By Courtney Fitzgerald
The first life altering news came on December 17, 2012. The moment that socked me in the stomach and changed my life forever. “I opened up his chest and found lots and lots of cancer… Advanced stages…” My husband, Scott, was dying sooner than later of a rare cancer without a cure.
He fought and mustered up his brain power to be positive. He was certain that he wasn’t done living; it wasn’t his time. God called him home anyway. After his death, I pretended to function. In the first year of grief, I continued to teach, get my master’s degree, keep my kids healthy, buy a house, move, and start a new job. On the surface, I was a survivor.
Looks can be deceiving. On the inside I was broken. The world was dark and scary. I lost sleep over decisions, even the small ones. I couldn’t make a plan for the weekend if my life depended on it. I cried everyday. I never wanted to be a single parent, let alone an only parent. The cross God gave me felt heavy and severely unfair. Sadness, anger, and guilt were my main emotions in this new, dark world without my husband. I was in the waiting room of grief. I lost my love, so all I had left to do was wait for the rest of my life until the glorious day I died.
I am an optimist. I spent years learning how to embrace life and the moments. I loved a man who lived in the moment and wanted the world full of laughter. Deep grief, waiting to die, no longer actually living was an uncomfortable place for me. While I was accepting this “punishment” of grief, I desperately wanted to feel like me again. I also loved life. I loved adventures. I wanted happiness and joy, despite the horrific circumstances of my recent past.
“How can I change my life?” was a question I asked myself daily. I waited for time to pass. I waited for the day I would wake up and feel better. I waited for the tears to stop flowing, for the horrific memories to fade and the happy ones to come back. I waited for the moment I would enjoy my time on earth and not look at it as a death sentence. I waited and waited and waited. However, those days did not come. Simply waiting for grief to subside and life to begin again is the continuation of living in the darkness of grief.
Waiting didn’t change my state of grief. It wasn’t a day that I woke up and decided to stop waiting. It was a series of small changes that helped me return to life.
First, I felt tired. The kind of tired that you can’t just sleep off, but the weary tired of grief. I was tired of crying, feeling heavy, and not living. “This is not me. I’m not comfortable.” I said over and over. One day, I remembered a strategy I used years before to change my life: I needed to do the opposite of what I was currently doing. For example, if in my state of grief, I said no to social gatherings, I knew I needed to say yes instead. It was time to try it, take risks.
I started small. Instead of looking to the darkness for comfort, I found light. Light is everywhere when you really look for it. It shines off of leaves and seeps into a room. Light streaks across the sky as the sun is brightening our earth, or leaving us for another day. Even on the dark, stormy and cloudy days, light is in our lives. Color is derived from the spectrum of light, so even on the darkest of days, where you see color, you see light.
As I searched for light, I also took up walking in order to find the small pieces of nature to capture with a photo. In the evenings, instead of sitting in my chair, waiting for darkness to fall, I walked with my kids. On our walks, we searched for nature and light. The slow evening strolls soon sped up until I realized that my body missed sweat. My favorite time of day to workout is in the early morning, I decided to add those back into my life. My morning workouts led to moments of prayer and devotion to start the day. In essence, the search for light and sweat led me closer to God.
The workouts turned into motivation to change my diet back to natural foods. Food is fuel, and I needed real fuel to keep moving forward and to become myself again.
Days passed. I continued to listen to my heart as I searched for light, walked in the evenings, and sweat each morning. What was missing? Scott, of course. But what else? What was one more thing I could do to make my life better? I still had work to do before I truly felt alive. I stopped to listen to my heart, my body, my life. I discovered my world of anxiety. What if a truck hits us again? What if I get too tired to drive us home? What if.. What if… What if… Those fears and questions were keeping me away from danger but also away from spontaneous adventures that I really enjoyed in my past.
It was time to branch out and make a bigger change. “2015 is the year I will do one thing I’ve never done before.” I said to myself, my friends, and my mom. The more I said it, the more I believed it. One day, I booked a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Scott always wanted to leave the United States and never did. I could do that with our kids, for him, in memory of him. There was nothing stopping us, except my fear. In theory, this trip was perfect. It was a ten hour drive straight north on flat land with little traffic. I decided to take a risk. In a quick moment of procrastination and bravery, I booked a hotel room in Winnipeg. “You can always cancel.” I reassured myself. For a month, I told no one about this trip, until the day I knew I had to tell the kids or cancel it.
“We’re going to drive to Winnipeg in Canada on Friday,” I said one random day after a baseball game.
“What? We are?” they both said in a mix of awe and disbelief. “We’re leaving the country? We get to use our passports?” They both danced to the car, and I saw my kids come alive in a way I hadn’t seen since the cancer entered our lives. I knew it was the right choice. Going there together, both broken and whole, was important for our healing as a family.
The kids and I loaded up our car and drove. We spent the two and half days hiking, walking, and exploring this new place. We were calm, we compromised, we were happy. This experience was ours. Upon arriving home, I was roadtrip-tired, but I had a deep renewal of spirit.
“I took my kids out of the country. I drove in a new land. I changed money and figured out the area. I drove in traffic without a GPS. And we are home. We are safe. I did this without another adult. Me. Alone.” I said these phrases to anyone who’d listen. A weight was lifted from my shoulders.
My once dark world of fear and grief slowly changed into a world of possibilities. I knew that if I faced my fear and cut things into small pieces, I could do anything. My kids and I would be okay. Letting myself live in this way kept opening my heart and mind to the idea of being happy again the more small steps lead to big changes in my life.
The biggest change of all was allowing my heart to search and accept joy instead of be comfortable in the darkness of grief. Every morning shortly after my alarm goes off, I say aloud, “Today, I choose to live.”
Courtney Fitzgerald is mom, girlfriend, teacher, photographer, writer, and professional dreamer. She writes about her perfectly imperfect family at OurSmallMoments.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.