April is a beautiful month of transformation in New York. My younger daughter was born in April, my older daughter in May.
This month, my Facebook memories are filled with photos of both my girls, sitting at our battered dining room table, beaming at their overflowing Easter baskets.
I’m Jewish and didn’t celebrate Easter until I had children of my own (by “celebrate” I mean decorating eggs and buying baskets). I remember the very first Easter basket I bought. I’d waited too long to get it, and all the stores were sold out of Easter-themed stuff.
I found myself in Walmart’s toy aisle, where I purchased a plastic bucket and filled it with small toys — a rubber snake, a few plastic eggs, bubbles, a small stuffed horse (there were no bunnies left) and sidewalk chalk. My older daughter, Ana, was only 2 at the time. She didn’t eat candy, didn’t know or care about Easter baskets, but when I handed her the bucket of goodies, her entire face lit up. Both of us fell in love with Easter that day.
Easter remained one of Ana’s favorite holidays throughout her childhood. When her sister was born a year after that first Easter, they celebrated it together, embracing Easter morning at our beat-up table with sugar-bright eyes and smiles that went on for days.
Ana was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11. She battled the disease for nearly 5 years before her tumors outran her treatment. She died on March 22nd, 2017, about three weeks before Easter.
Ana was 15 when she died. She’d pretty much outgrown Easter and all its trappings — coloring and hunting for eggs, having brunch at grandma’s house, and discovering the treasures in her basket.
But that didn’t lessen the pain of that first Easter without her. My younger daughter had just turned thirteen and when I asked if she wanted an Easter basket that year, she said yes.
I’d gone to the mall to buy the Easter treats. I’d been numb and shell-shocked, selecting items for my daughter’s basket with a lump in my throat. Every store glowed with spring colors. Stuffed animals and chocolate bunnies made up the predominant décor. It all seemed absurd.
I tried not to cry as I selected items for one Easter basket instead of two, but I couldn’t bring myself to stick with that plan. I ended up buying a couple of new baskets — much smaller than the ones I normally used for the girls.
I filled the second one with toys and treats for our dog, so that when my daughter woke up on Easter morning, there would be two baskets on that old table, just as there always was.
The dog’s Easter basket sat untouched for months, its contents unopened.
The following year, Easter was much better. I’d thrown away the tiny baskets I’d gotten for the saddest Easter ever, and excavated my younger daughter’s old basket, the one she’d woken up to every Easter for most of her life.
I filled it with things she loved — candy, art supplies, and a few candles. I didn’t go to the mall to get these things. I visited small, local stores — places that were gentler on my grieving heart than the relentless bustle of a crowded mall.
When I filled that lone basket, it broke my heart — at first.
It looked so desolate sitting on the table, all by itself. But I also felt something that, quite frankly, surprised me. I felt relief.
It was so good to see that basket again. It conjured up memories of joyful Easter mornings with both of my girls. It’s one of the first times I was able to look back at my daughter’s life and smile instead of cry.
As it turns out, remembering my daughter with joy makes me feel closer and more connected to her spirit. This may seem obvious to those of you who have experienced deep grief, but it’s something I’m still learning.
During the early months of grief and (if I’m being honest) even now, I find myself hanging onto the most painful memories of Ana — the months she grew sicker, the weeks she was dying, and the exact moment of her death. These are the clearest memories I have of her.
Remembering her pain and fear during the last months of her life, and my own anguish in the hours before and after her death, was tortuous. It’s still tortuous, but these memories are readily available. It’s the older memories — the ones infused with joy — that are the hardest to find, the most exhausting to recall. They can also be more painful, in their way, because they fill me with longing.
So, I tend to hold tightly to the worst memories, and the agony that comes with them, because it’s easier and because letting go of them makes me worry that I’ll forget Ana in some inexplicable way. Which brings me back to Easter.
Last Easter, the second without Ana, was a good day. My younger daughter was 14, but still wanted a basket. She woke up around noon, she didn’t let me take her picture, and she disappeared back to her room far too quickly. But filling the old basket — and watching her discover her treasures — was enough.
It was enough.
I found myself imagining Ana’s spirit nearby, happy to see us celebrate one of her favorite holidays. It made me realize that I could recall memories of Ana without subjecting myself to the paralyzing pain of her final moments.
It was the beginning of a gentler, but more relentless, part of this journey of parental grief — the long, hard slog of life without her.
This year, my younger daughter will be 15 on Easter. I’ve already asked her if she wants a basket and she’s already said yes.
I’m planning to use the old basket again even though she’s outgrown the desire for toys and stuffed animals. It’s okay if there’s a little empty space inside.
I plan to keep both baskets for a good long time. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve pictured filling them with toys and candy for a future grandchild (or two). That thought rises like a glimmer of hope, illuminating some far-off place where the memories of both my girls are always infused with joy.