Choosing Life, One Year After the Death of My Daughter

A collection of my first folded cranes (image my own)

Twelve months ago my 15-year-old daughter died, and grief rolled into my life like a thick fog.

Last week, I folded my first crane.

Cranes were our inside joke. Ana learned how to fold them when she was around 11, a skill I greatly admired because I’d never learned. I once asked her to teach me, but she refused. She liked knowing how to do something I didn’t. Over the next four years, the cranes became a kind of ritual between us. She’d ask for something — a sleepover, a new sweater, a late-night snack — and I’d hand her a bright square of origami paper. “Sure, but it will cost you one crane.”

I kept them all — those precious reminders of our private joke. Sometimes I’ll hold one and remember her slender fingers folding it into being. I picture her satisfied expression as she’d hand me the tiny, perfect crane, and it’s like she’s with me again, just for a moment.

Ana had cancer for almost five years. During the final few months of her life, I was painfully conscious of the lasts (the last day she went to school, her last birthday, the last crane she made me …).

I thought I was done counting. I thought that, with her last breath, there would be some relief from the endless agony of watching her slip away. That was before the grief flooded in, washing everything else away.

Suddenly I had something new to count — an endless stream of heartbreaking firsts, each of them with the power to completely undo me.

The first time I saw a body carried out of a house, my house, by a pair of silent undertakers.

The first time I went into her room after she was gone.

The first time I went food shopping, passing by the things she loved: strawberries, mint tea, goldfish crackers …

The first holiday, birthday, anniversary, week, month, and year — all come and gone without my sweet girl here to see or celebrate any of it.

Some days I encounter multiple firsts. I call them micro-firsts (the first time I threw out something she’d used — an old bar of soap, a spent tube of toothpaste, a stale bag of goldfish crackers …).

Until about three weeks ago, there were so many of these terrible firsts that they overwhelmed the good ones. And, surprisingly, there were good ones — the first time I felt genuine joy again, the first hummingbird to visit my yard in July, the first sign I got from Ana (a luminescent opal placed directly in my path).

I couldn’t see how mired I’d become, how grief had enveloped me, preventing me from living.

I got some solace from taking daily walks on local rail trails throughout the spring and summer. I became obsessed with birding, placing feeders around my yard and setting up an area where I could sit and watch the birds. I went back to work, so hobbled by grief in the earliest months that I could barely concentrate for more than an hour at a time.

I took a lot — and I mean a lot — of naps.

Ana has a younger sister, my daughter Emily, who was 12 when Ana died. I tried to keep life as normal as possible for Emily, tried to keep going for her sake even though I wanted nothing more than for my heart to stop. Emily is smart. She saw what I didn’t. She retreated to her bed when I retreated to mine. She avoided talking about anything that would make me sad.

“She’s watching you like a hawk,” my friend Babs said. “She’s going to try to protect you.” Babs had lost her son, Killian, nine years before I lost Ana. Killian’s younger sister was 8 at the time.

“I know,” I said. But I didn’t know. I had no interest in living life and it showed.

Winter was brutal. I stopped walking when the leaves turned brown. I joined a gym with Emily, but we only went a few times. I took refuge in books, wine and food. My body was a sinking stone, but I didn’t care. I wanted to sink and never come to the surface again.

The firsts continue to batter my broken heart — the first day of school, the first snowfall, the first new year without Ana in it.

I felt completely adrift. We were a family of three when we should’ve been four. It felt like we were all untethered, each mired in our own separate agony.

We were three planets without a sun. Was Ana the sun? Maybe she was a planet, too. I wondered what happens to a solar system if it loses a planet. When I researched this question, I came across this sentence from a 2011 article by Lisa Grossman on New Scientist:

“Astronomers in Japan announced that they had spotted lonely planets wandering through the dark space between stars.”

“Of course,” I thought. I was a lonely planet wandering the dark space between stars. I didn’t want this to be my reality, but 11 months had passed, and I had barely left the house.

Then I had a health scare. A visit to the eye doctor prompted me to get my blood sugar checked because my vision had changed so much. That’s how I discovered I’d gained 15 pounds in seven months. My doctor checked my blood sugar, thyroid, blood pressure and heart rate — all were normal.

That appointment was a wake-up call. I weighed more than I ever had, even when I was nine months pregnant. If I didn’t lose weight, I’d keep sinking. I’d have to stop obsessing about my heart stopping. I’d have to accept what, subconsciously, I’d been denying. Ana wasn’t coming back. She was gone forever.

I’d have to choose life.

It’s been a little more than two weeks since I made that choice. I began exercising again, eating healthier, and drastically cutting down sugar. I quit consuming caffeine. Within a week of doing this, I noticed more firsts.

The first time I went out with my husband to a fundraising event filled with people who knew my daughter. I barely cried. I actually enjoyed myself.

The first time I started seeking out Facebook memories instead of avoiding them and began sharing them with words of love instead of words of pain.

The first time I climbed back on my bike (indoors) and rode for 20 minutes.

Which brings me back to my first crane.

You see, I had an idea for the first anniversary of Ana’s death. I invited everyone who knew her to fold at least one crane, write #CranesForAna on it, and post a picture to social media. Then I hope they’ll leave their crane somewhere for a stranger to find.

Maybe that stranger will search for the hashtag and read about her.

I had to learn how to fold a crane to participate in my own initiative. Turns out, it’s not that hard. Over the past week, I filled a bag with cranes. Today, I’ll leave them throughout my neighborhood — at the stores Ana liked and all her special places.

If you happen to find a crane, please take it, think about Ana, and keep that crane in a safe place. She would want you to have it.

On March 22nd, 2019 — the second anniversary of Ana’s death — I invite you to fold a crane with me. Here is the excellent tutorial that taught me how to fold my first crane. When you’re done, write #cranesforana on its wings and leave it somewhere for a stranger to find. This grief is heavy, but when people share in remembering Ana’s life, it’s a little easier to bear.

This essay was first published in the Washington Post on March 22, 2018.

This post is the second in a series of articles I write each year on the anniversary of Ana’s death. You can read the first essay by clicking the link below.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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