too. I am afraid of how much I will feel future pains, before they even arrive.
And I am afraid of becoming numb to pain. Of losing that empathy and becoming jaded. I am afraid that because of my experience I might one day start to minimize that pain.
I am afraid of grief. The grief that sits so deep in my bones that it creates a burden to every joyful experience. That for the rest of my life, every happy moment will be coupled with the weight of grief.
And I am afraid of joy. Of every single blissful moment that Brad will never get to experience alongside me.
I am afraid of death. And I am afraid of life.
I am afraid of it all.
I am afraid.
And I don’t want to be afraid.
When Brad died, I had several people ask me (and many more ask around me) if I was going to stay in Detroit. At the time I was incredibly offended. How could they question my loyalty to Detroit? Did they not know that I had lived here, and built a life here with Brad, for over 10 years? Did they not know that both Brad and I were transplants and that Brad only lived here for a year before I joined him? Did they not know that down to my core, Detroit felt like home? That Detroit was my home?
But even as I stubbornly defended my decision to stay, as more time passed, I started to recognize the tiny tension in my gut and the tiny voice in my head whispering, “but you might not stay.”
I didn’t want to hear that voice.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to continue building my life and my relationships in the city I loved. I wanted to honor both Brad and my home.
Everyday I convinced myself I was making the right choice. And everyday I heard a little voice ask, “but what if you leave?”
Acknowledging a desire to leave felt like acknowledging defeat. It felt like giving up on a city that became my home. A city I loved even though not everyone could understand that love. A city that supported me through my best and worst moments.
More importantly, acknowledging a desire to leave felt like giving up on the home that Brad and I spent twelve years building together. It felt like, not just giving up on my commitment to the city, but somehow giving up on my commitment to Brad.
Making a conscious decision to change the course of the life we planned together to go off alone into the unknown is impossibly hard.
Over the years, Brad and I talked a lot about leaving Detroit. It’s tough living in a place you constantly have to defend, despite its very real issues. Tough to live in a place where basic services like street lights and education for kids are lacking. Tough to live in a place that is so racially divided, you regularly feel like the foe, in spite of the time and work you put in to be a friend.
But Detroit remained home for us - in a lot of ways - because of these complexities. Our life here was built around a community of tough people who could handle the tough conversations. Despite being outsiders, I think we felt connected to a city that wasn’t afraid of its struggles. A city that could get knocked down repeatedly and always manage to get back up again.
Looking back, I think people questioned my decision to remain in Detroit because they couldn’t understand how I could possibly stay. How do you stay in the home and the city where you lost the love of your life? How do you get through the day when every single thing reminds you of what you had? Of what you no longer have?
Those reminders have been both a blessing and a curse. Some days, I smile seeing a tiny token of my life with Brad. Other days, it puts me in a puddle on the floor for hours. Many days it’s both.
At first, I thought I just had to get over my grieving. A certain amount of time had to pass and then it would all be easier. Life would start to go back to some semblance of normalcy and I would figure it all out.
But you don’t get over the grief. Time doesn’t heal. And normal - whatever that used to be - no longer exists.
After getting through the one year mark of Brad’s death, and realizing my life wasn’t going to automatically start improving (and also realizing the following several months would prove to be harder than I ever thought possible), I knew something had to change.
I’ve been stuck in the life that we planned. Going through the motions of a life that no longer exists. Sleeping in our bed. Cooking In our kitchen. Visiting our bars. Hanging with our people. None of it felt right anymore. In the beginning, I forced myself to show up and go through the motions, with a smile plastered to my face. When that became too exhausting, I just stopped showing up.
Brad may be dead, but it was me who felt like a ghost, quietly wandering though this foreign life.
I wanted to feel alive again.
So I started to quietly acknowledge that little voice telling me I didn’t have to stay - in this city or in this current life of mine. I would daydream about living on a farm or up in the mountains or on a quiet little lake somewhere. I thought about starting over in a place so unfamiliar I had no choice but to make it my own.
But that’s all it was - a daydream. A fantasy. Distractions to temporarily remove myself from this current life I was unhappy in.
It wasn’t real.
And then tragedy happened. Again and again and again. Over the course of a couple weeks, death and sickness and cancer all reemerged in my life.
And in the obvious and cliche way that tragedy seems to stems change, I was done. Done being a ghost in my own life.
The tiny little voice in my head was no longer a tiny little voice. It was my heart and my mind and my gut roaring all at once. The daydream didn’t have to be a dream. I had a choice. Be miserable or change.
Life is too fucking short. It’s too. fucking. short.
Be miserable or change.
So with my life crumbling down around me, I made a choice. I chose potential future happiness over unfulfilled familiarity. I chose the unknown over the stagnant. I chose joy over misery.
I chose possibility.
I chose the daydream.
I don’t know where this new life will lead me. And honestly, I am scared shitless. But the rash and irrational decision of waking up on a Monday to quit my job and rent a house on the lake in the Leelanau Peninsula, felt more right than any other active decision I’ve made in a long time.
I don’t know if I will come back to my home here in Detroit. I don’t even know what home feels like anymore. But I do know that the only way to figure out what home is - my home, not our home - is to leave.
I love this city and the life I built here. I will miss so much of that past life. But that is a life that is no longer available to me.
It’s time to explore something new.
It’s not you, Detroit, it’s me.
1. The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.
2. Strength in the face of pain or grief.
I’ve spent the last year and a half openly talking about and writing about courage - courage in the face of illness, courage in the face of death, and courage in the face of life after loss.
But the reality is, I’ve spent the last year and a half utterly terrified.
Living in total fear.
Fear of change. Fear of being stuck. Fear of dying. Fear of living. Fear of it all.
I have been swallowed up by fear.
Even so, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of pushing through those fears to live a life of courage, in spite of the constant state of panic I internally experience. I’ve taken risks, I’ve spoken my truth, I’ve shown up and connected with loved ones. I’ve tested my strength in ways I never thought possible.
But all of those came with a deep layer of terror. Followed by the inevitable layer of guilt for not feeling as courageous as others maybe perceived me to be.
Inside, I felt like a scared little girl, all alone in an overwhelming new world.
And I wish I could say that acknowledging this truth will somehow make it easier to let go of the fear. But that would be a lie. I am still afraid. Doing it alone, without a partner - without the love and support I’d grown accustomed to - fills me with constant doubt and uncertainty.
Change is hard. Walking into the unknown feels like a barren landscape of terror.
But I've come to realize that if I’m going to continue to evolve and change, that I have to keep walking through it. I've also come to realize that if I want to continue living a life of courage, I will never be able to fully let go of the fear. Instead I need to learn to embrace the fear, finally coming to terms that you can’t have courage without fear.
Courage isn’t letting go of the fear. Courage is moving forward - one tiny, authentic step at a time - in spite of the fear. Courage is following your heart even when you heart has been shattered to pieces. Courage isn't having all the answers. It's living in the questions.
So instead of letting go of the fear, I’m moving forward with those fears. To me, that's what living courageously is all about.
With courage and fear, I'm preparing myself for some big changes. Stay tuned.
I’m part of a Facebook group called Hot Young Widows Club. You don’t have to be hot or young or even a woman to be part of the group. The only requirement is that your partner is dead. But the name sets the tone for the type of group: it’s full of attitude and sass and zero fucks. It’s the most supportive grief group I’ve found.
Earlier, a fellow hot, young widow posted about March being kidney cancer awareness month. I didn’t know this existed. Maybe I should have - because of my own diagnosis, I am aware that blood cancers have their own month and lymphoma has a special color cancer ribbon. It only makes sense that kidney cancer would get its own month and special color ribbon too (I looked it up - it’s orange). But I didn’t know. And because of that, my initial feeling was one of guilt. Am I a bad cancer widow for the total lack of awareness I have about kidney cancer awareness month? The disease that stole my love and my whole fucking future and I don’t know anything about it?
Should I be more aware?
But after the guilt subsided, anger set in. I may not be aware about kidney cancer awareness month, but I am certainly aware about kidney cancer. That I am fucking aware of.
I'm aware it’s a sneaky cancer that doesn’t let itself known until it’s too late. I'm aware that the “lucky” ones who discover it early, usually discover it on accident. I'm aware that for the rest of the people (the “unlucky” ones), it is so fucking aggressive and awful that right when you settle in to fight, the fight is over. I'm aware it has the ability to - in an instant - swoop in and steal the life of the person you love most in the world, taking your life along with it.
I'm aware that we were too busy fighting it to advocate for it. Too busy fighting for a future, any future, to worry about awareness and ribbons. And I'm aware that with late stage kidney cancer, chances are, it’s going to be a shorter fight than you want.
I am also aware that the people who are AWARE of cancer awareness month are the people still living. The fighters. The survivors.
But stage 4 kidney cancer doesn’t leave a lot of survivors. It leaves a lot of widows. That I am aware of too.
So what is the point of kidney cancer awareness month? What exactly are we trying to be aware of? What kidney cancer looks like? What it feels like? Usually nothing. It looks and feels like nothing. And it’s because of this lack of awareness in the body, that it is so often undetected until the cancer has metastasized and it’s too late.
I am aware.
How about what kidney cancer does? Should we be aware of that? Because I can tell you about that too.
I am aware that kidney cancer silently attacks your body. Every day, quietly wrecking havoc on your system. For years. So by the time you are aware, it’s too late. And then it quickly - so fucking quickly - destroys you. It will spread to all your organs. It will cause life threatening blood clots and strokes. It will eat away at your bones. It will take your energy. And your vision. And you ability to sleep. And your appetite. And your ability to move. And if you’ve made it this far, it will eventually fuck with your mind. And finally, when it’s taken everything else, it will take your heart and with it, your very last breath.
I am aware.
With stage 4 kidney cancer, I am aware there is no cure. No treatment that provides any real hope (although you’ll hear the story of the one guy who is 6 years in and doing well or the person who miraculously cured her stage 4 cancer and I am aware that you’ll grip and hold hope to these examples with every bone in your body). But in most cases it’s a fucked up disease that will drop a bomb on you and obliterate everything and everyone in its path.
I am aware.
That’s what kidney cancer fucking does. Thank you awareness month. I am perfectly aware.
And now that you’re also aware, now what?
Typically the purpose of cancer awareness month is to bring awareness to symptoms to look out for for early detection. For some cancers that’s a lump. For others it’s fevers and night sweats. These symptoms can be detected early and can often times be the difference in life and death. But what about late stage kidney cancer? What then? Be aware of the indiscernible, silent thing growing inside you? The mass that shows no symptoms and you will not physically feel until it’s metastasized and spread all over your body? Be aware of that?
There’s no early detection. There’s no early screening. Even the American Cancer Society says, “There are no recommended screening tests for kidney cancer in people who are not at increased risk. This is because no test has been shown to lower the overall risk of dying from kidney cancer.”
And because they can’t give you any concrete actions to make you aware, they recommend eating your fruits and veggies and getting sleep and working out and reducing stress and not smoking and all the other preventative shit we all know.
I am aware.
And it all feels like a bunch of bullshit.
Instead of a month of awareness, how about just be aware? Be aware of your life and live. Live so fucking hard. Chase passion and excitement and love and adventure. Be compassionate and kind. Take risks. Fail.
Live a life so full and so aware that when you are taking your final breaths, you aren’t thinking about all the things you should have done. Instead you are replaying all the moments you chose to fully live.
Live that life. Be aware of that.
Happy Kidney Cancer Awareness Month. I am aware.
A year ago today we were lying in bed together. I was curled up in the nook of his arm - the spot where I had spent thousands of hours over the course of our relationship. His one hand was gently resting on my thigh and the other was tucked safely inside my own, our fingers entwined. He was asleep and I was lying next to him, listening to the fierce rhythm of his heart.
It was the first morning I woke up and wanted it to be over - a thought that is hard to admit, but one that, unlike so many other thoughts over the last year, comes without guilt. After my own struggle with cancer, we had more conversations about life and death than your average young couple. We knew how we wanted to live - and equally as important - how we didn’t. I woke up, snuggled in the crook of his arm, and for the first time I knew: Brad wouldn’t want to live like this.
He hadn’t spoken in 24 hours and it had been days since he had been able to carry on any conversation beyond a few words. Brad was a man of many words. Words that gracefully poured out of him like poetry. Words of passion, about social justice and equality and Detroit and most of all, words about love.
Brad embodied love.
He was a lover of life, taking big risks with even bigger payoffs. He was an optimistic dreamer who had the unique ability to both have faith in his ideas and recognize their barriers. He was a spectacular listener, allowing conversations to linger in thought before offering feedback. He toed the line of comfort, loving the quiet space between awkwardness and self discovery. He was hilarious and quick witted, both in his self deprecation and his joke telling. He was a fierce and passionate leader, who knew the power of leading by example. He constantly wanted to know more, always encouraging to dig just a little bit deeper. He was thought provoking, challenging basic assumptions.
He was, oftentimes, way too serious, but he was silly too. He loved his family, especially his nieces and nephews, and regularly taught us all what it meant to show up. He was hard on himself, most notably in situations I found hysterical (he was never more angry than the time he flipped a burger so it landed perfectly - and got stuck - in the one inch space between the stove and the wall). He was intimidatingly brilliant, but never made you feel as if you were less than. He was unconditionally supportive of other’s dreams, quick to pull out the white board for a brainstorming session to make them a reality. He was fearless, never afraid to take the road less traveled. He was gentle and kind. He was a romantic, we all witnessed that. But not just in love, also in life.
He was authentic.
He was vulnerable.
He was courageous.
He was ineffable.
Brad was love.
And a year ago, I woke up and I knew. And I believe Brad knew. This was no longer the way in which he wanted to live. And shortly after that, with me curled up in his arms in the quiet of our home, his hand still grasping mine, he let go.
A piece of myself died with him that afternoon. A version of myself I will never get back. In its place, grief quickly settled in. There is not a single facet of my life that loss has not touched. From the obvious gaping hole in my heart down to the minuscule details of my daily life, like the chipped “Brad” mug that he used to drink his coffee out of. It's all a blaring and inescapable reminder of loss.
But there is also not a single facet of my life that love has not touched. Because Brad was love. And his impact so deep, it would be impossible not to carry that with me. Brad constantly reminded me what it felt like to be loved. To feel safe. To know trust.
Loss has followed me every day for the last year, but so has love. Because love - the kind of love we shared - is something that not even death can take away.
Thank you, Brad for showing me what love feels like and allowing me the greatest pleasure of being your forever. I will miss you always - and in all ways. I love you more than the sun and the moon.
It was two and a half months after Brad’s death. I was running away and was in Florida at the time. I stubbornly refused to celebrate, not wanting to acknowledge the day. Not wanting to acknowledge another minute had passed without Brad. And with the exception of a “non-celebratory” stop for tacos and tequila at the nearby hole-in-the-wall mexican joint, we didn’t. It was my 34th birthday and my first major milestone. And I was exhausted.
Grief is exhausting. All the time. Even the mundane, daily tasks require 100 times the normal effort, oftentimes requiring superhero strength just to get to the pile of laundry taking over a significant corner of my bedroom. Grief also has a way of taking previously joyful occasions - like holidays and anniversaries and other momentous celebrations - and turning them into gut wrenching sobfests.
And ‘tis the season for big milestone dates, coupled with the constant reminder of where I was this time a year ago (With Brad celebrating our anniversary in the Upper Peninsula. With Brad healthy and happy. With Brad sick. With Brad dying).
I am constantly tallying an emotional checklist of all the major milestones I've already survived this season and the ones I have yet to get through. Each one preceded with copious amounts of dread and followed by an exhausting emotional crash.
Wedding Anniversary: Check!
My Own Cancerversary: Check!
One Year since Brad's Diagnosis: Check! (Barely.)
Annual Holiday Party: Check!
New Year's: ?
One Year Since Brad's Death: ??? (FUCK.)
Some of these moments are beautiful and joyous occasions. Others are harsh and traumatic reminders of what I've been through. Both can feel unbearable having to tackle alone. But I have no other option than to keep moving and get through them.
And that’s the thing. What used to feel like days I had to get to, now feel like days I have to get through.
And each milestone feels heavier than the last, breaking me down just a little bit more. Each one adds to the weight I have to carry with me. Each one, I silently carry alone. Until I can’t carry anymore. Until the weight of it all crushes me.
It feels like there is no escape. And in some ways there isn’t. Grief is my constant companion - it also just happens to be the loneliest company.
Getting through all the “firsts” this year has been a rollercoaster. It’s been lonely and empowering and joyful and painful. After January, I’ll be in my second year of milestones, which I hear for many, is worse than the first year. The first year is a blur of basic survival. The second year is when some of the grief filled haze lifts and reality really sets in. The unbelievable reality that this. is. my. life.
Every day I move forward - every milestone I get through - feels like a step further away from Brad. One day further from “the last time” with Brad. I’m constantly juggling the juxtaposition of wanting to move forward and find meaning and happiness and purpose in this new life, but still gripping so tightly to my past one. I hold hope for my future in one hand and grief for the loss of my past in the other. It is the confusing and uncomfortable dance of both pushing myself forward and digging my heels to stay back.
It is a delicate balancing act carrying both life and death, joy and sorrow.
Ultimately, it’s all a reminder of time. Time we had. Time we didn’t have. And mourning it all.
Next year I won’t be able to look back at the previous year’s milestones and think “this time last year” with Brad. Next year, I’ll be looking back on just myself.
And somehow, in spite of that heartbreaking thought, time - and me - will continue to move forward. One day at a time.