A Letter to My Four-Years-Ago Self: What I Want You to Know About What Lies Ahead

I wasn’t planning to post today, but I’ve had one of those days where I feel kind of blah and discouraged and tired. And when those feelings hit, one of two things usually happens: I nap, or I write.

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This is the last photo of me from “before,” blissfully unaware of what’s going to happen in just two days. Two days, four years ago. The anniversary of Dan’s death has come and gone. Every year, it’s a little bit different. This year, I just kept thinking of the days and weeks immediately after. After the funeral, after my mother went back home to Illinois, after I went back to work. When I was just trying to survive but had no idea how I could possibly be okay.

I saw an article online recently where young widows were asked what they’d want to tell themselves at the one-year mark. For me, it goes back further. I have some words for that one-week-after-he-died woman, and I hope they bring her some peace today.

Dear Allyson,

Right now I know you are drowning. You are lost. You cannot fathom what it will be like to live this life without him. You haven’t moved his shoes away from the front door where he left them. You keep thinking of things you need to tell him – important things and silly things and little things – all the things you’d only share with him. The truth, as you already know, is that you’re not going to be able to talk to him again. But you will, in time, be okay.

Last week at the visitation, several people told you that everything would be fine because “you’re young and you’ll find love again and can still be a mom.” You stood there in stunned disbelief. How could someone say that to you when a casket was just a few feet away from where you stood? Four years from now, you will indeed find love again, and it will be strong and powerful and real. Make no mistake, however – this does not mean everything will be fine. All of this is still going to hurt, and if anyone tries to make you feel bad about that, you can just tell them to take a walk. They have no idea what this journey is like. But you will, in time, be okay.

I know you’re going to have to take a pregnancy test tomorrow, and you don’t know what you want it to say. You’d been hoping for a child for SO long, but this wasn’t the way you imagined it. I know that the idea of being pregnant right now and being a single parent is terrifying. Take some deep breaths and trust God on this one. The test will be negative. Four years from now, you still won’t quite know how you feel about this. In all likelihood, you aren’t going to be a parent. I know that seems unfathomable, and you’ll even think about adopting as soon as a month or two from now. But there is a different path ahead for you, and when you get there, you’ll know it’s the right path to take. The loss of the child you never got to have with him is still going to hurt. But you will, in time, be okay.

You still cry every night and wonder if it’s going to stop. It’s going to take about six months, but you will finally have a night where you don’t cry. Once you realize that’s happened, you’ll cry again. Your tears heal. Let them fall. I know it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But you will, in time, be okay.

You wonder what Dan’s death means for your relationship with his family. His family is YOUR family, now and always. Please trust that. You are all grieving, and it’s impossibly hard for all of you right now. There are going to be some times during your grief in which you say things to each other that you don’t mean. In time, you’ll learn that everyone has been hurting, and that you’re stronger together than you are apart. Four years from now, you’ll be chatting with his sister constantly, and you’ll bicker with your father-in-law about Donald Trump. It will almost feel just like it was – perhaps even stronger, somehow. It’s going to be rough in the middle. But you will, in time, be okay.

In about a week, you’re going to find shotgun ammunition in his bedside table drawer. This is going to wreck you. You’ll be able to take the shotgun shells to the police station. You will never be okay with guns again. Four years later, this will still haunt you and this will still hurt. When there are mass shootings and political debates about firearms, it’s going to hurt and bring up many things you won’t want to deal with. Brace yourself, because the next four years are going to be filled with more of these tragedies than you can fathom – starting in just about three weeks in Aurora, Colorado. Do yourself a favor now and in the future. Just turn off the television and don’t engage on Facebook. You do have a valuable perspective. But trying to share it with people who have no interest in hearing it is going to hurt more than it’s going to help. I wish I could provide more comfort to you on this issue. So far, it hasn’t improved – and in many ways, it gets worse. You will start to heal from losing Dan. I don’t yet know if you’re going to heal from finding him. But I have to trust that somehow you will, in time, be okay.

Hold on tight, sweet girl. The road ahead is rough. It will make the other hard things you’ve dealt with in your life look like a walk in the park. You’ll clean up your house in Iowa, paint new rooms, and make it start to feel like a place you can feel at home in once again – only to turn around and decide you need to leave. Moving will be hard. You’ll move away from Iowa not yet knowing where you’re going to live. You’ll have to do a job interview on your wedding anniversary. You will spend those first few weeks in a new state alone wondering if you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. You haven’t. You will, in time, be okay.

Before I go, there are just a few logistical things I’d like to address:

  • Stop letting Gracie eat cheese with you when you’re sad. She’s already overweight, and it’s going to get worse. It’ll take four years for her to get back to a reasonable weight – in fact, she’ll get to a healthy Beagle weight for the first time ever. When she does, she’ll be more energetic than she has been in years – which is a great thing and an exhausting thing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Just hire Todd now to take care of the lawn. You’ll try. You’ll have to run down the street to get someone to help you start the motor. It will be ridiculously hard for you. You’ll hate it and cry a lot. Save yourself the trouble and let Todd take care of it. He’ll do a great job, and you’ll get to sit on the porch drinking lemonade. It’s a much better deal, I promise.
  • It’s okay if you want to indulge yourself right now. Some VIP seats to see Taylor Swift are going to come up for sale in a few months. Go ahead and splurge. It’ll be the best concert you’ve ever attended.
  • You do not have as much time as you think you do to pack boxes and load them into the POD for the moving truck. Start early or you’ll have to spend three nights in a row sleeping for just two hours, and you’ll be cleaning out a garage at 1 a.m. in tears because it’s still not over. Be thankful, though, for your next door neighbors. They’ve been there for you in 100 ways so far, and they will be there for you right up to the last minute. Those 17 trash bags on your driveway you have no idea what to do with? They’ve got it handled. But really, it would be much easier for you if you just got started on time.

My heart breaks for you right now, and tears run down my cheeks as I write these words. The pain you’re going through is unbearable and unfathomable. And to make it worse, for a while you’re going to try to keep it to yourself. I know that you don’t want people to have to know how bad it is. But they love you. They can handle it, because they know what you don’t know quite yet. That you will, in time, be okay.

Love yourself and trust your gut. It won’t let you down. After all, I’m living proof. Because even though it still hurts like hell and I weep right now as I write to you, I think that maybe, just maybe, I might be okay after all.

A Tale of Two Love Stories

So here we are. It’s about that time of year again, just a few days away from the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death. My “on this day” Facebook memories reveal a four-years-ago me who was celebrating a year in her first house, going on one of the best long weekend vacations of her life, and hoping to be a mom. She had NO idea what was coming.

Every year as I watch these memories pop up, I somehow want to go back and warn her. I don’t know if I want to tell her to soak it in while she can or to flee for the hills. But either way, something bad is coming. She just doesn’t know it yet.

This year, I’m more aware of it than ever. Spending the last several months working on the re-launch of Determined to Shine has been a somewhat strange process. It’s been exciting, finally getting the class ready and really pulling all these pieces together that I’ve dreamed about for several years now.

But it’s not lost on me that all of this great stuff is possible because something really horrible happened.

Many of you know this part of my story. Boy meets girl, they become best friends, and seven years later, they finally tie the knot. Then before you know it, there’s a puppy and a house and a picket fence and hopes for a baby on the way.

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Many of you know this part, too. That things didn’t go as planned. That things went horribly, horribly wrong. He pulled the trigger, and just like that I was a widow at 31. Then before I knew it, it was sleepless nights and PTSD and how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-through-this.

I once wrote that grief is a long, tricky spiraly thing. As the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death approaches, I know this to be more true than ever. The more time goes by, the more I understand and accept that in more ways than one, this cycle will continue for the rest of my life. It changes and moves and shifts – the only constant part of this grief is that in some way, it’s always there.

It’s been incredibly obvious to me that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t loved Dan – and if I hadn’t lost him. But he is no longer the only man in my story – and this is the part I haven’t yet told you.

It was October 25, 2013. I was getting ready for what I was convinced would be my last first date, at least for quite some time. Not because I was so sure about this new man. But because precisely the opposite was true. I’d gone on a few first dates since moving to Madison and trying out the online dating scene, and I was just tired. It wasn’t working for me. It was a big city, and I was lonely without the friends and family I’d be surrounded by in Iowa. But this dating thing was just not working out. A few dates were awful. A couple were just awkward. In one instance, it didn’t feel like a romance was brewing, but I made a friend. (Hey, Kevin!) But I was tired, and I was just done. I’d already committed to meet this one last guy, and I thought it would be rude to cancel. So I found myself walking into a restaurant that October 25.

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TJ was handsome. He was sweet. He was adorably nervous. I’d soon find out that I was his first date back on the scene after his own marriage ended.

“Oh my gosh,” I said. “Are you okay? The first date back is terrifying.”

He laughed. “Thank you. You’re right. It is.”

Just two days later, TJ met me for lunch downtown. He showed up and told me he had a gift for me, and he promptly presented me with a bag of cheddar cheese curds.

A message to my friend after lunch: “He showed up with cheese. I’m pretty sure I’m going to marry him.”

A year would go by before we’d spend more than two days apart. (But don’t get any funny ideas about that marriage thing – we’re quite happy just as we are.)

I often hear from people that falling in love again somehow negates the past or means that I should no longer be grieving. Or that it means I didn’t really love my husband in the first place. Or that I couldn’t really love TJ. Somehow, there is still an idea floating around out there that a person should only love one person in a lifetime.

These comments slice like knives. I met my husband during my first week of college. We were best friends for nearly four years before we started dating, near the end of my senior year at the University of Iowa. When he died, we were approaching six years of marriage and ten years together. I had, quite literally, spent pretty much my entire adult life loving this man. How could that possibly mean nothing?

A few years before he died, Dan and I were talking about what would happen if one of us died young.

“I’d never love again,” I instantly replied.

He paused. “For your sake, I really hope that’s not true.”

And it wasn’t.

Falling in love again doesn’t mean I don’t grieve, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not still hurting. I miss my best friend. I miss the life we shared, and I miss the promise of a future and children that never got to be realized. Falling in love again does not change this. It does not make the trauma any less severe. It does not make the pain of the past go away.

But I do not live in my past. I live in today – and falling in love again has made my today pretty great.

Loving TJ has given me so much. It’s allowed me to understand that losing a great love does not mean I cannot experience great love again. To understand that endings do not mean that no new beginnings are possible. To understand that after great darkness, there can be light again.

TJ and I have shared game nights and 5Ks in tutus and Disney World and dancing in the street. He brings out the best in me, keeps me grounded when I’m anxious, and loves it when my inner child comes out to play – preferably with Legos.

His kind heart and genuine concern for every person he meets bring me joy I hadn’t known in a very long time.

I have learned that love is not a zero-sum game. To give it to one does not take it away from another. I spent ten years in love with Dan. His place in my heart remains, and always will.

TJ’s presence in my life has not made Dan’s grow smaller. It has simply made my heart grow larger. As humans, we have a somewhat infinite capacity to love. When a mother has a second child, she loves the child as much as the first, and she does not love the first any less.

This is the life I’m living today. Together, TJ and I are building a new chapter of our lives. We love each other fully and completely. We live for today, because we know that today is the only one we are guaranteed.

Obviously, I certainly would never wish anyone an early or traumatic end to a marriage. But there is something somewhat magical about having been loved – and getting to love – two different men so deeply in this one short lifetime.

As the anniversary of the worst day of my life approaches, I know that my heart has grown larger. That I have experienced love and compassion and joy beyond what I knew was possible. I am strong. I am loved. I am grateful. And I remain, as ever, determined to shine.

Kraftin’ Kimmie Showcase & Class Sneak Peek

I’m excited to be participating in today’s Release Day Blog Hop for Kraftin’ Kimmie Stamps this month. This project features the new stamp set Floatin’ Fiona, released yesterday.

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This stamp set takes me to my happy place – I love the beach, the ocean, and sitting by the lake. There is nothing that calms me quite like the water.

In addition to showcasing this fabulous new stamp set, this project is also a sneak peek into Be Your Own Inspiration, our upcoming online class.

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sideviewThis project comes together super quickly and has a lot of flexible options – use it as an art journal, a scrapbook, or a combination of both.

In class, you’ll find step-by-step video instructions for creating this project, as well as tons of ideas on how to turn it into a meaningful book as you explore what matters most to you.

 

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Head on over to Kraftin’ Kimmie Stamps to pick up this awesome stamp set!

And be sure to check out our class page to learn more about Be Your Own Inspiration and sign up to win a free spot in class.

Enjoy and happy crafting! 🙂



…And We’re Back!

Welcome to the all-new Determined to Shine! Many of you have been waiting for our new site for more than a year, and I’m proud to announce that the dream is becoming the reality. As requested, all of the posts from the old blog have been transferred over to this new site. I hope you enjoy our new site design.

I’m also excited to announce that Be Your Own Inspiration, the very first online class offering from Determined to Shine, will be open for registration on June 15.

If you’re new here, I recommend reading my original introductory post, Time for the Truth. Even though it’s three years old, my story and my vision for Determined to Shine remain very much the same.

So much more coming soon. Stay tuned. 🙂

Two Years Later

It was two years ago today. Two years ago that I found him. Two years ago that everything changed.

Last year on this day, I did not stop to grieve. Although in fairness, I hadn’t really ever stopped grieving. I was still in the middle of that every-single-day-every-single-minute pain, even as I was working toward building a new future. I was still out in the middle of that fight with myself, determined to find a way to stay above water and somehow forge a new life.

I also just really didn’t want to talk about it. I thought that, of all days, this was the one I didn’t want to give any attention. I’d think about celebrating him on his birthday. On my wedding anniversary. On any day but this day. Any day but the one that wrecked us all to our bones. Those other days passed, though, and for the most part, I stayed silent on those days, too.

But this year, everything is different. Maybe it’s because I’m not as angry. Because I’m somehow finding some peace, at least most days. Because I am finally moving past so much of the fury and blinding pain that I can start to focus on who he was, and not just what he did.

It’s a hard transition, though. The last two years of my life have been defined by widowhood. Every single decision I’ve made has been a direct result of the fact that my husband died.

When I first moved to Wisconsin, I found myself always having to answer questions like “So did you leave someone special behind in Iowa?” and “What made you decide to move to a state where you don’t know anyone?” These were casual questions, but they did not have easy answers. It was always an internal battle of what to say, how much to say, and whether or not I could bear the look on their faces when I explained that I was a widow. And then, trying to find some way to nicely say “Well, yes, it was horrible. But I’m okay now. Except I’m not. Well, I mean, I sort of am. I mean, I’m trying. I think I might be eventually. Maybe.”

Over and over and over again.

Yet somehow, in the midst of a battle between mind-numbing grief and the strength of my heart, I built that life I was so determined to create. My job ended up being a perfect fit, and I love my city – I work in the heart of Big Ten country, surrounded by sports, seemingly endless gluten-free food options, and two lakefronts. The friendships I’ve built are beyond comparison. From my very first friend, the one who took me out to lunch during my first week in Madison and simply said, “So do you want to be outside-of-work friends, too?” to my very best friend, the one who has seen me through tears and anger along with laughter and joy. They are both strong and true friends that I am proud to stand beside.

And yes, I did fall in love again. Our relationship is strong. He is kind and intelligent. Talented beyond measure. Unafraid of silliness. Slow to anger, quick to laugh. Willing to dance during joyful times and cry during difficult ones.

My life, it seems, is quite good indeed. I have created a new chapter.

So it’s interesting, then, that on this particular two-year anniversary, the pain of remembering feels stronger than ever. I’m learning that grief is this long, tricky spiraly thing. I’m also learning that the process of going through it may never be complete.

Perhaps it hurts so much because I have come so far forward. The further I get from everything that happened, the easier it is to see it all clearly, and to see the finality of it all. And this where I get stuck. Stuck between living the legacy of his love and the aftermath of his death.

I am so very tired of remembering his death. I want to remember his life. Because before there were two years of pain, there were ten years of love.

I have wanted, since that very first moment two years ago, to use my words to craft a eulogy. To tell everyone what a good man he was. How he spent his professional career building up others – first those with mental and physical disabilities, and then those with substance abuse issues. I want to talk about his love for NASCAR and baseball, and to make people understand the heartbreak he went through every time the Hawkeyes lost. I want everyone to understand how excited he got playing FanDuel while watching NASCAR races. I want people to understand how deep his faith was, and how I’m hopeful, even in the moments before his death, that he still felt that faith come alive. I want to talk about inside jokes from college full of folic acid and garden gnomes. I want to talk about pirates and fishing and freezers full of deer meat and the first time he saw the ocean.

I want to tell his stories. About that one time in North Carolina when he tried to swim out to a boat in the ocean because it had his favorite NASCAR driver’s logo on it. About the time we took our niece to the zoo. About the way he liked to dig in the sand, saying he was searching for buried treasure. About how during the Iowa flooding in 2008, he was on campus every night filling bags of sand, trying to save the university he loved from the rising water. About how complete he finally seemed the day we brought our Beagle, Gracie, home from the breeder. About the time he proposed at sunrise on one of the prettiest beaches in the world, and I was so excited that I screamed “Oh my God!” to everyone who could hear, and actually missed hearing the most important question he’d ever asked me. These are the stories I want to remember today.

But these are not the only stories I have.

Because as I try to honor his life, I can’t ignore that I live in a world where I deal with his death every day. I live in a world where every time I have to fill out demographic information, I check this weird box marked “widowed.” I live in a world with a dog who still whimpers when she hears his name spoken aloud. I live in a world where images of guns (and they’re everywhere) conjure images of his dead body in my mind. I live in a world where news of the latest mass shooting makes me understand not only how the survivors feel, but what they had to see. These are not the stories I want to remember today. But they are ones I live every day.

And so I remain, stuck in this in-between land of fond memories and painful ones, of remembering who he was with great love and remembering what he did with great pain.

But I am trying. I don’t yet know the way out of this in-between place. But I know that every day, I move closer to peace.

I know that if I could go back to the beginning, to that day when he asked me to marry him, I’d still say yes, even if you told me it would end like this. Because the ten years of love were worth it.

His life taught me the value of serving others, the importance of faith, the necessity of puppies, and above all, the endurance of love, even in difficult times.

His death made me understand my own strength – both of my heart and of my faith. It made me understand the sheer importance of getting up every day just to experience what life has to bring. It made me understand that I am worth it – that we are all worth it. That a world of possibility exists, if only we can somehow take hold and enjoy the ride.

It was, so sadly, the act of taking his life that caused me to realize the value of my own.

And so, here I am. This is where I’d normally wrap up my blog post with something inspirational, probably in pink text, letting you know that above all, I’m doing well and that my life these days is full of pink sparkles and glitter.

I don’t have those kinds of words today, and pink sparkles and glitter live only in my craft room. Today is a day of grieving, and I will treat it as such.

And so I can leave you only with this: the knowledge that every day, I wake up in this brand new place that is not so new anymore, simply trying to live the best life I can for as long as I can. Trying to live a life of love and joy, but allowing myself to feel pain and sorrow when it makes sense.

This is my life. A life I love, a life changed forever by the life – and death – of the man I dearly loved.

And today, I simply miss him.

When it’s (not) all my fault

So. Five months have gone by since my last post. I was actually planning to take this blog down, convinced my vision had changed, not so sure I needed it anymore. So what have I been doing? Living my story. I am still figuring things out here in Wisconsin, but the dust seems to be settling, and for the first time in almost two years, I have a routine again. A great job with amazing co-workers. Real friends. A kickball team. And yes, even a new romantic relationship. Wisconsin has surpassed my expectations, and life here is better than I imagined it could be.

But there has been a cost, and it’s been a steep one.

I’ve mentioned before that not everyone has agreed with my decisions. That some felt I was running away. That it was too soon for me to be involved romantically again (after a year and a half).  That I should stay in Iowa. That I should stay in grief.

For the most part, these voices were a minority. But the fact that they came from people I loved so deeply has been an unbearable pain, nearly as significant as the loss of my husband.

I tried to convince myself their opinion didn’t matter. I kept pushing forward. I kept following my heart. I thanked God every day for the friends who were sticking by me, cheering me on. And it worked well, for a time.

But then, well, that thing happened, and everything kind of fell apart. Just a couple of weeks ago, very publicly, I was accused of failing to prevent my husband’s suicide. More privately, I was told that my husband’s suicide was a direct result of the fact that I failed to be present when it happened. In short, I was told that it was all my fault.

All my fault.

And just like that, it was like it had just happened yesterday. And all of the pain that had begun to feel so far away rushed up to the surface.

I remember it all. I remember the screaming. I remember the keening from deep within me, and not knowing such sounds could come from my mouth. I remember my legs giving out so many times, as I would simply fall to the floor, unable to comprehend how any of this would ever be okay.

I remember what it looked like when I found him. I remember calling 911. My driveway filled with police cars. I remember hearing the officer making the call for his parents to be notified.

I remember realizing I was a widow at 31 years old.

I remember planning a funeral for the man that, 48 hours before, I had been planning to have a child with.

Mostly, though, I remember that for quite some time, I lost my desire to do anything at all. I remember everyone telling me how strong I was, but how I’d never felt so weak in my entire life.

Every. Single. Thing. I’d ever cared about or hoped for was gone. I woke up exhausted every day from crying in my sleep. I somehow got myself back to work, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. My heart wasn’t in anything anymore.

I tried. I tried so hard that I lied about it. Because I couldn’t take the constant sympathy, the constant barrage of people wanting to know that I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I was never going to be okay.

It was five months before I found a day without tears. It would be several more before that could happen two days in a row.

But I also remember fighting. Going to a counselor – twice a week for quite some time, weekly for almost a year – ready to do the work. Ready to heal.

Because even though I didn’t know how I could possibly find my way again, I had to believe it was possible. The only thing more terrifying than how I was feeling was the idea that I’d have to feel that way for the rest of my life.

And so I fought. SO hard. I mean, you just have no idea. For the better part of two years, I walked around feeling like I had my fists up and a sword drawn. I could not relax. I could not give in. I would survive. I had to survive.

And very, very slowly, I did. I went on dates (long before I was really ready). I left my job in search of bigger things. I painted rooms. I stepped out of my comfort zone, because I had no choice. I reclaimed my home, just in time to realize I needed to sell my home and move on. I stopped going on dates. I searched for jobs nationwide. I thought about the kind of place I wanted to live in. And at just the right time and in just the right way, I found myself headed to Wisconsin. I landed a job at one of the best universities in the nation. I found real friends who have supported me and cared for me, before and after finding out about my past. I began to relax my fists and holster my metaphorical sword. With the pieces of my life more in place, I took my chance on a few more dates. I fell in love again. And every single day, I have proof that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Which is precisely why the naysaying hurts so much. The idea that I ran away? The idea that I’ve forgotten?

I could not possibly forget. The events of the past 20 months have left me with scars I will carry for the rest of my life. The pain was unspeakable and unimaginable. And of course it was. I put on my brave face out of necessity. But please remember that I lost my husband in the worst way possible. And that I found him, shot to death by his own hand.

I will never forget.

And when I am told it’s all my fault? I don’t just feel blame for the fact that he’s gone. I feel blame for all that his death did to me – what it did to so many people. For the aftermath that is still felt by so many.

I did not know that after all of this time, after all of this healing, that it would ever be possible to feel that wounded again. I was wrong. I cried in my sleep again. I felt it all again. I lived it all again.

For the record, I do not blame myself for my husband’s death. My husband was a victim of suicide. I firmly believe that. There are no words to describe how much I wish he would have asked for help. That he would have let someone know that he was hurting. But he didn’t. He chose to carry his burden alone. He was a victim of suicide, but he was also the perpetrator. It is a hard thing to accept, to be certain. But that does not change that it is true.

Despite knowing this, I’ve been carrying the extra weight of this accusation around for the last several weeks. Trying to find my strength again. Learning that I must live with the fact that there are individuals who place blame on my shoulders – and that there will likely be nothing I can do to lift that burden. Resigning myself to the fact my relationships with people I once dearly loved have ended. Grieving once again, in a very different way, for the loss of those who meant everything.

And so, once again, I find myself here, fingers on laptop keys, relying on the only thing I know that always seems to help, which is speaking out. Pretending everything is fine never quite worked out for me. At least I figured that out much more quickly this time around.

I think, though, that this may just be a part of the grief process that I didn’t know about before. That every once in a while, for the rest of my life, maybe it’s just going to jump up and bite me, catching me unaware in a time when everything seems to have fallen into place.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to be reminded of what I’m made of. We are all tested in the life, forced to endure things we shouldn’t have to face. And in many cases, those are battles we must fight alone. I have learned that the hard way. I remember it every day. But I have come out on top before, and I will come out on top again.

So I go forward. Knowing I already possess the strength to stand, and ready to continue loving the life I fought so hard to build for myself. Knowing that loss can wound me, and it can scar me, but it cannot break me.

Thankful that once again, even when darkness surrounds me, I remain determined to shine.

Where I’ve been. Where I’m going. And why it took me so long to tell you about it.

A little more than four months ago, I headed to Kansas City by myself for four days. I went because I needed to learn to trust myself. To make peace with my past. To understand where I’d been, where I wanted to go, and the fact that I could trust myself to get there.

I had started blogging just a month or so before my trip, and the blog became an outlet to share everything I’d been feeling and everything I was learning since my husband committed suicide. My hope was to inspire others to live their best lives regardless of circumstances – and I was humbled to receive emails that let me know many of you were doing just that.

Since sharing that trip with you, I’ve been mostly silent, save for one post marking the anniversary of my marriage proposal. Months have passed. Much has happened. And finally, for the first time in quite a while, I’m ready to tell you about it.

Simply put, Kansas City was a game-changer. I learned so much, so quickly. I had done so much healing and discovered this great big world of possibility. Kansas City felt like a giant blank slate on which I could write my new story. And then I went home. Where I discovered there was very little waiting for me. I had created a home full of positivity in the wake of despair. I had come to terms with everything that had happened. I had healed. But it was time to let go.

And so I made a decision to leave Iowa behind. To go back to work. To embrace and fully live the great big wide world that I now knew was waiting for me.

I cast a wide net and began looking for jobs across the nation, excluding my home state of Iowa. Applications were sent to more than 15 states. I didn’t know where I was going, only that it was time. Eventually it was down to two states, and then just one. And in the end, it wasn’t too far from home after all. I embraced my love of all things Big Ten and headed to Badger Country. (And within a week, I was at a football game. Naturally.)

Camprandall

I trusted that the right door would open at the right time. It did.

There’s a lot to say about that process. About believing that everything can work out and watching things fall into place. About choosing to uproot all that you have ever known and loved in favor of something that could be even better. And those blog posts are yet to come.

But for today, I simply needed to write again. To let you know that I’m doing what I set out to do. Every day as I walk across campus, I still can’t quite believe I’m here. I live in Wisconsin, where three weeks ago, I only knew two people. And today, I know at least forty. A handful of which –
one in particular – I believe may become lasting friends.

I eat lunch outside with new co-workers. I play kickball once a week. I tailgate and wear red and white. I go for long walks. I do cartwheels in the street. I notice the details. And I am genuinely happier than I have been in a very long time. And I am absolutely stronger than I have ever been in this lifetime.

I tell you these things not to brag. It’s not about the fact that my life is turning out to be quite awesome. It’s about the fact that life, for all of us, can be quite awesome. That wherever you are right now, no matter how bad things may be or how dark things can seem – you are not stuck.

We never have to be stuck. There is always a choice.

 A few weeks after my husband died, I realized that the worst day of my life was over. More than a year after my husband died, I realize that the best day of my life is yet to come.

I loved being a wife. I had hoped to be a mother. I had a life I loved and a future all planned out accordingly. But that world ended. I could choose to sit down and let that loss consume me, or I could choose to stand up and begin again.

Everyone grieves differently, and not everyone has approved or agreed with the decisions I’ve made. And a few of my most treasured relationships have suffered because of that. But at the end of the day, I believe in my heart that the best way to honor the memory of my husband is to live the most beautiful and adventurous life I know how to live.

So please, wherever you are at today, don’t give up. Know that beyond those tears, a whole world is waiting. Tell someone how you feel. Take that class you’ve always wanted to take. Get up off the sofa. Live your brave life – even when it’s scary and crazy and terrifying and hurts like hell.

The single most important thing I’ve learned in the past year and a half is that the human spirit is a bold and magical thing. We are far braver and tougher than we can comprehend. We can endure far more than we believe. And we can rise above even the deepest heartbreak.

Isn’t that what we’re all here to do, anyway? To experience all that life can bring us, and love the heck out of those we encounter along the way? What more could we possibly hope for?

I am still living my story. And sometimes, in those moments, I need to pause and reflect before I am ready to share. There is much I still have to learn and I know there is so much good yet to come, because I see it forming, little by little, with every new day.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude as I begin to watch my new life take shape. I am so thankful that I decided to take the risk, pack up my things, and chase down the life that was calling for me. And at least for now, I’ve found my brave, beautiful life right here in Wisconsin. Don’t be afraid to go find yours.

When it sneaks up on you

It’s been a while. I’ve had a lot going on. After I returned to Kansas City, I realized I had big choices to make about my future and where I’m headed from here. And as I lost myself in that process, I found that the writing simply wasn’t coming as quickly as it did when I first launched the blog. At first, that worried me. But as more days went by, I decided it was really okay.

Life is full of ups and downs, as is writing. I needed to wait until I had something new to say.

But then, I had one of those days. Well, if I’m being honest, I had two of those days.

I launched this blog with a pledge to be truthful. I was real about a lot of the pain I’d already gone through. And since then, I’ve spent a lot of time telling you about how I’m moving forward and how I work to emerge from darkness.

It’s absolutely the truth when I tell you that I’m in a good place these days. A few days ago, a friend told me she’d never seen me this confident in my entire life. And that’s real.

Every once in a while, though? A day – or two – can still just really suck.

I woke up Sunday morning after spending two days with one of my favorite women in the world. We had long talks, hit the town, watched our dogs play, and had an all-around wonderful time. I said goodbye feeling the happiest I’d been since my Kansas City adventure.

Then it started to creep up on me. I was watching the Indianapolis 500 – a tradition I’ve had since childhood, but one I’d come to share with my late husband during our years together. It was my first time watching an auto racing event since he passed away last summer. As I watched
his favorite driver take the win, it felt like everything had come full circle. I was okay. Or so I thought.

I prepared to move on with my day. But then, all of a sudden, it was hours and half a day later. And I was stuck on that damn couch again. So I decided to try once more, and I headed to the movie theater at 10pm to catch a film by myself. I hadn’t done anything alone since Kansas City, and it was a much-needed reminder that I can, in fact, be my own best company.

After a day of fighting, I went to bed feeling strong. And woke up on Memorial Day feeling utterly and terribly alone.

I made some phone calls. I probably sounded fine in all of them, though in reality, I stayed in bed until at least 1pm – something that hadn’t happened a single time since the day my husband died.

I finally staggered myself up around 3:30 and gave those 3 rules a shot. Shower. Clothes. The store to pick up some essentials. My mood picked up a bit. Until I went to leave the store, and the cashier asked, “Have any big plans tonight with friends or family?” Well, no. Thanks for the
reminder.

I hit Facebook, which I learned long ago is the worst thing to do when you’re feeling isolated – especially on a holiday.

I honestly can’t tell you how I spent the next few hours. I drifted in and out of sleep and sadness, unable to explain why this fog had chosen to descend on me today.

Then my head remembered what my heart had been feeling for the past two days. My husband proposed on Memorial Day weekend.

I wasn’t prepared for this one. I survived the first wedding anniversary without him. His birthday. Valentine’s Day. But this, the anniversary of the date when our lives together really began? I didn’t see it coming. I hadn’t made any plans to distract me, the way I had when I took my nieces to American Girl Place on my anniversary, or headed to a neighbor’s Christmas party on his birthday. I was just alone.

And just like that, for the first time in many, many months, I found myself on the floor crying once again.

That’s the funny thing about grief, especially after a great loss. Sometimes, when you least expect it, it hits you in the face and reminds you that you’re human and that this journey is not linear.

I probably should’ve seen this one coming. But honestly? The fact that I didn’t shows me how far I’ve truly come.  I’ve been so wrapped up simply in the stuff of life – making choices for my future, spending time with friends, and simply just living – that until it arrived, the significance of the date on the calendar just hadn’t crossed my mind.

So I wept.

But as I’ve learned so many times before, the thing about crying on the floor is that sooner or later, you’ve got to get up – even if you don’t have a Beagle who will give you a bath of puppy kisses until your tears stop.

And so, even though it took much, much longer than it had in quite a while, I got up. I made dinner at 9:30 pm. I watched a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Texted a couple of friends. And finished this blog post at 2:10 am.

Proving, once again, that it’s never too late in the day – or the journey – to get up and try again.

Here’s to getting back on track.

Kansas City, Day Four: Everything falls into place

My final day in Kansas City presented me with a unique challenge. Because I’d originally planned to drive home that morning, I had no scheduled destinations for the day. After checking out my options online and flipping through the “Visit KC” guide I’d grabbed in my hotel library, I decided to head to the Kansas City Zoo.

GorillaI wandered the two miles of trails at the zoo slowly and deliberately. I took time to notice the details. The colors on the bird’s feathers. The petals on a flower. I stared into a gorilla’s eyes for a while, wondering what he was thinking.

My heart broke for species so endangered only a few of them remain. I took a ride on the sky tram and sat for a while by a lake.

And as I walked and as I noticed, I was overcome by all of the emotion of the past four days – and of the past year. I sat down at a picnic table and pulled out my journal and a pen. I started to write. And I didn’t stop for two hours. And by the time I was done, I felt an inspiring mix of peace and possibility.

Lake
Feeling lighter than I’d felt in a year – or perhaps even longer – I headed back to Kauffman Stadium, where the sun was shining. There would be no rain out tonight. I revisited the Royals Hall of Fame, and made my way to my seat. Glove in hand and fully decked out in new Royals gear I’d picked up the day before, I sat down to watch the game. And it was like all was right in the world. There were so many memories here. I could hear my mother screaming for Willie Wilson like she was still sitting next to me. I could still picture the fireworks in the sky – the first ones I remember seeing. The crown scoreboard, the fountains in the outfield – everything was as it should be.

Stadium
And for the first time since my husband died, but maybe, really, for the first time ever, I felt whole. Healed. And fearless.

During my four days in Kansas City, I fell in love with the city again. But more than anything, I fell in love with the woman I became as I walked these streets. Unstoppable. Ready to take on new challenges and responsibility. Ready to grow. I realize that my life truly can be anything I want it to be. And where I go from here is entirely up to me.

I am the girl from Kansas City. And Annapolis. And Wheaton. And Iowa City.

I am the girl who sang on the rocks. The toddler who broke her arm falling out of a high chair while dancing. The girl who wanted a Mickey Mouse balloon more than anything. The girl who played softball and ran cross country. The girl who invented a radio station with her childhood best friend. The girl who played guitar and wrote a musical. The girl who moved to Iowa and became a Hawkeye.

I am the woman who is moving forward. Who can travel alone to a city and have a marvelous time. Who has accepted all that her life has been, and who has fallen in love with all that her life can be.

I do not know what tomorrow holds.

But wherever this journey takes me, there will be no holding back. There will be dancing in public and laughing hysterically. There will be adventure and spontaneity. There will be honesty and forgiveness. There will be unadulterated joy and raw, serious pain. And I don’t intend to miss a minute of any of it.

Because I am strong. I am unashamed. I am beautiful.

I am the girl who sings on the rocks. And I am ready.

Writing

Kansas City, Day Three: Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

After two days of exploring some of the best Kansas City had to offer, it was time to visit my childhood stomping grounds.

My first stop was the apartment complex I lived in from kindergarten through second grade. One of my earliest – and most precious – childhood memories takes place here. The apartments used to have these ponds throughout the grounds, surrounded by giant rocks. As a child, I’d climb on the rocks and sing at the top of my lungs. My “set” usually included hits from Annie and The Sound of Music, with a little early Madonna & Tiffany thrown in for good measure. The older residents of the complex would sit on their balconies, watching me and applauding, and I was on top of the world.

As I got out of the car, it was like re-entering a scene from so far back in my mind. The whole thing felt so surreal. I remembered seeing this place from my own eyes, not from photographs the way so many childhood memories are recalled. This had been one of my happiest homes.

Then, there they were – my singing rocks. Unchanged, just waiting for me to return 25 years later. They seemed smaller now. I remembered them being so large, so high – I was always afraid I would fall. This time, my footing was sure. I climbed the rock. And yes, I sang. Because the child inside me was aching for an encore. And because the woman I am today still had something to sing about.

Braveontherocks
I walked across the complex as showtunes continued to play in my mind. It was all so familiar. I grew up all over this country, but had never, until now, had the chance to re-visit a childhood home. An old man came outside to feed a 1-legged duck. I was surprised to find that old men still live there. It was like he was frozen in time, that nameless resident.

Ontheplayground

My next stop was my old elementary school. I arrived with Madonna’s song “This Used to Be My Playground” playing in my head, even though, well, I know it wasn’t really my playground. Surely after 25 years, the equipment would have changed. No matter. I snapped a photo holding my old yearbook from kindergarten. I took a turn on the swings. But then – and I almost missed them – I caught sight of those bars. Three metal
bars, all in a row, for flipping and swinging and probably even chin-ups. Those bars were still standing, still taunting me after all these years. I’d always longed to be able to really flip around on them, because even though I had no technical skills, I was a gymnast at heart.

As it turns out, at 32, I still have no technical skills. It seems I’ll never conquer those bars, but I have conquered far greater things, and that’s what really matters.

My final stop was the first house I’d lived in as a child in Kansas City, from ages 2 to 4. I recognized it instantly, but I believe more from photographs than from my heart. The new owners were flying a flag outside for the University of Kansas, which made everything seem right somehow.

As I drove away from the places I’d called home, I took the time to really notice my surroundings and take in all of the places I’d remembered. A piece of me was still here – would always be here – and this place had left its mark on me, way back then, and most certainly today. It made me wonder. Where is my home, really? Back here in Kansas City? In the empty house that waits for my return in Iowa? Or is home, for me, something bigger than just a city? I wonder what this means for my future, and I don’t yet have the answers.

I split the rest of my day between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. When I see beautiful art, it somehow connects me to that place in my soul that tells me what I’m really longing for, what is deep inside. It makes me understand how I am human and life is so fleeting. I viewed paintings from the 1400s. A mummy from before Christ. What am I going to leave behind?

I spent hours in the galleries, walking miles in the process. I felt so peaceful, so calm. Yet so full of life. Because I still have so much to do. I must stop wasting days because I have so much life to live and I want to fill every moment with joy and color and words. I sense that something big is coming, but I don’t know quite what it is yet.

Artmuseum
As I head back to the hotel and reflect on the day, I realize that something significant has happened. The “old me” and the “new me” have converged. We are one and the same. I am just Ally. I have learned lessons. I have been battle scarred. I have been through hell and back. I have grown so much – but I am no longer certain I have changed at all. I still climb rocks. I still burst into song. I still throw my hands out and smile. I still believe that life can be magical and a pond can be an audience. And old Ally was tough, too. She didn’t have all the skills she needed and she made some wrong turns. But she gained knowledge from her mistakes, and she survived. And here she is today. Here I am today. I was the little girl who sang on the rocks. And I still am.

Coming up: My final day in Kansas City. I head to the zoo, finally see the Royals play, and for the first time in nearly a year, I feel like life makes sense again.