The End of January

My daughter, Valerie, and one of her favorite poems. She died one year ago today, after a very brief, very brave battle with cancer. (All photos and montage design are my own.)

31 January 2023

Dear Valerie,

I woke up very early this morning. When I looked at the time, 5:00 a.m., I realized it was only half an hour until the exact time that you took your last breath one year ago. Starting on December 29, 2021, when together we heard your devastating final-stage cancer diagnosis, the month that followed was utterly different than either of us had planned. It now seems impossible that I will ever be able to see the month of January with the same optimistic energy I used to feel at the start of every new year.

January of 2022 was supposed to be a sort of sabbatical month for me; I planned several months in advance to put my freelance client work on hold, and I dedicated that month to developing my own work, including a new YouTube channel. (I’m rolling my eyes ironically as I write that now. The best-laid plans…)

Instead, that January turned into taking you to a continual round of medical appointments and tests, driving from store to store trying to find things that would make you more comfortable, and, during that final week when you were in the hospital, racing back and forth between spending time with you and getting home briefly to take care of your cat.

What a contrast to the January we had looked forward to during December.

At this moment, it’s difficult to identify a single thing that’s the same as it was before you died. That’s how I think of everything now: divided into “before” and “after”. You and I both loved many of those transformational, big-dramatic-reveal TV shows, but for me, this past year has been like one long makeover that I never wanted, but can’t avoid. I will never be the same.

Everything is different. It’s like I’m starting life completely over, but with no idea at all what that life will be, what it will feel like to go one without you, how I can somehow merge all the complicated aspects of this experience of losing you into a new me…

Here’s something I’ve been wondering: If you were to show up at my door today (and oh, how I wish you could), what would surprise you the most about how I’ve spent this year?

ONE. I have spent the vast majority of this time completely alone. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen anyone I know (i.e. a more-than-acquaintance relationship), and the first of those times didn’t happen until well into September, so it was in the eighth month “after” when I first had any in-person contact.

I can also count on one hand the number of phone calls I’ve had with friends and family during the entire past year. Like meeting in person, this was primarily by my choice. I have absolutely no regrets about this; I needed to be alone, and I still, today, do not feel ready to make my re-entry, as it were, into the world. Since I started my voluntary self-isolation completely on instinct, which I continue to learn to trust, I feel sure that I will also know when the time is right to make that transition. (You would approve, I’m sure.)

I remember years ago, when we lived on our horse farm in Ohio, I wrote these words in one of my ubiquitous notebooks: TALK LESS. WRITE MORE. I don’t remember now if I ever showed this to you (you may have been studying in Europe by that time), but I’m absolutely certain you would have heartily applauded this intention. I guess it wasn’t until “after” that I was ready to put it into effect; I have definitely talked a whole lot less, and written a whole lot more, in this “after” year.

TWO: I’ve created new routines for myself for errands, chores, and self-care (amazing that this last is even on my list — a good sign). I suspect that you at least occasionally had a passing “she’ll be sorry when I’m gone” thought, since you were doing nearly all the errands for the last couple of years, so I think you would be amazed to see how efficient I’ve become. In the very beginning “after”, I couldn’t deal with running into neighbors who tended to ask awkward and insensitive questions, so I started a habit of going out as early in the day as possible, which I am still doing. (I continue to want to avoid people as much as I can, another thing that’s very different than “before”.)

THREE: I’m slowly accumulating a wealth of insight into my grieving process. (I first wrote “the” grieving process, but changed it to “my” because every person must grieve differently. I know we’ve all heard that, but it’s one of those truisms that seem to take on a whole new depth of significance when it’s applied to one’s own experience.)

One of the most surprising aspects is that it is not, in fact, a linear process at all. I feel like I’ve heard so much about the stages of grief that it’s somehow led me to believe that I would follow that sequence in a neat and tidy way, but the reality is that most of those stages have each happened multiple times, and it’s pretty common that two or more happen simultaneously. (I have yet to feel anything even remotely like acceptance.) So one of my biggest challenges has been, and continues to be, allowing whatever is happening on a given day (or a given moment, or hour) to simply be what it is, as opposed to attempting to force some sort of organization onto my personal process of grieving for you.

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that there is an inherent duality in so many things that I had never really paid attention to “before”. Nothing is really black or white — it’s black AND white. Equilibrium. The two indivisible sides of the same coin. I feel profound sorrow for losing you, and simultaneous gratitude for the time we did have together. A moment of happiness also makes me cry because you’re not here to share it with me. And I can no longer imagine loving without also accepting the inevitability of grieving. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. Sometimes I have a deep-down sense that herein lies a great secret of life: In that “both” lies the balance.

As you know, being a creative person tends to mean that my go-to response to practically any problem is to look for a way to fix it. But this cannot be fixed. So another thing I’m having to get used to is that nearly all my questions (and I have a lot) can only be answered by saying, “I don’t know.” I’m slowly, very slowly, adjusting to the state of not knowing. Maybe someday I can actually get comfortable with that state. For now, the only thing I really do know is how much I miss you.

I think all these things would surprise you, Valerie. I think, I hope, you would also be proud of me.

You’ll like this: I heard just this morning that this day officially became known in 1961 as Backwards Day. (So this happened just days before my birth. I feel sure you would say that’s a sign.) How appropriate. The day you died, one year ago today, everything I thought I knew or understood about the world, about life, especially about my own life, became not only backwards, but upside-down, inside-out, and forever the “after” version of the me I thought I knew.

What now? Will the month of January gradually shift into a time I will look forward to, or will it continue to be a poignant reminder of the last precious weeks we shared together?

It will most likely be both.

A year from now, will I be able to look back on this day and see that, even without you, I’ve found a way to fully live again, with the January optimism I had “before”?

I don’t know.

All my love,

Your mum

I’ve recently started a YouTube channel to share memories of my daughter Valerie, as well as following my own grieving process. Some of the videos will be illustrated readings of the letters I’ve been writing to Valerie including the one from her 2022 birthday; the original letter is on Medium here. I’d love it if you’d visit me on YouTube.

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