We often measure our lives by stages, keeping record of the past chapters while writing the new ones we are living. Shelly Calcagno was in the middle of raising her teenagers, entering the stage of life that begins to bring more freedom, when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. This began The Longest Goodbye journey in her life, a chapter that has spanned almost a decade as her family has watched their beloved wife, mom and grandma slip away. Shelly made the choice that in the middle of her drawn-out grief, she would keep looking for hope. Determined that the love her mom had always given so freely to her, would become the catalyst for love and honouring her back, even through the hardest of days. It’s a grace to welcome Shelly to the farm’s table today…

Guest Post by Shelly Calcagno

It’s still fresh in my heart—the trauma of hugging her in the doorway of her new home, as strangers wheeled her away. The world was shut down because of Covid, so we couldn’t even go in with her. I wanted to scream out, “That’s my mom! You don’t know her; she belongs to us. She’s the most beautiful person in the world. You’d better take care of her. She’s gentle and kind. She likes to be warm. She loves her tea. Put a scarf around her neck. Make sure she’s okay . . . ” I hugged my brothers and sobbed and sobbed that day, and many days since.

“The pain of great love is when you have to let go.”

I’m grateful I can go see her now. I’m grateful for the care she is receiving. But I hate to leave her there. My dad and I both wait until her eyes close before we whisper goodbye. We don’t want her to see us walk away, but eventually, we have to go. Each time, as I drive out of the parking lot, I whisper, “Bye, Mama” as I pass by her window, and I cry all the way home.

These have been the hardest of days for us all. The pain of great love is when you have to let go. I know we still have her, and she’s here with us. I’m so grateful for that. But she’s not at home anymore, and I want her back. Some days, I want everything back.

Often, I close my eyes, and I’m standing on a thin and shaky wire. With one wrong lean or step either way, I might come tumbling down. I remember being a little girl at the circus, under the big top tent, watching the tightrope walker put on a show. I hold my breath and shovel popcorn into my mouth with my sticky cotton-candy hands, unable to look away as she walks across the skinny, bouncy rope in her battered and dusty ballerina-like shoes. There is tension in the air as she takes each step.

Would she do it? Can she make it across?

In that case, she did. The small-town crowd cheered, and we all marveled at her skills. Ironically, as the most unbalanced, least-flexible, stunt-like person around, I relate to tightrope walkers everywhere. While I’m not suspended one hundred feet in the air (thank goodness because I’m afraid of heights), the balancing act for me most days is this continual space between joy and grief. I think I live there now; it’s pretty much my home. And I try not to fall off in the middle. Happy and sad. Past and the future. The joys of life, mixed with all the hard things. In the middle of all that life has brought with my mom, I’m living those happy days, too.

Our son is getting married soon. Recently, we had a family celebration for him and his beautiful fiancée. He is the first of the next generation in our family to get married—our firstborn, the oldest grandchild in the beloved line of cousins—soon starting a life of his own. My heart was so happy. I held back tears as I snapped some pictures, remembering all the friends and family at different stages of his life. Another milestone in the journey of letting go. From little boy to soon-to-be husband.

“Like the tightrope artist trying to make her way across to the other side, I was walking the line between joy and grief.”

The celebration was wonderful. I was filled with joy; laughs rang out; memories were shared; and there were smiles all around. In the middle of it all, though, I was walking that thin and shaky wire. Like the tightrope artist trying to make her way across to the other side, I was walking the line between joy and grief. With every hug, smile, and congratulations, I missed my mom, and I wanted her there. She would have been all over that day. She was with us when Noah came into the world and took his first breath, and she never stopped caring for him or loving him as long as she could express herself.

In all the celebrations we have had lately, I imagine her there with her big smile. “Grandma’s treasure is getting married,” is what she would say. Instead, she was at her new home, a celebration happening that she didn’t even know about.

My heart can’t process that she won’t be at his wedding. I can’t have her beside me, beaming in pride. I want her to help me with my dreaded dress- shopping and tell me how to wear my hair. I want her in the pictures; I want to see her with all her family gathered around. In the middle of my immense joy, I feel this deep grief. But I just keep on balancing and making my way across that shaky rope.

“The middle. The tightrope. The balancing. By grace, that’s the space where we often must live. And it’s often the place where we learn to grow.”

Here’s the thing about longest goodbye journeys—and perhaps most paths that we walk in life. If every day was filled with only sunshine and roses, it wouldn’t be very realistic living. And if we only dealt with sadness and pain, we’d never be able to get up and face another day.

The middle. The tightrope. The balancing.

By grace, that’s the space where we often must live. And it’s often the place where we learn to grow.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 reminds us that there is a season for everything under the sun, and how we walk each season is significant. I don’t like it, but I’m learning to embrace it. I’m navigating how to draw from both so I can keep my balance and find the moments of value in the center of it all.

I went to visit my sweet mama after the wedding shower, after our day of celebration. More than ever, I’m keenly aware of the pictures of family behind her on the wall in her new home, showing how life is moving forward. It’s like a slow-motion picture, blurring around her. It moves; more photos are added as life keep happening; but she stays still.

But she’s here, and that is enough for my heart. So, I held her hand, and I told her through my tears and soaked mask all about the shower and her beautiful grown-up grandkids and the people she loves and who love her. She’s happy and smiley as I talk, and I see that as another love gift from God. I feel seen and loved by her and by Him.

When I got married, sunflowers were my obsession. Before I went to see her, I bought a big bouquet of them and put them in her room on her windowsill. I held them right up to her face, and she smiled her big smile. And all felt okay again.

I haven’t fall off the wire. Working on my balance, even through the shaky days, I’m trying to keep in the steady center.

Gathering up joy in the moments.

Shelly Calcagno is a writer, blogger and content creator. She has written and produced several animated series for children and specializes in curriculum development. She is the host of A Space for Grace Podcast, and the author of The Longest Goodbye: A Family’s Hope-Filled Journey Through Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease affects almost fifty million people worldwide. It touches people across every walk of life. So, how do millions of people figure out how to love as they let go? The Longest Goodbye is a collection of stories and moments not just about the clinical side of memory loss–but the emotional heart journey. It is a story that shows how joy and grief are often intertwined and wrapped up together in the glorious mess of life. 

The Longest Goodbye encourages readers to remember the ones they love while they are still here and to intentionally celebrate and live through the pain and hard days. It’s filled with tears, hope, and bitter-sweet moments all held together by the beautiful love of a mother and daughter holding onto a life filled with memories, while learning to let go and say goodbye.