“Small, slow steps. Don’t stride. Don’t rush. If you rush, you’ll fall, or burn out. Either one could kill you. Take small, slow steps. Small, slow steps and you will get there.” It’s Valentine’s Day, and my brother’s words repeat over and over in my mind like a record skipping, as I climb the snowy hillside above our ranch with freezing feet and shattered heart.
My brother Peter was a mountain climber as a young man; at age 21 he and a group of friends tried to climb Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada. He never made it to the top, he got caught in an avalanche and was almost swept to his death. But he dug himself out, climbed back to camp and got his team-mate to stitch up his head wound right there on the mountainside without anaesthetic. And then he climbed another 20 hours down to safety afterwards, and kept on scaling peaks for a few more years. Surely he knows something I don’t.
Slow, small steps. My over-taxed lungs huff out puffs of frozen air that fog up my glasses so I can barely make out the narrow trail, buried underneath knee-deep snow. Slow and steady. Like in the children’s fable, The Tortoise and The Hare: “slow and steady wins the race.” But in this case, the “race” is the quest to heal a grieving heart, and some days it definitely feels like climbing a mountain with the constant threat of being swept away.
Slow and steady. As I fight not to slip from the unsteady grip of my winter boots, I wonder: is it actually possible that a mountain climber’s mantra and a child’s fable could offer the keys to healing? How can these bits of wisdom transform the grief brought on by the cancer diagnosis and early death of my youngest daughter, Sara, seventeen years ago? Sara, who was born on Valentine’s Day.
Looking up, I lift my mittened hand to shield my eyes from the glare of sun on snow, trying to get my bearings. Wearily, I push myself forward. In the HBO series The Crown, Winston Churchill is portrayed as repeatedly painting a certain subject: a pond that he had installed in his country home after his young daughter’s death. It’s implied that he paints it over and over because it is somehow connected to his grief and his need to understand the loss of his child. I think this hill and what lies at the top might be the equivalent of Churchill’s pond, for me. I come back to it over and over again, both in person and in writing, from many different angles but always ending up in the same place.
I am not sure if the ache in my lungs is from the cold air I am breathing, or from the anguish I feel at what I must confront at the top of the hill. Hot tears blur my vision. I swipe at them impatiently. I need to see the trail clearly. Suddenly, I have an overwhelming desire to rush forward, to stride in great lengths to get there sooner. To get it over with. “Small, slow steps,” says my brother in my mind. Rushing equals burnout? Ha! I don’t think so. It has been a long seventeen years and my grief over losing Sara has yet to burn out.
Loss is an odd word to describe death. Sara is not lost. I know where she is. She is dead. Let’s call it like it is. No fake news. Just an honest fact. Let’s stop couching death in euphemisms in hopes of keeping the excruciating pain from killing us, too.
My steps falter. I stop. Look up. I am half way to my goal. I suck in a freezing lungful of air and take another small step forward. Whoosh! I slip off the trail and sink up to my thighs in deep snow. Panicking, I clamber frantically to grasp the branch of a leafless aspen, pulling myself away from the steep cliff beside me. Deep breath. Refocus. I can do this. I carefully extricate my trapped foot and steady myself back on the narrow trail. Small, slow steps.
Really, Pat? My inner voice screams at me. Really? This narrative is beginning to sound like one big clichéd metaphor for your emotional climb out of the depression brought on by the loss of your daughter. Really? Stubbornly, I bark out, “So, what?!” and pull myself another agonizing step up the hill. Who dictates the timeline, anyway? Grief is capricious, showing up at unexpected times, knocking the breath out of you: at a young friend’s wedding, a baby shower, graduations, birthdays or holidays – all of them shedding painful clarity on the fact that this is a future Sara and I will never share. Defensively, I pull myself forward. Perhaps others who have experienced the death of a loved one will read this and feel less isolated. Will know that they are heard. Understood.
Within the young adult cancer community, I read blogs and Facebook posts daily, written by other parents about their children, or by young people whose sibling, friend or lover has died from cancer. Desperation oozes off the screen. Trying to re-establish meaning for life as it is, not as it was, is a challenge expressed time after time. We never get over our grief. Some people wear theirs like a black shroud forever. In a way, it is comforting and safe. It anchors them to the “life before” when their loved one was still present. Some worry that if they let that go, they will lose their loved one forever. They take shallow breaths so as not to disturb the fragile connection. The world around them is a colourless, laughless place. And that is okay because that is how they live with their grief. For others, grief eventually transforms into something different. They move out of the dark, airless shadows to a place where they are able to breathe deeply again, see bright colours again, and even allow themselves to laugh, without feeling they are being disrespectful to the memory of their loved one.
Slow and steady. Breathing deeply, I push myself upward. Only steps away, now.
A blast of freezing wind bites through the wool scarf around my neck and face as I reach the summit of the hill. I’ve made it. I stare at Sara’s cast-iron sword, standing strong and straight, boldly driven into the granite rock half buried beneath the snow. Slipping a silver flask out of my jacket pocket, I unscrew the lid and pour a stream of 12-year-old single malt down the full length of the words imprinted into the sword: “Until the Magic Returns”. Sara loved a sip of good Scotch – a genetic throwback to her great grandfather’s Scottish heritage, perhaps. As a child, Sara believed in fairytales, fables and magic! She believed all things were possible. Healthy and free, Sara gleefully wielded a wooden broadsword, slaying the imaginary dragons and demons she found lurking upon this hill overlooking her home below. I hold my breath and listen. I can almost hear her laughing as she scrambled up the narrow trail, proudly saving the world. I take a deep breath of cold air and let it out. My pounding heart slows to a more natural rhythm. I squint against the sun as I gaze out at the mountain vista surrounding our narrow valley. Seventeen years. I hate the fact that Sara is dead. But, I love the fact that her earthly remains are scattered here on the ground that she called home.
Yes, I still grieve for her. I choose to live and breathe within it, every day and night. I am sad for those who share this space with me, but comforted to know that I am not alone, scaling this high, cold mountain. I take in a deep breath. I draw in all the memories of Sara that I can, in this precious moment, and wrap them around my aching heart.
My brother’s words whisper on the wind: “small, slow steps”. Removing my mitten, I reach down, pressing fingertips to Sara’s sword in the stone. It isn’t a race. Healing needs to unfold in its own time. Like the Tortoise, set your own pace. Will it help heal a shattered heart? Yes, today, I believe it will.
I share this story in honour of all those who have gone before us, and in memory of
Sara Taylor Gibson
February 14, 1974 – July 17, 2000
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.
Pat Taylor is a producer, writer, director, performer and educator whose credits include documentary films, television specials, plays, musicals, short stories, music videos and major tourist attractions. She is also a mother and parent advocate for young adult cancer patients, and the founder of Chasing Rainbows Young Adult Cancer Advocacy, an initiative dedicated to discovering and distributing multi-media support materials for young adults with cancer, and facilitating young adult voices in the cancer community. Pat has produced two documentary films, Sara’s Story and Chasing Rainbows: Young Adults Living With Cancer (both of which feature young adults ages 19 to 29 “living life while fighting for it!”), and has researched and helped to promote many other film resources produced by and for young adults with cancer. Pat has been a guest speaker, session presenter and young adult cancer resource advocate at conferences across Canada, USA and Europe. (IPOS, APOS, TCT, CAPO, CCS, BCCA, NCONN, Stupid Cancer OMG, Critical Mass, ICCCPO). Pat cared for her own daughter Sara from first diagnosis at age 23 (1997) through recurrence (1999) and end-of-life at age 26 (2000). “Whether you are a family member, friend or health care provider, it is often difficult to know which way to turn, what to say or how or when to say it…when to offer help and when to step back. As the CKN Caregiver Section Editor, it is my intent that we share our individual stories, confusions, insights and hindsights so we might help one another not only navigate the complexities of a “road trip” of this nature, but also celebrate with one another the precious moments filled with love and joy that give us the strength to travel along with our loved ones on the journey from beginning to end.”