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The Season of “What-Ifs”

I find it hard to write any more. It was always something that always helped me find strength and hopefulness. I seemed so easy to write when Julia was with me, even just in spirit. But now, I find it hard to sense her optimism and joy and the words don’t come easily to me. It feels as if my muse has left for good, the only memories to play over and over again in my mind are those of her last hours with us.

Will it ever get easier? I have asked myself this question for months, wondering if this pain would ever go away. And the answer I keep hearing is a resounding NO! In fact, over the last months, I have been lost in what I like to call the “Season of What-Ifs”.

It began in March. I felt it creeping in with the start of all the family birthdays, and by mid-May and the arrival of another Mothers’ Day, it was here. The Season of What-Ifs arrived like a winter blizzard during the first days of spring, covering all the green, all the life that there was, in a blanket of white emptiness. With each day that passed, I felt the optimism that Julia gave me slip away; leaving me with only thoughts of loss, of emptiness, of wondering what might have been if she was still alive.

Am I bound to forget Julia’s spirit, her joy and hopefulness? A piece of me slipped away that September day, leaving me broken, left to live this life that I never could have imagined. Are my memories of Julia fading, only to have me live a life of “what could have been”?

As summer began, I became lost in my questions, paralyzed by thoughts of what life would have been like if Julia was still with us. I watch as Julia’s friends grow-up, moving into their pre-teen years, knowing that Julia will forever be an eight-year-old, robbed of her chances to live her dreams. I see how life has moved on for so many and wonder if Julia’s memory will continue to fade with each passing year.

Will Julia’s friends remember her? Will her memory fade away with each passing day? Will I ever be able to feel Julia’s joy of life again? Will I find a way to carry on?

And then in moments that I could never predict, I hear responses to my nagging questions. The answers come to me from girl scouts and a fish.

Several of Julia’s friends are part of a local girl scout troop. After Julia passed, the girls went to Build-A-Bear and created a mascot bear they called Julia. “Julia Bear” has traveled with these girls to every activity, joining them at their homes and during their meetings; a stuffed substitute scout for an eight-year-old that never got to join her friends.

When the girls decided on their Bronze Award, they chose to support Julia’s Grace and sew pillows for the “Hear Some Nice Music” hug boxes that we provide to children with cancer. I joined them as they sewed their pillows and carefully assembled the boxes that would bring a smile to another child. But that was not the defining moment that helped me to realize Julia’s friends would not forget her.

I attended the Scout “Bridging” ceremony a few weeks later to watch these girls receive their Bronze Award. I watched as each girl walked over the ceremonial bridge to their next stage of scouting, knowing this was witnessing another “what if” to add to my ever growing list. And then, through the tears that welled in my eyes, I saw one of scouts, one of Julia’s friends, walk back across the stage, seeming to go back to retrieve something she forgot. I watched as Julia’s friend, picked up their mascot “Julia Bear” while her other friends stood by and then Julia’s friend lovingly carried that special bear over the bridge.

In that moment, I knew Julia would not be forgotten by her friends.

A few weeks later, another Girl Scout troop asked me to come to a presentation for their Bronze award. This group of girls had never met Julia, but selected Julia’s Grace to donate hats they had made as part of their service project.

They asked me to speak about Julia and the organization that she inspired. The girls asked about Julia and her list, about how Julia helped other children, about her life. As I shared Julia’s story, I began to feel that her story would live on not only through her friends, but also with other children who she never had the opportunity to meet. Julia’s kindness would live on with those that heard her story.

Another question answered. Julia’s memory will not fade away as long as we remember her generosity and kindness. As long as we remember to help others.

With July, came a birthday for one of Julia’s best friends. Without thinking, I offered to take her to the movies for her present. Immediately, she knew which movie she wanted to see. Finding Dory was the film of choice, and although I dreaded the thought of seeing a movie I knew Julia would love, I decided I had to push on, to fight my fear of “what ifs” and the questions that would follow.

The morning of the movie came and as we entered into the theatre, I felt out of sorts. I took my seat and quietly waited for the movie to begin, hoping no one noticed my sadness. I thought of what could have been, how Julia should have been sitting there with us, giggling with excitement and anticipation.

The theatre lights lowered and the film began. My mind wandered off, still thinking of a time that never would be, wondering what those days may have been like. I shake off the fog of “what ifs”, and bring myself back to the present.

There on the screen is Baby Dory, asking as if on cue, “What if I forget you? Would you ever forget me?”

My thoughts drift off to the days when Julia and I would make the long daily drive to her radiation appointments. Julia would insist on listening to the music from Finding Nemo – The Musical. We saw the show in Disney World and like all musicals, Julia just loved it. She insisted that we purchase the soundtrack and little did I know at the time how important that would be. For one month, during the ride to the city, Julia would sing at the top of her lungs… “Just keep swimming”. Dory’s song, became Julia’s mantra during her long days of treatment.

So I sat there, thinking of Julia, and watching the story of Dory unfold; a simple tale of a fish, of family, of memories.

The movie came to an end and if by magic, it closed with one appropriate word. A little blue fish who meant so much to Julia on those car rides almost four years ago ends the movie with the last word of the film. One final word from Dory, but one healing word that seems to have been written just for me – “Unforgettable”.

I can’t forget, she will always be with me.

I laughed and I cried, knowing now that the season that had enveloped me these past months was coming to an end. I remembered Julia’s voice from those years ago…just keep swimming. I remembered Julia’s singing. I can remember moments other than those last painful days.

One last word in this cartoon changed everything. She is unforgettable.

So the Season of “What-Ifs” comes to a close, although I know it will appear again. For now, I have answers to my questions and the strength to carry on. The ability to carry on all because of the Girl Scouts, a little blue fish named Dory, and the cherished memories of my little girl.

I will just keep swimming.

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