It’s September. A month that we’ve been trained to loathe since we entered into our first year of school. Then, it signified an end to summer and dramatics aside, freedom. We said goodbye to the late nights, the beaches and most tragically, the 7-day weekends. As we got older, picking up part-time jobs, cramming in errands and losing time for our new versions of play, September represented the beginning of days getting shorter, darker, colder and a hell of a lot less summery. And then of course there are the terrible and unforgettable events that occurred that no one trying to capture the essence of September could avoid. Our country was attacked. Thousands died. Millions mourned. All in all, September is kind of a dick.
But for me, September stands out as being a royal expletive for another reason. And what’s worse, I almost escaped it all. One day. That’s all there was left to this hellish month. One day away. Tomorrow, then, would have been October. The bad juju that accompanied the month would have come to an end. Nevertheless, on September 30th, 2006, Amy died.
But, hold on. That part of this story isn’t ready yet.
I was 10 years old in Atlantic City staying at the Showboat Casino. 12 years old in Miami sunbathing at South Beach. 14 in Las Vegas walking down the Strip. Amy didn’t care. There was no age minimum on a vacation. She took me everywhere. She was the aunt that would ask you what you wanted for your birthday but wouldn’t give you it. She would give you something better. There were even times that she included me into her international itineraries. Italy, Greece, the Dominican Republic. Nothing was off limits. For her that is; my mom had other feelings on the matter. Leaving the country was not yet a viable option for a 14 year old. Still, I have Amy to thank for my first taste of travel. I have Amy to thank for a lot of things, actually.
She was my escape. In a family that seemed to take turns spinning the Russian Roulette Wheel of Misfortune, Amy was the young, 30-something year old aunt that was healthy, adventurous and an all around total badass. She took me away from the heart attacks, the aneurisms and the cancers. She was the mom that jumped on the field when my mom had to take a seat on the bench because team breast cancer was kicking her ass in the fourth quarter. She was the best friend that took me to the Philly Car Show when my best friend took their best friend to Dave and Buster’s without me. She was the aunt that was there. Always. Then, she wasn’t.
It was a glioblastoma malignant tumor. Or, brain cancer. That asshole put an end to my escape with my partner in crime twice. The first time, Amy won. The second time, two years later, the asshole won. I was 16. And of course it was September. I remember the home phone ringing. It was early in the morning. I was in my room playing PlayStation. That’s what I did. My mom picked up downstairs in the living room. I ran to the upstairs phone, covered the receiver and picked up to listen in on the conversation. That’s what I did. I haven’t done that since.
I recognized the voice on the other line immediately. It was my uncle. He was at the hospital in hospice with Amy. Only, Amy wasn’t with him anymore. I think I was in shock. I put the phone back on the hook. I walked back to the TV and unpaused my game. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later when my mom came up to my room, and I pretended to hear the news for the first time, that I began to cry.
The funeral came and went. Or at least I assume it did. The first real full memory I have after that morning phone call was sitting on the steps in my backyard, weeks after. It was dark. I was alone. That’s when I realized that the one escape that I always had from the illnesses my family was so chummy with was gone. Amy had left me alone with it all.
In my many talks with advisors, I kept hearing that grief hits everyone differently. Sometimes it’s right away. Sometimes it hibernates. Looking back I wish I believed this idea of hibernating grief instead of feeling like after only a month after the funeral, I was fine. I may have been able to salvage the next 5 years of my life.
OCD hit. Hard. I lost sleep on nights that I was awake until 4am trying to end a prayer just right so that I could go to bed and not wake up with cancer. There were friends lost because no one wanted to hang around the kid that was constantly sad. The one thing that I didn’t seem to lose was weight. Quite the contrary, I was exceeding in not only holding on to the pounds, but, adding to it. I was always a “big” kid, but it was over this 3-year period that I skyrocketed up to 310 lbs.
I floated through my last years at high school. Moved on to college at Temple University and for the most part floated through my first two years there too. Then, the moment that shifted me from neutral to drive happened: London. I found a crumbled up flyer on the floor for Study Away. The next week I had applied. The following week I was accepted. 4 months later I touched down in the UK and it felt like I had woken up. I’d left the dream state that I had unknowingly been in. It had been 5 years since Amy died. It wasn’t until fleeing the country did I find away to confront what I was ignoring. Ironically, this was done by escaping it.
I’d lie if I said it happened immediately. It of course was a gradual wakeup call. Each new country that I began to add to my roster was another push in the right direction. Each new place I experienced, I gained that much more respect for the mere fact that I was able to do it. I was alive, healthy and experiencing everything that Amy would have wanted me to. Travel was beginning to become my cure. And then it started to happen. Sunflowers started showing up. Everywhere.
One of the first things that anyone that has seen me in person usually notices (after my height) is my elbow. On it is a sunflower tattoo. Sunflowers were Amy’s favorite flower. They became my favorite flower. They became something so much more than a flower, but the memory of Amy inked on my skin to carry around with me wherever I went. When I see a sunflower, I know I’m on the right path. That’s why when the sunflowers starting appearing, it didn’t take me long to realize what they meant. I needed to keep going.
The sunflowers seemed to follow me wherever I went. Outside of a shop on Brick Lane in London. A vase in a Parisian café. A small street in Florence. A painting in Barcelona. On a ferry in Athens. These sunflowers were my push. I came home, came out and most importantly came to a new realization of what was important: Everything. Whether it was an average day in Philly or a once in a lifetime trip around the world, everything I did would have importance. I’m grateful for the lessons Amy taught me, and the freedom that she showed me. Most importantly, I’m grateful for the gift of the sunflower that she passed down to me.
It’s September. I’ve recently returned from my 20 something-th country spanning across 6 continents. I’ve been hired as a full time writer. And I just moved into my own place. It’s a lot to look back on. A lot to wonder if I’m making the right choices. The other night I went for a run in my new neighborhood. I was only about a mile in when I cam across a sunflower growing high over my head. I stopped for a second to stare up at it before continuing on my run. That’s all I needed. They always are.
One of the biggest things Amy taught me was that the life that seems so long now, can be a lot shorter than you think. When you stop moving forward, you run the risk of never reaching your end goal. The sunflowers that I see always remind me to stay in motion, throughout all of my decision. I’m not wasting any more of my time in neutral. Not when there is so much drive on this earth to keep me going. Amy never really left my life. She instead gave me motivation to live it.
This year on October 6th is the 7th Annual Amy’s Walk. The walk begins at 2pm at the last house on Boat House Row. You can find more information as well as the chance to donate to the American Brain Tumor Association at https://www.facebook.com/events/182832635221272/.