Each time I cross a monumental threshold, I think of them. Of her, mostly. Of the way she stood in my parent’s hall bathroom, the vent fan blasting.
It was the last stop before the garage and the car door. The last stop before whatever destination came next—a dance recital or a Friday night dinner or a Christmas mass.
She’d stand there, brush brush brushing my sister’s hair, freeing the knots. Kels hated it, yelling and protesting the whole time, but I know now that was love—pressing onward when you knew someone needed you, even if they couldn’t see it clearly themselves.
She would have been 75 today—one of those years you think about spending on the front porch, iced tea in hand, granddaughter by your side.
She would have been a fiery 75-year-old, freckles dotting her face and her arms and her legs.
Her white hair still in thick tufts along the nape of her neck, not falling to the floor, defenseless against the chemotherapy.
Her shoes on and her purse in her lap the moment any one of her grandchildren, anywhere, had something big happening—she was a front row resident, a lifetime cheerleader. She loved us good and hard—tough but deeply, deeply caring.
She would have cried when you told her you were getting married next year—to a boy who loves you just as much as she did, full and unapologetically.
She would have sat proudly in the front row, hands in her lap, tears at the corners of her eyes. She would have loved your father-in-law. His stories. His character. His beliefs about the world and his children and his own grandchildren.
She would have been beautiful that day.
You don’t think about all the days you’ll lose with her until they crop up—one by one. Graduations, first jobs, engagements, marriage, houses, children—her great grandchildren.
You don’t think about telling stories of this woman to all the people you’ll someday know and love—people who don’t even know what a bead of hope she was in this crazy messy world.
You remember her white hair, her romance novels, her chocolate desserts. You remember all the freckles, the ribbons she threaded into barrettes for you. You remember the week they told you you couldn’t come to the hospital, you had to go to school, but that the waiting would be over soon. The waiting, it would be over soon.
You remember the funeral, and you wish she could see you in your own dress.
She’ll be there. We’re lucky like that. We know she’ll be there.
When we lose people, there are some we know, without a doubt, will always scoot up front for the best seat in the house, to see us smile, start our own family, get ready to brush our own daughter’s hair.
Here or not, she’ll be there. She never wanted to miss a big moment. Couldn’t possibly stop now.
I thought about that, break lights in front of me all the way home tonight. I thought about whether that was a good thing, a bad thing, or just a true thing. This is not your happiest hour, I told myself. It just isn’t.
Friday, when the better part of the East Coast shuffles off to Happy Hour, you will be thinking about a girl in a room with a green sparkling leotard on, knees dry and cracking, palms sweaty, hair curling at the roots. You will think of her standing in a room, learning for the first time that she’s lost someone she deeply cares about, and you’ll pause. Wherever you are, at 7pm on Friday night, you will remember Friday, December 12, 2003. Friday, December 12, 2003. The perfect date – 12.12.03. 1+2 = 3. 1+2 = 3. You will be obsessed with dates and times, adding and subtracting them, and so, at thirteen, the perfect date will feel a lot less perfect.
I used to think I could only ever be angry, could only ever be sad. I had to gear myself up. I had to get real mad at God every year when I scrolled through the Facebook status updates, the photographs, all of us remembering a man who meant so much to us. To a group of girls in leotards.
Then, last summer, I met somebody who made me realize that might not be true. She had lost her daughter, decades ago, and each year, she remembered her. In the middle of her three boys, there was a girl, and I imagine she was beautiful, and full of life. I imagine it hurt like hell to lose her. It’s been years and years, and she still remembers, still makes a note to reflect, to say something about it, on her daughter’s birthday and the day she died.
For a while, I wondered if we stop. If we pause, and take a trash can, and empty our past into it, sit it out on the curb, and let our new relationships be untainted by what happened years ago. But we are who we are because a girl in a dress or a man in blue wind pants and a white polo helped us be a better person, for years and years after we lost them.
I was thirteen then. I lost my faith. I cried loud at his funeral, until my lungs ran out of breath, until my eyes ran out of tears. I cried through a full pack of tissues. Because I thought something monumental was happening – something was over. And it was, but something else would forever be beginning because of it.
My dreams continued, I pushed onward because he had always believed in me, I carried his lessons with me from team to team, from job to job, I paused on dark days and thought of him, his hope for me, his patience with me, and I knew I was blessed, for a short time in such a crucial stage of my life, to know a man who gave me wings when I didn’t believe I would ever be good enough to fly. He taught me that: we are all good enough to fly, even when we don’t see it ourselves.
And with that, I know, there is time yet for my happiest hour.
I lost a piece of my heart + soul in the back of that red Jeep Wrangler. It tumbled atop the stretch of I-95 along the central coast of Jersey. I don’t remember where we were headed that day, just that some cars hold hearts and some cars hold belongings and some cars hold precious precious cargo that feels like both.
That car felt like freedom for a little girl who often wore dresses on Sunday mornings and tripped up Sunday school stairs to find her mom chatting about Lent and the things we give & the things we give up.
That girl sat pretty and proper in the empty classroom while her mom chatted, and the other kids pushed through double glass doors, spilling into the sunbaked parking lot. They hoisted each other into caravan side doors. Cars revved and reversed and vroomed into the winding road away from God & his Lent, but she stayed. She stayed and they went, to find a chocolate frosted donut and greasy hash browns and steaming, milky coffee. Shoved God to the third row of seats, beneath collapsible dog crates and soccer cleats, while she patted her knees together and Mom kept chatting.
She was different, quiet. Other kids rubbed their faces with sticky sprinkled donuts and she held onto the taste of chocolate icing rimming her fingertips.
For her, God was a quiet man, a patient man, a man who looked at soccer cleats with grass & mud caked spikes, with dirtied Sunday school textbooks, and shook his head. A proper line, she thought. Walk a proper line and iron your skirts and never miss a Sunday school lesson and that is how you live. That is life.
That Jeep Wrangler felt free. It felt wild. It felt reckless.
Five years later, a red Jeep crashed on the side of a winding rural road, much like the ones she traced home after Sunday school. All infinities, she knew then, had endings. All rushes had to settle.
She curled back into that churchgoer self. She stayed quiet. She lost hope. She forgot that car crashes and Jeeps had everything to do with living a full live — not nothing, like she once thought. So instead, she quit things she loved. She set bravery aside. She apologized to herself, and others, for existing, for choosing silliness.
Ten years passed before she stopped walking with apologies. Ten years passed before she decided differently. Nobody, she said, nobody deserves to hold themselves quiet. We are rays of sun. We are stars at the end of someone’s life, especially if that someone dies too soon. We are bright and shiny and brave and important and God, we need that from you. God, we do.
“Stop holding memories and postcards and thank-you notes and text messages and start holding hands, running across the street before the orange DON’T WALK signal. Start boiling water for hot cocoa and sitting on a familiar sofa with familiar faces and cups with dancing tuxedo penguins warming my palms.”
“We all need someone to challenge us. In the cold, dark December days, we need light. In the hot, bright August afternoons, we need air. In the crisp, cool March mornings, we need sunlight. In the fierce September sunsets, we need warmth.”
“But that doesn’t happen. I am learning that doesn’t happen. When people care & bring you into their lives, you can’t skip around the dusty parts, the cracks and fault lines. You get it all. He got it all.”
“But they loved me once. We once swapped stories in my kitchen with the light dimmed over the table. We once dished ice cream into bowls or screamed at football games or danced on the bay window in my family room. We knew each other then. And so they get a Christmas card.”
“If we were brave souls, things would be different. We’d tell our loved ones that we really freaking love them, that the world gets loud and they keep the chaos from engulfing us whole. We’d tell them that daily. We’d whisper it and yell it and twirl around in the pasta aisle at Wegmans and say, “Yes, let’s make spaghetti and meatballs. Let’s make garlic bread with fresh garlic. Let’s grate our own cheese. Let’s stop worrying about the pounds on the scale and the weight on our hips and just be. Just freaking be.”
“It’s like the world is singing a song and the printer ran out of ink and so you are the only kid in the chorus risers who didn’t get a copy of the lyrics. And for what feels like a reason all separate and unrelated to how tall you stand, shoulders back, hands by your side, smile in your pocket.”
“I’d like to think that time is a thing to be won, a thing to be held, a thing to be saved. But it’s not. It’s a thing to be lost, under the sofa cushions and beneath the bed and behind the clothes dryer. It’s a thing to be wasted, sleeping into the afternoon and staying with people who don’t care about us, and standing stuck in ruts because it’s scarier to jump.”
“It wasn’t until months later, when autumn peaked its head out from under the covers of our grief, that we learned the truth: The leaves turned deep shades of red, just like the fire of her hair and her fight. We belly-laughed hard into the cold winter, trying not to find meaning in the way those leaves fell one by one to the ground, shedding like her white radiated hair just before she died.”
“Keep your joy in your pocket and your boy in your heart. Keep your heart in your hands and your hands on your hips and your hips ready to bump someone out of your life if they start trash talking the people you love.”
“But we grow up, and we become question marks at the end of someone else’s thickly scripted sentences. We become the commas that beg the Knowers and Truth Speakers to keep going, just trust us, just a little farther into the possibility that what I am is good and right and more than okay.”
“You’ll learn to apologize in diner booths and desolate parking lots. You’ll learn to look him in the eyes and say you are so very sorry. That being scared made you do terrible things. You’ll learn that hearts break because people die in car accidents, or move away, or leave for college, or graduate college, or stop answering your calls, and not all of those will be romantic losses. Not every crack will be a lost love story.”
“And so I can only hope they find happiness in moments instead of years, in hours and minutes instead of months, in the kindness of strangers who hold doors and wave you to make that left turn when you can’t quite see whether it’s safe. The crossed-off to-do list. The clean house. The freshly laundered sheets. The shoveled sidewalk.”
“Change was the tornado that flattened Joplin, Missouri and the earthquakes that leveled Japan and the hurricanes that washed away Louisiana and the planes that penetrated the Twin Towers and cancer that eroded my grandmother’s lungs. Change was the acceptance letter, but it was also the stuffed backseat and my best friends crying hard in my parents’ driveway at 7 a.m. It was the sinking feeling in my stomach.”
“Because, for a while, we were removed from the heartache that soon overtook us. We had already seen + felt too much, but we were trying so hard to be balloons overlooking the pain of the world for as long as we could float on.”
“Someday he’s going to hug the cotton of your sweatpants like the skimpiest summer sundress Target ever clearanced. He’s going to steady himself in the way you dance, barefeet on the kitchen floor, to the sound of corn being popped on the stove.”
“There is a triumph in being so acutely aware of the pain in this world, even when we squint at it from waiting room television screens, but pressing forward with the promise of fixing, cleaning, restoring + rewriting the future, the life, that waits for us the next time we take a step back.”
“When we’re 16 or 24, life feels like it’s spinning onward faster than we have time to process it. We read a book in two days and learn the way cancer feels like a ball and chain around our ankle. We wait for a school bus to load up with kids at the corner and watch a young girl bounding down the street, her mom running behind her with her backpack in tow, and we remember why love is the thing with wings.”
“That’s the thing I love most about their family: the busyness of working one or two jobs, full-time and then some, raking together money to buy cars and pay tuition and bills, to provide for the people they love so fiercely, all the while finding time for this monthly meeting of food and laughter.”
“What they don’t tell you about eating disorders is that when they happen, it feels like the worst kind of tug-of-war win. Your friends and family and health care providers stand at one end of the rope, pulling it taut toward them while you wrestle with what little energy you have to stay firmly planted far far away.”
“We are in a relationship with the things we say and do and imprint on the hearts of others—strangers and friends alike. And it is beautiful. And it is terrifying. And it has nothing to do with this new thing called “social media” and everything to do with being a human being who lives and breathes and walks outside and looks at someone else and speaks to someone else and tries to find the right words for someone else.”
“I had gone to the gym and slow-jogged a pathetic sixteen minutes and eighteen seconds before giving up. I had worn mid-shin socks with mesh shorts like some sort of preteen girl version of a lax bro and I was pretty much the least likely person to get asked on a date at that community clubhouse.”