Fake it till you make it. They (whoever “they” are”) say that the simple act of smiling can lead to real happiness. So forcing a smile - even when you are sad - can actually make you happier. Can forced joy lead to actual joy?
I don’t know, but I’m determined to find out.
Starting tomorrow - the one year anniversary of Brad’s diagnosis - I’ll be sharing 365 days of forced joy. A year ago started the worst period of my life. And every day from now until January 22nd, I am inevitably reminded of where we were a year ago, reliving every single doctor’s appointment, every single emergency hospital visit, reliving Brad's pain and decline, and ultimately his death. That shit will trigger some major PTSD symptoms as I relive it all over again - this time alone.
Which is where the forced joy comes in.
Brad and I started the Forced Joy Project in the middle of a particularly tough day in the middle of his particularly tough diagnosis. In a state of desperation for a positive moment, I said we needed to commit to daily moments of joy. Brad rolled his eyes, slightly appalled, and said, "you mean forced joy?"
Yes, that's exactly what I meant.
Later that day, while walking along the Detroit Riverfront, Midnight Train to Georgia started blasting out of a nearby speaker. Brad pulled me in, kissed me, and we started to dance. Smiling, with tears rolling down both our faces, he leaned in, holding me close, and whispered, "there's your forced joy."
And the #ForcedJoyProject began.
It’s been something I’ve continued on and off over the last 10 months, mostly just for me. But starting tomorrow, it’s going global! Or at least getting it’s own Instagram account (super official, I know). For the next year, I’ll be posting daily acts of joy. From the silly to the thoughtful to the extreme. And I hope you’ll join me and share your joy too. Because there’s nothing better than sharing and experiencing our joy together.
Follow along on the brand new Instagram account @ForcedJoyProject (Brad is somewhere rolling his eyes saying to himself, "just what the world needs, another Frost instagram account.") and please join in on the joy. Because real joy occurs when it's shared with others.
“You look like you got laid.”
That was my friend’s response when he saw me after I returned from a week out west, canoeing down the Green River and backcountry camping.
I was exhausted and dirty. I was still finding remnants of the red rocks everywhere - in my clothes, in my shoes, in my hair…
But I was calm. I was at peace. Apparently, I was glowing.
For a brief period of time - before life’s stressors and responsibilities crept back in - I felt fulfilled. And more importantly, I felt present.
That’s what getting outside to connect outside of life’s bullshit will do to you. Will do for you.
I wasn’t alone in my trek. I was able to go on this journey because of an organization called True North Treks (TNT) with 9 other young adult cancer survivors (or “Phasers,” as we now like to affectionately call ourselves). TNT has created an incredible program that helps survivors (ahem, Phasers) get out of their stressful post-treatment environment and into the backcountry of the beautiful wilderness.
For 6 days we canoed 55 miles down the Green River in Utah, camped along sandy beaches or up in rocky cliffs, explored our surroundings with daily “jaunts,” connected around the fire, slept under the stars, and pooped in a bucket in some of the most stunning locations I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a shit.
Pieces of that trip will sacredly remain back in those red rocks, with the part of me that got left behind. And yet so much of that trip has followed me home. From the bonds I formed and new friends made to re-upping my yoga practice to the daily intentions and mediation exercises used to help re-ground myself when life feels out of control.
I found connection as I paddled through the water, being followed by the Great Blue Heron. I found joy as I pounced up the rocks, remembering the childlike joy I used to feel stomping through the woods and climbing up trees. I found peace as I stared up at a sky so big and so full of shooting stars, it was impossible not to feel incredibly powerful and oh so small, all at once.
True North Treks and the opportunity they provided me will stay ingrained in me for a lifetime. They gave me so much in a single week - parts of myself I thought were lost were once again found because of my experience out in the wild. I'll never be able to accurately or fully describe the depth of what that week did for me and how it changed me, but I can help another experience it for themselves.
Part of the TNT model is their "Pay it Forward" initiative. I was able to go on this trip because of a past trekker's generosity and fundraising efforts. So now it's my turn to give something back and I'm asking for help. If you'd like to be a part of another young adult cancer survivor's future trek, please consider donating to or sharing my fundraising page.
Cancer effects us all. Let's help create a positive and life altering experience for another deserving "Phaser."
*Sex not included on TNT Treks. Sorry.
Today I received my 5 year CT scan. It was 5 years ago - to the very day - I received my first, post relapse, clean scan.
It feels like a lifetime ago.
In a way it was.
Because of the relapse I had shortly after my first clean scan in the spring of 2012, I had to wait 2 years before I could call myself a Survivor. You have to tread lightly with labels in the cancer world. We don’t say “cancer free,” we say “no evidence of disease.” We don’t say “healthy,” we say “clean bill of health.” Everything seems to have the silent and implied “for now” tacked on to the end. Everything is protecting (and preparing) you for the possible relapse. No one wants to be the patient who screams “cancer free!” to the world, only to have the cancer come back 2 months later (trust me, I was that patient).
After relapsing within the first 6 months, the chances of it happening again were high. Refusing the bone marrow transplant and opting for just radiation, increased those odds. I was given a daunting 10% chance of making it to year 5 without the cancer returning. 10 percent. I had to readjust my expectations of my life. I had to hold my breath. I had to wait several more years before I could declare myself “cancer free.” But when I made it to year 2, when I could once again breathe, I had apparently earned the title of Survivor.
I used to take pride in calling myself a Survivor. It was a term of power, of strength, of accomplishment. I beat cancer. Twice. I truly felt like I had survived. And I would carry that title with me for years, summoning my survivor warrior alter ego when I was faltering or, sometimes, just needed to feel like a total badass that day. Being a Survivor kept me going. It put me in a club with other strong men and women who had similar plights to my own. I wore my survivorship like a badge of honor. Like a badge of courage. It was a silent badge that said, I made it.
And then last fall, Brad got cancer. Stage 4. And at first, my warrior survivor badge gave us both courage. We’d been through this already. I took my Survivor strength and carried us both. We’d done the research and knew how to stare cancer straight in the face and tell it to fuck off. But as his cancer continued to spread and his organs started to shut down, my strength wavered. “Fuck off, cancer” started to be replaced with “Fuck you, cancer.”
And then Brad died. 101 days after his diagnosis. Without even enough time to process what was happening, my brilliant, hilarious, thoughtful 35 year old husband was gone.
And I was no longer just A Survivor. I was THE Survivor.
I wasn’t standing stronger. I was the only one left standing.
The term Survivor took on an entirely new meaning.
Survivor was no longer what I had accomplished. It was a cruel reminder of what I no longer had. This word, this single word, that used to bring me strength, now brought me to me knees. It crushed me. It was a cruel joke from the universe.
Today, lying in the cold and sterile exam room - tears rolling down my face as the machine instructed me to, once again, hold my breath - I didn’t feel like a Survivor. I felt weak and scared and alone. It was my first scan without Brad waiting in the next room. The first one without him there to sit with me and distract me as we waited for the results to come in.
It was my first scan as The Survivor.
And now I wait alone. The anxiety ridden waiting game, where a single day feels like an eternity. Where minutes slow, allowing me time to reflect on it all. Too much time. Dragged out and filled with emotions - hope, fear, pride, guilt, sadness - they are all there.
What will my fate be?
A Survivor? Or The Survivor?
And can I be both?
We’ll find out.
I've always been an anxious person. I think this stems from an early and deep rooted need to always be perceived as perfect (ridiculous, right?). I blame being the middle child - aka the "peacemaker" - during a tumultuous childhood. When things felt out of control, I took it on as my job to attempt to keep the peace. Or at least not add to the turmoil.
Don't create waves. Don't rock the boat. Don't cause drama. Be polite. Be nice. Be quiet.
Be unrealistically perfect.
I was a straight A student and a varsity athlete. I didn't drink or party or date. I didn't cuss. I didn't talk back. I did everything I was "supposed" to do.
I was miserable. I was drowning.
Drowning in my own anxiety. Drowning in my own expectations of everyone else's expectations.
I couldn't outwardly express myself, so I internalized. It wasn't anyone's fault really. I remember my mom constantly asking, "what are you thinking?" "How are you doing?" desperate to know what was going on inside my head. But my scripted answers were always the same, "Nothing." and "I'm fine."
Through multiple divorces and addictions and traumas and my life, at times, spiraling completely out of control, I was always fine.
Brad was the first to challenge that. When we first met, he asked me "What's your story" and when I replied that I didn't have a story, he kept asking. He never let me off the hook - always pushing for me to reveal more of myself. The parts of myself I kept hidden from the world. The parts of myself I hated. My anxiety, my fear, my stubbornness, my anger. He wanted to see it all.
By the time we were living together, Brad was well versed in my internalized anxiety. Our running joke about my constant state of anxiousness became, "Why worry when you can panic?" a stolen quote written in graffiti on the bathroom stall of a bar. It summed me up perfectly.
Outwardly, I was calm and collected, laid back and agreeable. Outwardly, I was "fine." Inwardly, I felt like I was in a constant state of panic. I was overwhelmed and stressed. I took on the weight of the world, even when I had no business doing so.
Then I got cancer. And I wasn't fine. And then Brad got cancer and I really wasn't fine. And I couldn’t pretend anymore.
During that time, keeping quiet and internalizing my thoughts and anxieties felt like I was emotionally being choked by my own inability to express myself. My own cancer, a tumor in my chest and creeping up into my throat, seemed like a blaring sign from the universe that my refusal to release these feelings was literally strangling my voice.
So I took control in my most unnatural way: I let that shit go and started sharing my inner thoughts with the world.
I started this blog. And then this blog. And finally this blog you're reading today.
I started dropping f-bombs all over the page. I wrote about fear and anger and all the shit life was throwing our way. I wrote about anxiety. And about being vulnerable. When Brad got sick, I wrote about feeling helpless and my worry of not being enough for him.
I found my voice and I wrote about it all. The topics I had internalized and had been stuck in my head, suddenly were written down for the world to see. And then when writing about it wasn’t enough, we started to talk about it. Through the podcast, we openly discussed our anger and our guilt and our hopes and our fears and our optimism.
Brad was there though it all. A constant companion, encouraging me to keep going. Keep sharing. To continue finding - and using - my voice. When I felt weak, he built me up. When I closed off, he opened me up.
And when Brad died, I continued. For him, as much as for me, I continued. I kept talking and I kept writing and I kept sharing. And it helped. Helped me connect. Helped me digest. Helped me to externalize my internal thoughts.
Then the anxiety started to creep back in. Not all at once, instead starting like a slow drip. And with that anxiety, I started sharing less and started retreating more. Back into my head. Drip. Drip. Drip. Until eventually, I felt like was once again drowning in anxiety. Drowning in my own thoughts. Only now, Brad wasn't there to pull me out.
And I realized, right around the 6 month mark, that I had been running on the adrenaline of grief. I was numb and in denial and had run away and was distracted by the stress of logistical things that no 34 year old should have to think about. I was writing and living (as best I could) and doing all of the things Brad would have expected of me.
Until I wasn't. Until I couldn’t. I ran out of energy, out of motivation. 6 months after Brad died, I couldn't keep going. So I slowed down and this "new normal" started to emerge (fuck this new normal by the way). And I started to live in a routine. And it was in that routine that I realized - like a wind knocking punch to the gut - that the only person that ever really knew me - knew how to handle all these difficult parts of me - was no longer here.
The person that helped me reveal myself - my true and authentic self - was gone. And a new layer of grief, a layer I didn’t know was possible, set in.
Brad used to walk in from work every evening and tease me because - within minutes - I would download an entire day's worth of information to him. Before he even had time to take his suit jacket off, I'd tell him about the article that I couldn't stop thinking about or a situation a client was in or a joke that I couldn't stop laughing at. I would wait all day to share with him, eager to know his take.
And now I walk through the same door. Every evening. And It's just me. And I have no one to download my ideas to. No one to question about the day. No one to dream with. No one to ask, "your thoughts?" And that lonely, quiet, reality, was more than I could handle.
I was stuck and I was alone.
So I started to retreat. To hide those parts of myself I struggled with. The sadness, the anger, the overwhelming grief started taking over my life. I woke up every morning physically feeling the weight of my anxiety on my chest. And instead of leaning on the people around me - the people who wanted to help - I closed up. I didn't allow them to show up because they weren't Brad. And those that showed up anyway, I still resisted because I didn’t want my anger and negativity and struggle to become a burden on them.
But at some point last week, in the middle of immobilizing, hyperventilating tears, I realized I couldn’t keep living this way. I was refusing to accept my reality and in that, I was falling down a deep, dark hole of depression, focusing on everything that was missing and awful in my life. I hit rock bottom. And at some point in the middle of it all, I realized I had to stop waiting for Brad to show up and pull me out. I knew I needed to rely on myself and some way or another, crawl my way out.
It wasn’t easy. It isn't easy. It's probably one of the most difficult things I have to do. Day in and day out, I have to acknowledge my new reality and keep living anyway.
In order to do that, I needed a plan. I needed to force - not joy - but acceptance. Contentment. Gratitude. I needed a list of the most simple things I could do at any point, on my own, to help myself breathe when the anxiety became too much. When reality became too much. So I made a list - a list of ways I could deal with my crippling anxiety and channel that negative energy in a more positive way (ways that didn’t involve me constantly breaking things…).
And because I am sure I am not alone in experiencing soul crushing anxiety, I want to share my list. Because as much as I refuse to admit it or allow sometimes, we are all in this together. So here it is. The list of "Things to Do When It’s All Too Much:"
This list isn’t perfect. Sometimes none of these help. Sometimes, I really do just need to ride out the wave, feeling every ounce of anxiety ridden sorrow before I can move forward. But sometimes, simply focusing on breathing or taking a walk is enough of a step in the right direction. And that one tiny step is followed by another tiny step. And slowly, progress is made.
One small step at a time.
Please feel free to share what works for you - even if I don't ask for it and tell you "I'm fine," I’ll take all the help I can get. Until then, let's all just keep breathing.
Comedian Patton Oswalt, who lost his wife last April, just announced his engagement. And the internet commenters are losing. their. shit. Not in congratulations and best wishes, but in judgement.
We all know the internet can be awful. And you should never, ever read the comments (except my own comments here. I always read those). But the backlash Patton has received is cruel and unfair. Judgment for living through the worst pain a human being can experience and then having the courage to risk it all over again. Judgement for being vulnerable and letting another person into his broken heart. Judgement for FALLING IN LOVE.
Commenters are saying everything from the obvious, “it’s too soon,” to the absurd, “Makes me suspicious of the unusual circumstances of her death” (Are you serious? We are implying he murdered his wife now??). People question the love he had for his late wife, his lack of independence, his abilities as a father.
All because he fell in love again.
And with all of this negativity and guilt and shame, it leads me to question, how will I be judged?
I would be lying if I said I never think about my future and the idea of possibly someday sharing my life with another person again. Because Brad taught me to love. Passionate, joyful, big fucking love. Love like that is a rare and beautiful gift and the most incredible feeling in the world. And because of the love I shared with Brad is the reason I know that I will one day be open to the idea of loving again. Because, frankly, that feeling is just too fucking good to give up on.
But all of those thoughts are quickly followed by the inevitable fear of judgement.
Because judgement seeps through every single day, whether we like it or not.
My choice to stay in Detroit. Judged. My decision to run away. Judged. Laying in bed and wallowing. Judged. Going out and having fun. Judged. Wearing my wedding ring. Judged. Debating taking it off. Judged. Sharing too much. Judged. Not sharing enough. Judged.
Ultimately I do believe that most of the judgement comes not from a place of malice, but from love: love and concern for me and love and respect for Brad.
But being a widow feels impossibly difficult sometimes. Like I am walking this tightrope and the whole world is watching to see if I fall or if I make it to the other side. Watching to see how I balance this new life. Strangers, friends, family, and even myself. All watching. All judging.
To be constantly aware of other people's perception of you is exhausting. But I’m quickly learning that if I worry too much about the judgement of everyone else, I would never make any decisions in life (and get judged for that too).
As Jeremy regularly reminds me, "If you are comfortable with your actions and decisions, then fuck what everyone else thinks. They are adults and should be responsible for their own shit."
(Using "fuck" too much in my posts. Judged.)
Someday, I imagine I will start to date again. And I know there will be judgement on that too. (Although I can't even imagine the kind of man that is willing to take on the heavy, heavy baggage that comes with dating a 34 year old, cancer surviving widow. Good luck, dude).
But loving Brad is a reminder of everything good that comes with connecting and trusting and sharing your vulnerabilities with another person. And losing Brad is a constant reminder of how short and how fragile life really is.
So whenever that days comes - and it won't come without hurdles and hardships - I hope I will be open to it. I hope I will not let the fear of judgement prevent me from embracing the potential to love again.
And I hope I won't be judged for that too.
My sister recently made the comment that nobody really discusses loss and grief on an everyday level.
(Don’t mind me over here, typing away about…loss…and grief…)
After I was finished feeling righteous and offended, I realized she’s right. Even those of us that write about it (and talk about it), still do so in mostly sweeping statements about waves and universal truths and fragmented stages in time. Usually, I’ll share a moment - a moment of struggle or a moment of joy, allowing you the reader to get a glimpse of myself in that particular place in time. But we don’t talk about the everyday grief. The part of grief that is small and constant. The part of grief that is so regular, it becomes a part of your days. It becomes part of yourself.
And I think it’s because dealing with grief and loss on an everyday level is, frankly, depressing. And talking about grief and loss on an everyday level is equally depressing.
So we avoid. We reference it - the sadness, the loneliness, the anger - but we don’t go deep on a linear level. Most of us are uncomfortable sitting in sadness and loneliness and anger for too long. We gloss over it in favor of positivity and hope. Everyone likes positivity and hope.
But today is 4 months since Brad died. So today I am skipping positivity and hope. Today I am going deep in loss and grief on the most basic, everyday level.
So 4 months in, this is what my everyday grief looks like:
I wake up. I am usually exhausted because sleep - like grief apparently - comes in waves. Maybe I got a solid 2 hours, maybe I got 6, broken up by bouts of restlessness. Whatever amount I got, I am sure it wasn’t 8 hours. I can’t remember the last night I had 8 full hours of sleep.
I lie in bed and have to convince myself to get up. Convince myself to not waste my life. Convince myself to be responsible. Convince myself to make Brad proud. Usually I settle for convincing myself to make it to the coffee maker.
Coffee in hand, I check Facebook and email. On some days someone has sent me a note or video or article. Sometimes from a stranger, sometimes from a friend. They are always appreciated, but I never know how to respond or am too exhausted to respond thoughtfully. So usually, I don’t. I add it to my mental to-do list for another day (“write thoughtful and appreciative response”). I look at my Facebook memory of the day - hoping Brad posted on this day and I get to remember another piece of him I normally wouldn’t have remembered. Usually they are all too serious articles from the New York Times. But sometimes, they are things like “Dana won the pool. I won at life with the best girl ever.” or a hilarious Instagram photo of Dune taking a shit next to the tacky “No Dog Pooping” sign outside the hotel next door. I love those moments. And hate those moments. I smile and cry at those moments. I screenshot them and put them in a folder for safe keeping in case Facebook decides to one day implode.
I debate doing normal adult human activities, like eating breakfast, showering, or getting dressed. On any given day, it’s questionable whether any these things will happen. On a day where all three occur, it feels like a fucking miracle.
I try and figure out my future. This has always been a struggle for me - the “future.” But now I attempt to do it alone. Without Brad whiteboarding ideas for me and asking me relevant (and seemingly irrelevant) questions. Now I have to accept the fact that I can’t rely on my business alone and need more income in order to maintain my life. That my little entrepreneur soul is probably going to have to get a 9-5. This thought, combined with the fact that most days I can barely eat breakfast, shower, and get dressed, depresses me. On a good day, I’ll avoid this by daydreaming about a future business idea that excites me. On most days, I just avoid altogether.
A familiar song comes on. It makes me think of Brad. Either I smile or cry (oftentimes both), but I lose my concentration, knowing whatever I was hoping to accomplish probably won’t get finished now. This happens about 20 times a day. I tell myself I should turn off the music, but then it’s quiet. Too quiet. And through all my grief and loss, music is still my one constant companion and I just can’t stand to lose that too.
I check the mail. I used to love checking the mail. I loved the possibility that on any given day, someone may have thought of me and sent me a letter. Now I dread the mail. It almost always involves communication from creditors, vultures trying to buy my home, hospice surveys, medical bills, student loan bills, attorney bills. I feel overwhelmed and angry. On days I feel strong, I tackle this mail. But usually I put it off for another day.
Maybe I’ll leave my house. Either because I have to or because I am attempting to avoid being the isolated hermit I instinctively want to become. Either way, I will inevitably see someone I know. I will smile and say hello and they will smile back, the kind of half smile of pity. Well intentioned, they will ask, “how are you??” I will have a split second to decide. Do I answer honestly or do I say I’m doing "fine" and quickly move on. It usually depends on how much time I have and how exhausted I am and whether or not it is okay to cry in whatever public space I am in. Usually I lie. Then feel guilty. Then tell myself I am never leaving the house again.
My car is rattling. It needs an oil change and new break pads. I’m pissed I have to do this alone. Which is absurd because even when Brad was alive, I still took care of my car myself. But I’m looking for reasons to justify feeling angry (aside from the obvious). So I focus on the noises in my car and the fact that I don’t have a man to take care of that for me. My feminist self dies inside a little, but I don’t care. I just want to be angry, so I let myself pitifully go there.
I start thinking about dinner. I used to cook. I used to love to cook. But now cooking requires going to the grocery store. And seeing how Detroit is “the biggest small town in America” (as Brad used to say), I know there is a high probability I will run into someone I know at the grocery store. And wanting to avoid the half smiles of pity, I avoid the store completely. Plus I don’t know how to shop - or cook - for one person. So I buy too much and it goes bad. And Brad would be upset at the wastefulness. So I feel guilty. And I don’t shop. So dinner, which used to be a shared experience of love, is now one of guilt, dread, and loneliness.
Some days I’ll meet up with friends and watch a movie or grab a drink. I’ll probably drink too much because even with my closet friends, even through my smile, I feel alone and in a thick layer of grief. Usually I’ll bail and go home early. But sometimes, I’ll connect in an authentic way, where for a brief period of time, I don’t feel so alone. Sometimes I’ll have joyful experiences with people I love. We will laugh and talk and it will feel incredible. And then I feel guilty. Even though I know it’s bullshit and I deserve to have fun and Brad would want me to connect and blah blah blah. But I feel guilty, because I am human and miss my husband and can’t imagine being able to have a joyful moment with him being dead.
I think about Dune and how he will be factored into this new life of ours. Right now he is with my mom in Virginia. But soon I will have to figure out how to readjust my dog to life without his Papa. Readjust him to being left alone for extended periods of time or going to doggy day care most days of the week. I worry about his separation anxiety that was already present before Brad got sick. I worry how I am going to take care of both him and myself. I worry that I cannot provide enough love for the loss we both feel. I know this readjustment will not be easy. Dune - like most of us - does not like change. So I worry about this too.
I get ready for bed. This is the hardest part of my day. Even with music, there isn’t enough noise to drown out the deafening silence of Brad’s absence. I crawl into the king size bed we upgraded to a year ago. After 10 years, it was the only bed we ever picked out together. I loved this bed. Now I fucking hate this bed. I curl up in the corner where Brad used to sleep, taking up the tiniest fraction of my too big bed. Maybe I’ll fall asleep quickly. Usually, I’ll toss and turn for hours, get out of bed, and walk aimlessly around. Sometimes I’ll be fortunate enough to talk a friend or family member who is also still awake. Eventually I will sleep.
The next morning I wake up, exhausted, and do it all again.
And that’s my everyday grief.
Fucking depressing, right? I’m naturally inclined to want to immediately tell you that in between all of that grief is hope and laughter and love. And that’s true - there is. But I feel the need to say it because, like the rest of you, I am also uncomfortable just sitting in the openness of my grief. I still have the urge, even on paper, to want to rush through and gloss over it by yelling, “BUT DON’T WORRY, I’M OK!”
But I’m not OK. And that’s OK.
I don’t tell you all of this for pity - although that is naturally where most people will go, followed by the immediate and helpless desire to fix and solve my grief.
I tell you all of this because it’s real.
Talking about loss and grief on an everyday level is depressing as hell. But grief in itself is depressing as hell. And sometimes acknowledging that grief on the most basic level makes it easier to “move through,” instead of being “stuck in.” It means I have to take off my warrior mask and be vulnerable. It means I have to acknowledge a reality that I don’t want to admit is mine. It means I have to own up to feeling…everything.
And sharing this, as hard and depressing as it is, gives me the opportunity to connect with others sharing similar pain. Sharing my grief hopefully allows others to feel less alone in theirs. Otherwise we all sit alone in our everyday grief feeling like no one in this entire universe "gets it." So we share. And we connect. And isn’t that what this is all about? Connection?
So tomorrow we’ll go back to positivity and hope (maybe). But for now, let’s just sit in our everyday grief a little longer. And be OK there. Together.
I’m on my final leg of this journey. I’m dirty. I’m exhausted. I’m sore. I feel beat up and raw. I also feel powerful and proud. I found a strength and openness I didn’t acknowledge before that I will carry with gratitude as I head towards home. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow I will be home.
I’ve spent 10,000 miles lost in my thoughts and emotions. I’ve been pushed and challenged. I’ve relied on myself and on others. I’ve felt connected and I’ve felt lost. I’ve searched for everything and searched for nothing. I’ve experienced weakness and I’ve experienced incredible strength.
My life is a pendulum of conflicting emotions. Most days, all at once.
Now, I both yearn for and dread going home. I crave comfort, but also know the only comfort I really want is no longer there. My bed and clean clothes will only provide me temporary relief for my tired and hurting body. I worry the strength I found on the road will disappear the second I walk through my door. I worry I will stop connecting. I worry I will hide in my grief and loneliness.
I am filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Uncertainty about myself, about my future, about my relationships. About it all. Everything I left behind still remains, waiting for me, unchanged. But I’ve changed. I am no longer the person I used to be. That person disappeared on January 22nd. I still don’t know who this new person is. I still don’t recognize her.
But tomorrow - tomorrow I head home. Tomorrow I will begin to find out...
6 months ago, my life - my happy, perfect life - changed forever. 6 months ago today, Brad and I walked into the Saint Joseph Mercy emergency room, hoping and expecting for an infection and instead getting a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
It was a day filled with fear, anger, sorrow and pain, but also one of hope, love, and determination. It is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. The anxiety I felt as we squeezed into the small hospital bed, holding each other while we waited for results. The gut wrenching fear I felt as our friend and doctor, Josh - off duty for the night - walked in after midnight to deliver us the news. The numbness and shock I felt hearing “stage 4.” The compassion I felt being told by a trusted friend instead of the random on-call doctor. The unstoppable love I felt from Brad as he held me and let me cry in his arms, assuring me that we were going to be okay.
6 months later, I am not okay.
Three days before that day in October, Brad and I were blissfully unaware, on vacation in the Upper Peninsula. We were celebrating my 4 years of being in remission, wrongly believing that we had already gotten through the worst part of our lives. We spent hours talking about our future - and not just the near future, our whole future. We talked about retirement and the kind of life we wanted as we grew old together. We talked about our lifetime together.
My life is now divided into two completely separate lives. The life that I wanted - the life that I chose - and the life I was recently given. The life I want more than anything to fucking give back.
I would give anything to go back to 6 months and 1 day ago. To go back and have Brad’s pain be an infection. To go back and hold on for dear life to everything I had.
I just want to go back.
Instead I am sitting in Arizona, unintentionally and regretfully staying miles away from where I spent several months for my own cancer treatment, being reminded of what now feels like a faded memory of a trauma I experienced a lifetime ago. In a way it was.
I feel tired, I feel broken, I feel lost. I am at the point where I don’t really want to go forward, but what is there to go back to? If home is where your heart is, how do you go back to a home without your heart? I want to go back to before 6 months ago. Back to that life. My real life.
How do you move forward when all you want to do is go back?
I’m trying to slow down. To embrace this journey. To embrace the fact that this isn’t a trip for me to see the country and tour the sites. It’s a trip for me to be alone with my thoughts and emotions. To be alone with my grief.
It’s strange showing up in a new place and not having a plan. To not have already mapped out every single thing I wanted to do and see, fearful to miss out because of lack of research.
My researching drove Brad crazy. For months before a trip, I would spend countless hours in books and on the internet, mapping out the perfect vacation: a balanced mix of “must sees,” off the beaten path finds, and down time for relaxing and spontaneous exploration. Hours planning the kind of trip that felt magically unplanned. Planning brought me joy. The excitement and build up leading up to the trip were almost as much fun as the trip itself. Brad wanted me to be more “go with the flow” and just show up. To let our trip unfold naturally. I used to swear that our vacations were always so wonderful because I planned. And I knew Brad enough to know how to plan for him too: the perfect outdoor cafe that’s not overrun by tourists; the main attraction’s less visited and often forgotten sister site; sex breaks.
I’m actually doing this road trip how Brad would have wanted - unplanned. Not as a way to honor Brad (although I wish I could say that were the case). But because I was too busy with my grief and sorrow to plan. Because I just didn’t care to plan. Because some mornings telling myself to get up and put one foot in front of the other, to walk out the door, is exhausting enough.
As I am sitting here at 9:15 in the morning, my hair wet from my shower, sipping coffee on a patio, and writing, I realize this is exactly the type of slow morning Brad would have craved. I would have been eager to get out the door by 8 - to check out the perfectly adorable coffee shop around the corner before a full day of exploration. I would have been antsy and eager, fearful we were wasting the day. Fearful of missing out.
I am trying to embrace this new me. Or at least this temporary me. Eventually I’ll get dressed and head out, unsure of where I’m headed. I will try and ignore the pit in my stomach that regularly inhabits my body these days. Try and ignore the fear of exploring a new place without a plan. I will try and find joy in my day.
But for now, I am going to sit here a little longer, sip my coffee, and watch the day unfold around me. Not just for Brad, but for me.
What if you only had 100 days to live? What would you do? Quit your job? Travel the world? Start living? Start loving? Start making your moments count?
What if, of those 100 days, 90 of them you felt sick, in pain, or fatigued? That simple tasks like showering or getting dressed required help? That riding in the car was difficult because of the discomfort it caused? That staying awake for several hours in a row felt like a phenomenal feat? And what if the last 10 of those days you were drugged out on morphine, toeing the line between living and dying? Aware for some moments? Confused and out of it for others?
What if you only had 100 days to live? What would you do? How would you live? Would it be too late?
You don't get to choose your last 100 days. And you definitely don't get to choose the condition you will be in during those days. On December 8th, Brad started to plan his life in 100 day increments - never imagining he might not make it through the first 100. He was going to write his memoir. We were going to buy an RV and travel the country and visit the life he lived. The life that we lived. We were going to connect with friends and family. We were going to have adventures.
Today would have been Brad’s 100th day. 100 days after his “Day Zero” blog post. 100 days after starting to take Cabozantinib. 100 days to see how he was responding, to see how the disease was being managed.
Brad died on his Day 46.
What if you only had 100 days to live?
Of Brad's last 100 days, most were spent in bed. Most of them he was too tired to write. Too tired to talk. Sometimes too confused to get his thoughts in order. Brad spent his last 100 day frustrated that the physical state of his body was preventing him from achieving the goals he set for himself. Always hoping that tomorrow would be a better day. That tomorrow he would write more than a paragraph at a time. That tomorrow the meds, the supplements, the diet, the meditation, would all kick in. That tomorrow never came.
What if you only had 100 days to live?
Brad didn’t get to spend his final 100 days chasing dreams and big ambitions. He didn’t get to write his memoir or take our cross country road trip. But he did spend those days doing what was most important: connecting with the people he loved.
In the end, Brad didn’t make any drastic life changes. He didn’t learn he was dying and start making amends (he didn’t need to) or start suddenly living and loving (he already was). Although we hoped for more - more time to write, more time to live - he was already living the life he wanted. He was already the man he wanted to be. He was connecting. He was contributing.
Over and over he would tell me, “Connect and Contribute.” Those were his priorities, above all else. And he honored his commitments to live and love presently - to connect and contribute - until the very end.
It is devastating to think of the impact Brad would have had if he was given more days. How he would have continued to contribute. But I am grateful he got the days that he did. Because he lived more in his 35 years (that’s roughly 12775 days) than most will live in a lifetime. And that impact will continue far beyond our days.
What if you only had 100 days to live? What would you do?
Don't wait until you are given 100 days to live your life. Because you don't get to pick what those days look like. How your body will or will not fail you. How the reality of everyday life will get in the way of the life you planned.
When Brad and I walked into the ER in October and found out he had stage 4 cancer, we never could have known that that day was Brad’s real “Day 0” - that he would only get 100 more days after that. That January 22nd would be his final day - his day 100.
You don’t get to choose your last 100 days.
So what if you only had 100 days to live? What if today is your Day Zero? What will you do tomorrow? What will you do today?