PART SEVEN: Grief + How It Changed My Life
So we left off at coffee pictures and how I discovered my love of knitting and rediscovered my love of scrapbooking. It was August 2015. My mom had called me on an otherwise normal Wednesday morning to tell me that my grandma was in the hospital with suspected pneumonia.
I flew into a frenzy, rearranging my work schedule and throwing clothes into an overnight bag. I knew in my gut that this trip home was going to be important and life-changing before I even got in the car for my three-hour journey home. I hastily kissed Justin goodbye and promised to message him when I got to my mom’s house. I was off and running.
I’ve explained how I got started with photography, but I’ve never really explained how my grandma plays into the equation.
My grandma was a special lady in my life.
She was the built-in babysitter for me and my cousins, who were basically my part-time siblings, when we were all growing up. My parents and I lived with her, in the same house that my grandfather built in 1966. The same one that my mom’s boyfriend bought in 2012 to keep in the family, and it’s so special to me now to be able to return to the home where so many of my childhood memories happened. So many memories involving my grandma.
She always encouraged my love of creativity and logic. We used to sit at the kitchen counter after dinner when I was little, just the two of us. We would do puzzles together or color in a coloring book. We filled up a color-by-number coloring book when I was nine. I think my mom still has it packed away somewhere. It was always my job to find the corner pieces of our puzzles, and one time we even got all of our neighbors to come over a few nights a week to help us work on a 300-piece Backstreet Boys puzzle. Those were the days.
She started showing signs of early dementia when I was still in high school. During my film camera days, through my first 365 challenge and my 52 Weeks project, I always managed to sneak in some candid shots of my grandma. Losing her right before our eyes was heartbreaking. I learned early on that nothing can really prepare you that kind of grief.
When my mom got a call from her assisted living facility, we knew this was the beginning of the end.
Her suspected pneumonia turned out to be stage four non-small cell lung cancer that had metastasized to her fourth and six rib.
Six weeks later, she was gone.
There was a tiny pocket of joy before the darkness settled in again, though. I went home for the weekend to spend time with my grandma three days before she died. We took some selfies together, visited with my aunt and uncle, and we had an hour-long chat while she sat in the recliner of the common area of her assisted living facility before I went back to Waupaca. My mom swears she was waiting for me to come see her one last time before she passed.
It honestly felt like I drove three hours home, slept, unpacked, and then repacked and was on the road again to be with my family for her funeral.
It was the first time that I had ever lost someone that close to me.
All of a sudden, all of those candid photos of her from years before came flooding back to me. Maybe it was making memory boards with my mom before the funeral, seeing family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years, or cheers-ing over whiskey in her honor, but I spent a lot of time after my grandma died sifting through my archives and landing on those photos over and over.
In the midst of my grieving, I spent most of that winter in bed, laying in the dark and listening to Halsey’s Badlands album on repeat.
And then 2016 came in and said, “You think that was bad? Watch this.”
To be honest, I don’t remember much about 2016 as a whole.
Like yeah, I kept getting up and going to work every day, I hung out with my friends a lot, but everything else just feels like it’s surrounded by the kind of darkness that only deep, intense grief can bring into your life.
My grandma died in October 2015.
Ten months later, in August 2016, my dad died.
Two months after that, in October, Justin’s brother died.
It felt like the entire year, from beginning to end, was just encompassed in grief. I was just going through the motions of everyday life. After I finally had accepted that my grandma had died and life felt like it was starting to get back to normal, I called my dad to wish him a Happy Father’s Day.
He said, “Hey Anna, I’m in the hospital. They found a spot on my liver.”
A week after that, he called me and said those three words that always change a person’s life forever.
“I have cancer.”
And it felt like, once again, I was frenzied and rearranging my work schedule and throwing clothes into an overnight bag.
The last time that I saw my dad was the last weekend in June 2016. He was doing nebulizer treatments to help him breathe better and he still had all of his hair. He still looked like my dad and sounded like my dad. He told me, “Don’t worry about me, Anna. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Spoiler alert: everything was not fine.
It felt like I was underwater when I got my dad’s cancer diagnosis. I was still going through the motions of getting up and going to work and doing things like laundry and grocery shopping when needed, but everything felt fuzzy. Like I was just on auto-pilot, trying to process that my dad had cancer and might not make it.
I spent a lot of time getting iced coffee from McDonald’s that summer and going to the park to sit with my journal and write. (If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember the #annasicedcoffee tag, a spinoff of my #annalovesmornings series.) I filled pages and pages of a little notebook that I picked up from Dollar General with questions and all of my very big feelings, much like I had done when I went to writing camp in the summer of 2009. Being faced with your own parent’s mortality at 24 felt like a big slap in the face to me.
My dad died eight weeks later from stage 4 small cell lung cancer that had metastasized to his liver and spine.
I lost myself for a bit there. I felt like I had just gotten a grip on him having cancer, and then all of a sudden he was gone. I was sleeping until 1 in the afternoon, not taking care of myself… Some might call it “a depressive episode.” I’m pretty sure that’s the clinical term for it.
On August 17, 2016, I remember being in and out of sleep around noon. I heard my phone ring and let it go to voicemail. Twenty minutes later, it rang again. I rolled over and went back to sleep, not ready to deal with the outside world yet.
I finally got up about an hour later, listened to those two voicemails, and my life changed forever.
The first voicemail basically said, “Hey, Anna, this is your dad’s doctor. He’s not doing so well. You might want to think about getting down here.”
The second voicemail, timestamped 20 minutes later, was the call that everyone dreads.
The call that always begins with, “I’m sorry to inform you, but…” and then in an instant, your life changes forever.
My dad was gone.
I could barely choke out words when I had to call my mom to tell her the news.
“Slow down, Anna,” she said. “Take a deep breath. I can’t understand you. What happened to your dad?”
“Mom,” I said, gasping for air between sobs, “Dad’s. Gone.” It was all I could do. “He’s gone.”
And my people came to my rescue.
I could barely choke out the words to Justin as he went to call work and tell them what happened because I was in no state to talk to anyone at that point through all of my ugly crying and heart wrenching sobs that only heavy grief can bring to a person.
My mom took care of calling my dad’s family for me once she knew what was going on.
My mom, aunt and uncle all piled in the same car to get me and my car from Waupaca since I was in no state to drive. I was really in no state to do anything but cry and drink water and then cry some more (rinse and repeat). We stopped at the Truck Stop for dinner before getting on the road for Burlington and I went in my pajamas, greasy hair, red crying face and all. I barely touched my food.
I kept thinking, How? How do you move on from this? How do I exist now in a world where my dad doesn’t?
Riding shotgun on the three hour car ride to Burlington left me with a lot of time to think. To miss my dad. To gather my thoughts. To sit with those first moments of grief. To consider how funerals have this awful yet funny way of bringing people together.
My Facebook was blowing up with notifications as the news started to trickle out to extended family and his lifelong friends. It felt like all of my family and friends were showing up and offering their condolences. I started scrolling through his Facebook photos and saving my favorite ones to my phone.
PSA: Take more photos of your parents. (And your grandparents!) You never know when you will lose them, and once you do, the photos will be the only things you have left.
My dad had a giant box of old photos stored in his closet. Inside, I found nostalgia in its purest form: photos from when he was little and my aunts and uncles were growing up, photos from his army days, and lots and lots of photos of cars, haha. My dad was a mechanic and was constantly taking photos of whichever project he was working on currently. There were photos from nights out with his friends, weekends we spent camping together when I was a kid, and an abundance of old Christmas and birthday cards from me and his family.
Sifting through all of those memories and making my dad’s memory boards for his funeral was probably one of the most therapeutic processes after the initial shock of grief and overwhelming stress of planning a funeral. It brought me back to art school and making mood boards for finals week, our professor’s way of inspiring us to make something we were proud of. Something about playing with pictures on bulletin boards has always been inspiring to me.
My dad’s funeral was tough. In true “girl has a major life-changing event happen in her life” fashion, literally two hours before my dad’s funeral, I was sitting in the chair at my favorite hair salon in Burlington letting a family friend work her magic on my head. I ended up being a little late to the funeral, but I went back to my towheaded roots and went blonde, blonde, blonde right after losing my dad.
Fun fact: I spent so much time at the local pool every summer growing up that my hair was always bleached-blonde by the time school started in the fall… and I was always super tan!
Changing my hair after losing my dad also left me questioning what else I could change in my life. I took two whole weeks off of work to get my bearings and spend time with my family and start going through everything that my dad left behind.
Sorting through his apartment, a collection of everything he ever thought was cool that came home with him — years of the same faded weekend t-shirts still hanging in his closets, a dirty clothes basket overflowing with jeans that were permanently stained black in the knees, and t-shirts that still smelled like him… Car parts tucked away in the closet in what used to be my old room. The twin sized bed I slept in every night as a child, still covered in the same pink and blue quilt. All of his trophies from his racing days and the ones he earned for being crew chief for my godfather brought back some of the best memories.
Going through his apartment, packing everything into boxes and garbage bags, planted a seed of change in my head.
Life is too short, I thought.
When I got back to Waupaca, after I had somewhat settled back into my everyday life, I frantically dug through our boxes in the basement and dusted off that old camera of mine.
It was literally dusty from being packed away for so long. All of my camera batteries were dead. My battery charger was MIA. The one memory card that I could find was the one with the broken and chipped corner that had gotten me through my insane 2012 senior season. I didn’t have a clue where any of my USB cords or card readers were.
But still, it felt like coming home again. Like I was acknowledging that piece of myself that brought me so much joy. I had been punishing myself for too long. Picking up my camera again was really me inviting joy into my life.
It was like saying, “Hello, old friend. I have missed you.”