Cancer steals so much. All the time. Every day. This I know for sure.

A couple of days ago I smacked my head upon this truth and watched helplessly as my dear friend experienced this for himself. His dad died from cancer a decade ago. Ten years, yet the grief was as raw as can be, the loss as crushing as it was a decade ago.

His dad was a handy guy who could fix anything. He made a good living — and supported four kids — with his hands. My friend learned from his dad and is handy too. Although his livelihood isn’t manual, he can fix anything, like his dad. He just doesn’t always believe it until it’s done.

My friend was fixing the spring on our gate (one of the many things he’s helped with around our house). The spring on the outside of the gate had lost some of its tension, and the screws holding it in place had wriggled loose after seven years of use. How many hundreds of times has that gate banged shut as my busy little family comes and goes? When we were building our pool, the gate and the fence came down, to be replaced by temporary, orange plastic fencing (seen behind the slabs of flagstone) that couldn’t contain my dogs. My then 7-year-old chased the escaped dogs across a very busy street, unaccompanied, but that’s a story for another day.
In the process of repairing the spring on the gate, my friend broke his screwdriver. The one that he inherited from his dad. No big deal, it’s part of a set and he has several others the same size. But he was upset–really upset–because along with the screwdriver, he felt like he lost a piece of his dad.

His rational brain knows that the screwdriver isn’t indicative of his dad’s presence or absence. His intellect knows that having the screwdriver doesn’t mean that he still has his dad, or that by not having the screwdriver he no longer has a hold on his dad’s memory. But his irrational side mourned the screwdriver. His emotional brain felt that he’d lost another part of his dad. As the wise poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing.”

I’m very familiar with the destroying of intellect in times of grief, and I know just how my friend feels. After my mom died, I hung on to all kinds of her stuff: cookbooks, costume jewelry, unfinished embroidery projects, even her ratty old college sweatshirt. My dad has the more personal items — her glasses, her wedding ring, her driver’s license. I desperately wanted a piece of her, any piece, to remain, so I clung to her things in hopes of finding pieces of her.

Guess what? It doesn’t work. The desperation, the clinging, the hoping against hope are all for naught. Once the person you loved with your whole heart is gone, snatched away too soon by illness, there is no holding on to them. I’ve learned this slowly and painfully in the almost seven years that my mom has been dead. Her stuff is just that — stuff. It’s not her. She’s gone and that’s the brutal finality of experiencing the death of a loved one.

I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through.

“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”  ~Colette

24 Comments on “Torrents”

  1. Oh, Nancy, my heart bleeds for you. I know exactly what you mean about holding on to things from your mom. I did that after my mom passed away from lung cancer. I thought that holding on to her owl and thimble collections, and wearing her exquisite jewelry would heal the hole in my heart. But they never did. The ache will remain. My brother says he remembers mom by emulating her gentle spirit. I try to do that more and more, and am finding that I now forgive more easily, because my mother chose to forgive.

    Thanks for sharing your soul. We appreciate it, even though it makes us weepy-eyed. xx

  2. Jennifer says:

    So, so true. On vacation, we were driving through Albuquerque (as we do every spring break), close to the small town where my grandparents lived. We passed a Sears Tire store and in an instant I remembered a day that they had tires changed there. A day that happened probably thirty years ago that I hadn’t thought of since. In that same instant my heart broke and I couldn’t breathe. It’s totally the tiny unexpected things.

  3. David Benbow says:

    I also know how he feels. I have a cluttered workbench full of tools I inherited from my grandfather and Julie’s grandfather. Each time I use them, I remember where they came from, and I would be devastated if any were lost or broken. I feel their unseen hands helping me with my projects. My grandpa’s block plane finished my daughter’s desktop. The never knew each other, but I was glad to use his tools to forge a link between them. Last weekend, I made a point of telling my nephew that it was his great-grandfather’s hammer he was using, so he’d better treat it well.

    I’ll pour myself a screwdriver tonight in memory of the one that was broken.

  4. billgncs says:

    I thought there might be a better word, but the best I could come up with was semaphore, objects that signal and ignite fond memories. And when we lose them perhaps the link within our minds is lessened and fades away.

    I have a milk glass bowl from my mother that I saw on her mother’s table from the time I was a child. Should it break or be lost, my reminders, the signals that reinforce those engrams within my brain might fade away from lack of constant use. But it is only a dish.

  5. hjelmstd says:

    After reading this poignant post and the thoughtful comments, I feel compelled to share this poem from my “mother book.” Hope it is meaningful to some of you.

    Where Can I Find Her?

    Where can I find my mother?
    Will she somehow live on in me?

    Will I wear her pewter cross
    as a talisman?

    Will I find sympathy
    in the tea from
    her bone china cups?

    Will I glimpse my soul
    in the landscapes
    of her paintings?

    Will the many afghans
    finally warm my heart?

    Will I someday learn
    to mother myself?

    Can I wrap my arms
    around that small child
    who was born old,
    who never had a childhood,
    who was me?

    (Excerpted from The Last Violet: Mourning My Mother, copyright 2002 Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad,

  6. bornbyariver says:

    I just lost all the voicemails from my mother, and sobbed so hard my stomach ached. Its hard to let go of what remind us of our loved ones when we have already had to let go of THEM. Thanks for your beautiful post.

    • That stinks. I really struggle to remember the sound of my mom’s voice. For a while, my dad kept the outgoing message on their answering machine that had her voice but he’s changed it. I miss it.

  7. What a stunningly well-written post! It may be your best one, to date, and it hits home for me. James died 15 months ago and those things I treasure, that he touched and loved, are now just things. There’s a certain sadness that comes with that realization as well as an ever widening gulf between his physical presence and the reality of his absence.

    Give your friend a hug for me. I understand how he must be feeling.


  8. Bruce Kramer says:


    Once again you hit the proverbial nail (or turned the proverbial screw). Thanks for this. I’ve been having my moments this week, and this helped.

  9. elizabeth connolly says:

    Nancy, thank you . He tells me so little about his feelings. See you in a few days. Love Bettyanne

  10. Oh Nancy…you have written with such heart breaking honesty of what it is like to loose someone you love so deeply and try in vain to hold onto them. I really resonate with this post and I am so grateful that you continue to write so eloquently of the pain of loss.

  11. Wonderful post, Nancy. I remember shortly after my mom died, my sister and my dad almost immediately got rid of her clothes and I found that to be so upsetting as I wasn’t ready for that yet. I have a lot of my mom’s things and they are still special reminders, but that’s all they are. I haven’t yet removed the grandma part of the grandma/grandpa name contact on my cell phone. It’s now been four years. Do you think that’s weird? Anyway, your friend’s reaction is totally understandable. Thanks for writing about grief and loss.

    • Nancy, I still have my mom’s contact info in my cell phone too and don’t think I’ll ever delete it. I know that deleting it doesn’t mean deleting her–she’s already gone–but want to hold on nonetheless. So glad you understand.

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