Labor Day weekend has always been a big deal in our family. I suppose it is in most families, signifying the end of summer fun, a reminder of school bells waiting as the leaves begin to fall, and the end of several months where families make time to be together. Not sure why we don’t make time for each other like that all year long, but perhaps the warmth of the sun really does bring out the best in us.
Since we are blessed with the use of my parents’ beach house, the joy of summer beginnings and the pangs of its’ ending somehow seem even greater. My mom especially felt it once she retired at age 70 and began to spend her summers there. It was her passion, with her mosaic art studio set up in the basement, her oasis of peace tucked under a large hat as she sat by the water and her place of strength to fight, upon being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.
She was exceptional. At everything. Even fighting cancer.
Once diagnosed though, the start of summer was not just the warmth on her skin, but a sign that she had made it another year. Signs of life. Yet as good as the beginnings were, the endings were harder, as she would stare into the water, praying for just one more beginning.
The first end of summer seemed impossible, as she would talk about articles of clothing that she might never wear again. Clothes she had grown to associate with the beach. There were tears over everything that went in a suitcase and remorse over the things that didn’t. But by the 2nd summer, knowing she had surpassed the survival odds by 2 years, it was a little different. Perhaps we got comfortable in this place of ‘living’, or confident or maybe just more understanding of what we could and could not control.
I am not sure. But what I know for sure is that when I took this picture of her and my dad on the bench he gifted her for their anniversary last year, I did not think this would be the first and last time I would take this picture. Not because I was in denial about this heart wrenching disease, but because I had stopped allowing myself to think that way.
After all, ‘Life was for the living’, as my dad would say…and that was what we were doing.
This year though, every step we took had an entirely different meaning, gingerly landing onto the souls of our feet, praying the earth would not swallow us alive. Praying that our knees were strong enough to hold us up. Praying that whatever she had left us with, was enough to keep us moving forward. This summer, we simply prayed for strength to carry on. With merely the presence of her spirit and the belief that she was here, we delicately put one foot in front of the other.
I think my dad and I pulled it off, by forcing ourselves to live in her place of paradise, taking care of the flowers and the garden…keeping things in the house just the way she would have wanted it. While many visits felt impossible, being surrounded by her space felt peaceful, with the sweet slight smell of gardenia in the air making me feel certain she was still here. Somewhere.
I took pictures of her beautiful mosaics, as if seeing them for the first time and dad created new beautiful art as well helping us stretch into the beauty of the unknown. And as we rounded the corner of her 6-month anniversary of passing…we began to find new ways to laugh and talk about her with half smiles on our faces. And though we didn’t mention it as much, the loss of a human like my mom was a loss we would not completely recover from. Ever. Instead, we would simply learn to carry on the way she said she wanted us to, with each of us caring for each other and living to the fullest potential we could.
It’s not that we don’t cry now. It’s just that now we find more healing in each other’s company and cry more in the depths of the silence of the night, rather than we are together.
This Labor Day happened to call for very bad weather. Hurricane weather no less. But we went anyway because that is what mom would have done. I crossed the bridge in record-breaking time and was relieved to once again collapse into my dad’s arms, knowing we had once again…made it.
By Saturday morning though, the only talk in the town was about leaving. How and when people would get out of town. Get out before the storm hits or wait it out and head home after. Dad was certain he would leave before hand, as was most of the beach goers, and while I knew I wasn’t equipped to stand the storm alone, I also knew I couldn’t leave before heading to the beach.
I could hear mom’s voice in the distance say, “We are going to leave without even going to the beach?”
No, I wasn’t. And so I bundled up my puppy and we headed to the stormy beach just to sit and think.
It occurred to me then what Labor Day was all about: Strength, prosperity and well-being. It suddenly made sense to honor my mom on this Labor Day, knowing that while her contributions may not have been to the country, she sure did quite a job contributing to a different type of home-land. The one that offers a base to our Home Team, our family.