Fear

“It is always and only mine”

The outdoor light on the shed in the back kept turning on. With each gust of wind, branches would blow casting shadows across the small sensor inviting light to stream through the open window, fighting the dark with lightsaber-like beams.

An intended safety feature was overreacting, having negative affects on my sleep.

Much like my over-active brain which was playing loops on repeat.

After a few hours of restlessness and an unsuccessful attempt at taking an Advil to relax my clenching muscles, I grabbed my pillow and stepped quietly downstairs to lay on our big, blue couch.

“Well this seems fitting,” I thought to myself as I rested on my back, staring at the ceiling. “This is where it all started.”

Those cushions couched my grief from day one. During the first week, I burrowed in the corner, surrounding myself with blankets and boxes of tissues as I made phone calls to tell folks we lost him. I choked back sobs at two in the morning while my husband was upstairs sleeping. The foam absorbed my tears and the worn upholstery still remembers the shock waves reverberating through my body.

Three and a half years later, there I was again, laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my grief. No intense tears, no shaking sobs, just clenching fists and racing thought patterns as I prepared to fly across the country to lead others in a writing workshop on how to bring words to their grief stories.

I was trying to be brave. Mostly, I was terrified.

I tossed and turned and when 4:30 am rolled around signaling it was time to wake for the airport, I rolled off the couch and into my outfit I previously set out for my adventure. Dylan drove me through the dark and I breathed deeply, as my therapist instructed, as I prepared my mind.

“Life,” they say, “begins on the other side of our comfort zones.”

I checked my monster of a bag at the curb, made it through security, found coffee and sat down at the gate. Not a minute later an email buzzed through on my phone.

My eyes began to blur as I read the words, “Your flight has been cancelled.”

“Shit!” I mumbled under my breath and stood, making my way to the long line appearing at the front of the gate.

I once read the universe likes to test our commitment to our own goals. Challenges arise when we are about to embark on something we hunger to accomplish. Situations outside of our control flirt with our efforts, daring us to take one more step we didn’t think we could.

When I pitched a proposal to lead a workshop at a bereavement camp for 20 and 30-somethings back in April, I thought I’d just throw my name in the hat and see what would happen. I put together speaker proposals at least once a week. I thought applying would be the risky part.

Then I got accepted and said yes, I’ll go to grief camp with a bunch of bereaved strangers – still feeling silly and insecure and fearful of other peoples’ pain. Then I bought a plane ticket. Then I had to actually get on the plane which was proving more difficult than I thought it would be.

I called Dylan to inform him of the change and swallowed down tears as I explained my choices to him. He encouraged me to figure out how to get where I needed to go. I ran between concourses, taking trains and talking to airline employees about options for my bag and my transportation. The man at the United counter was not helpful. A kind woman at Southwest helped me figure out another route.

After nine hours at DIA, a two-hour flight and a one-hour carpool with strangers who kindly picked me up in a rental car, I arrived at grief camp. There were over 100 other people my age who lost someone significant in their lives. What a beautiful thing.

I got checked in and as I hugged the coordinators I noticed an open bottle of wine with a welcome message sitting waiting for us late arrivals. A fellow traveler who also spent hours trying to arrive from Philadelphia pulled out the cork and took a giant swig of red. No time for glasses. Balancing nerves, delayed travel plans, and latent grief calls for soft tannins and flavors of grapes.

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Eventually, I found my way to my bunk, unfurled my sleeping back tucked in the bottom of my giant duffle, and tried to fall asleep as kind strangers snored below me. Another night on my back staring at the ceiling flooded with thoughts and fears. I learned 30 is maybe too old for communal sleeping arrangements with strangers.

Over the next 48 hours I led my session and participated in workshops where we explored our grieving and resilience through words, photos, sounds, and memory. I joined support sessions and sat in a room with at least 40 individuals who also lost their dads. We had a talent show. People freely read eulogies, poems for the departed, and  danced their emotions out to their brother’s favorite songs. There was a group altar full of pictures and favorite things – hats, and cookies, and cards, and cups of coffee for the departed. I finally had a place to lay his favorite things and kiss his picture and whisper how much I missed him.

With every session and every conversation I could feel in my very bones the truth: I am a part of something dark and beautiful, heavy and freeing. Other’s pain I was so afraid of brought me more comfort than I anticipated. Connecting stories from bios to real faces and human hearts helped me to realize all of us carrying loss stories are not to be feared.

Yes, I’m in the very worst club with the most beautifully brave people who are living with heavy piles of shit.

Please do not fear me because of my loss.

It’s in the places where we sit and listen, where we touch hands and honor wounds where we get to extend our wavering whispers of hope and connect with one another. I kept gasping in small breaths when others would say things I’ve been thinking for years. I lacked the sacred places to share my unmentionable thoughts.

No one was afraid of making others uncomfortable – we’re much too weary of surprising others with our unsettling thoughts. Here I am. Take me or leave me.

How could so many strangers take me when others whom I loved chose the later?

We sat in our pain, absorbing the horrible truth – we must move into a forever forward timeline without our people. The bereaved still welcomed and embraced the mysterious joy flowing from the life force of love left behind in the people we love.

I’ll be processing for awhile.

During the weekend’s closing session, the organizers asked for feedback.

I raised my hand and said,  “For a long time, I’ve known I’m not alone in this thing called loss in my head. This is the first time I’ve felt I’m not alone in my heart.”

What a beautiful thing.

I also met an Artist, Meredith Adelaide, who wrote this poem originally published in her book The Great Blue World an exploration of grief and loss through imagery and word. She helped me remember this precious grief of mine is precisely that – mine to own, mine to hold, mine to share, mine to love and honor. And while this grief is all my own, I am not alone.

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Just a little more sparkly …

Earlier this summer, I wrote a post about my experience with my mountain top metaphor. I’m a Colorado girl so the physical overcoming of rocks and stones makes a lot of sense when we connect the image to our challenges in life.

For snobby, Colorado me, the metaphor feels a bit, well, overdone. I get it. The smell of the pines, the crunching stones on a dirt trail – idyllic – but I’ve lived the mountain ups and downs for a long time. I haven’t lived the ‘shouting from rooftops’ metaphor or the ‘view from the top of church staircases’ or ‘tripping on cobblestone’ or ‘lessons found when getting lost in London’s alleys’ metaphors.

I’m not a very big risk taker and the hills and valleys in my backyard were spiritually working for a long time. Until they weren’t.

Deep breath – here it is – I’m tired of mountains. I needed a change of scenery.

This year, the bravest thing I’ve done was plan a two week vacation to places I’ve wanted to go since I was a teenager. I knew I needed respite and took baby steps to see if maybe, magically, we could make a dream come true. I made lists and price comparisons, read blogs about places to see and interviewed seasoned traveler friends for their advice.

I asked my boss for two weeks out of the office. He agreed.

Then, I bought plane tickets.

Then, I waited for weeks.

Dare I take another courageous step? Did I believe I could invest in me and the universe wouldn’t retaliate?

With each planning step my palms would sweat. Every time I clicked purchase on a hotel reservation, or a show I wanted to attend, my heart beat loudly in my nervous chest. I wrote about my fears and my doubts and all the reasons why chasing this dream could be halted. I was sure, if I left, someone else would die or need me back at home. An unhealthy pattern, yes. A pattern that my friends in grief group nod along to when I voice – ‘I’m just scared of who is going to go next.’

Time passed. I prayed. I planned. I clicked purchase. I made an itinerary on Google and copies of our passports. We bought luggage, we packed, and eventually we boarded a plane.

Nine hours later, a conversation with a nice lady at Passport control, and we walked out the airport doors and into the English air.

A dream came true and we made it happen. A beautiful thing.

I have lots of stories about our trip and much like Dylan is editing the 700 photos he took on his DSLR, I’m still processing the lessons I learned over there. I’ve waited to share here because one little post seemed inadequate to capture the joy found in exploring museums, churches, magical places with cones of rose-shaped gelato in our hands.

So here goes.

There are a lot of stairs in Paris. Stairs in the subway stations, in the art galleries, in the lines of the tourist destinations. They seemed to be everywhere. Just like the stairs of life. Sometimes, we fall down them. Then we get back up and keep asking, ‘what can I see at the top?’

On a Thursday night, Dylan and I climbed stairs to the 6th floor of a big building hoping to see some modern art. We went to late night hours and found ourselves gazing out at this view instead. A little different the tops of mountains I’m used to.

The things we’ve overcome to stand on this rooftop! I was moved to tears.

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Beautiful tears for the past, for the new memories made we won’t share with my dad as we debrief at home, for the pure joy that comes from believing my own dreams are worth pursuing. Beauty found in the power of listening to the little voice inside my heart that said, ‘you are worth it, go explore. These people you love will be ok.’

The people I love, they were ok. We were too. More than ok.

“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”

– 1 Peter 5:10

From under the lights of the Paris skyline, to the sides of the Thames river my heart soared in places unfamiliar. I kept saying to Dylan, “I feel so ALIVE here.”

Every time we walked in a plaza, sat in a beautiful garden, slurped onion soup at a sidewalk cafe, I would whisper thanks. In Europe, 7,000 miles from home, I couldn’t believe how far we had come in our restoration journey. God brought us there, at the steps of these famous, picturesque places. With my ability to trust and release my paranoid control of the lives of my loved ones, I stood at the foot of Notre Dame, saw the London Eye, visited Queen Elizabeth’s home, and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle up from the top of a building, dazzling in glow of Parisian light.

Travel was balm to big wounds, the scabby heart ones still grazing my grasping fingers each day. I’ve been home two weeks and continue to integrate these new experiences. I’m realizing all over again I can heal and hurt and delight all at once.

Perspective from any kind of higher ground is a beautiful thing. The metaphor is just a little more sparkly in Paris.

Hospital Room Drama

I was in a coffee shop recently and I overheard a group of women my age talking about tv shows.

“You know what they should let die?” spat one of the women. “Grey’s Anatomy.”

All her friends nodded along, offering better replacements of shows like Scandal, House of Cards, or Game of Thrones.

I can’t handle watching suspenseful tv. I think the world is too icky in real life to watch trauma unfold on screen. Affairs, politics, sex, incest, murder set in the White House or in fantasy worlds just doesn’t sit well with me.

Let me also mention that comedians and actors across many platforms keep joking about how even the writers of House of Cards could not make up the story lines unfolding in our current White House. It’s a crazy, uncertain world out there.

Though if you switch out the Oval Office and drop the scene in an operating room I may consider the suspense just for a moment. I like hospital room dramas.

Ok…. I’ll admit it. I still LOVE Grey’s Anatomy

This show is kinda like the annoying neighbor you grew up with who lived down the street. Its ever-present story line has become background to my life, showing up once a week with really absurd knick knacks for me to examine.

You want the neighbor to be gone but you keep answering the door when they knock, just to see what oddities or treasure they might offer this week.

Even if the neighbor keeps knocking for 13 years.

If you have abandoned this series long ago, forgive my passion. You may want to skip ahead to the photo below, but I’ve still got love to express. TV producers stopped Gilmore Girls and that revival is over, so Grey’s continues to be the show with which I grow.

I’m not ready to let this show die – even though all of my favorite characters have been killed off. There have been so many crises and trauma that all of those surgeons should be in therapy.

I watched the season thirteen finale last night *spoiler alert, spoiler alert* and in an hour episode there was a rapist, an explosion, a fire, a missing girl, a soldier missing for ten years. Choking babies, bleeding arteries, divorce and firings.

I squirmed on the couch as the level of suspense escalated to a level of unbelievable discomfort.  I thought of this blog post that my dear friend wrote on fear.  Her words kept ringing through my ears and I sat watching threat after threat play out at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.  Jenny writes,

“Many of my fears involve unfamiliar situations I’d be terrified to encounter — assault, debt, sickness. Just knowing these things can happen stresses me out.

I’m not unique in this. As a world, we have greater visibility of fear inducing events than ever before. Videos of disease, genocide, famine, and terrorist attacks are just a click away. It’s natural that we begin to fear things we see affecting others.”

So why, I keep asking myself, do we want to watch these risks, scandals, crises, terrors for entertainment? How much crazy can we absorb – how deeply do we let the immense potential for loss seep into our awareness? Or are we purely being entertained by horror?

Resilience. That’s why.

The world can be scary, threats to our safety, our security, our families, our lifestyles lurk. Sometimes I ask Dylan why we should ever leave our house.

Then I remind myself, “Katie, your dad died at home.” No place is free of vulnerability.

When we keep focusing on the potential for loss, on the threats, on the prevention of pain we miss out on living. Face the fear, choose to live anyway.

All of the surgeons on this show have faced tremendous, outrageous amounts of loss. Body parts and spouses and jail time and positions of power. Mothers and written words and friendship and brain capacity – these themes and tangible absences tangle with real life situations that many of us don’t want to face.

But Shonda Rhimes keeps writing in the necessary themes of resilience – the power of facing our emotions connected to the human experience. She writes in threads of healing, and humor, and love and reminds me, at the very least, that it is an amazing thing to be alive.

On Thursday, even before I sat down for a three hour tv binge, I found an older bottle of champagne that someone had given us when we moved into our house almost two years ago. It was dusty and tucked in the back corner of our liquor cabinet. I was saving it for something special. As if purchasing a home for the first time wasn’t special.

For whatever reason when I got home that evening I pulled the bottle out, wiped off the dust, and stuck it in the freezer to chill. I took down two delicate champagne flutes that we have never used.

When my husband got home from work, I asked him to pop open the sparkling wine. I poured the sticky liquid into our glasses and plopped in a few raspberries in for good measure.

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We toasted to being alive. To Thursdays. To the ordinary. To resilience. To bubbles and fruit and each other.

When all those threats lurk around us, in the news, on tv, in our neighborhoods, we have to choose to celebrate the beautiful thing it is to just simply be breathing. Life is special just cause it’s life.

Shonda Rhimes gets that. I’m working on learning it too.