A Little Ditty For A Little Lady

Today, we buried my beloved grandmother. At her funeral, I knew I wanted to speak. Normally, I would be confident to just get up and talk about her but, in this instance, I didn’t trust myself to properly communicate all of the things that I wanted to say. So, I started to write down what I needed to say. And it just wasn’t coming together! None of it felt right. It didn’t feel like they were my words on a page. And they didn’t aptly describe Nonna. My solution at 2am (7 hours before I needed this to be done) was to make it all rhyme.

You see, Nonna loved rhyming. She loved when I would tell her my stories and she loved them even more when they rhymed. So, here I am, with a little ditty (not about Jack & Diane) to commemorate my little lady. It’s silly. It’s juvenile. But, man alive, it’s also my heart. And it was her’s, as well. Here it is! A little ditty for the little lady who made me who I am.

There once was a woman named Bess,
From whom my name was derived.
She taught me to laugh, she taught me to dress,
& she taught me the meaning of life.

It was May of 1926,
When first this world met her.
If they knew then, I cannot say,
But now we know for sure,
That this life was hers for the taking
And not a single day did she waste,
For she built a family & she built a home,
Alongside whom every trouble she could face.

She’d tell us stories of the moving,
Oh! The moving she would do!
From Illinois to California–
She spoke as though she had something to prove.

Prove to whom? It never mattered,
Because, as a woman not easily flattered,
At the end of the day,
All she needed to be able to say
Was, “I wanted to do it, so I tried!”
And fail or succeed, she took it in stride.

Thus, her philosophy was laid,
Right out front, for all to see
In black & white, as clear as day,
“Whatever you want is what you can be.
Always try your best & keep your smile,
Don’t let the hard times get you down.
Because, kid, you’ll do amazing things
& you shouldn’t greet them with a frown.”

She taught me that a house is not a home,
Until down you had knocked a few walls.
She taught me the same was true of my heart,
For there is where you need the most open floor-plan, of all.

What kind of life is worth living if,
For those in need, you can’t make your heart a home?
What’s the point of things & food & money,
If it serves only you and you alone?

She told me not to wait on my ship,
But instead that I should swim out to it,
That I shouldn’t wait for the good things to happen,
No! I should chase them, pursue them, & go do it!

Her final days were unexpected
But they were filled with laughter, nonetheless.
She reminded the nurses several times,
“I hate the name Bessie! It’s Bess!”
One night, while sitting beside her,
She said, “Kate, you’ve always been around.”
& in that moment, the greatest of lessons,
My heart had surely found.

You see, life isn’t about the big gifts
Or seeing New England in the fall.
It’s about being there for the ones you love
& answering them when they call.

Your life, my friends, will be a grand adventure
If you’re generous, kind, and true.
Then, on the day you’re laid to rest,
This world will celebrate you.

My Nonna lived & gave & loved;
She poured into my life so freely.
Now she sees the face of God,
& with the angels she’s making a… dealie.

“My gold plates for your
Silver platter and spoons.
This is a deal for you, Peter!
Take it now! The deal is expiring soon.”

She’d sell ‘this’ to buy ‘that,’
& encouraged us to do the same.
She told us to write our own life’s rules,
But she also taught us to play the game.

So, my life will continue
& I’ll miss her everyday,
Until I see her again and,
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” is what she’ll say.

There once was a woman named Bess,
From whom my name was derived.
She taught me to laugh & she taught me to dress,
& she taught me the meaning of life.

When Strangers Aren’t Strange

I’d like to tell you something. Alone does not mean lonely. Just as you can feel lonely in a crowded room, so you can feel fulfilled alone. Last night was one of the best nights of my life and you know what? I was alone. You see, I had planned a trip with a friend to go to San Francisco to see this musician, who I love, and putz around the city together. So, I booked a hotel (it lent itself to the putzing—I’ll get to that), began to plan our little trip, and then something came up at work that meant she couldn’t go anymore.

The hotel was paid for and non-refundable so I began to search for some one else to go with. Alas, my efforts were in vain and I couldn’t find anyone. I had a choice to make! Eat the hotel cost and just stay home or stick to the original plan and see what happens.

I went with the second option.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at my hotel. The very hotel where one of my favorite Hitchcock films was shot (Vertigo) and with my list of filming locations, fun backstories to investigate (this is the putzing), and a single ticket for a concert, I checked in. The concert. I was well into my self-guided tour of Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco, and was having a blast, when I looked at my watch. I realized that I needed to get going if I was going to make the concert. And here was another crossroads! Do I just scrap the ticket and continue on my Hitchcockian adventure or do go and see this musician, one of my favorites, and do it alone?

Again, I went with the second option.

I arrived at the music hall to find it wasn’t so much a music hall as it was a relatively small space with a small stage and a large bar. So, I got a Guinness and sat at a corner table, all alone. No one talked to me. People looked at me, some smiled and waved, but most just kept on moving. I realized that I likely had a serious case of RBF going on so I decided to look up from my phone a little more often and scowl with a little less frequency. On one of these phone-less-smile-more ventures, I made eye contact with the musician I was there to see. He walked up and introduced himself and asked if I was hanging out by myself. I told him I was but that I didn’t mind it. He said he did mind it because we’re all there together. Then, he told me that the people I happened to be sitting next to were his family members. So, I ended up hanging out with the dude’s grandpa for a while. I lost his mom a bet (In all fairness—she was wrong! “What’s Up” is sung by 4 Non-Blondes and not Sheryl Crow. I’m sorry but the facts are facts.) And his dad was really kind. I made friends with another guy who was slightly offended when I referenced Gimli as a comparison to him (he said he gets Strider more often… I said there’s no way. He agreed, there was no way.) and we all took in the music as friends.

I left before the set was over because I wanted to make it to a showing of Mad Max (the original!!) in an old movie theater, so I called a Lyft. My driver picked me up and we had about a 20-minute ride. Instead of sitting in silence, we got to talking. She asked what I had done that night and after I told her, she asked if I had done those things with other people. I told her that I had gone on the trip alone and was just kind of meeting people along the way. She wanted to know if I did stuff like this often and, when I thought about it, yeah. I kind of do. I was her last ride of the night so we got to talk a little longer and we ended up becoming friends. She asked why I’m ok with doing things alone and I told her it was because I decided that I didn’t want to miss out on my life because I was waiting around for other people to want to do the same things that I did. Her response was, “What a revelation to have. I wonder if I can do that?”

She said exactly what I was thinking because, at that moment, I was asking myself the very same thing. Can I live my life like that? You know, on purpose instead of just on accident; in reality instead of just theory. She and I ended up exchanging numbers and agreed to hang out if ever we’re in the same city again. When I got out of the car, I continued thinking about what we had just talked about. And it clicked. I am far more likely to find people who share my interests if I go out and partake in those interests than if I just think about how interested I am in them.

“But what if I have to keep going alone?” I asked myself. “Well, maybe you’ve spent so much time worrying about what strangers think of you that you completely missed the point that you could make those strangers your friends.” I scolded myself right there because, dang, that’s exactly what I’ve done my entire life. Instead of just making new friends and letting people matter, I’ve pigeonholed them all into being strangers whose opinions and thoughts I absolutely must not care about.

Here it is: we would all breathe so much easier and with so much more joy if we viewed every person as having something wonderful to offer. Instead of seeing strangers as trolls who are out to get me and make me look stupid, what if I made them my friends? Every single person on this earth is full of life. Whether they’re living it or not, it’s there. What if I made it my goal to find that life in them? I’m not saying that I should attempt to extract their deepest secrets or share with them my biggest fears (Frogs… it’s frogs. That’s actually not a big one), what I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be hard for me to genuinely care about their answer when I ask them how their day was. Every one has a story to tell. And, holy wow, do I love a good story.

So, today, I will go forth into this city alone, intent on making strangers my friends, and not missing out on the things that I want to do just because I have no one to do them with. Life happens whether or not we’re looking and I don’t want to reach the end of mine and realize that I missed it. Today, I will look for life in others. And, in doing so, I firmly believe that I will find the life in myself that I’ve always wanted. Because, being alone doesn’t have to be lonely. And strangers don’t have to be strange.

Good Grief

I thought I wanted to sit down and write about sadness and loss and pain. Not my own, of course. I just thought I would talk a bit about those experiences in theory, maybe consider my own situation briefly but move right along. I thought it would be a good idea to keep the darkness at arm’s-length–to just not even open the door that leads to my true heart. So, I began to write. And you know what happened when I wrote that? Garbage. Garbage happened.  Seriously, it was the worst thing I’ve ever written. It was so dumb and shallow that it was actually laughable. I realized that the truth of the matter was stored up on the other side of that door, living in the dark part of my heart that I want to pretend doesn’t exist. So, I went in.

When I opened that door, I didn’t find what I was expecting. I’ve suffered the most catastrophic loss in my life and here, in the deepest, darkest part of my heart, I am just not seeing what I thought I would. I feared that experiencing the depth of my emotion would send me into a spiral. I thought I would drown in it; I figured I’d go under and just never come up again. But, here I am, standing on my own two feet in the soft, vulnerable, broken part of my heart and all I can think is, “I’m gonna be ok.”

In the early hours of the morning, I knelt at my grandmother’s bedside with my hand on her back, feeling the shallow rise and fall of her failing breaths. A few hours earlier, I had leaned down and spoken words that I didn’t believe into her ear. Our hospice nurse had told me that sometimes people need permission from their loved ones to let go so I gathered up all my courage and told my little that it was ok for her to let go–that it was ok for her to leave me on my own. I didn’t believe the words when I said them and I didn’t believe them as I sat there, watching the life leave her body. How could I have meant them? She wasn’t supposed to die yet. She was supposed to go to dinner with me, like usual, and order the tilapia and be disappointed when it came out with sauce on it. She was supposed to take my phone call every day at 11 AM, she was supposed to tell me again that she was just having some coffee and getting around and then ask me when I’d be home from work. She was supposed to help me pick out a wedding dress and see me get married and have children. She was supposed to see me climb mountains, run races, and break a couple more bones while having the time of my life. So… no. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to let go. I didn’t believe that it was ok for her to leave me on my own.

But I said it anyways. And when she died, it felt as though my very soul had been torn from my body and every light had been extinguished. My world crumbled. This was my person. She believed in me, encouraged me, and challenged me. She was my namesake and my hero and the reason that I’m fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed while my family is exactly not. This was my favorite person in the world. I asked my mom if she was sure that Non was gone. “I’m sure,” she said. And right then, everything changed. I knew, for sure, that I was a goner.

Fast forward to today, to me standing in front of the door in my heart that surely leads to my demise, the one that houses my honest feelings and the true weight of my devastation. As I mentioned before, what I found in that dark place was not what I expected. I found a version of myself that was ok. A version of myself that was broken, devastated, and without Nonna but… was ok. There was the light of good grief, shed on the darkness of painful loss. The loss felt no less empty, the pain was no less severe. But the light shed on my struggle revealed unto me that the emptiness caused by her loss was room made for new life. And that new life starts now. My pain, when illuminated, looks less like an irreparably broken person and more like a woman who is primed for growth and rebuilding. And recognizing this person as myself is the exact type of fresh air I never expected to find here, deep in my heart.

What I expected was to spiral, to rage against the world, God, my family, and myself. Why is that not happening? Why am I not getting a dramatic haircut, a neck tat, or thinking about dating some one who is truly, apparently, obviously incredibly terrible for me? How am I still sane? How am I already sure that I’m going to be ok?

Allow me to go ahead and answer my own question. A few months ago, on Father’s Day, I was having a sprinkler problem and I called my dad. Instead of coming and fixing it himself, he talked me through the solution. I identified that as a loving act because, yet again, my dad was giving me a new skill that would render his useless. I put my finger on that moment and said, “That is what love is. Fearlessly allowing some one else to no longer need you but trusting them to want you, anyways.” And thinking about that moment with my dad has got me thinking back on the countless moments I’ve experienced, just like it, with my Nonna. For the last 26 years, this woman has been teaching me how to make it without her. And I didn’t realize that until just now.

She probably didn’t realize that was what she was doing, either. But that’s the thing about the pure-hearted—their love is transformative without them even trying. She has been pouring into me since I was just a small child. She gave of herself and influenced in me this sustainable, joy-filled human with the capacity to love and thrive with or without her. For the past several years, I’ve chosen her over so much. And I thought that I would find myself regretting that when it came her time to die. I thought I would miss out on my life because I was so busy living hers. I could not have possibly been more wrong.

Because, you see, the life I lived with her gave me the tools and laid the foundation for the life I’ll live without her. My heart aches when I think about all of the big things she’ll miss in my life. But, maybe she’ll miss the big moments because I couldn’t have had them while still having such a beautiful life with her. How was I supposed to fall in love with a handsome fella when I was so busy listening to her talk about how she fell in love with one in the 1940’s? How was I supposed to live in Peru when I lived with her in Clovis? How was I supposed to chase my dreams when I was already living one with my favorite person on the planet? I’m 26 years old and my entire life is about to change.

And it’s going to be amazing.

Not a day will go by that I don’t miss her; I’m probably going to absent-mindedly try and call her a few times before it finally sinks in that she’s gone. There are some really, really hard days ahead. But those days will be faced as this new version of myself. The version who fills the emptiness with a new, incredible life using the tools that my grandmother gave me. The version who combats loneliness with friendliness, sadness with joyfulness, and the loss with the realization of just how truly blessed I was to have her.

When I sat there, telling her that I would be ok, that she could leave me on my own, I didn’t believe it. But that new version of me did, the person, deep down in my heart, the one who Nonna built without even trying, the one who says, “I’m gonna be ok.”

For 26 years, I’ve lived a most incredible life. And tomorrow, when my eyes open and I realize that everything has changed, I’ll look upon a new life with zeal and excitement.

I’ll say, “I’m gonna be ok.”

Then, I’m going to take my good grief and I’m going to live.

And my new life will be as beautiful as the old.