Sometimes Grief Returns When I Least Expect It

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m standing in Walgreens, my hands full of items meant to ease the discomfort of my daughter, Emily, who is home with a bad cold. I’m clutching a thermometer, a package of Nyquil gelcaps, two different kinds of throat lozenges, and a package of honey-flavored lip balm when the grief hits me.

It’s the lip balm that does it.

Three years ago, on an autumn day very much like today, I’d visited this same Walgreens and purchased half a dozen ointments and salves in a desperate attempt to relieve the oral mucositis that my older daughter, Ana, was experiencing as a side effect of her chemo meds. Oral mucositis causes painful inflammation of the mouth and gums as well as sores and soreness of the mouth and throat.

Ana was fifteen when the attack of mucositis struck and, like Emily, had just started 10th grade. It was a side effect so painful that she’d sobbed and declared it the worst symptom yet. She could barely speak. She couldn’t eat, drink or swallow without pain. The only thing that gave her a shred of relief was oxycontin, a potent opioid, and that’s mainly because it knocked her out. As soon as it wore off, she was in agony again.

I’d walked into Walgreens determined to find something — anything — to ease her pain.

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Collection of products I bought to relieve my daughter’s mucositis

It was a good eighty dollars’ worth of over-the-counter drugstore crap. None of it worked. She’d had to stop the chemo meds for a few days and wait for the mucositis to heal. It was the beginning of the end of treatment for Ana. Six months after that day, she died.

I’m back in Walgreens staring at the pink tube of lip balm and trying not to cry in front of a sweet father scanning the pediatric cold remedies while holding his snuffling toddler. I have a sinking feeling in my stomach — a reminder that none of us are in control, not even when we’re surrounded by shelves lined with dozens of remedies.

I know all too well that the pile of stuff in my arms isn’t going to cure my daughter’s cold.

It might ease her discomfort and help her sleep, but the cold is going to run its course with or without raspberry-flavored cough drops and lip balm. That’s one of the things that cancer stole from me — the confidence that I could ease my child’s pain. I suddenly envy the young father and his faith in the magic of pediatric cold medicine.

I am derailed for the rest of the day, my mind lost in a moment three years ago when Ana couldn’t close her lips without crying. Another memory hits me then. I’d mixed a paste using baking soda and water — a suggestion from her oncologist — but it had made the pain much worse.

A ribbon of grief sprouts from that memory and my mind follows it back to the last months of Ana’s life, to how her cancer kept progressing and her pain kept getting worse. I had no weapons left to fix what was wrong with her. All I could do was try to make her comfortable.

Once home, I deposit the pile of cold remedies on the dining room table and wander through the house, feeling bereft.

I kept most of the lip balms and salves for months after Ana died. It was particularly hard to part with the little tins of lip balm because they held impressions of her fingers. I would open up the tins and touch the little hollow that she’d made with her finger and close my eyes, remembering the shape of her hands.

The kind of grief that’s triggered by a traumatic memory — a memory involving Ana’s pain — pulls me back to those last, harrowing months of her life. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but when it does I get blindsided. There’s nothing I can do but wait for it to pass, just as Ana had to wait for her swollen lips to heal.

I’m sitting beside Emily and we’re watching reruns of Project Runway while she snuggles under a blanket and clutches a box of tissues. She’s feeling miserable, but she’s warm and safe on the couch, enjoying Heidi Klum’s criticism of an unfortunate young designer’s outfit-gone-wrong. Every once in a while, Emily removes the top from the tube of pink lip balm I bought her and applies another coat.

I feel an odd surge of gratitude when I see her do this, even though I know it’s likely not helping ease her symptoms. I feel it again when she takes two cold tablets before bed and sleeps soundly, though she wakes up the next morning still stuffy and with a low grade fever.

By the evening, she is sneezing less and talking more, feeling good enough to clean her room and demand we order takeout for dinner. She’s getting better, the cold beginning to loosen its grip. I feel a clenched part of my psyche begin to relax, like a string unwinding. I take a deep breath and then another.

“Why are you sighing?” Emily asks, glancing sideways at me.

I’m sighing because I’m releasing my grief, but I don’t tell her this. I’d sighed almost constantly for the first few months after Ana died. My grief was so large and heavy, it was as if I’d needed to physically expel it. So I’d sighed and sighed, then sighed some more.

Emily had noticed, of course. She’d been twelve at the time and very worried about my behavior. Now, whenever I sigh, I see the worry return to her eyes. “I’m just tired,” I say, then touch her forehead, checking to see if her fever’s returned. She grabs my hand and squeezes it, then goes upstairs to finish cleaning her room.

I sigh again, feeling the ribbon of grief drift away, taking the memory of Ana’s pain with it.

Upstairs, Emily is singing as she cleans her room. I light a candle near a photo of Ana, tell her I love her, and go outside to look at the waxing moon.

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

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