There’s no getting over the loss of a loved one, there is only growing around it, carrying it always at the heart of every version of ourselves that emerges after the loss occurs. The scar tissue that forms around the wound of loss is often a composition of regret, guilt, perspective, and forgiveness. Melissa Godwin was nineteen when her mother died. In this letter, below, forty-year-old Melissa reflects honestly, heart-breakingly, and wisely on how grief – like love – never dies.
It’s been almost twenty-one years now. My grief has almost reached the legal drinking age. My grief is an adult. My grief should have her sh** together by now because it’s time to pack up and move out of the house.
But I can’t. I feel like I’m permanently stuck at the threshold. Suitcase in hand, ready to go, but looking back, as if frozen, unable to take a step forward out of the house.
Why can’t I go? It’s not like my suitcase isn’t filled to the brim with memories and mementos and connections that will keep us close. I know that it is impossible for me to go anywhere without you. You are a part of me. I literally carry a piece of you with me at all times. So what is this pull to stay so firmly planted in the grief house?
Then it hit me. I’ve been toiling away my entire adult life at emotional math. I’ve spent twenty-one years trying to stay so connected to you to make up for six months of disconnection. I’ve grieved your death, but I haven’t grieved the months leading up to it. The months where I wasn’t there. And I need to.
It wasn’t intentional disconnection. Just crappy timing. I was a freshman at college, so I was two hours away when you had your first doctor’s appointment to address a constant, under-the-skin itch that just wouldn’t go away. I was going to football games when you were getting second and third opinions because doctors were saying that your cancer was just an allergic reaction to Aleve. I guess you can’t fault an 18-year-old for not coming home from college to accompany her mom to a doctor’s visit about an allergic reaction.
But by Christmas it was clear that it wasn’t allergies. I so clearly remember the night dad told me it was cancer. Oddly enough, though, I don’t remember where you were at the time. I guess you were at the hospital at that point. But we were home. It was later in the evening and I was in my room, my awesome converted-attic bedroom that was the entire upstairs level of our house. So, like so many times before, someone called for me from the bottom of the stairs and I met them at the top and we talked. That’s where I found out you had cancer. As diplomatically and cheerfully as he could, dad told me that you had T-Cell Lymphoma. I say cheerfully because he made sure to tell me that the doctor said if you’re going to get cancer, this is the one you want because it has a very high survival rate. I don’t really remember how I felt or what I said during that conversation. I’m sure feelings of sadness and fear swirled around, but honestly I think I mostly felt perfectly assured that you were going to be ok. And not even because you had apparently hit the jackpot of cancers, but simply because you were my mom. And moms don’t die. Not like this. Not this young. You would get some chemo treatments, rock some head wraps, and by next Christmas this would all just be a good story.
So I packed up and headed back to school. I was involved in a campus ministry, so I told my friends so that they could pray for you. But not necessarily because I thought that prayer would work (or was even necessary, because again, you weren’t going to die), but because cancer mom is a good way for the shy, awkward girl to get attention.
I got periodic updates from dad. I knew you had gotten your first dose of chemo and come home to a god-awful night of pain only made worse by the neighbors’ dog who barked all night long right outside your bedroom window. I think that might have been the last night you ever spent at home. I think at that point I might have started to put a little more stock in some of the prayers, but I was still certain that everything would turn out okay. This was just a minor setback. The chemo is supposed to be hard.
I don’t know how much truth was being told to me, and I don’t say that with any judgement. Everyone was doing the best they could with the information they had. Spring Break 2001. You wouldn’t be alive for another month. But I didn’t know that. Maybe no one knew that. I knew you were in the hospital. I knew that for your second round of chemo they were only going to give you half the dose to try and take it a bit easier on you. I don’t know what I was acting out of. Maybe survival. Maybe naïveté. Maybe selfishness. But for whatever reason, I decided to spend my spring break going on a mission trip with friends to Boston rather than go home and spend time with you. Again, I know I can’t be faulted for having a teenage brain. A brain that would rather spend spring break with their friends than in a hospital. A brain that simply could not fathom that there would be other spring breaks but there wouldn’t be anymore you. Besides. It wasn’t Spring Break Cancun. It was a mission trip. God wouldn’t let my mom die while I was serving his flock? Right? If anything I was helping her case. I’m sure that twisted justification made its way into my brain.
I realize that I carry around so much regret and shame about that choice. My mother was dying and I left her. What kind of daughter does that? Again, I know it’s more nuanced than that, but I just have to say, if you can hear me, that I’m sorry. I would give anything to have those days together in the hospital. To feel like I hadn’t abandoned you. And I know you weren’t alone. You had dad, and your parents, and your sister, and dear friends, and your pastor, and a round robin of angels to keep you company. But I wasn’t there. And I’m sorry.
It wasn’t until Easter Sunday when I finally felt it. That stairwell conversation happened in mid-December, just before my birthday, and it wasn’t until Easter Sunday that I cried. But boy did I cry. Four months of disconnection got a jump during the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service and there was nothing I could do. The floodgates had been opened and there was no turning back. Jesus may have risen but Sandra was going to die.
Believe me. I’m fully aware that it doesn’t make sense. Or maybe it makes sense but it’s still not true. But I’m scared to walk out of the grief house because I don’t want to leave you. Again. Staying so connected to the grief proves that I love you. If I’m relentless in not letting you go now then maybe that makes up for the fact that for almost five months I all but neglected my dying mother. I was indifferent to your suffering then, so I deserve mine now.
But again, I know that’s not actually true. So I will take care of myself today. I will take a warm bubble bath and watch “This is Us.” You would have loved “This is Us.” Dad and Spencer like a lot of the same shows. This would have been one of ours. And later I will take a walk in the sun. I will see signs of spring all around me. Trees budding, flowers blooming, and I will think of you. I will feel you so strongly in the presence of nature. And I will assure myself that a mother’s love is ever graceful. Unconditional and quick to forgive. Especially towards a nineteen-year-old who is trying to come to terms with her mother’s mortality. And at nineteen years old that looks a lot like ignoring it.
And leaning into that assurance, suitcase of memories in hand, I will put one foot in front the other.
– by Melissa Godwin