We Are America

Voices of the Nation's Future

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Photo ofGrace McHugh

It was a scorching July beach day. When we returned to the cottage we were grateful for the cool air conditioning that welcomed us. “Girls, get ready for bed, then I have a story for you!” Michael said with laughter in his voice. Michael knew how to tell a story better than anyone and had an amazing sense of humor, so in just minutes we were hanging on his every word. I can’t remember the details of his story that night, but I remember the love and how I laughed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.   

For most of my 15 years, my mom and sister and I went to the beach together every summer for 2 weeks. It was our thing. Our favorite place. Just the 3 of us. After Michael and his daughter Rachel entered our lives, adventures as a family of 3 became adventures as a family of 5. I had never been happier..  

Michael coming into my family’s life was like extra chocolate chips in cookies. He added to what was already good and made it better. He was there to cheer me on at sporting events alongside my mom, he helped me with homework, he brought me to plays and concerts, he told me stories about his life that made me laugh, and he taught me important life lessons. He told me I deserved to be loved for who I was and to expect people to treat me well. He listened to me, was proud of me and loved me. He helped me know that who I was was enough. He was like the dad I’d never really had.  

On January 9, 2019, everything changed. When my mom came home from the hospital that night I could see in the waterfalls running from her eyes that nothing would ever be the same. Michael was diagnosed with glioblastoma and our life as a family of 5 changed forever. There were no more vacations, nightly dinners, or snowball fights.  His Irish cap didn’t appear in the window of the kitchen door after work anymore.  Instead there was a firm, cold, empty wooden chair at the dinner table and a hole in my heart that I tried to ignore.  

Michael bravely fought glioblastoma for 2 years and died on January 4, 2021.   For most of the 2 years he was sick, I pretended he would get better and tried to avoid anything that reminded me of him. About a month after he died, I listened to a playlist my family had made for Michael before he died. For the first time in 2 years, instead of shoving my feelings away, I talked to my mom about everything I had held inside.  I talked about the times he’d helped us rig the kitchen sink to prank her, how he’d loved pizza more than any human should and how strange it was to know I’d never have another day with him ever again. It was a beginning.

Even though Michael is gone from my daily life he’s left me with the feelings of being loved, the music I will always associate with him, the life lessons he taught me and the memories I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Michael gave me a new understanding of what family is. Family isn’t just who you share DNA with, who looks like you or who’s related to you by blood. Family is who’s there for you, who loves you and who makes a difference in your life. Even when someone is gone from your daily life, the lessons they taught you and the love they felt for you will always remain.  According to yourdictionary.com the definition of family is “the group of people who share common ancestors,” but family for me is simply people who share common love.  The ancestor part isn’t required.

© Grace McHugh. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.