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My first political debate took place in the back of the school bus in First Grade. My friend and I had started arguing about the upcoming election. We were going at it pretty hard over Reagan v Carter. We were spitting out words and throwing around phrases we had heard but didn’t really understand. But we both sat firmly in our separate corners, glaring at each other and sizing each other up.

It got a little intense. Other kids joined in and took his side. I was alone. It became clear that I was the only person on team Carter. They were yelling at me about the Iran Hostage Crisis and the gas shortage. I felt myself shrinking into my seat. Mercifully the bus brakes squeaked and I was able to make my clumsy exit. I walked home with tears stinging my eyes.

The next day I got on the bus and sat next to my friend and we were back to making plans to catch crawdads in the creek that weekend. The harsh words and heat of yesterday’s debate was forgotten as we compared scuffs and scrapes from our most recent bike accidents (that were accidentally on purpose to get the scars that we wore like a badge of honor.)

I still care about politics. But these days I avoid the debates. College was the last time I felt free to engage in the healthy exchange of ideals and positions with anyone outside of my innermost circle.

I’m a liberal who’s lived in the South my whole life. In the Bible Belt.

I’ve had a lifetime of listening to listen to viewpoints I disagree with. And that’s completely fine. In fact, I think it’s been healthy for me. It’s made me realize that sometimes it’s better to just listen. Sometimes I can learn from someone who holds a radically different view from me. It’s shown me that political disagreements are just that. I can have many other more important things in common with someone and care about them even if we disagree politically.

But sometimes I’ve also had to hear things that grated my senses, things that were known falsehoods and sometimes things that  were tinged with racism or homophobia but passed off as political opinion. I usually held my tongue except for the few occasions where I trusted a healthy debate could be had. I sometimes seethed that others could just spout off when I had to stay quiet for the sake of not ruffling feathers, being of minority opinion and all.

I’ve marveled at how freely people would speak their mind, not concerned that they might be speaking to someone who disagreed- not inviting debate or discussion- just spouting off because it feels good to unleash a little political fervor every now and then. I’ve found myself a little jealous of the people I would encounter at school/work/in my neighborhood/on the playground/at the store who felt entitled to go off on a political rant without any concern.

Such is the privilege of living some place where your politics are the widely held ideology. The privilege of majority opinion.

I’ve become an expert at changing the subject. Or smiling politely. Or redirecting a red faced diatribe. Or just calmly walking away because I don’t need to listen to anyone’s one-sided viewpoint when they only wanted an audience, not a discussion.

So when I started this blog three years ago, I vowed to never write about politics. I knew it would only bring drama and that is not what I wanted.

I write about the things that matterto me. My first post was a response to a blogger who slut shamed her son’s social media girl friends. My second post was about a 7 year old girl who got kicked out of her school because she had dreadlocks. And I wrote about grief and life and a random assortment of things. Not political, but sometimes still controversial. And sometimes I get a fierce backlash. Hateful comments. Private messages saying vile things. I have learned to ignore them. I’ve had to delete violent comments attacking me or other readers on my blog. My skin has developed a tough shell.

Writing about the things I care about has caused plenty of drama, even when politics aren’t involved.

I’ve always said that writing about social justice or inequality isn’t political. At least it shouldn’t be. These issues definitely seep into politics sometimes, especially when racism or homophobia or sexism motivates legislation.

But this year, this election, is different. I’m no stranger to my “team” not winning.

This isn’t about liberal vs conservative.

This isn’t Reagan vs Carter.

This isn’t politics as usual.

This is about racism and homophobia and fascism. We are faced for the first time in our political history with someone who threatens everything our country stands for. There is an enormous swell of people, conservative and liberal, politicians and pundits, academics, historians, economists, psychiatrists… who are all ringing the alarm bells.

People who have never come together politically are saying This man is dangerous.

Telling us that this is repeating, eerily repeating, the things said and done in Germany while Hitler was climbing to power. This is not exaggeration. This is not people just offering political opinions. These are people from all walks and all persuasions trying to warn the rest of us that history, the absolute worst of our world’s history, is repeating itself right here, right now, in the United States.

So, yes. I will write about politics this time. Because this time it IS about racism and homophobia and civil liberties and the very life we all know. And because I am still intent on keeping this blog politics free,  I will be publishing political posts on other sites.

This week, I am at the Good Men Project, where I will be appearing weekly as a columnist.  This one is a dating advice piece, having a little bit of fun with a serious issue. More specifically, why you should not date Donald Trump.

I hope you go over there and read it. I hope you like it. If you don’t, that is fine. I am comfortable with people disagreeing with me. I’m kind of used to it. And I don’t mind if you want to have a debate either. As long as tomorrow, when I get on the bus, you and I are still cool.

https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/4-ways-to-know-if-hes-the-one-presidential-edition-kelly-jrmk/

 

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I don’t know how long I sat there. My hands were clasped in sweaty-palmed desperation. My eyes were shut and my jaw clenched. The office bustled around me and phones rang. I ignored the morning commotion of the sales office and concentrated. I was praying. Bargaining, really. I was cutting deals left and right with God.

I was praying so hard I was sweating. I was praying with my whole body, physically willing God to listen to me. I laid everything I had in me on the table.

I was praying for my brother to have cancer. To have a specific type of cancer. We already knew that he was sick. We already knew that is was malignant and that it had spread. We had been told that it was cancer. We just didn’t know what type. We were given two probabilities. One awful, the other devastating. I was praying for my brother to have the awful kind of cancer. The one that had a slightly better chance of survival.

And even though every muscle in my body was tense with fear, I had to resist the urge to laugh. The absurdity of my feverish praying. Please God, please. Let my brother have Rhabdomyosarcoma. Please. We will fight it and we will make something good come out of it. Just please, if you can’t make this all go away, please let him have this kind of cancer. 

I don’t know how long I sat in my cubicle going round for round in the deal making. At some point, I unclenched my hands and loosened the lock in my jaw. It was time to leave for the hospital. I took a moment to assess. I decided I felt good. Optimistic. Strong. I was sure in that moment that we were not going to hear fantastic news, but it would be something we could deal with. I relied on this gut instinct to get me out of my chair and out the door.

I stood up and steadied my shaking legs. I had to pull myself together. I ignored the stilted air escaping from my lungs, and walked to my car.

Driving to the hospital I almost felt a sense of peace. It’s going to be ok. With deliberate casualness, I made my way through the sterile halls to my brother’s room. I must have been late, or the doctor was early, but when I opened the door the heaviness in the air spilled out the doorway and almost took my breath away. I took in the scene. Everyone was expressionless, listening to the doctor speak. I looked over at my brother, leaning against the propped up pillows in the bed. When I saw him I went weak with fear. His face said everything and nothing. Stone faced, eyes dark. He didn’t move. He stared at the wall and I felt terror at what he might be seeing. I felt any bit of hope drown in the heaviness of his empty gaze. I swallowed hard and turned my attention back to the doctor as he finished his sentence…

“We have seen some cases of survival.”

Some. Some cases of survival. What does that mean? But I knew what it meant. He had deliberately and carefully emphasized the word “some.” He was going to great pains to not give us false hope. I heard a blur of words as my head started spinning, “Stage four.” “Aggressive treatment.” My brother didn’t have the awful kind of Cancer. He had the devastating kind.

The nightmare we’d all been denying was playing out.

I wanted to scream and rip out the blinds and throw stuff. I wanted to run out of the room and escape. I wanted to run to the doctor and shake him and beg him to make it go away, to take back the words he’d just said. I wanted to run to my brother’s bed and hold him. To tell him that it would be ok. That it was all a mistake. Please don’t be scared. Please don’t give up. Please tell me you’ll fight this and win. I didn’t do any of that. I couldn’t move. He was my baby brother, the annoying kid that teased me and played pranks on me. The brother that I was supposed to protect and look out for. And I felt like I was letting him down, just standing there doing nothing. I didn’t know what to do, how to make this better. I was lost. Completely, fully lost.

We all were trying to process what we’d just heard. We were all doing our best to keep it together and be strong. My brother didn’t move. Didn’t acknowledge that he’d heard a thing. He just stared at the blank wall with a dullness I had never seen in his eyes. The look on his face broke me.

I think I may have let out a whimper. I ran out of the room, disgusted with myself even as I was doing it. Fleeing. Avoiding. I exploded into violent sobs on the floor.  My mind was racing while my body was revolting to the news. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind. Was he thinking about dying? Was he scared? Was he pissed? He just stared. I couldn’t stop seeing his face.

I worried that they could hear me, but I couldn’t control any of it. I was helpless. My body was reacting physically and bearing witness to my lack of control. I couldn’t control the manic sobs any more than I could control my brother’s cancer. It was the first time in my life I had no idea how to proceed. I had never not known what to do next. I had never not been able to find some sliver of hope. I had nothing. I was empty.

My brother began chemo and radiation immediately. Our lives became littered with new language. Words we’d had the luxury of never learning the meaning of before. We learned about the limited options of being diagnosed with a rare pediatric cancer. We learned about the lack of treatments tailored to my brother’s disease. We learned that Oncologists had to get creative when it came to treating diseases like Ewing’s Sarcoma. Our roles changed. My mom had to become a nurse to her 16 year old son. My sister and I took to researching and reading and digging to find any treatment or obscure therapy that could help. We all fought.

My brother fought. He fought with an easy grace. The stone face with the dark eyes I saw in the hospital that day- they were replaced with the laughter and mischief that always played on his features. He joked his way through treatments, he kept us all laughing and strong. He did stuff that teenage boys are supposed to do- hang out with their friends, cut up and get into trouble. I don’t have time for cancer he would say as he would head out the door and brush off my mom’s concerns about him over-doing it. He gave us all a little hope while he did the heavy lifting. We occasionally even felt joy that wasn’t laced with fear.

Eventually, the cancer had it’s way. Cancer took his life from us a few months after he turned 18. The shock of loosing him wasn’t dulled by knowing it would happen. I still have trouble comprehending the fact that he won’t be walking through the door.

I still feel my heart stop when I think about that look on his face that day in the hospital. It’s a memory I don’t visit often, but when I do I’m right back in that room. All of my fears live in that room still. When someone in my family gets sick repeatedly. When my four year old son had an unexplained illness that wouldn’t go away. When the doctors were running test after test. There are many times I’m right there, standing on the edge of panic and despair. The reality of a devastating diagnosis too real, too fresh in my mind.

I have had to learn to fight those fears. I have learned to walk out of that room calmly now. I think about my brother. His fighting attitude. Every time my thoughts and fears threaten to take me back to that place, I remember his words.

I don’t have time for cancer.

 

Today is Rare Disease Awareness Day. Please consider, when you decide where your charitable dollars are going, that some diseases don’t get much attention or research. That parents are spending hours raising money for treatments and clinical trials when they should be able to focus on spending time with their child. That approximately 50% of the people afflicted with rare diseases are children and of those roughly 30% will not survive. That 95% of rare diseases don’t have even one FDA approved drug treatment. 

 

 

 

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I thought I wasn’t the marrying type. The relationship type? Yes. But marriage is so… permanent. Long. Endless. Boring.       

I used to lay on the floor for hours, headphones on, music turned up. I would daydream and imagine my future. I pictured a life of work combined with creativity. With love that came with no contract. I wasn’t like everyone else, I thought. Boredom came too quickly to me and I could not imagine enduring a lifetime in a relationship out of obligation.

I told myself I would be independent and strong. I would make decisions about my life without consultation and without negotiation. Be my own person. And if a man captured my heart and wanted to walk through any part of life with me, he would have to play by my rules.

Yes, I had it all figured out.

Then I met him.

Our meeting was prophetic. I turned to look over my shoulder, saw him, and walked right into a wall. I stuttered an awkward hello as I rubbed my offended forehead. Introductions were made, pleasantries were exchanged, and I scurried off as soon as I could.

Months passed with small talk in the office, text messages sent in purely professional language. There was an energy between us that I refused to acknowledge or admit.

Then things changed. He asked me out. I said yes in spite of myself. I told myself it was just a date. It didn’t mean my plans were off track. It didn’t mean anything more than a nice evening with a nice guy. But even as I was telling myself that I knew it was a lie.

Everything changed. I fell in love. We fell in love. It was quick and intense and undeniable. It was nothing either of us had ever experienced. We marveled at how little control we had over what was happening to both of us.

I knew right away I would marry him.

Just like that, my life plans changed.

Just like that, the picture in my head of my future was a completely different picture. There was a house and kids and maybe a dog. It was everything I always thought I didn’t want.

And now I wanted it so bad I could taste it.

That was 19 years ago. I got the marriage. The three kids. The house. A dog.

Is it what I thought it would be? No.

There have been bumps in roads and curve balls thrown and surprises around corners. There have been many walls that have been run into head first.

There have been fights. And pain. And frustration.

But there’s also been comfort. The comfort of knowing we are both in this. The comfort of reaching out and knowing his hand will always be there. Of knowing that I can lay my head on his ready shoulder. That I can go to him for his advice and I will receive the unvarnished truth. That there’s someone there who is willing and happy to walk through life with me.

There’s been helping each other through loss. Lifting each other up when life knocks us down. There’s been stress that’s been carried by two sets of shoulders instead of one.

There’s been passion and laughter and love.

Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I had no idea what it would be like. All I knew was I was marrying the man I loved. I hoped and prayed that the rest would fall into place. People were full of advice, as is custom when young people get married. But looking back, there’s no way anyone can fully prepare you.

I couldn’t have possibly understood what it is for two lives to come together. To navigate all of the needs and curves of another person’s life and dreams and desires. To understand all of the life experiences that make and shape a person. That marrying someone meant marrying their past and their experiences and all of the things that influence them.

I couldn’t have known that the fights would be bigger because there would be more at stake. That hurts would run deeper. That the struggle to understand what truly lies behind every misspoken word would be the key to having less misunderstandings.

I couldn’t have known that it would mean digging into my own past. That all of my life experiences, my hurts and fears and expectations would hitch a ride to my new future. That my issues would bump up against my marriage and leave it bruised at times. I had no inkling of the depth of humility and willingness to learn and change that would be crucial to staying connected.

I didn’t know that through the years, you would negotiate and make concessions. That marriage is built on compromise. That to not do this would leave a marriage bitter and lifeless. But to engage in the act of compromise, to do it honestly and whole heartedly would make a marriage healthier and happier.

I couldn’t have imagined that the love that you started with? The love that kept you up talking to each other all night and walking around in a state of blissful exhaustion? That it would grow. That you would find yourself wanting to share good news with him first. That bad news sent you running to him for comfort.

That you would still get butterflies when he walked in the door.

That the deep connection and the years of getting to know each other’s intricacies and nuances would nestle deep into your bones and become a part of you.

That there’s a warmth and comfort in all that hard work but that it’s never too comfortable. That complacency or apathy will kill the passion and dull the life you’ve built together. And you will fight to keep that from happening.

I thought being alone would prove I was brave. I thought independence meant not tethering my life to another’s. I thought getting married would inhibit me and stifle me.

It didn’t. I’m still me.

I’m more me than I was before I ran into that wall so many years ago.

Giving up all of my plans of wild child, against the grain freedom and independence took me to far more adventurous places. Living a life on my own terms? There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not a badge of honor I needed to wear. Living a life on our terms means  advocating for my own needs while taking into account his. There’s a glorious beauty in that. It’s a hard won challenge to stay wholly intact while becoming a part of something bigger. A feat of honesty to oneself and dedication to each other.

Easy? No. No one said it would be easy. I  know there will be many more walls that will be run into head first. Maybe that’s what marriage is… knowing you will run into a wall and agreeing to do it. To know it won’t be easy.

That’s ok. I never liked easy anyways.

Easy is boring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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None of us get through life unscathed. We all have things that caused pain or fear or rejection or shame. Sometimes I look back and I marvel at where I am. I feel incredibly lucky that the hurtful and the shameful and the painful didn’t define me. They are there, but they didn’t win. They were overshadowed and overcome and drowned out by one voice.

It was the voice of encouragement and love and wisdom.

It was always there, always available, always ready.

Thank you, Mom.

Thank you for being the voice that made all the difference.

Thank you for being the constant listener. For never tiring of the endless chatter of a little girl full of questions and observations and random thoughts.

Thank you for not laughing or minimizing my fears or my dreams.

Thank you for bringing a little laughter and silliness to late night car rides to the grocery store on pay day. Our tummies rumbling in hunger momentarily forgotten by your outlandish stories and made up songs.

Thank you for fighting to survive when a lot of women would have given up. Divorced with two little girls, no job, no car. Thank you for reinventing yourself from the timid small town girl too scared to drive, to the independent working woman respected by her peers.

Thank you for giving us a Christmas even when you couldn’t afford to buy gifts. For making a game of giving each other imaginary gifts, pictures cut out of magazines of the things we would give each other if…

Thank you for quietly not eating so you’d have enough food for us.

Thank you for putting up with my endless performances and jokes and precocious antics without ever showing annoyance.

Thank you for encouraging my dreams. For making me believe I could be an actress on Broadway one day. For never shooting down a little girl’s pipe dreams.

Thank you for always talking to me like I was a person. For always valuing my opinions and thoughts. Even when they may have been immature or misguided.

Thank you for making me feel like I had a voice. And that it mattered.

Thank you for giving me a beautiful sister and precious brother who became my best friends.

Thank you for walking with me through a painful back surgery and months of wearing an embarrassing brace and body cast. For being sensitive to my struggle but not letting me wallow in self pity.

Thank you for talking me through my first heartbreak. For not hesitating to come get me when I called you sobbing from the school pay phone. For taking me to lunch and letting me talk about it. For telling me that I deserved better. That I would take that heartbreak and I would be stronger. And that I would NEVER let anyone hurt me like that again.

Thank you for letting me sit in on the adult discussions about life and politics. For letting me chime in on occasion and insisting that others listen to what I had to say.

Thank you for making me feel special when I felt stupid or ugly or unlikeable.

Thank you for exposing me to art, to theatre, to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Joel Gray and Debbie Reynolds. And to jazz. And for taking me to see Fame and Ghandi even though they were rated “R.” For watching A Chorus Line with me over and over because Broadway.

Thank you for marrying a great man who loved us and took care of us. And whose deep appreciation and knowledge of all things rock and roll gave me an education and a passion for a music that influences almost everything I say and do.

Thank you for teaching me about working hard and toughing it out and treating every job as if it were the most important job in the world.

Thank you for listening when I called you from my apartment in Atlanta. Not sure if I should walk out on a long term relationship that I’d thought was my future. For telling me that I would never settle. That I would find that amazing love that is written about in great novels.

Thank you for not laughing or questioning me when I called you after the first date to tell you that I’d met the man I was going to marry.

Thank you for taking care of my brother. For being his nurse and his mom and his friend. And for taking hit after hit during a brutal 18 months and standing with him as he stared Cancer in the face and said “I don’t have time for you. I’ve still got a lot of living to do.” For being steady when your legs were shaking in fear.

For not giving up on life when Cancer won. Even though you wanted to.

Thank you for showing up at my wedding ten days after the worst heartbreak any mother could face. For showing up and smiling and laughing and dancing. For allowing all of us to have a few moments from the grief… to do what he would have wanted us to do.

Thank you for still talking about him. For letting me talk about him. For making sure he is still a part of everything we do. For listening to me when I’m struggling and in pain and missing him so much I don’t think I can breathe. Even though you’re struggling more. For putting your pain on hold to be there for me.

Thank you for still walking through life 15 years later. When I know sometimes each step is just as painful as it was in those darkest days.

Thank you for always being a fighter. For showing me what strength is. For being an example of persevering and not giving up and for being real while doing it.

Thank you for helping me breathe in moments where I felt like I couldn’t.

Thank you for showing me how to be a mother and a friend. And how the two can come together to be a beautiful thing.

Thank you for being a mom and a grandmother who will stop whatever she’s doing to be there for any one of us.

Thank you for being that strong voice for you grandsons and granddaughters too.

Thank you for having a louder voice than any of the bad. For speaking to me over the negative. For giving me the confidence and the optimism that the negative tries so hard to steal.

Because of your voice I was able to grow. To love. To dream. To learn.

Thank you, Mom.

Mom and Todd. One of my favorite pictures of all time.
Mom and Todd. One of my favorite pictures of all time.

 

1000speak

“I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping

While my guitar gently weeps”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I wanted to do something. I felt helpless as I sat in the backseat. My legs couldn’t yet reach the floor board, my pockets were empty of all but a scuffed up Hot Wheel toy car. But I wanted to do something.

It was the first time I’d seen someone begging for food.

The seconds ticked by while we sat at the stop light. I studied him and wondered what it must be like to be him. I saw tattered clothes, I saw a worn face. I watched as he stared straight ahead, meeting no one’s eyes. Letting his roughly scrawled sign do all the talking.

And suddenly we were off, on our way. Off to do some destination so inconsequential I can’t remember it.

But I remember him.

I remember feeling the unfairness of it all.

I remember feeling incredibly sad.

Concerned.

Pity.

Shame.

I was young but I knew enough. I knew a little of hunger. Of shoes too small. I knew a little of the struggle to make it to payday.

But my hunger was always fed eventually. My toes were only pinched for a short time until we received hand me downs from family friends. My mom shielded us with stretched out cans of Beenie Weenies and a funny story or a silly face. Her casual manner hid the stress of trying to survive one more day.

But I didn’t know what it was like to be him.

“I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping

Still my guitar gently weeps”

Life goes on. We see people barely hanging on to life, clinging to shreds of dignity.

You can’t really ignore it. It’s on the street corner. It’s huddled under the overpass. It’s on the t.v. It’s in the news.

All around us people are in pain or in fear or destitute.

It’s hard to ignore.

Yet somehow we do.

It’s survival. It’s not letting ourselves get washed away in the abyss of despair when you look at the suffering. When you feel hopeless in the face of tragedy. When you feel angry at ongoing injustices. We can’t let ourselves drown in it all. We have to take care of our lives, our kids, our families. That’s self preservation.

And we have to preserve ourselves.

“I don’t know why nobody told you

How to unfold your love.

I don’t know how someone controlled you

They bought and sold you”

Sometimes we insulate ourselves because of our own hurts and our own struggles that bearing the pain of another person’s suffering is just too much.

That’s ok. As long as when you’re better you take off the blinders and take part. As long as you don’t let your head stay nestled comfortably in the sand long after it’s due for an appearance above ground.

“I look at the world and I notice it’s turning

While my guitar gently weeps.

With every mistake we must surely be learning

Still my guitar gently weeps.”

Because there’s much to do my friends. Every great change that has ever taken place has required masses of people to take notice, to stand up, to participate.

There are so many things, so many ways to give. There’s causes to join. Movements to start. It’s little every day things and big grand gestures.

As long as it’s something. Because not doing something leaves you feeling much more helpless. Because not doing something leads to more of the same.

I look around and I see the world in pain. I see fear pulsating. I see children hungry. I see humans sold. I see divisions over arbitrary lines in the sand and borders that were decided ages ago. I see religions of love and peace tear each other apart. I see black men being shot. I see children being abused. I see people dying from diseases that don’t carry a big enough payout for a cure. I see people slipping through the cracks we all blithely step over every day.

And I remember him.

I remember the disappointment of driving away. Of wanting to run back and do something. But instead turning around to look out the back window. Watching as he faded from view.

“I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping

While my guitar gently weeps”

Atrocities and injustices of the past tug on the back of our conscious. We struggle to comprehend the brutality of the past. How did people allow these things to happen? Why was there hatred over superficial and trumped up differences? Why did they allow needless suffering? Why didn’t they do something?

These things are viewed through the lens of present day.

How many things are we allowing to happen? How many things will our children, our grandchildren look back upon and wonder, Why didn’t someone stop it? Why didn’t people stand up? Why did’t they push back?

“Look at you all

Still my guitar gently weeps”

Now’s our chance to do something.

I know it’s there, in you. In me. In all of us.

The part of that cares.

The part that cries when we hear of pain and suffering.

The part that hurts when we see injustice.

The part that breaks when we see hate and anger.

The part that wants to do something.

Meet anger with softness.

Meet hatred with love.

Meet judgement with acceptance.

Meet ignorance with knowledge.

Meet apathy with urgency.

Meet hunger with food.

Meet cold with warmth.

Meet disregard with a mirror.

Indifference with compassion.

I have hope. I have overwhelming optimism and hope. Because,

Look at you all. 

#1000Speak

1000 Voices for Compassion

Over 1000 voices coming together to do something.

Spread the love, make our voices LOUD. Tweet, share on Facebook and Instagram. Let’s flood the internet with compassion!

Add your link here.

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I met him in our college Spanish class. After admiring him from afar for the better part of a year, we fell into a heated relationship. I was crazy about him.  Our relationship was tumultuous. Until it wasn’t. Eventually the passion was gone.

We were living together, making a home and making plans. Three years together and talk of a future, but I knew it wasn’t working.

I tried to save us. For well over a year I tried. He was pleasantly apathetic.

Eventually I was done.

He called. He wrote. He begged me to give him another chance. He promised to make changes. Things I had pleaded for, he now promised to deliver.

It didn’t matter.

I was done.

That’s how it works. You try. You fight. You fight for your relationship.

Until you’re exhausted and tired from all of the effort. Until you realize you’re the only one putting in the effort.

It’s that cold realization that is the nail in the coffin of a relationship. The loneliness that comes with the scratching and clawing for love… and looking around and realizing that no one else is getting their hands dirty. The harsh loneliness of sharing space with someone.

That was a long time ago. Just after that relationship ended, I fell in love with my husband. I was gun-shy and not looking for romance. I tried to talk my way out of it. I told him I had fears. I told him that I needed more than he could give. I couldn’t live a life of complacency.

I told him that I get bored easily.

He promised our life would never be boring.

I told him I need passion. I needed fire.

He promised a lifetime of passion.

I told him I needed someone who wouldn’t give up easily.

He promised me he would fight for me. For us.

That was over 18 years ago. Three houses, three kids, three dogs ago. A lifetime ago.

It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Hard because we all have something, something that burdens us. Something that lives deep inside of us and comes out sideways. Hard because we’re all pretty messy inside. Hard because all of things that we all carry are forced to mingle with all of the messiness of this person you share a life with. And they bump up against each other and they feed each other and they confuse each other. And sometimes they hurt each other.

So what do you do with all of this?

You pick a fight.

You pick a fight with yourself. For yourself.

The fight you choose is the fight to become a better you. You trudge into the stagnant waters of long held pain and damage. You wade into the muck and you start cleaning it up. You fight through all the barriers and the defenses that we each cling to like a tattered blanket of comfort. You get dirty and you fight.

You fight through all of this because it’s the only fight you can really win. You can’t fight for him. It’s not about fixing him. If it was, there would be no break ups. There would be no divorce. The idea of fixing the person you love, of fighting his battles? That’s just a fantasy. His issues are his. They are borne of different things than yours. You can try to fix them but it will be fruitless. You can spin your wheels for a lifetime trying to fix someone else. Focusing on them and all of their stuff. This won’t get you far, I promise. It’s a twisted path to bitterness and disappointment.

But you can fight for you. You can work through all of your stuff. Recognize it. Deal with it. Learn from it. It may give you some peace and strength. It may stop the cycle of your stuff feeding his stuff and the chaos of emotions that tag along with that. It may give him enough room and space to see that something’s changed and that maybe, maybe he can start to work through his stuff too.

Regardless, you fight for you.

I picked this fight in recent years. It has been scary and hard and at times I’ve come close to giving up. But now I’m starting to see what comes after the fight. Some peace. Some healing. The burden of all of my stuff is much lighter and I feel more free. I am not so weighed down. I’m not as confused by my emotions. The other side of the fight with myself is a good place to be.

My husband has also picked his fight. He’s trekked into the depths of what burns deep inside of him. He’s never been one to be complacent or apathetic. Eighteen years and it’s never been boring. I’ve seen him refuse to give up and refuse to let me be the only one fighting.

I think back now, to that day years ago. The day I tearfully told the man I loved what I needed. What I thought was impossible for someone to give. The day I thought I should give up on love because my expectations were too high and unattainable.

He didn’t try to change my mind or my expectations.

He accepted the challenge and the needs of a naive young woman who thought she knew what she needed.

I never needed him to fight for us.

But he gave me things I didn’t know I needed. He did more than share space with me. He didn’t just sit and watch me fight my battles. He listened. He supported. He loved. And when I wanted to give up on my demons? He started fighting his. He showed me that vulnerability is the bravest place to be. He got his hands dirty with me. In fighting for himself he showed me just how much he loved me. The lengths he would go to to be better for us.

I didn’t need him to fight for us.

I needed him to wage his own fight.

I didn’t need him to fight for me.

I never needed him to fight for me.

I’m capable of doing that for myself.

I can fight my own battles.

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It was my wedding day.

I found myself standing outside the doors to the chapel. My heart was racing. Pressure began building inside and I felt my eyes fill up with tears.

I can’t do this.

Before I could turn and run, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to look at me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away.

But I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. I felt like I couldn’t move.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I took a tentative step. I felt as if my knees were going to buckle. I took a deep breath and willed myself to move. Somehow I began walking. It was surreal. I felt as if I was floating down the aisle….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm. A sense of warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

***

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother had been diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

The diagnosis was grim. The prognosis was not good.

He was quick to rally. He was going to be fine. He was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

That was the day my world forever changed. Nothing would ever be the same. The damage was irreparable. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fifteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how my family and I made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief.

There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do.

And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together and summoned our strength. Even though we were still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony. His favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced. And we drank. And we had fun.

Inexplicably, we had fun.

Fifteen years have passed since that day.

Fifteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fifteen years later and I’m still learning how all of this works… the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all that I’ve learned from that day, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand. I know I need to pay attention to all that grief has taught me.

I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back.

But I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

So I choose to appreciate the lessons I learned.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through. You don’t know what they have endured. You don’t know what battles they may be fighting.

There were the times that I would find myself driving 15mph in the left lane. I would be lost somewhere between grief and exhaustion after a long night at the hospital with my brother. I would arrive home with no idea how I got there.

There were times when I’d look up distractedly at the grocery store to realize I’d been standing in the middle of the aisle lost in thought.

I used to be that person that would honk impatiently and cast a dirty look as I zoomed past a slow driver.

Not anymore.

I learned what it was like to really have a bad day. To be so lost in a world turned on it’s head that you could be completely unaware of your surroundings.

I learned that we all have bad days and some of us have really bad days.

Some of us are just trying to make it to tomorrow.

Now I see people differently. I don’t see people who are trying to get in my way. I see someone who may have heavy things weighing on their mind. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an impatient driver or shopper would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt. Granting them access. Assisting them when you don’t know them. Being patient and kind even when you don’t know what they are going through.

If you have to know the behind the scenes? If you have to know their story in order to be kind?

If your kindness is based on an assessment of their pain… if it is conditional…

then it’s not truly kindness.

It’s judgement.

I didn’t get this before. I wasn’t cruel. I wasn’t mean spirited. But I was impatient. I was easily irritated. That was before I realized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times. They probably will never know the significance of their actions.

The soft-spoken coworker who offered me a hug as I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital. We were meeting with doctors to get news of test results. He knew I was nervous. When my shy, reserved friend wrapped me in a big bear hug I was overcome. I knew this small gesture was not easy for him to give. His effort to offer me solace moved me. It reminded me that even though my coworkers didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

There was my brash, loud, jokester boss who let me take off as much time as I needed to be with my brother at the hospital.

There was my friend from work who calmly assured me that I would feel joy again after I tearfully confided my fear and pain to her.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and my sister in law who drove 12 hours to attend my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she andI had met. She helped me get through an emotional night. She seemed genuinely touched by the stories she heard from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude. Her words gave me hope that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I learned that an act of kindness, no matter how small, is never wrong. Sometimes it’s the thing that can help someone put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes it can make all the difference in the world.

I’ve learned that you can, even 15 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like your brother. You can’t stop looking at him. You feel the loss and pain take over and overwhelm you. You are again surprised at the cruel force of grief’s ability to blindside you. And you almost want to stalk the waiter just so you can pretend for a minute that your brother’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischevious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother. Memories of the antics of a little boy long ago. And then, imagining what could have been. Him egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behavior.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok. You will be ok. 

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him sometimes. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel a warmth come over me. A warmth hard to describe because it’s unlike any sensation I’ve felt before.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

Don’t give up. You’re better than that.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me. They are bittersweet. They are welcome. And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle… or having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy.

There would be no last minute stand in.

I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him. I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.

And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared. He reminded me that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.