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For my dad.

My dad and me.

As many of you know, my dad passed away on February 3. This has been the most trying time of my life – and although I haven’t felt comfortable enough to share much about my dad, I’m really thankful I have this outlet, and people who read it and can related to the story of my life.

Truthfully, the story of my dad’s death isn’t unlike many others – he was blessed to be surrounded by family as he took his last breath, and every single one of us got the chance to tell him goodbye. And that is something I will be forever grateful for.

There was also a lot of emotional, family drama – and that is what makes this loss so tough for me – on top of it being my dad.

My dad wasn’t someone who ever wanted a big show, so we paid our respects to him at a small chapel in Ringgold, Georgia, a week after he died. There were friends and family there to share stories and pictures of him, and even during that short time, I learned a lot about the person my dad was and the time he spent on earth.

Even though it was a special day and I’m grateful to have been able to be there with my family, I knew I wanted to honor my dad in my own way when I felt the time was right. I wanted to honor him by doing something he loves: fishing.

So, this morning, my lifelong best friend and I rose before the sun and met Pensacola’s best fisherman, Captain Kenny Way at the marina. With beer and a go get ’em attitude, we set sail.

Or, Captain Kenny started the boat and we were OFF!

We caught bait first, then moved on to snapper (red and black). We caught around 15 snapper. And then we used one of the snapper as bait to catch a 7-foot bull shark! You can see the video on my Instagram stories @Orangejulius7 


I’d informed the Captain ahead of time that I wanted to take a few moments to toast to my dad, and it was my honor to write something that I felt captured my dad’s spirit, but also offered some closure to myself, and hopefully to my friend, and maybe even Captain Kenny.

I brought along a few coins to toss into the ocean, and some fresh flower petals to sprinkle on the water – a signal to other boaters that we’d honored a life well-lived. Here’s what I wrote:

When I was little, I had a blue Mickey Mouse tackle box. It came with all the appropriate tackle for a skilled fisherwoman – for which I was not. Regardless, I had the matching fishing pole, and my favorite piece, was a Mickey Mouse bobber. It was designed to look like an inner tube, with Mickey Mouse sitting in it, his big yellow shoes flopping over one side. 
 
My dad was very much a skilled fisherman, and we went fishing many times – I have him to thank for catching the most fish nearly every time I venture out, even if I’m the only female in sight. But there’s two fishing trips that stick out in my mind:
 
The first was a very early morning trip. Early mornings are a necessarily evil when fishing, and my dad took that very seriously. On this particular morning, we had a bit of a drive – heading from our family home in Columbus, Indiana to a lake near Camp Atterbury. My dad had already planned our stops – because that’s the kind of man he was, a planner (sometimes to a fault) and he liked the journey just as much as the destination – donuts and coffee for breakfast, then a later stop on the side of the road to pick up live bait: worms that came packed in black dirt. 
 
Once we got to the lake, the sun was barely rising. I was sleepy, still, and too young for coffee. But it may as well been noon for my dad – we unpacked on the sandy bank, and he threaded my first worm, and reminded me how to properly cast my line – the Mickey bobber flying through the air, landing with a splash on  top of the water. 
 
“Now, when Mickey goes under, reel it in fast,” he said. 
 
So, I stood still and quiet, wondering if any blue gill were seeing the bait, while my dad doctored his line. There we stood, side by side, waiting for something big. The air was crisp and the water was so still, it looked like clean glass. I didn’t know it then, but it was likely the first time of many that I’d get swept away in an Indiana sunrise. It was all so peaceful. 
 
So peaceful in fact, that my eyes glazed over, and then next thing I knew, Mickey was going under and my dad was shouting – “Reel it in, Holly! You’ve got one!” I tried to pull and get my line back in, but it was too late, and I felt so awful that I hadn’t been paying attention. 
 
But thinking back on this moment now, it’s a perfect picture of my dad and I – he, focused and driven, no matter the circumstances, and me – willing to participate, but distracted by the scenery. 
 
When I was in college, my dad invited me to celebrate the holidays in a cabin nestled in the mountains on the Tennessee/Georgia border. It was a small mountain town – one that seemed like it was made for locals, but was likely all tourists. The cabin had a large porch that overlooked a small creek, and a few fishing poles we could borrow. 
 
My dad was determined to fish in this creek, so he bought a can of corn for bait – trout often mistake them for salmon eggs. We baited our hooks and my dad instructed me to cast upstream, so the line would move downstream with the current. I did as I was told, and we quickly discovered a major problem – trees really close to the riverbank. 
 
If I remember correctly, we didn’t even come close to catching a single fish, simply because our lines kept getting caught in the winter barren trees. My dad untagled every line I cast – yet another thing about my dad – he cleaned up a lot of messes for me. He’s stood up for me numerous times – when no one else would – and he introduced to me to the cureall of every breakup: watching “Swingers”. 
 
Since my dad’s passing, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about his life and legacy; what his life meant, what his death means, and how I’ll ever find closure in the numerous questions I have about our relationship. Through memories shared with me, those of my own, and personal items willed to me, I’ve gathered a few new tidbits about the man that he was and the life he lived. 
 
Despite all of my questions though, I know that my dad believed that every person has a story. He believed this to be so true, in fact, that he worked as a reporter (focusing on sports) for many, many years in order to share those stories. It was a job not many would do, in a time when there was no internet, interviews happened face-to-face, and tape recorders were rare. My dad wrote his pieces on a typewriter, after taking notes on a yellow legal pad. He was a beautiful writer, spicy, willing to tell the ugly truth (even at a conservative paper), and he did it for very little pay. 
 
My dad was a fan of the underdog – he was critical of the star players, overrated coaches, and wanted to get the real story from the bench warmers. He loved making people laugh, and perhaps his ability to converse with just about anyone, made it easier for him to share stories – whether in print or with locals at The Olympia. 
 
He was fascinated with the unknown – he had a curiosity for just about anything, and would obsessively throw himself into his latest interest. He was brave, sharp, and he did things his way (and only his way).
 
I have absolutely no doubt that witnessing all of this has very much shaped the person I am today – and will forever be. But I also know that I have to continue to craft my story, too. During these last six months, I’ve realized a lot about myself, including the fact that the unknown can be… terrifying. But it can also be rather exciting, once you embrace it. 
 
Today, I want us to take something familiar – physically speaking, these Presidential coins willed to me – and toss them into the unknown – the depths of the gulf. Consider it a way to throw your comforts, your faith, your purpose, into the great unknown: the future. Send with it a wish for yourself, a wish to keep crafting your story – whether to share, to keep, no matter if the result is picturesque or candid, planned or impromptu. Some stories are well-planned, but some simply happen…
 
It’s impossible for us to immerse ourselves into the unknown without love. My dad loved many things – fishing trips to Bull Shoals Arkansas with his dad and brothers, small towns, Red Vines, chess, Natalie Merchant, rescue cats, and reciting movie lines, among many other things. He loved people, too, and I feel really lucky that “I love you” was one of the last things he said to me, and I to him. 
 
I’m offering these petals as a symbol of love and peace. 
 
Finally, let’s toast: To family, friends, and finding comfort in the unknown. May the ones we’ve lost watch over us from their heaven – for my dad, I hope its on a lake, filled with delicious bass. 
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What I’ve learned from John McCain.

AP Photo: John McCain pre-politics flying fighter planes over Vietnam.

As we head into the holiday weekend, I wanted to write a bit on John McCain. I will admit, if you asked me even a year ago my thoughts on Senator McCain, I would have rolled my eyes.

I probably don’t have to say it, but I’m a die-hard liberal. I don’t agree with McCain’s politics, and even members of his family make me cringe. But in the last week, I’ve heard, read, and watched several things that have made me think differently about the late senator.

And my short conclusion is: he’s a fucking badass.

Let me explain. Yes, I knew McCain was a prisoner of war before he entered service as a senator. But even just learning more about that experience makes me wonder just how he even survived in time in prison!

I witnessed the back-and-forth between McCain and Trump, and naturally, I was disgusted, and curious as to how someone could hear such awful things about themselves and not fire back with every word in the book.

But McCain is getting the last word – even in death.

On Tuesday, I watched the HBO documentary, “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls”.

If you haven’t watched it – you must! It beautifully discusses his life through interviews with him, his family, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and former Presidents Barak Obama and George W. Bush, among many others.

You can see firsthand his life on the campaign trail – both as he ran to be the republican nominee against Bush in 2000, and as the nominee running against Obama in 2008. Both are very telling of his character.

It’s funny… the 2008 campaign was the first one that I really was into – it wasn’t my first time voting, but it was my first time watching all of the debates and news coverage surrounding it.

At the time, I was dating a fratastic republican, and we constantly got into (mild) arguments over the campaign – he loved McCain and Governor Sarah Palin. I was, obviously, not a fan.

But after knowing what I know now about McCain, he probably would have made a great President. The timing just wasn’t right.

Photo from The Hollywood Reporter

When the McCain family announced that John would no longer be receiving treatment for his brain cancer, I was sad. But I also know that quality of life is important, and I felt a bit of happiness for him that he was able to live a full year from his diagnosis, and he used that time to not only stand up for the people of Arizona, but to also focus on the end of his life, and say his goodbyes to the ones he loved most.

As many of you know, my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer late last year. It wasn’t the same kind McCain had, but he also had surgery to remove a mass behind his eye.

I was with my dad the day after his surgery, and although he was recovering well – I fully admire McCain and his ability to fly to D.C. and cast his vote against Trump’s healthcare plan just a day after his surgery.

I am fully in awe of anyone that gets to die on their own terms. From what I’ve learned of McCain, he lived on his own terms, too. And that is something I admire with my entire heart. He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, as long as he felt it was right. He was honest, even during a time when many politicians are not.

Sadly, McCain passed away just a few days after he stopped treatment, and shortly after, his family released his final letter to America.

I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships, enough for 10 satisfying lives, and I am so thankful.

– John McCain

The letter took a slight jab at Trump, encouraging the American people to forge on, even though we aren’t getting what we deserve right now (there is a similar jab in the documentary).

A few days ago, I saw this headline: “McCain’s Choice of Russian Dissent as Pallbearer is Final Dig at Putin, Trump.”

Wow! Even in death, this guy is sticking it to Trump, and keeping it classy.

And then yesterday, I saw this: “Sarah Palin isn’t Invited to John McCain’s Memorial Services” – I’m speechless.

I didn’t know this, but the article says that earlier this year, McCain said that choosing Palin as his running mate was one of the mistakes he made.

Since Wednesday, I have been watching McCain’s services, and although they are sad to see, I have great respect for everything he’s done for our country, and I’m inspired by the full life that he lived.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve added several of McCain’s books to my reading list. If you’re interested, here are all of them:

With that, I’ve learned so much about McCain this week – better late than never, right? – but I’m confident that his legacy will live on and continue to inspire others.

“In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.”

– John McCain

Summer Meltdown… to realness.

Pulled out the chambray jumpsuit.

Last night was yet another showcase for my Dance Austin Studio family. This was the Summer Meltdown, Take 2, which was a music video series. It was, of course, different from other showcases Dance Austin has hosted in the past – it was a four-week series followed by a video shoot, instead of a live performance.

The kicker was that no one (except maybe the choreographers) had seen the videos before last night’s premier – I think all of us dancers were a little anxious to see how all of our hard work turned out.

Naturally, all of the videos were awesome! Each of them had a funny twist, and it was cool to see the different personalities come out in each video.

I know that after each dance showcase I perform in, I write up all the feels from the day in what’s become my traditional showcase wrap-up. But, there wasn’t quite that same batch of feelings after last night.

Yes, it was really weird to show up at The North Door and not have to race to the “backstage” area and get ready for tech rehearsal, or find a spot with decent lighting to put on all of my show makeup. Instead, it was a little more leisurely, and there was a black carpet with a step and repeat #fancy

But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have enough emotions swirling around in my mind not to write some sort of something about the state of my life lately.

The truth is that, as I’ve alluded to some in recent weeks, I am struggling pretty hard in the mental health department. I’m chalking it up to grief, and although I’m still not entirely ready to put all of my chips on the table, I’ll offer up what I can thus far.

I’ve experienced loss several times in my life. I lost family members when I was a kid, and when I was in high school, it felt like I went to way too many funerals – those of my peers. It was surreal, and I started to form very small bits of dealing with grief and even just the taste of how short life can be.

In college, though, I suffered a loss that I still cannot talk about without tearing up. He was also my peer, the first person I met when I went to college orientation, we were each other’s dates to Greek functions… I felt a closeness to him unlike any other.

And he was killed while crossing the street.

A good friend told me the news as I was driving, and I pulled off the road to compose myself. I called my dad, and he talked me through it.

Several years later, I had natal reading where a professional looked over the stars during the time of my birth and during the years of my life.

“How does death fit in to your life?” she asked me.

I explained to her that I’d suffered several losses; one particularly difficult. We talked about the photo I have of him and I – framed on my desk at home with a candle beside it. She told me he was my soul mate, and it was likely that we’d met in a previous life, and that he was protecting me from the other side. I could keep his energy alive by lighting the candle and honoring his memory.

But little did I know that even a loss as tough as that one seems like a drop in the bucket compared to losing my dad.

I’ve talked enough on this blog about the relationship my dad and I had to get me in a shit-ton of trouble with most of my family. And even though my dad isn’t around to reprimand me or control the ship, I’ve kept quiet on the home front.

There’s something unsettling about all of it.

As horrible as it sounds, I felt some sort of relief in that my every day, physical life wouldn’t change after my dad died. After all, I hadn’t talked to him in years. We didn’t exchange texts, or cards, nothing.

But it’s been almost six months since his death, and I can tell you that I don’t even remember what it’s like to go a single day without crying; or thinking about it; or feeling guilty.

There have been times I’ve wondered why he had to be the one to go instead of someone else – and then I feel horrible because I know that no one deserves to go through what he did.

So many people have said to me, “Your dad must have been so proud of you.”

And while that’s an incredibly nice thing to say, I don’t know how true it is. My dad was TOUGH. He was quick to tell me all of the things I did wrong, and I can’t recall him ever saying he was proud of me.

At the beginning of this month, I felt so alone, so in the dark about how I was really supposed to get back to how things were – even just inside myself. I feel like I can’t pull myself out of this funk. I realized that my normal cures for bad days weren’t working.

Because this isn’t just a bad day. This isn’t a breakup. This isn’t a fight with a friend.

This is grappling with a major loss. It’s contemplating the meaning of life. Religion. Family.

It’s the realization that hindsight is a cruel bitch.

On the other side of this darkness, though, I’m also experiencing incredible success in my career. Not necessarily in my day job, but in my work as a blogger, editor, and digital strategist. I’ve had work literally fall into my lap almost every single day. I lived in Louisiana for 12 years and barely felt like I’d made a name for myself; been in Texas for less than three and I feel like so many people have reached out for my writing expertise, and I cannot explain how much that means to me. The fruits of my recent labor are allowing me to do things I’ve never thought I could do.

Part of me wonders if my dad is helping me from the other side – but then I feel guilty for even thinking that way. It’s a confusing place to be.

I decided to seek help from a professional (which is a chore in itself). So, I got a referral, and my mom helped me find a few options… and now it’s up to me to make the appointment. I’ve done therapy a few times before (for years), but this time, I’m considering medication.

But with medication comes all sorts of questions and worries. What will it be like? Will it change my personality? Will it make me less creative?

I’m still thinking on it.

In the meantime, I decided to focus on what I was putting into my body and how I was treating it. So, I stopped drinking entirely and am focusing on a plant-based diet. The no-drinking thing is a little more of a chore than I anticipated – I’ve been drinking lots of organic lemonade after realizing that non-alcoholic wine was not really a thing I’m going to do (ha!).

I’m doing more yoga (even if it makes me cry) and trying to get better sleep at night. And I’m still dancing.

Which brings me back to last night’s video premier. Our video shoot was 3.5 hours – beginning at 6:30 am, outside, in the Texas summer sun. And the resulting video was less than three minutes.

It was clever, and looked great, and it was funny to watch. But I couldn’t help but notice that we sure did put allllll of that time into just a few minutes – a highlight reel.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. But it’s a lot like life – you spend your whole life living it, no matter how long or short of a time you’ve got – and perhaps it takes you the entirety to realize one thing, or do that ONE thing.

And it all boils down to that highlight reel.

The same could be said for relationships or weddings or vacations. It’s those few moments that stand out.

Last night, one of my fellow dancers said, “You’ve been doing some road-tripping, right?”

I nodded, and explained to her that ever since my dad died, I am going for it, and I’m doing it without much of a second thought. I’m going to the places I’ve never been, eating new foods, facing my fears, and I’m doing it whether anyone is coming along or not.

I’ve already got two more trips planned this year, and I’m eyeing another one.

I don’t know what you dream of when your mind starts to wander, whether it’s dancing on a stage or being in a music video; maybe it’s seeing a Broadway play or getting published in a magazine.

Whatever it is – DO THAT.

At the end of our time here, you’re going to want certain things in that reel, and the time to accomplish them is now.

If I’ve learned anything about myself in the past six months, it’s that we are often our own blockade. So toss the fears aside. Just go for it.

To my dance family, thank you for providing such a supportive environment for me to even think these things. Some days, I struggle to show up to class. Other days, it’s all I want to do. But you’re there, and I hope I can return that favor to you whenever you need it.

END SCENE.

BBC: ‘The Rainbow Comes and Goes’.

Hello! It’s Friday and I’m just rolling right on through my reading list. Usually, I use my library reserve list to choose the order in which I read books (when it comes time to pick up, that’s the book I read next), but given my recent loss, I saw this book was on the shelf and decided to go ahead and read it.

I’m talking about “The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss” by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt.

Last year, when the accompanying documentary came out (“Nothing Left Unsaid“), I watched it immediately – I also wrote a review on it. I have always admired Anderson Cooper, have watched him for years on CNN, and saw him in-person with Andy Cohen last year.

Before I go any further, here is the official description of the book from Amazon.com:

A touching and intimate correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, offering timeless wisdom and a revealing glimpse into their lives

Though Anderson Cooper has always considered himself close to his mother, his intensely busy career as a journalist for CNN and CBS affords him little time to spend with her. After she suffers a brief but serious illness at the age of ninety-one, they resolve to change their relationship by beginning a year-long conversation unlike any they had ever had before. The result is a correspondence of surprising honesty and depth in which they discuss their lives, the things that matter to them, and what they still want to learn about each other.

Both a son’s love letter to his mother and an unconventional mom’s life lessons for her grown son, The Rainbow Comes and Goes offers a rare window into their close relationship and fascinating life stories, including their tragedies and triumphs. In these often humorous and moving exchanges, they share their most private thoughts and the hard-earned truths they’ve learned along the way. In their words their distinctive personalities shine through—Anderson’s journalistic outlook on the world is a sharp contrast to his mother’s idealism and unwavering optimism.

An appealing memoir with inspirational advice, The Rainbow Comes and Goes is a beautiful and affectionate celebration of the universal bond between a parent and a child, and a thoughtful reflection on life, reminding us of the precious insight that remains to be shared, no matter our age.

The documentary and the book are obviously based on the same collection of information, but the book is the collection of emails between Cooper and Vanderbilt, which was really interesting.

It’s funny to me how much we don’t know about our families, or even our parents – or maybe it’s just me. But even someone as famous as Gloria Vanderbilt had a bit of a mysterious past to her son. Here are some quotes I took note of during my reading:

  • “I know now that it’s never too late to change the relationship you have with someone important in your life… all it takes is a willingness to be honest and to shed your old skin, to let go of the long-standing assumptions and slights you still cling to.”
  • “I’ve often thought of loss as a kind of language. Once learned, it’s never forgotten.”
  • “I no longer imagine a diamond at my secret core. Instead, I see shimmering flashes of moonlight on the calm of a midnight sea.”

One topic they didn’t discuss in-depth was the suicide of Anderson’s brother, which Vanderbilt was witness to. It’s talked about extensively in the documentary.

All in all, it was a great read, and inspiring – get to know people you care about! I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves memoirs, and of course, fans of Anderson Cooper and/or Gloria Vanderbilt.

The next book Blanche’s Book Club will be reading is “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer.

I hope you all have a great weekend – I have another batch of blogs planned for next week! I think it’s safe to say, I am slowly getting my creativity back. Talk soon!

Stage Five: Acceptance.

Part five of a five part series.

Ah, here we are, the final stage: Acceptance. This stage can come across as a giant sigh of relief, but the truth of the matter is, acceptance does not equal joy or mean that life goes back to the way it was.

Instead, it simply means that we are accepting life without our person; and we’re figuring out a way to create a new normal. This may mean that different people fill different roles, or that a daily routine looks a little different.

As I mentioned yesterday, my dad wasn’t a part of my daily life so not much changes in that regard. But I certainly feel different.

When I went to Tennessee for his memorial, a majority of my family was there, and it certainly felt so weird without my dad there. He was always keeping in touch with everyone and it would be strange to have all of us in a room without him. When my friend drove me back to Indiana the next day, things just felt a little colder, a little more empty.

I am still trying to learn a lot about my dad and the life he lived. Of the things I’ve heard, I’m starting to realize just how full of a life he did have, and how many obstacles he overcame in such a short time and did so without hesitation.

My dad wasn’t a man looking for fame or fortune – ultimately, I think he was just trying to find a little bit of happiness, perhaps even a touch of adventure in each day. He loved stories, loved meeting people, and even in the confines of what appears to be a reclusive last few years, he found joy in hobbies: fixing fountain pens, attending garage sales, reading, and playing chess competitively.

I am never going to be okay with my dad being gone. But I know my dad would be okay knowing that we are all going to try and find a way to go on without him here, physically. I hope this brings my family together – they’re pretty cool – and I know he’d like seeing us lean on each other.

My dad was cremated, and I flew my portion (1/7th) of his ashes from Indiana to Texas. Right now, they sit on my bookshelf while I wait to decide what I actually want to do with them. I know I’m scattering some of them, and am lightly planning that now. I know my other family members have their own ideas for how to honor my dad, too.

I have no idea how long a journey like this lasts. In college, a close friend unexpectedly passed away and I felt like my heart was ripped to shreds. I remember pulling over and calling my dad when I got the news.

That was almost 10 years ago, and sometimes I still get choked up about that loss. But I am someone who believes in spirits and signs, and I have a connection to radio waves (I know, it’s super weird but I hear meaningful songs nearly everywhere I go), and I’ve already seen a few signs from my dad.

Even just last night, I went to a dance class and we danced to Demi Lovato and DJ Khalid’s “I Believe”, and the lyrics almost brought me to tears: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do, As long as you’ve got hope, you’ll find your way.”

I know we’re all going to come out of this on the other side, and I have always believed that we aren’t given anything we can’t handle.

Don’t look back at this time as a time of heartbreak and distress, remember me.
…I don’t want you to cry and weep, I want you to go on, living your life.

-Hanson, “With You In Your Dreams”

Thank you so much for reading my grief series – I know it was not a cheerful read. There will be more on this, I’m sure, as I continue on.

If you knew my dad, and have anything you’d like to share with me, please do not hesitate to email me at: Holly@thebitterlemon.com – I would love to hear from you.

Stage Four: Depression.

Part four of a five part series.

Stage four isn’t that shocking – it’s depression. Why wouldn’t someone going through grief suffer from depression? I have been slogging through the darkness of depression and sadness since my dad’s surgery in late September.

Although depression can come in many forms for different people, for me, there was one telltale sign: things that normally made me happy, no longer did. That is why my blogging fell to the side, my Etsy shop (I stopped making jewelry), I stopped cooking and relied on meal delivery, and my sleep suffered.

Things are slowly getting better – and I know that it’s okay if I have a bad day – now is the time to go easy on myself.

Expectations when it comes to grief are really weird. I got cards in the mail from so many people, which was great, and I’m so thankful – I hung them all in my living room. But on the other hand, some people just expect me to go on and be normal, like nothing ever happened… And well, that’s just not how it’s going to be.

People respond differently to people who are grieving. They reach out. But depression is so very isolating. It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never been depressed how isolating it is. Grief comes and goes, but depression is unremitting.

-Key Redfield Johnson

Some days DO feel normal. After all, I didn’t talk to my dad on a regular basis. Before his surgery, I hadn’t talked to him in almost four years. But nothing can explain the finite feeling that is death. He is gone, and I can’t talk to him like I did before, no matter what I do.

Other days, I feel like I keep freaking seeing CANCER… BRAIN CANCER, everywhere. It’s in the books I read, it’s on TV, it’s online… and I just never want to see it again.

Right now, there are two 50-pound boxes of his things in my closet. I have dug out a few of the items – a wooden chess board and pieces that I’ve set up on my dresser, an antique fountain pen that’s on my home desk, a glass paperweight that’s on my desk at work, an LSU sweatshirt, an Atlanta baseball hat, and a half-used journal.

Some days, I wear the hat or sweatshirt – the last few nights, I’ve slept with the journal at the foot of my bed. Other days, I don’t want to even think about opening up the boxes to see what else is in there. I’m just not ready.

I’ve found that reading is a good escape – I’ve read three books in the last week. I’ve even cooked a few meals and am starting to gather materials to make a few pieces of jewelry for my Etsy shop.

I am someone who likes to DO things; I like to be productive. But even with the greatest intentions, sometimes I still end up laying in bed for long chunks of time. It is a slow process. Writing about my feelings – even at a surface level – has helped me this week. Planning for the future also helps, and gets me excited about things coming up this year.

I’m taking it day by day, as cliche as it sounds.

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about the fifth and final stage of grief: Acceptance.

Stage Three: Bargaining.

Part three of a five-part series.

Stage three of grief is an interesting one. Bargaining refers to promises that may have been made before the person passed away. For example, praying and asking God to please spare your loved one; or perhaps making a promise that you’ll never do anything bad again if only this person can live longer.

These types of promises, or bargaining, may also occur after the person has passed, only now, they are imaginary. We may start to think back and wonder what if I’d done this, would the person have lived longer?

I’ll be honest, this really has not been a part of my grieving process, at least not yet. I know that there’s nothing I could have done to change the course of my dad’s life. I think many of us are probably in a position to think, well if we only took charge of our health or if we only exercised more, etc… but the truth is, our death is already planned. And it may not have anything to do with health or food or exercise.

I also know that my dad was given the best care possible once he entered Erlanger hospital, and I know he was grateful for all of his surgeons, doctors, and nurses along the way.

The thing is… guilt is also a part of stage three. And I cannot say I’ll walk away from this without feeling guilt. I wanted so badly to repair the relationship I had with my dad so that we could enjoy his final days, months, years laughing as we once did.

It’s a hard thing to imagine how somebody copes with grief and at the same time has to build a new life. 

-Caitriona Balfe

But despite everything I did, there was still a barrier. And the truth is, I will die not knowing what really happened there. There is one thing I did that I feel wrecked with guilt for, and I obviously can’t take it back.

Because of the nature of my dad’s death, I was blessed to have the opportunity to say goodbye. He was not capable of responding to me, but he was breathing, and I said – albeit through hysterical tears – everything I could think to say. And I apologized.

And that’s all I could do; and I just have to know that he heard me, and that he died knowing I was sorry, and that we were at peace with our past.

At this point, and as I continue coping, I know that I’m going to have to forgive myself, and the only real thing I can change, is how I act in the future.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Stage Four: Depression.

Stage Two: Anger.

Part two of a five-part series.

Already, anger has played a pretty big part in my grieving process. Actually, anger has had a role in the relationship I’ve had with my dad for many years.

As described by the experts, this stage of grief can be met with general feelings of anger, along with structured feelings of being angry at a specific person – maybe a doctor, or someone who wasn’t there during the time of loss.

I have had moments of being angry at a specific person, but I also do not want those feelings of anger over that person to overshadow my general sadness over my loss, if that makes any sense. I do not want my dad’s memory to be tarnished by one person is the best way I can put it.

I have also had incredible anger at the situation surrounding my dad, anger at work, and anger at the world for just not being an easy place for me right now. I’ve even gotten angry at Blanche!

At my dad’s memorial service, my great uncle said that memory is not something death can take from us. And for that I am so grateful. But, when it came time to share stories about my dad, many of the stories I have are of him being mad at me.

Of course, many of them are moments I can laugh about now; moments where he was just raising me, being tough on me, but they aren’t necessarily moments that describe him as a person. Or are they? My dad had a short fuse, and we butted heads countless times.

May love be what you remember most. 

-Darcie Sims

My feelings of anger are countered by my faith in destiny. I believe there are moments in our life that are planned – such as when and how we will die – but I also believe we choose our destinies. And my dad made choices that resulted in a situation that angered our family.

His death does not change those choices, and he was an adult, actively making those choices. To be completely angry is to deny that he made those choices.

My anger is also countered by the support I feel from my family and my friends – I have heard from so many of you, received so many hugs, and have shared tears with you. For that I am so grateful.

But yes, anger is still going to be there. Studies show that as a culture, we’re taught to suppress anger, even though it’s a very necessary, common feeling. Although I don’t consider myself an angry person, I’ve found anger to be a powerful part of this grief.

My anger has forced me to acknowledge a lot of things in my life that have otherwise floated by, and it’s given me the confidence to confront the people that are pissing me off! In a way it’s good, but of course, no one likes to get yelled at.

As I’ll continue to say, I’m coping. And it’s not really a pretty thing, but I’m just rolling with it.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about stage three: bargaining.

Stage One: Denial.

Part one of a five-part series.

My dad was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer in October of 2017. I know that typically, the five stages of grief are part of the healing process after loss; after death. But I have been coping with symptoms of grief since I heard the news about a mass in his brain.

I quickly learned that this blog was not a place for me to air my grievances – it was only adding to my stress as I received horrible messages from outsiders. No matter how many supportive messages I got, it only takes one dig to stick with us.

So, I quit.

I barely made an appearance here – a place I thought was mine. But that is sometimes what happens when you put yourself out there, in any form. There are always going to be haters.

For the most part, I have stuck to my journal and have let most of my other creative outlets fall to the side – including my Etsy shop (I am slowly starting to get back to it). But in general, I have been merely just trying to get by; just trying to get out of bed, look half-decent to get to work on time; do my tasks; and get some sleep at night.

At that, is stage one: Denial.

My dad passed away on February 3. It was not a surprise, and at first, I took a giant sigh of relief when I heard the news. And then I apologized for feeling relief. But I wanted so badly for my dad to be at peace, and to know that he would no longer be in pain.

After that sigh, I’ve felt a multitude of things, and each day – hell, each moment – feels different. So, I’m using this week to explore the healing process as I’ve come to know it. I’m still working on a larger project that will further detail my dad’s life and our relationship; so parts of this may be vague, as I’m still not ready to open those parts of my memory just yet.

Before starting this blog series, I thought that denial was literally denying that a person was sick or had died. And I certainly have never felt that way. I took my dad’s condition very seriously.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her co-author, a grief expert, David Kessler, identified the five stages of grief that we’ve come to understand as a necessary part of the healing process.

Instead, denial is us just trying to get through each day. We may question why we should go on or HOW we should go on, and I have been feeling this SO hard. During this stage, life may seem meaningless, or things that once seemed like a big deal just don’t matter as much.

The latter explains my feelings about work. I hate admitting that, but ever since my dad’s surgery, getting stressed over trivial things at work seemed beneath me. And they still do.

But grief is a walk alone. 
Others can be there, and listen. But you will walk alone down your own path, at your own pace, with your sheared-off pain, your raw wounds, your denial, anger, and bitter loss. You’ll come to your own peace, hopefully… But it will be on your own, in your own time.
-Cathy Lamb

My dad’s memorial service was a week after his passing, but I knew that upon getting back into town, I had to refocus quickly and jump into dance rehearsals. I was in the middle of prepping for the showcase and I had two weeks to learn two routines and get my costumes together. It was a much-needed distraction.

But the day after the showcase, I felt so lost. I didn’t really know what to do with myself even though between work and dance and just general life, my days are pretty much laid out for me.

Since then, it’s gotten a little better – I know I must go on, and I know I have to continue to live the life I’ve dreamt of, especially now. None of us know just how much time we have, and I don’t want to ever be in my final days wishing I’d done more.

As you probably know, the stages of grief are not linear. They can come and go at any time – sometimes they last a minute, sometimes they may last months. Everyone deals differently.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss stage two: Anger.

Goodbye, to you.

The pier at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

The pier at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

On Tuesday, my mom delivered the news to me that a dear family friend of ours had less than a 10 percent chance of surviving.

I wept behind the closed door of my office. This was not just any person – it was Cheryl, my mom’s best friend, a woman she’d known for 34 years, and someone who had influenced my life in many great ways. I wept for my mom, for Cheryl’s daughter, for her husband, for her family, her coworkers, and for anyone who’d ever knew her – even if just for a short moment.

Cheryl was a ray of light in the darkness – she always found a way to laugh at pretty much any situation, which is a trait I’ve always admired. I can recall so many fun times with Cheryl and her daughter, Sarah – times I will cherish for the rest of my life.

I know Cheryl meant so much to my mom, and to her family. To me, Cheryl was South Carolina sweet grass. She took her daughter and I on a rode trip one summer, from the middle of Indiana to the shores of South Carolina, where we stayed, for what seemed like a month.

It was my first time really discovering a new culture – we went to the market, bought handmade jewelry, tried homemade ice cream, walked cobblestone streets leading to plantation homes, and chased crabs in the sands of Folly Beach. It was heaven.

I’d nearly forgotten that Cheryl and Sarah had also joined my mom, dad, and I for a trip to Disney World when I was 10. Sarah and I met as many of the Disney characters as possible, having them all autograph pages in little journals we kept.

Although Cheryl divorced from Sarah’s father when we were very young, later she rekindled with a high school sweetheart whom she married and he became an integral part of the family. I always admired their love story – it was a fairytale.

But the entire time, Cheryl was battling Crohn’s Disease, which affects the digestive tract. The cause of Crohn’s is unknown, and even determining if you have it can be a complicated process. There is also no cure.

Personally, I know very little about Crohn’s, and have only known two people who’ve had it, including Cheryl. I know it affects each person differently, and I know I often forgot that Cheryl was fighting the symptoms of her illness.

But Crohn’s is eventually what took her body from this earth too soon – a move I know she didn’t let happen without a hard fight.

Yesterday, her body was laid to rest in its final place, and my mom was able to say her goodbyes to her dear friend. I couldn’t make it to Indiana for the funeral, which I feel terrible about, but I’ve already had a few talks with Cheryl’s spirit and I hope she understands.

I plan to honor Cheryl in a few ways, aside from just daily “What’s ups” and singing along to some John Mellencamp (she LOVED him). I have registered as a team to do the “Take Steps for Crohn’s” event in Austin at the end of May, so if you’re in the area and would like to join my team – Cheryl’s Southern Belles – or donate to my personal goal of $500, I would really love that.

I have also set up a GoFundMe campaign for Cheryl’s immediate family, as they are stressed about covering the costs of her funeral and her remaining medical bills. Although she had insurance, we all know that isn’t going to cover everything.

I am offering homemade baked goods and free blogging and Twitter courses for the higher donors, but if you would like to donate any amount, or share the link, it would be greatly appreciated.

I know the next few months will be emotional, and that we all deal with loss in our own ways. I wish my mom peace, and I hope everyone that loved Cheryl finds comfort in the fact that she touched so many lives and that we are all better people because of her.

Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” -John Mellencamp, Jack and Diane

Forever My Friend.

There are lots of dates I wish my mind would erase. And by dates, I mean months paired with numbered days of the week.

Next week, one of those days is on my calendar.

When I was a sophomore in college, I was living in my sorority house, and it was the morning of our formal. I was planning to wear my prom dress from my senior year of high school.

It was coral, with layers (dozens of layers) of pink and purple tule as the poofy, floor-length skirt, and the strapless bodice was completely beaded. It was gorgeous, even if my description makes it sound otherwise.

I had planned to get my hair and makeup done at the mall, so there I was. My hair was up and curled, my makeup probably overdone, and I stopped by one of the stores to talk to a friend.

I left the mall, and headed to the sorority house. My friend, the same one from the mall, called me.

“I guessed by your happy face that you didn’t hear the news,” she said. She told me she didn’t want to ruin my makeup, but she had to tell me something.

DC died.

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Dustin Clemons, known to all as DC, was the first person I met at LSU. We met at orientation, and kept in touch the summer before our freshman year. When we both moved onto campus, I was relieved to see a familiar face.

And his face was a cute one.

He was heavily involved in…everything. And although he was probably so busy he never slept, he always made time for me, and for his other friends.

I invited him to join me at sorority functions, and we always had a blast. I felt so lucky to be in his presence, any day.

But on that day, hearing that news, I pulled my car into the nearest parking lot and cried. I had suffered loss before, loss even younger, but I just couldn’t believe it.

When I composed myself, I drove back to the house, poured myself a stiff drink, and sat on the floor of the foyer while other’s dates arrived for the dance.

I had a date—a guy I asked from an English class. He didn’t show up.

So, I got in the car with a friend, and sat alone, dateless, at dinner.

I couldn’t stop thinking about DC. I wished he would have been there. I wished everything could rewind. I wished he never would have crossed the street. I stared at our most recent text conversation, wishing something would come through, proving this all a giant mistake.

But it didn’t.

Instead, I went to his funeral. I didn’t wear black, because I didn’t think he’d want me to be sad. But there, in the pew, I sat and cried into the arms of my sorority sister and friend.

It took me months before I could think of him the way I always had—with a smile. I made a CD of his favorite songs, and played them in my car during cool night drives to clear my head.

Since the day DC died, the month of April has had a haze over it—more than just the rain. And while I knew the numbers associated with such loss, I didn’t realize that it’s been nine years.

Tuesday night, I used a ladder and a flashlight to pull down the boxes from my closet, boxes that held our photos (aside from one I keep framed), and binders that smooth newspaper articles written about him. As I held back tears, I was wearing a custom trucker hat, “I ❤ DC.”

He loved trucker hats. And popped collars. And the Tar Heels.

And I miss all of those things.

The thing about losing someone, especially someone young, is that it’s difficult not to think about how much of their life they didn’t get to live.

The only thing that helps me cope with that idea is that they still lived the life they were meant to. In just a short time, DC connected so many people, more than I have, and probably more than I will.

For me, I know because of him I met dozens of people. I had nights I will never forget. And while, I still get sad sometimes wishing he were here, I know he is around in his own way—like when I hear “Mr. Jones” on the radio or in the grocery; I know he’s there with me.

I know I’m not the only one feeling this way lately, as he had a thousand friends (literally), and if it’s just a bit of comfort, know that we are in the presence of great company.

Believe in me, help me believe in anything, I want to be someone who believes.

—Mr. Jones, Counting Crows 

How I fell, part twelve.

It was a Thursday afternoon when D told me it wouldn’t be much longer for his grandfather. I asked him what he wanted me to do.

He wanted me to meet him for lunch, and drinks. So I did.

Needless to say, D was pretty upset. His family was close, his parents and grandparents all live within a 10 mile radius of each other and D.

I am really not good at handling these types of situations. I never know what to say, I just kept telling D I was sorry, asking him if he was okay, and reminding him that I’m always here to listen.

D had gone to Hospice, where the family was gathered around his grandfather’s bedside. According to D, his grandfather wasn’t responding to anything they were saying, and it seemed like the family was just waiting for the final breath.

We stayed at the bar, drinking, and found out that his grandfather passed away around 2 am.

Of course, when D told me his grandfather passed away, I offered to go with him to the services. He was worried about me missing work, which I assured him was not a big deal.

So that Monday evening, I picked him and his daughter up and we went to the funeral home for the wake. There, I saw his brothers, parents, nieces and nephews. But there was also a slew of people I had to meet, including his grandma, now a widow.

It was difficult. You don’t want to be cheery when everyone is sad, but it also feels silly to say, “Sorry for your loss,” when you never even met the guy in the casket. Am I wrong?

Anyway, one person coming to the wake I was particularly nervous to meet was D’s ex wife, and his baby-mama.

She was friendly and honestly seemed like someone I would be friends with; and that was a nice feeling to have. However, other people in the room were eyeing the situation.

“Is it weird to meet her?” his mom whispered to me.

“Mmm…no,” I said. “It’s kind of weird that we are meeting under these circumstances, but not in general.”

Why would it be weird? It’s not like I was afraid they would get back together.

The weirder part for me was when D’s daughter talked about her mom. Not because I had any ill feelings toward her, but just because I wasn’t sure what to say, aside from, “Oooohhh.”

After the wake, the 3 of us (D, his daughter and I) went to dinner. It was there that I felt like a little bit of an outsider.

Anyone ever dated someone with kids? It was cool to hang out as a new little family, but it wasn’t my little family, and I didn’t feel like his daughter would ever accept me. Even if D and I were to get married, she would still see me as that evil stepmom.

I was already feeling like she didn’t want me around. And honestly, I couldn’t blame her. I had no experience with kids. I wasn’t really the most cheerful person around, and I was pretty much trying to move in on her dad… what was there to like about me?

The next morning, we met back up for breakfast and hit the road for the funeral. D was a pallbearer, so his daughter needed a buddy to sit with during the service. She refused to sit with me, and D looked at me, “Wow she really does not want to sit with you.”

I said, “Yeah, pretty sure she hates me.”

D and the woman next to me were sympathetic.

“She doesn’t seem to like anyone,” the lady whispered.

I didn’t know if that’s comforting or not.

The next day, one of my columns was published in the local paper:

Building the Boat: Lessons in Life and Death

When I was a child, my best friend’s father died. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket. I remember my mom telling me that an open casket is a way for some people to say their goodbyes.

Since then, I’ve seen a few open caskets, especially lately.

During a routine cut and color, my hair stylist told me her father was in hospice. The only thing I knew about hospice was what I read in “The Mercy Papers” by Robin Romm. In it, Romm describes a hospice nurse as someone who “builds the boat of morphine and pillows.”

My stylist explained that her father was in such bad shape, he wished for a lethal dose of morphine. But she and I both knew Dr. Kevorkian was dead, literally.

The next night, my boyfriend told me his grandfather was also in hospice. My heart was heavy. I am never good at handling tough situations. Even as a writer full of words, I never know what to say.

A little more than a week later, his grandfather died. At the wake, my boyfriend’s mom took note that both times I’d seen the family, there’d been a casket present. I promise, she meant it in a fun, loving way.

The first time I met my boyfriend’s parents was at church on Easter Sunday. While I went to church and Bible camp as a child, I’m not well versed in religion. My mom will tell you this is one thing she regrets about my childhood — not subjecting me to more Jesus.

We joined his family at a Baptist church that was packed, either because of the holiday or because Jesus is really popular. I was told to expect singing, but upon arrival, our usher informed us that they would be bringing in a casket. My stomach churned.

The casket was fit for Buckwild’s Shain Gandee, with antlers for handles and a lining made of camouflage fabric. The pastor used the casket to represent a modern tomb, and said one day, he’ll need one — he preferred the camo option.

He went on to ask the congregation, “Why do we seek life where there is death?” One of his examples was drinking; there isn’t life at the bottom of the bottle (debatable). He later said life begins at death and when we choose to accept Jesus, we are choosing death.

A few days later, I asked a coworker what that whole “life begins at death” thing meant.

“I think it means you’re supposed to kill yourself,” he said. I promise, he meant it in a fun, loving way.

After the wake, my boyfriend and I went to dinner with his daughter. Between coloring and eating, she sweetly said, “I hope grandpa has a fun time in heaven with God.”

Leave it to a blue-eyed 6-year-old to lighten my heavy heart.

I don’t want to get too deep into the workings of religion here, but right then and there, I decided to translate the pastor’s words as such: “Afterlife begins at death.”

Because, although my visions of an afterlife are sweet, I still want to enjoy the life I’ve got right here on Earth. I’ve got a man who loves me, and includes me in his life. I’ve got friends to lean on and to share laughs. And, I’ve got a family who supports me.

Heaven, to me, isn’t about golden gates. I think of heaven when I’m stuck in a really great moment, enjoying a delicious meal, reading a fantastic book, catching a sunset or sitting on the patio with a mango mojito (see, there’s the bottle again).

Perhaps my heaven will be all of those moments mashed together looped like a Vine video of my life. Or maybe, my afterlife will be like that described by of one of my favorite poets, Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, a heaven that includes everyone, a house where breakfast (including canned biscuits) is served on the weekends.

I hope I’m done seeing caskets for awhile. If they start showing up at the movie theatre or at California Pizza Kitchen, I’ll take it as a sign. And when my time should come, I want to be cremated and stored in a rhinestone jar of some sort, something reflective.

It was easy for me to admit I was falling in love with D.

We were nearly inseparable, and I still looked forward to seeing him every chance I got.  I especially loved our “date night” which was Saturday night. We would go out sometimes, or round-up new cheeses and wines and have a wine night at my apartment.

I loved it.

Although I wasn’t convinced his daughter was a huge fan of me, I was really trying to think of fun things we could all do together on the nights he had her. After the pizza night was such a success, I wanted to do a “craft night” (I swear I’m not obsessed with themed nights). D said she loved crafts.

I asked him if Monday was good. He said yes.

So the day before, I ransacked Dollar Tree, Big Lots, and Walmart, ending up with materials to decorate tin buckets and plant flowers in. I had upwards of 20 bottles of glitter glue, bags of glass rocks, paint, sequins, ribbon, and flowers and soil. I packed everything up and set it beside my front door.

The next day, D headed out-of-town (about an hour away) for a charity golf tournament. He was really excited because he hadn’t golfed in so long. I’ve learned about men and their golf—don’t bother them. So I didn’t.

But when I hadn’t heard from him all day, I went ahead and sent him a text, especially because I didn’t know the plan for craft night. No reply. I logged onto Facebook and saw he posted a few pictures from the tournament, including one of him and a large-busted caddy he “bought” for the day.

“Oh, so you can post pictures on Facebook, but not reply my text?” I said to myself.

Around 6 pm, I still hadn’t heard from him and the amount of anxiety that weighed on me was unlike any other. I paced my apartment, I growled as I paced, I even unleashed a scream.

If you know me, you’ll know this is completely unlike me. It was so unlike me, in fact, that I was starting to scare myself. I went frantic and sent crazed texts wanting to know where he was, why he was ignoring me, what did I do?

He finally replied.

“I’m golfing!!! FUCK.”

I cried, took a shower, and put on my pajamas at 7 p.m.

Was I crazy or were we supposed to have craft night that night? I know I didn’t spend my Sunday buying dumb shit for someone else’s kid just to be sitting at home the next day, watching a Housewives marathon.

I was exhausted from crying; I was drained. I tucked myself into bed around 9. I got a text from D around 9:30.

“Who are you going on a date with tonight?”

I didn’t reply.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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