This time last year, my little tribe was on the island of Kauai. My brother Jeff and his soon-to-be wife, Ashley, had made a way for us to attend their wedding, knowing we were stripped of resources after weeks of cancer treatment and lack of employment. Our second day on the island, I asked Alicia if she would walk on the beach with me. It was late afternoon, so the danger of a reaction from her photosensitive medications had passed, she could emerge out-of-doors. She wore a shirt I had bought her to wear as an encouragement through treatment. The saying on it became her mantra:
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.
Wearing her mantra, she watched the sun as it set behind mountains jutting up like teeth from the dark rainforest below.
This time last year, my older brother, Vince, sat with me and listened as I broke in front of him. The tears issued forth as freely as the expletives. We had finished a round of golf for Jeff’s bachelor party, and were relaxing together when Alicia called. She was in the hotel room; she had used the last of the liquid pain medicine; her mouth was on fire. It was my first acknowledgment that the cancer never really left her body. The healing process from the treatment had already run its course. She should have been feeling much better by then, only she wasn’t.
This time last year, my big brother lovingly shuttled me away from the golf course. We found a drug store on the garden island of Kauai, where I bought every bottle of grape and bubble gum liquid children’s Tylenol I could find. It was the only thing we could put through her G-tube. All those boxes in my hands, each one with the same crude drawing of a smiling child looking up at me, made to look as if some six-year-old scrawled it and sent it in as the winning pick.
This time last year, we watched our handsome sons clamber around a reef while wedding photos were being taken. Ben was focused on taking the perfect sunset shot. And Caleb? He was trying not to look too proud of the fact that his dapper little cousin, Tristan, was following his every footstep.
This time last year, Alicia leaned over to me at the reception as everyone was eating dinner.
- Honey, I took a few bites and could actually taste it!
- That’s awesome! I’m so glad for you honey.
- Me too, but I think I’ll stop there, I may have overdone it a bit.
- Okay, that’s a good idea. I’m proud of you.
This time last year, I stood up to give a toast to my brother and his bride. While I don’t remember all that I shared, I recall saying how happy I was to call Ashley “sister”, how we had all been anticipating this happy day. In closing, I shared a sentiment that came to mean much after our last few months of going from home to hospital and back again, that it’s not what you do, or where you go, but it’s who is beside you that counts. I looked at Alicia as I said it, knowing my words were for her as much as they were for Jeff and Ashley.
This time last year, when we were back in Idaho, she came to me and expressed regret for having gone to the lovely island of Kauai. She was a burden, she said. She took away our fun, she said. She should have stayed home while the boys and I went alone, she said. No, I said. I never could have gone without her, I said. The boys and I would have thought of nothing but her, I said.
This time last year, though I had misgivings about her fate, I really didn’t know anything for certain. I didn’t know that the word “terminal” would be handed to us just five short weeks later. I didn’t know the depth of suffering she was yet to endure. I didn’t know I would feel the need to close her eyes when the boatman ferried her away to a shore unseen. Nor did I know the depth of unspoken love that could exist between two people. I was unaware of the reserves of strength that were to be drawn upon and of the sheer will and determination required to get up and face each day.
This time last year, I didn’t know I would return to our closet time and again to find that purple shirt; I didn’t know I would crumple it to my face while inhaling long and deep, as if doing so would draw her forth, genie-like.
As the days, weeks, and months pass in this, my year of “firsts” without her, these are the thoughts that come and go. These points on the calendar conjure memories – some beautiful, some painful, but always going something like…this time last year.