The should-have-beens and the what-is

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Today is the 5th Vanessa’s birthday I’m “celebrating” without her. She should be 37 today.

She “should be” a lot of other things, too:

  • Fretting about spotting her first wrinkles in the mirror.
  • Raising babies with Billy.
  • Coming to my house for her kids to play with my kids while we chat about mom things.
  • Going on our family camping trips and eating Dad’s famous breakfast.
  • Snagging good deals on fashion and keeping up with the latest trends. (And helping her sisters be slightly fashionable.)
  • Constantly redecorating her house.
  • Baking in the brand-new IKEA kitchen of her dreams.
  • Getting haircuts (sometimes in my kitchen).
  • Chatting for hours with Christina and Mom and me on the phone.
  • Planning trips and parties.
  • Dressing up.
  • Sending out holiday cards.
  • Sewing & designing & making things.
  • ALIVE.

But, she’s not. She’s not any of those things, now. And all the ways our lives were “supposed” to intersect with hers, are different than they “should” have been, too. I miss her in conversation, in action. I miss her face. I miss her voice. I miss her, still and again and always.

Life is a hurricane of constant endings and beginnings, sometimes seeming to let up but then revealing it’s just the calm eye of the storm and we’re not clear yet.


This feels like a great time to do a catch-up update post; here goes!

Instead of the should-have-beens, here is what-is:

Vanessa & Billy’s house

It was hard, being there. The house was so full of love and memories, but the love was also raw, and some of the memories hurt. So after a stretch of trying to stay, Billy put the house up for sale in late 2016. After many had helped him load cars and boxes on moving day, Mom and I took one last walk around. I visited each room, now empty, saying thank you and good-bye to each.

V’s bedroom, where we sister-slumber-partied that one night and talked frankly of death, and again where Christina, Billy, Mom and I all collapsed on the floor the morning after V died, exhaustion and grief demanding immediate sleep. The master/closet and basement Dad had so beautifully (and slowly) renovated and finished for them, crafting new spaces with drywall and wallpaper and moulding and tiles and love. The extra bedroom that went by either “the blue bedroom” or “Christina’s room.” The perfect kitchen curtain V had sewn, the dining room where V&B hosted Hamapalooza parties and we crowded around cake, and the bathroom where Billy installed rails to help Vanessa still try to do things independently near the end.

In each corner, I saw specific conversations, memories, revelations. Some good and some not so good. Unwrapping Christmas presents wearing ridiculous hats in the basement. The room where V broke her finger, which turned out to be what led to the diagnosis of metastatic cancer. The living room where I sat and worked-from-(her-)home while Vanessa played a cd of sound-effects from the library. (And not nature sounds – I’m talking the sounds of a car revving, walking through mud, various plips and plops and bangs and sputters!) The window she sat under when she could still work on her computer, making Live Sincerely signs for months, in peace and in quiet. The place where she sat and marked sizes on coats and shirts in sharpie, less in peace. The corner where Billy and I quietly caught up on the rough day before while she dozed at the other end. The room where hospice came to visit for over a year; where they told us this was likely the last stages, the end.

SO MUCH happened there. And so much didn’t get to happen there. I am sad that V & B didn’t get to cook together more, have decades more to stick the Christmas cards on the garage door, bring their babies home there & fill its bedrooms with toys and little kid laughter. But I was happy for the comfort the house had been, in a very hard time, and the joy that still had wafted throughout, the laughter and the friends. And I am happy now for Billy to get to wake up every day in a new place that isn’t so heavy with memories, so thick with loss for him.

My old house…

Not too long after Vanessa died, my grandma died. (Mom now losing both a child and a parent in quick succession.) Grandma’s house was available for sale through her estate, so Jason and I discussed a lot and decided we should buy it and move, as our family of 5 was busting out of the seams of our current house.

It was very hard for me to leave our old house, even though we were so stuffed in it, because it had, literally, been my safe house, my haven. I’d leave Vanessa’s after a hard day, feeling guilty all the while that *I* got to just leave and go back to my cancer-free life, and I’d collapse inside the front door, greeted with dinner or little hugs or quiet. Some nights, awake with worry and fear and sadness, I’d make my way into the kitchen so as not to wake up Jason, and lay on the hard, cool floor and just sob. And that house held me.

Again, for this time of transition, I was swarmed with memories. Our first night staying there, on our wedding night. Bringing home each of the kids from the hospital. Reading inside with the little pond fountain tinkling just outside the open window. The trees we planted, shorter than us then, now taller than the house. The rotating parade of kid paintings and school projects taped on the walls and cabinets. The swing in the backyard, the squeals of its riders. Parties for birthdays and holidays. Visitors sleeping on our living room floor or in our “guest accommodations” (a twin bed in a corner of the nursery!). Friends on the deck, chats with the neighbors, trick or treating up and down the street and taking walks to the next street over.

We had done a lot over 12 years to make the place ours – I spent countless hours measuring and planning and purchasing and assembling and painting and renovating and decorating, to maximize the space for us and bring it to a much more modern existence than when we first bought it. Dad had put a lot of his love into this house for us too – new porch columns and railings, drywall, painting, new pipes, wisdom, guidance, experience. How do you just leave that behind?

But we did it – we sold it, and on the last day before we turned over the keys to its new owners we visited each room and said goodbye and thank you and the kids gave it a hug. Like me, they were drawn one by one to lay on the floor. And Leo (wearing bunny ears, because why not?) kissed just about every part of the house saying “I love you, house!”

My brain can conjure up the house’s contours and cracks and turns and colors, visiting still when I close my eyes. And so, another goodbye, this time to our sweet little house.

 …My “new” house

Now, my family has moved into my Grandma’s house. It’s the house she and Grandpa had built together, new in their marriage; the house my mom and all her siblings grew up in; the house of boisterous family parties, and of washed grapes at the ready on the long kitchen island and of Grandma’s slippered feet getting up to give her visitors a hug. I have missed her tremendously already, but now making my new home in her old home is a lot of emotions at once. I’m glad to have the house stay in the family, to know that she would be happy to have her granddaughter enjoy and appreciate all the things she’d done there over the years. I’m caught off guard when we come home after being away for a few days, and I open the door and it just smells like when she was there. My kids dart right into the living room, but I still walk into the house and head down the hall, like we did for so many decades visiting Grandma there.

Grandma is still everywhere, in the peonies outside and the rooms and even as things change here and there. It’s sometimes hard to change things, even though I know she’d tell me to! Many of my “changes” still nod to her – my new round mirror from IKEA hanging in the spot where her ornate gold round mirror hung.

I’m missing Vanessa, again – her neverending willingness to listen and brainstorm and help make places “home” will never be unmissed by me as I exist in spaces. But Mom lets me toss my ideas her way, even though sometimes it’s hard for her as she misses her momma living here. Christina helps me over the phone and I send her and Billy pictures of house progress I make. And Dad – Dad has answered my every question about what is that, how can we repair that, what does it take to change this. He helped me patch up cracks and paint the living room, and only because I’m his daughter did I feel confident and capable to singlehandedly rip up the (very-impractically-for-our-family white!) carpet in the living room to expose the original hardwood that I love.

So little by little it’s becoming “home”, our home, even just by locating our living here: by watching movies snuggled on the couch, taking the “kids sitting on the steps before presents” pictures on these steps Christmas morning, hosting our own family Thanksgiving feasts, my children wiping their snot on the walls(!) where they think I won’t see it, and by starting to learn again the way the light enters these rooms, through these windows. Here, my little family has room to spare, and we really appreciate it as the kiddos grow and get gangly and take up more space. I throw spaghetti on the wall to check it for doneness, and think of my Italian grandma doing the same and raising her family here too, and smile.

As it’s felt more and more like my home, my brain has to work harder to recall just coming here to visit. Which is, in its own way, another goodbye of sorts.

Billy & Deepti

Vanessa had married Billy on a beautiful day in June (unaware of the diagnosis lurking just months away) and I wore a hot pink bridesmaid dress as they walked back down the aisle of the church and we all toasted to their long and happy marriage. That day my family grew by a brother-in-law. Of course, they got the happy but not the long. Billy became a true brother through his love, care, and honor of my sister. He has continued to be a part of our family, remaining a loving, involved uncle to my kids, visiting my dad and mom frequently, and joining our family parties often.

In 2017, Billy married Deepti on a beautiful day in July, and Billy and Deepti were tied together with hot pink fabric under the gazebo at the temple and I wore henna on my hand as we prayed for their long and happy marriage. And now my family has grown by a sister-in-love, too. Because family knows no boundaries and love needs no titles and life follows no plans and hope soldiers on and the goodness is always there.

It turns out that there is no formal family etiquette on what to call your dead sister’s husband’s wife. There is no rule book for this scenario. We are just making this all up as we go, and I’m so happy that we all are just rolling with a world where when you marry Billy, you also get his dead wife’s family too, bonus!

Being invited to Billy & Deepti’s wedding was an honor, and attending felt like the final step in fulfilling a promise I had made to Vanessa when she knew she was dying: to make sure Billy ended up with another good, kind person to be with “until death do us part.” That it couldn’t be her, as she had planned and expected to be, until their-old-age-deaths-after-a-long-and-happy-life-together, royally pissed her off, and it weirded her out to think about Billy having a life that continued on post-her, especially in another relationship. But pragmatically, she truly loved him with all her heart, and was worried for his future happiness in all areas including that one -and so she made this request so full of love and agony.

And now, Billy is a husband again. My kids now have an Aunt Deepti, and on their birthdays when Billy calls with his traditional Happy Birthday song, she joins right in the singing. Deepti is sweet, kind and smart, and I’m so glad her life path took her all the way from India to eventually a new beginning here with Billy. (And us!)

Dad & Mom

After all my experience now with cancer, I am still able to be caught off guard by it. At the end of last year, Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. In June of this year, he left for Kroger and never came home again. I’m still processing his last week before his death (too young at 67), spent in the ICU for 6 days of shock and confusion and tragedy and trauma and humor and despair and hope and gratitude.

Unlike the long period of anticipation and preparing and wondering that we had with Vanessa, since we knew she was dying, Dad’s abrupt death completely knocked me off my feet. I’ve done the previously unthinkable, lost a sister, but now I’ve joined the ranks in the more-common but new-to-me club of losing a parent. I know that this is equally survivable, that people do this all the time, but it’s still in the feeling-unthinkable stage. There are probably more writings coming for me to sort through that, but meanwhile- we now face a world missing both Vanessa and Dad. We’re down to 3 out of my childhood, nuclear family of 5. I can hardly bear it.

While the loss of Vanessa has dulled over time to something fuzzier, the loss of Dad is currently sharp as a tack, piercing and cold. We are learning now about a new normal without Dad, the unchanging-stone-face in our family Christmas crazy picture series, the hard-working renovator of our homes, the original swayer and our epic hugger. We so miss his wisdom, his humor, his whistling, his rocket building and creative making.

Not that you ever really are, but I wasn’t ready to lose him.

And now Mom has lost a daughter, her mother, AND her husband, all in less than 5 years. 3 generations of love lost around a single woman; her people going down, up and across in her family tree. It breaks my heart. Again.

Kiddos

As she updated earlier, Christina has gotten married and had a baby girl. My boys are loving having a new little cousin around – and I can’t help but see Vanessa in sweet Dottie with her dresses and pigtails and long hair that she sometimes twirls. She is chatty and smiley and awesome at cheering up Grandma. She brings us joy and hope, a gift wrapped up in baby thighs and belly laughs. She already is a swayer like her grandpa (and mom and aunt!).

My boys are growing like weeds, figuring out things and questioning things. We talk about Vanessa a lot, and now Grandpa too. We practice the things he taught us, like firm handshakes, and speaking your truth. Today on Vanessa’s birthday, we got ice cream and did some random acts of kindness and talked about what they remembered of her.

The boys really miss their aunt, great grandma and now grandpa too, and they are sad (only sometimes) and reflective and caring. They ask me why I cry in the shower when they walk in on that scene. We have frank, earnest talks and we together look up answers to their questions, about cancer and cremation and body donation and funerals. They have thought about death again with each new death in their world, a little older each time, and even have talks amongst themselves at night in their shared room about how they hope they will personally eventually die. (“Asleep and old, in like 92 more years!” – sounds good to me!) We have read books about “When someone you love dies” and have epic discussions about how lucky we are to have family and friends who love us and how the time we get with those we love is a gift, even if we wish we had gotten more of it. They will climb in a lap they notice needs some love, saying nothing at all but helping all the same.

I hate that this is a job they are so good at, being grief noticers and grief helpers, but they are actually my grief teachers, too. They remind me all the time that there is also the time and need to laugh, to play, to remember that life is good even when it’s hard.

And the conversations we have, about these hard topics – well, truthfully they are actually quite easy. You speak honestly, and openly, and when you don’t know, you say so. And the perspective the exchange imparts is wonderful, as if somehow the talking about it makes the reality of the loss just a bit lighter and puts flashing light reminders around the good stuff, the important stuff. Again the children provide me a helpful reminder, one that’s really for all of us: That talking about death is only unnatural or scary if we default to that, decide it is, or agree it is. Being brave enough to examine, understand and accept our mortality can give us the gifts of perspective and connection, among others.


Whether we are ready or not, life continues and time marches on. We all have to adjust to new normals, even when we don’t think we can. We say goodbye to the old and tell it thank you for its gifts, and then say hello to the new. We change our location, our minds, our view. We try, and fail, and try again. We learn, we cry, we grow, we laugh, we search, we reach out. We miss, a lot.

It has struck me often how related it all feels, how connected the missing is, as things continue to change.

I’m at my new house, missing my old house, but also missing the way my new house used to be when Grandma was here, missing my grandma herself, missing my sister who never knew this house as mine, and now missing Dad who was my go-to helper on house things here. I miss all the improvements I made to the old house, that I can’t enjoy anymore, while knowing I’ll get there with the new house too. We miss Vanessa while welcoming Deepti with open arms. I’m so excited to be an aunt to Dottie, while I’m sad that V will never get to meet her and that Dottie will never meet her Aunt Vanessa too. Mom is adjusting to a life without Dad, while being surrounded by all the things he did to their house like a giant handyman hug – and that feels both sad and happy at the same time. I’m bummed to think of someone else relaxing in the basement at V&B’s house that Dad so carefully fixed up for his daughter and son-in-law, while also happy someone is likely enjoying his convenient outlets everywhere and thoughtfully designed storage maximizing every inch.

We leave bits of ourselves at all the places we’ve loved and lived. They leave bits of “there” in us, too. And just as with places, with people. Vanessa and Grandma and Dad are in me, and the kids, and everywhere and everyone they touched. We miss places, and people, and the way they were, but: Love doesn’t end just because people die and places change.

I’m hurting because I lost, but it only hurts so much because there was (is!) so much love. These things can’t be untangled; they are entwined together in the facts of life.

I miss what-was, what-could-have-been, what-should-have-been…. while being grateful for what-was, and what-is.


I’ve been to 4 funerals in the past year, and I keep thinking, why do we wait, to see, to say, to feel, to realize, until a person is gone? Why do we wait until time is running out? Why do we spend so much time looking outward for things that can only be found within? Why is there so much cruelty, pettiness, and lying right now, when it’s all such a pathetic waste of such precious breath and time and life?

Mom said, when we were in the hospital while Dad was there, “We really all just want to know that we are loved and we matter.”

Ya’ll: Make your choices with love. Be kind. Don’t be mean or revel in the pain of anyone else. Seek truth. Show up for people, for places, for causes, for communities. Cultivate empathy. Notice the good. Lift up those who need. Be a helper. And when you need help yourself, ask for it and/or accept it. Worry about being your own best self rather than judging others. Look out for each other. Love the ones you have while you have them. Fight for something you care about. Fight for someone you care about. Love your people. Channel your passion and skills and energy to make a difference. Believe in your power – and use it for good. Listen to people’s stories. Hug. Share. Forgive. Care. Participate. Do. Be. Love.

Live sincerely.


I am oh so very happy you were born, 37 years ago, dear Vanessa.

7 comments

  1. Karin Tracy says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! I’ve thought about your family many times over the past several years. Thank you for this update; your expressive writing is both raw and refined. Have you considered writing a book about your experience?

    • Jessica Yaeger says:

      Thank you, Karin. I sure have… but the blocker usually stems from what it should cover. The problem of too-much, not of too-little!

      Is there something, in particular, you would like to read?? A specific focus or time period or topic or…

      Thanks for any feedback! :)

  2. Nora Ami says:

    What a wonderful, beautiful, heartfelt encapsulation of life itself: live … love … loss … death … live … love. Rinse & repeat in so many various ways. Thank you for reminding us to cherish the small moments that most often resonate through the generations most powerfully. Your Mom is a wise woman — hugs to you both! ❤️❤️

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