The Fires of Loss

Every year, everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know. Mary Oliver

In Will Reeve’s letter to his thirteen year old self, he writes about how he survived the death of his father, actor Christopher Reeve, in 2004, followed by the death of his mother, Dana, just 18 months later. The pain of losing the two most important people in his life must have been overwhelming, yet as Will so beautifully puts it in his letter, “Every moment you spent with them, they were preparing you for a life without them.”

We are never ready to lose the people we love most, regardless of how old they are or how old we are. We are never ready to deal with terminal illness, incapacitation, mental illness or financial devastation. Yet when the worst happens, we find a way. We tap into inner resources and strength we didn’t know we had. We reach out to friends and family. We locate support, uncover what we need to know, do the best we can.

When I was growing, my mother’s nickname was “Dr. Kilgore”. Whenever a family member fell ill or was diagnosed with a medical condition, off Mom would go to the medical library in downtown San Jose to research treatment options. When my father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1984, he and my mother insisted on getting three opinions. Despite his reputation as the foremost surgeon in the area, my parents found the first doctor to be arrogant and cold, which was born out in how offended he got that my parents were daring to seek counsel other than his. The second surgeon was nicer, but he made a joke about fainting during surgery, and my father nixed him from the list. The third surgeon was a lovely blend of competence and kindness. He removed the entire tumor without causing any secondary issues and called the house several days in a row post-surgery to see how my mom was holding up.

These lessons prepared me well when Jimmy became one of the 300 children each year who is diagnosed with Medulloblastoma and then part of an even smaller cohort whose brain cancer comes back. I used all of the research skills my mom had taught me, many I didn’t even know I had absorbed. When Jimmy was treated for brief periods by doctors we didn’t trust, I sought out second, third, fourth opinions. When the first pediatric neuro-oncologist assigned to his case told us that Jimmy would be deaf, sterile and mentally retarded by the time she was done with him, we got rid of her that afternoon and found Dr. Nicholson.

It’s been a hard adjustment not having Mom and Dad here. Although I was much older than Will Reeve when my dad and mom died, there’s an element of incompletion in my life because I can’t share the joys and sadnesses with them. They will never see Molly play college softball, watch her get married, hold their great grandchildren.

And yet … when Molly used her ingenuity to create her summer internship and went off to live alone in a sprawling metropolis, I could see my mother’s determination and courage. In 1951, Mom took a job running the U.S. Information Center in Copenhagen and lived there for five years on her own, working and traveling around Europe, before returning to California to take a job at the California State Library. When I get stressed or overwhelmed, I can hear my father’s voice saying, “I do not intend to suffer any more than I have to” or “Maturity is living with ambiguity”, his favorite line by Freud.

They are gone, and yet they are everywhere. Offering me advice, reminding me of who I am, inspiring me to keep going, letting me know that I am not alone.

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