Who the heck’s she talking about? I wondered after the words “middle aged” rolled off my doctor’s tongue. Thorough examination of the doctor’s office revealed that she and I were alone in the room, which meant she’d just called me “middle aged.”
No way. Nuh-uh. I mean, it’s only been, what? A decade since I graduated?
. . . from law school?
Still, a couple of months passed and I dismissed my doctor’s errant description. “Not yet. Got a few more years yet.”
And then. Then came my dear friend, 23 years of age, crashing in my living room after escaping a terrible relationship. She bubbled over with exciting stories about her days in her new state of residence. The stories alone made me want to crawl into bed as I interrupted her with admonitions for my son: “No, no, don’t eat that,” or “The dog is not a horse!”
She texted and talked with friends while I mapped out my grocery lists, cooked, and talked with my fiancee about exciting things like budgets and doctor visits.
It occurred to me I probably wasn’t quite as spry as I used to be, but I still wasn’t ready to don the title of “middle aged.”
And then. Then one of my dear friend’s girlfriends came to pick her up for a girl-date. As I dried my hands of dishwater, I introduced myself, saying, “You know, my doctor called me ‘middle aged’ recently. I didn’t buy it until just now, seeing you gals getting ready to go out just as I’m wondering which PJs to wear. In, oh, four minutes.”
They left looking shiny and vibrant in their cute clothing and perfect make-up. In their wake, I looked down at my comparatively frumpy clothing for a few seconds before my eyes landed on a stack of self-help books, conveniently located near a bag of clothing to drop by the dry cleaner.
So this is middle age, I thought. Somehow I imagined it’d be more depressing.
Do I creak a little more than I used to? Sure. Do I forego drinks because hangovers really aren’t worth it? Yup.
Do I miss five-inch heels and being out at 2 a.m.? Oh, hell no.
I’ve got way too many self-help books to read for that.
How do you define middle age? If you’ve already reached it, when did you realize you probably already had?
Thunder Thighs came home with me yesterday.
Yesterday I drove home with that representation in the passenger seat beside me, and thought about Thunder Thighs. Love. Laughter. How blessed I am to have an abundance of these things, even when my introversion sometimes–as now–make me yearn for more quiet time to recharge.
Although Thunder Thighs is my mom, and today is Mother’s Day in the U.S., mother’s love is only a small part of what’s in my heart today. The larger part belongs not to the love provided by any one person, but to any love provided by anyone who loves–not passively or from a distance, but actively with outreached hand, heart and time offered up to others.
Whether or not you hope to be a mother, once were a mother, are a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, or none of these things, I celebrate you today. I celebrate your acts of love and compassion. I celebrate your phone call to a friend, your donation to a shelter, your vigil with a friend whose father is dying, your care to a friend’s house when she is in the hospital, your watching a neighbor’s children so she can shop for groceries. I celebrate the light that you shine upon those within your vicinity, and thank goodness you are out there shining that light.
Upon my bedroom door there now hangs a reminder to cherish these things. My mom is no longer a phone call away, but there is love aplenty evidenced in each minute every day regardless.
Today I will look for loves’ signs, and I will celebrate each of them, no matter who originates any one of them.
No matter who or where you are,
may your day be full of love,
both received and given.
She didn’t tell me his name.
She didn’t tell me what he did for a living, or where he came from.
She tried not to talk about him much at all, which evoked mild curiosity but didn’t alarm me, even though I’d always known her prior boyfriends by no less than name, occupation, hobbies and demeanor.
It was only when my dear friend fell silent for weeks after dating the new guy that I started to feel a niggling sense of worry.
A gregarious, affable extrovert, she’d always been one to text dozens of times a day, and reply instantly to virtually any text message. I often felt guilty for replying so slowly to her texts; it can take me days or even weeks to reply to a single message.
When she failed to reply to several text messages over a few-week period, I started to worry. I texted her: I get nervous when you fall silent.
She wrote back that she’d moved several hours north of our hometown. When I read him her text message, my fiancee, Anthony, said, “She’s moving the wrong direction! She should be moving down here with us.” I said she’d probably moved with her boyfriend, versus moving just for fun, but relayed his message to her. She confirmed that she’d moved with her boyfriend, whose name I still didn’t know.
I thought, abusers try to isolate their partners. I promptly squashed the thought as the byproduct of an overactive imagination. She hadn’t said anything was wrong, apart from a mild case of moving blues.
A few weeks later, my friend called and told me her boyfriend had assaulted her. She was shocked and shaken, but had quickly arranged alternative lodging for herself.
“You should leave,” I told her. “I think it’s dangerous for you to stay. You can come stay with us for a little.” I coordinated parts of her departure with her, but worried she wouldn’t leave. It’s often much easier to continue enduring known hardship than embrace the idea of enduring unknown, unquantifiable hardships. Indeed, the human imagination for possible woes is endless, so that the unknown can end up seeming much more threatening than painful situations we’ve already shown ourselves we can survive.
When my friend called me a couple of days later and said she’d probably overreacted, I stressed that I didn’t feel she had. Still, she was determined to stay and prove she was strong enough to make a home in her new locale, with or without her boyfriend.
I sighed. I prayed. And I hoped to God she’d call me if anything else happened.
A week and a half ago, I felt a rare hankering to read non fiction. “What was that book El recommended me? And another guy called a life changer?” I loaded Goodreads to scan my to-be-read shelf for the book. “The Gift of Fear. Right,” I murmured to myself. “I’ll give that a shot.”
I downloaded it expecting to read it a chapter at a time as time permitted. I was instead instantly captivated by the author’s clear, articulate description of indicators violence may be imminent. Gavin de Becker‘s career is violence avoidance, which involves finding commonalities in violent incidents and, understanding their clear and almost universally repeated warning signals, helping clients avoid falling prey to violence.
He quickly identified and described predatorial behaviors that have unnerved me for some time, but which nervousness I’ve long suppressed as irrational, unreasonable or silly. (More on that in my Goodreads review.)
Most importantly, he dedicated a huge section of the book to identifying warnings of partner abuse. He stressed that partner abuse related homicide is the most easily averted, if people are willing to read and respond to its indicators.
I was chilled to read the signs, but glad to have the benefit of an expert’s insight.
It’s by understanding a possibility of a threat we can work to prevent it.
I read the book in a day and a half.
The day after I finished reading The Gift of Fear, my dear friend called me. She’d been attacked again. She’d fought back, but she was nervous.
“You should be,” I said. Unlike when we first spoke weeks earlier, my sense of warning signs wasn’t muddy or ambiguous. I didn’t feel like I was potentially making false accusations about her boyfriend by suggesting she was unsafe. “Listen, I just finished reading an amazing book that talks about warning signs of violence.” I told her about the author, and how he immediately puts the kibosh on the idea that most violence is unpredictable or without warning. I explained he’d devoted a huge portion of his book specifically to partner abuse to help reduce horrifying domestic abuse homicide rates. I asked if I could read her a list of risk signals the author had compiled just for situations like this. “If several of these apply to your situation, you’re likely at risk.”
She agreed, and I read through the whole list (paperback pp. 183-184), beginning:
- The woman has intuitive feelings that she is at risk.
- At the inception of the relationship, the man accelerated the pace, prematurely placing on the agenda such things as commitment, living together, and marriage.
- He resolves conflict with intimidation, bullying, and violence.
“Oh, my God,” she breathed after a several-second pause after I’d finished reading the list. “He’s done at least 25 of those things. At least.” She mentioned he’d even come at her with a gun. She said it almost as if an afterthought, but I was terrified on her behalf. I responded with an emotional entreaty.
“Leave. Please leave.” Since I don’t know much about the specifics of doing so safely, I looked up the local domestic violence hotline and urged her to contact them. She spoke briefly to a volunteer there, then arranged a meeting for the next morning.
As we said our good nights to each other via text message, I prayed she would be safe overnight . . . and then, that she would leave.
Uncertain what the future would hold, she cleaned out her apartment, quickly got her affairs in order, and left.
Four days later, she reached Southern California. She spent a night with a friend before showing up at my house. My son, Li’l D, was beyond excited to see his auntie. She read him some stories and assured him she’d be there when he awakened. In the morning, he wanted nothing to do with me. He wanted only his auntie.
After Li’l D was off to preschool, she updated her resume. She sent out more than a dozen resumes and had arranged her first interview within an hour.
Two days later, she rocked that interview; her job offer came only a couple of hours later.
Walking to the store a few minutes later, we shared our elation at how quickly tides can turn when we flow with them. “Just eight days ago,” we mused, “all seemed hopeless. And now, barely more than a week later, it’s sunshine, friends and a new job.”
There’s no telling for sure what might have happened if she’d stayed up north. Was bloodshed inevitable? There is no telling. Thanks to the clear, compelling guidance in The Gift of Fear, a whole set of terrifying could-have-beens became much-less-likely-to-bes.
Will everyone who considers leaving know they have a safe place to go, or find a job immediately? No. But the truth is, it’s only by leaving an abusive, violent situation that a person–usually a woman–will be better able to take her life to the natural end of its years, and to explore all the good that might yet be, if she can even haltingly accept that the certainty of abuse is not better than uncertainty that includes limitless hopeful possibilities.
If you or someone you know is experiencing partner abuse, or you even suspect it, please, please make use of these resources:
You could save a life, or even–if children are involved–many lives.
My twentieth birthday was a life-changer.
There were no epiphanies. No sudden, startling events that illuminated just how important the day would prove in the scheme of my life.
There was only a party–a movie party, to be precise. My sister took me to watch (or should I say, ignore?) terrible movies with her large group of nerdtastic, boisterous, crass guy friends. I was shocked and delighted by the guys’ shenanigans, but more so, how completely and immediately they accepted me. I’d never experienced that before, nor anything like it.
By the time I prepared to leave for South Korea a couple years later, I knew the guys. They knew me. They teased me incessantly but lovingly. I was at home with them, so much that I had mostly forgotten what it was like to be an island unto myself.
The evening of my farewell party, I was presented with a gift: a notebook in which all of my friends, some movie party and some not, had written out their recollections of and wishes for me. On the cover was a dragonfly drawn by my friend Piete, and inside were words that have inspired and sustained me for more than a decade since. Best of all were pages of sweet memories shared by my usually writing-averse friend Sarah, who taught me–and teaches me–better than anyone else I have ever known that friendship is in loving (if sometimes firm!) actions more than in any number of pretty words.
On my most recent trip to Oregon, Sarah, Piete and their twins joined my siblings and me for a romp to the park.
The kids were silly with tiredness as we walked home afterward. “Rock out!” my son shouted as he ran toward Uncle Piete.
With an impish smile, Uncle Piete replied, “Rock out with your chalk out!” I busted up laughing as my son, Li’l D, ran circles shouting, “Rock out with your chalk out! Rock out with your chalk out!”
The movie party felt alive in that moment. Those of us whose ages numbered in the double digits were still the kids we were back then, I saw, just with more experience, more love, and even a few kids of our own.
And now, our kids have each other.
I’ve missed Oregon more than usual recently, becoming downright melancholic at the thought of my family there–my siblings, my niece, my nephews, my godmom, Sarah, Piete and their kids. As if Li’l D can read my mind, it’s in these moments of missing that he grins and shouts, “Rock out with your chalk out!”
I can’t help but chuckle, a chuckle that bursts forth from deep within me. In that silly statement, past and present converge, as do my Oregon and California lives. My Oregon family is my California family, and I can hear all of its members so loudly with my heart that I don’t need to hear them with my ears.
I’ll be back in Oregon before long. I’ll be back with my movie party crew, exulting in the sight of the next generation playing and laughing together.
In the meantime, Oregon remains within me, shining out brightest of all when my son reminds me to rock out with my chalk out.
A few days ago, my sisters texted me that they’d be visiting my mom’s grave.
Why today? I wondered, before it hit me: I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten March 4 was the day my mom breathed her last breath. The day she was, as a text message I received March 4, 2010 stated, finally at peace.
I felt terrible. How could I have forgotten? How could I have failed to mark such a hugely important day?
A message from my friend Emily helped me see things a little clearer. At Joshua Tree the weekend before, she’d made a point to have our friend Briel take tons of oops-I’m-falling-off-a-cliff pictures meant to make her mom–who had helped deliver my son into this world–break into a sweat. Every time Emily posed, I giggled, remembering how I used to (mostly) lovingly push my mom’s buttons just because I could. And I remembered my mom, too.
My mom, whose mischievous ways meant she sometimes couldn’t understand how she’d raised such straight-laced children. Who took my brother out for ice cream the only time he got detention. “One of my kids has it in him!” she rejoiced.
Who once pierced her belly button, exclaiming mirthfully, “This way I’m rebellious and no one at church has to know!”
Who always made me giggle when she busted out her superhero antics, and made me want to be a superhero, too.
On Monday, Emily delivered the photoshopped cherry on her panic-picture pie:
I laughed from my belly when I saw it. As I laughed, I felt like my mom was chuckling with me. “I like this girl!” I could hear her saying.
Later in the evening, I got choked up when my sisters sent me pictures of my niece and nephew standing on Mom’s grave. I cried while walking the dog later still, feeling guilty anew to have forgotten. After a few minutes of sniffling self flagellation, I revisited something I’d written earlier in the day:
Feel terrible that I forgot it’s been three years today since Mom died. Feel glad, too; better to remember life & birthdays than a death day.
Seeing those words, I wiped off my tears, loaded Emily’s picture again, and giggled. Again.
Just like that, my mom felt near . . . nearer by far in the laughter than the tears.
Sometimes it seems there is a huge divide between the silliness of my day to day life and the seriousness of this blog. To help restore a little balance, here is an image of real-me, real-now. I do so love being ridiculous!
Photo courtesy Elsha
Thanks to What I Had Really Meant to Say for this opportunity to visit with hope today as part of the Hope 2012 blog relay.
The summer my mom snapped, I didn’t understand “hope.”
What I understood that summer was that I might never talk to my mom again. That the resources available to assist the mentally ill and their loved ones were woefully inadequate. That a woman could struggle through hardship after hardship only to find new hardships where at least one iota of peace ought have been.
I pieced hope together slowly over the years that followed. Shopping for hardware with my boyfriend one Mother’s Day, I found a colorful card that reminded me of my mom. I wrote on it that she’d always been a little colorful, but that her colors made the world brighter and richer. I delivered the card to her house only to have her scream and wave a shovel at me.
My boyfriend held one of my hands in both of his own as I cried in the front seat of his car. But I, like my siblings, kept at it. I believed something might happen to change the game tomorrow, or the day after it.
I passed by my mom on a run a couple of years later. Instead of screaming at me, she told me about all the neighborhood squirrels she was caring for. I slowed my run so I could accompany her all the way to the town’s bus station. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment like that, so I wanted to prolong and savor it.
Hope came a little easier after that.
Conversations were a little stilted when they happened, and my mom still occasionally accused her neighbors–and her children–of bizarre crimes, but conversations did happen. It seemed, after years of struggling, we might be getting somewhere.
Then, in the middle of 2009, my sister Rache called to tell me Mom’s doctor was concerned our mom might have “the C word.” My sister couldn’t even say it the first couple of times we spoke about Mom’s early appointments, so that I misunderstood what “C word” we were talking about. It hit me like a train to the stomach when Rache finally said the word: “cancer.”
That evening, I wrote my dearest friend:
I feel like I lost my mom several years ago, so I didn’t think it was possible to feel greater sorrow on that front. But hearing that physical death may also be imminent, it’s clear there are degrees of loss. Intellectually, I understand that there’s very little hope my mom as she existed while I grew up could be regained. Apparently, though, my heart has been holding onto hope that there might be some movement that direction. With physical death, what once was and what is now are all wrapped up neatly and concluded, with no chance of semi-happy endings.
When my mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, I was devastated. For years, I had hoped, and that hope had been destroyed by a single word spoken in a single second.
I thought and thought, and I fought with myself over what was and wasn’t reasonable in light of my mom’s diagnosis.
I’d trained myself to hope. I couldn’t not hope. So what, then, could I hope for?
I hoped that my mom would live long enough to meet her first grandchild, with whom I was seven months pregnant. It was a hope replete with moments of agony and frustration that I should be limited to such a small and fleeting hope, but I clung to it. I needed it to sustain me.
My son was born. Tickets home were purchased. My mom held her grandson.
She hated how she looked, but I saw only the love.
After my mom met my son, I invested my hope in the possibility of my mom’s recovery. And yet, there came a time where it was clear that hope would not be translated to truth.
I hoped my mom would get to see my son again, but I was struggling. It was easier to tell myself to hope than to actually tend to its tiny embers and set them full aflame again.
My mom did see my son again. He brought her great joy through suffering written so clearly on her face that I couldn’t help but feel its echoes, and despair.
He brought her so much joy that, occasionally, she’d grit her teeth and try climbing unsteadily from her bed, saying, “I will survive. I will live and see him grow up. I will meet my other grandkids.”
I would smile at her and try to calm her enough to get her back in bed, and then retreat to the cold bedroom down the hall and cry, and cry, and cry.
I didn’t know what to hope, but I knew better than to share that fleeting, wild hope of hers.
A week after the last time she told me this, I wrote my friends a letter that began:
At 2:35pm yesterday, my mother breathed her last breath in the loving arms of my sisters.
The letter described many things that brought me joy, and great love for those who’d helped me through the last months of my mom’s life. What it didn’t describe was hope, for I felt hopeless, even as I wrapped up that letter thusly:
Next October 30, I will celebrate alone the birthday I shared with my mother. But she’ll be in my heart, and the gifts she bestowed upon me will carry her spirit forward in my every action, every day.
At my mom’s memorial, I caught sight of my son sleeping and felt the slightest stirrings of hope.
My mom’s final chapter had been written, but my tiny man’s life had so many chapters remaining. Imagining those chapters filled me with joy that couldn’t be touched by words, and kindled those stirrings so they began to take on their own vibrance.
As I worked with my siblings to clean out my mom’s house, I thought about all the chapters remaining my son. I saw that I, too, had many chapters left in my own life.
I chose hope. Even as I bawled, and cursed, and listened to music I hated to know my mom would never hear again, I chose to believe that there was good ahead.
I would edit one of my books. I would nurture my son’s passions. I would lend a hand to others as often as I could. I would focus not on what had been taken away from me, and the inevitability that still more would be taken away from me with time, but on all the possibilities left open to me, my son, and my loved ones. They were so, so many.
In August 2009, I believed hope was lost. In August 2012, I see that hope was simply hiding then. She was clenched tightly to herself, nestled deep within me, keeping herself safe until once again free to expand to fill me.
Hope has since unfurled and stretched herself into every piece of my life. Sometimes she retreats, but I know she will find her way back to me, and I to her. She needs me to give her my voice in this world; I need her to remember why I have a voice, and how to use it.
Hope was never lost to me. She just needed to be freed from the constraint of being tied to one place, to one situation, or to one person; for, indeed, she thrives best of all when her feet are untethered and she is allowed to wander as free and far as the human imagination extends.
Instructions for Hope 2012: A blog relay
Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.
Melanie Crutchfield will be holding “Closing Ceremonies” around August 10 and will gather up little snippets from people that wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay
I call on:
Mackenzie (Brights Strange Things) means many things to me: late nights listening to Gary Jules and Common Rotation at the Hotel Cafe. Long drives up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in which we talked about everything under the sun. Improvised text message verses to the Common Rotation song “Fortunate.” Awesome book covers for my novels. The goodness of knowing–through having been there and done that, countless times over–I can safely tell her anything without her thinking less or more of me because she already sees and loves me exactly as I am.
It’s been eight years since we lived in the same town and a year since our last visit, but Mack is an ever-present feeling of love in my heart. I think you’ll see why as you read her words below.
Recommended post: Born to Be Free
The Pogues and Parcheesi and afternoon strolls through IKEA
There are many things which have come easily to me, in the course of my life. I took pretty effortlessly to drawing things, and writing, and getting through school with an absolute bare minimum of effort, and I am also, for the record, pretty good at knitting potholders. Things that I am not so much good at include talking, telephones, arguments, coping with ghastly color schemes, and anything to do with relationships of any kind.
It’s not like I was a feral child raised by particularly unsociable dingoes, but it is fair to say that my family could’ve formed our own local chapter of Hermits United. During my formative years, when my classmates were learning how to strengthen or destroy friendships, fomenting drama amongst themselves, and taking every opportunity to practice their fornicating (I’m rather sad I missed out on that part), I was lost in my own mental worlds, for the most part content to completely avoid any sort of human interaction. I had a few friends, certainly, and was on good terms with pretty much my entire graduating class, but I had made a strong and early habit of keeping everyone at arm’s length. I also had what I then would’ve called “quirks” and my mom called “moodiness” which I now would probably classify as an amount of anxiety verging on clinical disorder. These and other factors are why, when I decided to move away from home and across the country after high school, things did not always go well.
It wasn’t that I was stupid. It was just that I was about as well-equipped for independent adult life as a penguin is equipped to survive in Death Valley.
Luckily, I had T. T was my first roommate, and probably my first truly close friend. T is older than I am, and to say that her experience of the world is somewhat broader is a vast understatement. She was well traveled and had gone to college and for some reason random strangers really liked to just walk up and talk to her, whereas I’d never even eaten at a real Mexican restaurant. T invited me to parties, towed me along to dinners, got me out of the apartment and generally did her best to socialize me. It was a fairly thankless job. I was walking social strychnine and I wasn’t always easy to live with, either. I was largely oblivious to everything from basic social cues to table manners to flatsharing etiquette. And yet, somehow, even at her most exasperated, T managed to gently cajole me toward adulthood without making me feel like I couldn’t also be myself.
When Deborah started this guest post series on thankfulness and gratitude, and asked me if I’d be interested in writing something, I thought of T first. Although we’d lost touch over the years, I still thought of her often, and by crazy random happenstance, right around the time I started writing this post, T tracked me down and got in touch again. I was delighted to hear from her, though everything I’ve had to say seems inadequate while “you’re my hero” kind of sounds like an invitation for a restraining order. Hopefully she still knows me well enough to know that if this blog is the best I can do for love letter and apology, that it’s only because I’m still a little emotionally stunted.
In those years of relative silence I’d often contemplated writing T to tell her how much she changed my life, and that I couldn’t think of a single thing I was more intensely grateful for than the friendship that she — and her own very gracious friends — had extended to me at a time when I needed it most, when things could’ve gone either way, when my choices really were to join the human race or to shut myself away from it. The changes she began laid the foundations for the person I became and am in the process of becoming. Because of T, I began to learn the tentative skills that helped me build all of the friendships that came after. And each of those people has also helped to shape me as a person in large and small ways. I carry some little piece of each of them with me, in the form of a memory, a song, a moment, a lesson, a turn of phrase, a regret, an old pain, a fresh joy.
So when you ask what I’m thankful for, I’ll tell you that I’m thankful for friendship and the way it grows, taking root in each part of a person and holding the center together. I’m thankful for The Pogues and Parcheesi and afternoon strolls through IKEA. I’m thankful for sweet potato fries, Hard Core Logo and impromptu cooking lessons. I’m thankful for cold drinks on the deck and a quiet conversation in the hay loft and messages from people who are half a world away but still so close by. I’m thankful for crashing on couches and laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe and knowing what it feels like to miss somebody when they aren’t there. I’m thankful for long meandering conversations from the driver’s seat and the crush of a crowded club and feeling that I can say anything, anything at all, and still be loved, always be loved, because there is no end to a thing that becomes a part of you.
I’m thankful for every minute of every day that another human being, motivated by nothing but kindness and love and camaraderie, reminds me that the only way to fail at life is choosing not to live it.
As I type this, I have nearly 100% less hair than I did the last time I posted.
My progression toward baldness began with reading the post “Blissfully Bald,” in which my friend Chris (From the Bungalow) announced that he and his wife, Karin (Pinwheels and Poppies), would be shaving their heads for St. Baldrick’s. Their inspiration, Donna’s Cancer Story, chronicled one girl’s 31-month battle with cancer.
I’d seen references to Donna’s Cancer Story since September, but it seemed like such a commitment to follow a 31-day blog series. Also, really depressing. I couldn’t imagine a more depressing read.
After reading “Blissfully Bald,” I knew I’d have to read Donna’s Cancer Story. That Friday evening, I settled in and began reading about Donna.
I cried. Oh, how I cried. But I also felt barriers between me and others removed by growing understanding. Through Mary Tyler Mom‘s open, raw descriptions of her daughter Donna’s life with cancer, “them” became “us.” “Those parents” became “someone who could be me”; the children, “someone who could be my son.”
My world grew simultaneously smaller and larger.
As a writer, I (naturally) had to write my way toward clarity. I did so in my post “On bald heads & being unending.” I let people know where they could donate to team Blissfully Bald.
On Valentine’s Day, following a prompt from Chris, I joined an abundance of bloggers in writing about the March head-shaving event in which Chris and Karin would be shaving their heads. I knew I’d be in Chicago for the event, as well as to catch up with my old friend Dana, but I had no idea I’d end up joining team Blissfully Bald.
On March 11, Chris sent an email including the following paragraph:
I just wanted to mention that anyone can join our team or Team Donna! If you are/will be in the Chicago area on March 24th, we’d love to see you. And if you decided to join our team as a shavee, well, we’d love you forever.
“Damn it, Chris,” I muttered.
Once thoughts like that get in my brain, it’s hard to make them go away. Typically they’ll only do so if I do something like sign up. Which I did the next day.
I’d like to say mine was a really considered choice, but it wasn’t. There were little fragments of thoughts here and there, but mostly it was a gut choice inspired by a girl named Donna who’s been in my mind and heart every day since I read her cancer story over a 12-hour period.
I wrote about my decision to join team Blissfully Bald here. It still didn’t feel like a huge decision, exactly. Just something I was doing.
Then I started reading the comments, both on the blog and on my Facebook page. I learned about more people who’d fought or continue to fight cancer and was bowled over. What started as “something I’d be doing for Donna in a few days” became something all-consuming. Something that I felt bound me so much more powerfully to this world, and to the hearts of others. Beautiful, inspired, inspiring hearts.
The days flew by. I found myself in Chicago. I was a little nervous, but a lot excited.
I got to meet Katy (I Want a Dumpster Baby), whom I instantly loved every bit as much as I thought I would.
By the time we parted ways, I felt like I’d known her forever. Indeed, my heart continues to insist it has.
That evening, I met my teammates. Like Katy, I loved (and laughed with!) them immediately, and couldn’t believe for a second we’d only just met.
By the time Chris and Karin collected me the next morning, I was feeling anything but collected. I’d had a rough night’s sleep, imagining everything that could go wrong the next day and fearing what I couldn’t imagine–in other words, everything about the event.
As we ate lunch just before the event, my anxiety had a direct line to my bladder, which it used to send me scrambling to the bathroom four times in an hour and a half.
Arriving at the event venue, the very place where Donna had celebrated each of her birthdays, I found my nerves instantly soothed. I looked into the faces of others who’d soon be shaving their heads as well as those cheering the shavees on and knew I was safe. I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening, but I knew I’d be fine if it did.
We met Mary Tyler Mom. I wanted to crush her with hugs and tell her how much she’d changed my life with her words, but instead simply hugged her.
We chatted. We schmoozed. We checked out the haps. We hugged Katy lots when she arrived.
Chris was one of the first to get his head shaved.
Karin followed soon after.
My slot was an hour and a half after Karin’s. I was impatient for its arrival, but needn’t have been. It came quickly.
What I’d built up in my head to a momentous, earth-shattering thing was instead quick. Painless. Hardly noteworthy.
My hair was divided into four ponytails I’ll (hopefully) donate to Locks of Love.
Each ponytail was clipped.
My hair was cut.
My head was shaved.
I beamed the whole time. Just beamed.
When I stood in front of a bathroom mirror a couple of minutes later and took in the change, impossibly, I found myself smiling wider still.
I was seeing me. Me unconcealed.
By the time my friend Dana arrived, fresh in from Ireland, I must’ve rubbed my head 100 times already.
Dana returned my sock puppet Arrrgyle, who’d visited Ireland with her for reasons described here, but demanded a picture in exchange.
Dana, her honey and I left the Candlelite shortly afterward, but we had time for a few more pictures first.
By the time I returned to my hotel around 8 p.m., full up on Indian food, I was equal parts exhausted and happy.
I’d started out the day so anxious I was shaking, only to conclude the day so calm I could’ve given 90% of my calm away and still been feeling just dandy.
In the morning it had seemed like such a huge thing to be shaving off my hair, not just for me but for the people whose loved ones’ names I held in my hands (on a couple pieces of paper) and heart throughout the day.
By the evening, it seemed such a small offering. A token, or one-tenth of one, especially in comparison to all those who’ve lost their hair in the hopes that doing so would allow them to only lose their hair.
My baldness pales by compare, but I hope that someone, somewhere, someday will know greater health because of my small step toward conquering cancer. I wish everyone, everywhere could know that health now, but that’s outside the power of any one individual. Real progress will be in the accumulation of all our small steps, one added to the other added to the other.
My steps were small, but in the right direction, and taken with arms linked through those of so many other steppers, each of whose steps take might different forms, but all of whose steps leads us toward a brighter world less full of needless loss.
It’s thinking of all those steps we’re taking together, with arms and hearts linked, that I leave Chicago not only bald, but blissfully bald.
- Read Karin’s account at My Tale of Baldness, Bliss, Magic, and Cheese Sandwiches.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.
Although this post begins with a tragedy, it is a post about hope.
I was thrift store hopping in 2003 when I missed a call from a girlfriend. Stepping out from the thrift store I’d been shopping at, I dialed my voicemail access number. I knew something was wrong when my new voicemail began not with “Hi, Debbie!” but “Oh, Deb.”
Only a handful of seconds later, I sank to the sidewalk and thought, “No. No, this is a terrible joke. This can’t have happened.”
But it had.
Months later, I continued to struggle with how suddenly lives could be ended. I found solace only in my long nighttime runs, during which my thoughts ran even further and wider than my legs.
One evening shortly before the 2004 marathon that would be my first, I noticed a car passing by me slowly and repeatedly. I started getting anxious about how dark it was, how long it had been since I’d seen another person, how if someone managed to get me into their car, there’d be no one around to notice.
I ran in the direction of the nearest police station and I prayed. The car fell away, eventually, but the adrenaline didn’t.
I wondered about what would have happened if the ending there had been different. Would my friends remember me for all the happy memories we shared, or would they remember only how my life ended?
The thought horrified me. As I wept while running homeward, I thought over and over again: We are so much more than the ways that we end.
Afterward, I endeavored to remember those who had died not for how their lives concluded, but for who they were while they lived. For their lives.
And yet, when my friend Karin began daily posting links to a blog series about a young girl’s struggle with cancer, I thought, “Gah, why would I want to read so extensively about a girl’s death?”
It was only when I read Karin’s husband Chris’s Freshly Pressed entry about why they are going “Blissfully Bald” that I understood just how much I had misunderstood. This wasn’t a story about a girl’s death to cancer.
It was a story about a girl’s life.
As I read Chris’s post, I knew I’d have to read Donna’s Cancer Story. If her life story had moved him so, so very much that this post flowed from its reading, I had to experience it myself.
Friday evening, I started reading her story.
Saturday morning, vision blurred from crying, I finished reading it.
Notice what I did there? I didn’t say I finished the story. I said “I finished reading it.”
That’s because Donna lives on in the things we do to remember her.
On March 24, my dear friends Chris and Karin, subjects of my first stick figure animation, will shave their heads to raise money for St. Baldrick’s. I’ve donated, which you can do via the “Blissfully Bald” link below. I’ve tweeted. I’ve posted it on Facebook. Now, I must share their fundraising efforts here, in the place I’m freest to explain everything they mean to me.
It’s been almost two years since my mom died of cancer. I remember daily the strength I feigned to cover the helplessness of watching her fade.
I remember deciding to run a half-marathon to raise money in her memory. It wouldn’t bring her back, but it was something I could do.
When you’re watching cancer steal away someone you love, there is painfully, wretchedly little you can do.
In running, I found a way to look forward instead of backward. I couldn’t bring my mom back, but I could take very literal steps toward ensuring someone else’s life didn’t end the same way.
So I ran, with my siblings, for Mom. When we were done, we placed our congratulatory roses on her headstone, and I felt a fluttering of peace. It faded quickly, but feeling it made me know it was a beginning. It was another step in the right direction.
This afternoon, as I drove home from brunch with girlfriends, I marveled at how deeply interconnected are things and lives whose connections we can’t always see: a pediatric cancer charity, a dojo, my mom, a scary encounter running, a pair of Michigan bloggers, and a little girl who filled the world with so much brilliance in the four years she was given to do so.
I thought about the 21-year-old woman the memory of whom inspired the memorial scholarship that enabled me to finish law school. I recently sent a note, via the law school, to let her family know that she continues to inspire me, although I never met her.
I remain grateful to this woman, and the family whose steps to remember her so tangibly impacted me. My life would not be what it is today but for her blessed memory.
Our bodies will cease. That is inevitable. But we will live on in the hearts of those who shared the journey with us, and whose lives we touched with our actions. In the hope that we helped build through these actions.
It’s thus I leave you with the words I shared on Facebook right after finishing reading Donna’s Cancer Story:
Last night I started reading Mary Tyler Mom‘s blog series “Donna’s Cancer Story.” This morning, through tears so abundant it was hard to see, I finished it.
I hope you’ll consider reading the series yourself, someday if not today. But if you don’t think you can read the whole thing, I’d recommend you read this last entry. It’s full of thoughts about what you can do to help Donna live on in the good things you do today.
If you are able to donate to From the Bungalow‘s team “Blissfully Bald,” that’s one thing. There are many more that don’t cost a thing but will help make life easier or brighter for someone else. Check out Donna’s Good Things for more on this, even if you don’t read this entry or the series.
Like its name suggests, it is full of good things, but there’s always room for more.
After I post this, I’ll greet my little man for the day, and be grateful. And I’ll remember these words, this morning and always, as well as the little girl whose story brought them to me:
“Choose hope. Live until you die.”
In doing so, you’ll live on further still in the memory of those blessed to love and have been loved by you.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.