On Wednesday, someone in my extended family passed away. I was not close to her, or her children, but I still feel the loss. To the (huge!) Anthony family, I am so sorry. I wish I could say something more, something comforting, but everything that comes to mind feels like a platitude.
When someone dies from cancer, the pain is visceral, raw, and unyielding. There is a certain level of helplessness that occurs when you are unable to do anything while your loved one’s body begins to shut down, when every breath is laboured and painful. And then when they are finally at peace, you feel guilt: not because you didn’t love them, not because you won’t miss them, not because there is an endless list of things you wish you could have done together or conversations you could have had. But because they are finally dead and don’t have to deal with the agony that comes with having fucking cancer. It’s like a punch to the gut and a knife to the chest all at once. Twice I have felt that kind of pain: when my grandfather died when I was nineteen, and when my aunt died when I was twenty-five.
My grampa never saw me graduate with my undergrad, and my aunt never saw me complete my masters. My dad’s dad, who died from cancer a few years before I was born, never got to see me accomplish anything. None of them will see me finish my PhD or anything that comes after. I hope that if they can see me now, they are proud of what I’ve done and who I am.
Thankfully, because of both genetics and socialization, parts of them live on in me. From my dad’s dad I have my height, my bone structure, and a confusing way of explaining things orally. From my aunt, his daughter, I have my bone structure, a don’t-take-shit-from-anyone attitude, lots of snark, and a proclivity for the words “shit” and “fuck.” From my grampa I have my muscle structure, my love for (very loud) music of most genres, a passion for photography, an interest in tattoos, a willingness to explore, and a need to yell at the tv when the Packers are playing (and not winning the NFC championship [*cough last Sunday cough*]). From perhaps all of them I also ended up with skin that doesn’t burn too easily (I don’t understand the complexities of inheritance beyond that of the Punnett square and/or beyond the chromosomal level, okay?).
I have been told stories about them from others and that helps them live on, and these stories become part of my memory. I also have my own memories. Like when my aunt told my parents not to get too mad if I failed a lot of my classes in my first year of university because it’s a Thing That Happens to a Lot of Students, or when my grampa had a tea party and coloured with me after my surgery when I was five. I think I cherish them the most, because I know that I was loved. I was The Baby on one side of the family and I was (the only) Kidlet on the other. I still am these things, but it’s not quite the same with them gone.
I wish I had taken the time to ask more questions and find out more about my ancestors and where they came from. I should have asked more questions about their lives growing up. I probably could have asked more questions about what my parents were like when they are younger. It seems that when we are young(er) we never really realize how fleeting and brief our time with our loved ones can be, and then all of a sudden that time is over.
In the hours, days, and weeks after someone passes away, the pain feels like it might take you away into nothingness. But as the months and years begin to progress, you come to learn–or perhaps accept is the more appropriate term–that the pain never really goes away. You get better with dealing with that pain, sure, but it won’t completely stop.
More than ten and four years later it still hurts; I still cry. Sometimes the tears are sad, full of heartache and grief because someone who was so important to me is no longer here and I would give anything to get a hug or hear their voice or their laugh. Sometimes though, the tears have a different kind of sadness. When you see, hear, or eat something that reminds you of them and you smile, those tears aren’t quite as painful. They’re the ones that let you know that you can keep going.
Death may or may not be the end of our existence, but love continues after.