Each year, this day comes and goes. For friends back in America, it represents the long holiday weekend and kick off to summer. For my family, it comes with a range of emotion: love, loss, life, gratitude, remembrance.
As the décor comes down and the final pieces of cake are consumed from the birthday celebrations for my son, the emotion quickly shifts from one type of celebration of life to another – from birth to death in the span of a weekend.
It was the summer after my freshman year in college. My roommate and I had just returned from a weekend trip to Canada. It was quite common for students in North Dakota to venture across the border, especially if you weren’t of legal drinking age in the states.
I was sleeping on the couch when I got the call. This was before the days of cell phones, so my roommate woke me up and said, “Your mom is on the phone. It sounds important.”
I remember like it was yesterday. It was as though time stood still in that moment. It took my breathe away and shattered my heart and world all in the blink of an eye.
I had always been close with my grandparents and would spend hours talking about life with them.
My grandfather told me about their first date, reminisced about his time in the Navy, and would tell stories of his wilder days.
My grandmother and I would play the piano and sing while my grandfather sat back and had a listen.
She is a woman who embodied strength and taught me to be the same. She is the woman who changed the oil in a car and used it as a life lesson about equality. We would talk about nearly everything, especially during the tough teenage years when my own mother and I were constantly battling it out.
When my parents divorced the summer before my senior year in high school, it was my grandparents who helped walk me through those tough moments. In fact, I lived with them for several months trying to avoid the situation altogether.
It was my grandmother who finally told me I needed to face the decision my parents had made as doing so would prepare me for tough life lessons down the road.
Little did I know one of those lessons would be losing her and my grandfather 15 months later.
When I got to the phone and picked it up, my mother told me I needed to come home right away. I didn’t understand. She went on to explain that my grandparents had been in an accident. I inquired what hospital they were at so I could quickly pack the car and drive home.
They weren’t at the hospital. They were gone.
I dropped the phone, fell to my knees, and a deep sense of pain and sadness rushed through me. I sat there sobbing, my mother was on the other end of the phone holding it all together while she was likely falling apart herself.
Both of them? No! It can’t be true. Why both of them? Are you sure?
I went from immense sadness to complete shock.
My roommate quickly came in when she heard the phone drop and saw me on the floor. She grabbed it and talked with my mother. When she hung up, she helped me pack a bag and said she would drive me home because I was in no condition or state of mind to be doing so.
That was the longest that drive has ever taken.
I kept thinking maybe there had been a mistake and one of them was okay. Why both? Why God? Why?
Sadness, anger, confusion.
I had just been home from college the previous weekend. They were always my first stop when I needed some time away from dorm life, sports, and studies.
We finally arrived.
My mother is the oldest of 8 children and growing up in a small town, everyone knew our family and my grandparents.
We were meeting at my Uncle’s restaurant. All my aunts and uncles were there when I arrived. My brothers were there. My sister would arrive a few hours later.
My older brother and I drove to the beach that night. Sitting there brought back so many memories, but we weren’t reminiscing about a funny prank that he and his friends had pulled off or his latest love interest, this time we were crushed and questioning everything about life.
We looked out at the waves. We cried.
All our lives changed that day. It was 22 years ago today.
The next few days would be a blur of planning, people coming and going, phone calls from friends who had heard the news. I grew up in a town that had fewer people than my last apartment building in New York City, so to say news travels fast is an understatement.
They had been killed in a car accident. A group of reckless teenagers had clipped the back of their vehicle, sending them into the other lane of oncoming traffic and straight into the path of a semi-truck.
It happened in an instant.
I struggled for years wondering why it had to be that way. I went through all the stages of grief and nearly left college, questioning if I could go on.
Over time the pain and questions eventually turned to understanding. The understanding turned to acceptance. Acceptance turned to peace. And I have found, as friends have had to say goodbye to parents and loved ones through they years, particularly as we are all getting older, they often reach out to me for advice on how to get through it.
There is no magic recipe or quick fix. The pain will eventually give way to happy memories, but the gap you feel in their absence doesn’t go away.
I still miss them, every day. In the important moments where I wish I could talk to them, when something major happens and I wish we could celebrate together, and especially in the day to day small moments that simply make up life.
The minute you lose someone and your entire universe is off-balance, you have a choice. You can choose to fall into the darkness and allow the sadness to swallow you whole or you can choose to live, without limitations.
Loss taught me that I never wanted to look back on life and wish I had done it differently. Sure, there are mistakes I have made along the way but all of them have brought me to this exact moment. All of them helped define the person I am today.
I learned through time to channel that loss and use it as a driving force for how I wanted to live my life. I took the pain and turned it into strength.
Loss taught me not to fear life and to simply live each day. Tell the people in your life that you love them. Take chances. Never apologize for being who you are.
Sometimes it takes great pain to change the course of your life, to help guide you to the path of discovering who you were created to be.
This week, challenge yourself to do something that you have always wanted to try but have been too scared to do. Tell someone you love them. Make amends with an old friend. Kick off your shoes, stop for a minute, and just laugh.
Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back from living, you may never have that chance again.
Everything can change in the blink of an eye.
Cheers to a great week and living life without regret.