Today is the funeral of Mollie, a dear friend who died from ovarian cancer over Thanksgiving weekend. It is also her birthday. She would have been forty-three. An ethereal being who was newly hired at the college’s theater department, Mollie first came to me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told me that she had cancer and showed me the best teas to combat nausea and how to wear hats properly. She said that I should always wear lipstick because no matter how badly I felt, the simple act of wearing lipstick would help me feel better.
Mollie referred me to her doctors in Denver and offered to show me her breasts so I could see how a mastectomy would look. Our friendship grew sporadically and intensely. In addition to having cancer myself, my husband had terminal cancer and we had a chronically ill child. Mollie’s cancer also recurred, so in between all of our medical treatments and our attempts at xxx we would meet. And we would talk, not about the details of our life, but about what why we were here on earth, in this dimension, or whatever it was.
Why do we matter? How could we make ourselves matter? We wanted to write together, to make a beautiful play that captured loss, but our efforts were stifled by all that we carried. Eventually, as her cancer progressed and I lost my husband, Craig, to cancer and the experience of my own cancer treatment faded, our conversations turned to what could be learned from tragedy.
We discovered that tragedy deepened our joy, our zest for life, that instead of seeing the world in pastels, we got to see it in deep and vibrant hues, colors that could only been seen through suffering.
Today is also the death date of my youngest son, Charlie. Last year, he was having an episode of Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome, the illness that debilitated his body, but rarely his being. Early that morning, I gave him a bath, rubbed essential oils over his sore tummy, and put him down for a nap on our living room couch. He never woke up. The death report revealed little about what happened, and I have trained myself not to question a death for which there are no answers because this act fuels my despair.
After Charlie’s death, I sunk into an abyss. There was only blackness and formless floating. Up to this point, I had thought that I could handle any problem, any problem—even the death Craig—so long as both of my boys were okay. But now one of my boys wasn’t okay, and all I could see was his absence, the abyss. I floated there for many months.
The entire time I was in the abyss, I was being guided by hands propelling me toward light. I didn’t feel them at first, but eventually I became aware of the gentleness pushing me from inky black to midnight blue to azure. My life imploded when Charlie died. All I could see were scattered remnants of how things used to be, but it through all of these acts of love, some small, some great and continuous, I began to see that living might be possible.
I started focusing on presence, not absence. I haven’t forgotten what I’ve lost: lost husband, lost child, lost friend, lost dreams. But I see what is there, and I see more profoundly than I saw before—the joy on a toddler’s face, sweet laughter when my friends’ children play with Charlie’s toys in my basement, the meals and conversations shared with friends, the excitement on my oldest son’s face when he got accepted to the college of his choice, his strong frame and dimples that match mine. All of this love, all of this beauty, all of this living. It is the color of a pomegranate seed. Deep red. Juicy, messy, delicious.
My oldest son, Ethan, and I visited Mollie in Denver this past summer. She lived in an apartment she called the birdhouse. It was decorated with paintings of birds. She told me that her sister called her “baby bird” because of how her hair looked when it was growing in after cancer treatment. I told her that we had called Charlie “baby bird,” too, because his hair stuck up everywhere.
The last time I saw Mollie was on my birthday. I was late meeting her because I was surprised with a birthday home spa treatment provided by three young girls who have become part of my family, one of whom was a classmate of Charlie. I showed up with multi-colored, glittery nails and braided hair and yes, lipstick. Mollie and I walked through the streets of the mountain village of Silverton, Colorado, (she seemed to know everyone there). We drank rum, then headed to the river with our dogs, walking slowly taking in the late summer colors and scents.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but my emotions that day were purple, the color of eggplant. Deep beauty and deep sorrow. I knew that I may not see her again and yet, we had that day together. I remember the gold tips of the aspen leaves and the woody browns of the tea we drank after our walk.
Today is a moss green day. Green, the color of peace and life and growth. Mollie and Charlie are intertwined in my mind, and I cannot think of this day’s sadness at the loss of Charlie without thinking of the joy that brought the world Mollie. In Mollie’s final message to me, she promised she would find Charlie and wrap her arms around him and learn about his most beloved ocean creatures and superheroes. I can picture the two of them dancing across a rose-colored sky. Later this afternoon, Ethan and I will ski on what we Coloradoans call a “bluebird” day and think about living and dying and tragedy and joy and take in all the shades of our existence.