27. In Conclusion

When I was 19, most of my friends were alcoholics and addicts. None of us had futures plotted out. None of us believed our lives merited such worth. We tended bars and waited tables and partied hard in between. We were surviving, scraping up affection wherever we could get it- often through one-night stands and drunken, sloppy affirmations of loyalty. Our lives had been sideswiped in some way or another, a parent left or lost, a messy divorce, a ride through the foster system, abuse, abandonment, neglect. Few had much family to speak of. Even less had someone who believed in them. Some had dropped out of high school, others failed out of community college. The fundamental rule between us was that we expected little and judged less. 

I crawled inside that existence with my entire being. It was the deepest sense of belonging I had experienced to that point in my life. It was tinged with booze and smoke and a sort of gritty film of filth, but it felt like a cocoon, a place to hide inside without anything pressing in on you. There was no failure there. No one to disappoint. Just highs where you could get them and someone to be with during the lows that followed.  

One night, while smoking outside a beach bar I was too young to be at, one among our crew turned to me and asked, “what are you doing here?” I thought he meant there at that particular bar, and I answered accordingly. He looked back at me and said, “no, here… like this.” He nodded at the beer in my left hand, the cigarette in my right. And then he looked directly at me. “You can get out of here,” he said. “The rest of us, we’re stuck. This will be our life in twenty years. But you can do better. I can see it in you.”

At the time, I felt mortified, as though he was calling me an outsider. An anxiety sprung up in me that if I didn’t belong there, I didn’t belong anywhere. There was nowhere else I could go. But his words took seed inside of me. I played them over and over in my head, parsed them for truth, wondered what it was he had seen. Three years later, at 22, I entered college for the first time. I was terrified and older than most of my classmates, but I discovered an ability in myself that I hadn’t before known existed. 

That conversation remains one of my most precious memories, so much so that I’ve only shared it once or twice. I still feel a sense of shame about it- that maybe I was an impostor all along. And also, I feel the jolt of having been so profoundly seen during a time when I was trying my hardest to be invisible. It scares me to think of it. But those words have pushed me through these past twenty years. 

I feel a new terror now, entering a Ph.D. on what will be my 39th birthday. I have this urge to run away from it all and from my kind, clean friends (what an adjective!), to return to that beach, a little dirty, be anonymous again, to have no one expect anything from me, to be safe from disappointment, to count loss as ordinary, and pain as mundane.

For the past few months, I’ve been swallowed up in shame. It’s an old story, and I’ve written about it here- the challenge that comes with friending and loving so many good, whole, joyful people. I compare myself. I envy their carefree natures, their easy joy and ready laughter, their optimism and ability to focus on the positive. I envy their stability and marriages, bank accounts and homes and cars and the sleep they get at night. I feel inept in this way, deeply ashamed that I am always calculating the loss, always tallying the things gone wrong and the ways that life is hard. I feel resentful too, like a spoiled teenager, jealous of the ease others have known and spitting at the unfairness of the hands we’ve each been dealt. 

So here’s the revelation I had during last week’s time away. 

I have experienced trauma… after trauma… after trauma. I have lived through vastly more shitty moments than any single person currently in my life., enough to reasonably become cold and hard and untrusting and despondent. And… 

I’m. Still. Standing. I’m still choosing to try. I’m still choosing to love, to believe in a better future, to work to make it hurt less, to stay open to those in my life, to make space for new relationships, to start over (again), to move forward, to change patterns and fears and beliefs and flaws. I have not let the darkness win. I have not let the hardness of it make me hard (or, at the very least, work to soften it as often as possible). I am living with the awareness of the imperfections I carry- often magnified in the presence of those who seem a little more perfect- but those imperfections have been shaped by losses and pain and a chaos that was out of my control. I choose to bear up under them, to allow them to be seen, to love myself in all the places I fall short, to be loved when I want to run and hide.

Without this perspective and in comparison, I am just a morose, pessimistic, exhausted individual who sometimes complains too much. And so I must celebrate this. I must remember this as a part of my story. Yes, I would like to be more cheerful, less anxious, and not always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But also… I am still managing to be this cheerful, this calm, and this confident that the good moments still outweigh the bad. 

I find myself so often wanting to apologize for needing so much of it… so much love and affection and comfort, so much time and energy, so many words. For needing this forum, this public validation of my grief, and you, my readers. That it has been given freely and without  judgment, I suppose means that each of you are somehow standing with me outside that bar at 19, scared and already weary of life. You are there granting me the courage to walk forward. 

You have carried me through this last year. Each of you, in your own way, has helped to make this all ok. You have enabled me to continue to believe. 

I know this will likely be one of my last posts for some time. Already, I am awash in the demands of school. And so, I want to end this with gratitude. It seems impossible to adequately express it or what this has all meant to me. Thank you for reading, for supporting, for your comments and emails and letters and encouragement. Thank you for making the space. 

I’m still smackdab in the middle of my story… my story… as though saying that is a reminder that I’m still here. This isn’t an ending or even a conclusion. It is simply an arrival. I’ve made it here. This is where I am now. 

Until next time, and with deepest gratitude, 

Dana 

26. Head and Heart

I know. I’m behind. I’ve avoided writing the last few weeks… because I want to write only good things. Because I get tired of the saga. 

I have realized something. For eighteen months I have been waiting for my life to return to what it used to be… for myself to return to who it used to be. I understand now that is never going to happen. There is a low grade anxiety, a sadness, that has become the undercurrent of my life. It tinges everything, makes life subtly more difficult and adds a level of exhaustion that I can never quite catch up to. This is the new norm. I’m not sure this is ever going to go away. Not because of my brother’s death. Because of everything that came before it. Because of genetics. Because of history. Because there is no such thing as a life without struggle. Because happiness is an emotion and not a state of being. Because sometimes, the cumulative effect of life is a curbed joy, a weight that simply becomes a part of our being.  

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25. All Things Made New

It’s my 25th post.

It has been nearly a year since I began this blog. The title of it… (un)tethered… was shaped by the profound sense of disconnection I had from my own life after my brother’s death. Not just his death but the abandonment of my vocation and, consequently, home. I had the sensation that I no longer knew who I was. Everything was inside out, as you witnessed.

For most of 2020, I felt I was standing outside my own life, examining each facet for meaning and truth. 

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24. The Work of the Living

Well, I had intended to post this weeks ago but, as I was still working through much of this content, it took me a little time to be fully ready. 

The rollercoaster of life continues to swing from big highs to deep lows (I’ll give an update on grad school at the end, for those who didn’t get the new via social media), but I try not to put too much stock in my feelings. My very awesome and incredible therapist reminds me often to pay attention to my thoughts and try to be intentional in the ways I direct them. For instance, that last sentence should be rewritten to eliminate the word “try” and simply say “be.” Because, apparently, words matter. OK, not apparently. Words matter. Period. 

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23. The Good, The Bad, The (very) Ugly, & the Redeemed

I had an entirely different post lined up for this week, but given the events of the last few days, I’ve decided to hold onto it and talk about this instead…

The Good

The highs and lows of the past few weeks have been so extreme that I never know how I’ll feel from one moment to the next. 

On the whole, I‘ve been sustained by an inexplicable sense of joy. These past three months home with my daughter and our pets have been so life-giving. I never thought I’d want to be a stay-at-home mom simply because I love working. But I see what a gift it is to be able to be so fully present in your children’s lives. Mostly, I’m grateful for the time and space to get myself grounded each day. It changes everything about the way I parent and the way I am able to shape my own internal growth. Sometimes, I walk around the apartment tingling with joy at how much I love my daughter, what a remarkable young lady she’s turning into, how grateful I am that we have this time together. 

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22. The Horizon

For those who follow me on social media, this will come as repeat news. It has taken me a few days to make it over to the blog for an update. 

The very excellent news is that I have been admitted to VCU’s Ph.D. in Education Leadership, Policy, and Justice. It is one of two programs I applied to. Last year, on the same day that my brother died, I received the news that my application had been denied. I didn’t know if I had it in me to reapply, especially with so much uncertainty on the horizon, but with the encouragement of a professor I collaborated with in the Fall, I decided to give it a shot. 

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21. January 27, 2020

The question I am asked most often is, “what happened?” What could have possibly led someone as outgoing, generous, and gregarious as my brother to take his own life? 

I think I understand that answer a lot more now than I did a year ago, though no one will ever be able to say exactly what was going through his head. I don’t know if it is for me to surmise, or to write about. Perhaps in time but certainly not yet. For now, I can only tell my story, witness the places where it overlaps his own. I keep moving from room to room, setting down and picking up items, looking out the window, sitting, standing. I am waiting for some revelation. I am trying to untangle the pieces. Time folds in on itself. The beginning and end and everything in between. 

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20. Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, mostly because I’m in a place to observe how I spend it. That is probably true for most of us lately.

I’ve been asked a few times recently how I’m spending my days. It’s a tough question to answer. Last week was slightly derailed by the third semi-move we’ve made in the last year. Roughly half our belongings fit into our new apartment, which is roughly half the square footage of our old one. The rest were stored in my mother’s garage, which was attached to the house that she just sold. With a closing date looming, it came time to sort the remaining things. What a strange thing to decide the emotional value of physical belongings. And I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to conjure the energy to do so if it weren’t for my dear friend Sara, whose ability to make one laugh in the midst of a poo-storm is absolutely remarkable. She deserves a special shout out today, because she made the absolute worst task seem like a simple afternoon of girl-bonding time, just as delightful as getting pedicures on a sunny day.  

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19. 2021

Hi. Me again. I wish I could say I woke up this morning hungover from the revelries of New Year’s Eve celebrations, but I was in bed by 10 last night. Instead, I woke up with what Brene Brown refers to as a “vulnerability hangover.” Last night was the first time, perhaps since I was four, that I didn’t stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s always been an uncompromisable tradition for me, but this year, I simply couldn’t muster the will. 

In reflecting this morning with a little more clarity and grace, I understood something deeply significant. 

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18. The Bleak Midwinter

December 25. Christmas Morning. 

I get up early to start breakfast. I make my daughter her favorite hot chocolate- lactose-free milk topped with fresh-made whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg. I want it to look picturesque and abundant, as though I might cram all my best intentions and care-worn love into that single cup. By the time she comes downstairs, the whole of it has grown cold. And anyway, she says, her stomach hurts. It sits forgotten, the fluffy white peaks caving in on themselves. Unwanted, unneeded. I take this in. Motherhood, the teens years.

Her godmother and grandmother arrive, and we watch as she slowly works her way through the piles of wrapped boxes and stuffed bags. We have each overcompensated for this shitty year by buying a few extra things. Still, she is grateful. Still, it seems normal and cozy and worth the effort. 

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