The other day I came across an article shared on Facebook written by a young girl who lost her best friend during high school. I timidly clicked the link, knowing there would likely be tears in my near future. But instead of crying, I finished the article with a smile on my face and my own thoughts on what it’s like to go on living after tragedy. So that is what brought me back here – months and months after my last post – to share a more truthful version of my life than most of you have probably seen in the past 2 1/2 years. (click here to read her article. keep scrolling to read mine)
In April of 2014, I lost my best friend. In the height of our busy lives, we’d grown apart, but Anne Marie was the kind of friend that could go weeks or months without speaking and we’d pick right back up where we left off, each of us innately knowing what the other had been through without having to say it. Her sudden and heartbreaking death cut straight to my soul. A piece of my being was gone.
Then, just as the pain of losing her was easing up, my dad passed away unexpectedly. Well, not completely unexpected – but sooner than I was ready for and in a more tragic way that I can even put into words. Alone. Sick. Sad. Peaceful. I thought that was rock bottom. That life had given my fair share of pain and things were going to start looking up. But a month later my mom was in the ER, failing to thrive and unable to care for herself. She would spend the next 2 months in a nursing facility, and I would spend the next 6 managing her life from afar and worrying that any day she would give up the fight and die on me, too. Luckily, she pulled through and is back on the track of living again.
Throw all of this on top of being a new parent, changing jobs, and another complicated family situation, and it sounds like a recipe for personal breakdown. But anyone that is close to me knows that I deal with things by elevating the good and suppressing the bad. I bury hurt and pain down deep inside and put on a smile, choosing to focus on what is going well in my life. I tend to live by the motto: Feel it. If you don’t like that way it feels, change it if you can. If you can’t, move on.
But that article made me stop and think…what did I really go through these past months and years? Should I share my feelings and stories, too? Obviously I decided to share, and here it is (some of it, anyway).
The Sad. The Bad. The Ugly.
Time stands still.
I’ll never forget where I was when I got each of the calls. When Anne Marie died, I was upstairs in my bedroom when my phone rang. It was a friend that doesn’t call that often, so I was instantly on guard thinking something was wrong. When she shared the news, my body reacted before my mind and I was somehow instantly in my closet, sitting on the floor with my knees hugged to my chest. I hung up and dialed her cell – voicemail. I dialed her parents’ landline from memory. “She’s gone.” The shortest sentence, spoken in a voice that only Momma Lisa could have had in that moment: strong, sad, comforting, factual.
When my brother called me in the middle of the afternoon on a Monday, I thought he just wanted to chat about the great weekend we’d had celebrating my Grammy. I was sitting at my desk and spun my chair around the look out the window as I picked up his call. When I heard his voice, I knew something wasn’t right. And when he gave me the news, my left hand clenched my shirt over my heart, as if it could somehow stop it from beating. The tears fell, the snot came, and my cubicle neighbor peeked over to check on me. I was hunched over in my chair, rocking back and forth. I walked to my car stoically, just praying that I would somehow be invisible to anybody that passed me.
These two moments now overshadow all of the better moments that I had with two of my most favorite people in the world. These are the moments when time stopped and I physically felt my world crashing around me.
My guardian angels
There are triggers everywhere.
I knew there would be memories of my dad scattered throughout my daily life. He had, of course, been a part of it for more than 2/3 of my life. But what I wasn’t prepared for where the subtle reminders of him. Like the way my father-in-law refuses to bring reading glasses to a restaurant and then can’t read the menu – just like my dad used to. Or when I would run into a guy a work who could be my dad’s doppelganger. When I hear a story about someone with a broken collar bone, I can just hear my dad telling us the story about how he broke his. Or when I see my dad’s best friend out to dinner with another friend – and all I can think about it that it should be him. Possibly the most surprising for me has been when my handwriting slips in to ALL CAPS and I can see his messy writing coming through in my own (capital E’s without the vertical line, S’s that look like Z’s).
All of these things bring to mind things I took for granted about my dad. Things I want my son to know about my dad. Things I want to remember about my dad. If I tried to shelter myself from all the triggers that might cause me to feel sadness or pain, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. Which would probably make my back hurt. Which would make me think of him. Which would negate the purpose of staying in bed. So instead, I’ve learned to embrace the triggers and the memories that go along with them.
I’m an ugly crier.
A seriously ugly crier. My face, especially around my mouth and nose, gets all splotchy and red. Snot immediately begins pouring out of my nose. My shoulders start to spasm and my whole upper body beings to convulse. It’s not pretty, but I’ve realized that crying is one of the those universal languages that everyone understands. Not everyone is fluent or speak it the same way, but even single human being knows that if you’re crying, you’ve got something going on.
I realized this at the Sprint store when I went to get a new phone. The sales guy was extremely helpful in getting all my contacts, pictures, etc. switched over, then handed me my old phone back for one last pass through before wiping it out. That’s when I saw it. A voicemail from Anne Marie from 2 weeks before her death – the one she left me, which turned into the last conversation I would ever have with her. It was my last living piece of her. Her voice saying “Hey girlie, it’s me. I really need to, umm, talk to you, so, umm, call me back please.” I looked up and asked if there was a way to transfer a voicemail to my new phone. He saw the tears and knew his answer was not going to be the one I wanted or needed. I listened to her voice one last time, and then traded my old phone for the tissue he was extending. I managed to pull it together and finish my transaction, but it had happened. An unsuspecting stranger had seen my ugly cry. And we both survived.
Be in control.
Although I am often guilty of attempting it, it is impossible to control everything that happens in your life. You can’t control events, emotions, what other people say or do. Things happen that you won’t like, didn’t plan, or couldn’t imagine. And that’s OK. Even when it feels like it’s not.
Like the writer of the article above says, “All of your feelings are valid. Every single one of them.”
But a big part of who I am and what I believe is focusing on what I can control. I can control my reactions to my emotions. I can control how extreme my feelings get. I can control the things that make me feel that way. And I can even change the emotions that are triggered by the same thing. Like in this story…
We used some of the money I got from my dad’s life’s savings to remodel our kitchen. At first, I was really excited that we could finally afford to do the major overhaul we’d been wanting to do in that room, instead of just some cosmetic things. We finalized all the details and the contractor started work. When it was finished, it was even more beautiful that I’d imagined. I quickly put a picture on the mantel of me and my dad from my wedding day. And that was when the sadness hit. For months, every time I stepped into my new kitchen, I felt like crying. I put on a happy face because I really do love our new space. But on the inside, this new kitchen was a beautifully painful reminder of the major loss my life had just experienced. Then one day Adam helped me realize that my dad would be really proud of us for doing something so beautiful and making a smart investment in our home. So now, whenever I start to feel a tinge of sadness, I look at the picture on the mantel and imagine that my dad is as proud of me right now as he was on the day that photo was taken.
The best stories are the ones that are told.
Did you ever have a night with your friends that was just so crazy that nobody would believe it? I’ve had more than my fair share. And looking back on those times, often the best part of it is telling the story to somebody else – or to each other again and again. Each time, the story comes back to life, probably gets exaggerated a little bit more, and always brings back fond memories. Some of them may only make sense to those that were there, but most of them bring on uncontrollable laughter.
I have picture of Anne Marie on my desk and every time B sees it, he grabs it and asks who it is. I tell him she is mommy’s best friend and that she died a couple years ago. The other night, when I was tucking him into bed, he had a huge booger in his nose. I said to him “Let me get that bat out of your cave”, which made him erupt with giggles. “I don’t have bats in my cave! What does that mean, mommy?” I explained that Anne Marie would always come up to me, tilt her head back, and ask if she had any bats in her cave (boogers in her nose). Hearing B giggle at our inside joke made my insides lite up with joy, and a little sadness. Sadness for missing her so much, but also because I realized just how many stories I have yet to tell him about my dear friend. Some of them will have to wait until he’s a little older, but I plan on telling him all of the crazy things Anne Marie and I did in our 20 year friendship.
As cliché as it sounds, life does go on.
My life changed and time stopped in the moments surrounding Anne Marie’s and my dad’s deaths, but while that was happening, both my life and time also continued moving forward. My husband and son weren’t going to stop needing me just because I was grieving. My job wasn’t going to lighten my workload. My house wasn’t going to clean itself (although somebody seriously needs to invent that – I could really use something like Rosie from the Jetsons). And it turns out, my family and my job are really happy parts of my life. So getting back into the grove with those aspects was a major part of my healing process. I’m not saying I’m totally past the grieving phase – I started bawling just the other day when B put one of his toy tubs on his head and said “I’m a bucket head!” and I’ll never be able to listen to New Kids on the Block without some tears – but focusing on being the best wife, mother, and person I can be has helped me get past the hard parts and move me through the difficult days. And having all of you around to support me is pretty awesome, too.