Devastated by the sudden loss of her beloved father, Bethany Harvey embarks on a year-long, self-imposed odyssey of self-reflection. As she navigates the unpredictable spiral of grief, she openly shares the heartbreaking, gritty and unexpectedly hilarious insights that surface while she continues to respond to a universe that never stops dealing the next hand.
Joined by her daughters, who innocently help her find the deeper meaning in even the messiest human moments, Bethany triumphs — and discovers that, no matter what life dishes up, she will always be “dipped in it.”
My soon to be twelve-year-old daughter has one tentative foot into her adolescence, and one foot still carefully positioned in the land of childhood. Her dirty converse high tops straddle them both, not entirely belonging in either…existing in the in-between.
The metaphor I so readily conjure is that of a butterfly…
The green and gold chrysalis that has housed her – protected her – has now become translucent, allowing a first look inside at the transformed being that is to come. This beautiful creature must soon emerge, becoming more and more constrained within the space that has kept her safe and warm.
She is nearly ready to stretch her wings.
Part of me dreads the impending disconnection between us; my inevitable decline in importance in her world. At the same time I await with great anticipation the young woman she will become.
Who is this butterfly meant to be?
Will she stop and rest for a moment before taking flight? Will she stay close?
Recently I had the opportunity to chaperone a field trip with her fifth grade class. She told me it would be nice if I came, but it would also be fine if I didn’t.
(One foot in, one foot out).
We didn’t have to leave for a couple of hours to where we’d meet her class, so we ventured to the beach to let the beast (that is, our labrador retriever) romp. I smiled as I watched her run with the same look of wild abandon as the dog, freed from the constraints of his leash. She flew..head back, wild hair…entirely unaffected by the presence of other beach goers. Thinking of my own insanely insecure adolescent years, I wondered if she’ll stay this way.
I hoped so.
Once worn out, she sidled up beside me. It was a beautiful, but crisp, late spring morning; I had my hands tucked into my jacket pockets for warmth. As we walked she slipped her hand…still so small…into my pocket, intertwining her fingers with mine.
We walked that way for a while, the two of us sharing a warm pocket.
Soon it was time for the field trip. It was the first one I had been on in a couple of years, and I marveled at them all – this group of children – all so different, yet so connected. They are at that awkward age where most of the girls tower over the boys. They moved like a giggly, beautifully awkward amoeba.
As we meandered along, I kept my distance like a good mom who-was-allowed-to-come-but-it’s-okay-if-she-didn’t. I watched as my daughter flitted along with her friends, free and happy. At one point I was surprised to find her walking along beside me.
(I presume, just by habit) she slid her hand into mine. Squeezing it, I looked down at her and smiled. Suddenly self-conscious, she offered a quick grin and let go, running ahead to join her friends.
As she should.
I will always have a warm pocket…when she needs one.
As many of you know, my family has been taking the same spring trip together for over twenty years.
If you have been an avid reader of this blog, you may have, in a sense, taken the trip with us last year. Coming just five months after my father’s death, it was hard. I tearfully joked that I felt we should have purchased an extra seat on the plane, for the grief we carried with us surely was too big to fit in the overhead compartment.
I shied away from family photos that year. It was as if I didn’t want to remember it. Not as if, actually. I didn’t. I just wanted to get through it, because he would want us to keep going there…and to keep toasting to him with each sunset.
Fast forward a year, and for months prior to the trip there was an unspoken worry –
Will Mom be well enough to go? Would we go without her?
She would insist. It would be awful.
As the trip approached, we learned not only would she be able to come, but she would also be completely done with treatments. We were elated. I was on a high for about a week…until suddenly the pain of not having my dad there resurfaced for me. In talking to my mom, the same thing had happened to her.
Perhaps, she said, we never had enough time to grieve him. Suddenly we were thrown into dealing with The Big C. Our grieving was interrupted. Now that that storm has passed, the grief returns…not yet through with us.
I found this thought incredibly frustrating. I know I’ll mourn my dad forever, but I so desperately wanted to feel light again. Life has been so heavy.
I wanted to stand on the beach with my toes in the warm sand, and to fully feel the sun on my face…literally and metaphorically.
Off we went to Boca Grande…
In the end, aside from a few tearful moments, the predominant feelings I had throughout the trip were those of gratitude and joy.
Dad wasn’t there – but Mom was…and she had fought like hell to be there.
There we were – my big, beautiful family, in the most beautiful place.
There’s something I’ve noticed about the beach at Boca Grande. Every year it is the same familiar place, but there is always something slightly different about it, too. All of the storms throughout the year, and even the day to day currents and tides…they alter the landscape.
They expose new things, they erode coastline, they create sand bars.
Things never stay the same, and yet, it is always beautiful.
It is always Boca.
In our lives we have day to day currents and tides that ever so slowly and subtly alter us. Sometimes there are big storms that ravage us, and we must rebuild. Sometimes the devastation is so vast, we aren’t sure where to begin…but we do.
We always do.
Life creates and exposes, erodes and rebuilds.
What remains, through it all, is fundamentally beautiful –
It is Life…or as Mary Oliver wrote…”yourwild and precious life.”
I was twelve years old when I first understood that my mother would do anything for her children, without hesitation.
In fact, she would drown.
The creek, which was often completely dry, sometimes offered a gentle current into which we could dip our toes…
But on this day, it was raging.
I had never seen it that way before, nor have I ever since.
I remember rounding the corner to the place where my younger brother, Ryan, and our friend, Sarah, were playing. Ryan, with the recklessly foolish courage of a seven year old boy, was attempting to cross the rushing water. He placed his foot on a partially submerged rock, slipped, and went under.
It wasn’t as if I saw him float away.
There were no flailing arms reaching up…there was no possible hope of grabbing ahold of him…he was just…gone.
I ran as fast as I could up the hill to our house. I burst into the bathroom where my mother was in the shower, and I screamed at her –
“Ryan was swept into the creek!”
“What?!” she yelled, not comprehending my words.
“RYAN! THE CREEK!”
I remember running after her down the hill. She was partially naked, throwing clothes on as she ran…
“Where?!” she yelled, looking frantically at the water for any sign of him. The sound of the rushing water was deafening.
“There!” I yelled, pointing helplessly to the spot where I last saw him. There was no sign of him, but if he was in there, she was going in too.
I watched as she jumped into the rushing water. She immediately disappeared beneath the water’s surface, just as he had.
I stood there, frozen.
What we didn’t know was that by the time my mother had jumped into the water, Ryan had already come out. Downstream and out of sight, the creek widened and the current lessened. Ryan was able to stand up and walk right out. He was dazed and had a gash on his head, but otherwise, he was fine.
In shock, he had wandered out into the road, soaking wet and bleeding.
When my mother emerged from the water downstream in the same place, Ryan was already gone. Devastated, she was certain he had drowned.
You can imagine the hysterically tearful reunion moments later.
I remember looking at my mother, soaking wet, sobbing and clutching her youngest son as an EMT examined the cut on his head. Looking at the raging creek, no one could believe they had both survived.
I understood then that she would willingly give her life for any one of us.
I have thought of this story often during my mother’s battle with cancer.
There really is no way to thank someone for loving you more than anyone else ever could. There is no way to properly express gratitude to someone who would jump into the rapids for you.
If there comes a time when she is being pulled under…
We can show her that we are willing to jump in after her, too.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was caught completely by surprise. She had not felt the least bit ill.
It was odd explaining to my daughters that their Nana is sick.
She certainly didn’t look sick.
As time went on, the chemo treatments did what the cancer had not – they made her feel incredibly ill. It’s surreal, watching the nurses don smocks and gloves to protect themselves from accidental contact with the very concoction that will soon course through my mother’s veins (and believe me I don’t blame them one bit).
“We aren’t supposed to come into direct contact with it,” the nurse explains without a touch of irony as she hooks the bag of poison up to my mother’s chest.
I’ve had to explain to my girls that it is the medicine that is making Nana sick….but it is going to make her better. I’ve reassured them that when she stops getting the medicine, she will feel well again.
It’s a bizarre concept, one that I can’t really expect my 8 and 11 year old daughters to understand. Even I have been worried that it isn’t just the chemo.
Mom got really sick last week, so sick that they had to give her a blood transfusion and suspend the chemo protocol for an extra week.
We were all scared by how sick she got, and we felt a mixture of relief and disappointed that her treatments would have to extend a week further into February.
We knew she needed a break, but we all just want it to be over…especially my mother.
In the end, the week “off” ended up being a real gift. She actually had the opportunity to feel well. This is a woman who is accustomed to being in perpetual motion; who never ceases to amaze me with her style, and her passion for do-it-yourself home improvement projects of all sizes.
Lately she has felt winded simply by walking from one room to another. So you can imagine what a wonderful surprise it was when, one morning this week, I walked into her house to find that she had been repainting her living room….changing the wall color and adding an accent color on the fireplace mantle. “I have never liked this wall color – it’s too green….and the fireplace is supposed to be a focal point…and I’m finally going to put in a gas insert,” she announced, pleased with herself.
In that moment I could have cried from relief and joy. To see that it was actually true, what I’d told my girls. It really was the chemo that was making her feel so sick, and she will feel better when it’s over (and the tests show it’s working, too).
Yesterday she started back up again with the chemo. Two more treatments spread over four weeks. We know what to expect this time. We know it will take all of her strength to get to the other side of this. It’ll be an all-hands-on-deck kind of month – or at least a one-hand-on-deck at all times kind of month.
She will not have to do this particular “improvement” project herself.
I have no doubt she will get back to her (no doubt, serious) DIY backlog when all of this is behind her.
I knew she was feeling better when she sweetly suggested I put a sign outside her door telling the priest making rounds to Fuck Off.
I howled laughing.
You have to understand, this is a woman who didn’t give herself permission to curse in front of me until I was about 40 years old. I still find her use of the word “fuck” entirely surprising and therefore absolutely hilarious.
She doesn’t have anything against priests, per se. After all, one of her favorite people was her cousin, Shawn, a Catholic priest. I think it’s just that…well, sometimes grief brings people closer to God, their faith, their church…and sometimes it simply makes people say, “WTF?! Screw you for letting this happen.”
At the moment, Mom finds herself in the latter camp.
Within eight months she lost the man she’d loved since she was fifteen years old, and found out she has stage 3 breast cancer.
Personally, I think WTF is a perfectly justified reaction.
So when the priest was lurking in the hall outside her hospital room, where she had ended up after some complications of chemotherapy, it really was in his best interest to steer him clear of room 223. (I told him she was resting, because…well, I like to keep my options open, I guess).
This is where I tell you Mom is fine. Well, she’s okay – as good as can be expected. She will be discharged today.
It was scary seeing her so sick….sick enough for a drive to the ER at 4am.
Seeing her looking so small and vulnerable in the hospital bed, I was thinking about the time I spiked a high fever…the highest fever I can remember. My first daughter was only a month old. I didn’t know what to do. My husband was out of town. I felt too sick to care for my own baby. I was worried that the very milk she needed to sustain her would make her sick.
I called my mother at 5am.
I need you.
Mom rushed over, and she took care of Beau, and she took care of me.
There was no discussion about it.
It just was.
These past few days I felt a flipping of roles as mother became daughter, daughter became mother….
She took care of me, I’ll take care of her.
There is no discussion about it.
It just is.
She is such a fighter. I feel a bit in awe of her. This morning when I arrived with coffee, she was up, showered, dressed and ready to go…
Unfortunately they decided she needed to have a blood transfusion before they would release her. “Well Mom,” I said, “I think you’re going to have to put the Johnny back on.”
Maybe it’s because she’s always hated reclining chairs.
My mother has impeccable taste, both in her home and on her person. Owning a reclining chair was, for many years, tantamount to wearing sweatpants…
It’s just something she would never do.
I’m not really sure how the (very tasteful) recliner ended up in my parents’ den, but I imagine it had something to do with my mother having loved my father enough to agree to own it…as long as it was to remain in the back room, where no one else would see it.
When I went to visit her yesterday and found her in it, wrapped in a blanket like a small child, the image threw me. She seemed so small. My mother is only about 5’2″, so to be fair, she is small – but her presence, a walking contradiction of grace and will – to me, is large.
It struck me how far she appeared to be from herself…from the strong, non-sweatpant wearing, ever-moving, recliner-loathing woman that she is.
She’s had a cold this week, on top off some ass-kicking (hopefully cancer-kicking) chemo. This path to wellness is not an easy one…and I can’t help but think how hard it has been for her, having had only eight months to adjust to being a widow, before having to adjust to being a widow with cancer.
Life can be fucking cruel.
Still she’ll smile and say, “We had a great run,” as if all of those years of happiness were the result of a bargain she’d made with the devil, and now she’s just paying her dues.
There are bound to be many more days in the recliner (and maybe even some days in sweatpants…you never know) before she rids herself of these tumors – these very rude and unwelcome new roommates…but she will prevail.
I know she will.
Today when I walked into the house just before 8am she was up and ready to cross some things off of her to-do list before she gets whacked with chemo again tomorrow. I am not sure whether she got to those things, but I was encouraged that she was thinking about it.
Mom has always hated winter, and I imagine she would prefer to just sleep through these next couple of months – to hibernate for the winter and wake up in the Spring like one of her daffodil bulbs. She can’t do that, of course, and so she is fighting…and sometimes that looks like being curled up in a recliner, and that is okay.
We might even give her a pass on the sweatpants, too.
She is going to get to the other side of this…and when that garden that she has so lovingly planted and carefully tended for all these years comes back into bloom,
Mom and I are having our weekly date at the infusion center. I thought today I would write about how we ended up here.
Maybe it’ll impact someone.
In the summer of 2016 I had a mammogram. Shortly afterward I received a letter from Newport Hospital, stating that while nothing had come up on the images, because of my “dense breasts” they could not guarantee that the screening was effective. They suggested I contact Women & Infants Breast Health Center for more screening options.
I had received this same letter after previous mammograms. Ironically, I remember having mentioned it to my mother on one occasion, and she had said with the dismissive brush of a hand, “Oh yeah, I get that letter every time too. I think it’s pretty standard.”
So, I never took this suggestion for a follow up seriously, even though my mother had had breast cancer at age 52. Foolishness! I don’t know whether I was afraid, or I had just convinced myself it would never happen to me.
This time, for whatever reason, I followed up. I went to W&I and after talking to the doctor there, and filling out a questionnaire (Did anyone in your family have cancer? How old were you when you had your first child? How long did you breast feed? At what age did you begin menstruating? – Yes, all of these things are relevant, apparently) she informed me that I had a higher than average risk of developing breast cancer. That coupled with my “hard to read” breasts (the nerve) meant they wanted to alternate screenings – MRI and Mammogram – every six months.
It was almost an afterthought to mention that my mother’s cousin’s daughters had all tested positive for the BRCA mutation, an anomality which correlates with a high rate of breast and ovarian cancer. One of them had passed away in her twenties. Two others had opted for dual prophylactic mastectomies.
I’d never met any of these women. This was just a story my mother had told me in passing.
As soon as I said BRCA, the doctor’s demeanor changed. She strongly encouraged me to bring my mother in for genetic testing. I made an appointment a couple of months out, because they were so booked up. I decided that I would wait until it got closer to tell my mother about it. I didn’t want her to worry.
In the meantime some very stressful things happened involving my children and their dad, and my parents were really worried. Not wanting to add more stress, I rescheduled the appointment for January (never having told her about it to begin with).
Then, dad died.
I rescheduled again, this time for April. I knew we had to go, no matter what was going on. We went, and my mother had the genetic screening done. It is just a simple blood test. They tested her (and not me yet) because if I had it, I would have gotten it from her. Therefore, if she was negative, I wouldn’t need the test. We waited three long weeks for the results, and sure enough she was positive. She had the mutation.
They immediately started talking about more aggressive screenings and other preventative measures…and then they tested me.
Three weeks I waited for my own test results, and I vacillated daily (hourly?) between being sure that the Universe didn’t hate me that much, and planning for the certain removal of my ovaries and breasts. I wasn’t going to mess around with a positive finding. 72% chance of developing breast cancer (as opposed to 12% in the general population), and 47% percent chance of ovarian cancer?
No, thank you. Lop those things off.
In the end, my test came back negative. To say I was relieved is an understatement. Now to support my mother through her recommended preemptive measures. They highly recommended the removal of her ovaries, because obviously she didn’t need them anymore, and there is no effective screening for ovarian cancer. That is why the outcomes are often so poor – by the time a woman feels sick, it is often too late. We were ready to nip this in the bud.
It never occurred to me that my mother was already sick.
The MRI showed three tumors. The largest one was hidden under scar tissue from her breast cancer surgery twenty years ago. Two others were too small to be detected by mammogram.
I’ll be honest, I was really angry about a few things –
Why was she never tested before for BRCA? I understand they didn’t know about this 20 years ago, but in the years since? No one had suggested this to her as a breast cancer survivor?
Why had I rescheduled this genetic appointment – twice? How much better would her prognosis be, had we discovered this a year ago?
What the fuck? Was this seriously happening…NOW?
I know we can’t go down the rabbit hole of what if’s. It is an absolute blessing that I followed up on my damn “dense breasts” when I did. Otherwise, she never would have been tested. She never would have had the MRI that caught the tumor. By the time she felt sick, it may have been too late.
I can’t beat myself up for not following through sooner (although I wish to God I had, and I know it’ll haunt me forever if she doesn’t survive this).
I guess I wanted to share all of this today, because I know how busy life gets, and I know it is scary to think about our own mortality. It is certainly easier in the moment to say that we don’t have time to make the appointment; the time to follow through and actually show up to it.
We often don’t want to listen to our gut, telling us something is wrong.
I urge you, though…follow through, take the time, ask the questions. You could save your life, or at least give yourself the best possible chance.
I have always been adamantly opposed to putting up a Christmas tree in November. This year, though, I really wanted to decorate for Christmas early.
“Bring on the shine and the joy!” I thought.
We went and picked out a tree yesterday. As a single woman, lugging the tree off of the top of my car and carrying it into the house myself brings me some perverse satisfaction. It’s really not that hard to do, but it is one of those things, like using the grill and taking out the trash, that somehow always fell into the category of “manly jobs” during my marriage (though that does hold some irony now).
We put the tree up and planned to decorate it today. When it came time to get the decorations out, I found myself holding my breath a bit. Dad collapsed just two days after Christmas last year. It’s hard not to muddy that stress and sadness together with the sights and sounds of Christmas.
I reminded myself of what I’d written just last week on Thanksgiving – this season is going to stir up a lot of feelings – joy, anger, sadness, nostalgia, gratitude…and I have to be okay with honoring them all.
I will welcome them all to the holiday table.
As the girls and I began to sort through the decorations and ornaments, I couldn’t find the massive tangle of Christmas lights. Every year I pull them out and curse myself for not having a better system for removing and storing them. They look like a massive squirrel’s nest, and it takes me forever to detangle them.
“That’s weird,” I thought. “No lights? What could I have done with them?”
I racked my brain to try to remember where I could have put them. Finally, Ruby pulled out a compact, perfected spooled wreath of Christmas lights.
How the hell did that happen?
Then I remembered…it was Lynette. One night in early January while I was sleeping in the ICU with dad, she took down Christmas for me. Without a word, she had put away all of the decorations. She had taken down the tree.
She had rolled my Christmas lights into a perfect bundle.
That’s really all it took to shift my mood….just that little reminder that we are never alone, the girls and I. We have amazing people who love us. People who take care of us without being asked, and sometimes in ways we had never even considered.