Living On

Brian and his wife Mary Jane lost their only child, Jenny, to an incurable brain tumor a decade ago. In the ensuing years, they have worked hard to grieve Jenny’s departure, grow closer as a couple and every day honor their daughter’s life.

You know, I don’t post often, and when I do, it is usually a silly check-in from a restaurant, a beautiful spot, maybe a Giants game. But in an hour or so, my Jennygirl will have been gone a decade, and it deserves a few words. I can never write about Jenny’s spirit with the eloquence of Mary Jane, and when I read her posts, all I can do is say, “yeah, me too.”

So on this day, I’ll share a bit about what I am calling “living on”. I hate the term “moving on”. It won’t happen, and I don’t know a soul who’s lost anyone who wants to move on; in the depth of my heart, the last thing I have wanted for ten years is to move on from Jenny, and I couldn’t do it if I tried. But MJ and I have figured out how to live on. We’ve gone through what the experts tell us is the worst that a parent can endure, the loss of an only child, and we’ve lived on.

The last decade has been a lifetime. We’ve been to the wilds of Africa, to the jungles of Costa Rica, to the coral seas of the Solomon Islands. We’ve moved to Bainbridge when it suited us and moved back home when that felt right, too. We’ve spent countless hours with therapists, fought cancer, felt our aging bodies start to erode and taken distraction to a high art. We’ve opened ourselves to new people and ideas and stared into our souls to find a way through.

We’ve lived on by giving each other the room to grieve as individuals, to carry the weight of intense, inescapable grief, all the time, every day. We had to learn that those seven stages of grief don’t follow any order, that you can have your heart stabbed with sadness, be warmed with sweet memories, feel vicious with rage, want to throw yourself out a window if you could only find the strength and laugh at the silliness in life and the randomness in death, all within a fraction of a second, an hour, a day. We have come to understand at an existential level that almost nothing that happens on any given day is very important because it is all fixable, or it doesn’t matter, and so the best thing to do is laugh or shake your head and keep putting one foot in front of another.

Living on requires accepting that there is stuff that just happens in this world and to fight is like drinking poison. It means being honest because to do otherwise dishonors the girl. It means sharing with others, even when it is the stuff that is the most scary and realizing that the only way to make the most horrible of experiences meaningful is to share in the hope that my survival can help a friend also carry on.

So we live on and try to honor Jenny with every day we’re granted. Try to live in that place where almost nothing is so important as to get really upset but where every day is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted.

The picture below is one of my favorites of Jen. I call it Rafting Joy. She’s about six years old and in the middle of the biggest rapid on the South Fork of the American. I love it for the pure joy in her eyes and her smile, and for the fact that she knew no fear. Look at her hand, gently holding a line and then look at MJ’s white-knuckled death grip on the line and on Jenny’s lifejacket. We adults know what to fear, and it can take our joy.

Jenny age 6 sitting in front of Mary Jane, her mother on a raft in the South Fork of the American River

They say that “time heals”. Well, I’m not really sure, but I do think that it scars over the wound. So while the grief is no longer deafening, it is like a drumbeat in the background, adding to the complexity of the moment. The other night, I went outside to look at the stars, which were shockingly brilliant, and I thought to myself, “it’s great to be able to see such a sight” and then, out of nowhere, I had a thought that Jenny should be sitting in the other room, and I should be able to call her out to see the stars with me, and then the thought that I couldn’t seemed so profoundly unfair and sad and wrong. And a wave passed through me, and I walked back into the house and told MJ that the stars were beautiful tonight. That’s what it’s like ten years on.

Thanks to all of you who have hung in there with MJ and me over the last decade. I won’t name names but you know who you are. I know for a fact that it hasn’t always been easy to be with us, because it hasn’t been easy being us all of the time. But we couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks.

And I couldn’t have done it without MJ, my partner in rage, in tears and most of all, in laughter. I’m pretty sure that when the going gets tough, the really tough nearly fall down in a fit of laughter. In our wedding vows, after the “in sickness and health” crap, you talked about making magic together. I didn’t know exactly what you meant, but it has taken magic to survive and thrive over the last ten years. Who knows what’s to come? But Jenny taught us how to face it. With magic and laughter.

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