Last week marked the one-year anniversary of receiving Joe’s cancer diagnosis. I was glad to be in Florida with family and friends to distract me from dwelling on that memory. I have been apprehensive about the arrival of this date and the three months that will follow to the anniversary of his death.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recalls the chronological events of the year following her husband’s death. During that time, she frequently looks back to the year before and remembers where they were or what they were doing. At the one-year mark, she realizes she no longer has that solid ground: now when she looks back one year, her memories won’t include John.
For me, the period I don’t want to remember began on August 10, 2020, when an oncologist we met only moments before informed us that Joe had aggressive, late-stage cancer. Even though a routine test for something else had shown a “spot” on his liver, Joe wasn’t feeling sick at that point, and we were expecting very different news.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” are the opening lines of Didion’s book.
The word that best describes the year following the day things fell apart for me is transformational.
The fit, healthy man who went to the gym 3–5 times a week and did 300 sit-ups a day (yes, 300 every day) disappeared before my eyes. A person who vaguely appeared to have his features took his place. Every morning before I opened my eyes, I said a prayer, begging God to show me that it was all just a terrible nightmare. I pleaded to have the Joe I knew lying next to me.
One day, my prayer was answered. But as frequently happens with petitions to the Divine, the response to my request showed up in an unexpected way.
That morning, I opened my eyes and saw only his eyes, his beautiful, sensitive blue eyes. As close and connected as we had been, that morning his eyes let me see deep into his soul. With almost no words at all, just transmitted feelings, he shared the visions of where he was headed.
Even though his physical form was still here, his heart and mind were focused somewhere else. And because he was a photographer, he saw beauty. That was what his life had been about, and nothing had changed at all. This was the Joe I knew. Always looking ahead, never back. Always following the light.
I was still too much in a stressed state to realize all that he was sharing, but I knew a shift had taken place. I felt it.
I became super sensitive. I felt everything more intensely. Not only the loss we were experiencing, but the pain of the world. At that time, we were still in lockdown. We were awaiting the results of the 2020 election. It seemed everything was in chaos and no one could get a break. #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #GenderEquality #EverythingElse
My heart cracked open.
Our last days together were particularly intense. Joe shared his dreams with me. At first, I was only aware of feeling drugged and sick to my stomach (what he felt from the pain meds) and had difficulty waking. Then I saw the clouds and the white light when I lay next to him in hospice.
Joe’s spirit followed me home and remains with me. He’s more than in my heart; he’s in my house. Physically, his ashes are here, but his spirit looms larger. In the beginning, I attributed it to his things: his artwork on the walls, computer on the desk, cameras in the closet.
Then he began to contact me in more concrete ways: photos popping up on my phone, emails from the past appearing on my phone when I touched the screen, melodies of songs I didn’t know playing in my head turning out to have lyrics about losing someone, his computer waking up when I cried, and strong nudges to follow paths I might have overlooked or dismissed that proved to be in my best interests.
I began typing my journal entries in December. It was a difficult, emotional process that often led to me being doubled over in my grief. I was also reading almost nonstop, trying to understand and navigate the process I needed to experience for healing. I learned that in addition to the normal grief reactions after loss, I was feeling things on a deeper, more intense level and there was a word to describe a person who experienced things as I did: empath.
So I bought and read books about empaths. One of them, a recent release, had a questionnaire in the opening chapter to be completed online. I did it one Saturday night and submitted my answers. Later that evening I got a personal email response from the author. I was surprised for several reasons. First, it was about 11pm ET. Second, I was expecting the “results” to be more along the lines of what you typically find with magazine surveys: If you score 1-10, you’re a this, 11-20, you’re a that, 21-30, and so on.
I read the email and was pleased to see the analysis fit me well, but I was dismayed that the salutation read, “Dear Kellie.” I emailed the author to say the results seemed to fit me but had the wrong name. Were these my results or someone else’s? I mentioned my interest in the subject matter was new and a consequence of my recent loss and desire to become more receptive to the continued contact I was receiving.
Again I got an almost immediate reply with a deep apology for the name error, probably due to autocorrect since the author had a friend named Kellie. These were my scores, and she was interested to learn more about my continued communication with Joe. She was conducting an investigative study about evidence of consciousness after death for a research institute. Would I be open to a phone call?
An interview was scheduled, during which we agreed the typo that led to our connection was more than an accident. I agreed to be part of the study.
In January, I left to visit my daughter and family in New Jersey to celebrate my grandson’s first birthday. Due to repeated flight cancellations, I stayed almost a month. The return to my home after that long period away was as devastating to me as my return to an empty house after hospice. So much so that I didn’t leave again, even to go for groceries, for several months. While I was here, I felt him. When I left and returned, I was reminded of my loss.
Spring came and my desire to be in nature spurred me to short outside excursions, but I still couldn’t imagine leaving my home for more than a few hours. Then my brother’s illness made it impossible for me not to leave. To help me bridge the gap, my sister-in-law from New York flew to Asheville and we drove together to Cleveland. She was with me for the return home and flew to New York the next day. It made the transition much easier for me.
The big test came with my recent trip to Florida. I had cancelled several planned trips there already this year due to the increased anxiety I experienced when trying to book the flights. I could not face coming home alone to an empty house again.
Buoyed by my recent successful return from Cleveland, I was able to make reservations to go to Ft. Lauderdale upon receiving my Florida grandson’s video expressing that he missed me. Between Covid and Joe’s passing, it had been two years since my last visit. That’s half his life. But it wasn’t guilt that pushed me to book the flights, it was Joe.
In addition to the intuitive communication I receive from him, I’ve been told by both a psychic medium and an astrologer (with little or no information from me) that he died so I could do something important…that I’d be doing it with him, but in a different way.
And so I meditated upon receiving my grandson’s video and immediately felt a push to check the flights. After a couple of quick calls to coordinate dates, the reservations were made.
I was there with my family and friends for eight wonderful days, but I started having an usually strong desire to be home about two days before my scheduled return flight. I know it’s common to want to feel the comfort of home after being away, but this was different. It was an urgent calling, an inexplicable need to be home.
It wasn’t like I didn’t feel Joe in Florida. I stayed at a friend’s house, where Joe and I usually stayed during our Florida visits. It’s a perfect fit…our friends live about 10 minutes from my son and his family, so we get to see everyone and have a bit of quiet in the evenings.
The first night I had a vivid dream about Joe. When I headed to the kitchen the next morning, my friend’s husband, an early riser, said that he smelled coffee on his way downstairs that morning. My friends do not drink coffee, and Joe was the one to make our brew, so clearly he was there with us. We all felt his presence multiple times.
Yet by the day before my scheduled departure, I started having a compelling urge to be home. I had an evening flight and upon my check-in, I learned that my flight had been delayed. And delayed again, and again. I finally got to Asheville about 10pm, just in time to get inside my building before Tropical Storm Fred hit full force.
I burst inside my home, not even thinking for one moment that Joe wouldn’t be there. I was flooded with exuberance to be home. Again, this was not the usual “happy to be home” feeling. It was a feeling of exhilaration, immense joy, and relief. I kept saying “I love you” aloud, wondering to myself why, until I realized it was Joe who had called me back and was now happy I was home.
I spent the following day with pretty much the same feeling, doing the things one does after a trip: laundry, grocery shopping (online due to the storm), and settling in. On Wednesday, I sat down to write this week’s blog post with several ideas in mind for the topic. Yet none of them would be written. I could only write about one thing, this thing, this evolving story that is the topic of the book I’m writing.
And so, here we are. I’m still happy to be home, although my joy has returned to more normal levels. But something’s going on underneath it all. Perhaps it has to do with the “something important” I’ve been told I’m supposed to do.
As a recovering control freak, I’m tempted to push forward and get to the bottom of it all. But as an emerging “go with the flow” girl, I’m reveling in the uncertainty and excitement of it all.
All I know is I’m being led to something good, and it’s something I get to share with the world.
Before I left for my trip, I sent an email to my readers and mentioned the book I’m writing about Joe's transition and his post-death communication. Now, as I look back at what I’ve learned in just the short time since, I’m even more juiced to finish.
In that email, I promised to send Premium subscribers the Preface of the book, and I’m making good on that commitment on Tuesday of next week.
If you’re not yet a Premium member and you’re interested to read the Preface and learn the title of the book in progress, you can upgrade here. I will also continue to send excerpts to Premium members as I progress.
Even now as I complete this longer-than-usual post, I am drawn to writing more. Something is flowing through me… My muse? Joe? Spirit? I am so excited and eager to find out! Thanks for sharing the journey.
Image: Contemplating Heaven ©Gemignani.
Text ©Shelley Lieber
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