Three Years and Five Words

Photo of Zach's Playground

Jono Nagel Stories

My toddler, Finn, knows five words: mama, dada, raccoon, Daisy (my parent’s dog) — and Zach.

Four of these words he picked up on his own, the last one I heavily influenced.

As soon as Finn was old enough to understand words and expressions, I’d carry him to our hallway, show him a photo of my brother, point emphatically and say, “Who’s that? That’s Uncle Zach! Can you say Zach?” in hopes that’d he’d recognize him… that it’d turn out Zach had been standing next to us all along.

We’d visit the picture on the wall every day, and each time, Finn would break into a big gummy smile. I had the sense that maybe Zach had been standing there. Maybe my eyes just weren’t innocent enough to see him.

I’d imagine Zach’s response to Finn’s bright, cheeky face. He’d scoop Finn up with his long, lanky arms, wrapping him up and giving him a big bear hug— all with a big toothy smile of his own. He’d rest his warm cheek on Finn’s fuzzy blond head and rock him quietly to sleep.

With each imagined memory, I’d feel the ripping surge of anxiety, an anxiety I’d felt each and every day since Zach’s death three years ago.

There were mornings when I didn’t want my husband to leave for work because I was afraid I would never see him again – I knew how fragile life was and I was keenly aware of the danger surrounding it.

I’d call my mom to tell her I was afraid of losing everyone and of being alone.

I’d sit at my office desk, daydreaming what I would say to Zach if I could see him once more- I wouldn’t say anything at all, I’d just hand him my son because they deserved to know one another.

And through the months, those rushes of anxiety gripped me- whispering unexpected future tragedies. I’d visualize all of the future loss I could possibly feel- my parents dying, my grandparents, my husband, even my son. Part of me convinced myself that if I thought of the worst happening, I could control it.

I used to tell myself that the anxiety was silly- after all, I thought to myself, kids died all the time in the 1800s of cholera and scarlet fever. Grief was so much more prominent and they didn’t lose their minds over it… right? They still went on with their days – and I should just suck it up, too. But, that hasn’t worked.

So, I’m making changes. I’ve been on anxiety and depression medication before, and I’m considering it again. I’m praying more. I’ve started doing this exercise where I slice life into moments. In this very second of life, this moment right now, I ask myself if it is objectively bad or objectively good. Most of the time, it’s really, really good. Like this Monday morning, a day when I usually overwhelm myself with the pressure of deadlines, finances, tasks and a mixture of past and future stresses, I stopped and noticed the moment. I saw the morning autumn sun shine through and the silhouette of my husband holding my son, their heads close together, almost touching but not quite as they looked out the window. That moment was good.

Time doesn’t heal everything- I think it compacts loss and sadness into smaller more digestible cubes. I may struggle with anxiety for the rest of my life, and I might have to make the decision over and over again to get out of it—whether that means going to a therapist, going on medication or noticing the goodness of a moment.

But, deciding to hope, deciding that the best case scenario can be real, that this life is saturated with purpose- I believe it’s worth it.


Written by Alli Shoemaker

Alli is the older sister of Zach Sobiech, who passed away from osteosarcoma in May 2013.