Holding Space and Hanging On to 2020 by Claudia Maniatis

Well, 2020 you were something. A year not many of us could have predicted and a year that held greater ups and downs than many of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And while we may be eager to put 2020 in the rear view mirror, I wanted to encourage you all to slow down and sit with it for a bit longer.

2020 is the year where we were reminded of the fragility of life. We shuttered in and were forced to stay away from family, friends, traditions, travel, social engagements, and much more. Some of us felt trapped, and some of us welcomed the chance to stick closer to home. Home became a haven for many but, for some, a prison or at the very least a place we needed a “break” from.

Babies were born, children grew up a little, and parents learned how to juggle duties that once were happily handed off to educators. Educators had to become adept at addressing the ever-changing landscape of their job description, while balancing their own family’s needs with worry for students who were falling through the cracks. Businesses struggled to stay open; communities stepped up to support as best they could, but sometimes it wasn’t enough.

Families had to say goodbye to loved ones through Plexiglas walls and worse. The reality of not being able to be with them as they died or as they were laid to rest suddenly shone a spotlight on how there is no greater honor than being able to do so. Our health care workers had to become surrogates for those who were alone, the privilege and burden taking up so much space, I cannot imagine the heartbreak.

2020 was also a year where we found new appreciation for yoga pants, hand sanitizer, Zoom, Amazon, curbside pick-up, the great outdoors…the list goes on. We learned to live more simply and to appreciate the little things. We cleaned out closets and got rid of stuff no longer needed. It was a year of finding new hobbies, of spending too much time on social media, of making plans and canceling plans and wondering if life would ever feel “plan-able” again.

But for me, it was, simply, the year Will died. It was the year we got to spend our last weeks, days, hours, and minutes together as a family. It was the year a hospital bed took over where our couch had been. We all gathered round to soak up the moments we could with our boy, the oxygen machine providing our soundtrack as it hummed and hissed in the background until, once Will declared he no longer desired the assistance, it didn’t.

This is the year my youngest son gently slid into unconsciousness, and the rhythm of his breath slowed and wavered as his body started to fade. This is the year I watched him move away from the world of the living as his heart ceased to beat and the last trace of color faded from his skin. I learned that when someone dies you cover them with extra blankets to preserve their heat for as long as possible, so you can lay with them and feel their warmth a little longer. I also learned rigor set in quickly as I wrapped my hands over Will’s and held on as best I could for as long as I could.

2020 was the year I watched as two lovely young men came to my house to take my son away; they didn’t look too much older than Will, honestly, and they earnestly asked “What took him?” They advised I consider stepping into another room as they transferred his body to the gurney as it can be “hard to watch.” And then, side by side and hands crossed respectfully in front of them, they asked if I wanted to say one more goodbye. I still think of the scene and the rose they had lovingly placed on Will’s chest after having beautifully prepared him, his head resting on a silk pillow and his body covered with a rich, blue velvet blanket.

It was the year we gathered, more than 1,800 strong, to send Will home. It was the year I watched as my husband, my two older sons, and three of Will’s best friends tenderly carried him through the halls leading up to and through the narthex and nave of the cathedral, people lined up as far as the eye could see. It was the year I watched as countless people came to say their final goodbye to a boy whose story had become an inspiration to so many. Some of them paused to offer a prayer or a kiss and maybe to notice his beauty, his jaunty bow tie or the way his folded hands still communicated so much. It was the year we quietly watched as Will’s casket was lowered into the vault and put into the ground as the surprisingly strong February sun warmed our faces and dried our tears.

So I will sit with this year and hold on to it for the most precious year it was. Certainly it was a year of deep pain and loss. But it was also a year of great love that continues to be my guiding force each and every day. It was a year of feeling lost and a year of starting to find my way.  It was a year of doubting I could go on and a year of faith and surrender and finding that I could, indeed, keep going.  It was the year I learned, and I mean really learned, that I can trust the promise that I will see Will again.

It was the year I lost a part of myself and the year I discovered I can exist well without filling that space back up. It is a space that is open to whatever energy is needed, and that is just fine by me. Grief does not need to be healed; it is the healing itself.

While many are ready to ring in 2021, I am still somewhat panicked at the thought. I fear any distance from a year that holds the fleeting remnants of having Will physically with us. But then I remember he is always with us and his spirit is everlasting.

I know this year has been hard. Full of so much, a “pulling the rug out from underneath everything we thought we could count on” kind of year.  One that shakes us up and spits us out perhaps a little worse for wear but still standing. But before you kick this past year to the curb….just sit with it for a bit longer. There were moments within that were beautiful even amidst their clawing and jarring pain.

And as we step in to 2021, healing can mean finding new sources of strength and joy. It can mean liberation from expectations of “normal” and freedom from what might not have been working even before our world stood still.

Claudia Maniatis has established The WillStrong Cancer Foundation to support research into acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and other high-risk leukemias in children and young adults. https://www.willstrongcancerfoundation.org/