everything we love is on loan

Carol saved takeout containers, always sending people home with leftovers, yet somehow managing to amass a small architectural village behind her cupboard doors. A “mini-hoarder” my father used to tease. “What, Don? Ya never know.”

When my father sat Shiva for his wife Carol, who recently passed away on the half-birthday of Lucas and Abigail, now age 7, she proved her point–sadly for all of us, in more ways than one. It was on Lucas and Abigail’s 5th birthday that Carol was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. My father had called to wish them a happy half-birthday, and we joked that I’d offer them a half cupcake to celebrate, but then he called maybe an hour later asking me to leave the kids at home and to come be with him and my bonus-sisters. “She’s gone,” he said.

Carol never asked me not to write about her diagnosis on the blog or elsewhere, but my father did. “Not for the blog,” he’d said. And I understood. It wasn’t my story to tell, and she wanted to control what she did have under her control. In these two and a half years I’ve respected that wish because I’m human first, an artist second. In my next breath, I’ll say this: one of my best friends was once jilted at the alter. A guest of a guest wrote about The Wedding That Wasn’t in the Modern Love column of the New York Times. It wasn’t that writer’s story to tell, so to speak, but she had her own point of view on the event and how it touched her own life. We all do. So as a writer, I can tell you that there is always a story to tell, and as a memoirist, I can say that it is mine to tell. Because it’s my point of view on the event, and if it has shaped me profoundly and impacted my life, then it’s mine, too. But you must tread very carefully here. As a non-fiction writer or blogger, you cannot share someone else’s story just for the sake of it, just because it’s a dramatic or juicy story. You need to have insight and a reason for telling that story. [My t-length teacher skirt has now been hiked up to a fashionable length. We may proceed…]

It has been very hard for me not to write about any of this, since my way of dealing is to write and share and process here, on my Greek Tragedy blog. It’s how I cope. Instead, I cried to the woman at the counter of Janie & Jack as I bought an outfit for Abigail to wear to Carol’s funeral, which ultimately, Phil and I decided she should not attend.

In Spring, my father phoned me to say Carol was out of surgery. I was thumbing through a J.Crew catalog. I picked up a pen. “The doctor said it was very advanced.” As he spoke, I jotted down notes. I read them to Phil when we hung up. The catalog is still on my bedside table. It reads: 6 MONTHS. She lived 2.

Fairness. It keeps circling back to how completely unfair it is. How healthy she lived. She exercised! She ate so healthfully! Ate spinach, fresh veggies and fruits, low-fat diet, lots of fish, high-fiber, weight-lifting, lemon, no sugar, avoided animal fats aside from fish. Healthy, healthy, really took care of herself. Was a teacher, loved people and parties, a HUGE animal lover, quick and easy to laugh, always optimistic, positive energy. Her mother was her best friend, and she was her daughters’. 65 years old.

Death feels a lot like divorce. You keep hoping you’re going to wake up, that it was all some sick dream. And then, eventually you will have a good dream where life is as it should be, restored and familiar, and you awaken to a cruel reality. You don’t want to get out of bed. Friends call and you silence your phone. You don’t want to get out of bed. People tell you you’re depressed. No shit.

I feel guilty in saying so because divorce seems so trivial in comparison, but the feelings of loss and grief are the same feelings whether you’re dealing with death or divorce. A lot of what my bonus-sisters are going through right now is a lot of what I went through with my divorce. You have someone who knows you 100% completely, and then one day, they are 100% gone, poof, forever. You are closer to their things; you can touch their clothes, their most treasured possessions, but they are no longer there and will never be again. It’s surreal. It’s the exact same feeling. I think people underestimate how severe a break-up is, when you discover your whole relationship was a lie, it’s a death. You have to wake up to a whole new life, with your best friend completely gone. But when it’s your parent, it’s worse, because we’ll only ever have one. There’s no replacement. Compare and contrast it however you’d like, bottom line, the intensity of the loss, once you’ve experienced it, whatever the reason, you know it acutely. You remember the intensity, having to remind yourself to breathe, forcing yourself to go through the motions of a day. You can relate. I think it helps if you can relate to reach out to those suffering to let them know that they’re not alone, that they eventually will come out from under it.

In any scenario, the best thing you can do is to learn how to love on loan. Easier said than done. But I tend to practice saying this to myself in all my happiest moments, taking mental photographs. On loan. Everything we love is on loan. In this story, I am a second-rate citizen. I don’t feel worthy of the “I’m sorry for your loss” and condolences, not in comparison to my bonus-sisters (these are my step-sisters for those playing along at home. We just find the term to be so Cinderella ugly, in our beautifully dysfunctional blended family) who’ve lost their one and only mother. But, yes, I too am grieving. I wake up every day and think of Carol. I cry here and there, mostly over small things, like eating fruit out of a plastic container labeled “Gefilte Fish.”



  1. So very sorry for your loss. Whenever I’ve lost someone important in my life it seemed so odd that the rest of the world around me went on as if it was a normal day. How can it be when this profound change has occurred? Please know that this stranger has paused to reflect on your lovely stepmom, Carol, and the love she shared with you and your loved ones.

  2. I’m so sorry your family is going through this. I can definitely identify with the feeling that the condolences aren’t yours to receive. A few years ago, my uncle passed away. I loved him like a second dad (my own dad passed away when I was 13 years old, so my uncle really stepped in for me). He was the one who gave the toast at my wedding and danced my first dance with me. So, when he died in a sudden, tragic accident, I was devastated. But, I was only his niece. He had a wife, three adult children and two grandchildren who were also so grief stricken over his loss. I felt selfish for grieving, like it wasn’t really my place. That was six years ago. Looking back, I now see that it didn’t matter that I was his niece and not his child. What mattered is that I loved him and I lost him. There is no right way to feel, no appropriate amount of grief to suffer. We are all justified in our feelings just by virtue of the fact that we feel them.

    All this being said, I really can’t agree with your comparison between death and divorce. When it comes down to it, you can remarry. You can find a new best friend, a new person to wake up next to and share your life with, and eventually, you stop thinking about the ex and it doesn’t matter that he isn’t there to share every moment of your life anymore. Death leaves a much bigger, deeper and more permanent hole, and the grief process is much more complex.

    Sending you and your family much love in this sad time.

    1. Author

      Thank you. Yes, you hit the nail. As I said, “But when it’s your parent, it’s worse, because we’ll only ever have one. There’s no replacement.” When you are living through that intense grief though that initial intensity is the same, that unbearable grief, a broken heart. Bereft. That’s the same ache. The rest is different. Very different. The fear of forgetting, mostly, is the biggest difference. With a divorce, you want to forget as quickly as possible. With a death of a beloved, you worry that you’ll begin to forget their smell, their hands, their gestures, their voice. Them.

      1. I just,somehow, find your ‘writings’ which ‘touched’ my feelings relating a ‘recent sudden death’ of our ‘official Boss’s Mother-in-law!The man concerned is ‘somehow’ suspended from his work on 05.6.14 ! His mother-in-law who was a ‘diabetic patient (68 yrs old) was informed about ‘suspention’ on 07.6.14,hearing the bad news ,she fell ill and admitted to a ‘nurshing home’ where she died on 08.6.14 ! Since 05.6.14,the man(with his wife & only son)crying almost always ( his real mother died while he was child,it is learnt)!Though ‘suspension order’ was ‘withdrawn’ on 16.6.14 and the man ‘joined’ in a new place of posting immediately as per order,now,it is ‘the biginning of real problems’ to comeback in ‘normal life’ as the man ‘believes’ he was not ‘responsible’ for ‘failing his essential duties for the Company he is working’ !
        Under the above circumstances of a ‘real life’s tragedy’,as I respect the man,how should I ‘help’ the ‘distressed family’ to make them comeback to normal life and to cope up the present situation !
        Reading your ‘personal story’ about ‘death of your ‘step mother’, I feel that you could ‘write’ something which I may ‘convey’ the ‘man concerned’ to make him and his family ‘relieving’ from coming out of the present problems !
        Thanking you.

      2. That is so true. My dad has been gone for 22 years now. I was only 13 when he died. You will be amazed at how much you will be able to recall about a loved one, even after years have passes. I have forgotten some things, and that part is difficult. But I also remember a lot of small details, like his laugh, his smile, facial expressions, his scent, and the way I felt when he would wrap his arms around me and give me the best hugs in the whole world. I still find comfort in those little things today, all these years later.

        I hope you and your family are able to find comfort in the many happy memories you shared. It sure looks like there is a lot of love there.

          1. Thank you for your ‘acceptance’ of ‘my writings’ in reply to your post- ” Everything we love is on lone” ! In this ‘infinite’ Universe, if we could have been ‘felt’, like you, we can also be ‘infinite’! “Life is like that”! Madam, I would like to mention here that, if only you could clear about the basis of “on loan” in respect of your ‘love’ you would feel ‘comfort’ at any situation of our ‘lives’ whether that ‘relate’ you or not ! Thank you again.

  3. I am a four year ovarian cancer survivor. My mother succumbed to fallopian cancer seven years before my diagnosis. The pain of watching her when she was in the thick of it outweighed the pain of my own treatment immeasurably. I’d rather be in agony myself than see someone I love so fully hurt and not be able to fix it. It’s a horrible, helpless feeling to watch a beloved battle cancer, and I’m so, so sorry for the loss to all who loved your Carol. May peace be with all of you.

    1. Author

      Sallie, this is stated so simply but so powerfully. Thank you. I too am sorry to hear about your mother and wish you peace and continued good health.

  4. I’m so sorry that death has come to visit – Carol sounds like a beautiful person inside and out, and your tribute to her is incredibly touching. Thank you for sharing.

    Death. It is always a surprise when it happens – even if anticipated. Since mom and dad have been doing their death dance for coming up on 2 years, death has become a regular dance partner for the three of us. Just the other day, mom fell again and a garden rake went through her arm (I’m not exaggerating). Death jigged its way up to the front of the stage, showing off its power and allure, but once again – mom isn’t ready yet. She (on her walker with one hand now) knocked death to the background again and bravely, and with a smile, regained center stage.

    The three of us are so accustomed to death’s presence that most of the time we don’t notice it…except when we poke fun at it or it gets pushy. I know my time with my folks is fleeting – death’s presence is getting more aggressive and bossy, and my little folks are getting tired. So, I appreciate every moment – even the pesky ones. I never want to look back and wish I’d said the kinder thing, or been the better person. I will be kind, and I will be good. They are on loan to me, indeed.

    They celebrated their 54th anniversary the other day – sitting on the couch and holding hands – we raised a white wine and martini toast and shooed death off for a while longer.

    Courage and strength, my friend. We’re with ya.

  5. Dear Stephanie, I’m so sorry that you’ve lost Carol. I’m hoping your family get through the horrible grieving time and begin to smile a bit when thinking about her. Please let your dad and extra-sistahs(!) know that your readers are so sorry for their loss… and yours.

  6. So sorry Stephanie for your loss. I’m not ‘good with words’ but I can’t let that stop me from sending condolences to you, your family, especially your Dad.

  7. I am crying for you and am so very sorry for your loss. How is your Father doing considering? Their daughters?

    I am a longtime reader of your blog and remember Carol from many of your past posts.. Especially those where she visited you in Austin along with your Dad. I remember her glasses, dark hair and BIG smile.

    I was always curious as to the love story between them.. How your Father came to know love again.. What made him fall for Carol. What made her fall for him.. How did you feel gaining two bonus sisters?

    Again, I am so terribly sorry for your loss. I know the days, weeks and months ahead will be very difficult for all of you.. Sending a big hug your way….

  8. I am so sorry for Carol’s family–she is now free of pain and suffering, but it’s so hard to be left behind in grief. Blessings to you all.

  9. Stephanie, thank you so much for sharing this, even though this must be a very difficult time for you. I don’t really have very much to add, just to let you know that I am thinking of you and your family through this time.

  10. This is so sad, and you’re right, it’s just not fair. How lucky you were to have such a wonderful person in your life; I’m so very sorry for your loss.

  11. Stephanie, so very sorry for your and your family’s loss. I’ve been reading for years (always been too shy to comment) and your honest, poignant, vulnerable writing has made me feel like I “know” you and your loved ones. I hope you draw strength and comfort from each other during this difficult time. Thank you for your touching words. May Carol’s memory be for a blessing.

  12. Dear Stephanie,
    I’m very sorry. I am not really a religious person but I hope your family finds solace. Thank you for this well written piece of your life. I wish you the best always.

    I was going to write more but now it not the time.

    Take care of everyone, including yourself.


  13. Oh no. I got such a shock when I read this, Stephanie. Sending love to all of you from sunny South Africa, especially your dear sweet dad. PS what is a “half-birthday”?

    1. Author

      Thanks Jacks. I’ve never celebrated a half-birthday, mind you, but it’s the six-month marker (not an exact science). If you’re birthday is January 1, your half-birthday would be celebrated on July 1.

  14. Today,I again read your ‘heart-felt’ writings regarding ‘death of your step-mom’ ! Respecting your feelings about that, I should share with you about a real story of my another colleaque whose father was died of ‘cancer’ in the year 1988! His father was in service in Railway deptt. when Departmental Doctors ‘treated’ the patient for ‘colon disorder’ for some years but they never ‘suspect’ that could have been ‘turned’ to ‘cancer’!Being the ‘pains’ unbearable,my colleaque had been taken his father to our Capital Town where Doctors declared that the patient’s condition is ‘critical’ as the disease already turned to ‘cancer’ and they said that the patient would not ‘survive’for 6 months but his father died within 2 months ! My colleaque being eldest,having 2 younger sisters who were in their studies and widow mother,then of age 26 years,suffered a lot having been ‘shocked’ of the sudden demise of his father but,what I must tell you as I followed up his family history,his youngest sister who was strong in her haelth ‘managed and maintained’the whole family ‘running'(his younger sister was weak in health)after helping the whole family coming out of ‘distresses’!Remembering the old incident, I should tell you,try to think whatever happens but ‘God is Good’!May God bless you and all of your family members !

  15. It sounds like you and your family have some wonderful memories–I know that’s of little consolation at this moment, but they’ll wonderful to pull out in the days and years to come. I love that you have bonus sisters to share them with and that your Dad has family to give him support. Not that any of this makes it a bit fairer. You’ve done a wonderful job over the years of bringing Carol (and the rest of your family) to life for us– she’s received a lovely tribute, too. Thanks and my thoughts are with your family.

  16. Stephanie:
    I am so sorry. I could type all kinds of angry things about cancer but it won’t change that a wonderful person is gone.

    When you wrote about condolences that are not yours to receive, I could relate. My daughter’s grandmother (my ex mother-in-law) passed away almost three years ago. She and my daughter were so close and although we originally had issues right after the divorce, we reconciled and shared joy over my daughter together. My daughter graduated a few weeks ago and I shed more than a few tears that her grandmother wasn’t there to see it. She would have been so proud.

    Grief is a weird animal and pops up in the oddest places. Sending peace and comfort to you and your family.

  17. Stephanie,

    I am just reading this now. I am so very sorry for the loss of your bonus Mom, Carol and to all those who love her especially your Dad and bonus siblings. Your words ‘Everything We Loan is on Loan’ will linger for quite some time. I am not ready either to let go of a loved one whose health is compromised and the journey ahead is uncertain one. I will be keeping you very close to my heart and in my thoughts. For Carol this evening I am going to enjoy some dessert in her memory. Mazel Mazel may all good things come your way.


  18. Just catching up on past posts. To me 65 is young (we live linger now it seems and people in my family go into their 90s often) . I remember seeing Carol in posts you had up in the past. I think a picture says a lot; she looked like a happy, kind person. She gave your father companionship,love and so much more as his wife and I feel for him having to lose her when they both thought they’d have more time to grow old together. So sad. I hope your family is doing well and I am sure you will find little ways to keep her memory strong and honor your special time together. Cancer is so terribly unfair.

  19. Four years ago today, my friend, age 42, died of ovarian cancer. I’m sorry for the loss of Carol and my thoughts are with you and your father.

  20. So very sorry for your loss. My granma past away a year ago 99 years old. She said it was about time, because she allready said good bye to all of her friends. I know it was right for her. But she is still missed :-)

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