My son, Vasu died of cancer on August 19, 2009. He was 6 years old.
I was aware before he died what his death could do to me. Vasu got sick in the fall of 2004, and two months later my mom was also diagnosed with cancer. She died a month after he went into remission.
After Mom’s death, I only left the house to go to the grocery store, Vasu’s preschool, and the children’s hospital for his check-ups. Chance encounters with people I knew left me breathless with panic and desperate to return home. People explained that “the first year is the worst” and that I would “heal with time,” but that made no sense to me. Grief was a road I was forced onto, a place in-between living and dying. More than two years after Mom died I was still traveling the same road.
Then in a single day everything changed.
I was sitting in the kitchen with my dad. He explained that two years on he still couldn’t live without Mom. He wanted to follow her. He wanted to be dead.
“I know this sounds strange,” I replied, “but I think I already am.”
For the rest of the day I played with Vasu and saw him through the eyes of someone who had died, and realized I no longer wanted to be dead. In that moment I stepped off the road of grief. I started to smile and even laugh. I didn’t have to pretend to be happy — I was happy.
Two months later, the doctors found metastasized tumors throughout Vasu’s body. He survived the nine-month treatment, but would never go into remission again.
I knew that if I could lose years to sorrow after Mom’s death, the death of my only child could steal away my life. As Vasu was dying, nearly everyone confirmed this. “What you are going through is the worst thing a mother could possibly experience,” they said. But I didn’t want to believe them. I wanted something different. I didn’t want to grieve for the rest of my life.
For Vasu’s memorial we invited the community to build a giant sandcastle on his favorite beach. It was a fortress when finished; 20 feet long with a deep moat. Then, because Vasu would have wanted it that way, we asked all of his friends to jump on it.
Afterwards, I said goodbye to everyone I knew, including Vasu’s daddy. We had shared 13 years together, 6 of them raising our child. But we had nothing left to offer each other except tears and pain. I sold everything I owned except an old mountain bike and camping gear, and on October 1 I began cycling the Pacific Coast Bike Route.
I cycled every other day on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101. I was a refugee, fleeing the sorrow that pursued me. At the end of every day I sat beside the ocean. It was large enough to hold the grief that overwhelmed me — and the fierce fall winds and blistering sand cleansed my heart for a while.
I quickly became comfortable with the challenges of the road: the shattered glass, the narrow shoulders, and the bellow of air brakes and blast of air in the wake of tractor-trailers. My body adapted to my new life much faster than my grief did. My legs bulged with new muscle after barely two weeks, and when I removed the 45 pounds of gear draped over the wheels my bicycle became ridiculously light.
But whenever I thought about Vasu, no matter what memory I searched for, it was always usurped by his last breaths; his still, cold face. I became so accustomed to the images of his last moments that I no longer hid my tears and sobbing breaths when strangers walked past me on the shore. The wilderness gave me privacy that friends and family would have taken away. The ocean did not expect me to be strong or heroic. It didn’t even need me to survive. I was allowed to be a grieving mother, and could take my time to find the end of the road.
I cycled for two months, and along the way I graduated from refugee to pilgrim.
It’s been more than four years since I ended my ride down the coast. The memories of Vasu’s death began to fade soon after I turned back and headed home. I was free to remember him happy. I also brought back with me a desire to create a new language for grief — one that acknowledges that there is no roadmap through loss, and that everyone’s road is unique.
Elea Acheson began writing about grief a few weeks after her bicycle ride ended. She is looking for a publisher for her completed memoir. She continues her pilgrimage through grief at eleaacheson.com and facebook.com/EleadariAcheson.