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.

wedding

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.

1536598_10100570765414023_409739588_n

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.

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.

Kansas City, Day Two: I am not a Cubs fan

It started by sleeping later than I’d planned. I was going to be late. Late for what? This was my trip. My rules. So I changed the itinerary. And it was ok.

I headed to the Hallmark Visitor’s Center, which contains a museum of all things Hallmark and celebrates this history of the company that cares enough to send the very best. As a person who’s fascinated by card-making and postcards, the entire center was amazing to me. I loved seeing how Hallmark grew from a man with a dream to the awesome company it is today.

And yes, I had WAY too much fun with the video screen that puts various Hallmark crowns on your head and then emails the photos to you. Over and over and over.

Crowncollage
Then, after spending a somewhat ridiculous amount of time in what I nicknamed “the crying booths” – booths containing video screens that played sappy Hallmark commercials on repeat, I headed over to Hallmark Live, to meet the creators of hoops&yoyo.

Now, if you’re not familiar with hoops&yoyo, you really should be! These inspiring, silly characters never fail to bring me a smile, even on sad days. Check out their video message just for you:

At Hallmark Live, the creators of my very favorite animated duo were on site to chat about their creative process and sign autographs. I loved meeting them. I let them know how much hoops&yoyo had made me smile during the past year, and that it had been a hard one. I shared a little of my story. I got a little emotional. And I think they did, too. The thing is, us creative types – writers, artists, musicians – we create something hoping it will make a difference, and we put it out there. But we just never know how it’s going to impact someone. So I really just loved the chance to say “thank you” for creating such happy, wonderful characters that had brought me so many smiles.

Hoopsyoyo

From Hallmark, I headed to Union Station, and then on to the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. But then, just like that, it was time to head to my favorite and most-anticipated destination of the trip: Kauffman Stadium.

Though I’d been in Kansas City for two days now, the stadium was the first time I encountered a place I truly remembered. As soon as I saw it from the highway, I just started crying. Even though it was slightly rainy, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Every time an employee asked “How are you” I replied with this giant smile, “I’m amazing! Thank you!”

RoyalsI’d arrived early to explore the stadium. I headed first to the Royals Hall of Fame, now part of the stadium. I saw George Brett’s bat from his 3,000th hit. The ‘85 world series trophy. And a vintage memorabilia case holding a 1985 duffle bag – the exact same one that’s hanging from a hook in my closet right now. “Oh my gosh, I have that bag!” I exclaimed to
jealous looks from all around.

I headed to the stadium shop – because naturally, I’m going
to need to stock up on Royals gear before I head back to Iowa. As I walked through the store, surrounded by all that blue & white, and overwhelmed by childhood memories, I suddenly burst out “Oh, my God! I’m not a Cubs fan!” A few people laughed, and many just looked at me strangely.

Because here’s the thing. When people ask me about my favorite team, I’ve always said, “The Chicago Cubs. And the Royals, too, you know, from when I was a kid.” And when people ask which one I’d cheer for in a Cubs-Royals world series, I laugh it off and refuse to pick – because seriously? Like that would ever happen. But as much as I love Wrigley Field and the Cubs, I realized, after all this time, that the Royals truly are first in my heart. My childhood heroes were George Brett and Bret Saberhagen. All of my first memories of sports – of cheering, of fireworks, of what it means to love to win – were here in this very stadium. I have been an avid sports fan for my entire life – and it all started by being a Royals fan first.

Even though I have a seat just 13 rows from the field, I walk up the spiral walkway to the upper deck. I loved running up the walkway as a child, and I was still just trying to take it all in. Even more than hour after I’d arrived, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. A staff member takes a photo of me with the stadium in the background.

Stadium
And then I see it. Right there on the scoreboard. The game has been cancelled for rain. It had been misting all day, but they kept saying the game would go on as planned, so I’d held out hope. But here was the kicker. The game had been postponed until Sunday night. And I was supposed to be driving home on Sunday morning.

I head back to my hotel. I am nearly shaking. I don’t like it when things don’t go according to plan. And I have no one here to talk me through this. No one to tell me what to do. I mean, we’re talking about the woman who typically struggles making simple purchase decisions without running them by someone else. But this was exactly why I was here. To stand on my own feet and know I can make decisions and face the world on my own.

I do a gut check. I decide that I didn’t drive for five hours to NOT see the Royals play. I am going to stay. I go to the hotel office, I call Camp Bow Wow, where my dog is spending the weekend. Arrangements are made, and the plans are changed. But I’m exhausted from the process.

I make a decision to call the one friend who knows I am here. I am not going to ask her advice and I’m not going to overanalyze. But I would like, quite simply, just to talk to my friend.

I’d been learning things like crazy for two days. How to be better at talking to strangers. To ask for help taking photos. To ask questions instead of wander around afraid. To make decisions about rained out games. To tell a man I’ve never met that he looks great when trying on a Royals jacket. My confidence is soaring. I’m SO going to make it. I’ve totally got this.

But it was in this moment that I also realized how important relationships really are. And I was so, so glad that my friend had my back, and she was there to listen and chat when I needed her. Yes, I’m going to live this brave new life on my own terms. But it’s all about discovering a balance. I don’t intend to live a life alone and I have no intention of cutting people out of my life. Going to Kansas City was about taking off the training wheels. I needed to find out that my bike wasn’t going to fall over when I rode down the hill alone. That said, I sure I am glad for the people riding along the trail with me.

Tomorrow: Day Three – I visit my childhood homes, my elementary school playground, and contemplate where my life is going from here.

My super-secret Kansas City adventure: Day One

Just shy of three weeks ago, I made a big decision. It was on the heels of my “Oh, crap. Now what?” post, in which I talked a lot about the fact that I haven’t been great about trusting myself.

I decided I needed proof – evidence that I was going to be just fine. That I really could do anything I wanted. So I decided to remove myself from my comfort zone and learn that I really could stand on my own two feet. Make decisions. Make memories. And finally trust that I am the strong woman I believe myself to be. And removing myself from my comfort zone meant removing myself from my city.

So last Thursday, I embarked on a super-secret road trip. Gone were the days of running a decision by half of my family and my 18 closest friends. I told only one person where I was headed, and only because I believed it was necessary in order for the trip to be a safe, smart decision. But just like that, I was off – headed for a 4-day, learning-to-trust-myself trip to Kansas City.

Why KC? I lived there as a young girl. It’s where I fell in love with sports. And music. And I hadn’t been back since 1989, despite my many conversations about wishing to return to Royals Stadium. After all these years, It was time to go back. And I was off.

Bon Jovi and Taylor Swift kept me company on the 5-hour drive, though the hours didn’t seem to take as long as they should have. Sure, I’ve done things by myself before. Gone to movies. Even sporting events. But traveled alone? To a mostly unfamiliar city? This was totally new territory.

But from the moment I saw the skyline, I knew something was right. I totally HAD this. All of the things I’d been worrying about for months suddenly seemed so, so small. I was in KANSAS CITY. I mean, if could drive to Kansas City and have this adventure, have this amazing time, without anyone else, is there anything I couldn’t do?? I mean, really?

My first stop was the College Basketball Experience – home of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, along with several unique exhibits on the history of the game. But the best part? The full-size, NCAA-official court, just waiting for me and a basketball.

Basketball
My eyes lit up when I saw that court. Short of high school PE, I’ve never shot hoops anywhere but my own driveway. And I got to shoot on THIS court. THIS COURT! Regulation, tournament-style awesome. I love winning the game in my head when I play in the driveway, but it wasn’t so hard to imagine that it was real now. Oh, and by the way, those lines on the court are MUCH farther from the basket than they look on television – ALL of them. Free throw line? Miles away. Three pointers? Forget about it.

In the museum’s interactive challenges, I finally had the chance to make that buzzer beating shot, while a recorded announcer questioned whether or not I could. But when I finally sunk it, the crowd cheered, and it was pretty freaking amazing. 60-second free throw challenge? I got 4. Not very many, but not so bad for a girl who’s been shooting for only a few weeks.

After a couple hours of basketball, it was time to face the music – literally. Who knew the Grammy Awards had a museum in the same building as the CBE? Not me, but when I discovered it while leaving, I knew I had to go inside. I played an electric piano, tried my hand at heavy metal “screamo” music, and checked out the Beastie Boys’ classic video “Fight for Your Right to Party.” I remixed a classic Whitney Houston track. I saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket, as well as costumes worn on the Grammy stage by Cee-Lo Green, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna. Plus – Ray Charles’ grammy. The actual award. Seriously.

And yes, there was a light up dance floor where you could shake your groove to Michael Jackson. And if you’re wondering whether or not I hit the floor by myself, even though people were watching, and let it all out, well, yes. Of course I did.

Dancefloor
Dinner time. I had no real plan or schedule for my evening meal, but ended up finding my way to the Crayola Café at Crayola Kansas City.
Crayola1

This exists. EVERYONE gets placemats to color and crayons. It’s pretty much the happiest restaurant ever. I’d actually never eaten by myself at a “real” restaurant. I was struck by the silence that’s usually filled with conversation when waiting for your meal. Luckily, I had my placemat and crayons as a distraction.

Crayola2After eating, I explored the rest of Crayola Kansas City,
including the store and their fun exhibits. And then I saw them – right there by the door. As a kid, I’d always wanted one of those giant crayon piggy banks. But I mean, does anyone really ever buy those? Um, yes. As it turns out, they do. (I’m still figuring out where to put it in my house.)

I drove to the hotel. When I crossed the state line into
Kansas, I burst into tears. It was like I was finally home. I didn’t know Kansas was home – I’ve never really been able to claim anywhere as my hometown, because we moved so much growing up. But suddenly, all was right with the world again. Everything was as it should be.

As I drifted off to sleep, I realized something. In general, I spend a lot of time talking about “the girl I used to be.” But what if, underneath it all, underneath the past mistakes and the old pain – what if that little girl was still inside? The one who loves her Kansas City sports teams, wants a Crayola bank, and still thinks it’s awesome to dance to Michael Jackson? What if I’m not so far from the old me after all? What if little Ally has just been waiting for her cue? Waiting for
her time to know it was really okay to shine?

What if, indeed. It was something to think about, and something that would continue to be on my mind – and heart – for the next four days as I explored the city I once called home.

And that, my friends, was just the first day.

On the blog tomorrow: Day 2, including my trip to see the Royals play ball for the first time since I was a kid, an encounter with animated characters that pretty much rocked my socks, and learning to roll with the punches when things don’t go as planned.

Little victories

I didn’t write much last week. In fact, I didn’t do quite a bit last week. There was bombing in Boston. Then shooting. Then flooding here in Iowa, and more flooding in Chicago – which significantly hit members of my family and a few close friends. Then explosions in Texas.

There’s a reason I don’t often watch the news. The negativity, the heartbreak, the sadness. It weighs on me so heavily that it makes it harder for me to move forward and harder to see the light. So usually, I just turn it off. But last week, our nation’s heart was heavy, and it was hard to avoid.

PlayingthegameBut lately, there’s one thing that seems to make a difference. When the going gets tough, I do what anyone would do – I play basketball.

I play because I need a win. Even just for me. A chance to say “Yes. I did that.” For about an hour a day, playing basketball
lets me turn off all the noise in my head. There is just me. One ball. One hoop. One goal.

And since I play solo – nothing is standing in my way.

In the midst of grief, of loss, of trauma, victories are important.
Whether it’s giving yourself a high five just for leaving the house, celebrating a met deadline, or simply being stoked for that fabulous hair day, give yourself credit. You’re moving forward. You’re trying. You’re overcoming. You’re taking the shot.

When 2013 began, I declared it would be my best year ever. Because in the aftermath of 2012, didn’t I deserve something better? You bet I do. But four months in, things have not really gone according to plan. I have had some great highs, but there have been some incredible lows, including the loss of a cousin to cancer.

I’m learning that my best year does not mean my easiest year. I must keep showing up. Keep trying. Keep going for it, and trust that the payoff will be worth the work I put in.

When I’m playing basketball, there is nothing quite like that moment when my shot hits perfectly – nothing but net. All of a sudden, I’m in the NCAA tournament and it’s going to be me in the “One Shining Moment” video montage, winning the game with the buzzer-beater. (I’m not sure they even do that montage for women’s basketball, but that’s not really the point, is it?)

Theshot
In life, I know that I just have to keep showing up and putting myself out there. These days, that often means going it alone. Sometimes the stakes are high. Whether it’s leaving a job, traveling out of my comfort zone, or simply acknowledging my true feelings, I know that I have to learn to trust myself. So I go for those little victories. The completed to-do list. The published article. The day where, when I felt like I couldn’t, I found a way to get out the door. And yes, I go for those perfect, nothing-but-net shots with a basketball in my driveway – always believing the game is on the line.

And though it may not feel like these little victories matter, when you can pile up enough of them, all of a sudden, there’s a whole pile of proof that you’re just going to be okay after all.

Making the list.

It was a bad day in the middle of February. It was freezing outside and snow was everywhere. I was tired. I was grieving. All I could focus on was what a mess my world had become. I was not feeling very hopeful about my Brave New Life – in fact, I was just plain missing my Boring Old Life. I remember saying out loud that I just hated every single thing about my life and that I couldn’t think of one single good thing that had happened since I’d lost my husband. And almost as quickly as the words were out of my mouth, I realized what a huge, horrible lie that was.

Because there had been good things. And actually, plenty of them. When stuck in depressed-grief land, it’s sure hard to see them, but they’re there. As I’d already learned, life was going on – with or without me as a willing participant. And life, by nature, can bring thousands of wonderful moments, if only we stop to notice them.

So I decided to notice. And write them down. I was going to make a list of 100 of my favorite moments, people, and things that had come into my life since that day last June. And as I started paying attention, and began writing them down, I began to see the evidence I needed.

Now, I’m one of those people that believes in the gratitude journal. At the end of each day, I write down 3 of my happiest moments from the day. And that practice has helped me maintain a positive attitude for the past several years. But this list was different. It wasn’t just about day-to-day gratitude.

The list was about recognizing that since the day of his death, from the very first traumatic moment, there have been good things. I just had to be willing to see them.

So I started writing. Started listing. What’s on my list so far? Big things, small things, silly things. Things like this:

2. I rekindled a friendship with a college friend. We now talk all the time, and it’s meant a lot to me to have him in my life again.

13. I hung tacky ceramic vintage owls on my office wall. The husband never would have approved.

21. I bowled over 100.

29. I saw Rudy, my favorite movie of all time, on the big screen for the first time, thanks to Theatre Cedar Rapids’ vintage movie nights.

Shrek
30. I went to Shrek: the Musical. And bought Shrek ears. Because really, who doesn’t need Shrek ears?

33. I got 5 high scores in a row while playing Just Dance 2.

37. Gracie (my Beagle) still knows when I need puppy kisses and cuddles.

45. I wore an ugly Christmas sweater.

Cupidshuffle
49. I did the Cupid Shuffle while waiting to use a port-a-potty at an Iowa Football tailgate.

51. The best friend still listened to my heartache today. I’ve realized she isn’t going anywhere.

Cricketboy

55. I bet this guy $5 that he wouldn’t eat a dead cricket. And lost.

60. I sang really badly at karaoke night – and had more fun on stage than I could have possibly imagined.

Skeeball
61. After my previously scheduled plans went awry, I did what any normal girl would do – I decided to go play Skee Ball.

And the list keeps going. I try to add to it every week, and while I haven’t quite hit 100 things yet, I don’t plan to stop there.

I love the idea that maybe five years from now, even ten years from now, I’m still adding to this one list. I can imagine opening it up and adding item number 2,714. I have no idea what my future holds for me. Right now, it’s hard to predict beyond the next two months, let alone the next two years.

But what I do know is that if I keep adding to this list, the goodness in my life can only grow. And knowing that all of that good started after my very worst day is the most important piece of all. Because nothing can ever change what happened that day. But it’s my hope that years from now, I can look back at it, at all of this, and know that it was that day that gave me strength. Courage. Eventually, even hope. And that while that day was most certainly horrific, my life is most certainly not. And my list is all the proof I need.

Oh, crap. Now what?

Most of you are probably familiar with the five stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. In the 9 months since losing my husband, I’ll admit to experiencing all of these multiple times before eventually landing in the world of acceptance and healing. But I’ve noticed something. With no offense to Ms. Kübler-Ross, I think a 6th stage was inadvertently
left off the list. So meet grief, stage 6: Fear. Also known as “Oh, crap. Now what?”

Immediately after my husband’s death, there was just so much to do that there simply wasn’t time to mess around with fear. Arrangements had to be made. Services to be planned. Then things like deactivating cell phones and converting joint bank accounts. And in the months that followed, I spent a lot of time bouncing around between Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. I
followed my 3 rules and I did my best to get through each day. And eventually, I realized that
while I still had hard days, I’d come to terms with his suicide, and I was moving forward with life. Unlike the other stages of grief, stage 5 snuck up on me. I just realized I wasn’t angry anymore. Welcome, Ally, to the world of Acceptance.

Except it seemed it wasn’t meant to last. Almost immediately, this newly discovered stage 6 was upon me. Welcome, Ally, to the world of “Oh, crap. Now what?”

Now, those who know me well know that I can struggle with making decisions. I second guess myself a lot and I like to have a second opinion. On pretty much everything.  As a married person, this wasn’t often a problem. My husband got pretty used to weighing in with his opinion regarding whether or not I should go to that movie. Take that class. Have green beans instead of corn with dinner. Buy that color toothbrush. Or those post-it notes. (Seriously, everything.)

After his death, I found myself fully independent for the first time in my life. I started dating my husband when I was 21 – still in college and pretty much reporting to my parents (though I’d have told you otherwise if you’d asked at the time.) I realized I could do anything. And so many things entered my mind. All of a sudden, I could do whatever I wanted:

  • Watch 10 episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row without annoying anyone!
  • Leave the dishes in the sink overnight!
  • Buy that Dooney & Bourke purse I’ve wanted for two years! (Best. Decision. Ever.)
  • Move to Australia! (The best friend nixed that one pretty quickly.)
  • Take a cruise! (Did that. The best friend came along!)

And while this freedom took some getting used to, eventually it became pretty overwhelming. And I began to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to run every single decision by the best friend, my mother, my sister, or anyone else who was going to listen. I was really going to have to do some of this all by myself. Seriously? Oh, crap. Now what?

“Oh, crap. Now what?” started to appear pretty quickly. Sometimes, it was just a matter of learning to trust myself on the little things.

“I don’t know what to have for dinner! Oh, crap. Now what?” Chill, Ally, you like pasta. Make some
pasta. It’ll be ok.
Phew.

Other times, it was about learning how to handle the things in life that my husband used to manage.

“My grass is getting super long and I don’t know how to use the lawnmower! Oh, crap. Now what??” Dude, at least 10 people have offered to help you with yard work. Call one of
them and ask him to teach you.
Check. (And thanks, again, Todd!)

“My grass is long AGAIN and I KNOW how to use the lawnmower, but I can’t get it to start! I’m not able to pull the cord hard enough! Oh, crap. Now what? Oh, crap. Now what? (Frustration builds.) OH, CRAP. NOW WHAT?” I cried. I went inside. I tried again later. I found a man outside down the street to help. I mowed the lawn. I chose to invest in an electric-start lawnmower.

Over and over again, the life of a widow is filled with “Oh, crap. Now what?” I could decide to have steak for dinner, but I didn’t know how to use the grill (Oh, crap. Now what?!) I’d decide to hang a new picture, but I didn’t know where he left the level. (Oh, crap. Now what?!) I’d lose my cell phone and remember that there was now no other phone in the house from which to call it. (Oh, crap. Now what?!)

Eventually, I found my way through these small things – all of which, at the time, felt like very
big things.
You see, I was with my husband for 10 years. 3 years of dating. A year-long engagement. And just shy of 6 six years of marriage. Those 10 years made up the bulk of my adult life, and navigating it without that second opinion took some getting used to.

These days, I don’t tend to freak out over the little things anymore. But even now, I still live life with a case of “Oh, crap. Now what?” almost every day. Because life is constantly moving forward, and it’s taking me along for the ride.

“I want to go see Iowa play in the National Invitation Tournament, but I can’t find a friend to go with me! Oh, crap. Now what?” That one was easy. I went by myself. Turns out, I’m pretty good company.

“Okay, the tree shedding 1,000 branches into the front yard every time there’s a tiny bit of wind is getting old. Fast. He always liked yard work, but I CAN’T STAND THIS. Oh, crap. Now what?!” Suck it up. Or have the tree taken out. Either way, time to quit complaining.

“It’s been 9 months and I STILL don’t know where he left the extra key to the car. Oh, crap. Now what?” Time to call it a loss. Go get another one.

“I got asked on a date! OH, CRAP. NOW WHAT?!?!” Breathe. And call the best friend. I know you’re trying to be empowered and figure all this stuff out on your own. But seriously, she’s there for a reason.

So I’ll keep moving forward, and while I’m certain I’ll continue to freak out along the way, I maintain that it’s better to face the fear than to lie down and take it. And if my best days are truly ahead of me, I’ll be facing down a case of “Oh, crap. Now what?” for quite some time. And maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing. It means I’m growing. Moving outside my comfort zone. Finding my way into this Brave New Authentic Life. Getting out of bed. Living.

“I launched a blog. And I’m telling everyone my secrets. I even admitted that I went on a date! Oh, crap. Now what?” Calm down, woman. You totally got this.

Time for the truth.

If you’re reading this, you know me already. Chances are, you came here from my Facebook page. You might be an old friend from Illinois, or even Maryland or Kansas. You might be a crafty friend or someone who read one of my earlier books. You might be one of my closest friends. Even a member of my family. Regardless, I owe you an apology. See, I’ve been lying to you – and it’s time to get real.

There’s a good chance you know a lot of my story already. A year ago, I was happier than I ever thought possible. I was totally in love, I’d moved to a beautiful new home, and I had plans for a family and a future. On June 26, 2012, everything changed. My husband unexpectedly committed suicide. Just like that, my world was shattered. And suddenly everything was so, so different.

From the very beginning, I decided I would be strong. Because I was still here. To give in was to lose my own life, too, and I wasn’t willing to accept that outcome. I was determined. I would find a way. And even though I spent much of those first few months face down on the floor, I did
find a way. I put my brave face on. I was back at work in less than two weeks. I listened to everyone tell me how strong I was, how great I was doing. How proud my husband would have been, because he loved me so much. But if he loved me so much, how could he do this? It took time for me to realize that his death had nothing to do with me. That he was hurting in ways that were far beyond anything I could understand or comprehend. I found comfort in the fact that he was finally at peace. With God. But again, I was still here. And what on earth was I going to do now?

I pressed forward. In a lot of ways, life had already prepared me for this. This was not the time to lie on the couch and cry. Goodness knows, I’d spent enough of my life doing that already. Years of battling clinical depression in my teens and early 20s gave me tremendous coping skills. I’d beaten darkness once, and I was determined to do it again.  

So I tried new things. I went to hockey games and ballets. I started playing piano. I attempted kickboxing. I painted. I danced. I started volunteering. I even left my day job to pursue my life-long goal of being a writer on my own terms. These were all great things, but in so many ways, I was really just going through the motions. I was still so very broken. But all I could hear was everyone telling me how proud they were that I was doing “so well.” Perhaps most significantly, I could see the relief in their faces. They were just glad I was “okay.”

I think this is when I started lying to you. I really didn’t mean to. But I was so very tired and I just didn’t want you to worry anymore. I didn’t want to disappoint you. And I think I thought if I didn’t say how much I was still hurting, that it might not be true.

So I told you that I went to California. I shopped on Rodeo Drive, hugged Mickey and Minnie, and visited the set of Pretty Little Liars. I went to a Dodgers game to cheer on his favorite team. But what I didn’t tell you was that while looking at a sales rack full of Dodgers merchandise, I burst into tears and ran out of the store. And then I just stood there in the middle of the street, crying into my cousin’s arms, unable to comprehend how I could possibly go on like this.

I told you that I gave myself a great new home office and painted it bright yellow. I painted inspirational messages to myself on the wall before applying the first coat of paint. I even let you vote on whether a quote from Lewis Carroll or Wayne Gretzky would adorn the wall. And I told you that it’s most I’ve ever loved a single room in my entire life. But what I didn’t tell you was that cleaning out that room was the single most painful thing I’d had to face since when they had become too painful to look at. And now I had to sort through all of them – his clothes, our memories. A stick of deodorant that still smelled like him. Hand-me-down clothes from my sister’s children for the child we never got to have – the child that was supposed to grow up in this very room. Each stroke of yellow paint represented a bright new future, but it was also a reminder of the hopes and dreams that I’d now never realize.

I told you that I went on a cruise with my best friend. We laughed. We swam with dolphins and rode horses in the Caribbean Sea. We basked in the sunshine and spent hours doing nothing at all. I told you that it was the best vacation of my life. And it was. But what I didn’t tell you was how seemingly every live musician we encountered – on the boat or on the streets in the Caribbean – chose to play my wedding song as I walked by. I realized then, through tears, that there is no escaping this story. I became afraid that as I carve out a new life for myself and even look toward loving again, this pain might always be there, lingering in the background waiting to gnaw at me when I least expect it.

I didn’t tell you these things because I didn’t want you to worry. I wanted you to be right when you would tell me how great I’ve been doing. And truthfully, I just didn’t want you to have to know how horrific it really was.

It seems, however, that it’s time for a change. Time to stop pretending that every single day is a great one. Time to be a little more real.  Because here’s the thing:

You’ve asked me how my new work is going. Do I enjoy writing every day? Am I excited? And I smile, and put on my brave face, and what I don’t tell you is that I haven’t made much progress. Until today. Because the writing I dream of? It’s not fiction. It’s this. It’s about emerging from depression and grief to find ways to shine against all odds. It’s sharing my story with the hope that I can help others get out of their dark places, too.

And I’ve come to realize that if I really want to make a difference, it’s not enough to share just the good stuff. Yes, I choose every day to be a person who lives a life of joy. Yes, I’ve become a person who finds the silver lining in any situation almost automatically. I am able to see the sunshine brightly because I have seen the darkest places this world has to offer – and I reject the idea that I must stay stuck in them. But if I’m not real about those dark places, if I’m not willing to share the rough edges, then none of it means anything. If I truly want to be a person who can inspire others to get up and out of bed, even when they feel like they have nothing left to live for, then I absolutely must be clear. I have been there. I get it. I know what it’s like to lie paralyzed, so consumed by darkness that the idea of even lifting up your head from the pillow seems like an impossible task.

But I also know how to get up. Over and over again, even on the worst of days. And while it’s always easier to remain in bed, I will never stop believing that the world has more to offer. That my best days are ahead of me. That the future holds more beautiful moments than I can possibly imagine.

And so I will continue to press forward into my brave, beautiful, bold, and finally authentic life.

Because I am determined to shine. And if you are, too, I think I can help.