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My prayer comes in the form of my body moving through space, breathing, folding, flowing, pausing, stillness.
Sometimes, like today, sobbing, snot running down my chin, my tears settling into my mat, infusing it with the release of something that was.
A thousand words could accompany each movement but instead I save those for this space, for this is how I pray, too.
This prayer, these words, that movement, doesn’t come easy, always—it is a practice and I have to do it over and over again, each and every day.
Each time I sit with a reaction, I breathe and allow it to fill me—almost to the point of knocking me to my knees—and sometimes, face first into the ground—for this is how I pray, too. But I’m learning to soften that voice that questions my worth and wants to shove me deep into the darkness of my mind.
My prayer is simple and it changes each time I move, for we are always changing and we are never the same person we were moments before.
I want you to know that I’m not afraid of the shadows; and while, yes, I will dance at the party and leap with joy, my body vibrating with laughter, I also know how to sit in sadness, the heavy, sticky kind.
I know the stench of shame and I’m onto the many ways in which it tries to camouflage itself amongst my blood and bones and skin and cells. It seeps deep down until it’s convinced even me that it’s just a part of the home I call a body but the truth is, I need to come back to how I pray to release it from my soul.
But here is the thing—the root of the root, the bud of the bud—the moment I learned how to pray was the moment that you took your last breath, on that day, eight years ago.
At first, I prayed to the bottle and thought that somehow I would find life hidden inside each sip, each burn, down into the depths of my belly. This is how I survived watching you unravel your life over the course of time that it took for the monster to slowly but swiftly steal your breath away.
I watched your smile change, your body shifting as medicine raced through you on a rampage—your belly, slowly starting to fill itself out and your cheeks to match.
I watched your hair begin to fall out—and do you remember the day I said Why don’t you decide when your hair goes and fuck cancer, and then we made an appointment to get it all cut off and how cute it looked before it all faded?
Your power was yours again for that moment-in-between.
I flew back and forth, from what was home-then to what-is-home-now, coming to be with you, with my family—to be there, to be present.
I wanted to be your rock, your heart and soul—I wanted to be there for every moment for you—but for me, your little girl, too.
My prayer came in the form of questions and dark nights over bottles of cognac with Dad, speaking unspeakable truths of what was happening before our very eyes.
My brain said She’s going to die and my heart said No!—with a pause and a sense of heaviness—she would slowly nod and say, Yes, she’s going to die.
And so we moved, slowly yet swiftly through this surreal place, this new world we found ourselves submerged in—the new normal—impossible to think that this was happening to us, to you—and we made as many terrible inappropriate jokes as we could, laughing in that monster’s face.
This laughter was our prayer, too.
And four months later—four months since that phone call where you and Dad told me you were sick—me, a little bit drunk and giddy on Munich and a boy I was sweet on—the warmth draining out of me, the news crushing me—fast forward those four months to the two days before you would die.
I didn’t know my relationship with words at that time, not like I do now—though I tried, over and over again to make sense of it all with speech, it wasn’t time for the words to come. I didn’t know all of the questions that I would wished that I had asked when you were gone—I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about what you dreamt of as a little girl or what it felt like when your father died—or what you thought heaven looked like, or if you believed in such a thing.
I didn’t know anything—and this was prayer, too.
Two days before you died, I remember the morning like it was yesterday and every year, I see it coming and it still manages to knock me over.
That day, the sun was bright in the November air—warming and lovely to look at from the living room window. We could see that pumpkin night had taken place, that silly tradition to honor the years gone by at the school across the street—a place where I was once another version of me. I went down to photograph the bright orange pumpkins perched on the long iron fence to show you because you couldn’t walk that far and it was too cold for your fuzzy, soft head, anyway.
We drove, you and I, to meet Dad—and in those few moments-in-between I noticed that you drooled a little down your front and your eyes didn’t look like you and something had changed inside of you. Someone asked you about your dog and you couldn’t remember his name and my heart was on fire because you loved him so. I could see your confusion and your shame and I could see you there, the real you, underneath the disease that became what everyone else saw you as and cringed away from, because their fear was too big to let the love through.
And soon, we were sitting in a too-cold office, waiting to hear the fate of your life. I had come here for this, for you, for Dad—for Matt—and for me. Because we asked and we asked and they don’t give answers that are easy to decode without a degree.
For those few minutes, your eyes blazed with clarity—What else can we do? I am not just going to die—I’m not ready and I want to fight—he gave us a the tiniest (almost invisible) thread of hope to hold onto and sent you off to have your bloodwork done to see if your body could withstand another treatment.
You left and I stayed and my prayer in that moment was—How long does she have?—and he—sad-eyed, almost—said Maybe until Christmas.
And so we went back and forth, me with my questions, him with his answers, until I had all of the horrible truth of what your death would be like settled into me somewhere.
That night, you were (almost) you and we sat and you weren’t hungry but I made you tea; we talked about life after cancer and how you would clean out your closet and start a new life and everything in me wanted it to be true.
I wanted it to be true, that you would not die; I prayed and I prayed and I prayed and this was my prayer: Please do not let her die—I’m not ready for her go.
The next morning, I left by the light of the moon, not kissing you goodbye for fear of waking you and flew back to my home-as-it-was-then. I went straight to work and started my day, grateful to drown myself in something that had nothing to do with death or dying or cancer.
(I understand now how much I used my work and alcohol and cigarettes to feed me and kill me at the same time, dying in my own way, just as you were dying in your own way. The difference was I chose my death and you did not choose yours.)
It didn’t last very long, this prayer of distraction—before I knew it I was on my way to the airport and on a flight to see you, because you had woken up confused and not you and the only thing left to do was to take you to a place where you would not walk out of.
(Oh, how I wished I had kissed you goodbye that dark, early morning.)
There are parts of that day and the days (and years) that follow that are a blur and the more I move and breathe, the deeper I dive into the places where I hid these moments away and they surface in tear drops and cycles of unexplainable rage at inanimate objects and at myself—and this is why I pray, too.
You were in a room and it was small but it was ours and you knew I was there—you knew we were there—and you didn’t know I (and we) were there. Over the course of the night I would not leave your side—I would not leave your side again until you took your last breath—through the night and the next day—because I loved you so and still do (and you never left my side, not ever when I was sick or sad or needed you).
They would tell us that cancer was everywhere—it had invaded your body and was in your brain and that was that.
That was that; this was it.
And so while the people we love came and went, I stayed and I stayed. I watched you writhe in pain and discomfort; your body swollen and bloated, the monster devouring you. I talked to you and calmed you when you panicked—I stayed and I was your mother and I was your daughter and I loved you just as you had loved me for all of my life.
There were a few moments before the last when you would know it was us and we would giggle and then the monster would rage and try to drag you under the surface and you fought like a warrior and I was so proud of you and we kept saying, We love you—I love you—and when you are ready to go, we will still love you—I will still love you—and it’s okay. We will miss you but we will not forget you and we love you, so go.
The greatest thing we can do is love like the ocean and let our love go when it’s time; to watch death become life and breath become nothing and witness it all—in that moment, the moment before the last when life roars through the body of someone you love is about to die, you know that you will die, too.
That day (it was a Wednesday), your last life breath surged through you and we stood around you, telling you over and over again how much we loved you.
We had formed our own club, with our secret-cancer-language and while at the time it brought us so close, your death would blast us all apart and it would take years to feel like any kind of a family again.
And then you were gone.
You were gone, just like that—your body, the shell of you, left behind. The pain, the sorrow, the fear—you overcame it all. You went towards the thing that most frightened you and I was so happy for you and so sad for me and oh, how I still miss you so.
The blue ring that you used to wear (since before the day I met you) rarely leaves me now for when I wear it I feel your strength pump through my spine and my arms that are long like yours and my too-big rib cage and how every now and then, somebody we love says, In that moment, you looked just like your mother.
The days that followed are blurry and full of tears and booze and food and a house full of grief and love. People came and went and somehow, I wrote your obituary and somehow, I chose the clothes that you would be burned in, in the sweet box that your brother made, filled with our memories of you.
Somehow, we planned a funeral and sent you off into the ethers so you that you could be born again, too. We made it through the goodbyes and then we crumbled.
So, this is why I pray:
To remember all that you taught me. To remember who you were in this life and to know that for reasons that are none of mine to know, you lived your life and left us with so much love to continue to live by—to remember that I am strong and I am your daughter and that although at times it feels as if there is no room for motherless daughters, I will always have the memory of you.
With your death, you etched into my heart and bones the best love note of all: that everything is possible and if I can witness the person who loved me the most die, I can do anything.
After the years of numbing, hiding, shaming, and self-inflicted pain and hatred—anger, really—my body began to move and breath flowed and the words slowly followed.
And so I pray because when you died, I died too—and with the death of us both, it took me many years to come back to life, and I have to work at it still.
This is dedicated to the memory of you, twinkling brightly in the night sky.
So it be in heaven as it is here on earth. Aho.
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