The past decade has been the most monumental in terms of the changes that have happened in my life. Ten years ago this week I found out my mother had terminal cancer and less than five months later she was gone. As I reflect, I realize now what a life altering event that was for me, quite possibly the most influential on my life thus far aside from actually being born. It was the guiding beacon that would lead me down life’s path to where I am today….and particularly key in leading me to the plant-based/vegan diet and lifestyle I have been following for 8 years now.
The New Year, and especially new decade, is often a time I choose for introspection and reflection. I’m filled with a rush of conflicting emotions as I contemplate the past ten years. From losing my mom to cancer in 2010, followed by a rough patch but eventually landed on my feet, then losing my dad a short couple of years later, to meeting Anna and welcoming our two wonderful children into our lives, to losing my furry BFF, Murphy the beagle, last year who was with me through it all; from traveling adventures around the world and back, learning about my family roots in Croatia (and I will go to India this coming decade to connect to the other side!), to fulfilling some artistic endeavors while continuing to pursue others, it’s been a wild ride through peaks and valleys, to say the least. Regardless, I’m grateful for the lessons, the love, and the life experiences.
My Mother’s Death:
Nothing can prepare you for losing your mother. It’s a very specific kind of agonizingly painful grief that only those who’ve gone through it can understand. The passing of the one who gave you life and nurtured you in the way only a mother can is one of the worst losses one can experience. And the younger you are when it happens, the more shocking it is. I happened to be very close to my mom and spoke to her almost every day, so it was that much more intense when she was gone. The pain is still there, ebbing and flowing with life’s comings and goings. Sometimes it pops up unexpectedly when I’m driving down the highway, other times it’s the holidays that can trigger a flood of feelings acutely to the surface. But it’s the memories in the making that are most difficult for me to bear. Particularly the experiences she’d never have with the grandkids she never met. If there’s one thing I was most guilty about after she passed it was that I never gave her grandchildren, despite her often badgering me about it. Little did she know, less than 4 years after she passed away, our daughter Amalya would be born.
One of the biggest lessons I learned about grieving during the aftermath of her death was that it’s OK to ask for help. My initial instinct was to shove it down, be strong for my family, but that landed me in some rough waters. It was grief therapy, especially grief support groups, that got me through the darkest times. I’ve gone to grief support groups ever since and it’s been extremely helpful to process the loss with other people in similar situations. Everybody grieves in their own way and that’s OK, but moving forward I now had somewhat of a barometer of when I needed to get some help. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to deal with it, have a good cry or laugh or scream or whatever, so you can move on in a healthy way. And other modalities like seeking out my mom’s heritage by upholding promises I made to her in her last few years, they kept her with me and helped keep me moving onward.
You can read about my adventures in discovering my mother’s roots in Croatia here:
My mom’s death wasn’t only an awful experience of grief, guilt and pain, for me it was further marred by this sense of utter helplessness to be able to help her. Terminal cancer is a nasty prognosis to swallow and I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be the one on the receiving end of it, nor do I want to try and even think about it. Being the family member of someone with cancer was way closer than I want to ever be to it. As much as I always thought of myself as “healthy” and someone who ate an impeccable diet, the research I had done after her diagnosis revealed otherwise.
When my mom was diagnosed, with every waking free second I was doing research on how we could fight this thing. From dietary to alternative treatments and supplements, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), to Ayurveda, and everything in between, I was looking into it. I read medical studies and journals, I watched documentaries and videos of symposiums, spoke to various experts, and more.
The one thing that I could not ignore was that almost all roads I explored led to a more plant-based diet.
Could it be? As someone who firmly believed that those who followed a vegan diet were experiencing some form of insanity, I was taken aback by this discovery. While I tried to get my mom to eat healthier, even made her all sorts of salads and health shakes the last few months, she was too far gone and sadly had given up emotionally by then, so I was unable to save her.
The next several years after that I continued to research obsessively, devour whatever research I could get my hands on, and speak to medical experts – both western and eastern/alternative. I wasn’t going to let any other family member or myself go down this horrible road to a final demise. Watching the human body slowly shut down, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, is excruciating. I held her hand through most of it all the way to the last minute and I don’t recommend anyone suffer through that.
Trust me when I say that no morsel of food, taste sensation or brainwashed cultural diet is worth that kind of suffering.
I had become somewhat of an aficionado at the point when I finally decided that I would attempt to go fully plant-based. I transitioned over the course of a year – going pescatarian (no meat, just seafood), then vegetarian (eggs & dairy allowed), and finally fully plant-based (vegan).
The drastic positive changes in my health and energy levels would not have been possible if I hadn’t switch to plant-based.
I just hit my eighth year of being vegan and I would not be experiencing this level of amazing health if I hadn’t learned those lessons through losing my mom.
It’s interesting how life works that way sometimes. My entire perspective was shattered and shifted to a whole new way of thinking. During this time my compassion for animals and the environment increased exponentially. I was always passionate about animals and nature, but I’m on a whole new level of activism and connectedness that would not have happened if she hadn’t passed the way she did.
Once I was back on my feet, life was good and I met Anna. Sparks went off and the rest, as they say, is history. The universe had us on a fast track that neither of us was prepared for, but we were thrust into it nevertheless. I think we’ve done pretty darn well thus far.
One interesting story that I didn’t find out about until Anna was about six months pregnant, was about my mom watching Dancing with the Stars. My dad told me she and him used to watch DWTS and my mom’s favorite dancer was Anna. I had never seen the show and didn’t know that my parents watched it, so it was quite the shock to me. Once again, funny how the universe works…was my mom working some magic from the beyond?
The Death of My Father:
Anna and I went to visit my dad in St. Louis when she was six months pregnant. It was the first, and only, time she met him. We went to dinner a few times, and she got to chat with him quite a bit as he regaled her with stories of his youth when he dabbled in ballroom dancing, a hidden history of his revealed that I’d never heard before. One week later after we arrived back in LA, we got the call that he had died. Although he wasn’t in the best of health, he wasn’t experiencing any urgent major issues when we saw him, so it was still a shock.
It was another rough go for a month as the family dealt with yet another funeral, then handled the affairs one must manage when a parent dies. It’s an awful and horrible experience, although some part of it is cathartic.
Side Note: I highly recommend that everyone pre-pay and plan their own funerals so as to not burden your living loved ones with it while they are grieving your loss.
Anyway, Anna patiently supported from a distance, I didn’t want her to come and put any undue stress on her or the baby. That was a brutal month we both won’t soon forget.
They say as a man, when your father dies, it’s the final step in coming of age as your own man. I can see where that expression is coming from now. It felt like with the snap of a finger I was thrust into the position of family patriarch a mere few months prior to becoming a father. Heavy stuff to process with pressure to match, but we play the cards we’re dealt, right?
Becoming a Dad:
When Amalya was born, I was ready to be a dad, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you stare into the eyes of your child for the first time. It seismically shifted me, and especially on the coattails of losing my father, there was a roller coaster of feelings and thoughts to process. Anna and I took a step back from the industry for several months and focused on our family. I’m so glad we did that, it brought us closer together as a new family and helped me get my head screwed on straight.
Here’s a blog post I wrote on my first father’s day: https://nevinmillan.com/2014/06/15/first-fathers-day/
I knew I wanted to be a more involved father than my dad was, but would I be up to the task? Watching this tiny nugget turn into a little human and now a bonafide person with her own wants, needs, and desires is nothing short of magical. As much as I so wish my mom and dad could have met her, would I be as good of a father if I hadn’t gone through the pain of losing my parents? It’s a mind-bending conundrum with no real soothing answer, but nonetheless, definitely makes you think about life’s ups and downs and the grand scheme of it all.
You can read more about one of my parental experiences here: https://nevinmillan.com/2018/01/18/a-precious-moment/
Baby Number 2:
A few years later we welcomed our son, Kaspyan. Building the father-son relationship with him that I didn’t really have with my father has been one of the highlights of my life thus far.
While Amalya is more intense, and just like me – basically a mini-me, Kaspyan is more chill, and kind of the yin to my yang. While I’m enjoying every cuddly moment of the baby/toddler phase, I’m excited for when he’ll be old enough for us to have those man-to-man bonding experiences.
One thing about parenting nobody really tells you beforehand is that you learn as much about yourself and life in general as your kids learn from you, probably more. They’re absorbing so much every moment, learning about how the world works, but I swear I’m learning so much more every single day, and I love it. I’m one lucky man!
Here’s another parenting post about having a 2nd child: https://nevinmillan.com/2017/10/02/love-for-a-second-child/
The years in between those major life events I regrouped, recalibrated, adjusted to the new normal. There’s no doubt I’ve changed as a person, as an artist, and continue to evolve. So many lessons learned, so much life packed into a handful of years.
While I’m sad for those souls who’ve passed on, I’m so eternally grateful for our family and the amazing adventures we’ve had. I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings! Sending love and light to all my friends and family who’ve been there for me during the darkest hours, thick and thin, and into the light.
I want to share with you a beautiful moment between my daughter and I. A precious moment that I will not only cherish forever, but that makes one think about life, death, and the existential worlds before and after those events.
When I was still a grade-school youngster, my mother bought me a children’s book with a message I’m sure she had wanted to communicate to me, but perhaps wasn’t able to articulate it as well as the book did. The book goes through stages of life between a mother and son from the son’s infancy to adulthood and a repeated message of love from the mother to son. On the last page, the mother is dying and the son says the same message of love back to the mother. It’s a lovely sentiment and I cherish that book to this very day.
You see, my mother passed away almost 8 years ago. At the top of the many aspects of her death that tore me apart inside was the fact that I hadn’t given her grandchildren. It haunts me daily that she will never enjoy the laughs of my children. Attached to the pure joy of their laughter is a dark sliver of grief hovering deep inside, lurking within, disallowing the experience of full joy. Oh how I wish it would release.
I tried letting go of this book, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. When my daughter joined this world, as soon as she was old enough to comprehend it, I pulled it out and attempted to read it to her a few years ago. I couldn’t get past page 3 without breaking down into a sobbing mess. I’ve since brought the book out every so often, especially because she asks about it. Each time, I’m able to get a page or two further, but I still can’t get through it without being overcome with tears of pain and grief.
A few days ago she asked to read that book again. It had been awhile since the last attempt, and I was in a peppy mood so I thought I would give it a shot. Sure enough, my lip quivered around page 4 as I tried to hold it back, but about halfway through the book I fell over bawling. My sweet little girl, who turns 4 yrs old today, wanted to know why I was crying. “I miss my mama.” I told her. “Then go and see her.” she said with a matter-of-fact, child-like simplicity. If only…
We’ve tried explaining to her that my mom, her grandma, is “up in heaven” or that she’s “with God” and other nebulously existential descriptions. But it’s such a difficult concept to communicate to a toddler, we’re never sure on what level she’s comprehending. Her insatiable curiosity inevitably leads down some painful roads of conversation, but I do the best I can to give an answer and move on.
This time, however, there seemed to be a deeper level of knowing. She even tried to comfort me, sweetly putting her hand on my back saying, “It’s OK Papa, one day you’ll go to heaven and be with God and you’ll see your Mama.” Of course, this comforting only made my tears gush out harder. I’m crying now as I write this.
Two days later, after breakfast, she sat next to me on the sofa and said one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever heard.
“You know, last night when I was sleeping, your mama came to visit me.”
“Oh yeah?” I curiously replied.
“Yeah, and now she’s in my heart. She’s in my body now, with me.”
I hugged her and she went on with business as usual. However, I was left dumbfounded, in awe of this revelation. Could it have been a simple dream and this was her way of communicating that? Sure. But she never met my mom, nor have we watched any home videos or looked at a ton of photos of her yet…mostly because of the pain it causes me. Eventually we’ll get into that stuff, but my point is that she doesn’t really have a frame of reference to just “imagine” or conjur up her grandma in a dream.
Let me get even trippier with this.
For as far as I can remember, my mother was OBSESSED with N.D.E. or Near Death Experiences as well as Life After Death. She read countless books on those subjects. She watched documentaries, talk show appearances, life after death testimonies. Anything in that realm, she was into it. As she was dying, she told us she would come back and visit us, she was certain of it, not a twinkle of doubt as she expressed it.
Am I saying this is definitive proof of anything? Not really. But it’s yet another signal to me that there are indeed other forces at work that we don’t fully understand, label them in whatever way that floats your boat. Ancient and Indigenous cultures were more plugged into it than “modern” society is now. But there is no doubt in my mind that something special happened here, something difficult to articulate, but we can all sense it’s there. Like those times when you’re in that place between awake and dream, when you’re alone with your thoughts, when you’re staring up at the cosmos, when you think of your friend and they call you, when the song in your head comes on the radio, when you hear stories like the herd of elephants that traveled many miles for 12 hours to pay respects to the “Elephant Whisperer” who saved them years prior and had just passed away, when you feel you’re connected to everything and nothing all at once, that mystical sense that there is more out there than the eye can see. This moment was one of those times.
While I’m eternally sad that my children will never meet their paternal grandma on this plane of existence, I am starting to come around to having solace that perhaps they’ll experience her in other ways. And for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed the laugh of my child with all the joy that comes with it. Was this one last gift from my mom delivered from the other side? I can’t say for sure, but for now, that will do.