Letter to a Tiger Princess

WHILE WE TRY TO TEACH OUR CHILDREN ALL ABOUT LIFE, OUR CHILDREN TEACH US WHAT LIFE IS ALL ABOUT.

— ANGELA SCHWINDT

September 17, 2019

Like I said in my last post, this rest of the year is full of some big “firsts”. This week, Izzy turns four! Her first birthday without her dad. Although she doesn’t express his absence in words, I know that she feels it. Just as I do. Because grief is like that. Sometimes you don’t need any words, any tears, any clear emotions — your body just feels it.

So, as we reach this milestone, I’m taking a page from Nora McInerney’s book No Happy Endings and writing her a letter (like Nora did with her children). Because Izzy might not remember everything about Ian and the significance of his loss until later in life, I want to create a snapshot of her world right now.

I want Izzy to know how much Ian loved his little tiger princess and how much joy she brought to his life! I want to relive some of my favorite memories of the two of them while they are still fresh in my mind. I also want to give Izzy a glimpse of her loss seeing it as she does now — because this narrative will only evolve as she gets older.

I want Izzy to understand how much I love her, but that I can’t always be there for her physically while I navigate this new normal. I want her to know how that much I learned from her — from the day that she was born, through the day that Ian died, until now.

I plan to write a letter to both Izzy and Theo every birthday — creating these snapshots in time and telling them how much they matter. I don’t know when I will give actually them their letters, but I have a feeling I’ll just know.

For now, I’m sharing my first letter to Izzy with you — because sometimes the greatest lessons we learn are from the little ones looking up at us.

Dear Izzy (age 4),

This Wednesday, September 18 of 2019, you will be four years old. For being on this planet only four orbits around the sun, you have been through quite a lot. You’ve experienced more than most pre-schoolers, most people my age (33), and even older than that have handled! Because just six months ago, your dad died. You might not be able understand what this exactly means, but for now, this is what I think you gather.

Daddy was sick for a very long time. He had a disease called Cancer. Cancer is not like a cold or a sickness that most people get. And you can’t catch it from germs when we don’t wash our hands. Cancer is different. It’s really bad. It made daddy’s body weak so that he wasn’t able to play tiger with you, swim, run or even get out of bed sometimes — even though he REALLY wanted to!

I remember one weekend in December of 2018 that daddy was really sick. He could barely get out of bed, but he was so excited to take you to see the ballet The Nutcracker. We had been the year before and daddy and me watched you in awe as your eyes lit up with wonder and excitement seeing dancing snowflakes, a growing Christmas tree, and a magical sleigh ride fill the stage. You literally danced out of your seat, throwing your arms ecstatically into the air to the beat of the music and pointing to all of the new things you saw onstage. Dad and I exchanged worried glances thinking that you were distracting other audience members from the show. But, everyone reassured us that they were just as enamored with your childish charm and total engrossment as we were.

Izzy, your zest and enthusiasm for the Nutcracker (and many other things) gave daddy strength and hope in a body full of pain and mind full of doubt. He barely hobbled into the theater for the performance that day. But the pain and discomfort was worth it, because you made him smile. You gave him the light — the purpose — he needed to keep fighting when he could have quit.

Did you know that you are an amazing caretaker, Izzy? Although you’ve told me that you want to become a Noodle Maker when you grow up — you should consider becoming a doctor or a nurse too! You would lie in bed with daddy reading stories together, giggling as he tickled you, and giving him snuggles to bring him comfort. During daddy’s final days of life, you weren’t afraid of him when got really thin and walked around with tubes coming in and out of his body. At the time you were only three, but you showed more love, compassion, fearlessness and empathy than some grownups I know. You held his hand, told him how much you loved him, and gave him gentle kisses on his cheek. Daddy lived for these moments. Even though he couldn’t say much as the cancer got stronger, I could see his eyes light up and a soft grin spread across his face whenever he heard your voice or knew that you were near. Thank you for giving daddy that joy!

On the morning that daddy died, I told you that the cancer made daddy’s body stop working and that he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk and see you anymore. I asked if you wanted to say good-bye to him. You looked at me confused and shook your head “no”. So I followed your lead and we went outside to eat breakfast outside on the picnic table overlooking water and the Mokoluas.

Moments later you changed your mind and told me that you wanted to see daddy. So, we went into his room and stood by his bed — his body finally resting in peace, but lifeless. You touched his hand and said, “good-bye daddy. I love you.” Then you looked up at me — so puzzled, so innocent, and so untouched by the magnitude of the loss right in front of you. The loss that would so vastly alter the storyline to your entire life ahead.

When the mortuary took daddy’s body away and everything in the room was cleared out, you asked me where he went. I explained that daddy wasn’t coming back and that he was going to the stars, the sun and the sky. “Like POOF?!?,” you asked in disbelief. Yeah kind of, I thought to myself. I reassured you that daddy might not be able to touch us or talk to us, but that he would be in our hearts — like in the book The Invisible String.

Every night shortly after daddy died while we were still living in Hawaii, we would light a candle after sunset and go outside to look up at the stars to say goodnight to him. You slept in my bed for two months and you had a lot of questions — Can we FaceTime daddy? Can we go visit him? I told you that we couldn’t and felt badly because I was failing to help you understand the permanence of daddy’s death. So, I told you that he turned into an angel — even though we couldn’t see him, he was always there.

Now that we are back in our house in Arvada, you are sleeping in your own big girl bed and have less questions about daddy. I try to talk about him with you and Theo as much as possible. I like to relive all of our favorite memories together — like how we all used to sit out on the deck eating breakfast in the mornings or licking popsicles in the afternoon sun; or, when he would tackle and tickle you in the basement playing tiger; when the two of you sat on the shower floor, criss-crossed apple sauce playing with your miniature princess dolls as the water trickled down your bare bodies (daddy made a little princess imitation that made you giggle with delight); when you both geared up in LeBron James or Broncos gear to watch the big game together; when he taught you how to hold your breath under water to swim, jump off the diving board, and swing your first putter; when you would bake together; when you would dress up in sparkly dresses and ask daddy to dance with you in the living room; and when you would curl up in his lap making him feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

Izzy, you changed your father. On the day that you were born, there was an obvious shift in daddy’s view on life — and in mine. We both cried and laughed at the medical student in the room who was sobbing hysterically after witnessing her first labor. She described it as “the most beautiful thing she ever saw!” We fell in love with you immediately, but Ian was smitten. You made us grow up. You made us understand that life is about something bigger than ourselves. You made us fall deeper in love with each other knowing that we were now a family, which meant sacrifice, responsibility and SO MUCH LOVE to go around.

Four years later to this day and you are a pre-schooler who picks out her own outfits, puts on her light-up Paw Patrol sneakers without any help, and doesn’t pronounce her “s’s” at the beginning of her words. Daddy and Uncle Harry would ask you to say “SPOON-tang” and just burst into hysterics as you repeated the word back to them innocently (omit the s here guys….). 🙂

We still eat breakfast watching the sunrise, host crazy dance parties, play tiger tackle and tickle, and we miss daddy. We don’t always talk about it. But, we feel it. The void in heart. The knot in our stomach. The love that we will always hold.

I feel guilty because I can’t always be there for you, Izzy. Right now mommy needs time and space to heal. I miss daddy a lot and sometimes I need to go to yoga, see friends or get work done to feel better and provide for you in other ways. But I know that we are a team — you, me and Theo! And, we are going to do just fine. Because you know something else, Izzy?

You have SO MANY PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU! Jamma, Jampa, GJ, Tutu, and all of your aunties and uncles from Colorado, to California, to Hawaii, to Canada and beyond. These people will tell you stories about daddy and teach you how to do cool things that daddy did — like surf, golf, play cribbage and talk your way out of trouble. You know why they will do these things for you Izzy? Because they love daddy too! And, we have our invisible string that connects us all through LOVE. So you, nor I, nor Theo will ever be alone.

So Izzy, in just four years you have taught me so much about life, love and to be honest with you, PATIENCE (you are very strong-willed like your daddy and me!) Happy birthday Izzy! You’ve made a world of impact on me and so many others.

I love you.

Love,Mommy

PS. Don’t eat too much cake and ice cream today. You will get a tummy ache and daddy will get mad at me for giving you too much sugar!

Time to Heal

TIME HEALS ALL WOUNDS

September 4, 2019

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in my childhood home of Durango, CO. My parents, the kids and I had driven down for the Labor Day weekend to see close friends, play in the river, and to simply enjoy our old stomping grounds together. I threw on my running shoes to go for a run up the nature trail, which takes you up the side of a mesa that overlooks the entire downtown and provides awesome views of the mountains. I had grown up walking and running this trail and was eager to take my solo run down memory lane several years later. Just out the door, my right foot started to feel slightly numb and weak. I soon found myself face down on the concrete!! With some fresh road rash on my knee, hip and elbow that matched the scratches on my iPhone, I hastily looked around to make sure no one saw my flop on flat asphalt and kept running. Further up the trail I started to smile at the symbolism behind my fall.

The weakness in my right foot was a result of an injury that occurred on March 2, 2018, after four hours of pushing during Theo’s labor. I had pinched a nerve that prevented me from being able to flex my foot — “dropped foot” — affecting my ability to walk, drive, or do anything besides hobble around for about eight weeks. With a toddler, a newborn, and a sick husband, I felt like I was going crazy. But, couldn’t do anything about it. I needed to stop moving. I needed to heal.

My dropped foot now functions, but it’s still not entirely healed. I’ve gone to physical therapy and workout daily, but it still feels slightly weaker and wobblier than my left foot. During my morning run, it was a not so gentle reminder that healing takes time.

During the rest of my run, I smiled at this reminder because just a week ago I wrote a passage that I chose NOT to share because it was basically a giant rant on my life. In it I wrote, whoever said “healing takes time” is full of CRAP, because I feel like everything is getting worse! And it’s true. Sometimes I truly feel that I’m regressing in my grief journey because this reality is just too hard to comprehend at times.

But the truth is that Ian has only been gone for five months. And this first year is going to be difficult. It’s going to be another seven months of “firsts” without him — and there are some BIG ones coming … Izzy’s birthday, his birthday, Christmas, the list goes on. Even visiting Durango this weekend was emotional because just last June, Ian was here with us completing our family vacation with four.

Ian loved Durango. We had visited during our college days on several occasions, including the notorious Snow Down Festival where Ian dressed up in a crazy costume that included a long-haired purple wig and got kicked out of a local bar trying to line-dance with our friends. When he wasn’t getting into trouble, he enjoyed floating down the river (even though his tube deflated halfway through!), tried fly fishing (for a hot second), ate delicious Mexican food, and got a glimpse of my childhood growing up — just as I do whenever I visit Kailua.

Ian wanted to visit Durango last summer on our bucket list road trip to San Diego. So, we made it our first stop. I look back at the pictures from that trip and viscerally feel that he should be here with us now. It was just one year ago. Everything else here feels the same — the places, the people, the experiences. But there is an obvious void; a major missing piece. And, that piece is Ian.

It makes sense that these experiences will all feel intensely different this year. It’s the first year since I was 18 years old that Ian is not in my life. So that absence, that void will be all the more profound. And while right now, in the midst of this journey, it might feel like my grief is getting worse — I remind myself to take a step back (or pound my face into the concrete!) and remember that:

Grief is not linear and that healing takes time. Instead of sprinting out the door to finish my grief, be gentle. Take it slowly. Heal.

These reminders (subtle or not) come in several forms.

When someone dies it’s not uncommon to look for meaning in seemingly insignificant eventslike falling on your face on a flat, smoothly paved road.

Or, listening to the lyrics of a song that speaks to you so clearly as if the dead special person in your life is literally talking to you. Guiding you.

These signs can also take place in nature — like the juxtaposition of rainbows in sites of immense tragedy.

They can also come in the form of a childhood friend, who has drowned in the same sorrow just three years before you and has resurfaced stronger, more full of light, and readier for all that life has to offer. Her radiance, confidence and and wisdom is living proof that yes, the wound will always be there. But with time, it metamorphoses into something entirely new…like love.

Sometimes we need our hearts to break — to be cracked entirely open — to see that the universe offers us so many answers. If we look at these signs through a different lens and really listen to them, they can guide us. They can tell us if we are on track; if we need to slow down and heal; if we need to stop second guessing our feelings and follow our intuition. Because when we are cracked totally open, our heart takes the lead and the rest just follows suit.

I’m so grateful for these beautiful (sometimes painful) signs the universe has offered me over this Labor Day weekend.