Last year began as all the others in Brazil, the last day of December another heat wave rolling into January. I wore white, as is the custom, and hoped my attire would indeed bring better luck and peace for the coming year.
Minutes before midnight our group of friends drifted over to the beach to welcome 2018. The sea has always thundered louder in the dark and that night was no different. The fireworks’ sound and light echoed on the waves as we raised cheap plastic glasses of champagne and shouted saúde at each other and the night. Without words I walked to the water’s edge and waded in just enough to hop over the incoming rush of ocean. For seven waves I made a wish and thought about washing the weariness of 2017 away. The year had been a tumultuous one and I craved the hope of a new beginning. I begged the waves and the universe and whoever was listening for some halcyon days ahead.
A few weeks later, they came. My family spent a long-awaited week in the “most magical place on Earth,” a.k.a. Disney World. We came together for an early celebration of my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. For years my mom had wanted to do a vow renewal ceremony and this was the right time to do it, surrounded by the kids and grandkids. At her request, my sisters and I shared a thought on friendship, love, marriage and family, and at the end of a simple ceremony, my parents were wed, again.
Not long after our family reunion, my mom’s cancer grew stronger than her. She had been dealing with the same illness that had claimed my mother-in-law less than a year prior: multiple myeloma. I can’t describe the disbelief and pain when my father called and said she would be doing an intensive treatment and that “she might not make it.”
I left Brazil the following day, and my mom had waited to begin the treatment until I arrived. We spent the next few weeks in the aching sadness of a hospital room. Each of us tried to care for and cheer her up as best we could, but like us all, she just wanted to go home.
The morning of my parents’ actual 40th anniversary dawned as bright as it had the day of their little ceremony in Florida a few months earlier. We were ragged in body and spirit as the blood-orange light flooded us all in the ICU room. I watched the sun fill my mom’s face and tried to measure the stillness of her breath. Later that morning a nurse came in, perfectly calm, and warned us that she would likely be gone in a few minutes.
A few minutes? What do you do with the last moments of your mother’s life?
I wanted to show her the gardens outside, which were just past the peak of their blooming.
I wanted to take her home to the beach that she loved.
I wanted to erase the pain of the past years without losing her.
Forty years to the day that she said, “Till death do us part,” she fulfilled her promise with my dad’s hand still holding hers. I like to think she held on through all that suffering just to make it to their anniversary.
“Perhaps the greatest blessing in marriage is that it lasts so long. The years, like the varying interests of each year, combine to buttress and enrich each other. Out of many shared years, one life.”
Richard C. Cabot
Whether I knew it or not as a child, my parents were the first people to teach me about love. I saw what it means to be accepted unconditionally. I also saw that being accepted just as you are doesn’t give you license to be unkind. My parents showed me that love is truly a many-splendored thing. Something that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Something that can bring brightness to the darkest of places.
I tried to remember these lessons from my mother, a true lover of life, in the days and months after she passed. They are little consolation for the loss of her smile and presence. Now that spring is upon us again, I am supposed to remind myself of new hope, new life, new beginnings. But there are no waves to jump here, no wishes to be made in the water. I live in the high desert now, surrounded by unforgiving mountains still cradling their snow, and my heart feels buried deep among them.