Joelle Renstrom: Every year, whether I'm mindful of the date or not, the anniversary of my late father's cancer diagnosis brings on a physical reaction. In this photo, the author, as a newborn, with her father, 1978. (Courtesy)

I woke up feeling off. My stomach churned, my head felt foggy, my back hurt.

I lay in bed, testing various body parts, trying to determine the culprit. I had helped a friend move the day before – had I overexerted myself? We’d had a few drinks to celebrate — was I hung over? Could it be food poisoning? Had I gotten too close to that coughing kid on the subway?

I can still feel — in my gut — the shock, disbelief, and devastation that followed, infiltrating my body like a sickness.

It wasn’t until I plunked down at my computer that I figured it out. It was June 2, the anniversary of my dad’s cancer diagnosis.

Even if I don’t consciously remember, my body knows this date. Every year, around this time, I begin to ache all over. And every year, it takes a while for my mind to catch up. And even when it does I think, that can’t be it, can it? But my body answers: oh yes, it can. I have a long memory, it says. I remember everything, even the things you’d rather forget.

One might think that the anniversary of my dad’s death, September 4, would be worse, but it’s not. The date of his diagnosis is the beginning of the season of dying. The start of a cascade of memories that assert themselves with increasing insistence almost every day between June and September.

On June 2, 2006, I called my mom during my lunch break. I was supposed to have heard by then that the tests run on my dad had yielded nothing, or perhaps something only mildly serious, such as pneumonia. On my third attempt, my mom finally answered. “It’s not pneumonia,” she said. The doctor told us dad had anywhere from six months to two years to live. I can still feel — in my gut — the shock, disbelief, and devastation that followed, infiltrating my body like a sickness.

The author hugs her dad, 1993. (Courtesy)

The author hugs her dad, 1993. (Courtesy)

We have many emotional responses to trauma, from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to flashbacks to sadness and depression. What I didn’t realize was that the body has its own responses, entirely separate from the emotional ones. Even after my brain is seemingly ready to let go, my body acts otherwise.

And so every year, like clockwork, on June 2, the ritual of physical remembrance begins anew.

Part of the ritual involves my brain working its way to the answer. For some reason, I never immediately understand what’s happening. Every time I figure it out, I’m surprised. Oh yeah, I think to myself, this again. I get frustrated. If only I remembered and anticipated my body’s response, then surely I could do something to prevent it. But between June and September, no matter how much I try to circumvent or hurry this process, whether I get a massage or acupuncture or attend yoga classes or soak in a hot tub, my body aches.

There are plenty of days I don’t think of my dad. There are plenty of days I’m happy, despite having believed for a long time that his death meant I’d never be happy again. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m capable of experiencing joy without him. But every June my body silences that guilt, as though to promise my mind that I will never forget.


Tags: Family, Tribute

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  • Ethan Gilsdorf

    Lovely essay, Joelle. Thanks for sharing.

  • Celeste Ng

    Beautiful essay. It really struck a chord with me, as the same thing happens on the anniversary of my father’s sudden death. On that day, I wake up feeling physically sick and achy, and slowly work my way towards remembering why. Thank you for writing this.

  • Marisa Milanese

    I loved this essay for its elegance and simplicity; it genuinely moved me. What a wonderful writer you are. Thank you, Joelle.

  • stillmissingher

    Very touching and eloquent essay. I’ve experienced much the same phenomena, every year since my sister’s diagnosis and subsequent death with brain cancer. After seven years the feelings of devastation and loss are mercifully no longer ever-present, but still are never very far off. The loss & grief as a physical experience does seem to arise and cycle through my body unfailingly but often unforeseen, just as you describe it, & as it turns out always coinciding with the days of her diagnosis and then again, 7 months later, with her dying.

    It’s a poignant relief to know my experience of this is not unique. Thank you.

  • Pat

    I have a similar experience every July, the month of my mother’s long ago diagnosis and death from cancer (a week apart). It’s not a body ache, it’s depression, which is I guess still a physical symptom. She died so long now that I often forget–despite my annual reminder–and only gradually realize during the mid-July depression that it’s that time of year again. Thanks for the essay.

  • Joel

    Thank you for this wonderful piece Joelle. It seemed you were describing me and the loss of my mother…Thank you, Joel