Lessons From the Worst Day of My Life

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“And I know it aches and your heart it breaks and you can only take so much….  Walk on.” -U2, Walk On

It was my wedding day.

We had spent the past year and a half planning every little detail, the string quartet, the candles, the sunset. Yes, even the sunset.

One year before our wedding date I stood outside and watched the sky. I studied the sun as it gracefully slid into a warm golden light. Letting it soak in, I marveled at this moment. The warmth and beauty of the world awash in a sublime glow, this gift for us to witness most evenings. I’ve always felt moved, spiritually connected to the sunset. It’s a daily reminder that anything is possible.  As the sun’s dance came to an end, it washed the sky in pink and purple, one last flourish to remind us of the promise of the sun rising for a new day. This was the moment I wanted our wedding to take place, the beginning of our new life together.

A year later, on the actual day, it was beautiful, the sun was putting on it’s luminous show right on schedule. I stood outside of the chapel and watched as my sisters and best friends filed inside. The strings started playing Canon in D and it was time for me to take my last walk as an unmarried woman. My heart started racing and I could feel the pressure building inside of me, the surge of tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I looked up at the sun, willing it to work it’s magic on me. Let me feel the hope and promise, the assurance that  it would greet me the next morning and everything would be all right.

Nothing.

I felt completely alone, the sunset wasn’t giving me strength, my family and friends had all gone inside. The only person there was the sweet old lady who worked for the chapel and was there to make sure all went as planned. She looked at me nervously, her eyes darting from me to the door of the church.

And all I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

Before I had the chance to say anything, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to watch me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away, but I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. It really was surreal. Like time stopped.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I felt myself move forward, effortlessly gliding….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm, warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Given a grim diagnosis, he remained steadfast. He was going to be fine, he was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

This was the day the world forever changed for the six of us that were there with him. Nothing would ever be the same, there was something deep inside  each of us that had been irreparably changed. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fourteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how any of us made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief. There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together, summoned our strength and even though we were surely still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony, and his favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced and we drank and we had fun.

Inexplicably, we actually had fun.

Fourteen years have passed since that day.

Fourteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fourteen years later and I’m still learning how all this works, the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all this learning, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand every once in a while and pay attention.  I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back…

but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned came from a friend I worked with. I confessed to her that I didn’t think that I would ever feel joy again. I knew I would feel some level of happiness, but true, full, unadulterated joy? I couldn’t see that ever happening. I really thought the part of me capable of feeling with abandon had died. She adamantly refused to agree. She said that I would feel joy again. She was so sure. It actually kind of annoyed me at the time. But her insistence also gave me hope.

And she was right. When I had my son 15 months later, I felt joy, a pure unfiltered happiness. And I’ve felt it many times since then. With my daughters, with my husband, with my friends and family. My son’s birth filled a hollowness that had been residing inside my soul. I have thought of her many times since then even though we aren’t close any more. She gave me something no one else had been able to give me at one of my darkest moments. As an outsider she was able to guarantee me that I would feel again. See, she had a daughter already and knew that when I had a child I would have no choice but to feel joy, that my love for my baby would override the pain. The birth of my son didn’t take away the pain of losing my brother, but it allowed me to open my heart up again to hope.

It gave me permission to feel happy.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through, what they have endured or are battling. I had many nights and early mornings of driving home from the hospital after staying with my brother where I truly don’t know how I made it home. There were times where I caught myself driving about 15 mph on a busy road. Before my brother’s illness I would have been irate over a slow driver holding me up. I still sometimes get a little annoyed but I always remind myself.

We all have bad days and some of us have really bad days and are just trying to make it to tomorrow, so I try to keep my irritation in check. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an angry driver or shopper at the grocery store would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt, granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, when you don’t know what they are going through.  If you have to know the behind the scenes, well then you’re kind of sitting in judgement, right?  I wasn’t an asshole before, but I don’t think I really recognized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times and they probably will never know the significance of their actions. There was a coworker who, as I was leaving the office to go to the hospital, stopped me to give me a big bear hug. He knew I was worried about the news we were getting from my brother’s test results, and while I had talked about it with my shy, reserved friend I was completely taken aback with his show of affection. It was a small gesture that I knew wasn’t easy for him to offer. His effort to offer me solace moved me and reminded me that even though many of them didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and his wife who drove 12 hours to be here for my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law, who I barely knew was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she and I had met. She helped me get through an emotional night and she seemed genuinely touched by the stories she hear from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude when she said those words to me.  It let me know that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I’ve learned that you can, even 14 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like him and you almost want to stalk him, just so you can pretend for a minute that he’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischievious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behaviour.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok.

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me.

They are bittersweet.

They are welcome.

And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle, having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy, there would be no last minute stand in.  I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.  And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared and that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.

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17 Comments

  1. This is so powerful and beautiful, Gretchen. Everyone has a story behind their faces that we will never know unless we get to know them. For you to show and share this, you are such a beautiful person.

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  2. A beautiful testiment to your brother who I barely remember as a very little boy but feel like I would know him now if I saw him after reading this. Beautifully written. And a reminder for me to not get on Facebook at work! It’s hard to pull off a stifled sob with my office door wide open. Holy crap. Talking about getting the wind knocked out of you…I had to take a gasp to catch my breath after reading that last line.

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  3. Beautifully written, Gretchen. Your words are so true about learning to cut people some slack because you never know what they are going though. I will try to remind myself of that often! Thanks for sharing this.

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  4. Oh Gretchen…I remember that day so clearly. It still hurts, every single day, to wake up without him here. Reading this took me right back to your day, and happiness and joy for you and Joe! But also the very difficult time I had beginning Sept 15, 1999. Beautifully written entry…and thank you for taking me back. I miss him so much, but thank goodness that I still have you and your family in my life.

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  5. Gretchen,
    This hit really close to home. My sister was diagnosed with leukemia in January of 1997. She also died in January if 1997. It was supposed to be a long road, but the doctors were hopeful. I got married three months later. I wanted to postpone it, but my family wouldn’t even consider it. I completely get feeling like you will never be happy again. That was really hard. It taught me to be more patient with people too. A very wise friend told me everyone has something and you never know when your actions can help or push someone ever the edge. This was beautifully written. Very touching. I hope your parents have healed. I wasn’t sure I would ever have my parents back, but after my son was born my parents really seemed to change, very much a positive change. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I am so sorry for the loss of your sister. My parents amaze me every day, I don’t know how they do it. The birth of my son and six months later, my nephew really helped give them hope. They also participated in a group called Kindermourn and did some grief counseling. I have realized lately that I never really went through the grief process completely, there are some things I’m still holding on to and writing about it has been very cathartic. Take care…

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      1. My parents were also very involved with Kindermourn. I bet our parents know each other. Grandchildren really are a gift from God. My son gave me my parents back! Writing was helpful for me too. I was just too chicken to let anyone read it! I am so glad you have shared!

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  6. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. At the same time, I felt so much love coming from this post. Your brother is still bringing about love into your life through those small gestures of others…and he sounds like someone who wouldn’t have it any other way than that.

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    1. Thank you Kelly. That means so much to me. I am so grateful for anything that reminds me of him or makes me feel connected to him. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens. And writing this was one of the more healing things I’ve done since we lost him. This was one of my firsts posts I wrote and I had been doubting blogging and feeling like a fool for putting myself out there. As I was writing this, I was listening to music and there were 4 songs in a row that are “his songs”, songs that make me think of him. That encouraged me to keep writing this story. And this is the first story that got a decent amount of views, mostly from Facebook friends sharing it. I can’t describe how it felt to have people respond to this story of all stories. This post and the response is the reason I didn’t give up on putting my writing out there. I honestly feel like my brother kicked me in the ass, yet again, and made sure I didn’t give up on something I love… Thank you so much for reading this.

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      1. Sounds like he’s never left you. I have similar feelings about my grandpa. Every once in awhile, I feel like he shows me he’s still here, and I draw strength from that. And what a testament to you and your brother that so many friends shared this. I’m glad you didn’t give up on your writing, because I would have never found you otherwise. And I get so energized reading great things by other people.

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