“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.” – Cheryl Strayed
I was a professional ballet dancer into my early 20’s. I was trained to look flawless, graceful, and polished on the outside, regardless of my bleeding toes, aching Achilles, sore hip, and whatever cocktail of emotions was stewing at the time.
In those days, strength was synonymous with the adage, “The show must go on”. It was literally my job to give off the impression that I was ok, even if I wasn’t.
This mentality spread into my life outside of the dance studio as well. I was good at expressing a story through choreography with my body, but I didn’t know how to give voice to my inner world. And even if I had known how to, I certainly wasn’t comfortable being vulnerable. Instead, I was strong.
But on a crisp October morning in 2012, my mom took her last breath and it felt as though any sense of safety I had in the world dissolved instantaneously. I remember sitting with her lifeless body and feeling such internal anguish, “No, no, no. This cannot be real, she’ll come back”. Even as a twenty-seven year old, a child-like part of me was convinced that my mom was invincible. Cancer killed people, yes, everybody knows that, but certainly not my mom. Yet, there I was, in what felt like a twilight zone moment suspended in space, holding my mom’s increasingly cold and stiff hand as I studied her body closely, head to toe, with tear-blurred vision. Her sparkling blue eyes, sweet smiling mouth, those arms that had held me countless times in joy and in pain, the belly that grew my brothers and I, the legs that power-walked across the street and danced through the house—suddenly just there, without my mom inhabiting any of it.
I had no choice but to collapse in on myself; to melt into the soft and tender wound that was my mother’s death. The grief bowled me over; I felt like a young sea lion, weak and new, trying desperately to get onto land, but every time I came close, the sea of immeasurable sadness would relentlessly suck me back in.
As I lived longer with the grief, I began to realize that to be strong was to be with the swell of sorrow, confusion, or anger as it arose. It was much easier to catch an emotion before it blossomed and box it up in a tidy little package to be shelved indefinitely than it was to surrender to the truth of losing my mother and everything that reality carried with it. I somehow found within me a sense of courage that enabled me to stand, or at least kneel, in the face of my life’s greatest tragedy.
When I got pregnant in October of 2014, the overwhelming joy of carrying new life was coupled with a different texture of loss. I began to mourn the absence of a future with my mom. We had spoken at length about what it would be like when I had children; she would hold my hand during delivery and dote over her grandkids…teaching them how to rollerblade, sing show tunes, and bake sugar cookies from scratch with her secret family recipe. In nearly every mental picture I constructed of my future, there was an empty space that could only be filled by my mother, but never would be.
At my twenty-week ultrasound, the doctor told my husband and I that we were having a little girl. I could hardly believe it. It felt as if something in the cosmos righted itself on that day. I couldn’t have a mother, but I could be the mother to a daughter— to my daughter. I could call upon the strengths of my own mom and do my best to pass those on to my child. My mom was present with people, giving, compassionate, spunky, book smart but also inherently wise, and boundlessly loving. I vowed to do my best to carry forth those sweet and powerful traits.
My pregnancy was an emotionally complex one, saturated in equal parts happiness and grief. My practice throughout was to let myself feel the feelings. I realized that, already, I was engaging with my daughter and teaching her how to process the rollercoaster of life. I didn’t want her to grow up thinking that to be strong she had to put up an icy exterior. I wanted her to know that strength comes from vulnerability, as I had recently learned. I wanted her to know that strength means having staying power with a tough emotion when it arises and having the guts to see it through to a natural resolution. So I wept deeply when I was missing my mom, I laughed loudly with friends when something was funny, and I smiled genuinely when I was overcome with gratitude.
By my sixth month of pregnancy, I was feeling more or less comfortable with this familiar dance along the vast spectrum of emotions. I felt empowered as I opened up about my process with close friends. I could be a grieving daughter and a fully present and joyful mother –to-be all at the same time. I could be strong in my softness, messy in my humanness, ok with not always being ok. I could do this.
I was working through what I thought was my life’s greatest devastation and redefining what it meant, to me, to be strong. And then the unthinkable happened.
It was a Saturday morning in mid-May and I was getting dressed. I remember trying on a bunch of tank tops and thinking it was so funny that they all rode halfway up my very large belly. I was practically tingling with excitement, knowing that in just two months my sweet girl would be in my arms and I could really begin my journey as a mother.
As I tore through my closet, searching for a long top, my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize, but I picked it up anyway.
“Hi, Julia,” a man’s voice came through from the other end, “It’s Bill.”
It took me a second to sift through my mental Rolodex and place him. It was the father of one of my brother’s friends.
“Oh, hi Bill,” I remember saying, “How are you?”
“Well, not good,” his voice shook and I suddenly felt like I had to throw up.
I waited. There were a few moments of breathless silence and then, “Andy took his life.”
I’ll never forget those words. Andy took his life. The room spun and it felt as though someone had sucked all of the air out of it.
“NOOOOOOOO!” I screamed, as if maybe my desperation could be enough to convince my brother to come back, as if it were enough to do what no person has ever done before: travel back in time, scoop him into my arms and tell him it would all be ok and that I loved him infinitely and we could deal with it all, whatever all of it was, together.
I collapsed at the knees and fell to my bedroom floor. Hyperventilating, writhing on the rug, helpless, lost, confused, angry, in disbelief, and yet, strangely empty. While I was busy trying to find a shirt to cover my baby bump, my brother was taking his final steps, final breaths, and then, performed his final action. Just 10 miles down the road. My dear younger brother, the one with whom I’d shared so many secrets, confided in, cried with, laughed with; we were convinced we were twins at one point. I knew life had its way of taking us all in unforeseen directions, but I never saw growing old without him as an option. But poof just like that, he was gone. I’d never experience another one of his warm bear hugs, would never quote another dumb movie back and forth with him, would never roll my eyes at him when he turned a casual conversation into a deeply philosophical one—I’d never see him again.
The weeks following were a blur; we held a service for Andy (or as I called him, Ange) at our family home, my baby shower was two weeks later (I showed up a mascara-streaked, weeping mess), and my daughter came into the world 6 weeks after that.
From the second she was born, my daughter has been such an illustration of wonder, peace, grounded energy, and wisdom. She was, and is, a light of pure bliss amidst an otherwise stormy period. She is illuminating the countless gifts in my life and nods toward a future deserving of prosperity, safety, and joy.
Now that the proverbial dust has settled from my daughter’s birth and the early, delicate postpartum period, my mind and heart are more available to dissolve the veil of denial and look directly into the reality of my brother’s passing, wrapped in the invisible arms of my mother.
I am, of course, in the thick of it, and I anticipate being here for a while. Right now, amidst new motherhood and the fresh pang of grief surrounding my brother’s departure:
Strength is tender and raw
Strength is soft and malleable
Strength is asking for help when I need it
Strength is accepting help when it’s offered
Strength is watching my infant sleep and oozing gratitude for such a blessing
Strength is being vulnerable
Strength is having the valor to talk about the people I’ve lost
Strength is letting myself be angry
Strength is sometimes seeing the silver lining and sometimes not
Strength is being ok with not being ok
Strength is knowing that everything is temporary
Strength is embracing fear and then moving through it
Strength is giving and receiving love
Strength is letting my heart break open again and again
Strength is soft in its power, fierce in its truth, and deep in its wisdom