“I have one question for you,” she said, leaning on the kitchen counter.
Dirty dishes in hand, I stopped loading the dishwasher and looked at my friend.
“Have you said goodbye?”
Her words were gentle yet pulsed with concern.
My eyes slid closed to hold the tears at bay; I bit my lip to quell its quiver.
My sister’s death was eighteen months behind me, but I was still slogging through the muck of grief. I didn’t want to hear this question, much less ponder and act on it. Saying goodbye meant letting go and I was not ready to face the finality it would bring.
Three days later, my friend, Anna, and I attended a getaway with a few friends. Her question had not left me since she released it into the air.
I opened my journal in the quiet hours of the last morning of the trip and started writing. My pencil scratched furiously, unspoken words pouring forth from its tip. Tears dripped down my nose as the things left unsaid made their way from the shadows of my heart to the page bathed in light from the window.
I reached the end of the second page, signed my name, and let the journal fall to the floor. Turning to look at Anna, I said the words at the exact moment I realized what had just happened…
I saw the new Little Women movie last weekend. As a lifelong reader and writer who holds an English degree and adores the texts of 19th century American writers, I’m always wary of films based on books, but new versions of the classics take it to a whole new level of skepticism.
Here’s my short review: For a modern re-telling it was well done. No retelling of a classic will ever be perfect, especially for literary purists. Even the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (which I love!) is set in the original period in which the book was written. This one wasn’t and I’m glad. Shakespeare’s works are woven into modern films and it was long past time that this one had a turn to connect with a new generation.
I missed the opening weekend of this film because I wasn’t feeling well. A couple weeks later, I searched for a local showing to no avail. It was nowhere to be found and internet searches revealed a host of less-than-generous reviews. My friend Madlin found it at a local discount theater and we jumped at the chance to see it in theaters, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter. I’m sure the movie was pulled from theaters early because it’s still a very sweet story—something that is drowned out in our quest for action-packed, racy dramas even in young adult genres. Our culture wants salacious story lines and this one didn’t deliver that–thankfully. It held true to the classic themes you expect from the original novel. I loved it and I think it’s worth seeing (especially if you have tweens/teens).
Now, a deeper dive into my thoughts on the movie.
Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has been a favorite since I first read a condensed version, gifted to me by a family friend, around age 10. In college, it was a pivotal text in my favorite upper-level literature class, Dr. Thompson’s New England Writers. One of my favorite memories from the class was the day we formed a circle with our desks and discussed which character resonated most with ourselves. I’ll never forget the impassioned argument between two classmates when he spoiled a climactic plot point she didn’t know about yet. (Hint: it had to do with Beth.) She literally threw her book at him. It was hilarious.
I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the Alcott home where Louisa penned the novel loosely based on her life with her sisters in Concord, MA in August 2009. Last year, while on the Epic Book Tour, we found ourselves with a few free days while in the northeastern part of the country and I lobbied fast and hard to take Anna on a brief literary tour of the sites that enthralled me nearly a decade ago. Orchard House was at the top of our itinerary. I couldn’t wait to share the magic of the historic house with Anna. There’s just something about walking the halls of literary greats that makes my heart beat a little faster and my eyes light up a little brighter.
So, when I heard a new film version was to be released this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, I knew I was going to see it—regardless of whether I sat through it with squinted eyes and clenched teeth, worried it wouldn’t live up to the original work.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’ve read the book, you already know the basic spoilers, but I’ll also give away specific scenes from this film. Proceed at your own risk.)
Walking into the theater, I braced myself to hate it. I hoped to walk away with at least one positive thread that would redeem whatever mess Hollywood made of my beloved characters.
I walked out with a tear-stained face, drenched sleeves, and a full yet aching heart.
My reaction, due in part to the experiences I brought to the viewing (known in literary theory as Reader Response), took me totally off guard.
Though I’ve watched the 1994 movie dozens of times since college and know the major plot points by heart, the last time I read the novel was in Dr. Thompson’s class ten years ago. Back then, I identified mostly with Meg’s character; she too was the oldest of four siblings, quiet and sweet, and her dreams were those expected of young women of the time—nothing brash or lofty. On the other hand, I related to Jo only in that she was a voracious reader and writer. That was where our similarities stopped—back then.
Because this new interpretation of the book is set in modern time, I saw Jo in a new light. With each scene, I realized how much Jo’s character resonated with me. I also realized just how much I’ve changed since I read Little Women in college. This dawning knowledge had me a little emotional even before the news of Beth’s illness was revealed in the movie.
In the book, Beth is struck by scarlet fever after visiting an immigrant family but in this version, she’s diagnosed with cancer. This is where my heart first started constricting and my breath shallower. Of course; why would they not give Beth cancer?
Jo is Beth’s closest sister in both the book and the film. In the movie, Jo returns home for the holidays after Beth’s diagnosis; Beth’s health has obviously deteriorated. The two sisters lie in bed together, talking. Jo apologizes for not visiting more often and Beth dissuades her guilt with the acknowledgement that Jo is pursuing her dreams in New York. At one point, Jo tells Beth, “You’re my person.” Meg has John; Amy has Laurie; Jo has Beth.
This is where I lost it completely. Just the day before I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “What happens when you lose your person? The one to whom you text your random thoughts? The one you test your questions about life with? The one you explore your identity with? The one who knows you best and calls you on your crap? The one whose memories you share the longest? The one you sold tadpoles from your swimming pool with? The one who was always up for exploration and random road trips to cheesy roadside attractions? The one who threw a funeral-themed graduation party when you were depressed by the end of your college years? What happens when that person is gone, and you lose the reflection of yourself through their eyes? What happens when you’re left flailing in their absence?
(Even now, I’m tying these words through tear-filled eyes.)
A few weeks ago, Anna returned from one of Bob Hamp’s training sessions and we were talking about attachment and how you develop your perception of yourself as a young child through the eyes of those closest to you. Ideally, this attachment comes through your parents, particularly the mother. I realized as we talked that my deepest perceptions of myself and my identity were tied closely with the way my sister saw me and shaped me. She probably knew I was more like Jo long before I realized it.
During Jo and Beth’s conversation in the same scene, Beth tells Jo she wants to see the ocean. The next scene shows Jo and Beth sitting on the sandy shore, gazing at the expanse of waves before them. Beth tells Jo to live her life for both of them, to “do all the things.” It is their last conversation; the next scene is that of Beth’s funeral.
By now, I was literally covering my mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. My head was pounding from the sheer force of keeping the emotion from erupting. I could barely see through the tears. My heart felt like it was being shattered into pieces all over again.
Madlin realized what was happening and told her daughter, who was sitting between us, to switch seats. She moved over and grabbed my hand as I sobbed through the next few scenes.
In February 2016, I flew to S.C. to spend a couple of weeks with Jess before the busy season of launching Anna’s book and the book tour ramped up. I flew into Greenville and then drove to the coast where Jess was doing treatments.
That weekend, Mom and my brother drove back to Greenville to take care of a few things and left Jess and I at the hotel. I was nervous because Jess’ health was not good and she required some assistance with her care. Namely, she had a port that had to be flushed each night and she couldn’t do it by herself (though she did try, stubborn sasshole that she was). Now, I’m not a fan of needles, but I was determined to do what I needed to do. And I did, though it was not without a lot of anxiety, a few ridiculous errors (there’s really no telling how much saline solution I shot onto the ceiling from the syringe trying to get the air bubbles out), a little humor, and a few frantic texts to #the4500 when I could not get the line flushed after many attempts.
But the moment I remember most from that weekend is sitting on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Jess longed to be on the beach with her toes in the sand, but she was too weak to get there so we settled for the balcony. We sat in the sun, talking about how my life had changed. She offered her best fashion and makeup advice to turn me from a “tired teacher to a professional business woman” for the book tour. I hinted at my misgivings about even going on the book tour, afraid to be even further away if something were to happen, wondering if I should just not go. She was quick to shoot that notion down. She told me in no uncertain terms that I could not pass up this opportunity to travel the country like we’d always dreamed of doing.
She told me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I was where I was supposed to be. Essentially, she told me to go do all the things she couldn’t.
So I went. A week later, we were back in Greenville. The night before my early morning flight back to Texas, I went to tell her goodbye. We talked for a few minutes, but it was late, and she was tired. As I left her room, I leaned against the doorjamb and said, “Bye, Little Buddy. I love you.” “Love you, too,” she returned quietly.
“…the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away. They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which is very hard to overcome.”
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women p. 340)
As I closed the door, I felt a sense of finality. I wouldn’t realize until later that I knew in my spirit that this was the last time I would see her. It was February 19th. Eight weeks later, almost to the day, she was gone.
Grief is such a complex process. I probably should’ve realized that I was setting myself up for all the feelings by seeing this movie, but it truly blindsided me because of the modern setting.
One of the last scenes in the movie shows and angry Jo running, day after day, attempting to burn the negative energy of the grief that consumes her. At one point, Marmee runs up beside her and stops her.
Jo bursts, “How am I supposed to live like this? How long will it feel like this?”
Marmee replies, “Beth wanted you to do all the things. And that means you must feel all the feelings, too.”
For months after Jess died, I tried to suppress the emotions. The book tour made it easy to avoid confronting my emotions because it kept me busy and distracted—something I’m eternally grateful for. Without that distraction, I would’ve sunk deep into a hole I’m not sure I would’ve been able to climb out of. But then after the book tour ended, I slid down a slippery slope of avoidance and anger. I questioned God and every belief I’d ever held about Him. After months of this, I found myself enrolled in a three-part personal development program (Discovery) that would ultimately lead to a great deal of healing. The first time I truly tapped into my emotions over losing Jess was in D1 in March of this year. Sitting in the movie theater for two hours last weekend was almost as emotionally gut-wrenching as those three days I spent at D1. (And if you’ve been to D1, you know how intense that experience is.)
Before Discovery, I wouldn’t have given myself the freedom to fall apart in a movie theatre. I would’ve stuffed it down and avoided the feelings. But after 30-some years of stuffing and avoiding them, I’ve learned to just let the emotions come, to ride the wave and give into the current. The feeling will pass; it’s not the whole picture, it’s simply part of the puzzle of what makes me.
It’s me doing all the things and feeling all the feelings.
I have no recollection of a sparkle in your eye when you looked at me.
I needed a father whose eyes lit up when I entered his line of sight.
I never felt treasured.
I needed a father who considered me a gift.
My worth was diminished by everything you loved more.
I needed a father who loved me most.
Your attention was what I craved, but even throwing myself into your hobbies wasn’t enough to gain that attention.
I needed a father whose affection I didn’t have to earn.
I wasn’t taught the value of a daughter.
I needed a father who showed me I was significant.
I felt threatened by you.
I needed a father who protected me.
I didn’t have permission to express my emotions and feelings without negative repercussions.
I needed a father who provided a safe place to explore my emotions.
I wasn’t known by you—my thoughts, interests, passions, and capabilities were overlooked.
I needed a father who saw me.
Father’s Day is not a day that I can celebrate with enthusiasm. Father’s Day is complicated. It is a stark reminder of the essential absence of a father figure in my life. Those of you who have known me a long time might be confused by that statement. Yes, my father was present in the home as I grew up, but he was absent in every other way. When I search my memory for instances that relay evidence of having a well-fathered heart, I come up empty.
After decades of ignoring the deep sadness and grief of not having the father I needed, those wounds are breaking through the surface of my heart, ripping open those tender spots that long to be healed. Currently, I am wrestling with the fathering heart of God. I’ve heard, all my life, that He is a Father to the fatherless, a good Father, a loving Father. Yet, when you grow up not only without a solid father figure, but also with a worldview shaped by the belief that a father is someone you have to tip-toe around lest you upset him, making a connection to the true Father-heart of God is difficult, at best.
Believing, deep in my heart, that I am a beloved daughter of the King is a challenge when my human understanding and experience tells me I am easily replaced and unwanted. Accepting that my heavenly Father wants nothing more than to spend time with me is unlikely when my experience tells me my presence is a bother. Knowing that I don’t have to work to earn the love of Father-God seems too good to be true when I feel unwanted.
All this is further complicated by the fact that I have a lot of unanswered questions about my sister’s death. Because how are you supposed to believe in a good Father when He’s allowed the person closest to you to die? It’s almost too much to bear.
For now, all I can do is push those questions aside as best I can and focus on solidifying my identity as a significant and irreplaceable daughter and God’s inherent character as a Father. Because until that belief is deeply rooted in my heart, mind, spirit, and soul, every other truth falls on deaf ears.
When I first began intentionally digging into this landmine of suppressed hurt, the Holy Spirit whispered a phrase to me:
“You were my daughter first.”
I’ve not fully unpacked the depth behind that statement yet, but I’m content to camp out there for a while.
I may not have the father I needed on this earth, but I’m clinging to the knowledge that my true Father is pursuing my heart, showing me how a Father loves His daughter one glimpse at a time until the deep knowledge of it replaces my experience with an earthly father. I’m counting on Him to re-Father the little girl inside me who needed a good father.
We arrived in L.A. late on Saturday, April 15, 2017.
Anna and I had a mostly-unspoken understanding on the book tour: if we needed to get somewhere in a hurry or had to navigate big city traffic, she would drive. If she needed a break for a stretch of road that didn’t involve those scenarios, I was happy to take the wheel. So, the fact that I was in the driver’s seat as we approached L.A. was kind of a big deal for me. Neither of us had realized I’d be tasked with navigating L.A. traffic at night, and when we realized it, it was almost too late to do anything about it.
Anna did ask if I wanted to pull over and switch spots, but we were already in the thick of it and the thought of maneuvering to the shoulder made me more nervous than soldiering on. It was nerve-wracking, for sure, but I count weaving through the throngs of cars on a hundred-lane highway at night as one of my proudest accomplishments of the book tour.
(Those were tough days, y’all. Let me have the little things.)
As I’ve struggled with anxiety over the last four-ish years, a weighted blanket has long been on my wish list. When I experience anxiety, I want nothing more than to burrow in bed under a heavy blanket. It’s an innate need that calms me. And because I was still in such an unsettled emotional state, my anxiety was also heightened. All day, I’d wanted nothing more than to burrow, but that’s hard to do in a moving vehicle.
We arrived at our destination and were met warmly by Anna’s sister Sasha. Anna got out of the car first—this was normal; I took my time exiting and let her get all her squealing out of the way. I took a little longer than usual, and she poked her head back in and asked if I was getting out. I told her I’d be right behind her. She closed the door and followed Sasha into the house, informing her, I’m sure, on my current state. Slowly, I pulled the bags I would need for the night out of the car and went inside.
Sasha hugged me as I entered the house and led me to the room where we’d be staying. The rest of the night is a blur, mostly because I went straight to bed. What I found was that the bed was equipped with a heavy down comforter that cocooned me just as I longed for all day.
The next morning, I awoke and was immediately hit by a tidal wave of grief. I also realized that it was Easter Sunday. (Another aspect of timing that I have yet to wrap my head around.) I think this was the first day I really became aware of the gravity of my loss. I cried from the time I woke up that morning to the time I crawled back in bed.
Anna brought me coffee, then breakfast, and offered gentle words of understanding (not comfort, mind you (because what comfort would be adequate), but understanding). We talked about how this was the first time I’d lost someone close to me, and my first experience with grief.
We didn’t have any solid plans that day and she encouraged me to stay in bed, rest, and write (more like insisted). She knew as well as I did that I needed to process some of the things swirling around my head.
I stayed put well into the afternoon until Anna came to check on me and see if I wanted to go out with her that evening. This was our chance to see Hollywood—including the infamous sign, so I said yes. I didn’t bother putting on makeup, but I did throw on earrings. I shoved my sunglasses on my face to hide my swollen, leaking eyes and we set off.
We cruised down Sunset Blvd…
…Anna signed books at Barnes and Noble and bought her kids Snapchat Spectacles…
… we met up with a Adam Hawk, a gamer Anna’s sons were acquainted with. (She definitely got cool mom points for that meet-up). Adam served us yummy tacos and flan while we modeled the spectacles…
…and, finally, we found the spot to take pictures of the Hollywood sign just before sunset.
While we were standing on the side of the road awaiting our turn to take pictures, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a faint rainbow arched across the valley. The very sight of it was a balm for my languishing soul.
A few weeks ago, I had a guest post published over at (in)courage. That post detailed the events that occurred in the wee hours of the fifteenth day of the book tour. If you follow my blog or my Facebook page, chances are you’ve already seen the post. (In a still-astounding turn of events, it has at least ten times more visits than anything I’ve ever written. Mind. Blown. Still.)
Las Vegas had been a last-minute addition to the book tour, and when I texted Jess to tell her, she was far more thrilled about it than I was. Vegas was on the top of her wanderlust wish list while I didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot-pole. Her affinity for a good party, stellar costumes, and risky adventure lent itself well to this city. My affinity for quiet, serene, and calm meant my senses were overloaded before I even got out of the car when we arrived. (Seriously, while Anna went into the hotel lobby to get our key at 10 p.m. the night we arrived, I sat in the car, slack-jawed at the parades of people streaming down the sidewalk and squinting as the bright lights of a city that never sleeps burned my retinas. I was not a fan.)
On the heels of the news I received that morning, I was a little incredulous of the timing. It simultaneously seemed like a cruel joke and perfect. It was almost as if that sass-hole sister of mine had planned it. We were in Vegas; it was her muse and I’d beat her here.
We collected ourselves as best we could and prepared to check out of our sketchy hotel situated on the Strip. Anna was in the bathroom getting ready and I flopped myself across the bed.
“Anna,” I gravely said, “I’m seriously thinking about getting a tattoo. Today. While we’re in Vegas. I need you to talk me out of it.”
She came around the corner, eyes wide.
“Talk you out of it? No way! You totally should get one. I’ll get one with you!”
I’d never wanted a tattoo. My siblings, mostly Jess and Josh, had been trying to talk me into their plan of matching or coordinating tattoos for months. In recent weeks, they amped up their arguments with pictures of proposed designs and threats of excommunication from the family if I resisted.
So naturally, in the fog of shock and grief, getting a spontaneous tattoo in Sin City was suddenly an option I considered.
“Google local tattoo parlors and see if you can find one,” Anna instructed as she disappeared back into the bathroom.
Phone in one hand and map in the other, I started searching. I also Tweeted a poll.
A few minutes later, Anna’s phone rang. Shortly, I heard her say, “Okay. We won’t get tattoos in Vegas. I promise.”
She came back into the main room and told me she had talked to Jana C.
“Jana said we CANNOT get tattoos or get married in Vegas,” she dutifully reported.
About the same time, Jana messaged me and reiterated her rules. We were scheduled to be at an event in Jana’s town two weeks later. She offered to set up an appointment with her tattoo artist in Minnesota, so we would have time to think about whether we really wanted to get inked. We agreed and an hour later, she messaged me back with a conformed appointment.
Our proverbial train had almost gone totally off the rails, but Jana had steered us back on track.
But we had more shenanigans up our sleeves.
We left the hotel, planning to drive down the Strip. I had no real desire to do anything in Vegas, but I knew I definitely had to see two places that were on Jess’ bucket list: The Mirage and the Bellagio. So we set off to find both. Appropriately, the first cross-street we passed was Elvis Presley Blvd. Of course it was. My sister had been obsessed with Elvis since she was six-years-old.
We soon found the Mirage, followed by the Bellagio. Anna pulled the car to the curb and we sat watching the dancing fountains. Tears swam in my eyes as I took the beauty of it into my aching heart. The music ended, and we cruised up the drive way past the entrance.
Driving away from the Strip, we set our sights on the next goal.
Earlier in the week, Anna had attempted to connect with Christine Brown, one of the wives on the TLC reality show, Sister Wives. Not only is Christine Anna’s doppleganger, but they are also cousins.
We’d plotted our route through Las Vegas on the chance that we might be able to arrange a brief meeting; however, the opportunity had never presented itself. So we thought we’d at least get a glimpse of the Brown’s cul-de-sac.
We didn’t have a lot of information to go on—in fact, all we knew from a fan site we’d found online was that the house was near the mountains and what the shape of the house looked like. Thus, we headed in the general direction of the mountain, weaving through the more upscale neighborhoods hoping we’d stumble upon the right one.
After twenty minutes of circling with no luck, Anna was resigned to giving up. I, a little more stubborn, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Perched in the passenger seat, my fingers flew over the keyboard on my phone, Googling any phrase I could think of that might point us in the right direction.
“Got it!” I excitedly announced. We’re a mile away.” My sleuthing skills had paid off.
Anna was a little shocked that I’d found it.
I punched the address into the GPS and we followed it to a small neighborhood. Behind a iron gate was the cul-de-sac that boasted the four houses the Brown family occupies. Anna’s phone was almost dead, so I handed her mine. She jumped out of the truck and approached the gate, hoping for a glimpse of Christine. I watched as she took a few selfies with the house in the background.
A few moments later, I was looking for something in my bag when I glanced up. Anna was briskly walking back to the truck, her mouth moving with indistinguishable words.
“What happened?” I asked as she jumped back in the vehicle.
“Kody and one of the wives just came out of the house! They’re getting in the car!” she gushed, out of breath.
“Well, get out of the car!!” I shouted.
She grabbed a book and got out again.
“Take your sunglasses off!” I ordered. I thought they might recognize how much she looked like Christine if they could see her whole face.
By the time Anna was out of the car, sunglasses off, and standing in front of the truck (well away from the gate), the car was pulling out of the cul-de-sac. Kody and Janelle slowly rolled by, declining to stop for the book Anna held out in offering. In a matter of seconds, they were gone.
Anna climbed back in the truck and we stared at each other, adrenaline pumping through our veins. We were disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get a book into their hands, but we had found the house. And, I quickly reminded Anna, now we had an address. You can bet your bottom dollar we mailed a book directly to Christine a few days later.
Satisfied that we could now check finding the Brown cul-de-sac off our to-do list, we set out for a local Barnes and Noble to meet Brandi M., a friend of Jana’s and Katie F., a member of Anna’s launch team.
Late that afternoon, we set off for our next destination: Los Angeles, CA.
On Day 14, we left the Phoenix area with weary hearts and swollen eyes. I was exhausted in every way but determined to press on. After all, our itinerary for the day was sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was for copious amounts of caffeine.
Fully armed, we set out for the infamous hole in the ground, detouring through Sedona. I spent much of that stretch of the trip on the phone and responding to texts from friends who were checking in to see how I was holding up.
As we approached the national park, Anna proposed that we keep the shenanigans to a minimum.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited us. Pictures cannot do justice to the magnificence that is the Grand Canyon. It was breathtaking.
Much to my dismay, my camera battery died right after I took this picture of this California condor at the first outlook.
There was a definite heaviness on me that day, and although I was excited to see one of the Seven Wonders, I was also very subdued. Staring into the crevice that stretched for miles before me, my brain struggled to makes sense of the vastness of what my eyes were seeing while my heart wrestled with the reality of what was happening on the other side of the country. Neither scenario made any sense to me. Just as I couldn’t possible see the entirety of the canyon, nor could I comprehend the enormity of the loss I was facing. Directing my gaze on sections of the rock formations around me was the only way I could take in the sight; focusing my mind on the very next moment was the only way I could keep from falling apart completely.
Alongside the ache in my heart, I was able to dig up a little lightheartedness—especially when I ventured closer to the edge of the cliffs to get those more adventures camera angles.
If nothing else, Jess taught me how to take cool pictures. Anna, who has an acute fear of heights and drop-offs (as I was quickly learning), did not appreciate my forays toward the edge.
Who knows—maybe she was afraid I might try to pull a Thelma and Louise sans car in my distraught state? At any rate, she actually grabbed my arm and pulled me back toward the designated path at one point. (I wasn’t even close to the edge, y’all, but it made for some hilarious pictures.
When I walked on an outcrop and directed her to take my picture beside a tree, she moaned and groaned and whined. Then, I somehow convinced her to pose as I had. (Notice the death grip she’s got on that tree.)
Just before sunset, we turned around on the trail and began our trek back to the truck. These huge boulders sat just off the path, and as we approached, I handed my phone to Anna. I climbed atop the rocks (no easy feat for my short legs) and posed while she snapped away. Back on the ground, I scrolled through the pictures, gasping at the perfection of one of them in particular: my silhouette back lit by the waning sun, arms outstretched.
Having spent almost two decades as one of Jess’ main photography subjects, I’m kind of judgy when other people photograph me. (Sorry, it’s true. Being photographed by a sister who knows all your peculiarities about pictures ruins you for life.) But Anna had nailed it.
“Jess would be so proud of this picture!” I gushed.
When I posted the photo on Instagram later, I captioned it with the lyrics from Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Since then, I can’t see that picture without hearing the song in my head or hear the song without picturing this shot.
Like the book tour as a whole, Day 14 was both one of my favorite days and one of the hardest days; the pain and joy of that day are inextricably mingled. Holding the tension of both those emotions wrapped so tightly around this one memory is a task I struggle with daily. But the ability to write about it displays a small measure of healing, and for that I am grateful.
Have you ever had an experience so transforming that you couldn’t quite find the words to wrap around the magnitude of its bearing on your soul? An experience so powerful that you simultaneously want to hold it close to your chest and savor the intimacy of it while also desiring to shout it from the rooftops?
Last week, I attended Discovery!—a personal development retreat in Austin.
For months, several friends (one in particular—you can guess which one), their family members, and a few friends of friends have raved about their Discovery experiences and implored me to go. But because the program works most effectively if you don’t know what the weekend entails going in, none of them offered any details other than “it’s hard, but so worth it.” My anxious, likes-to-know-all-the-things brain struggled with this lack of information.
When the #EpicBookTourTPD ended last August, I slid into a deep, dark hole. As I wallowed in that pit one evening, Anna once again asked me to give Discovery a shot. Weary of saying no and, honestly, just trying to make her stop asking, I signed up.
A few days later, I cancelled my reservation because I was terrified of the unknown.
And I slid further into the pit.
By the time February rolled around, I was numb again, stuck in old thought patterns, resigning myself to the reality that I would always be trapped in this cycle, that losing Jess had done me in and there would be no coming back from it.
One Saturday evening, Anna and I sat in the car and she laid out my options: counseling, Grief Share, or Discovery. Again, she shared how Discovery had helped her and, with tears glistening in her eyes, she asked me to trust her because she knew it would be beneficial for me—and would provide a quicker result in one weekend than months of counseling appointments or Grief Share meetings would.
I agreed to go, signed up again, and tried not to think about it for the next six weeks.
On Friday, March 23, I, along with 32 others, walked into a large conference room not knowing what to expect. As the doors closed behind us, our connectors—those who had gone before us and convinced us to come—cheered and shouted in the lobby. They knew what was coming; we had no idea.
(Because I’m now one of them and know all the details, I’m purposefully leaving them out. Just know that not being able to share all the things with you is hard for this [written] words girl!)
I walked in room still apathetic and numb, highly skeptical, and searching for a way to get out of the whole weekend. I walked in carrying a load of guilt, anger, and undealt with grief. I walked in with a broken and buried heart. I walked in with terrible pain in my neck and shoulders that had been there for months.
Over the course of the next 57 hours, I resisted, surrendered, wrestled, fought, yelled, sobbed, grieved, unburied, trusted, encouraged, gave, received, supported, stretched, recovered, and celebrated.
Saturday was brutal, but beautiful.
On Sunday evening, I walked out of that room with my whole heart back. I walked out of that room without the long-present tension in my neck and shoulders. I walked out genuinely laughing and smiling rather than hiding behind a mask. I walked out empowered to stand up and fight for me. I walked out lighter and freer.
It’s taken an entire week to reflect and begin to process the weight of my Discovery experience, and I’m still just scratching the surface.
The other side of Sunday is everything I want and everything I need.
The other side of Sunday brings light.
The other side of Sunday brings hope.
The other side of Sunday brings freedom.
I’m living on the other side of Sunday, and that’s more than enough.
Groggily, I rolled over in the hotel bed and looked at my phone. 4:00 a.m. Two missed calls, three text messages, and a voicemail from Mom. Tears welled in my eyes and a knot formed in my stomach. “No, no, no,” I whispered as my lungs constricted. I needed to call Mom back, but I already knew.
Trembling, I stumbled toward the bathroom. I grabbed a box of tissues and, fighting nausea, went back into the bedroom. “I have to wake her up. I can’t do this alone.” I thought.
Clutching phone and tissue box in one hand, I carefully pulled back the blanket of the other bed. “Anna,” I whispered as I sat down. Startled, my friend opened her eyes. “Mom called. I don’t want to call her back.” Tears pooled in her eyes. She knew, too.
She put her arm around me as I pressed the button to return Mom’s call…
I’m tempted to let 2017 slip away quietly, to bid it farewell without the fanfare of a final blog post–because reflecting on all this year is and was and will be is a lot for a heart to handle.
(Just forty words in and already I feel the tears burning at the corners of my eyes.)
It was the worst best year I’ve ever experienced and trying to process all. the. things is overwhelming, razor-sharp, exhausting work. So, I’m just diving in to share an unedited glimpse of some of my highest highs and lowest lows of the year. This won’t be a cheery, tied-up-with-a-pretty-bow kind of post, but I hope my honesty meets you where you are, somehow–even if that means we sit in a heap of ashes and tears while remembering.
Between Thanksgiving 2016 and March 2017, I traveled back and forth between Texas and South Carolina a lot. My sister’s health was declining rapidly (damn you, cancer) and I was almost literally living with one foot in my native state and the other in the state I was trying to claim as my new home. Unsettled was the new normal I never asked for.
I’d had to quit my job in Texas in order to be so transient, and it was for the best, ultimately. It gave me the chance to spend some sweet last days at the beach with my sister and allowed for memories that gave me the strength to carry on through the rest of the year.
In January, I finished the first draft of my book manuscript. 55, 000 words in one document, ready to be edited and pitched to an agent. (One of those goals that hasn’t yet come to fruition.)
After two weeks of working furiously to map out a cross-country route and secure places to stay along the way, the #EpicBookTourTPD rolled out of town on April 1st. I was also leading my third launch team at this point (Jamie Sandefer’s Love You From Right Here).
Barely two weeks and four states in, I got the middle-of-the-night call no one wants to get (or make) while sleeping in a sketchy hotel on the Las Vegas strip. (I’m choosing to leave out a lot of details here, not only because this was and is a deeply personal period, but also because I don’t remember a lot of the two weeks that followed that call. It still feels like a nightmare to recall what I do remember.) I cried nonstop for at least three straight days, then tiny tears leaked out of the corner of my left eye for weeks after that. I stopped wearing eye makeup for the first time since I was thirteen. The last weekend of April, I flew from Salt Lake City to Greenville for her memorial service where I had the excruciating honor of eulogizing my little sister.
If it hadn’t been for the support of my closest friends who listened when I needed to yell or cry or talk about my sister, and the distraction of the book tour, I would have crawled into a hole this year. There were (and are still) occasions when I did crawl into a hole and had to be dragged out.
In the midst of the shattered mess of grief, I was given the gift of fulfilling a dream Jess and I had: a cross-country road trip. I knew, without a doubt, that she would kick my ass if I quit the book tour, so I grabbed her travel mascot–a green, plastic dinosaur named Migrating Monty–while in S.C. for the memorial service and flew back to Utah to rejoin Anna. Monty sat on the dashboard of the Epic Book Tour Mobile for the remainder of our trip, a constant reminder of my adventure-loving sister. I’ll never forget driving through the Colorado mountains the week after the memorial service when Hanson’s “I’ll Be With You In Your Dreams” started playing.
From April to August, Anna and I crisscrossed the U.S.A., covering 40 states, meeting hundreds (thousands?) of people, and driving a cumulative total of 23,461 miles.
In April, I was talked off the ledge of getting a grief tattoo in Vegas.
In May, we traveled from Colorado to New York and back to Texas. We saw Niagara Falls–the sightseeing highlight of the book tour. We got tattoos in Winona, Minnesota.
In June, we left Texas again and went east, traveling as far north as Pennsylvania. When we passed through the Carolinas, I had the opportunity to take Anna to my hometown to meet my people.
In July, we headed south to Florida and back to Texas before making a second trip to Utah, then coming home for two days before Anna headed to her birthplace in Mexico while I spent a few sweet days with my heart-friend, Kelli, in New Mexico to conclude the book tour.
Through August and most of September, I laid on the couch.
Seriously. After four months on the road, sleeping in a different place every few nights, and thousands of miles of sitting in a car–all while being in the shock stage of grief–left me entirely drained. I’d put my hand to the plow and did what I had to do. But once it came to an end, I turned inward, fast.
In late September, Anna threw me a lifeline, fished me out of the deep waters of depression, and offered a simple question: “If I make you an appointment, will you go?” (If you’ve read her book, you know what that question signified.) I said yes and she made the appointment for my first counseling session–something I knew I needed, but just the thought of beginning overwhelmed me.
October brought an opportunity to use skills I didn’t even know I had when Anna and I built a website and online course to disperse her expansive knowledge on leading launch teams. Turns out I’m pretty good at web design and have since helped design another website for a friend. Who knew?
November was a hard months for reasons I won’t disclose here, but it forced me to find my voice again. I flew to SC for a brief visit over Thanksgiving and cuddled my nieces, which is always good for my soul.
December began with a retreat I didn’t really want to attend, but I went anyway. And instead of pretending I was happy to be there, I gave myself the freedom to be real and let the other five women there know that I was struggling. Best decision ever. That weekend deserves it’s own post, so stay tuned.
My trip to S.C. for Christmas turned into a disaster from the moment I stepped in the Dallas airport until the time I boarded the plane back to Texas in Charlotte. An already hard holiday tipped the scales as everything that could have gone wrong did. Yes, there were some bright spots, but overall, it sucked.
So here we are. A few more hours of this year left.
I still have a lot to process, and I’m fully aware that it will be slow going.
Because of the way excitement and joy have been so entangled with grief and loss this year, I haven’t felt like I have permission to celebrate the good. And, honestly, that makes me angry. It’s not fair. What should have been the best year of my life–traveling the country, settling into a new home, discovering new talents, and working toward healing from old wounds–has been irrevocably robbed from me. And while I’m working on allowing myself the freedom to acknowledge the happy moments of 2017, they’re still greatly overshadowed by the broken pieces.
My desire to engage anyone on Twitter has been lacking most of the year (because it’s been one hell of a year), and I rarely reply to tweets (other than occasional replies to Anna’s or Jen Hatmaker’s tweets), but this one caught me in the gut and I was compelled to use my cyber voice and be heard.
Why did I reply?
Because I am tired, literally exhausted, of trying to be heard and seen in a world that is powered by and caters to extroverts.
Yes, I tell everyone I meet that I’m an introvert.
It’s a boundary-setting practice.
It’s a sanity-saver.
It’s a plea that you understand I need space.
I don’t have the energy to endure endless small talk or hours upon hours of being with people.
Some days I can fake being an extrovert quite well. (I did it for four months straight this year.)
Some days I can’t.
Some days/weeks/months, the reality of a cyclical battle with isolating depression and crushing anxiety shows up to the party.
Add an ugly wrestling match with grief and I have exceeded my ability to cope with all. the. extroversion.
And no—it’s not any one person who has driven me to the edge.
I live with the world’s most extroverted person, no doubt. (Everyone who knows me, knows this.)
But I’m addressing the larger scope of introversion vs. extroversion.
I’m putting my words out into the world because if I don’t, I am not being true to me.
By replying to Acuff’s tweet last night, I gave myself permission to be an introvert.An introvert who is currently struggling with finding ways to feed her introverted soul. An introvert who is fighting to keep using her words when all she really wants to do is curl up in a ball and hide from the world. An introvert who battles hourly against the voices of depression, anxiety, and grief that tell her she’s not worth fighting for.
So yes, I WILL keep saying I’m an introvert.