Shards of glory

Grief is an animal.
It greets you differently every time you meet it. You can try to meet it on your terms and with your timing. You can go prepared. You can bargain and bribe and bestow. But it’s an animal. It’s totally unpredictable.

Today is a big day on my grief calendar. But so far it doesn’t feel that way. And two weeks ago, on a day that had no calendar significance at all, I was snotting through Kleenex like it was the cool new thing.

Today is the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. And because my friend, Jennifer was always in tune with those dates, it is also the one-year anniversary of the last time I talked to her on the phone. Before the holidays got busy. And before she got sick.

I have been thinking about this year a lot lately. 2022. People often start the year with a focus word. One year I chose the word “intention.” Another year I chose “discipline,” which is a tiny bit comical in thinking about myself. Was I expecting a miracle? I didn’t choose a word for 2022, because 2022 got to make all the choices. It chose my words for me. Shredded. Shattered. Unraveled. Loss.
It took me apart.
But here at the end of it, I’m thinking back and looking forward and applying emotional glue and bungee cords to the pieces that don’t fit like they did 5 years ago, or one year ago.
I’m shredded, yes. I’m not the same me I was on December 8, 2021. And while I didn’t get to choose my circumstances–
Or my mother’s–
Or Jennifer’s–
I do get to choose what I’ll do about it all.
And being shredded still leaves me with all the parts. They’re just a little more unhinged, maybe, and don’t always line up like I’d prefer.

Some words for my 2023 might include therapy and prayer, because I’ve certainly been doing plenty of both. But the two words that have risen to the top of my short list are “acknowledge” and “accept.” I am acknowledging that loss is often hard and lonely and dark. It zigzags when I prefer to move in an upward, linear direction. My people help so much, but the grieving and the healing is a solo act. In some ways it feels like starting from scratch with nothing. I am acknowledging that this is where I am and accepting that it’s okay to be here and start from here. I don’t plan to stay here. Acknowledge.
Accept.

And though this past 11 months has hobbled me at times, I would be remiss if I didn’t give equal time to the beauty I’ve witnessed. I lost Jennifer. And there are no words I could arrange to convey the value of that friendship or the depth of that loss. But I gained perspective and people that I didn’t have before.
I gained her sister and her daughter and her mother and her friends.
I gained her kids’ friends.
I gained a new anchor in my faith that wasn’t there before.
I gained a solemn appreciation for how short–and how sweet–life is. I try to notice everything.
I gained the absolute assurance that she is with God and He is with me.
And for 3 decades, across marriages and children and celebrations and tragedies, I had her by my side. I had the best friend.

Last week, I was standing in my kitchen looking out on the Hillsborough River. It is a different river every day and I never get tired of looking at it. This time of year, the Cypress trees do their best to participate in Autumn. And the last hour of daylight casts them in their best color, with hues of orange and yellow deepening in the waning light. It occurred to me as I stood there that the most beautiful moment for a tree comes when it is about to drop its leaves. They are brilliant because they are dying. There is grace and sweetness in the end of something. The threshold between life and eternity is a sacred plot of ground.

So I scratched out my thoughts about that. And I thought again about the year ahead. There will always be darkness. I can’t know when or how I’ll run into the animal of grief. But I can look for the light and I can carry the light. My mother taught me how to do that. Jennifer modeled how to do that like no one I’ve ever seen. And in the shadows, God has given me people who are bright when I flicker. It is enough.

So things are different this year. I am different this year. And maybe I’m starting from scratch, in the sense that the ingredients are different and my structure has changed.
But I’m not starting with nothing.
I’m starting with everything I need.

The Color of Surrender

To let go of the green–does it hurt?
To let the November gold climb up your trunk–does it feel like dying?

Do you know you are beautiful?
You are beautiful.
Never more so that now,
Right now,
In your surrender to what is.

The last hour of the day crawls up through your branches
and shoots out through your leaves,
reflecting a relinquishing light
in shards of glory.

Island Time

I had a bite of French toast in my mouth this morning when I glanced up at the TV in the corner of the diner. A reporter stood in the snow wearing a parka. The headline was snow related. And the weather map was snow related, showing all the places that were under a thick, fleecy blanket of snow. Even Tampa was in the 60s. I looked down at myself and finished my bite. I was wearing short sleeves, as I had been for days, and hadn’t even packed a jacket.

I’m in the Florida Keys, where the wind moans through the mangroves like a wounded animal. It would be terrifying to ride out a hurricane down here, but this place is otherwise brimming with charm. They set their own thermostat, as most cold fronts don’t have the stamina to slide this far south, and meander to the beat of a slower, more fluid drummer. They call it Island Time. It’s a different world. I don’t hate it.

Within the first 16 hours of being gone, three of the five of us received phone calls from people back home that sent us reeling. Each phone call rated differently on the scale of hassle and catastrophe. By the third call, we stopped in our tracks to pray together.

Each phone call and each activity seemed to have an embedded flow chart of cause and effect. Each one had a cluster of options within it that opened like nesting dolls as we asked questions of each other. The lessons seem to be flying at us like tumbleweed. Some of these life lessons might be considered trivial or unnecessary, like:

  • Don’t fall asleep amongst friends. Not on a park bench. Not on a dock. Not on the open-air trolley with the gravel-throated tour guide.
  • Don’t get too close to a baby chick while eating key lime pie. Chickens are essentially stupid creatures, but Key West chickens recognize good pie when they see it.
  • A golf handicap is the degree to which you stink. And before you golf with someone, you should find out what their handicap is and either avoid them or make fun of them.
  • If you are over 40, never pass a working restroom without stopping in to use it.
  • Tattoos bring people together. And that’s all I’m going to say about that one.

But today, with no agenda and a mind as blank as a piece of paper, I learned some other stuff too. Today I walked along the waterline of Summerland Key and tried to notice everything that washed up. I wasn’t searching for lessons but for souvenirs. I was looking for the prettiest, most perfect thing I could find on the beach. I wanted bright and pristine. I wanted the smooth and the unscathed. I didn’t find a lot of that. What I found was a never-ending snarl of rocks and shell, bearing the marks of their journey and teaching me with each one I picked up.

From those broken shells, these friends, and a bad game of mini-golf, I have learned a few useful things this weekend:

  • We need community. For the losses. For the victories. For the mundane, grinding middle ground that bridges our beginnings and endings as we go from thing to thing. We need each other. Sometimes we need a hug. Sometimes prayer. At times we want someone to step into our space for a moment and just listen. Every now and then, a chaotic game of mini golf is just the thing we need. But be careful the handicap there…
  • We are shaped by what happens to us. Life happens and we react. I walked the shores of Sandspur Beach and noticed the things washing up in the breaking waves of low tide. Bits and pieces of coral and shell were rolling in the froth, sometimes settling on dry land to be discovered by wanderers like me. Sometimes succumbing to the current and slipping back out to sea. But whatever the case, each object took on color or texture or shape because of its journey through and time in the waves and the tide. We carry the beauty and the scars we pick up in the water.
  • It takes all types. The beauty and functionality of the whole is determined by the variety of the parts, so to speak. Picking up coral and shells, my eye was naturally drawn to the flashy pinks and yellows. Often those shells were brittle and broken. The stronger shells were porous, and the color of sand. Not pretty, but able to take a beating, filter the waves, and move on. If there was only pink, pink would get boring. Too much white coral would get lost in the shuffle. But together in a heap, they are perfection. We need all of it. All of it together makes a healthy shoreline. A mosaic of beautiful brokenness.

And while I suppose these are all good things to know on a random November weekend, I think the biggest lesson we all learned from the weekend was this:

If you’re in the Keys with friends, keep your eyes open, your music turned up and your ringer turned down.

And if a call comes in, don’t answer it.
You’re on island time.

Not all substitutes are created equal

My kitchen is a place of mystery. It shouldn’t be that way, because it is MY kitchen. But I’m a person that skips over the things I don’t know and tries to glean the meaning through context. That works well enough in stories with simple plots. It’s less effective when you have to eat your mistakes. Obscure terms and poorly managed context clues can taste a lot like bitterness and heartbreak, especially if you have to feed them to your family on a hectic Wednesday night.

I can follow a recipe. And I do. And I’ve managed to hone my instant pot skills to the point where my pot roast rocks. I’ve got a short list of meals that might not be a homerun but are at least a stand-up double. But throw in words like julienne or blanche or emulsify and I’m going to just stick the ingredients in the toaster and hope for the best.

But then there are substitutions.
When ya don’t have the ingredients ya gotta have to make something edible.
Then what, Missy.

THEN WHAT?
Well, even with this I have learned a lot over the years. I have learned how to substitute all forms of tomato products for all other forms of other tomato products. I’ve even found that in times of necessity, Little Caesar’s crazy bread dipping sauce stands in for tomato paste like a boss.

On Wednesday afternoon, I had decided that we could get by on leftovers. I wasn’t going to cook. Under the cool, quiet shade of that decision, I sat working on my manuscript. When my phone chimed, I looked at the text and saw that it was Brady.

“what we doing for supper
lucy wants me to come”

I made mental notes to speak with him later about his grammar and punctuation and then responded.

“Ummmmm
Maybe roast
In the instant pot
So come on
6”

My texts were as devoid of style and substance as his were. I stood up from my laptop and immediately began scrambling. I gathered the ingredients I could think of while also searching on the instant pot recipe for Mississippi Pot Roast. Beef stock, au jous seasoning, hidden valley ranch dry dressing mix, the roast. Which was frozen solid. Shoot.

I stopped in the middle of my kitchen and took a breath. It was 4:25. This wasn’t going to work. But I could make something else work.

I switched gears in front of my refrigerator and went back to my pantry for a different set of ingredients. I thought I was making a linear move. I was going from a sure bet to another sure bet. I’ve done both of these meals successfully multiple times. I launched into Melissa’s Beefy Mac n Cheese recipe. I pulled out the beef stock, the ground beef (frozen again, shoot!), the elbows, the cheese, and started measuring off the 900 spices that get mixed into the meat after it’s brown. I defrosted the beef, browned the beef, added the onion, added the 900 spices, added the tomato paste, measured the beef stock and then reached for the milk.

I reached for the milk in the kitchen refrigerator.

There was no milk.

Please tell me the milk got moved to the garage refrigerator. My eyes narrowed in annoyed panic and I swung open the doors to the garage refrigerator.

There was no milk.

No milk.

At all.

My mind began turning on the subject of substitutions. I could be flexible. This didn’t have to be a deal breaker. I opened the kitchen fridge again. Reddy Wip. No, probably not, but I do admit to considering it. Was there oat milk? Oat milk would work. No oat milk. No yogurt, not that this was a good idea anyway. No coconut milk. For some reason, melted butter or sour cream or even water never entered my mind.

I looked at my watch. It was 5:40. It was less than an hour before we needed to leave for church and I had Brady coming for dinner in less than 20 minutes. I was standing there with overdone beef that was dry-roasting in a stew of spices, crackling into little fried meat tips, while I desperately attempted to create milk out of what I currently had in my fridge. I didn’t think I had time to run to the store. I didn’t think to ask a neighbor or a friend, either of which would have worked fabulously. Instead, my eye kept landing on a milk substitute on the door of the open fridge.

A never-opened bottle of Coffee Mate French Vanilla creamer.

I shook my head like I did the instant before I jumped 7 stories with a bungee cord strapped awkwardly to my unmentionables.

This was never going to work.
This was a mistake.

Triple churned, it said.
2x richer than milk, it said.
Contains a milk derivative, it said.

FRENCH VANILLA, it said. That should have been all it had to say.

I should have given up the moment I cracked open the seal and reeled from the pungent French vanilla fumes. Those bad boys flew up my nose like a gnat on a suicide mission. But I didn’t give up. I poured. In my defense, I did make adjustments to the amounts I poured in. The recipe called for 2 cups of milk and 2 cups of broth. I poured in 3 cups of broth and less than a cup of French vanilla creamer. Maybe that would even things out.

I stirred in the liquid as I went light-headed with the smell of flavored lattes. Gross. So gross. But I didn’t stop stirring. I was all in at this point. There was no going back. We are having French vanilla beefy mac tonight, family.

About this time, as the French Vanilla pasta simmered on the stove, Jenna rounded the corner into the kitchen.

“What are we having? Why does it smell so weird?”

“Beefy mac with a twist. I don’t want to talk about it any further,” I answered.

Two minutes later, Lucy rounded the corner into the kitchen.

“What’s that smell?” she asked.

“IT’S DINNER, man! There are people starving in other countries. Cut me some slack.”

I mean, why are we so spoiled?

And then I tried it.

People use brown sugar to sweeten chili all the time. Why not French Vanilla Coffee Mate to sweeten beefy mac?

Because it’s SUPER GROSS. That’s why not.

Brady walked in the back door, with a head full of curly hair peeking out from his cold weather beanie. It was 80° outside.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked innocently. “What am I smelling?”

“Oh, for crying out loud, people. It’s FRENCH VANILLA COFFEE CREAMER, ok? I ruined dinner. It’s ruined.”

Brady had stopped in his tracks to wait out my weird, exasperated little monologue.

“Let me try it,” he said. He is the kindest soul I know and very much wanted to like my substitutions. Because he very much likes this meal. He scooped a small bite of pasta out of the bowl with a plastic fork and put it into his mouth. He chewed on it a little. Then he smacked his lips around a little. He tried to smile, just a little, as he said, “Well, it’s not terrible. A little bit sweet.”

“It’s disgusting,” I had to chuckle a little. “We can’t eat it.”

At this point, the others were lined up like I had opened a new roller coaster. Come see, folks. Mom sweet-poisoned dinner. It’s horrible. Taste for yourself.  

The verdict was the same from everyone, Todd included. It’s oddly sweet…with, like, the aftertaste of a band-aid.

“I thought we had milk,” I explained. “I’m sorry, you guys.”

“Ohhhh,” Lucy said with a ‘my bad’ look on her face. “I used all the milk to make pudding.” Well, that explained the mysterious disappearance of all the milk.

I scooped out a bowl’s worth of French Vanilla Mac to offer Andrew when he got hungry and texted him that it was there and to expect a different iteration of the recipe this time around. Then I took what was left of the nasty goulash, which was pretty much all of it, and dumped it into the sink and the trashcan. An hour later, I received a text from Andrew. “I’m just going to order in.”

Even Andrew would not eat it.

Andrew, a dumpster-diving scavenger goat who will eat absolutely anything, took one sniff of that French vanilla ruination and decided he’d rather drain his bank account than take a risk that smelled like that.

The rest of us scrambled to find something to eat. Brady grilled hot dogs. Jenna boiled some regular flavored pasta. Lucy ate tuna. I had an egg.

So, you know. French Vanilla Beefy Mac wasn’t a homerun.
And it wasn’t a stand-up double.
It was a strikeout.
A strikeout where I threw the bat into the stands and killed 3 spectators.

And then went to jail for it.

The End.

The Road to Somewhere

They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. My preacher recently pointed out that the road to Heaven is also paved with good intentions. It’s what you DO on each road that matters. If the heat you’re packing is only the intent, you might be on the wrong road.

I’ve been thinking about these roads lately, because I find myself hopping back and forth between them more than I’d like to admit. I’ve discovered that there are places along the route where the fork between roads is fairly narrow and the signage is blurry. It’s easy to veer if I’m not paying attention or a stiff breeze blows me in the wrong direction. Most of the time, I do okay. Even better than okay. Most of the time I’m high functioning, with a hint of irrational just to keep things interesting. But since January, my entire landscape has changed. I expected to miss Jennifer. That part, though terrible, has not been a surprise to me. I did not expect to be so easily thrown off course. I didn’t expect that in losing her I could so easily lose myself.

Oh, and then there’s menopause. Don’t even get me started on that. I can tell you which road that one is on…

Within the last 7 days, there are two I am completely ashamed of. On both of these days, there was almost nothing in my thoughts or actions that I recognized. Yesterday was one of those days. And at about 1:30 p.m., I launched my paddle board into the Hillsborough River to hopefully shift the tone of the day I was having. In previous years, I wouldn’t have stepped out on a paddle board in August. The gator activity is still fairly high. But this year? Eh. Why not?

So I did.

I was in a mood, I can tell you.

I shoved out into the river in pursuit of peace and better thinking.
What I ended up with was a little more than I bargained for.

To be totally fair, it had been a peaceful paddle until the final ten minutes. This time of year, you don’t see boats on the river in the middle of a weekday. Yesterday was no different. My paddle broke the surface of the water in a quiet percussive cadence that played under the strain of the cicadas. I don’t love the sound of cicadas, because they remind me of creepy things that would send me to the hospital if I ever came face to face with one. But yesterday, this soft, late-summer melody in the trees lulled me into lying down on the paddle board for a few minutes to look up at the sky. I don’t do this much, because I fear people seeing me through their plate glass windows, thinking I’m dead, and trying to rescue me. It hasn’t happened, obviously, but it would be outrageously awkward if it did. I stayed flat and relaxed long enough to drift into a neighbor’s deck. At that point, I stood up and maneuvered the paddle board back in the direction of my house.

On the return paddle home, the current was against me and the wind had kicked up. The front of my board bobbed in the ripple created by the weather and I dug twice as hard to move half as fast. Even so, I was moving along fine. When I got to my own bend in the river, the wind died and the water settled into a slick surface like coffee table glass. I noted where I was, but wasn’t as focused on my immediate surroundings as I should have been. It took me too long to see him. About 20 feet to my right was a 9-foot gator.
He was right there.
Right there.
And my momentum was carrying me straight to him. I pulled my paddle out of the water and rested the tip on my board and the handle against my shoulder. And then I pulled out my phone to shoot a short video, because that’s always my natural inclination. The way I orchestrated this particular video was a mistake. One of two things should have happened in that moment: 1) Either I should have never pulled out my camera in the first place and tried to back away from this lurking river rat, or 2) I should have risked everything and continued to film what happened next. Because what I actually did is what I always do. I filmed a mediocre plot-point leading up to a climactic moment which I then did NOT film. It is my gift to the world. I never catch the real stuff on camera. Ever.

After making myself about as nervous as I’ve ever been on the river, I put my phone back into my shorts pocket. And at that moment the gator went berserko. He raised up out of the water, flopped spectacularly down onto the surface making a massive splash, and then disappeared into the brown cypress-colored murk leaving a wake behind him.
While I watched with my jaw dropped and my eyes the size of Dora the Explorer’s.
By this point in the sequence, I was less than 10 feet from all the thrashing.
I stood there stifled by panic, with my paddle still perched on my shoulder, and wondered what my next move should be. Do I wait it out and see where he comes up for air? Do I high tail it home? Paddle home but do so gingerly and try not to draw attention to what a fleshy great meal my glutes would make for a wild animal?

Ultimately I chose to high tail it gingerly. I moved fast and cautiously and I didn’t look back. My guess is the alligator went to the bottom and had no intention of eating anything the size of a middle-aged house frau or her paddle board. But guesses like that don’t guarantee safety, so I got out of the water as quickly as I could.

Once I was safely on my deck, I sat on the edge to wait for my heart rate to settle and to ponder the entire day. I had gone out that day as a rebel, not caring much about anything and convinced nothing much cared about me. I had gone looking for peace and trouble on the same river at the same time. In ways, I found them both.

And I came back thinking about the roads paved with good intentions. I’d like to tell you that this gator encounter and my subsequent thinking fixed everything. It didn’t. The day continued to go downhill and I finished it pretty pathetically by climbing into bed at 10 p.m. and turning out the lights. I laid there in the dark for an hour, thinking again about the day. Wondering what my problem was and why I couldn’t just get my junk together.  Thinking about my intentions versus my actions. There were things I had intended to do and hadn’t done that might have turned my day around. There were things I should not have done and did do that made the hole I was standing in even deeper. But what I knew for certain was that the next day, today, needed to be different from start to finish.

As I laid in the dark of my bedroom, I set an alarm for 6 a.m. and decided I would force myself out on a short run this morning before the kids got up for school. And then I got a simple text from a faraway friend that read “How was your day?” I decided to answer that text fairly honestly. And in doing so, I took another step toward the better road.

Today was night and day different. Up before sunrise, high functioning, gator respecting, task completing, fun loving different. I stayed out of the river, off the ledge, and added a certain hormones doctor to my contacts for quick future access. Just in case.

Too much information? Yeah, probably. That wasn’t really my intention. But you know what they say about those…

Old friends, New friends

I went to Bowling Green to cry. That’s not what I would have said I was there to do. That’s not what I even believed I was there to do. But that is what I did. Seven months to the day after I helped memorialize my best and oldest friend, Jennifer, I went to see her again. In the cemetery.

I flew into Nashville on a Friday morning and leisurely ambled toward Bowling Green in a rented, rather fancy, Jeep Grand Cherokee. I had only paid for a small, un-fancy, SUV. But while I was standing at the rental car counter filling out paperwork, the agent asked me a question.

“Do you know the song, Delta Dawn?”

What a random question to be asked in 2022 at the Enterprise rental car garage kiosk. And this man was too young to be asking me the question.

“Actually, I do!” I answered confidently. “I’ve been singing that since I was a toddler. Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on…” I continued past the point of his question.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I knew it was flower! Excellent.” At this point, I was fully invested in the lyrics and in the conversation.

“Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?” I asked the man. He didn’t care anymore about my faded roses. Or about my vast Delta Dawn knowledge. I could have gone on for another half hour. He was done with me.

But when it came down to walking the row of fleet vehicles and choosing one for me and for my friend, Mackenzie, the Enterprise man upgraded us to a large, sweet ride. We used that ride to get into town, find a decent lunch, and then get Mackenzie to her friend’s house. I moved on to my hotel.

I spent a couple of hours that evening with Jennifer’s mom, talking. Crying. Reminiscing. I’m hoping the fact that she let me into her house means she has forgiven the rogue piercing we orchestrated in her upstairs hall bathroom in 1991. We “borrowed” an expensive needle not quite designed for ear lobes. I’ve got some serious ears. The needle didn’t survive it. I almost didn’t.

When Jennifer’s mom and I were done talking, I took myself to Chuy’s and finished the day with enchiladas. Sometimes an enchilada is all you got. From there, I went back to the hotel to decompress. My hotel room should have been comfortable. I couldn’t specifically identify what was wrong with it. But it was dim lit and carried a vibe of cauldrons and voodoo dolls. So much so that I had cancelled my second night there before the 6 p.m. cutoff, walked across the parking lot to a different hotel, and booked a new room for the following day.

For the last week or so, I haven’t made it past 4 a.m. in my sleep patterns. I would guess this is largely linked to my caffeine habit. So until I make a few adjustments to my routines, I can’t complain about it. Whatever the cause is, the pattern is that I go to sleep fine. I do not stay asleep fine. Saturday morning, I attempted to doze a little between 4 and 8 a.m., without much success. I was thinking about my plans for the day, looking up at a ceiling that was still too dark to see. I didn’t know how to find where Jennifer had been buried. I hadn’t been at the graveside that day, because it was my youngest child’s 14th birthday. I had scoured airlines, willing to do almost anything to make it work. But the only way to stay for the burial was to miss the birthday. And I knew what Jennifer would have told me on that decision. Go home, Missy. And so I did. But it has nagged at me for 7 months that I missed this final piece of it. Being a visual processor, I needed to work through this one in person. And there, on Saturday, it was time to do that. I wondered if I would be able to find her in a cemetery full of beautiful lives and stone-etched stories probably not so different from her own. I had convinced myself that with enough tenacity, I could find her without help—without ever having been there. I didn’t have to, though, because while I was lying in a quiet room thinking about it, her sister sent me a video leading me to the gravesite.  That was all I needed to get there. It was also all I needed to know that I would never have found it on my own.

I watched the video right before crawling out of bed for the day.
I now knew how to get to her.
I didn’t know what I would do when I did.

Everything else I did that day felt like a cliché. Hoards of people just like me have sat in front of graves just like hers. Like me, those people love deep. Like me, those people grieve hard. But I don’t care about that right now, because those people aren’t me and their person wasn’t Jennifer.  

It was 78° and overcast when I climbed out of my Delta Dawn ride and walked over to the plot of earth that was a mix of clay and crabgrass. As is typical of so many things post-Covid, the headstone is in process and is taking forever. And though no headstone could do her justice anyway, not having one seemed beyond pitiful. I sat down next to her and said hello. That was all I got out before I started crying. So much has happened in 7 months. There are life stories that were in the conflict stage when she died that are in the resolution stage now. There are stories I thought would never have a different ending that might actually get a different ending. There are things I wanted to tell her.

So I sat there and told her.
But mostly I just sat there.
For 5 hours.

Between the cemetery and dinner, I checked into the second hotel across the original parking lot. It felt more like brunch with your cousin and less like I walked in on an animal sacrifice in an empty warehouse. And at the new hotel, Jennifer’s sister came to see me. These meetings are bittersweet. Never is it more evident that she is gone than the moment I sit and talk to her sister on a hotel couch. But I wouldn’t trade that time for anything and it breathes life and energy into new connections. I will hold onto these connections with everything I have, because it keeps me from letting her go.

When Natalie left for a wedding, my stomach got the better of me. It was 4:30 and I was famished. I was so famished that I seriously considered again treating myself to Chuy’s next door. But Ellen had told me to go to Cambridge Market and get Jennifer’s regular order. Southern Pecan Chicken Salad and White Bean Chowder. That didn’t even sound good to me in the moment. But I couldn’t take the predictable Chuy’s route again, so I grabbed my laptop and headed to the place Jennifer loved. The chicken salad was good, but I wouldn’t have sent a postcard home about it. The white bean chowder was another story. That one might make the family Christmas card.  After the first bite I was trough eating, my face so close to the bowl I could feel the heat coming off it as I ate. I almost licked the last little bit. I didn’t but instead left some bowl clingers to take a picture of what was sticking to the sides. I have pipe dreams of somehow recreating this soup in my own kitchen. As if. I’m not capable.

On the way home from Cambridge, I was no longer hungry. But the Hot Now sign was on at the Krispy Kreme next door. I may have been full, but I’m not stupid. I got the donuts.

My night ended with a couple of really good hugs, one of them from my travel companion and the other from Jennifer’s daughter, Hallie. I’ve known Hallie since the day she was born. I met her friend Mackenzie the day of Jen’s funeral. Now Hallie’s friend, Mackenzie, is also my friend, Mackenzie. There are a lot of these connections that have formed because Jennifer’s glue was so strong and her message so beautiful. I continue to witness her impact on my tribe.

Hugging Hallie was something I needed to do. Sometimes you just know that you are standing in a moment. This was one of those moments. I stood in it for as long as I could without being creepy. And then I froze it in my mind.

So I guess I did go to Bowling Green to cry. And I did cry. A lot. But I was alone for most of it and smart enough to stop at Kroger for Kleenex.
I also went to Bowling Green to put my eyes and hands on Jennifer’s people.

And I did that.

We said we’d do this.
And we are doing this.
And we will keep doing this. For as long as it takes.

(The following are notes I typed on my phone on Saturday, June 30, one while sitting quietly in the cemetery and the other on the sidewalk in the middle of a run I took pretty much so I could say I hadn’t packed my running shoes for nothing. Because that’s how I roll.)

Cathedral

The God who created you has taken you home.
You are not here, but I am sitting at a plot of earth, staring at your name and dates on a plate the size of a business card.
As if that can sum you up.
The grass has not even grown over the earth where they placed you.
The God who created you and took you home
created the grass that tries now to grow over you
and the crickets that hum quiet strains of a daytime lullaby. Maybe just for me.
The God who created you
and took you home
created the tiny green bug that scoots along a piece of crab grass below your name plate.
He is on a mission, like you always were.
The God who created you and took you home
created the mosquito that bites my hand three times while I sit here talking to the air and pretending it is you.
The God who created you and took you home
created the crow that calls from a nearby tree
and the tornadoes that stripped that tree of its friends
and the breeze that shivers in what’s left of its branches.
You are not here, but this is as close as I can get to you right now,
so I’m going to sit awhile.
The God who created you and took you home
created me too.
And He’ll take me home, too.

I’ll see you at home.
7/30/22

The Chase

I know how to be alone.
And with the exception of a couple of pivotal meet-ups, I have been alone this weekend.
I do not feel sorry for me.
And I do not wish different for her.
But I miss my friend so much.
I have asked myself so many times why it’s such a big deal that she’s gone—why I can’t turn a life knob and move to another station.
After all, we only saw each other a handful of times a year.
And after 2017, she was never inside my house again.
Why is it such a big deal?
It is.
It is a big deal.
We were each other’s safety net.
Each other’s confidant.
Each other’s history holder.
Each other’s constant.
Each other’s ‘wait that doesn’t sound right…what’s going on?’
Each other’s what do you need?
Each other’s answer to the question what do you need.
We were each other’s.
And now I’m only mine.
And it’s a big deal this weekend because she isn’t here
and I am.
I am where she used to be.
And she is where I want to be.
I have been tempted to ask her back.
I have searched for a meet in the middle.
But it looks like I’ll have to go to her.
For now, I’m here alone.
And that’s okay.
I know how to be alone.

The Graduate

I slapped my boy hard in the face on the day of his high school graduation.
That was Saturday.
But to be fair, he asked me to.

His was the first ceremony of the day, which meant that alarms were going off in the house by 6 a.m. that morning. I was the only one hearing them and spent the next 30 minutes trying to get people out of bed. I finally managed to make Brady hear his own, and he got up and put on his graduation outfit. Normally, I would write more about the ceremony than I would about the getting ready process. But in this case, the morning routine was almost more notable. And it deserves a little ink.

If you don’t know Brady, and you don’t really know me, this story may not mean very much. We were both very much in character on Saturday morning. That’s not necessarily a good thing. My oldest boy graduated high school with the class of 2020, which is to say that he didn’t cross any kind of a physical stage. Covid killed everything that year. Actual classes. School trips. Proms. Graduation parties. And graduations themselves.

That being the case, there was a lot of unused potential energy and high expectations rolled up into Brady’s event on Saturday. I was already leaking a little from the eyes on Friday night. My kid who potty trained himself because he didn’t like to be damp and who spent all of 2009 clinging to whatever I was wearing on my legs was about to be done with school. I went to sleep on Friday night with a taut sheet of emotion stretched from my forehead to my chest. I was feeling it all.

But I woke up fine. Five different alarm clocks going off like a row of casino games will do that for a person. I went downstairs to deal with the dog. By the time I got back upstairs, Brady was wearing his gown over his dress pants and shirt and fussing with his cap.

“This cap does NOT fit over my hair,” he said, examining himself in a full-length mirror that is, for some reason, hung at a 45° angle on his wall. I’ve never thought to ask him why and didn’t on Saturday morning. But nothing fits over his hair, so I didn’t touch that one either. “And how do you get the wrinkles out of this gown?” He looked over his shoulder to me, hoping for an easy solution.

“You take it out of the plastic shrink wrap and unfold it before the morning of graduation?” I answered. “Want me to do something with it?” I hoped he didn’t want me to do something with it. He needed to be out the door within 15 minutes.

“They said no ironing or dryer. They said steamer only,” he replied.

“Well, I guess we go as is then.”

“Guess so.”

At this point in the process, he was practically out the door. There was nothing else to put on, plan, or struggle with. It was time to go. That’s when he walked out into the hallway.

“Can I drive Dad’s car?” He asked sheepishly. Oh. Hmm. Well. I mean it hasn’t been 6 weeks since two of our cars were totaled, so I’m not sure he’ll be excited about this possibility. But I poked my head in my bedroom to ask Todd and he agreed.

This is the point in the morning where the tide turned from relaxed to frenzied. He lowered himself into the fathermobile and began to connect his phone to the car’s bluetooth system. Except that it wasn’t working. With each attempt to connect, the tension within us and between us went up a notch. He was already going to be at least 5 minutes late. I’m all about punctuality, but I mean, I get it. I like my tunes. Being subjected to what some DJ thinks I ought to be listening to is often painful. So I continued to watch the bluetooth misfires as we communicated in tight knots of tone and message.

“Dude, you gotta go,” I said for at least the third time. “You gotta give this up.”

He couldn’t give it up.
+Add a Device
Connect to Bluetooth
Connect to Bluetooth
If you would please I beg of you CONNECT ALREADY TO THE BLUETOOTH.

Nothing.

“Dude,” I started again. Sometimes I’m under the impression that if I use casual words like “dude,” no one will notice the unnaturally high pitch my voice takes on in the moment. “If the music is that important, go get in your car and drive away.”

“My car seats are still soaked from fishing.” Of course. Even so, he got out and was now standing in a flowing, wrinkled red robe in my driveway, wedged between two decisions: fish seats and bluetooth or leather seats and 80s karaoke.

He was now officially late and not even sitting in a car yet. I started to say “dude” again but he cut me off at the pass.

“OK, OK,” he paced for a minute. “I’m going. I’m going in Dad’s car.”

“Without music?” I asked.

“Without music,” he answered. “OK, I’m going.”
He wasn’t though. He was still standing there. I grabbed his face in my hands and tried to drum up a less frustrated pep talk. I could tell he was struggling. I didn’t want him struggling an hour before this milestone event.

“I’m sorry.” He had a tortured look in his eyes.

“You don’t need to be sorry,” I said. “But you do need to go.”

“Slap me,” he said, with his face still in my hands.

“What?” I asked. I had heard him. But it was a strange request.

“Slap me,” he repeated.

So I slapped him. But not very hard.

“Slap me again,” he repeated. I slapped him again.

“Again,” he said. “Harder.” This time I came at him with both hands on both cheeks. I popped him slightly harder, but it just didn’t feel right to me.

“One more time,” he said. “Really go for it this time.”

So I did.
On the morning of my boy’s high school graduation, I doublehand slapped him across his face.

And it fixed everything. He happily got into that bluetoothless car and drove away.

And graduated.

I think there’s some sort of metaphorical significance to the slapping and the driving away, but it isn’t working in my favor to analyze that. And I really don’t want to think about it anymore.

Because he still drove away.

And as much as I have enjoyed every individual last fraction of a second I have spent with this amazing manchild, it’s his turn to drive away. And it’s my job to let him.

When Giants Fall

Life is absurd and beautiful and funny. I tend to focus on the absurd. My whole life I’ve been laughing at my own mistakes. Pointing them out early on saves me the shock of the old lady stranger in Costco coming out of nowhere to tell me that 90% of the warehouse heard me fawning over the adorable baby 7Up cans. I like to control the roast and throw the softballs.

But lately I haven’t controlled much of anything and the laughter is harder to come by. I’ve watched a lot of people tip their hats and cross over into eternity before I was ready for that to happen. I’ve been to more funerals in the last two years than I’ve been to weddings. My oldest son graduated high school by e-mail. I’ve cried as much as I’ve laughed. And I no longer have any control over who I cry in front of. The best I can do is keep a napkin on hand. I can’t even seem to manage Kleenex.

The most recent of somber events was the death of my 12th grade English teacher, Sara Lamar. She was a giant of a human being. This was evident when I was 17, but even more so during the service that honored and remembered her life. She was 91 and had been fighting dementia for many years. I decided to drive up to Tallahassee to attend, because my kids are old enough to set alarms and go about their routines without a lot of supervision or fanfare and because I’ve regretted most of the funerals I didn’t attend. Even the ones I skipped for good reasons I have come to regret.

I expected this service to teeter on the edge of irreverent, and maybe be a little bit humorous. After all, Sara Lamar was the best of all things irreverent and funny. I did laugh during most of the speakers. Everyone did. I didn’t expect to cry.

After the service, which was lovely and entirely appropriate, I spoke to exactly one person: Janice McLain, who taught me English during my 10th grade year. This poor woman inherited me as a student when I had one canvas sneaker still anchored in puberty. I dressed like a hobo. I had an afro. And I hadn’t woken up to the fact that an A on my report card might actually do more for me than save me from a harshly worded lecture. By the time Sara Lamar got ahold of me, I was at least savvy to the power of an A. What I remember most about Janice McLain’s class was her dry wit and the book A Separate Peace. I didn’t want to read it. I think I actually tried not to. But one chapter in was all it took for me to make Gene and Phineas my brothers. I was all in. I’ve read it at least 3 times as an adult.

I was 15 when Ms. McLain had me in her class. I’m 51 now. I walked up to her after that funeral knowing she was not going to remember me. But her eulogy was moving and beautiful and perfect. And it was her words that made me cry. I needed to thank her for that.

I walked up feeling awkward, vaguely aware that at my age, awkwardness should not be a thing.

“Hi.” I said. “I wanted to speak to you because I loved what you said up there. You won’t remember me. You taught me in 10th grade.” I had already given her a pass.

“Thank you,” she replied graciously. “You’re Missy, right?” I mean, I was. I am. But I think I about forgot my language skills when she called me by my first name. How did she know that? How? Really. I still can’t quite get past this.

“Yes!” I said in shock. “How do you remember that? I was nobody in your class. I wasn’t a great student.” Maybe she remembered me for all the wrong reasons. I mean, there were some wrong reasons to remember me. Especially in that phase of my life.

“Knowing student names is a survival mechanism for teachers,” she said. I’m certain that’s true. I just couldn’t have imagined it remaining true 35 years later.

I thanked her for her remarks and for the poem she included. She ended her eulogy by reading “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou. I had never heard it before. Hearing it read almost unraveled me, especially in light of all the loss of the last 6 months. When I got into my car later and pulled it up online, I cried all over again.

When Great Trees Fall

Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants lumber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

I took some time to reflect on this and on my time with Mrs. Lamar. I remember being in physical pain on the green carpet of my bedroom as I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man well into the night. It was awful. AWFUL. I hated it so much. Every word was an unmedicated root canal. But I read every word, because that’s what you did in Lamar’s class. You did it because you respected her. And you did it because she’d bust your chops on a test if you didn’t.

A few weeks into my first quarter in her class, Sara Lamar gave me a new name. I was a big gum chewer. I spent a ridiculous amount of money as a kid on Dubble Bubble, Super Bubble, and Bubble Yum. I wasn’t picky with my brand as long as that burst of sugar was present and I could blow a bubble with a single piece. I blew a bubble in Lamar’s class, but only the one time. I popped it like gunshot, got reprimanded and handed the trash can, and then was forevermore renamed. She named me Bubbles. She never called me Missy again. By the end of the year, she had forgotten why that was even her name for me. I liked being Bubbles. It felt like a perpetual private joke between me and someone I truly loved and respected.

I loved Mrs. Lamar. She knew I loved her. But after I left Tallahassee in 1995, I never really went back. Until March 28, when I went back to celebrate her life. And though it’s been forever since I was in her classroom, I was among her students again that day, listening to her words, their words, and Maya Angelou’s words.

Following that final class, I ate lunch with a friend and then immediately climbed back in my car to go home. The lessons I learned that day kept me company on my drive home.

I learned that people are not necessarily who you think they are in high school. Maybe they never are. Some people got up to speak who were high school peers of mine but to whom I never spoke a word. They wouldn’t like me, I assumed. I wouldn’t like them. It would be awkward or embarrassing or impossible to befriend them. It wouldn’t be worth the effort. I now know it most certainly would have been worth the effort. And I should have made that effort.

The world is full of giants. Sometimes they are the ones being eulogized. Sometimes they are the ones delivering the eulogy. Sometimes they are both. Giants are easy to see. But you do have to be looking for them.

Remembering someone’s name makes them feel like a giant, even when they are not. I learned that one from Sara Lamar 33 years ago and from Janice McLain 4 weeks ago. I had forgotten what an understated luxury it is to be known and called by name.

You can never go home again. I’ve always known this, but never fully understood it. It’s because home is not really the place; it’s the people. The morning of Mrs. Lamar’s service, I was staying in the hotel across the park from the church where I’d need to be. At daybreak, I walked out of the hotel wearing my running shoes and walked from there to Florida State to the Old City Cemetery to the downtown Public Library and back to the hotel. I walked past all the old haunts. My old memories were fresh. All the places were there. The people were not. It’s not home anymore. Not to me.

Nothing is forever. After a morning of ruminating on the wisdom and wit of Mrs. Lamar, I walked back across the park to my car to text my friend, Georgia, about the lunch we had scheduled. I suggested Barnaby’s. I mean, who doesn’t love Barnaby’s? It’s closed, she replied. Closed? Like on Mondays or FOREVER? At this text, I felt my world go very hot and dark. I was a little lightheaded at the news. I was already there to say goodbye to a favorite teacher. Evidently, I was going to have to say goodbye to my childhood as well. Barnaby’s was the place everyone went to after a baseball game or on a Friday night. A place with frothy root beer and old-fashioned arcade games. Barnaby’s was the Sara Lamar of pizza joints. Their pizza was the Sara Lamar of pizza. And yet, there I was in downtown Tallahassee agreeing to Chicken Salad Chick because nothing is forever.

It is a weird feeling to look around for the people and the places that made me who I am and not find them. The people are not there. The places are overgrown or boarded up or living new lives with new people that have nothing to do with me. If the one who called me Bubbles is gone, am I still Bubbles? If everything around me changes, where does that leave me standing?

I wondered for only a moment, because I’ve spent a lifetime doing my reading. I know the answer to this one.

It leaves me standing here–
still Bubbles,
still my mother’s daughter,
still Jennifer’s friend,
still all the versions I’ve ever been of myself
–with the essence and lessons of all the ones I’ve lost,
and forever changed by them.

“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

The Convalescent Chronicles – Chapter 1

Plate Full O’ Lettuce

My friend, Melissa, is good with old people. She always has been. She has had a long career as a speech pathologist in a nursing home, dealing with people who, from what I can determine, mostly just choke on rice.

But speech pathology is not where she spends most of her time these days. These days, we are of the age where our parents are the old ones. So Melissa spends a lot of unpaid time in her mother’s nursing home. She lost her dad to Covid in July. Her mom, Myrna, who has been duking it out with dementia since 2008, now lives in a memory care facility with the likes of Carolyn, Leo, Kay, Francis, Mary, a guy who plays a mad harmonica, and Pauline. On any given afternoon, you can find Kay wandering the halls and disappearing into any room with an open door.

I am not good with old people. I wish I were better, but they scare me. They are unpredictable in all the wrong ways. Like—will they be wearing pants and do they have any teeth and will they walk into the wrong room and use the bathroom where there is no actual toilet? They ask unanswerable questions. They fall and can’t afford to. And the younger folk have to be ready to react.

Lately I’ve been trying to build some muscles in areas where I have none. I’d like to be more helpful with some of the older people, so I’ve been tagging along with Melissa when I can and trying to improve my reaction times and caretaking skills.

I’ve gone several times now and twice I was on my own with them. I tried not to wear my fear like the flashing strobe it is. But Pauline is special. Pauline knows. I don’t know what she was like before she began to fight with her memory, but I know who she is now. Pauline can read your soul. She could have told you I was a spoiled baby before I showed my true colors. Her dark blue eyes are wide open and seem to consistently penetrate beyond the surface answer I try to give her. I don’t know where my relationship with Pauline is going, but I know she’ll redirect it if she doesn’t like what she sees.

Pauline is the most lucid of all the residents I have met and spent time with. She hadn’t seen me in a week and remembered my name. We are good on my name now, but she still gets foggy about everything else, so we run through the same routine every time I come in.

“So you’re Missy, right?” she asks.

“That’s right,” I always say. “Hi Pauline.” And we exchange pleasantries. Eventually, she comes around to kids and families. She has one son, Brett. He visits every Sunday.

“So, Missy,” she always begins an exchange with my name. And she always has my attention. “What do you do for a living?”

We’ve been through this before. I don’t know why this question always embarrasses me, but it almost always does. I think it’s because I haven’t been gainfully employed since 2002, when Andrew was 10 months old and confined to a play yard in my upstairs loft. I quit when I couldn’t do both. I never regretted that decision, but I often regret the way my answers sound coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I try rewording it to see if it flies better in different winds.

“I don’t do anything that makes me any money,” I said to Pauline yesterday.

“Oh, that’s not what I asked you,” she retorted quickly. Does this woman really need to be in memory care? I look around to see if anyone else is wondering the same thing. “I didn’t ask you about money. I asked what you do.”

“Well,” I thought through it for a bit. “I raise kids for a living.”

“Well, ok. And how many kids do you have?” She followed. This was the same conversation we had a few days ago.

“Four,” I answered. It was good for me to be reminded.

“Wow! Four! Boys or girls?” She asked.

“Two and two,” I replied.

“Two boys. Two girls. You lucky bum!”

She was shaking her head at my situation, almost in awe of the information she had consumed that would filter through her before lunch was served.

“I am a lucky bum,” I said. “I’ve been lucky.”

“Actually, luck has nothing to do with it,” she decided. “The Lord blessed you.”

At this point, an old woman across the table, Mary, piped up. I didn’t know this woman yet. She was carefully bent over her plate and pushed a silver wisp of her perfect helmet of hair away from her face. She still had a bite of cake in her mouth.

“The Lord! Well. He did a LOUSY job with me!” Melissa and I were both wearing masks so it was easier to laugh undetected. When Melissa finished laughing, she decided to seek clarification.

“Why do you say that, Mary?”

I was still laughing. I almost couldn’t get it back at that point. Mary looked angry.

“Because someone broke in my room and stole my teeth! I had a nice set of teeth! They were expensive! People are so mean.” Her eyes roved from us to her cake plate again. I was ready with my alibi for the window where her teeth went missing, I half expected her to come after me.

At the next table, Francis was bent over a salad, trying to keep pace with the other residents and finish her dinner. Every other resident in the room had moved on to dessert. Francis, hunched over, was eye level to the food in front of her and finally took inventory of her situation. She spoke up in a quiet, raspy voice.

“Why does everyone else have chocolate cake and all I got was lettuce?”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve wondered this, I would have just that one nickel. But some variation of this question has passed my brain 100 times. And that’s like 5 dollars.

Some days are like this.

You end up with a plate full of lettuce while the rest of the world eats cake.

The Race

This race was never supposed to be about Jennifer. That’s not how it started. It was supposed to be about me.

I started running over a year ago, not knowing I’d be able to. I had been attempting to rehab back from plantar fasciitis that sprung up from a bad phase of life I call “Old Moms Wearing Vans.” But I had to start running because I wanted to get back down to my middle age fighting weight. And who even knows what that is? Because I hadn’t ever been healthy and also middle aged. To achieve this nebulous goal, I had to outrun my milkshake habit.

I don’t diet.
So I had to run.

I ran a 5k last February. But because running was going well and I was still drinking milkshakes pretty regularly, I decided to keep running. And I kept pushing the distance a little as I went. Right after Thanksgiving, I tried a 4-mile route and it didn’t seem like as big a deal as I guessed it would be.

So I kept going.

On December 2, I signed up for a 10k race to be run February 12. I believed that would give me plenty of time to train.

On December 11, I ran 5.08. It went pretty well, and I figured I might as well keep going.

It felt very Forrest Gump at times.

But then there were the holidays.

And three days after Christmas, Jennifer got sick and I threw my running energies into worrying. And praying. And pacing around on my back patio.

Between December 11 and the race, which was Saturday morning, I ran 4 miles, two times. And I ran between 2-3 miles a handful of other times. Most of those runs didn’t go very well. Some of them started as runs and ended as calls for help.

I never once ran 6 miles.

I wasn’t ready.

I considered quitting.

The internet came in with some unsolicited advice. I saw a meme that said, “When you get tired, don’t quit. Learn to rest.”

And then I thought about Jennifer. She didn’t quit. She didn’t wave her white flag. She did what doctors told her to do and dug in. She was committed to making diamonds out of coal.

And I had told her I was running the 10K. She had encouraged me to go for it. It didn’t feel right to bail. She never bailed on anything. So I decided I’d go in cold and bold. And I’d run it for her.

After all the sadness and travel of the last 4 weeks, running took a back seat. Time was up. There were no good days to get one more long run in, but I felt like I needed to do something. On Thursday, I took off on my regular 3 mile route. Half would be good enough to stay warm but not so hard that I’d be sore the day of the race. At the two mile mark, I ran past my friend’s house. Melissa, (Failing At Life Club Co-President) was sitting in the front window, waving. At least I thought she was waving. I thought it was a “You GO GIRL!” kinda wave. I waved back and kept running. Apparently she was wildly waving for me to cross the street and come inside. I ignored all of that and was almost past the house when the front door flew open and her daughter called out.

“Miss Missy! Can you come in and look at my hamster? I think it’s dying!” Oh dear. We all know I have a Master’s Degree in Dead Hamsters. And now that I understood there was an emergency, I stopped running and crossed the street.

“Ok, but get me water,” I panted. When I crossed the threshold of the front door, I walked out of reality and straight into the twilight zone. I can’t overstate the freakshow I waddled into. Nor can I completely judge it. I have been reminded more than once that I took our hamster, Peter, to the vet three separate times before then paying $80 to put the hamster down. And I cried all the way to the car, carrying his little cardboard casket. All in all, that hamster cost us well over $300. It was only $16 to begin with.

So, you know. It takes one to know one, I suppose.

But I’m getting my freakshows confused. Back to the current one. I’ll return to the running in a moment.

With an ice cold water bottle in my hands, I rounded the corner from the living room into the front room and found Melissa wearing latex gloves and watching over a lethargic hamster like a priest performing last rites. I paused to take the scene in. The hamster’s eyes were mostly closed, but slowly blinked as the room cheered. And then, Melissa took a gloved hand, scooped little Nelly up, and tenderly flipped her over. ON A HEATING PAD.

“Look! It just took a breath! It’s breathing!” She announced, as she tenderly flipped Nelly again. It occurred to me as I stood there gratefully sipping on my water that I was witnessing a Hamster Rotisserie. They were slow roasting a dying rodent on a heating pad.

There was a lot of back and forth about the hamster and her habits over the last few days. I was certain Nelly was on her way out. But I was careful about who I said that to. I stood there with them for 10 minutes. But when I knew for sure there was nothing I could do except proclaim bad news, I tossed my empty water bottle in the trash and commenced the last mile on my route. That hamster died overnight.

And that was my dress rehearsal for a 6.2 mile race.

That was Thursday.

On Friday, I didn’t run at all. But I ate carefully and went to bed at 10 o’clock. My alarm was set for 5 a.m. but I was up at 4:24 before it went off. I arrived and was standing in the registration tent in the pre-dawn darkness. Of course they had no record of me and no packet for me. But I had proof I had paid, so they assigned a race bib and t-shirt to me and happily sent me away. I still had 45 minutes to kill, so I returned to my car to hydrate and stretch. That’s when I noticed I was in the system as Bib 4229, Missy Snapped. Sigh. Such an easy last name. And never right. I mean, NEVER.

It wasn’t even daylight and my registration had been lost and I was labeled to have already snapped. I shrugged it off as just another weird rung in the ladder. This race had already been anything but typical. And I continued to tell myself how I intended it to go. Training and registration had delivered some blows. But the race itself was going to be a strong finish.

At 7:25, they lined us up. I had eaten one banana and had lots of water. I lined up for the portapotty and used one. Then I immediately got back in line and used it again. When your race packet says you “Snapped,” you don’t start an hour-long run with a full bladder. I paced nervously at the Start line while a man with spanx and a microphone prayed for us all. That felt like a nice, and very Plant City, touch. And then a huge mass of people took off with the sun rising on our backs.

So many people. People with double strollers. People with barking German Shepherds.

It was at least a mile before the starting clump of runners thinned out enough for all of us to find our own pace. When I did, I fell into a rhythm that seemed sustainable. As I approached the second mile marker, I noticed younger female running and staying about 5 yards ahead. She had a 10K bib on. I decided to keep pace slightly behind her. For the whole race. She didn’t stop at water stations or change her pace. She kept running. I did the same. I kept the same 4 people in my sights for the next 4 miles. None of them ever stopped. Not for water. Not for anything.

At about the 5.5 mile mark, my main girl slowed down to being a few yards behind me instead of slightly ahead. But the other 3 were in view and all of us stayed together. The further into the 6th mile I ran, the harder it became. For the first time, I wondered if I could go all the way without stopping. But my people were still running. So I continued to run. And at the 6 mile sign, with only 2/10 to go, I saw the inflatable Finish Line. To this point, I had continued because I knew the Finish Line existed and because the people around me continued. But now, I kept going because the end was actually in sight.

And maybe it was the weird Colin Raye country song that was oddly placed in a playlist of Fall Out Boy and Imagine Dragons, but it hit me how much like life this race really was. Life gets hard sometimes. It gets REALLY hard sometimes. And if you are Jennifer, or someone like her, the race can look impossibly hard. Jennifer kept going for her people and with her people. Until she saw the Finish Line.

She never once stopped running.
She finished strong.

Two months ago, when I pushed myself a tiny bit and registered on a whim, the race was about me. On Saturday, pushing to do something that was bigger than I was, it became about my friend, Jennifer. We both completed races. She won hers. I finished mine. I was grateful for her strength as I collapsed in the grass holding a finisher’s medal.

I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I locked eyes with the medal I was holding. This would have to be where I drew the line at eternal analogies. Her prize is glorious. My prize had a goofy little cartoon strawberry on it.

But for now, that would have to do.

The Birthday Tattoo

February 8, 2022

Dear Jennifer,

Happy Birthday! Today you would be 51. You didn’t make it to 51, but you did one better. You are whole. And you finished STRONG, friend. The emotions leading up to this day have been pretty difficult. I was dreading it. I started the day fighting tears. But I didn’t start the day without a plan. I had a whole plan. A crazy plan. A plan that included some of my people. And a plan that included some of your people. The beginning of my day would have left you shaking your head in confusion. But the end of my day was a celebratory dinner you would have loved.

Let me back up.

Last year on your birthday, you texted me when you woke up. You weren’t supposed to beat me to it. But knowing it was an hour earlier for you, I was letting you sleep. You texted and asked if I could FaceTime. I texted back that I could and wished you a happy birthday, ya stinker. We talked that morning and texted all day long. You had a good day. You were fully celebrated. Your texts were full of exclamation marks and emojis. I am certain you felt the love.

That makes me happy.

You told me there weren’t enough exclamation marks for your thank you. I told you there wasn’t a gift good enough for who you are.

That’s true.

You know how I know?

Because today I went and got a tattoo. I ran out of good gifts and ideas and landed in a dirty tattoo parlor on 7th Avenue in Ybor City where I let Beau dig into my wrist with a needle to HONOR YOU (not an honor to you, I know, I know) in a place you would never have set foot and probably would have scolded me for going.

And somehow I couldn’t be more excited that I did this.

(It wasn’t really that dirty. I just wanted to say dirty tattoo parlor for shock value.)

The tattoo came about slightly by accident when I was eating dinner before going to the Betty White movie on January 17. I had found an ampersand in my neighbor’s rather clean pile of discarded items. I had taken it home and written about it. And then I got a text from my friend, Lea, in Tallahassee that I should go with her to get an ampersand tattoo. Until that moment, I had NEVER ONCE considered such a violently compromising thing as a tattoo on my person. But the moment my friend suggested it, I decided I was doing it. It was almost past tense already.

And then, only 5 days later, I lost you. And we celebrated you. And boy have we celebrated you. There’s so much to celebrate.

I came back from celebrating you in your hometown and decided I had to find a way to get the tattoo on your birthday. It needed to be today. Ironically, my straightlaced husband was served by a very tattooed waiter in a restaurant and got the name of their tattoo artist. I made an appointment for today.

And that’s how I landed in Ybor City with two inches of ink on my arm.

To the ampersand portion of the tattoo, I added the tribe symbol, because the last gift you gave me was the tribe necklace. I haven’t taken it off since Christmas morning.

So Happy Birthday, Jen! For a gift, I got a tattoo you would think is insane, but that would likely not surprise you. It reminds me of an old episode of The Simpsons (which you also would think is crazy) where Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday inscribed with the name “Homer.”

I got me a tattoo for your birthday.

But it wasn’t for you after all. Because you don’t need anything for your birthday this year. The tattoo is for me.
To remember.
To never forget.

I can’t afford to forget the things you constantly taught me. You reminded me that everything that truly matters is on the other side of the ampersand. And you reminded me that I have a tribe. And though you are not holding us all together on this side, we are all now holding each other.

Which brings me to the other part of my Jennifer Day celebration. I talked to or texted with so many of your people today. Your mom, your sister, your daughter, your friends. And we all gushed over and about you. We all started out with mostly you in common. But I think I can confidently say that what we’ll end up with will be what you would have hoped for. I think we’ll end up with a fused connection that far outlasts the raw stages of our grief.

So in this, on your day, you gave US something.
You gave us each other.

Tonight, on a dreary, unusually cold Florida night, Jennifer G. and I got together for dinner. Just the two of us. This has never happened outside you.  We met at Chili’s, which hasn’t changed since we were all there in 1991. It was a great meal, with great conversation. The pictures we took weren’t so great, but you can’t have everything.

We made a plan to meet up once a month. I really think we will. I’m going to work on getting her tattooed before the next dinner. I’ll let you know how that goes.

It’s late, but I didn’t get to call you today, so I’m doing the next best thing. I’m writing.
So. Happy Birthday to you, friend.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for the day in, day out gift of the best friendship.
And thanks for the gift of your people. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

(The tattoo is just a bonus.)

I miss you—you wouldn’t believe how much—but I’m doing okay. And I have no doubt you aren’t missing a thing.

Carry on.

I’ll be seeing you.

Your very edgy friend,
Missy