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Sesimbra, Portugal, is a place with history. She’s known grief and loss. Her cracked cobblestones are soaked with centuries of tears. History is seeped into her narrow, steep streets, but she doesn’t mourn for those lost. She knows that death is part of life. Nothing surprises her. Nothing defeats her. She simply bears witness and remains.
When my grief was still too acute to feel, I went in search of a place to be alone – a refuge where I could hurt and heal, without hurting others. I was aimless and drifting when Sesimbra caught me in her nets and brought me to her shores. This small fishing village wrapped me in her warmth and held me close until I felt safe enough to let myself shatter.
I was numbed by my son’s death when I arrived, but grief soon crashed over me. My pain stormed and screamed and tore me to shreds. My anger would flare and I’d want to crush the universe and everything in it for being unfair and unfeeling. Without warning, guilt would smash me in the gut with a wallop, leaving me curled on the floor, breathless. I’d ask myself, endlessly: “Should I have …?” “Could I have …?” “Would it have made a difference?”
In its gentler moments, grief reminded me of times I shared with Tristan. I remembered his radiant grin, overflowing into a goofy belly laugh that washed us all clean. I smelled his young-man scent, distinctive through the mist of tobacco and Axe body wash. I tasted the love in his hand-rolled gnocchi, prepared specially for his grandma on her birthday. I was proud of his gold medals, and black belts and sobriety fobs. I felt his solid warmth as he hugged me and said, “Love you, Mom,” on his way out in the morning.
I thought about his sensitive heart, fragile and fractured, so affected by the wounds of the world. So quick to self-blame. And self-harm. And I remembered how inspired I was by his bravery and strength as he fought to heal himself.
I sifted through 22 years of priceless memories, good and bad, grateful for the sharp stab of each one of them. Alone, I immersed myself in pain, unresisting. It was the only way I knew to spend time with Tristan.
Sesimbra, like any place formed around mountains and ocean and sky, neither judged me nor coddled me. With infinite patience and loving indifference, she simply let me be. Sometimes, though, she whispered that there is still joy in the world. She greeted me each morning with a warm kiss of sunshine and her evening waves soothed me in gentle lullaby.
I walked to the market once a week to buy swordfish fillets, vegetables and fresh bread because, somehow, I still needed to eat. I braved the crowds and ignored vendors who held out cabbages or oranges for my inspection. I’d find the quieter stalls and, not knowing the language, point to items I wanted, trusting the vendors to give me correct change. The market was overwhelming – too many people and glassy-eyed fish on ice – so I never lingered. In and out, eyes down, get the job done. Eventually, though, I began to notice the women behind the market stalls, laughing and gossiping with each other. I envied them a little bit.
In the afternoons, I’d nestle my feet deeply into the cool white sand and let the glistening ocean blind me. I’d hold my grief close, like a worry stone. At first, if I noticed people at all, they were simply part of the backdrop. But one day, I saw two small children laughing at the shoreline, searching for pebbles and shells, screeching as the waves lapped their feet, two tiny packages of overflowing joy. They reminded me of my granddaughter, Ava, who I suddenly missed terribly. I thought of Ava, back home, mourning her uncle as a three-year-old will, with questions and confidence on her way to the playground.
I discovered a restaurant where I could sit on the patio, overlooking the ocean, eating mussels and fresh bread, drinking sangria or sparkling water. Sometimes an orange tabby cat slept on the chair across from me, a perfect dinner companion.
The owner of the restaurant was a tiny, radiant woman about my age who spoke a bit of English. One day, she asked what brought me to Sesimbra. I told her about Tristan and my need to be alone. She listened without comment and then shared her own story of grief to let me know that she understood. That we were connected. And I was so grateful for that human connection.
One day, as I watched the gulls squabble on the water, I realized that life was all around me and I was still part of it, decades of sunrises and sunsets ahead of me. I thought back to when Tristan started his recovery journey and I started mine. To that moment when I realized that where there’s life, there’s hope. I remembered the freedom that hope brings, the joy of possibility. I couldn’t hope for Tristan any more, but perhaps I could hope for myself. Maybe, I could hope to laugh again with my friends, like the ladies in the market. Or hope to lose myself in the innocent joy of decorating cupcakes with Ava one more time. Just maybe, I could hope to feel the fullness of human connection again.
As I sat on the beach with my back against the coolness of a stone wall, centuries old, I began to feel hope for my life after his death.
About a week before heading home to spend that first Christmas with my family, without Tristan, I watched the sun spread its crimson glow across the water and knew, with sudden certainty, that hope was something I was not willing to give up. Hope was a message I needed to carry. I have a story to tell and it’s a story of hope.
A story of how I finally discovered hope, after years of living in fear and ignorance of Tristan’s addiction. How I learned there was hope for him, for others who struggle and for me. Hope that I could be okay, no matter what. And it’s a story of how Tristan discovered hope, bright enough, at times, to dispel his shame and obsession, to light a pathway back to himself. Of how his hope was a life-saving beacon for others who struggled. Hope is Tristan’s legacy.
And so, I began to write.
Kathy Wagner lives in New Westminster, B.C.