Years ago, I was in a hardware store with my son as he recoiled with fear at the sight of a very old shopper, stumbling along in his cardigan and slippers, leaning heavily on his trolley and struggling to get anywhere fast. He told me then he would rather die young than ever reach that stage in life. At the time, I reiterated my lightbulb moment from a few years earlier when I became older than my mother (she died when I was a teenager). I told him growing old was a privilege that not everyone gets to enjoy. I stopped fighting the outward signs of age, and did my best to embrace the silver sparkles in my hair and lines of emotion in my face.
Young, fit, beautiful Harry wouldn’t have any of that though. His depressed mind could not comprehend moving from his current state into something different, and a few months later, I had to say goodbye forever to a boy who will never grow old.
Related: Why Grief Makes Me Who I Am
Of course, for me, in the six years since Harry died, I have continued to grow and change. It feels as though that change has been at an accelerated rate because of the stress of living with grief. In the past year, I have finally had to accept that dancing with arthritic knees is not the best form of exercise for me. I had to walk (stumble) away from that, and that in itself, is another layer of grieving. All of those years I got to dance for me, and then with Harry, used to sparkle around me like glittery juggling balls … that are now all shattered on the ground under my feet.
Am I becoming that old person Harry dreaded, stumbling along slowly, and leaning myself into my trolley for support? Perhaps so, outwardly at least.
Internally, I am still the Maria who was her mother’s “little flower,” and I can still feel her warm embrace. I am still the Maria who was blessed with two beautiful babies, and I can still feel my arms holding my children when they were little and I was the tall one. I am also still the Maria who can swoop around the dance floor with her son.
On Christmas Day this year, I joined the masses at the cemetery to sit with Harry for awhile, and as I was there, I took a photo of myself. Later that day, my sister took another photo. Both pictures represent only a tiny slice of who I am, of the complete jumble that exists within me — one reflects pain, the other joy.
If Harry was still here, I wish he could know the truth behind those photos, the pictures of his “aged” mother. I wish he could know that while pain exists, joy is also possible. That while nothing in life is guaranteed (except change), we do still have the option, in every moment, to be present in that pain or in that joy … and then to step (or stumble) forward into the next moment.
We can never fully appreciate what goes on inside the minds and hearts and souls of someone else. For the family sending me pitying glances as I sat crying with my son on Christmas Day, I wish you had also been able to see me a few hours later. For my family, who helps me to embrace the joy, over and over again, even though my heart feels broken still, I wish I could find the words.
And for me, the one who exists in this confusing jumble of life and death inside of my head, I wish you would pause more frequently, breathe away the stress, ignore the pain and appreciate the fact that you can still walk (stumble) forward.
The truth for me, in my tale of two faces, is none of us will ever know what the person in front of us is really feeling — all we can do is just be kind.