It’s a pleasure to introduce you to Mariah who’s sharing her unique journey through motherhood as part of our month-long guest post series, Special Mamas. Yesterday marked two years since Mariah’s husband passed away from cancer. At 34 years of age, Mariah was a widowed mother of two daughters, ages two and four. Today, Mariah’s not just sharing her story; she’s letting us in on the ups and downs, the emotions, the challenges, and the newfound life perspectives she’s gained since her husband’s passing. Please extend a warm welcome to Mariah. It’s a true honor to host her story of loss, grief and loving life on this special anniversary.
My husband, Greg, died of cancer on May 26, 2013, at age 46. He took his last labored breath as I drifted off to sleep next to him, still holding his hand. I was 34 and we had two young daughters, ages two and four. His diagnosis, treatment and last days of life began and ended in three short months. It was so quick and intense that we had a hard time keeping up. Many times over the last two years I’ve shocked myself with the realization that he’s gone. As a 36-year-old mother who still feels like a child myself sometimes, I’m terrified that the responsibility of parenting falls directly on me. Just me. A few days after the funeral, the girls and I were swinging out in our big backyard when a wave of deep grief washed over me. I felt so small, alone and abandoned and had started sobbing. I looked up at them. They had both stopped what they were doing and looked at me as if to say, “You’re all we’ve got, Mama. What do we do now?” I remember smiling and reaching out to them. I had no clue what to do next, but for some reason I trusted myself, I trusted them and I trusted that Greg would always be with us and anything we did would be okay. Succeeding would be okay. Failing would be okay. And something in between would be just right. And the first thing to do was to make dinner so I took their hands and led them inside.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” – C.S. Lewis
I met Greg in 2001 while working at an advertising agency in Minneapolis. We became friends, playing basketball with co-workers on our lunch breaks.
A couple years (and lots of love and life) later, we bought a house in Wisconsin, got married in our front yard and started a family. Squirmy was born in 2008 and Squeaky in 2011. As Greg used to tell each of the girls, Squirmy made us a family and Squeaky made our family complete.
We had a happy and relaxed life together. I was lucky enough to stay home and Greg worked second shift so our days never felt rushed. We didn’t take anything for granted when Greg was healthy and talked a lot about how lucky we were. I remember leaving holidays or get-togethers being so thankful that out of all of the people in this world, I got to go home with the three of them. There were a lot of morning cuddles in our bed, singing and dancing in the kitchen and sending Daddy to work with little girl kisses spilling out of his pockets.
“Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.” – David Malham
Shortly after Squeaky turned two, Greg developed a stomach ache that never went away. All the tests pointed to lung cancer…stage 4. It took a month of intense and unsuccessful radiation and chemotherapy before Greg was put on hospice. Most of May 2013 was spent at home, making the most of our last days with him.
We were very open and honest with our children about what was happening and what was ultimately going to happen. It was more than heartbreaking to tell them that their Daddy was going to die soon. “You know…like that bird we saw in the grass at the park or that tree lying on the forest floor. Everything that is living eventually dies, it’s called a life cycle. And it happens to people as well. You understand what dead means, right?” It was bewildering to be saying these words and explaining this concept to my babies.
One night when Greg was rapidly worsening, I told Squirmy that he would be dying soon. He had just given her and her sister each a butterfly box full of his kisses that would last their entire lives. As I was tucking her in, she asked me, “Mama, is Daddy going to die tonight?” I told her, “I don’t know. But yes, baby, he might.” She nodded and snuggled in while I rubbed her back, tears streaming down my face.
He did die that night and I woke the girls early the next morning to say goodbye. Squirmy sat next to me with her head buried in my lap. Squeaky focused on all the adult tears, taking it all in. One final kiss and Greg was wheeled out our front door. The girls played with their cousins and I crawled into our bed with the covers over my head. Now what?
I loved every wonderful and horrible minute of my life with Greg. I like to think the love we shared was so strong that it was only meant to last seven years. I loved to be the one holding his hand as he took his last breath because he was still there and he was still mine. The day he left us, things got a little tough. We had lost our most important person and now he wasn’t even here to help us through the grief. And so we learned to lean on each other. My girls are so supportive of each other. I try to take credit for how caring they are, but deep down I think they came that way and the life they’ve experienced so far has given them a wisdom surpassing my own.
“The sad thing is, nobody ever really knows how much anyone else is hurting. We could be standing next to somebody who is completely broken and we wouldn’t even know it.” – Unknown
Right after Greg died, I took every opportunity to tell people that my husband had died. Two years since he’s been gone and I still do this. I feel like I was stabbed in the heart the moment we heard the word cancer. But none of my scars are visible to the outside world. And because of this, I need to tell people. I need to tell people so they will be gentle with me and my kids. Because I’ve been on this side of a partially hidden pain, I feel a lot more empathetic to the quiet struggles of others. People I do not know, and even people I do know, are facing much more than I could ever hope to understand. So I try to treat everyone with as much kindness as I can. And by doing this and expecting kindness in return from others, I haven’t been let down.
There’s a lot about being a young, widowed mother that’s hard to explain. Some is obvious because I just can’t be two places at one time. If we have to go somewhere, we all go. My sweet Squirmy hasn’t been carried into the house after a family night out since she was four. If Mama is having a bad day, there’s nobody to take over. Sometimes I don’t want to explain these things because I don’t want to complain. After all that has happened, I know we have a great life and I have two beautiful children inside and out. They’re a daily reminder of their amazing father who took every opportunity to tell them, “You are wonderful. And I love you just for being you.”
“If we all threw our problems into a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” – Regina Brett
I’m also coming to terms that it’s not all about me anymore. I have lived the last two years looking deeply inward on our family because it’s what we needed. But now I’m ready to shift the focus to others. I see friends and family going through their own struggles. I see horrible tragedies and injustice in the world and I know that I have no more or less pain than anyone else. Just different. I will always be thankful for Greg and the life we had with him.
All of this life experience is making me who I am and I’m enjoying my growth. I used to be a lot more doubtful of myself and decisions I made. But now, I trust in myself. I trust in others. I trust in my children. I include them in making decisions that will affect them so that they can give input and have the time to adjust to change. I try not to shelter them from the world. When they ask questions, I answer as truthfully as I can.
I took the girls to England this spring to spread some of Greg’s ashes. I was terrified to take this trip because the world is scary, isn’t it? I booked the tickets, had a little panic attack and then I did a lot of planning, keeping only wonderful thoughts in my head. The day we spread Greg’s ashes was cold and sunny and the wind was wild, but it swept him up the hill like he belonged there. I knew our Greg would have absolutely loved the adventure. This wide-open world that he left for us has opened the door, allowing us to become the people we are meant to be.
“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” – Buddha
I never imagined that this would be my life. I’m learning that I love the comfort in relinquishing control of what happens in life. I feel as if I’m driving a car on perpetual cruise. All I can do is steer us to the best view possible, rolling down the windows to feel the sun and the wind and point out the beauty to my girls along the way. I try to show courage and empathy and a feeling of excitement about the adventures life has to offer.
Even now, I’m building us a new house and I’m welcoming a new relationship. It’s all terrifying and thrilling and overwhelming, but it feels so right. I know that my children are doing great because sometimes they are sassy and happy and sad and brilliant and moody and wise and they don’t listen to me and I have to remind them one million times to put on their shoes. I think we’re right where we’re supposed to be.
I still sometimes feel the gaze of my daughters, a little older now, asking with their eyes, “What do we do now, Mama?” I’m sure it will change as the years go by, but right now I think I know what I want to say to them: “Take my hand and follow my lead. You already know that life isn’t fair. It can be beautiful and horrible and we will constantly have to adjust. You ARE wonderful, just by being you. And if you can continue to be brave and kind, trust yourself and not blame anyone else for what happens, your life will be magnificent.”
This post is part of a month-long guest post series titled Special Mamas. The series runs all May and is in honor of moms who have unique journeys to and through motherhood. To read all 13 posts in the Special Mamas series, CLICK HERE and you’ll be directed to the introductory post. At the bottom of the post, you’ll find all guest posts listed and linked for easy reading!