As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I struggle with the idea of being thankful for anything. After all, Thanksgiving is about feeling gratitude for all life’s blessings and the abundance of gifts we have been given. How can I feel grateful for this life I was dealt, the life of a parent who has lost a child to cancer, a life marked with such unbearable loneliness and sorrow?
This autumn has been especially hard. Not only does it mark a year since Julia was robbed of her life, but this November would have also been Julia’s 10th birthday. A day we should have been celebrating, most likely with some princess theme. Or perhaps Julia would have grown tired of princesses and moved on to other favorite things this year, but we will never know.
Autumn also marks the first day of school and Halloween, days that Julia delighted in every year. And we wonder. Who would her teacher have been? Would Julia have worn a scary costume this year or still dress in princess gowns? So many unanswered questions, unlived moments.
Over the last year, John and I have learned how to prepare for the big milestones. We can mentally get ready for those days that mark the big events; the holidays, the birthdays. But now, it is the little things that haunt us. It is the little things that catch us by surprise; a song on the radio, the remnants of a note Julia wrote to me sitting in the bottom of an old handbag, the glimpse over at the empty play set.
And it is the little things that I fear I am forgetting.
I can still remember most of the milestone days with Julia, but it is the normal days, the little things, that I fear I am forgetting. What were the stories that Julia made up as she played with her toys? What was it Julia would say as she got off the school bus? How big was Julia’s hand when I held it in mine? I want to remember all of it, but time is my enemy. The clarity of these memories, of these little things, are slowly beginning to fade away.
People ask me how I am doing. Quite frankly, I put up a good front. I say I am okay and then walk away knowing that my heart is broken. The truth is I struggle as I watch a mother get angry with her child as he whines in the grocery store – what I would give to be in her spot. I get angry when I think of how little is spent on research to find a cure for childhood cancer. And I mourn for the life that Julia could have had, on what she lost, on what we all have lost.
In recent weeks, I search to find the optimism that Julia brought to my life. I find it fading like my memories of the little things.
I sit scanning through Julia’s photos and planning for Thanksgiving Facebook posts for Julia’s Foundation – quotes about gratitude. It is an impossible task. How can I find the right photos and sayings about gratitude when I feel so lost, so empty?
At a loss, I go to my room; the place where I cry, the place where no one can watch my pain. As I sit on the bed, I look up through my tears at the mirror across the room. And there they are, Julia’s handprints – four smudges on the mirror. These handprints have been there for so long. I didn’t recall how they got there when I first noticed them a few weeks after Julia died. It was a sunny afternoon when the light hit the mirror at just the right angle. I have refused to wipe them away.
There they were, Julia’s handprints.
A wave comes across me as I suddenly remember. I remember the day Julia put her hands on the mirror, leaning in and laughing as she smeared her hands on the just cleaned surface. And there it is the fleeting memory of a day gone by; a moment of childhood fun, of a laugh filled with pure joy for the moment, a sense of her unbridled optimism.
There were Julia’s handprints and there was the memory of that little moment, that little thing. I wipe my tears away. And I am thankful once again.