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Keep Moving Forward.

Today is Julian’s eighth Angelversary. Ever since year one, my family gathers together on March 3rd to celebrate his life and the profound privilege it is for all of us to be alive. We focus on the family who is still here on the planet, and we are reminded never to take each other for granted. 

Today is also a day for personal reflection, as I review my progress over the past year. Now that I’ve completed eight years of The After, I can see my grief journey has gotten a little easier each year.

The first year was the worst, of course. The first birthday without him, the first time someone asked me how many children I have, the first vacation as a family of three… these firsts were impossible. After the firsts, each repeated instance became slightly less impossible. After almost eight years, I assumed all of my firsts were behind me.

Turns out, I was wrong. There was one really big first left to experience: the first time a friend called me, sobbing, “Oh Emily… Anna died yesterday.”

Sweet Anna. A kind, brave, curious 11-year-old girl I spent time with every summer for the past six years. She was more than just “a child I knew” or “my friends’ daughter.” We roasted marshmallows and had meaningful conversations together. I’m pretty sure I knew her better than I know my niece and nephews.

Anna was not a typical 11-year-old. She loved playing tennis, catching frogs, and the color purple. She identified as a liberal, and really understood what that meant. (How many 11YOs understand that? I don’t know any, besides Anna.) She had a motto, and repeated it often to her parents and friends. (How many 11YOs have a motto? I don’t know any, besides Anna.)

This special child was almost exactly the same age that Julian would have been. They never met each other, but they had a lot in common. They both had a twinkle in their eye, and a serious (but not terminal) health condition. They both had the best doctors who followed the best protocols at the best hospitals. And despite their diagnoses, they both were expected to live long healthy lives. But then… they didn’t.

Until that phone call, it didn’t occur to me to brace myself for the first death of a child, after my own. The first time I witnessed a friend take her first steps on the same path I’d been walking for more than seven years.

After I received that phone call, I sat at my kitchen counter and sobbed. Suddenly, my grief scab had been ripped off. I wept for Julian, I wept for Anna, I wept for Anna’s parents, and I wept for bereaved parents everywhere.

And then, after the initial shock wore off, I knew I had a decision to make: who would I be for my friend?

The easier choice would be to back away, become aloof, and tell my friend it was just too painful for me to go through this with her. The harder choice was to dive in to her experience with her, and to become the kind of guide and resource that I would have wanted in the days following Julian’s death.

I wish I could say it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t. I knew that choosing to move forward and travel this path with my friend would mean re-traveling the path myself. Was I up for that?

Ultimately, yes, of course I was. I took my friend by the hand, and we started walking the path.

We walked through the Dark Days, when nothing mattered and everything was a devastating blur. Somehow a zombie-like, latte-fueled version of ourselves was able to make cremation arrangements and decide how to celebrate our child’s life. We wondered, how can this possibly be real life?

We walked through the Evil-Inner-Critic Days, when we were attacked by that vicious voice in our head that told us our child’s death was definitely our fault, because we are the MOTHER and it is our JOB to protect our child from any and every danger, including dangers that came from within their own bodies. We were easily convinced when the voice told us, “a good mother wouldn’t WANT to survive the death of her child — how dare you try to move forward!” Our sad-grief turned into guilt-grief. We couldn’t stop that ruthless judge in our head, but we learned to recognize her. We named her Janice.

We walked through the Numbing Days, when we tried to replace our grief — and shut Janice up for a minute — with food or sleep or TV or sex or alcohol or whatever gave us the smallest whisper of pleasure in the middle of our black cloud of grief.

We walked through the Re-Entry Days, when we welcomed the return to our professional jobs, just so we could take a temporary break from grieving. We interacted with co-workers and baristas and all the random people we crossed paths with, never knowing when the next emotional breakdown would happen. We celebrated small wins, like having a day when we cried instead of sobbed.

Eventually, we arrived at the Creating-New-Normal Days, when we realized we will never have our old life again, but we can build a new one. We learned that this new life won’t be free from darkness, but there’s plenty of light if we’re willing to let it in. We accepted that we will probably never kill off our evil inner critic, but we’ve gained the strength to say “F off, Janice!” when necessary.

My friend and I are still walking that path, and we always will be. It’s not a path we chose, but it’s the path we’re on. And we’re walking it one step after the other.

We Keep Moving Forward.

Why? Because Anna told us to. She gave very specific instructions to everyone who knew her.

She wasn’t just a 11-year-old with a motto, she was a 11-year-old whose motto was “Keep Moving Forward” — KMF for short.

So that is what we do. We KMF. Day by day, step by step, my friend and I walk the path.

We Keep Moving Forward.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you can hit,
it matters how hard you can get hit,
and Keep Moving Forward.”
– Rocky Balboa

KMF 
💜

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2019 in Angelversaries

 

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There and here.

img_1565Today is Julian’s sixth Angelversary. Six years since he lost his battle with leukemia and left the planet. In the early days, I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to live without him. Six years later, I’m living… but I’m not without him. Because he is both “there” and here.

Every once in a while, someone will shyly ask me, “Do you ever sense that he is with you? Do you communicate with him? Do you get signs from him?” And the answer is yes, yes, and yes. Constantly… if I’m paying attention.

Sometimes it’s little things, like looking at the clock when it reads exactly on the hour (to which I always respond, “Hi baby!”). Or, a parking lot that is completely full, except for the spot closest to the door (in our family, that’s known as the “Julian Spot”). Sometimes it’s coins crossing my path unexpectedly, dimes especially. Sometimes these are isolated events, but often they have a frequency. For example, in the past 24 hours, I estimate that I’ve seen the clock at X:00 at least 7 times. That’s not a coincidence, that’s Julian saying “Hi. I’m with you. Always, but especially today.”

Sometimes the gifts from Julian make me laugh in their awesomeness. As I’ve shared before, it’s because of Julian that we are good friends with a famous chef. He’s in the process of opening a new restaurant, and we recently received an invitation for a friends-and-family preview night before they open. The event is on March 12th, the day that would have been Julian’s 10th birthday. This was not a coincidence, this was Julian saying, “It’s my 10th birthday, and I’ve arranged a special dinner for you to celebrate!”

Sometimes Julian sends Earth Angels to protect my family. For example, when my parents were on a train in Russia, they were discussing their plans for getting to their hotel after disembarking at their station. There weren’t many English speakers on that train, but it turns out there was one in earshot. Not only was she listening to their conversation, she was the type of kind person who approached them and explained that their train wouldn’t be stopping at that station on that particular day. Not only did she help them figure out an alternate plan, she negotiated directly with the cab driver to make sure they paid a fair price for their journey. AND she stopped by the hotel the next day to make sure they arrived safely. This wasn’t just random. This was Julian saying, “I’m always watching over you. I see that you’re vulnerable right now. The plan you made can not happen today. I’m sending an Earth Angel to help you.”

My whole family has these experiences. Sometimes we share them with each other, sometimes we keep them to ourselves. But what we all know for sure is that Julian is not gone. He is obviously “there” in Heaven or whatever label we chose to use, but he is also very much HERE with us, all the time. And he confirms that message frequently, when we’re paying attention.

He is the puffy white clouds reflected in a mirror-like lake. The line between “down here” and “up there” becomes almost imperceptible. His spirit is communicating directly with us, just like the beauty of the sky is literally visible here on Earth. He is there AND here.

img_0363p.s. This past year I started making art again after many years. I created an artwork based on this visual metaphor, and it was selected to be included in a show called Spirit: Made Here in downtown Minneapolis. They even interviewed me and made a video about my work. The inspiration for this work of art, as well as the acceptance into the show, was yet another gift from Julian.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2017 in Angelversaries, year 6

 

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Angel Day #3: The 3rd 3/3

Today is Julian’s Angel Day. The third one. The 3rd 3/3. And he was 3 when he died. Lots of threes today.

I recently read Louise Hay’s latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart. I highlighted several quotes throughout the book, but the one that struck me most is this:

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“The person you were has forever changed. A part of the old you died with your loved one, but a part of your loved one lives on in the new you. This can be a holy transition instead of a lose-lose frame of mind.”

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So in honor of this day of 3, I’d like to share three insights from the “holy transition” I’ve been living through these past three years:

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1. I leaned in. And then I leaned back. And now I fly above. 

I’ve always been a driven person. Goal-setting was automatic; there was always a destination I was striving for. I was “leaning in” way before Sheryl Sandberg told us to. When I was 28, I founded a successful business that grew to support more than 10 families. I served on boards, and I was recognized as a “pioneer” and a “leader” in my field. But eventually I was just on frantic auto-pilot, working nights and weekends for years and years to maintain the leaned-in life I’d created for myself.

The first year after Julian’s death, I appreciated that auto-pilot life. The quantity and intensity of activity in my life was a welcome distraction. But by the time Julian’s first Angelversary came around, I realized I was completely burned out. I cracked. I just couldn’t do it anymore. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead — and I couldn’t do nothing — so I leaned BACK. I stayed in my business, but I redefined my job description and I cut back on anything I could cut back on.

Then, when Julian’s second Angelversary came around, I realized that leaning back wasn’t any better. Instead of achieving more “balance,” I’d gone from frantic auto-pilot to bored robot. I was going through the motions, without authentic passion for any of the things that used to excite me. So I made the scariest decision of my life: I decided to transition out of my business. I had some ideas for what I wanted to do next, but I didn’t have an exact plan. I wasn’t even comfortable calling it a “sabbatical,” because I didn’t know if I’d ever want to return to the work I’d done before. I took a running leap into the unknown — no specific goal, no specific destination. I wasn’t leaning in or leaning back. I was flying above.

And here I am today, three years after Julian died, feeling alive for the first time in forever. What am I doing now? For one thing, I’m writing a book. But more importantly, I’m pursuing what Danielle LaPorte calls “goals with soul.” Instead of traditional goals, I’m driven by my core desired feelings: Freedom, Creativity, and Abundance. And when I re-focused on what I really valued, I found that spark again. I was struck by divine inspiration (thank you, Julian!) for a NEW business that will merge my past career in website design with my newly discovered passion for spiritual technology. (More on that later. I gotta get that book done first!)

I leaned in, then I leaned back, and now I fly above. I’m more “me” than I’ve ever been, and it’s because a part of Julian lives on in the new me. And I thank him for that every day.

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2. I’ve examined my “primal thinking” about relationships.

Another one of my favorite quotes from You Can Heal Your Heart is, “Grief is the window that provides the opportunity to examine your primal thinking about relationships.” As I think back on the past three years, I see how profoundly true that is.

I learned two things about relationships shortly after Julian died. First, I was told that I’d be surprised by who supported me in those darkest days (I’d be surprised by who came forward, and I’d be surprised by who retreated). And yes, that was true for me. But what surprised me even more was how my friendships continued to change as the years went by. Friends who were once close drifted away, and people who entered my life after Julian died are now some of my best friends and biggest supporters. I treasure these new soul sisters, and I thank Julian for bringing them into my life.

The second thing I was told about relationships is that the loss of a child often ends in divorce. A child’s death can directly lead to divorce, like when one parent was fully or partially responsible for the death. Or the child’s death can indirectly lead to divorce, like when a spouse’s physical characteristics bring up memories of the child that are too painful to live with on a day-to-day basis, or when the parents fail to soothe each other and feel they must part ways to find joy again.

I’m happy to report that my marriage did not suffer either of these scenarios. When I look back on the past three years, it’s clear to me that Julian’s death brought my husband and me even closer. He’s had his own journey of grief and recovery, and he’s come out the other side with strength and determination. Together, we experienced the very worst thing that any parents can experience, and we learned that we can survive anything… because we have each other.

My “primal thinking about relationships” has shifted a lot in the past three years, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve made beautiful new friendships, and I’ve gained even more strength in my marriage. Julian inspires me to appreciate every relationship I have.

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3. I’ve learned the Truth: love never dies.

Before Julian died, I described myself as “spiritual but not religious.” I still describe myself that way, but now I really understand what that means. I’ve found myself drawn to books like Proof of Heaven and Many Lives, Many Masters. I know in my heart that Julian and I have been together before, and we’ll be together again. But also, WE’RE STILL TOGETHER NOW.

Louise Hay says, “The ultimate truth is that love never dies.” I’m here to tell you, that’s true. And I don’t mean conceptually or abstractly true. I mean, literally capital-T True. Julian is no longer in human form, but he is not gone. He is present in my life every day. In large and small ways, he gives me signs that he is with me. Like for example, last year my whole family was celebrating Julian’s birthday and our server introduced himself to us. His name was JULIAN. That wasn’t a coincidence. That was Julian saying, “Hi! Thanks for celebrating my birthday! I’m here, too!”

Our loved ones’ bodies die, but their love never dies. Their souls live on, and connect with us ALL THE TIME. If you pay attention, you will see it, too.

So there you go. A trinity of transition. Three ways Julian has become a part of the new me. He blessed me in life, and he blesses me still. 

Happy third Angelversary, little one.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Angelversaries, year 3

 

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Chopped All-Stars! (Part 2)

Last night was the finale of Chopped All-Stars on the Food Network. And — spoiler alert! — after a grueling duel of culinary skill and endurance, our friend-slash-celebrity chef Gavin Kaysen beat every single opponent… except one. 

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Gavin in action (source: Food Network)

So he didn’t win the grand prize of $50,000 that would have gone to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund (CCRF) in memory of Julian. But what he DID do is raise awareness for an amazing organization that my husband and I are so proud to support in every way we can. And, he shared Julian’s story with the world.

Words can’t even describe what an honor it was to watch Gavin on national television (NATIONAL TELEVISION!) talking about Julian and CCRF. He said things like, “”I’m here to tell the story of Julian Golden and the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.” And, “”I have to get that check for Julian!” It literally brought tears to my eyes every time I heard my son’s name.

Funny thing is, the competition was filmed over a year ago at the Food Network in Chelsea Market in New York. And, amazingly, the filming of the finale occurred on the exact day that John and I flew into New York to celebrate one of my best friend’s 40th birthday.

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Food Network headquarters

 

When the show’s producers learned we’d be arriving in the city, they told us they might be able to have us visit the set. But of course, we had to just play it by ear because no one knew which competitors would be “chopped” until the chopping occurred.

So the producers had us on call, and then we got the green light — Gavin had made it to the final round of the finale!

So we made our way to Chelsea Market, and then were escorted to the Food Network studios. After signing some hardcore legal documents about keeping everything confidential, we were able to watch the final round as it happened live.

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We watched the dessert round as it was happening live, via nine different camera angles.

 

If you watched the show last night, you know how that last round went. Gavin’s dessert was PERFECTION. His competitor, Scott Conant, was… not. In fact, it was a pretty big mess! We were positive Gavin had won it. The producers and crew were positive he had won it.

The producer took us into another room and wired us with microphones, because they were getting us ready to go out on set and surprise Gavin after his big win.

(I was more than a little freaked out about being on camera, but I was so excited for Gavin!)

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John getting wired for sound

But then, there was a delay. And more delays. Then the producer told us that Scott’s family was getting wired for sound, too. (Huh?)

The minutes ticked by. Then an hour. The producer and crew were visibly different than they were initially… something was up. And then they told us the heartbreaking news: Gavin wasn’t going to win after all.

They still had us come out on set and surprise Gavin, and it was sooo exciting to be on a full-blown TV studio! We stood there in front of the judges, side-by-side with Gavin and Scott.

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The host Ted Allen, me, my husband John, and judge Marcus Samuelsson

The judges asked us questions, and we chatted about CCRF and even talked about this blog. It was awesome.

When we were done, we got autographs and photos with the judges Marcus Samuelsson, Geoffrey Zakarian, Aarón Sánchez, and the host Ted Allen. Marcus Samulesson even walked us out of the building! It was pretty unbelievable to be making small talk with one of the U.S.’s most iconic celebrity chefs.

So in the end, the big money didn’t go Gavin’s way. But we could not have been more thrilled with the awareness that he created for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. And, he brought Julian’s story to a national audience.

It was never about the money. It was only about making a difference… and Gavin was DEFINITELY a winner in every way that matters.

Did you watch the show? Did Gavin’s hard work inspire you? Please consider making a donation of your own. Visit JulianGolden.com and click “donate” — every donation makes a difference.
 
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Posted by on May 6, 2013 in year 3

 

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Chopped All-Stars! (Part 1)

To say my husband John is “into” cooking would be an understatement. Because although he has never pursued a career in food, cooking has been a life-long passion for him. (When most kids were watching cartoons, John was watching the Galloping Gourmet.)

So in John’s world, there’s pretty much nothing better than meeting a celebrity chef. Except maybe becoming friends with a celebrity chef. Or maybe… learning that his friend-slash-celebrity chef was selected to be on a cooking competition in which each chef was invited to compete for a charity, and this friend-slash-celebrity chef selected the Children’s Cancer Research Fund in memory of Julian.

And that’s exactly what happened!

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Gavin and John on 7/22/11

As I described in a post from January 2012, we initially met Chef Gavin Kaysen after my dad (a friend of Gavin’s dad) visited Gavin’s restaurant in New York City. My dad introduced himself to Gavin, and ended up telling him Julian’s story… and also told Gavin about his son-in-law’s passion for cooking.

One thing lead to another, and a couple of months later, my dad and Gavin had planned John’s ultimate birthday gift — a day of cooking with Gavin, resulting in a dinner party for John and our closest friends… all in honor of Julian. That day of cooking together turned into an ongoing friendship, including unforgettable meals in Gavin’s restaurant, joyful celebrations with his family, and a trip France to cheer Gavin on as he coached the Bocuse d’Or USA team.

If you visit the videos page on Gavin’s website, you’ll see that he is no stranger to cooking competitions and TV appearances. In addition to representing the USA in the Bocuse d’Or, he has competed on the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, and more.

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Gavin in an interview segment on 4/14/13.

So it didn’t surprise us a bit when Gavin shared his secret with us… he would be competing in a televised cooking competition! John and I both had tears in our eyes when he asked us if it would be ok if he told Julian’s story, and then if he wins, $50,000 will be donated to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund in memory of Julian.

The televised competition isn’t just any cooking competition. It’s Chopped *All-Stars*, currently airing on the Food Network. There are four categories of four chefs each — The winner of each category will then go on to compete against each other in the final round on Sunday, May 5.

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My family with Gavin’s parents on 4/14/13.

Gavin is in the appropriately-named “Mega Chefs” category, which aired on Sunday, April 14. We were thrilled to watch Gavin make his magic on the TV screen, and cook his way to victory! That means he is will be competing in the final round on May 5.

So if you have cable, please watch Chopped on the Food Network on Sunday May 5. You’ll see that the only thing bigger than Gavin’s talent is his heart.

This whole experience has been amazing, and reminds us once again that the tragedy of Julian’s death has not prevented us from feeling love and joy. We are so incredibly greatful for the gifts Julian has given us in his life as well as in his death, not the least of which is our friend Gavin Kaysen and the attention he is bringing to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2013 in year 3

 

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The last of the firsts.


Today is March 3rd. That means it’s Julian’s first Angelversary. One year since the worst day of my life. The last milestone in a year of unimaginable “firsts.”

The first time I woke up, convinced it was all a horrible nightmare… and later, the first time I woke up and knew it wasn’t. The first time I laughed… and later, the first time I realized I had gone a whole day without crying.

The first of his birthdays without him; the first of my birthdays without him. The first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; the first Christmas and New Year’s. The first time someone asked me how many children I have; the first time I heard Oscar refer to himself as “an only child.”

There’s a surprising amount of relief in reaching the last of these firsts, the first anniversary of his death. Perhaps the only thing I’ve heard about grieving that might be universally true is, “the first year is the hardest.” And as of today, my family and I have survived that year. It’s behind us now. Another bereaved parent recently told me, “it never gets better, but it does get easier.” I believe that will be true for us, too.

Today, I’m thankful for many things. In this particular moment, I’m thankful that my parents encouraged John and I to take a week off of work and take Oscar out of school to join them in Mexico, at the resort that we spent many family spring breaks growing up. I’m thankful that we agreed to it, despite the fact that we had already planned a vacation for the end of March. It’s peaceful and relaxing here, and I’m grateful to be able to spend this day with my husband, oldest son, and parents.

Today I’ve been reflecting on how I have changed in the past year, as I listen to the waves crashing nearby. As irrational as it seems now, I remember that in the first days after Julian’s death, I felt a very real fear that I would somehow forget him. I also started feeling internal and external judgement about my grieving process — as if intense grief indicated intense love, and healing from grief indicated a lack of love. And if I stopped grieving, I would forget him.

But with time, I gained confidence in my own approach to grieving and healing. Thankfully, I eventually came to the conclusion that Martha Whitmore Hickman described so eloquently in Healing After Loss:

“Of course time eases our grief, provided we let it follow its course and give it its due. Few of us would want the intensity and desolation of early grief to stay with us forever. That’s not what we’re afraid of.

But we may be afraid that we’ll lose the intensity of love we felt for the one we have lost.

At first these two–the grief and the love–are so wedded to each other that we cannot separate them. We may cling to the grief in desperation so we will be sure not to lose the love.

Perhaps the grief and the love will always be wedded to each other to some degree, like two sides of a coin. But maybe after a while, when we flip the coin, it will almost always be the love that turns up on top.”

Today, I’m thankful that in fact love almost always does turn up on top. I’m also thankful that a year has passed and I can say with all certainty that he isn’t alive, but he isn’t gone. I still have a relationship with him. I see him everywhere. I see him in my dreams. I saw him in the whales that appeared a short distance off the beach this morning, despite the fact that they weren’t expected for a couple more weeks. I see him in every sunset.

Sometimes, even in Mexico, the sunset is obstructed by clouds. But that doesn’t make me question whether or not the sun exists. Similarly, even if I don’t see or feel him, I know he’s there. A year ago I was afraid he was gone forever. Today I know he’s with me always.

Today is the first anniversary, the last of the firsts. And as my mom said to me just a few minutes ago, “It’s a good day.”

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Angelversaries, year 2

 

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Day Zero.

It wasn't just a coincidence that my mom and I were unexpectedly served a red velvet cupcake at lunch today. Red was his favorite color, and we served red velvet cake at his Celebration of Life. This was a message from him. The message was, BE ALIVE.

One year ago today was Day Zero. The “before” was over; the “after” hadn’t quite started.

One year ago today was the day that started with a quick trip to the pediatrician to get my son treated for a persistent cough, and to ask some questions about his unusual bruises. One year ago today was the day that ended with a diagnosis of leukemia.

One year ago today I drove from the pediatrician’s office to Children’s Hospital. Most of that drive, my mental mantra was, “He’s going to be ok. He’s going to be ok. He’s going to be ok.” But for one brief moment, just as downtown Minneapolis first came into sight, I remember thinking… “If Julian died, I would die. I would not be able to function. I would JUST DIE.”

One year ago today I thought I would literally die from grief if one of my children died.

But today, I am alive.

Today, thanks to Julian, I understand more about being alive than I could have even imagined a year ago. And for that, I am grateful.

One year ago today is also the day that I started Julian’s CaringBridge site. You can read about that day, and the days that followed, in my CaringBridge Journal.
 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in the second six months

 

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