And Still They Bloom
A Family's Journey of Loss and Healing
By Amy Rovere, Joel Spector
American Cancer Society Copyright © 2012 American Cancer Society
All rights reserved.
Emily sat down on the back porch steps and took a deep breath. She wrapped her arms around her knees and gently rocked back and forth. She felt relieved to be alone. It was almost warm, unusual for early spring. It was Emily's tenth birthday. Looking out at the garden, her mother's garden, she noticed some signs of life starting to break through the damp earth. Emily hadn't spent much time in the backyard — not since her mother had gotten sick. She hadn't noticed until now that the bulbs they planted together were starting to poke up and out of the ground. Tears streamed down Emily's cheeks as she realized that her mother would never see them bloom.
Emily quickly wiped away her tears when she heard the screen door open and shut with a bang. Her seven-year-old brother, Ben, came bounding onto the porch. "Are you ready to play with me?" he asked as he sat down beside her. "I want to try your new game."
"Go away, Ben. I want to be alone," she said quietly.
"But you said you'd play with me after the party," he whined.
"I said, GO AWAY!" Emily shouted as she hugged her knees even tighter. Ben didn't move. He just sat there sulking, which made her even angrier.
The screen door opened again, and the floorboards creaked as their father crossed the porch. Emily waited for him to speak, but he was silent as he sat down beside them on the steps. They sat together quietly looking out at the garden.
Her father was the first to break the silence. "I'm sorry she wasn't here to help us celebrate, Emily. But I'm glad that Grace and Anna could come to the party."
"I don't feel much like celebrating." Emily looked down at her feet. She was quiet for a moment. "I just don't understand. Why did Mom have to die? It's not fair!"
Her father placed his hand in hers. "I know it's not fair, Emily. I wish Mom was here, too." He paused briefly. "Life's not always fair. Some people can have cancer, get better, and live a very long life. Other people get so sick that they die."
Emily noticed a few tears start to form in his eyes. "But why doesn't everyone get better? Sarah's mom had cancer, but she didn't die. Her mom still makes her favorite foods, and drives her to dance class, and tucks her into bed at night."
"That's not an easy question to answer, Em. As hard as they try, sometimes the doctors can't make cancer go away."
"And that's what happened to Mom?" Ben asked. "Her cancer wouldn't go away?"
He answered softly, "Yes."
Emily was quiet, debating whether to ask her next question.
She wasn't sure that she really wanted to know the answer. Before she could make up her mind, Ben beat her to it.
"What if you get cancer?" he asked.
"I know you're both worried that you could lose me, too," their father said gently. "But I'm healthy. And I'll do my best to stay well, so we can be together for a long time. If I ever get sick, the doctors will do everything possible to help me get well. Aunt Paula and Uncle Neil would take care of you if I couldn't. I know you're both scared, but just because Mom died doesn't mean the same thing will happen with me."
Ben looked relieved. More than anything, Emily wanted to believe what her father had said was true, but she wasn't so sure. The sun hung low in the sky and cast shadows across the yard. They sat together on the steps for a long time.
* * *
A few weeks later, Emily and Ben were putting the groceries away after a trip to the store. As Ben reached for the box of his favorite snacks, Emily snatched them out of his hands.
"Back off, squirt," she declared. "These are mine."
"No fair!" Ben shouted, as he tried to grab the box.
"Quit it, you two!" their father piped in. "There's enough for everybody."
Emily threw the box on the floor and sat down on a stool next to the counter. She knew her father would be mad but she didn't care. She was angry and annoyed, and it didn't matter if he scolded her.
At the grocery store, they had run into some women from her mother's garden club. Emily had felt awkward standing there waiting for her father to finish being polite so they could leave. She had grown to hate these moments. She knew people meant well when they said things like, "She's in a better place now," or "At least she's at peace." But these words were not comforting to Emily. And when she heard them she wanted to scream! There was no better place for her mother than home. Nothing anyone could say would make her believe anything else. No one could make her pain go away. People could say all kinds of things, but what was the point? She wished they'd all just go away and leave them alone.
Her father reached down and picked up the box of snacks. He took out two small pouches, tossed one to Ben, and handed one to Emily. "Hey, Ben," her father began. "Can you give me and your sister some time to talk? Why don't you go play in your room, and I'll come talk to you in a few minutes."
"Why do people say those things?" Emily shouted angrily after Ben had left the room. "Mom's not at peace. She's dead, and she's never coming back! They make it sound like she's happier now that she's away from us. Why would they say something so mean? Did Mom want to die? Did she want to leave us behind?"
Her father answered. "I know you're angry, Emily. You've got a lot to be angry about. No, Mom didn't want to die. She wanted more than anything to be here with us right now." He pulled a stool up next to her and sat down.
"Those women today meant well. They're sad about Mom, too. She was their friend, and they're just trying to say something nice. People deal with sadness in different ways. Sometimes people say those things because it makes them feel better. Many people loved Mom and miss her a lot. It's hard to know the right thing to say to someone who feels sad, and people just do the best they can."
"Some kids at school don't say anything at all to me. They just look at me funny or whisper when I walk by," Emily admitted. "At least Anna and Grace are still my friends. They still play with me."
"I'm sorry that some kids have acted that way, Emily. That must be really hard for you. I'm sure those kids feel sad about Mom, too. They might also feel embarrassed because they want to help but don't always know what to say. Often, when people don't know what to say, they don't say anything at all. I know that can be hurtful. Some kids also might be scared and confused. They might worry that what happened to Mom will happen to someone they love. I hope that with time, the other kids will follow Anna's and Grace's example and not treat you any differently."
Emily hung her head down, unable to meet her father's eyes. In a whisper, she said, "Sometimes I'm so angry at her for leaving us. Does that make me a bad person?"
Her father brushed back a stray piece of hair that had fallen in her eyes. "You're not a bad person for feeling angry. It's very hard to lose someone you love. It's okay to feel sad and scared, and even angry, too. We have so many feelings inside of us. They're all okay. Talking about it can help you feel better. I'm always here to listen. Don't be afraid to tell me how you feel."
Emily hugged her father, and the warmth of his arms comforted her. She felt so many things, and her feelings were all jumbled up inside her. It was hard to know how to sort them all out. But now, she just felt tired and didn't want to talk anymore. She rested her head on his chest. "I love you, Emily," he said. "We'll get through this together."
* * *
Ben had wrapped himself tightly in his favorite blanket, the one his mother had made. He was sitting on the floor next to his bed when he heard a knock on the door. His father stepped into the room and joined Ben on the floor.
"Hey buddy," his father said quietly.
Ben clutched his blanket even tighter and scowled.
"You want to talk about it?" his father asked.
Ben nodded. "Why is Emily so mean to me? She's mad all the time and doesn't want to play with me." As a single tear ran down his cheek, he whispered, "Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault that Mom died? Is that why Emily's so mad at me?"
His father put his arm around Ben and said, "No, Ben. It's no one's fault — not yours, not mine, not Emily's."
Ben didn't realize he'd been holding his breath waiting for an answer. He breathed out, and soon his cheeks were wet with tears.
His father paused, searching for the right words. "Sometimes, people get sick. Most of the time, they get better. But, in some cases, no matter what anyone does to help, they still die." He continued, "Emily is not mad at you, Ben. She's angry and upset that Mom died. Sometimes when people are hurting, they take it out on those around them — even the people they love."
Ben sucked in his breath to try to stop crying as he wiped his wet face. He listened as his father continued.
"We're all upset that Mom died, though sometimes we have different ways of showing it. The important thing, Ben, is to let your feelings out and not keep them inside."
He looked directly at Ben. "It's okay to cry when sad things happen."
"Even for boys?" Ben asked.
"Even for boys," his father said with certainty. "Even I cry sometimes. It's much better to let your feelings out than to keep them locked up inside. You can always talk to me about how you feel. Nana and Papa, too. We're always here for you."
His father held Ben close before he stood up and said, "I'll be right back; I have something for you."
He was only gone a moment before he returned with a cloth bag. He sat back down on the floor. He reached inside the bag and retrieved a small narrow box and handed it to Ben.
The leather box was smooth to the touch. As his father opened it, Ben recognized the slender, shiny object inside. It was his mother's fountain pen. Ben picked up the pen; it felt cool in his hand.
"It's Mom's special pen," Ben said.
"That's right. She'd use it to write down all her thoughts and feelings when she was happy or sad. I brought you a notebook, too, just like the one she used. You can draw pictures or write down your feelings whenever you want."
Ben opened the notebook and ran his fingers along the crisp white pages. He pictured his mother at her small writing desk in front of the window. He remembered how the sunlight would make her hair shine. She was so pretty. He closed his hand tightly around the pen. Ben thanked his father and clutched him hard around the middle.
"Why can't she come back?" Ben asked as he buried his face into his father's chest.
"I wish she could, Ben. But that's not the way life works. Sometimes we don't have as much time as we'd like with the people we love," he said as he hugged Ben tighter.
Ben was quiet, not knowing what to say.
After a moment, his father said, "I'm going to start dinner. Want to help?"
Ben shook his head, and his father slowly got to his feet. "I'm making mac and cheese — your favorite."
"Thanks, Dad." Ben said. He looked at the notebook, wondering what to write.
* * *
A little while later, Emily gently knocked on the door to her brother's room. When she opened it a crack, she could see him curled up on his bed clutching his blanket and looking at the notebook. He had been crying.
"What do you want?" he sniffled.
"I'm sorry, Ben," Emily said as she sat on the bed next to her brother. "I feel so angry at times, but I'm not mad at you. I'm sorry I took it out on you today."
Ben sat up and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "You're not the only one, Emily!"
Emily rested her hand on her brother's shoulder and tried to comfort him.
"I think about Mom all the time," he said. "I want her to come back."
"Me too, Ben, but, it's just you and me and Dad from now on. We'll be okay — you'll see." Emily tried to sound convincing for Ben's sake, but she wasn't sure she really believed it.
"Want to play the game I got for my birthday?" she asked. "You beat me the last time, and I want a rematch."
"Okay," he said. "But only if I get to be the blue guy this time."
"Only if you get there first!" she shouted as she started toward the door. She paused for a moment, giving him a chance to leap from the bed and out the door ahead of her.
* * *
Later in her room, Emily sat on her bed and listened to the heavy spring rain pouring down. She thought about her mother as she looked at the small wooden box beside her. She remembered the times they'd played with the shiny necklaces and sparkling earrings tucked away in the tiny drawers of her mother's jewelry box. Emily picked up one simple strand of pearly white beads. On special occasions, her mother would let her wear this necklace. Although it was not made of real pearls, it was special because it had been hand beaded by her mother. Emily had felt such pride when wearing her mother's favorite necklace. Now when she looked at it, she only wanted to cry. She carefully put the necklace away in the top drawer of the jewelry box. She was wiping the tears from her eyes when she heard a knock at the door.
"Come in," she said softly.
As he entered her room, her father could see her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. "You okay, Em? Do you want to talk?" he asked.
Emily nodded. "I miss her so much."
He sat down on the bed and gave her a tender, bittersweet smile. "I know you do, sweetie. I really miss Mom, too."
"I can't believe she's really gone. How can we live without her, Dad?" Emily cried.
"One day at a time, Emily. I know it's hard to believe that it's possible to live without Mom. You and Ben might feel lost right now. Sometimes I feel that way, too — like I'm out in the ocean, barely managing to keep my head above the water and trying to find steady ground. But sweetheart, it's within our reach. It may take some time, but we'll get there. And as long as we've got each other — you, me, and Ben — we're not alone. And remember, Mom will always be with us."
"I don't understand," Emily said through her tears.
"Mom will always be with you — in your heart, your mind, and your spirit. She's a part of you, and nothing can ever change that. You carry her with you wherever you go. Mom loved you so very much. Her love will stay with you always."
Emily looked at her father, and he saw the pain and sadness in her wide round eyes. "Will I always feel this way? Will it always hurt so much?"
He paused and said, "I know you're hurting; I'm hurting, too. I know it might be hard to understand this right now, Emily, but it will get easier over time. We'll always miss Mom, and some days you will feel more sad than others. Your grief will come and go, but you won't always feel this way."
Emily had a hard time believing that the pain inside her would ever go away. How could it if her mother was never coming back? She looked out the window. Who would take care of her mother's garden now that she was gone? How would the plants survive if her mother wasn't there to take care of them? How would she?
* * *
One night, Ben couldn't sleep and wandered downstairs. He found his father sitting alone in the living room holding a golden picture frame. There were tears in his eyes.
Seeing Ben, his father put the picture down on the table beside the couch. "Can't sleep, buddy?" he asked.
Ben climbed up on the couch beside his father and shook his head.
"Are you okay, Dad?" Ben asked.
"I'm just sad. Everything reminds me of Mom," his father said as he looked at her picture on the table.
"You can borrow Mom's pen anytime you want," Ben said as he looked up at his father. "It makes me feel better when I use it."
His father smiled tenderly and pulled Ben closer to him. "Thanks, bud."
"Will you sing to me?" Ben asked. "The way she did?"
They snuggled up together on the couch. As his father softly sang, Ben fell asleep in his arms.
* * *
One sunday afternoon, Emily relaxed on the porch swing while she watched her father and brother out in the yard. Their father dipped a large wand in a shallow pan of suds and waved it slowly through the air, making large soap bubbles. Emily liked to watch the beautiful bubbles gently float in the breeze. The sunlight made colorful rings on the edges of the bubbles. Emily wished that she could stop time and make them last forever.
"Emily, look. Aren't these the flowers you and Mom planted together?" her father asked from across the yard. (Continues...)
Excerpted from And Still They Bloom by Amy Rovere, Joel Spector. Copyright © 2012 American Cancer Society. Excerpted by permission of American Cancer Society.
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