Losing someone you love is hard. It’s confusing, and exhausting, and nightmarish, and transcendent, and beautiful. Beautiful not in the sense that it’s good, but in that it allows you to remember the good and realize there’s still some left. Death is surprising like that. As I watched Piper fight cancer, and as I fell more in love with her with every day, I often wondered what would happen to that love when she died. Would it fade? Would it disappear? Would it stop growing but still be mine, bounded on either end by her birth and her passing? What would I do with all of it? What would it do to me?
As is so often the case, I was wrong about everything. It’s like when Carrina was pregnant with Piper, and I tried to prepare myself for what it would be like to be her father. Logically, I could think about what it might be like. I could picture myself as a dad. I could imagine what Piper’s face would look like. I could try to predict what that bond would feel like. But as every parent realizes, all of my planning was a bad placeholder for the real thing. One cannot prepare for things like this. Until it happens, there is no analog.
I’ve had a lot of cause to reflect on my love for Piper. It’s been six months since she died. What would have been her fifth birthday has come and gone without her. I have 36,000 photographs on my phone, and she’s in most of them. Each one records some moment of our time together. Memorializing our family when it was still complete, often taking for granted that our wholeness was, more than anything, all we ever really needed.
Every now and then the universe reminds us to open our eyes. To see that what we need is what we already have. My reminder came shortly before Piper was diagnosed. Carrina and I were in Chicago for three nights, and we brought along an old digital camera. We sat down to our first meal together without kids in 3.5 years, and I snapped a photo. As I inspected it, Carrina wondered what else was in the camera’s forgotten memory banks. There was a single video of me and Piper a few minutes after she was born. She was laying on the warming table crying, and I was holding her hands, whispering to her. As I sat watching the video, I remembered what it felt like to see her, touch her, and hear her for the first time. I cried as I watched, reminded of these wonderful things.
In a cruel twist of fate, 10 days later Piper was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Our lives changed in an instant, and she fought damn hard for 16 months. We all did.
I think of that moment in the restaurant a lot now. Of the sublime reminder of what I had before I knew I was going to lose it. About how I had seen the reminder, felt its message, and heeded its call. I think about how I wish it was just a reminder and not an ultimatum. And then I think about my love for that little girl. How far and how wide it goes. I think about what happened the moment she was born, how she opened her big blue eyes and saw me. I think about how in the chaos of that moment, the room went silent for one second while I saw her soul. I think about how all of my thinking, and all of my planning, did not prepare me for what it was like. I think about the ineffability of what I felt. It was as if a new and wonderful part of my heart had been unlocked. It had always been there, but she showed me where it was and then made it her own.
Four years later, the terrible wisdom that followed Piper’s death has proven me wrong again. All of that ruminating about where my love for her would go, and all of that worrying about what it might do to me, was a poor substitute for reality. Even though she is no longer here, and even though I’m painfully reminded of this every day, my love for her has not faded. It has not disappeared, and it is still mine.
The truth is that I love her more. I know precisely what to do with it. And I know exactly where to keep it: In the place she unlocked that exists just for her.
That place can never be empty again, and it can never have too much.