Sunday, March 12, 2017

Life Interrupted, 10 Years Later

Life has its ups and downs. You buy a new car and then have a fender bender; you graduate from college and then it seems like forever to get a job; you find the love of your life and then you discover that he/she is not your soulmate after all.

But imagine that your life involved climbing up the slope of a steep cliff with someone you love more than life itself, some times dragging them and some times being dragged by them and some times carrying them on your back ... only to reach the top and step over the edge into a free fall, losing your grasp on your loved one along the way.

That is kind of the way it feels to lose a child to cancer. And I've been in a free fall for the past 10 years.

My daughter Jaime was 20 when we heard those terrifying 3 words "you have cancer." It was also the first time we had ever heard the word "melanoma." She had been diagnosed with melanoma, an often-fatal form of skin cancer, caused by her love of tanning beds since about age 14. But everyone said "she was too young for cancer" -- and "she didn't look like a cancer patient" -- and "it was just skin cancer, right?" WRONG!

It's been 10 years this week since Jaime took her last breathe, and I feel I should have something important to share. I feel like I should have encouragement for those mothers who are also grieving but not as far down the road as I am. I feel like I should have some answers to all the questions that all of us angel moms ask. But I don't.

I hate to tell you, but it does not get easier; it just gets different. The grieving continues, but you do get better at wearing your mask, the one you put on whenever you are not alone. The unimaginable pain is chronic, but you somehow get used to carrying it and it is not as raw or heavy.

You will never be the same person you were before. Your life has been divided into your life with your son or daughter and your life after having them ripped from your arms. My "post-angel wings" life now is nothing like it was when Jaime was alive. As I said, I'm in free fall.

Ten years has been an agonizingly long time to be without my child and best friend ... honestly, much longer than I ever hoped I would be separated from her ... and at the same time, it seems like it was just yesterday that she came through the front door yelling "Mom." Jaime was always the center of attention and I was her shadow. Now I am just a shadow looking for its missing object.

That doesn't mean that my life has no meaning or direction. I still have a husband and 2 sons that I love with all my heart, but my direction has only come from a little voice whispering in my ear, giving me passion and commitment to fight the tanning beds that took my baby girl.

One thing I have learned in the past 10 years is that life is not fair. Growing up, my mom always would tell me that because I was such a bleeding heart. But now that I'm here and Jaime is not, I do believe that my mom was right. It's really not fair -- not fair at all! And don't assume that because you have gone through the unthinkable, nothing else bad will happen. You think you have paid your dues, but life just keeps happening.

Then there is the tremendous guilt. She was my child and I should have
been able to protect her. I should have been able to fix her. I've always been a fixer, but not this time. Why not this time? Then there was the guilt that I was not the same wife I had been before Jaime's death, and not the same mother. I realized how badly my family wanted me to be the same ... but that Donna was no longer here. She had died with Jaime. The guilt has been suffocating!

For the first couple years I had a never-ending loop running in my head of all the events leading up to Jaime's death. All the second guessing; all the what ifs; all the searching for answers when I wasn't even sure what the questions were ... playing it over & over & over. I finally came to realize that no matter what I had done or hadn't done, the final result would be the same. And as weird as it sounds, I haven't worn a watch or carried a purse since the day Jaime died and I have no idea why that is. I've just learned to accept that not everything has an answer, at least not one I understand.

At the beginning of my grief, I heard all the comments from people who mean well but just don't know what to say -- "she's in a better place," "it was God's plan," "at least she is free of pain," "I understand your pain because my grandmother died," etc. FYI: The best thing you can say to a grieving mom is "I'm sorry," "I love you," " He/she (and use their name!) will never be forgotten," or a story about the son or daughter, or even just a hug.

It was 3 years before I could look at Jaime's photos. And then it was not because I wanted to but because I was forced to as part of the video presentation on tanning beds that I had agreed to do. It was so very painful to dig through all the pictures from a better time, a happy time, but I did so with a lot of tears. The nightmarish memories from Jaime's death were just beginning to let the happy memories of her life come forward.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to recognize the warning signs that I was sliding into that deep dark hole of extreme grief and despair (you angel moms all know the place I am talking about) and eventually gained the strength to not allow my mind to take me there. The climb out was extremely exhausting. If you haven't been there, it's not someplace you ever want to visit.

It took me several years to feel comfortable about going out socially. Small talk scared the crap out of me. The question I feared most was the pleasant, simple "How many children do you have?" And if I got through that one without breaking down, there was usually the innocent follow-up "And where do they live?" I was also aware that people who knew about Jaime's death felt uncomfortable around me, like I had a contagious disease, and they were afraid of doing or saying something to cause me pain. Let me assure you that I was already in more pain than you can imagine. You couldn't make it any worse -- unless you tried to ignore or avoid it.

About 5 years after Jaime's death, I began to smile again and really mean it. It would be almost 10 years before I would hear myself laugh -- not a tears-running-down-your-face, pee-running-down-your-leg laugh like Jaime could provoke, but it was a laugh. And it was such a strange sound coming from me after so long that it actually startled me!

Ten years out and I can finally tell Jaime's story without sobbing ... at least some of the time. I don't think it will get much better, but I will not stop talking about how her use of tanning beds took her life at 29 because the killing has got to stop. Melanoma is a cancer that, in many cases, can be prevented ... and it must be prevented. I have a mission. I did not choose it but I have it. Some of the time I don't even like it but I have it. And I will continue on that mission until that little voice in my ear leads me in a different direction.

Ten years out ... and I can't tell you everything is fine or back to normal (whatever that is) or that the road of grief is behind me. I still find it hard to imagine that she is really dead. But I can tell you that, even after 10 years, Jaime hasn't left my heart or my side. I may be in free fall, but she is right there with me. That I do know.

Melanoma Mama (Jaime's mom, Donna) (Remember Jaime) (Pull the Plug on Tanning Beds) (Jjem Creations) (Jjem Creations)