Shine On, Brief Candle
Life is a burning candle that flickers and fails. The wax is neither fortified nor fashioned from steel to withstand the fire. Its wick can be severed in a pinch. Infinite lengths of gauze and bottomless beeswax are no option for a single pillar. Even if it were, a gentle gust could extinguish the fragile flame.
The candle only has meaning when it sheds light. The candle is action. Doing. Being. Affecting and reflecting. Making mistakes and finding meaning. Grieving and recovering. Loving and forgiving. Discovering happiness in the minutiae and in the mundane.
When Heidi was diagnosed with lung cancer, her son reigned from a Bumbo Seat and her daughter toddled at snappy speeds. My dear friend, who loved sparkling wine and stinky cheese as much as I, had mere months to live. But she was no shadow. Rather, her candle burned at both ends illuminating the world twofold.
Before Heidi’s diagnosis, I wished away the draining days of motherhood by dreading diapers, cursing potty accidents and refusing to accept mispronounced words. I implored my first-born to say “OH-T meal.” Then suddenly she did, and I rued the day “OAF-meal” was gone forever. That darling stage of language development had burned away, and I could not add molten wax to her wick of life to get it back.
Heidi maintained her dental practice throughout her radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Palliative care. Defying the odds, she saw her son’s second and third birthdays. At six years old, her daughter Hayden embodied her mom’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Hayden loved crafts and bows and scrunched up her nose in distaste, like Heidi. With no cure for metastatic lung cancer, I knew the drugs would fail her eventually—too soon. She beseeched a drug trial that might keep her candle aflame like the oil that fueled the Hanukkah Miracle, but she had to be “sick enough” to qualify. It was a perverse waiting game.
Heidi and I were introduced by our boyfriends who were cardiology fellows at Indiana University. We bonded on a blistering June afternoon over a dozen two-ounce pours of craft beer. From that day forward, our years were ablaze with parties, vacations, weddings and births. When her husband’s fellowship was finished, he joined a practice in Kansas City. They moved the day after their second child was born.
A thousand miles separated us, but after her diagnosis, we made every effort to see each other. We talked regularly on the phone and took several vacations together. She was the first person I told that I was going to have a third child. On the last day of 2010, we rang in the New Year together, where she donned a sequined 2011 headband over the stocking cap warming her bald head.
The next September, the cancer threw gasoline on her flame and Heidi began coughing up blood. Her brittle bones and excruciating joints crippled her movement. Food no longer nourished her failing body. There would be no lifesaving drug trial in Texas or Tennessee. Only morphine.
My youngest child was only a month old when he and I traveled to Kansas City once more. Heidi’s body was more frail than my infant son’s. I stroked her arm and told her I loved her until she wheezed her last, painful breath. Heidi’s light extinguished, but her sound and fury signified everything.
Thanks to Heidi’s light — her life, not her death — I live in the present and respect each second in its own time. My instinct to hasten proper pronunciation has not evaporated. But now I appreciate the brief times in my children’s lives when they mispronounce words, like my seven- year-old son’s delivery of “literally.” Too soon, his ears will hear the subtle differences and his mouth and tongue will assemble the word properly. Until then, I treasure his wide green eyes and exaggerated hand gestures as he exclaims, “LIT-er-EE, Mama.”
The shadow that stretches and distorts impersonates life. It’s a one-dimensional black cast that deserves no applause. When my candle—however brief—expires and darkness absorbs my flame, the choices and lessons I exhibited will shine through my children.
When I recognize my harsh voice coming through my daughter’s or hear my curse words regurgitated by the boys, I cringe. It is a good reminder to carefully select the light I want to emit: snuggling in bed and reading my children stories, sitting on the floor and playing a game with them, chasing them around the house as an imaginary T-Rex, teaching them to garden and to cook what they harvest.
Someday, I suspect my daughter will dash to five stores to get science fair supplies and then run them to school the next day when her child forgets, as I do for her now. I can see my middle son as a wonderful parent because of how he dotes on his two little frogs. He mimics my words and tone when he talks to them, which I adore. My youngest, who proudly perches on my lap when I volunteer at his school, might someday coach his own son’s chess club. And that is no walking shadow.
If we cannot fortify our candles to withstand the fire or prevent a gust from extinguishing their light, then we must shine brightly while they are lit. All our yesterdays light the way for the wise to a brilliant tomorrow.
Kim Alexander Kourany is the mother to three children under 12 years old. She and her husband reside in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she strives to preserve historic buildings and to write about the structures’ importance to communities. When she is not writing, Kim enjoys exercising so that she can eat the delicious meals she prepares and a large pour of Cabernet Sauvignon.