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.

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.)

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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.

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.