“I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to put her down on Friday.” Those words rattled around my 14-year-old brain like a broken bell, each word hurting my heart with a painful, out of tune ding. I remember looking at my mother in absolute shock, then looking at our grey, arthritis ridden, decrepit old dog, and bursting into tears. I knew she was right, Allie was 16. That was ancient in dog years, and it was a miracle that she had been healthy and lively up until this point. She had been living for the past month off baby food and scrambled eggs and could no longer walk. It was her time to go.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first of my losses or the first time I had grieved. We lost my great grandfather only a year before. To middle-school-me, the fact that I had been to one funeral and now had to mourn the only pet I had ever known felt like the end of the world. And yet, little did I know the nightmare that was soon to hit. Freshman year, during the week of midterms, was the next time my world turned upside down. Instead of studying and worrying about my first high school exams, I was spending my time at the nursing home or sitting in my room crying. My grandfather had been dealing with Alzheimer’s disease for the past three years. He had been able to handle it pretty well so far, but after he fell and hit his head on the sidewalk and got pneumonia as well, he had deteriorated to the point where he could barely speak and didn’t even recognize any of us anymore. Any day now, he would be gone.
On the last day I saw him alive, he could no longer speak in coherent sentences. My mother gathered us grandkids in the hallway, and one by one, we went into the room and said goodbye. I remember walking in and seeing him sitting up in bed. He smiled at me and tried to say something, but he couldn’t get the words out. I swallowed back my tears and told myself that I would be strong for both of us. I hugged him tight, feeling how weak his embrace was. I felt the familiar sting of his glasses against my face, the slight pull as my hair became caught in the frames. He mumbled something else, which I still to this day don’t understand. But it was quiet, and full of love. And I knew then I couldn’t hold in the tears anymore. I kissed his cheek and ran out of the room, collapsed in a chair, and sobbed.
With two funerals now under my young teenage belt, I felt the strain and sadness of all of the grief I’d ever encountered weighing me down. Most people have attended at least one funeral in their lives, and I think I speak for all of the human population when I say that it’s a negative, draining, melancholy experience. And as a young teen, I was already dealing with trying to figure out middle school and high school and where exactly I fit into the world. Struggling with grief at the same time as all of this wasn’t exactly ideal, but I told myself I would be strong. I told myself I could do this. I told myself things would be okay.
Sophomore year came, and we lost my great-grandmother. It was starting to feel like a curse on my family, losing one person every year. Most of my friends still had their grandparents and great-grandparents in their lives and they were shocked at the fact that I had attended three funerals in the past three years. Another funeral came and went, and again, I told myself I would be strong, and that things would be okay.
The summer after junior year, and before senior year, I was finally starting to feel comfortable with the future again. Everyone in my family seemed to be doing well, and I had stopped feeling the weight of sorrow on my shoulders. I had stopped thinking about all of the negative “what ifs” and was turning my attention more towards positive “I cans.” I was happy, and excited for the next step in life.
Until I woke up one July morning to my mother standing over me, sobbing. Eyes and brain blurry with sleep, I didn’t fully process what she was saying at first. After a few minutes I finally understood what she was saying, but even then I didn’t fully process the pain of her words.
“Uncle Merl had a heart attack last night.” I crawled out of bed and hugged my mom tight, saying how sorry I was. It wasn’t until I got up and locked the bathroom door behind me that my heart broke and the tears came in waves and I, quite literally, hit the wall.
My great uncle Merl had become a father figure to my mother, and after the loss of my grandfather, he had slowly started to fill that gap for me, too. He was only in his 60’s and still had a lot more to give the world. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
The next week was filled with visitations, comforting my cousins, and hearing “I’m sorry for your loss” on repeat from friends and strangers alike. After hearing that same phrase over and over, especially over several years, you learn to tune it out, and it loses its meaning. People are apologizing, but what are they really apologizing for? They did nothing to cause the death of your loved one, and they can’t bring them back. Are they apologizing for the fact that you’re grieving? Maybe, but again, they didn’t do anything to cause it. So why are they apologizing at all?
My great-uncle’s funeral was perhaps the most emotional and painful one I have ever experienced thus far in my short life. He was well known throughout the small town where he and my great aunt lived, since he was an appliance repair man and also a farmer. The church was completely packed with old clients, friends, and family. My cousins and I sat in the pews at the front with the rest of the family. Due to the fact that his death was so sudden and unexpected, most people were in shock. My cousins were either sitting there quiet and wide-eyed, or sobbing hard. This was their grandfather, and I had never seen a more tight knit group of grandkids and grandparents. I knew exactly the pain they were feeling. I had experienced it only two years before.
When the service was done, we all gathered back at the church for a luncheon. I remember sitting with my cousins and trying to put a smile on my face, for their sake much more than my own. When the lunch was done and we headed back home, I was more than excited to change out of my black dress and into something comfy to try to enjoy the rest of the day.
I spent the remainder of the summer trying to keep myself as busy as possible with friends and preparing for senior year. I knew the busier I was, the less time my mind would have to dwell on the darkness and the negatives. So I went non-stop for almost all of August.
Then it was September, and I was thrust back into the world of stress and homework, only this time with college and graduation hanging over my head. I busied myself once again, this time in school, all the senior year activities, babysitting, and my future.
But I wasn’t truly enjoying it, and I was doing way too much. I was using all those activities as fillers, as escapes from my head, as escapes from the negativity that threatened to take over. I was using them to simply pass the time. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t living in the moment anymore. I was simply surviving. That October, one of my neighbors asked me to go to Grand Rapids Comic Con with her. I had been to the event the year before, but wasn’t sure I could clear my schedule to attend. Taylor was practically begging on her hands and knees to go, and was ecstatic when I finally said yes. Something in my gut was telling me to go, telling me that I needed this.
We left early Saturday morning since the venue was downtown and opened at 9 a.m. and we knew parking would be hard to find. The moment we walked into DeVos Place, Taylor’s eyes were the size of saucers. She was excited and enjoying every second of the convention. I, however, was trying to figure out the lost feeling in my chest. I felt like I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what.
We wandered the vendor booths, admiring the fanmade products and paintings. We hadn’t really stopped at any until we reached a middle-age couple, who were encouraging people to buy their jewelry. I leaned over their table, admiring their rings, bracelets, and necklaces from well-known movies and comic books. Taylor had grabbed a Captain America pocket watch and was motioning for me to look at the necklaces with her. I walked over and glanced at the Captain America shield, Hunger Games pin, and Thor’s hammer necklace. All three were stunning and clearly crafted carefully. I wanted all three, but I knew I would only end up wearing one. I could feel that ache in my chest still, like I was searching for something. It was stronger here.
I picked up Thor’s hammer and swung the chain from my hand. The man behind the counter chuckled and asked, “Are you worthy of the hammer?”
I smiled and answered, “I guess I am.”
In the Marvel Comics, the story is that Thor is the only one who can lift and use his hammer because he is the only one worthy of its power. This is one part of his story that has always stuck with me, and I didn’t understand why until that weekend.
I purchased that necklace and put it on the moment the receipt was in my hand. Suddenly, the lost feeling was gone, and the weight was off my shoulders. I felt okay again.
The rest of senior year, I found myself reaching for the necklace, playing with it randomly, and gripping it tightly when things got hard. It became a daily reminder to keep going, to focus on the good, and to remember that I am worthy of happiness. To remember that I am worth it.
In previous years, after someone passed, I was terrified for the future, waiting for this “curse” or whatever it is, to strike again. It had become an expectation, a pattern, if you will, of someone I love passing every year.
I’ve spent all of 2016 waiting for the curse to strike, living in fear every day that one of my family members or close friends will drop dead at my feet.
But I’m not scared anymore. I know that even if I do suddenly lose someone I love, things will be okay. Because I can do this. I can handle this life, because I am worthy of love, and life, and happiness.
I am worth it.