“The measure of love is loss” comes from one of my favorite books of all time, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. I have pondered those stark words during many a relationship breakup. We so often don’t appreciate our loved ones until they are already gone. The author goes on to describe the loss of the love of her life in heart-rending terms:
“This hole in my heart is in the shape of you. No one else can fit it.
Why would I want them to?”
Indeed. We all have those few unique people in our lives; the ones who got away, the ones who will always be irreplaceable.
Daughter of my Uncle Ed, a man of humor and compassion. Sister of Rachel, one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet. Niece. Cousin. Sister-in-law. Funny, sweet, warm and dear friend. Inspiration to many who have never even met her but who have watched her share her struggle against cancer so openly and courageously in that most public and ubiquitous of forums, FaceBook.
Dana has given us all reason to contemplate the measure of love. As a family, we have watched my dear cousin/sister-from-another-mother spend years fighting back from a horrible car accident, only to then fight for her life against a rare form of super-aggressive cancer. Dana’s journey has also made all of us contemplate mortality and the meaning of life; it has to. So, what is the measure of love? Is it really loss? The point of Winterson’s quote is that we only truly understand the depths of our love when we are faced with losing someone, whether to a broken relationship or to death.
Is that really it?
To answer that question, let’s talk about Dana first. She has always been a fighter. She was born an old soul. She never hesitated to call someone out in a lie or to stand her ground, not from the time she was a child. I was always a little bit in awe of her. I wanted to be like her, brave and fearless.
I remember visits with Dana and Rachel at our Grandma and Grandpa Todd’s house in East Bend, North Carolina, a small town of five hundred people plunked down in the middle of rows and rows of corn and tobacco fields. The red brick Southern Baptist Church loomed large just a few steps down the road. I can still taste Grandma’s home cooking; the crackling fried chicken, green beans with bacon, pecan pie, all rapidly consumed by a swarm of cousins buzzing around Grandma’s dinner table like honeybees at the hive. Of course, no Southern meal would be complete without topping it off by guzzling the sweet nectar of fluorescent green Mello Yello. I remember an afternoon after all of the cousins were flying high from indulging in this pure sugar heaven, Dana convinced us not just to explore Grandpa’s slightly dilapidated chicken coop outside, but to climb to the top of the roof and run around, just to see what we could see. Who says no to Dana? Not us.
When I was twelve, we started our annual tradition of joining Dana and her family for a week up in Rangeley, Maine, every year. We’ve now been spending vacations together in Maine on and off for (gasp!) almost 30 years. We rent rustic cabins on the shore of Rangeley, Maine and spend the weeks hiking mountains like Saddleback and Baldy, picking fresh blueberries along the way. We canoe and kayak around the nine-mile-wide lake, swim in the arctic waters, play tennis when the mood strikes. Some of my best memories with Dana involve all of us lying out on the dock at night, watching the sky and “Ooo’ing” and “Wow’ing” over the electric streaks of light left lingering behind by shooting stars. We sat silently listening for the haunting call of the loons echo over the lake, à la Golden Pond. Even sitting here now, I can close my eyes and feel the cool breeze over the water as we huddle up in scratchy wool blankets against the cold. Those memories will always be a part of me, and Dana was always there. I thought she always would be.
Maine gives us our best Todd family lore about Dana, the story that typifies Dana and her strength. Sure, we have hiked up Saddleback Mountain every year in Maine; it’s a seven-miles-straight-up super-steep hike with sweeping panoramic views of the many natural lakes surrounding Rangeley. Gorgeous, right? Now, one would think that Dana, who sustained massive injuries in a car accident in February 2009, including the complete shattering of her left leg, would take hiking off of the “to do” list for the next family vacation. Not so. Keep in mind, of course, that the doctors first told Dana that she was going to lose her left leg completely to amputation, it was too far gone. They obviously didn’t know my cousin very well. She willed her leg to heal, so much so that she not only kept her leg, she was able to walk again. Some would stop with this miracle. Not Dana. In the summer of 2010, she had in mind that she would hike that damnSaddlebackMountain again. We tried to dissuade her. We tried again… and again. I’m not sure why we thought that anyone could tell Dana what to do. She was going to climb that mountain on her healing-but-still-shattered legs – and so she did. For hours, one step at a time, pretending all the while that she was not in pain, she climbed on and on until she reached the top. That stubbornness, that persistence, that striving to reach the top of the mountain, always. That’s our Dana.
We have had more family reunions in the past year than ever before, for obvious reasons. We just want to hold onto Dana, keep her with us, believe that the indomitable Dana who has bounced back from car accidents that would have killed lesser souls and massive brain injuries and everything else would simply kick cancer’s ass, too. If anyone on this planet could have, it would be Dana. In Dana’s own words, “I am quite certain if my cancer were able to manifest itself as a physical opponent, I could TOTALLY kick its ASS! Think of the damage my titanium limbs could do!” We all know it’s true. But this cancer is too cowardly. In the end, iron-clad will and stubbornness and guts and courage and all the love in the world are not going to be enough to defeat this internal cancerous demon.
As I reflect on our family memories, I wonder again – is Jeanette right? Is the measure of love really loss? Will what we carry with us be this aching pain of loss alone? The answer has to be no. No, the measure of love is NOT loss. No freakin’ way. Not on our watch.
Todd family love is measured first in laughter. I always laugh more at our family reunions and vacations than any other time.
Todd family love is measured in Jordyn’s sweet smiles and butterflies and Ryan’s strong-but-gentle spirit.
Our love for Dana is measured in her feisty spirit, her laughter, her passion for life, and her kick-ass-can-do-it attitude. She has taught me to believe; that there is no time other than now to believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, and squeeze every minute out of this life.
Most of all, Todd family love is measured in deep wells of love, pure and simple.
But Jeanette is right about one thing. This hole in all of our hearts is in the shape of you, sweet Dana. No one else will ever be able to fill it. But we will always hold onto you.
So we do what we can. Today, Dana is still with us. Today, we love on Dana with everything we have. Today and always, if I can hold onto just one iota of my sweet cousin Dana’s zest for life and belief in the human spirit and tenacity and fight, I can hold onto her forever. I can always keep her with me, right here in my heart, holding her close right next to the big hole she will leave when her physical presence departs.
She will remain in our hearts because in all of our Todd stubbornness, we will hold onto the beauty of her spirit. Forever. That’s exactly what I plan to do.