One year ago today, the gray sky of the previous day released a storm of sleet and slush. The streets were a patchwork of ice and my driveway was its own dangerous, slippery obstacle course. And still, people came for the second day of shiva. Still, people came for Matt.
My memory of this second day of shiva is just as blurry as the first day. I can’t remember most of the day save for the time spent worrying that there wasn’t enough ice-melting salt on the front steps. I can’t remember what I felt or thought, who I spoke to or what I said. I can’t remember if I’d begun to acknowledge this was reality or if I still believed I was playing a role in someone else’s tragic story. Given how much I enjoy stories, I suspect the latter is true.
One year ago today, the last of the shiva guests left, the food was cleared from the tables, and our story—mine and Matt’s—came to a close.
Every story—fictional or not—is made up of decisions and micro-decisions. Looking back, it’s easy to wonder what if—as in, what if we hadn’t gone to Duke, what if we’d listened to Hackensack when they’d told us to abandon the poliovirus, what if we’d pushed for a second spinal MRI sooner, what if I’d realized Matt was downing Costco-sized bottles of Advil. I don’t dwell in what ifs now—I recognize that our story, with all its twists and turns, won’t be changed by asking what if. I know I can’t even attempt to write a new story for G, H, and me if I’m trapped in a web of what ifs. But I didn’t learn that lesson easily. In the days after—after February 3rd, after the funeral and after the kids went back to school—I did ask what if; and I couldn’t stop asking what if. I obsessed over the what ifs, let the guilt of what if consume me. I wondered, in the most irrational of my what if spirals, whether Matt was somehow angry with me.
In the days after, I became sure Matt was angry with me. I told a friend my fear, and cited—as proof of Matt’s anger—that as I’d been driving home from somewhere and thinking of all the things I could have done better, a sheet of ice had torn off the top of a truck and crashed into my windshield hard enough to make my car swerve. I told her it was irrefutable proof that Matt was angry. My friend, in all her wisdom, told me no. She said if anything, Matt was angry that I was letting guilt consume me. She said, the ice was a sign that I needed to stop blaming myself and start paying attention to the road in front of me.
The moment she said that, I knew it was true. The Matt I knew, the Matt I married, didn’t hold grudges and lay blame, instead he found a way forward—talked his way to the front of the line, into that airplane seat–every time. The Matt I married knew I’d done my best, and my best was all I could do. That day, I stopped asking what if.
When the gray sky finally gave way to sun, G and H returned to school. I tried to return to real life—I picked up the clothes that had been left at the dry cleaner’s for months, I bought Valentine’s cards for G’s and H’s classes, I finally sorted through the obscenely large pile of mail that hadn’t been touched in too long. It was all that normal I’d been craving for months—only distorted. Overwhelmingly, it felt as if some war had ended; and we were the losers, left to pick up the pieces, to make a life out of the rubble.
For the last year, we (G, H, and I) have been picking up the pieces to rebuild a life out of the rubble, and this project has helped immensely. It has given me a tether to the past when I needed one. It has given me a reason to feel like our story—mine and Matt’s— hadn’t yet ended when I hadn’t been ready to accept that truth. Whether a post took me thirty minutes to write or three hours (depending on the day and the story that needed to be shared), the minutes and hours writing has given me more time with Matt, even if just in my head.
I’ve known since the beginning of this project that I cannot stay tethered to the past. I don’t know that I’m ready to release the tether, but I also don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. Like I said, the past is safe. The past has Matt, the random boy I met in a club fourteen years ago, the boy I promised to love in sickness and in health, the boy with whom I was in this no matter what. Maybe the truth is that I’ll always hold on to that tether in some way, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay, as long as I also give myself the space and time to write new stories. And while the phrase “new stories” will always feel like a betrayal, I also know I wouldn’t have the courage to write any stories if it wasn’t for Matt—the boy who challenged me and loved me and believed in me with all his heart and soul. The boy who encouraged me to pick up a pen and start writing. Not the contradictions of brain cancer, but the contradictions of love and loss.
There’s something bittersweet about writing this final post—and I suspect there will be a different kind of feeling of loss tomorrow morning when I wake up and don’t press “publish” to post a one year ago today story. But unlike one year ago today, which was marked by turmoil and uncertainty, the overwhelming feeling I have this morning, in writing this final post, is peace. I have no words left in this story and I don’t regret any of the words I’ve given to this story. If I can get my social media act together, I will try to keep posting Post Hope stories on Instagram (@elainesara)…but I can’t promise I’ll have anything worthwhile or interesting to say. Everything I wanted to say about our Year of Hope has been said—almost. I have one Year of Hope story left.
After the shiva, after the ice storm had ended, after everyone had gone home and the kids had gone to bed, I took the garbage out to the curb—a job that had always belonged to Matt. The driveway was still a dangerous patchwork of ice and I kept my attention down to avoid slipping. I should have rushed inside out of the cold, but I didn’t. For a moment, I paused on the driveway. With no family around, no friends or kids to be strong for, I paused. No cars drove past. The neighbor’s lights were off, and it felt as if I was the only person awake in the world. I remember feeling tiny surrounded by all that quiet, empty space, too small and too alone to take on this life that we (Matt and I) had designed for the two of us. I took in a breath and exhaled. As my breath billowed out in front of me, a puff of white on a dark night, I looked up.
Against an ink black sky, that night, I saw a thousand stars. A thousand sparkling stars each perfectly illuminated and brighter than I’d ever seen—brighter than should be possible in the tristate area. In that bitter cold darkness, it felt like magic. It felt like Matt (which is cheesy, but nevertheless true). It felt like a reason to believe in the promise of a bright day.
What is left after hope vanishes? There’s gratitude and kindness, friendship and loyalty and love. And also, always, hope. The truth is that the question was inherently flawed, maybe misleading. In this story, hope never truly vanished. It found a way to keep burning, slowly and quietly in the darkest parts of this story. Hope found a way to light up even that darkest night sky.