Tag Archives: cancer

Jumping in the Waves

The sky was Sea Bubbles blue. I know because I’d just seen that shade in my daughter’s box of 64 washable markers. Bright blue. Exactly the color of blue a kid would reach for to color in the vast, vivid expanse that stretched above us. Beautiful, bright, Sea Bubbles blue.

And we stood in the gulf waters beneath that brilliant blue sky. The waves were high and frothy, remnants of the last night’s storm, and as the green water rolled toward us, gathering the energy to crash against us, I held her in front of me, my arms loosely looped around her body, under her arms. She faced out toward the gulf, ready for me to swing her up and over the white foam that dashed against us. It was a new game she’d invented – wave jumping – and while she had fun doing it on her own, with my added height, we could venture out further and take on the bigger waves. She squealed and shrieked with delight as I swung her body over the water; she kicked her feet, pretending to walk on the water, and shouted, “Again, Mama! Do it again!”

And she laughed and played in the never-ending roll of waves and she had no idea the salty droplets I tasted on my lips were not from the gulf splashing up in our game, but from the tears streaming down my face behind my oversized sunglasses. She couldn’t see me and the crash of the surf muffled my silent sobs.

We were here, in the ocean, playing on a gorgeous spring break afternoon…and Kevin wasn’t with us.

I cried because I miss him.

I miss the life we lived together, the love and fun we shared.

I cried because when I finally begged off from our wave jumping game and settled onto the beach, I watched her play in the water and she was so beautiful and vivacious and sparkling and when I turned to share a conspiratorial grin with him about how amazing our daughter is…he wasn’t there.

Through tears, I texted his sister because I needed someone to know how very much I missed him at that moment. She texted back immediately: “I know he’s watching over you guys and smiling. He’s proud of you for still having her live life and do the things that she enjoys and that makes him smile.”

It should make me smile, too, because he and I agreed: no matter what, we would absolutely not let our battle with cancer rob our daughter of her childhood. Kevin pushed himself to go places and do things with her, even when he was tired and worn down and sick from chemo. He wanted her to have happy memories of him, and I thank God every day that she does. And he would not want us to hole up in the house now, curtains drawn and lights off, mourning him. He trusted me to keep making her childhood special, to keep making happy memories.

So I do.

I stand in the gulf waters on spring break and help her jump waves. And her joy is infectious and the waves are no match for her happy determination to hurdle over them.

It makes me smile — just like Kevin wanted.

She is happy. She is living life – just like her Daddy wanted.

In the warm rays of the sun glowing down on us, I can feel him. His smile, his laugh, his shake of the head at our whimsical girl and her reckless abandonment to joy.

She jumps the waves.

One after another.

And I think a little of her Daddy is in her, pushing me to jump, too. Jump when the waves of grief roll in and threaten to overwhelm. Jump high and reach for the little things – so many things – that still bring happy to our lives. Jump for the bright promises that remind me God’s in control and He has a plan for what the future will be for me and my girl.

Jump.

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The Broken Shells

She came skipping across the sand, hand tightly closed around something she’d collected at the surf’s edge, her face glowing with excitement and exclamations jumping from her lips.

“Oh, Mama! Look what I found! You’re going to be so amazed! They’re SO PRETTY!”

She leaned against me. Her skin was cool from the gulf water, and the drips of saltwater plopping from the ends of her braids felt good against my sun-heated arm. She unfolded her hand and beamed with pride.

“Look,” she invited. “Don’t you think they’re amazing?”

In the palm of her hand were two pieces of shells. Broken pieces, with jagged edges not quite yet worn smooth by the tossing of the waves. Of all the shells on the beach – and there were a lot to choose from – these two pieces had caught her eye. Two broken shells.

“Mama?” she prompted, “don’t you love the colors? They look so bright.”

She smiled down at the pieces and gently touched them with the tip of one finger, careful not to damage them, enchanted with the beauty she’d uncovered in the gritty sand.

“You’re right, Beary. They’re beautiful,” I finally said and smiled up at her.

“Will you watch them for me, Mama? I don’t want them to get lost because they need to be in my collection.”

I pulled a plastic baggie from the beach bag, scooped in a couple of handfuls of sand, then carefully placed the pieces inside. “Snug and safe,” I assured her.

She danced away to dare the surf to roll over her toes and I tucked the baggie under the beach chair. I sat, watching her jump and splash and simply vibrate with energy. The crashing waves, the cool ocean breeze ruffling the edge of her beach hat – her every sense was satisfied with the colors and sounds and sensations of the beach.

I looked at that joy shimmering in front of me and I looked at the baggie with its broken treasure and it made perfect sense to me that of all the shells on the beach, she saw the beauty in those two broken ones. That’s just how she is, trying to find the positive, recognizing the good in this imperfect life. I thought how many people had gotten up early to walk the beach and search for perfect shells rolled in on the night tides. I thought how these bits had been overlooked until my little sprite happened upon them, dug them out of the wet sand pressing them down, and declared them beautiful.

I taught her how to do that. It feels like a lifetime ago, but I did that. I taught her how to find all the little things that make life happy and good, things that others might overlook but are really gifts from God. You have to, when cancer comes to live with you. You have to find all the good things in life, all the joy, all the little moments that bring great happiness. It’s the only way to keep going. But then Kevin died and I forgot how to do it. I forgot how to look at my life, our life, and find beauty. All I could see through my tears were the broken pieces, jagged and jutting up, sharp reminders of the pain and loss and loneliness I wake up with each morning.

I’m trying. Between God’s promises and my little girl, I get plenty of reminders that life is still to be lived and enjoyed and, yes, even celebrated.

I reach under my chair and pull out the baggie. I look at the shells again, past their brokenness. Really look at the colors and shapes and texture. And I see what my girl saw. Beauty. Unrecognized beauty. A gift to those who know how to find and appreciate the little joys God gives us each day.

I’m out of practice, but I try.

Cool sand under my sun-hot feet.

The cry of a bird skimming over the ocean waves, diving for a fish.

My daughter’s shrieks of delight rising over the pounding surf.

Broken shells. Broken life.

It’s still possible to find the beauty in both.

My girl says so.

Note: I’ve been trying each day to find a bit of beauty, a little gift of joy. When the grief overwhelms, finding something good gives me a focus and I think Kevin wants me to keep looking for the happy bits of this life – especially the happy bits our girl brings me. To keep me on track, each Thursday I’ll list a few bits of happiness that I recognized and dug out to treasure.

A Scootch Too Good

I was surprised when I heard her voice pipe up from the back seat. She usually likes to sit quietly and watch the scenery pass by while we drive. She’s just like Kev and me – we once drove nearly three hours without talking, just content to be in the car with each other.

So when she spoke up, I listened.

And when I heard her words, I nodded my head and pressed my lips together to keep the tears from spilling out.

“Mama, I think life is just a scootch too good, sometimes. It’s hard when I’m having so much fun and then it’s over and I just want to keep having that great time again and again.”

Yeah, baby girl. I know.

I miss that scootch so much. That little bit of extra that made everything about life pretty wonderful. I miss the bad puns and the never-ending Bubba joke and the constant pausing of the TiVo so he could quiz me about where we’d seen a particular actor before. I miss the wearied kiss on my forehead after I knelt by the bedside and unhooked his infusion pump as carefully as I could. I miss the pat on my hip each night as he drifted to sleep, needing to make sure I was there in bed beside him. I miss his nose comically sniffing the air with goofy anticipation as garlic and tomato wafted through the house and deep dish pizza bubbled in the oven. I miss his silly voices reading Sandra Boynton books to the Bear each night when “all the hippos go BESERK!” I miss scrambling to the car, racing to chemo and the whole time he’s shrugging his shoulders and laughing, “They can’t start without me, Baby Doll.” I miss tangling our feet together on the recliner’s footrest in the chemo room, the drip-drip-drip of the drugs keeping time with our hearts: “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Life with Kevin – even life with cancer, because at least he was still here with me – it was just a scootch too good. I waited thirty-two years for that life, and he did, too, and we crammed as much love and happy and fun into ten years as we possibly could.

It was good.

A scootch too good.

She’s right, I think, as I make the left turn and head toward home, my face wet with memories.

It’s hard when life is everything you ever wanted. And you want it to go on and on and on. Forever.

But then it’s over.

And what’s left in my life is still good, and I’ve got my girl bringing me joy and her quirky insightful wisdom to prove it, but…it’s a scootch less than what I had.

I miss him so much.

It Is Well With My Soul

She twirled her pencil thoughtfully, brought it closer to hover over the paper then, in a furious spurt, began scrawling letters in her Daddy’s slap-dash handwriting across the lines I’d drawn for her graphic organization chart. We’ve been working on descriptive writing, and this section focused on describing a place. She’d listed several and I wondered which one made the final cut.

I peered over her shoulder and caught my breath.

Of course.

Orange Beach, Alabama.

Around the edge of the page, she’d written possible titles, introductions, and concluding sentences. I felt tears in my throat as I skimmed the words.

“My first trip to Orange Beach was fun!”

“I had a really good time there.”

“I have tons of amazing memories.”

What she didn’t write were the words bleeding from the jagged cracks in my heart:

“It was the last vacation we took before Daddy died.”

We both thought it, though. That vacation has been on our mind this week, because it was exactly one year ago that we were at the condo in Orange Beach, and my little Bear saw the ocean for the first time. Everything about the beach, the sand, the water, the waves…she was in sensory heaven. I will never forget watching her, Kevin breathing heavily at my side, the trek down the boardwalk taxing his dwindling strength, as she stood at the ocean’s edge. Just stood there, arms stretched wide, frozen in wonder and delight. Soon, her hands fluttered wildly to the beat of the pounding surf and she couldn’t resist. One foot slid in the water, followed by the other and soon she was knee-deep in the white-capped waves that pushed to the shore, abandoning herself to pure, childlike joy.

I watched her dance in the surf for a moment, then turned and smiled at Kev. He grinned and said wryly, “I think she likes it.” He squeezed my hand and turned back to watch her, but the smile fell from his eyes, replaced by a shuttered look.

I thought he was tired from the day’s long drive, so I pecked his cheek and said, “Let me go grab her and we’ll head back upstairs for a while.” I thought he’d just wait on the boardwalk while I crossed the sand and fished our mermaid out of the ocean.

And he did wait for us. But while I was pulling her from the water’s edge, he snapped a photo on his phone. A photo he never told me about and I didn’t find until six weeks after he died.

I wonder what he was thinking as he stood there, alone on the weather-beaten boardwalk in the fading light. Did he feel like he was fading from this life? Did he feel beaten down by cancer and the chemo and the aching tiredness of fighting? Did he see his two girls standing together, alone at the edge of the ocean, and know that soon it would be just his two girls standing together, alone at the edge of his grave?

I don’t know.

Orange Beach

My girl isn’t wrong. That week at the beach? We do have so many amazing memories. She built sand castles and played games dancing and darting around in the surf. I buried her legs in the sand and fashioned the mound into a mermaid’s tail. We sculpted a sea turtle on the beach and she trudged back and forth to fetch water in her bucket to make the sand wet enough to mold. We spent a stormy afternoon at a massive tourist trap of a gift shop, Kev hanging out in a beach chair, carefully guarding each “treasure” she wanted to purchase with her souvenir money, but holding firm (although laughing) when she begged for a hermit crab. When the sun went down and the ocean air cooled, we fixed supper in the cozy condo and watched the lights twinkle across the bay. We played card games and sorted sea shells and it was just the three of us in a place where no one knew our name, but it didn’t matter because we were together. And the three of us together – that was always enough.

We didn’t know that was our last vacation together. Exactly one month after we returned home, Kevin died.

The weeks that followed were a blur and I cried myself to sleep each night and woke up each morning, hand stretching across the empty bed, hoping to brush against his broad back just one more time. Shattered, I longed for one more message from him, one more “I love you, Baby Doll” brushing from his lips against my ear.

And then one day, there it was. The photo. The stark loneliness of the image haunted me at first, but the more I stared at it, the more I saw love in it. Of all the wondrous things he could’ve captured in a photo that second– the fading stormy sunset, the crashing waves, the swaying beachgrass – he chose us. His girls. At a distance, out of reach – but not beyond his eyes. Not beyond his heart.

The melody of a hymn wove its way into my thoughts.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

That photo was the one more “I love you, Baby Doll” I’d wanted from Kevin. I believe he watched us that day, sensing what was going to happen soon, and took the photo, knowing I’d find it, to show me he’s still watching us. Still looking at his two girls. Still loving us. We are always in his heart – no matter how far apart we are.

I smiled as she kept scrawling. Memory after memory of that Orange Beach vacation filled the lines of her chart, taking the shape of a story about that trip. It will always be bittersweet for me to remember that week, but she’s right. It was a great week, and we’ll always have amazing memories of that magical time.

It is well with my soul.

The Frog on the Shelf

It began, as things so often do, with the first one.

The frog’s bobbling head caught my attention. I tapped it again with my finger and smiled as its head dipped and nodded obligingly, a small red heart dangling from its mouth and a golden yellow crown perched absurdly on its head. “My Prince Charming” the box read, and I knew I had to have it for my own Prince Charming, the man who’d so recently knelt down, sang me a song, and slipped a diamond on my finger.

I wrapped it and presented it to Kevin on our first Valentine’s Day together. And the note I attached promised there’d be a new frog every year until the shelf overflowed with the silly testaments of a love only found in fairy tales. He looked forward to it each year, waited eagerly for me to hand him the evidence of my love wrapped up in a tiny 3-inch green figurine. I searched each year for the perfect frog, and, to me, February didn’t mean heart-shaped candy boxes – it was frog-hunting season. Different shapes, different greens, different hearts and crowns and smiles. Same love, growing deeper with each whimsical addition to his collection.

Such a silly tradition, but perfect for the two of us. Happily ever after? You bet! we said.

I saw it on a display in the store in May, which struck me as odd. I don’t remember much about May; the swirling fog of grief shrouded me with its grey cloak, and only the brightest pieces of light could pierce the gloom. I remember a baseball game and a yellow cat. And I remember a brilliant flash of green caught my eye, and for a moment the haze lifted and I saw a bemused lime-green frog grinning at me, his golden crown jaunty on his head.

I stopped.

A frog prince? In May?

I reached for it slowly, almost afraid I’d imagined it and the frog would disappear and my hand would close around empty air, like it did every morning when I stretched my fingers to Kevin’s side of the bed. But the green ceramic was cool under my touch and I grasped it, cradled it in my left hand, the back of the frog clicking dully against my wedding bands.

I needed it.

It was perfect for his collection.

It was perfect to remind me.

Kevin had just died, and I was floundering because he was the best part of me. He was the man who learned with me, over the beauty and bruises of ten years, exactly what love – the real, messy, hard-sometimes-but-always-worth-it love – means. The man who pulled me close after the doctor told us there was less than a one percent chance we’d ever conceive, and then rained happy tears on my face when our miracle was born after months and months of fertility treatments. The man who looked at my stricken eyes when we heard the word cancer and fought day and night year after year after year to stay with me and our little girl. The man who murmured “Baby Doll, I love you” over and over, even as he slipped into unconsciousness and his body weakened and his breathing slowed and I counted the last beats of his great gentle heart with my head on his chest.

I’d buried his body, but his love? Our love? Never.

The frog reminded me.

That love is still with me, inside me, glowing through the shattered wreckage of my heart, pulsing with each beat, sustaining me when the sobs wrack my body hidden deep in the closet, and creasing my face with a smile when I remember his sly grin. That love is alive and screeching with laughter, chasing a cat through the rooms of the home we created.

That love is a lime-green frog that I nestled gently in my bedside drawer, waiting to join the rest of them on the shelf on Valentine’s Day.

That love will go on forever, with a shelf full of golden-crowned frogs to prove it.

Him: Hey, would you, uh, love me the rest of my life?
Her: No. I’m gonna love you for the rest of mine.
(Phenomenom, 1996)

frogs