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Lived and Learned

This year was the third Father’s Day since my husband Nolan died. For our four-year-old son Logan who doesn’t really remember what it was like to have a Dad, it’s business as usual.

We spent the morning visiting the cemetery and talking about how special his Daddy was. There were the repeated questions: “Why did he die? Why couldn’t the doctors make him better? How did he get sick? What happens if you get sick, too?” I offered the best explanations I could, and we had a good cry. Logan told me not to be sad, that one day he’ll marry me because he loves me. I carried him to the car, his arms hugging me tight around my neck, and I told him everything would be okay because we had each other.

I know my son lost someone and something that could have been so special, and I can never replace it. No one can ever be just like his Dad — and no one could ever love him the same way. I’m coming to grips with the fact that Logan will experience a pain and loss I’ll never know. The few times he’s said he is sad about Daddy, I don’t try to pretend I can fix it. I don’t try to change the subject, or make him happy, or cheer him up. I rub his back and hug him, telling him only, “I know.”

As he gets older and I come out of the fog of grief, I’ve started to realize that while Logan lost someone important and irreplaceable, he also gained someone: a new mom, a different kind of mom.

Before losing Nolan, I wanted — no, expected — things in life to be a certain way. I expected to fall in love, get married, have more children, and grow old with my husband. I saw all of these things as a given instead of a gift. As a result, I didn’t fully appreciate what I had when I had it. I complained when Nolan bothered me when I tried to read in bed, or when he wanted something else for dinner than what I had planned, or wanted to take a trip on a whim. I preferred to decorate our house perfectly, have our kids certain years apart, and plan the perfect vacations. I wanted life to be in order and to follow the rules: my rules.

Oh, how I long for those annoying interruptions, the last-minute plans and getaways. But they’re gone forever, stolen by the cancer that slowly stole Nolan away from us, took him piece by piece as he withered away.

But watching how Nolan lived — and then how he died — changed everything: our life plans, how Logan would be raised, where we would live. It changed my relationship with my son; we are growing closer by the day as we brave life as a pair instead of the threesome or foursome I always expected our family to be.

It also changed me and how I parent. I’ve learned to pick my battles and focus on what’s really important. I choose cuddling and playtime over finishing the laundry piled sky-high in the basket. And I try not to make Logan do things my way “just because I said so.”

My biggest regret is not taking Nolan and Logan to the beach as Nolan neared the end. Looking back, I know this would have been a little unrealistic given all the doctor’s appointments and treatments — and the fact that we could never really tell when the end would come.

But I think about how nice it would have been to rent a beach house for a month, just the three of us. I think about the hours Nolan and I could have spent sitting side by side in matching beach chairs, holding hands under an umbrella while Logan dug in the sand next to us. About the nights cooking in the small kitchen, the doors open so the sound of the crashing waves would surround us, and we could watch as the breeze played with the long, flowing curtains. Then putting Logan to sleep and climbing into bed with Nolan, eager to feel the weight of his arms around me.

But I know the image in my head wouldn’t have matched the reality. Nolan wouldn’t have been able to lay out on the beach; he couldn’t handle too much sun or heat. Logan, not even two yet and loving the water, would have bolted for the ocean every chance he got, leaving me to constantly run after him. Nolan still would have slept in every morning, and I’d be challenged with entertaining Logan for hours. The smells from the kitchen would have bothered Nolan morning, noon, and night. And the weight of his arms would never feel the same, as the cancer stripped his body of the strength and weight I once knew. Nolan wouldn’t have even been able to lay in the bed with me all night. The tumors pressing against his organs made him so uncomfortable, he would have bounced from bed to couch to chair all night long — without ever really feeling satisfied.

But I know there would have been some moments of pure joy and contentment for all of us, no matter how fleeting. And I know all too well that these few moments are what I have to live for. If you aren’t on the lookout for them, they can sneak by undetected, or noticed too late.

Now, after Nolan passed away, instead of trying to orchestrate these moments or wanting more, more, more, I notice them. Soak them in. Hold Logan for an extra second when he hugs me. Move my beach chair closer to the ocean so I can watch him shriek in delight as the waves crash over his feet. Let him drop his cheese puffs into his water just to see what will happen. And I don’t let any more regrets accumulate, even if my ideas seem farfetched or impossible.

This Father’s Day, when I sat in the grass in front of Nolan’s grave with my son by my side, looking at my reflection staring back in the black stone, I thanked Nolan. I know in my heart I didn’t cause the cancer and did all I could to try to save him, but I also know in watching him die, I learned how to live. And let go.

I can’t control the world or what happens in it; I can only enjoy my time here, like Nolan did. I’ll pass this hard-won lesson to my son, and in some small way, he’ll get the best of both his Mom and Dad. Even if only one of us is lucky enough to be here to enjoy him.

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