Three years.

I’m perched on a paint-splattered stool, located downstage right, in a darkened forty-seat theatre. We’re well into the second act of Barenaked Angels, a show that’s a sort of hybrid between solo performance and an ensemble piece (I wrote about it here). My fellow cast mate Phil is standing on the opposite side of the stage, recounting a story about his niece Sam, a young girl who died after a battle with Mitochondrial disease. Sam had an affinity for butterflies and ladybugs, and in this particular story, Phil tells the audience that on the day of his first big acting job, a ladybug appeared next to him on set during the filming of his scene. The ladybug remained in the same spot for several takes, and Phil was convinced that the ladybug was in fact Sam, turning up in the form of the creature she loved, to let him know that she was all right.

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This is not the first time I’ve heard the story of the ladybug, but during this particular performance, something is different. As I sit on my stool, listening, I’m transported back to an evening in late September: the night that followed the long day during which we eulogized my mother. After most of the guests had gone home, I sat on the deck of my grandparents’ beach cabin, staring out at the sea. The sunset was slowly shifting into twilight, and a huge full moon hung high in the pink and purple-streaked sky, casting a rosy glow over Case Inlet, which was so flat that it seemed a great mirror, reflecting the heavens back onto themselves. As I sat there, the silence so loud it was nearly reverberating, warmth filled my core and spread outward, tickling the tiny hairs on my arms. Stillness enveloped me like a blanket and the moon and the sea and sky seemed to be speaking directly to me, whispering words of calm and comfort, telling me that my mother was at peace, and that everything would be OK.

Almost immediately after that night, the world as I knew it came tumbling down. Illness. More death. Identity theft. A move. A break up. The pace of life was frenetic as I moved from crisis to crisis. The magic of that September evening and its tranquil, perfect moment all but vanished from my memory.

That is, until this night – nearly three years later – as I sit on stage listening to the story of the ladybug. A warm vibration floods my center, goose bumps rise on my legs and arms. The quiet audience, intently listening, the hum of the stage lights – everything feels more somehow. And suddenly, I’m right back there, possessed of the same calm, all-knowing that visited me on that September night.

As quickly as the moment arrives, it is gone. Phil finishes his story and I snap back to reality, knowing it’s my turn to speak. I choke back the lump in my throat and rise from my stool, crossing downstage center to find my light.

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Today, September 23rd, marks three years. Three years since I received the worst news of my life: my mother – my best friend – was dead.

If there is an emotion that a person can feel, over these last three years, I have felt it. Crushing sorrow. Denial to the point of delusion. Blinding rage. Crippling guilt. Red-faced shame. Paralysis-inducing fear.

I have spent much of the last three years trying to feel “better.” It is only recently that I have learned – with the help of counseling, writing, and the passage of time – that I am not meant to feel better. I don’t even know what better means. Life has changed, and I am changed in it. And in this new reality – a reality where certainty is no longer certain – I am awake and alive to every moment, knowing the weight and import of each one.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through some boxes from my parents’ old house that had been in storage for the last two plus years; boxes that I had only recently been able to bring myself to open. Among the assorted mementos, I found some treasured photographs – taken before everything went digital – that I had feared were forever lost.

The photos were from a trip my Mom took to visit me in England, after I finished a college semester studying abroad. We spent a few days in London, and then traveled to Wales. Craving luxury, I booked us into a fancy hotel in Cardiff. But Mom wanted something a little more rugged. She wanted to see the natural beauty of the countryside.

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After asking around, we took a train to Swansea and then boarded a small bus bound for the Gower Peninsula. When we arrived, we stood on jagged cliffs, looking out in wonder at the vast sea before us, feeling as though we had come to the edge of the world. Among the handful of photographs we took that day, my favorite is of my Mom, pretending to drive a golf ball (she was an avid golfer) over a cliff, a huge grin spread across her face.

I had forgotten how full of life my mother had been on that trip, how adventurous she was. That memory is such a departure from the mother I became used to in the years leading up to her death: someone who mostly stayed at home and avoided crowds, contenting herself with simple pleasures like gardening and cooking. Someone who gradually became more and more anti-social as she clung to memories of the past, slowly disappearing before my eyes.

It is so easy for the worries and the fears and the anxieties to grab hold of you and to keep you from moving forward, as they did my mother. It is much harder to know how much life can hurt you, and to throw your arms around it anyway, embracing it with all you have.

Three years is an awfully long time. It’s an awfully long time to miss someone, and it’s an awfully long time to feel stuck and lost and searching in their absence. But it’s a short time too. Elapsed so quickly, in the blink of an eye.

I have felt it all these last three years. Every dark, impossible, hopeless thing. But today, as I think of my mother, I think of the woman who insisted we travel by train and bus to the edge of the world so that we could gaze out at the sea, sensing all the possibility that spread out before us. And I think of that serene September evening after we said goodbye, when I knew in the core of my being that she was all right.

She is all right. And I am all right too.

Until next time, friends.

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101 thoughts on “Three years.

  1. It touched me, so much so that I am left speechless. Maybe we aren’t meant to get over the part of missing someone who was this close. Maybe it’s okay to not move on and how could you when it’s loss of a parent? I wish you find your inner peace and strength.

  2. Your writing brought tears to my eyes. You made me feel not so alone with my frustration with cancer and the toll it is taking on my sister’s life. Thank you for sharing your experience. Secondly, your story about Phil’s ladybug moment connected to a close friend whose little girl passed away from a brain tumor. They participate in a charity run every year and their symbol of love for her is a ladybug. Whenever I see one I think of her. ❤ ❤

  3. Hi Sarah,
    I just wanted to write to thank you for a wonderful piece and a good way to remember Annie’s spirit yesterday. I LOVE the photo of her looking at you with such great love, and you as a baby so alert and already looking wise beyond your baby years! Truly an old soul, Sarah.
    I love you,
    Deirdre PS if you had a moment to send me the jpg of that photo, I would love to have a copy.

  4. As time goes on and grief stretches and ticks with it, I find the memories I’d tried to ‘unfeel’ become remarkably crisp and comfortable and controllable, and the ‘closure’ I once strove to find becomes nothing but a silly, dirty word.

    I’m so sorry for your loss, but so grateful you shared your memories.

  5. I am deeply touched by what you have been going through. I have have had similar tough years right after my mother died from a long battle with cancer. The years don’t change the whole inside al that much. I have a second hole in me from the loss of my baby brother to suicide. Then my dad to a heart attack. Finally, I lost the love of my life somehow due to misunderstanding and many other issues and we will be divorced in 14 days. I truly know where you are at.

    • Oh my. You certainly have been going through a lot and you have my sincere condolences. Sometimes grief is tough to unwrap when you get hit with a lot of things at once. I think you go into survival mode just to get through it, and the healing process can’t begin until much later. At least, that has been my experience. In the span of a year I lost both of my parents, my grandmother and a close college friend, and then went through a horrible, gut-wrenching break up, so like you, it was way too much to absorb. Try to be kind to yourself. In fact, be kinder to yourself than you think you deserve. Often we have so much guilt and shame and regret wrapped up in our grief that we can really be cruel to ourselves. After two years I finally dragged myself to therapy and it took another six months before I felt like it was actually helping me. This is tough tough stuff that you’re going through, but as a friend of mine who was going through a similarly awful phase of life once told me, “I can’t believe all of this has happened, simply for me to give up.” We can grow from our tragedies, if we’re brave enough. I recommend Pema Chodron’s book “The Places that Scare us” as a good place to start. Take good care and thank you for reading my blog.

  6. I am so sorry for your loss. But we must always remember that death is a part of Life. And that everything happens for a reason.

    A year ago, I lost my Granddad. His death was sudden and shocked us all in the family. He was not sick whatsoever and was an active man. Its amazing to think how fast a year has passed by.

    My friend said to me something recently that stuck with me, ” We are bound to lose some things in life and we have no power to stop it from happening. However, we at the very least can make sure that we have the best memories to remember them off”

    This advice has helped me heaps and I hope it helps you too

    Stay strong!

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  8. Such a beautiful post. I am finding it rather unfair to call it a “blog” as its embodied with an emotion so pure that, to call it anything less than a loving memory is just not just. Missing someone is always a difficult task but remembering smallest of the moments spent with that person can help us move on. I wish you all the very best in finding perfect harmony between missing your mother and reminiscing beautiful memories you two created. May you get all the strength and be filled with love forever!!

  9. Your writing is similar to mine as I have to deal with breast cancer. I wish you all the best. It takes a lot of time to get through hard times. Sometimes you won’t get through it but my brain somehow holds back the sad things probably to safe me. Take care!❤️🍀

  10. Wow. I mean, wow. This was, without doubt, one of the most touching and beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. It left me with a slightly nostalgic and yet peaceful feeling. I love the way you write. Like really, loved it. I think I’m almost incoherent right now.

  11. Ur mother’s life reminds me my grandfather……
    Its very difficult to overcome that phase…..
    But as u know We r ruled by the rules of the almighty…
    She remains no where but inside u….

  12. My sisters and I do this as well, when a butterfly lands on our garden/window for some time and stays, we smile and say to ourselves, “it’s our mom checking up on us”.

  13. This story grabbed me because I’ve lost a daughter to mitochondrial disease myself. I’m only 2 years into my grieving journey. I’m glad you were able to find peace with your mother’s passing.

  14. Grief is a personal journey. There is no timeline. I can say for myself, I will never be who I once was. A daughter and a sister. Butterflies, cardinals and pennies I see as signs from my loved ones. Be kind to yourself. Hugs.

  15. The two year anniversary of my brother’s death recently passed and I described something similar to your paragraph about time. You explained it so well and it’s true. Time feels fast and slow at the same time. When you describe the feeling of ‘okay-ness’ that washes through you once in a while, I know that feeling too. Thanks for reminding me how it feels.

    • I find it comforting to hear that you can relate. Grief can be so very lonely, which is one of the reasons I started writing and putting it out in the public sphere, I think. Only very recently am I starting to see my emotions like the weather, and have faith that no matter how stormy things are, the storm clouds will pass. I’m wishing you well.

  16. Beautiful post.Stay strong even if its hard.I almost lost my mam last year so cant imagine what you have been through.

  17. You write beautifully, i mean even that would be an understatement, your words took me with you, along your journey! I can’t imagine how it must feel like to lose your mother, but i can relate to it. My dad used to say that “The greatest loss in this world is when the right words go unsaid, because they can make a lot of difference!”
    Anyways, i never phrase that quote in the right way! But, thank you, for sharing your memories! It moved me, a lot! I don’t know if you will feel better with time, but I hope you find it in you to make peace with your loss! 🙂

  18. I can only imagine how it must have felt losing some one who loved you and was such a big part of your life, your writing was soulful. I loved it. GOD BLESS YOU. She must be so proud of you, we are separated only to realize how precious they were to us.
    Let me tell you

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  20. I had some goosebumps and tears reading your blog post! Reminded of my own mother, whom I lost about six years back. Am glad I stumbled upon this post, as this helps me recollect my own pleasant memories with my mom. And I am always happy when I think about her and the wonderful memories we had together. Thank you for refreshing them.

  21. Firstly my condolences. I can’t even imagine the pain you must have gone through in the last three years

    I am glad you are alright. I have read so many posts in which people are still struggling to find peace and are trying to cope with death itself. I wish more people read this, more people find peace the way you have.

  22. Thank you for sharing. I lost my sister three years ago (Sept. 19) and have been feeling the harsh sting of grief again recently as we plan the holidays and a few family weddings (one is her son’s and the other my daughter’s who was very close with her). I was drawn to your post by the title as I was browsing. Three years is a long time to miss someone. And, yes, it also goes by so quickly.

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