The Heart Ache Spreads, Day…40ish, The “Me Project”

As I’ve mentioned, I have a bad memory. It might be because there are bad memories that my mind is trying to shake. I don’t know.

Let me start by saying I was well loved. This isn’t a story of me being harmed. I’m grateful for my parents and the other people who provided for me and loved on me.

But because of the circumstances in my early childhood, I have hazed out much of what happened. When I think of my childhood, it’s in the broadest terms. Like I can string together the stories I’ve been told, with some really whispy scraps of actual memories, to create a timeline that proved I was there. Most of what I remember is hospitals. Well, hospitals and horses. (More on those later).

I’ve been trying to write about this for a week, but between life keeping me busy and all the hard stops I’ve wired into myself when it comes to this topic, I’m struggling to get it out. I’ve been struggling to get it out for decades, really. But the more I read about the suspected impact of hidden, unprocessed pain on mental and physical health, the more I want to get through the hard part to reach the relief that might be ahead.


My sister, Kirsten, was diagnosed with cancer when my mom was big pregnant for my littlest sister. Kirsten was three, I was seven. These things never don’t feel like a gut bomb shock, but she had Down Syndrome, which increased her odds of developing childhood cancer significantly, so I think we were as braced for it as ever you could be. Also, she wasn’t naive to medical and surgical treatment- she’d had corrective eye and heart surgeries already by then. So, we as a family had already figured out how to rally around her, how to cope when split up.

She was sick, with remissions and relapses, for seven years, before she died. I remember that day very clearly. That one sticks. My fingers are heavy even mentioning it, my whole body working against me to keep that moment tucked where it belongs. I want to write TRIGGER WARNING all over this post to protect the ones it might hurt the most. I want to ask permission to share any of this, but of who? Why? Is it not mine to give?

Image for post
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She had wavy long blond hair when she wasn’t undergoing chemo. So, this is what she looked like for most of her life.

It doesn’t feel like my story to share. I keep writing and then deleting the ways in which her illness and death impacted, not me, but my parents. I’m used to thinking of it in those terms, from their perspective. It was my parents who were most scared and suffered most severely, whose jobs it was to protect her from this thing no one could stop. Especially now that I have my own kids, I can imagine the terror of it for them, but even before that, I have always seen it from their perspective…at the expense of counting myself among the victims of the pain. When asked by my recent therapist, some 25 years after her death, how I’m handling the death, I brought up how my parents are coping first. I’m afraid I’ve never let myself fully feel it because I’ve had to be whole in case anyone needed my strength for patching themselves up.

At thirteen, I took it upon myself to watch them for their wellness, to protect them from any other pains I could control, to comfort them and make them laugh, to be easy and bright and functional. It’s a well-known phenomenon, the oldest kid shelving their own feelings to take care of others. I’ve done it for a lifetime and only recently have started trying to evaluate and take care of myself, to draw some boundaries. To not fear that if I set it down, the world will sink.

I have much more to say on this, as I mine through what memories are there, and I will soon, but somehow it’s midnight already, and I need to sleep.

I wrote a short screenplay for a contest this weekend. I got a massage today. I’m keeping this covenant to myself, taking care of myself in all the ways. I am wondering if the weight of the grief is contributing to my physical pains, and I’m anxious to address all of it. It’s gonna suck (not the massage-that was awesome) dealing with the pain to properly deal with the pain, but it’s time.

Goodnight for now.

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