When I was 7 years old, my best friend was diagnosed with leukemia. Of course, being so young, I had no idea what that meant. But I could tell by the look on my parents’ faces and her parents’ faces, it wasn’t good. Elizabeth and I met in pre-school. Shortly after, our mothers got us involved in the same dance company, where we would drive out to New Boston…her and I being the youngest girls in the class. We were ballerinas one day and gymnasts the next, all the while having no actual clue what we were doing…simply following whoever’s lead to whatever Disney song we were to perform to. One of my fondest memories is when we were backstage for our very 1st dance recital. Our mothers were fluffing our hair and applying our makeup and calming our nerves. My mom said as she was leaving us backstage, just a few songs away from taking the stage, “I’m going to leave some makeup right here for you, if you think you need a touch up on your lipstick.” Needless to say, as 6 year old girls we DEFINITELY thought we needed a self-imposed “touch-up”…lipstick, blush, blue eyeshadow. The whole works.
Sleepovers and pool parties and dance class and then, all of a sudden…she was sick. And just like that, her long hair that nearly to the ground was gone. Then it was us in matching head scarves as we learned to roller blade in my driveway. The slumber parties started to decrease and the worry in her mother’s face was more apparent.
We had just moved into our brand new house. My bedroom was all pink except for this old, ugly recliner that used to be my grandpa’s, sitting against my window. I remember being asleep and hearing the phone ring in the middle of the night. I sat straight up in my bed and waited for any kind of sound to follow. My mother came in a few minutes later, sat me on her lap in that hideous recliner and broke the news to me that Elizabeth had passed away. I remember sobbing until I was sick. It was a week before my 9th birthday.
I can recall being paranoid throughout her battle and after her death. I was in grade school, reading fiction chapter books about teenaged girls fighting cancer. I took every bruise, every time I brushed my teeth too hard my gums bled as a sure-sign symptom that I too had leukemia. Thankfully, I did not.
A couple years later, my Uncle Joe, my mother’s oldest brother, was diagnosed with leukemia. At this point, I felt more prepared with what to expect. I knew it’d be hard. I knew he’d go bald. That was as far as I got in my “mental prep” before he too passed away.
It was around that same time that Elizabeth’s father, Bob, relapsed and fell ill with leukemia. We lost him too. I can still remember sitting at their house after the memorial, not taking my eyes off her mom and her little brother. It was at this point, not even a teenager yet, that I started to understand the frailty of life.
I’d lose more people to cancer in the years to come and they’d all hurt. They’d all seem unfair. But the “leukemia cloud” would seem the darkest.
Last summer, my godfather, Uncle Mike, was abruptly diagnosed with leukemia, just weeks after we lost his brother to liver cancer.
I’ve written about this before but holy shit…writing about it again still feels like repeated punches to my chest. (As I’m currently sobbing off my eyelash extensions and pouring more wine.)
I was so sure he was going to beat it. I really was. It had been 20 years since this disease left it’s 1st hole in my life, surely we’ve come so much further now… He wasn’t a small child. He was my lion. When I saw him just an hour before he passed, laying in his hospital bed, I knew…his victory was not the one I had been pleading with God for. It was Heaven.
I cry for him almost every single day. I cry for my mother that has had to bury 3 brothers. Two of them dying within a year of each other. Two of them dying of the same disease. I cry because I’m afraid my aunt, Uncle Mike’s widow, will think she is alone and that we are “his family”, when I feel like I belong to her just as much as I belonged to him. I cry for all the emotions his death brings up in me and my long history of loss to leukemia. I cry for Elizabeth’s family, who I’ve lost touch with for no real reason except that we just did.
A few days ago, I was contacted by someone from a local chapter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, asking if I would like to volunteer. Somehow, she had come across my blog and the entry I’d written months ago about the loss of my godfather. To say I was moved would be an understatement. To have my honesty recognized is beautiful enough. But to be called upon to play a part in such a worthy cause truly feels like God talking to me. So I’m listening.
I’ll be walking and volunteering my services for Light The Night in Ann Arbor, MI on September 30th. I need this light, literally and figuratively. I need to stand amongst survivors and those standing for lost loved ones. I need to honor this fight and this hurt. I need to shine a light.
My birthday is this coming Friday. And I can’t think of any better way to commemorate another trip around the sun than sharing my story and supporting this cause. Please help me join in bringing light to the darkness of cancer by donating towards my fundraising efforts to support The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night. Money raised through Light The Night allows The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) to fund treatments for patients who are suffering from all forms of blood cancers. The impact of LLS supported research goes beyond blood cancers. The discoveries made in blood cancer research have led to break through treatments for many cancers and other serious diseases.
This morning hurts. I can feel it already even though it’s only 8AM. It hurts like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. I’m not really sure how to begin explaining it because it’s highly possible that no one will relate. But maybe some of you will. I have been trying to find the words for what I’m feeling for weeks now… And again, I’ve fallen victim to the train of thought “I should write about that…Make time to write about that…You can write about that tomorrow…” and then I don’t. It just gets added to my brain’s ever-growing pile of Post-It notes. Aside from being distracted, I know there’s a part of me that didn’t want to write this blog because I’m weary of giving a public voice to the crippling fear inside my head. I don’t want to jinx anything. I don’t want God to find me ungrateful. I don’t want anyone to find me ungrateful. I’m so grateful sometimes it feels like it’s too much “gratitude” and my chest might literally explode…maybe that’s my problem.
My Granny is 90 years old today.
Yes, you read that correctly…90.
I am completely blown away with amazement and adoration for this human, who clearly, has stood the test of time and is still looking as beautiful as ever.
Anyone who knows me knows of this unwavering love I have. It’s a love I make quite public, whether it’s on social media/up on a stage/hanging out with friends/pouncing on her & annoying her with compliments every chance I get. People see it and think, “How sweet, she’s so close to her Grandma.” I wish it was as black & white as that. But I know better. God definitely knows better. It’s a love that has without a doubt saved me from myself on more than a few occasions throughout my short lifetime. A love that was so deep-rooted inside of me that even in my lowest of times (and they were low indeed), I was reminded that even in all the bad, I had a soul that was good… I still wanted to see, hold the hand of, hear the voice of, take care of my G and make her proud.
When I think of “the pillars” in my world, God and my Granny. I established a relationship with the Lord by going to church with my Grandma, starting around the time I was in 5th grade. And in turn, God has heard me pray/sob/plead/rejoice over her every single day since. She is without a doubt my 1st and most important prayer request. Keep her safe. Keep her healthy. Keep her happy. Let her know You are there so she won’t be lonely.
This past Saturday (August 26th), we threw my Granny a surprise birthday party. We reserved a little banquet room at a restaurant not far from her house. The party fell on my parents’ 34th wedding anniversary, so the “lie” to get Granny to attend was that my Dad was throwing my Mom a surprise anniversary party. My sister and I put in the time making sure the decorations were perfect. Photo collages, big balloons, enlarging and framing photos that were nearly 70 years old, making table centerpieces that featured photos of Granny from a woman in her early 20’s to this past Easter Sunday. Family, friends, neighbors all gathered to celebrate the life of this woman. She was certainly surprised. Then overwhelmed. Then a little nervous. Then realized that she had no choice but to be the center of everyone’s attention so she went along with it, ha. We showed her all the pictures we’d “borrowed” from her old photo albums and copied to include in collages and centerpieces. She laughed as she pointed out who/what/when/where/what they had for lunch that day with all the photos we’d acquired.
Seeing my Grandma young, freshly moved to Detroit and living in a boarding house with her exciting girlfriends…posing with her brothers while wearing a headscarf, youthful and playful and proud to be their sister…her and my Grandpa their first handful of years as a married couple…with my Dad and my Aunt Kathy as young kids, big glasses, big hair, and always at least one dog in the photo…
My Grandma was someone and something other than my Grandma in her lifetime. The proof of this moved me in ways I can’t adequately describe. It’s beautiful.
I was equally fascinated as I was saddened. Sad, that my Grandma has lived alone for the past 25 years on that very same property as these old photos were taken. Or that she doesn’t see and laugh with her girlfriends like she used to. Or that she only has one remaining brother now, her youngest brother, my Great Uncle Johnny down in Tennessee. Or that they took away her license this past spring, so loneliness feels more isolating…Because as much as these photos document what a big life she’s had, it also serves a reminder that “the good ol’ days” are a thing of the past.
I knew at a very young age that I was called to be my Granny’s best friend after my Grandpa tragically passed. I’d volunteer myself every Sunday to attend church with her, sit beside her in the back pew and hold her hand, spend the day with her, invite her to every single dance recital/choir concert/cheerleading event/musical, etc. (And she was at every single one of them, with a bouquet of flowers.) When I moved away to Nashville, I made a point to call her twice a week and never go more than 2 months without seeing her. I volunteer to fly her or drive her to Nashville and transport her 90 minutes to Hohenwald to see her family. I don’t list these things for a pat on the back, I really don’t. I summarize my closeness to my Grandma because it was something that was so natural, so easy, and so understood. And honestly, it might be one of the ONLY concrete things I’ve ever understood in my life thus far.
She was and still is my constant…my unconditional. I went through some tough tough shit as a kid. I then willingly allowed myself to go through some shit as an adult. And with every fracture to my heart, there was my G…even if she didn’t have all the facts, she didn’t need them because she always came through, no questions asked. She picked up the phone. And unbeknownst to her, she picked up my pieces.
A few weeks ago, I started trying to pray through my fears. Every time I’d get choked up, I’d ask God, “Please allow gratitude to overpower grief.” And it would help calm me down. For this last week, I’ve continued to pray the same thing but alas… tears. Every day. And what am I grieving? She’s still here. Yes, she’s slower, she’s sorer, she’s sadder…but she’s still funny, feisty, grumpy, and loves tappin her toes and snappin her fingers to some Josh Turner all day, errryday. I looked up the term “anticipatory grief” and I hate it’s definition. Maybe I hate it because it sounds like bullshit. Or maybe the thought of waking up to a world where she’s not here really is something to fear with every fiber of my being.
They say to cherish your loved ones. To let them know how you feel and how much they mean to you. To never take a day for granted.
So, what do you do when you’ve lived for someone making sure there was nothing left unsaid…or undone…or unloved…?
I don’t know the answer. Maybe that’s why it hurts.
So I guess I’ll just continue with what I DO know… Saying. Doing. Loving.
I haven’t been very good about writing lately. (I sound like a broken record.) Aside from some journaling here and there and starting a few song ideas, I’ve allowed my mind to be distracted by other things… travelling, packing/unpacking, being outside as much as humanly possible, Harry Potter books (I’ve decided to read the entire series for the first time), putting the finishing touches on releasing new music, learning songs for sessions and shows, visiting my family, happy hours on patios, and my newly acquired love/hate relationship with Crossfit. (Yes, you read that correctly…Crossfit. I know.) It’s actually quite pitiful how much I think, “I should write today…about this…oh don’t forget you want to write about that…” and then I don’t. Case in point, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with the window open, listening to it storm outside. The dogs are all at my feet because they don’t like the thunder. I’m settling in and getting in a good headspace to start writing and I see my boyfriend’s car pull into the driveway with a much-needed new bag of dog food. So I feed them, I send a couple emails, I wash a few dirty dishes by hand, I check my Twitter, and I think how absolutely LOVELY it would be to curl up on the couch with these pups, listen to the rain, and read more Harry Potter (I’m halfway through Book 6.) But I have to write. Kind of like when I set my alarm for 4:50AM for a 5:30AM CrossFit class because it’s the only time of the day my guy and I can both go together. You dread it, you hate it, you want to push “Snooze” (and maybe you do once), but you know how much better you’ll feel once you’re done. That’s exactly what I’m hoping happens with writing this blog entry.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, but I won’t try to tackle even half of it in this entry today. You’d be reading for hours. I will, instead, commit to writing another blog entry by the end of this week. So there, I said it, feel free to hold me accountable.
I’d like to give this afternoon’s attention to my hometown. And my guess is, your hometown is probably an awful lot like mine. So I’ll proceed…
I was born in Garden City, MI, lived in a Polish neighborhood in Detroit the first few years of my life, and then moved 20 minutes west (with Metro Airport right beside us), to the suburb of Belleville, Michigan by the time I was a toddler. The first home I have memories of is the little brick ranch that sat off a horrendously pot-hole-filled road right behind what used to be Dimitri’s Kitchen (which I guess is now called Mike’s Kitchen). I made my very first friends there. Friends that I actually still keep connected with via social media. I lived in Belleville and only Belleville until the day I moved to Nashville, however, throughout my younger years, I ended up attending 3 out of the 5 different elementary schools within Belleville’s city limits. Don’t worry, I was uncool through all 3 schools, ha. Between 2nd and 3rd grade, my mother was expecting her 4th (and thankfully, last) child so we inevitably outgrew our little ranch. We relocated over the bridge, on the other side of Belleville Lake, to a brand new subdivision, where at the time, we were the 5th house being built in the whole neighborhood. Our new location had us directly beside Belleville High School and it was a dream for me to people-watch all the students, imagining my own “Saved By The Bell” episode when I reached those hallowed doors someday. Yup, it was a whole new world on the other side of Belleville…
Our new home was walking/bike-riding distance to Main Street and all the glorious things you can only truly appreciate when you’re a kid. Hours spent climbing and running all over Victory Park, sugar highs from Frosty Boy, hanging out by the library, loaded cheese fries from A&W, candy cigarette’s from the Dairy Mart, feeding the overzealous (and disgusting) carp off the boat docks at Reflections… It was sublime and as a child, I had no interest in knowing a life outside of my town.
I was a Belleville Cougar cheerleader when I was 8-10 years old, which lead me to cheerleading for South Middle School and the first couple years of high school. Turns out, I was too cynical & sarcastic to be a good cheerleader even at 9 years old, and I never outgrew it, who knew. I was heavily involved in dance and singing at Jan’s School of Dance. The owner/instructor, Jan Oliver, scared the hell out of me as a kid. She was strict but she was good, and she called me out on my laziness. She also gave me some of my first public singing performances at our dance recitals over the summer. I was involved in my hometown’s Strawberry Festival, whether it was singing/dancing in the parades, performing at the craft fairs, headlining on the ‘main stage’ with my comically bad band at the time, or coming in 1st Runner Up in the Strawberry Queen Pageant. *cringe*
Throughout high school, I started performing at every local event there was…charity dinners, Music in the Park, choir concerts, tree lightings, church revivals (shout-out to Faith Assembly), talent contests, the whole works. Suddenly, my dorkiness was irrelevant because everyone knew I could sing. The local papers wrote about me and for the first time ever, I felt almost cool. I started performing bigger gigs on bigger stages with bigger artists, and Belleville had a unfailing, “That’s our girl” way about them in their support for me.
All of that was great, but the closer I got to graduation, the more I wanted out.
Nashville was calling. Literally.
I got to feature my hometown of Belleville, Michigan on USA Network’s “Nashville Star 2” when I was a top 10 contestant back in the day. I was still working as a hostess at our local Cracker Barrel and I’ll never forget one morning, while refilling a gentleman’s coffee at 7AM, seeing my face on the front page of the newspaper he was reading. That’s when I KNEW knew…It was time to go.
I’d visit Belleville multiple times a year, every year, for over 10 years. The first 6 years or so, I’d come back and find it, uh, uneventful. It was the same few storefronts that managed to stay afloat downtown somehow (one of them being the Chamber of Commerce, so I don’t think that really counts), the rest were closed and the buildings stayed empty. There was no night-life, no trendy bars or restaurants, the closest theater or mall being 20 minutes away. I was really just visiting for my family’s sake. Nashville was so big, so exciting, something to do every second of every day…forever a new place to discover, new friends to meet, coffee shops to bring your dog, countless boys to date, any and every concert you could ever hope to see, studios and writing rooms and stages to be on. I was so certain I could never be anywhere but Nashville for the rest of my life.
I’ve always joked, “God put a bubble around Belleville. Nothing’s changed in 20 years.” And although I’ve always thought those exact words to be true, the way I interpret that statement started to shift about 4-5 years ago…
Somehow, as life went on, my hometown started to become my place of solace, my refuge. I needed a break, and Belleville gave me one. I needed away from never-ending construction and condos and bar-hopping and bad boyfriends and insufferable traffic and comparing my dreams and my progress to everyone else’s. I needed my family, yes. But I also needed the simplicity that I once rolled my eyes at. I needed to sit in Horizon Park, right beside Belleville Lake, and breathe…just like I’d done throughout middle school and high school, when I used to look for my voice through writing poems, diary entries, and song lyrics down by the water. I needed to walk my nephew to Frosty Boy and chase him in the park. Because if I could watch his eyes light up, then I could forget about all the messes I kept getting myself into. I needed the comfort of knowing that every member of my family was only a 5 minute drive from the other, so that they could remind me who I REALLY was, not this train-wreck persona I couldn’t snap out of. And $3 drinks with old friends at Johnny’s was quite the welcomed change of pace from the $14 martinis/shoulder-to-shoulder bars/loud bands playing “Wagon Wheel”/getting all dolled up just to have boys treat you like they’re at a buffet/inevitably leaving my debit card somewhere-scenarios I’d been dealing with for years on end.
Whereas I used to look almost sympathetically at those that never got out from my hometown, I was now jealous of them. Maybe the “world of endless possibilities” is too much, granting me too many options. When you have so much in front of you, it makes you feel like you should never settle, like you’ll never be satisfied, therefore, you never do and you never are. And that’s a lot to take on in your teens and early 20’s when you still don’t know your ass from your elbow. I started to see my old high school friends that were raising their own families in Belleville in a whole new light, as I was on my 4th disastrous relationship of that year in Nashville.
When I made the decision 18 months ago to live 50/50 between Nashville and Michigan, I second-guessed it everyday for months. It was that internal tug-of-war where the Nashville Rachel was supposed to be so much better, more evolved than the old Belleville Rachel, so how could I resort back after coming this far? I’m happy to say, it didn’t take too long before I removed my head out of my ass and realized that both Belleville Rachel and Nashville Rachel can indeed coexist together. They are both me, they both have a lot to offer to whoever will listen, and no matter what, I’ll never be able to out-run that nor should I want to. It’s kind of like this brand new song I just wrote and recorded a couple weeks ago in Nashville, where the lyric asks, “How you gonna grow when you’re cutting off your roots?” Perfect, right?
I give you all of this backstory because recently my hometown has been shaken to it’s core. There’s been a few tragic (and unfortunately violent) losses that has left Belleville stunned and speechless. It makes no sense. One loss, in particular, hasn’t left my thoughts since it occurred a couple weeks ago.
I was down in Nashville late last month, loaded up on meetings and studio sessions, and for once, not really reading what anyone was posting on social media. I was updating my Instagram story fairly regularly, detailing me in the studio and all, and I saw a somewhat familiar Instagram user that had viewed my story earlier that day. Curious, I clicked on her page and went through some of her photos. This girl was a few years younger than me and went to school with my sisters, also she hung out with some of my old childhood friends, so I’d see her pop up on Facebook sometimes. I hadn’t physically seen her in a few years. Last time being at a local bar, where she came up to hug me and tell me that she had started singing out and about recently and how she thought it was so cool that I moved to Nashville. When I looked at her Instagram profile a couple weeks ago, I saw photos and videos of her singing, posts about yoga and meditation, intellectual and inspiration quotes, and I thought to myself, “She’s super pretty, she’s into fitness and music, she’s single and child-less and likes to go out, I should become real-life friends with her.”
She was gone 24 hours later.
She died inside her house that sat off a dirt road less than 2 miles from my parent’s house.
And just like that, the bubble I was so sure would always cover Belleville burst. The reality that my hometown is not exempt from ‘the world’ hit hard. The reality that a young woman…just like me…just like my sisters…just like you…could be taken…? This isn’t a troubled past/wrong crowd/drugs/bad neighborhood/a photo shown for 15 seconds on the local news. It’s so much to process and it will continue to be so much to process.
I share this story, not because I have anything new to contribute. I don’t have details, I don’t have all these memories and stories. All I have is perspective.
Egypt Covington was one of us.
I’m still Facebook friends with a lot of people in my hometown that are terrified/enraged and quite a few of them are saying the town has gone to shit. Despite these recent tragic events, I have to say that I disagree.
All the things I couldn’t see/appreciate about my hometown while growing up are still present today. There’s something soul-stirring about the loyalty of a smaller-town community, regardless if it’s progress rate. For a long time, my eyes were fixated on the “new and shiny”. But now I’ve seen the new and shiny, I’ve lived the new and shiny, and the new and shiny doesn’t claim you when you feel forgotten, or when you’ve forgotten yourself.But your hometown does.
I’m proud to be from Belleville and to stand with a community that took care of my family and I. This town gave me the love and the platform to create these big ol’ dreams of mine. This town let me cry on it’s shoulder every single time my heart got broken, whether by these dreams or some stupid boy. This town let me start over. So no matter where the music takes me, I will always appreciate landing on this stretch of runway that continues to welcome me home. Bubble or not.
If we’re being completely honest here, I have been dreading this post for approximately 11 days now. So I’m just going to type and see where it takes me…But first, let’s pick up where I left off with my last post real quick.
My boyfriend’s alarm goes off at 7AM. After he leaves for work, I take my time to quietly bond with our new space, much like I did this morning. You see, we moved into a new house at the end of February and I haven’t had much time here alone. The first night we officially slept in our new digs, we crashed on the couch because we hadn’t put the bed together yet. When I woke up 6 hours later, I drove 600 miles south to Nashville, where I stayed for over 2 weeks recording, writing, and taking meetings. My timing was impeccable, clearly. It’s where I wrote my last blog entry, “Burden or light”. I was so touched and inspired by all your love for that last post that I wanted nothing more than to keep the momentum going.
I came back to Detroit a couple weeks ago with a new energy surging through me. I was ready to kick that ass & take those names. And on top of that, while I was out of town, my boyfriend worked his tail off unpacking, arranging and rearranging, constructing/deconstructing/constructing again little surprises for me in the new house. So when I pulled into our driveway after weeks away, I was overflowing with gratitude in every which way. And the multiple recording sessions in Detroit I had set up for my first week back was just the cherry on top.
It was on my 4th session of the week, that Friday afternoon, that everything went to shit…
On Friday, March 24th, as I was standing inside the vocal booth in a recording studio, my phone started vibrating in my back pocket. It was my mom. I let it go to voicemail. Immediately, both of my sisters called, which I too let go to voicemail, with a rush of anxiety starting to pulse through me. More vibrations. While the engineer and producer were listening through one of my vocal passes, I looked at my phone…”Call Mom immediately. It’s Uncle Mike.” I didn’t call immediately because I feared the absolute worst. I was only one verse away from having this song completed and if I told them I needed a break to call my family, I’d lose it. And once it’s lost, I know I won’t be able to recompose myself. So with a shaky voice, that was nearly impossible to control due to the huge lump in my throat, I finished the song. Barely.
I called my family once I got to my car. My Godfather, Uncle Mike, was in the hospital with an infection that had spread too wildly to proceed treating him. Between the cancer and this infection, his body was shutting down and he didn’t have more than a few days. Straight from the studio, I drove, I sobbed, and I pleaded with God for 57 minutes until I reached my mother’s front door.
She cried when she saw me. Then she’d pull it together, then cry some more. I tried to speak hope into her, “He’s cleared ‘close call’ hurdles before. I’m not going to stop believing.” She needed to hear that. I needed to hear that.
Once my brother got home from work, we all packed inside my sister’s SUV and rode up to the hospital together. It was oddly comforting, all of us being sandwiched in the backseat like we used to ride as kids. We got off the elevator onto the 7th floor, only to see a huge clock straight ahead who’s hands had just turned to 7 o’clock on the dot. I’ll always remember that.
My parents went into the his hospital room first, while us kids waited in the lounge. I couldn’t stop crying. The brave face I had put on for my mom was clearly cracking. My siblings walked me down the halls as I tried to pull myself together. “You can’t cry like this in front of him and Aunt Susie…you can’t cry like this in front of Mom.” When it was our turn to enter Uncle Mike’s room, strangely enough, I was completely calm. He was asleep, so I talked (and attempted to make jokes) to Aunt Susie. He woke up right before we left. I walked up to him, squeezed his hand, kissed his forehead, and told my Uncle Mike I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.
When we got home, depleted, I trudged upstairs to change into pajamas. Five minutes later, the phone rang. I immediately ran to the stairs and before I could even get halfway down, I heard my mom cry out. He died less than an hour after we left the hospital.
My brother, my father, and I were on our knees in front of my mom on the couch. We all cried together. I slept sitting up on that same couch, with my mother’s head in my lap, playing with her hair until she eventually fell asleep. I cried as quietly as I could the rest of the night.
The last 11 days have been emotionally excruciating. Writing this right now, my hands are trembling. I cannot remember being this shaken, literally and figuratively, by a death since I was a child. And I know why…
Because in my mind, him and I never aged.
He was always “The Godfather”, larger and louder than life, someone you never wanted to cross or disrespect. He would ALWAYS be quicker than you at “Up high, down low, too slow” high-fives and then poke you in the side when you were a sore loser. With his long red hair, beard & mustache, he resembled a lion. Always wearing a hat with a feather sticking out of it, tall, boisterous with a round belly, with his aviator glasses, our ultimate “outlaw”.
Uncle Mike & Aunt Susie used to take my siblings and I to their cottage up north for a week or so in the summer. That’s where he had us do chores everyday AND made us entertain ourselves without television. (Gasp.) It’s where he’d chuckle as I cried dramatically because I didn’t want to put the worm through the hook the first time he took us fishing. (Funny enough, after that “scarring” experience, he bought our family a fish tank with multiple fish to collect, I proceeded to name every single one (and their replacements when they’d die) after Little Mermaid characters.) It’s where he woke us up at sunrise by bursting into the bedroom singing, “Oh what a beautiful morrrrning!” It was all his way of “toughening us up” because he thought our mother spoiled us, which was probably true, ha. And even still, from the time I was a kid to recently, I could never say anything bad/complain about my parents…”Hey now, that’s your mother.” (But the way he’d say it, ‘mother’ always sounded like ‘mudder’.)
My Uncle Mike was the middle child of 5, two older brothers and two younger sisters, with my mom being the youngest. Not sure of their dynamic growing up, but I can attest to the fact that Uncle Mike looked out for my mother my entire life. With her being the youngest, that meant that us Williams kids were at least a decade younger in the long line of cousins. My Aunt’s and Uncles’ kids were all roughly the same age and kind of grew up together, with many more memories (and photos) of being together with my grandparents than my siblings & I have. My Nana passed away when I was 8 years old of a blood clot during a simple hip replacement surgery. My Grandpa passed when I was a freshman in high school, Alzheimer’s and hospice being the last memories I have of him. After my grandparents passed, the family sort of dispersed. There wasn’t a reason for us all to get together for birthdays or holidays now. But Uncle Mike… he was always a phone call or 25 minute drive away.
I could hear him on my parent’s answering machine on a weekly basis, “Hey, it’s your brother.” My mom going over there after work for help with school stuff. Him singing “Sto Lat” on my birthday, signing every card ‘The Godfather’. I can see him in his chair, asking me if I’ve heard of a certain Blues artist and him saying, “I tell you what, you should sing the Blues.” (Little did we know back then…I would get there…eventually.)
After a few years down in Nashville, I didn’t see him as often. My 5 days in Michigan for the holidays always seemed consumed by my parents, siblings, and grandma. I’d talk to him on the phone and apologize for not squeezing in a visit to see him. He’d tease me and I’d say, “Next time, I swear.”
It wasn’t until I made the decision to split my time 50/50 between Detroit and Nashville in November of 2015 that I really started to make good on my “next times”. He got on Facebook and we’d message back and forth some. My baby sister moved just a few minutes away from Uncle Mike, so even if I wasn’t intentionally planning a visit, I’d swing by after my sister’s. When I started getting serious with my boyfriend in the winter of 2016, we met Uncle Mike and Aunt Susie for Polish food one weekend. I remember him giving shit (playfully, of course) to the waitress and to me, “Oh so you’re the boyfriend, eh? Rachel hides away her boyfriends from dear ol’ Uncle Mike! You gonna let this one stick around, Rach?” Jokes aside, Uncle Mike liked Jon and I know he was relieved that I had someone good to help take care of me. Also, Jon could talk the Detroit Lions with him…and Lawd, did Uncle Mike loooove the Lions… When my boyfriend and I went up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall to visit his family’s cottage, I showed Uncle Mike all the photos and videos I’d taken and all the stories of our random discoveries. He was proud and gave me suggestions of where to go and what to do next time we go up. I told him, “It only took me 20 years to appreciate the stillness of having a cottage in the middle of nowhere, Uncle Mike. Sorry I was too much of a shit when I was younger to see it then.”
His brother, my Uncle Corky, passed away a few months after that lunch, in July of 2016. I shed tears for my mother more than anything. I couldn’t imagine losing a sibling. Let alone, two of them. (My Uncle Joe, the oldest brother, died of leukemia when I was 10.)
After the funeral, there was a luncheon, and it was there that my 6 year old nephew was horsing around with Uncle Mike (typical) and hit him in the stomach. A few days later, when Uncle Mike still felt pain in his stomach, he went to the doctor to get it checked out. He was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after.
The hit to the family was brutal.
I lost my shit for a week straight. After Uncle Corky’s funeral, after this terrible diagnosis for Uncle Mike, I went to Nashville for work. I can vividly remember on my drive back, I was coming across a bridge along the skyline of Detroit at 6am. The sky just exploded with color and I was overcome with peace. Real peace. There was something in that sunrise that told me Heaven wasn’t ready to take Uncle Mike yet. Months later, I told Uncle Mike about that “feeling” in a card I mailed him after his 2nd round of chemo didn’t work. I clung to that peace. I clung to that peace everyday for 8 months, no matter how bad things got. And I clung to that peace 11 days ago.
But Heaven changed It’s mind.
When we left the hospital that night, I silently prayed that if he’s supposed to stay with us then God needed to show His healing quickly, and if not, then take him now. I didn’t want to see Uncle Mike in pain, not even for one more day with him. I am so completely grateful, with all of my heart, that I got to spend the last year and a half reconnecting with my Godfather while he was here. As much as I like to think, “I chose to come back”, I know without a doubt, God put me back here…if nothing else, than for this reason alone.
The visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…it was all surreal. And the entire family felt it. Weren’t we just here 8 months ago? It felt like a trick but sadly, it was reality. He didn’t look like my lion laying in that coffin. But I guess that’s because it wasn’t really him, he wasn’t in that body anymore.
As I sit here at this kitchen table, on my 3rd cup of coffee, looking out the window on a new street this very grey and rainy Tuesday, I don’t know what’s next.
I went to see my therapist yesterday for the first time since his death. I didn’t make it more than 5 minutes before I started crying again.
I told her how my protective instinct is in overdrive for my mother and my Aunt Susie both. I told her about how it would’ve been my Uncle’s 69th birthday on April 1st and how I drove 45minutes, unannounced, to see Aunt Susie and drop off a piece of cake with a Detroit Lions emblem in the middle, just to turn around and drive back home. How I start crying out of nowhere doing practically anything…kickboxing, reading, sitting in a restaurant with Jon, walking the dogs, trying to sleep… I told her how just a couple weeks ago, I felt so rejuvenated, on a mission, and now, it takes everything in me to get out of bed in the morning. I’m exhausted all day long. What do I do? And her response…?
Be sad if I’m sad.
Let the tears out if I feel them coming.
Pat myself on the back for anything I do accomplish in the day, big or small.
Don’t beat myself up.
Understand that there is no “right way” to grieve.
Trust whatever this process shows me.
So that’s what I’ll try to do. All the “I have to’s” and “I should’ve’s” need to be lifted for the time being. And even though it’s hurting, just stay present enough to keep my heart open to everything this loss is revealing to me. Lean into it, lean in like a lion.
There is nothing particularly wrong. Sometimes the brain just wants to create…and in my case, that means I’m writing.
It’s been over a month since my last blog. I’ve thought about sitting down and writing every single day since then. I’d take my laptop in the car with me wherever I’d go…including a couple trips to Nashville in December and over New Year’s. But I talked myself out of it each time. I’d find myself responding to an email, stalking my Facebook feed, or looking up which crazy-colored yoga pants I wanted to order from Kate Hudson. While I type this, I realize that the words “I talked myself out of it” feels a bit like a Nerf gun fired to my face.
Because I do that. A lot.
**Talk myself out of things, and get nailed in the face with Nerf darts.
Whether it’s going out of my comfort zone to talk to someone I don’t know, sing a song I’m not sure I remember the lyrics to, go inside Chase bank and make them reverse their ridiculous maintenance charges, purchase the plane ticket, wake up in time for that kickboxing class, apologize to my boyfriend, or write a fucking blog. I’ve probably “talked myself out of” some of the best “could’ve been” times because I didn’t trust it, for one reason or another.
Everyone’s at the gym. Everyone is swearing to call their Grandpa more, lose 14.8 pounds, read the Bible, quit smoking, etc etc…And I wish them all luck. When the ball dropped this year, I was still in horror of the Mariah Carey fiasco. (I don’t think I recovered for days afterward, if we’re being honest.) While enjoying mimosas with a couple of my favorite gays on a New Year’s Day brunch, it dawned on me that I hadn’t made a resolution. Champagne aided in me never making a resolution that day. I wasn’t ready.
Because with this new year/new start, it meant leaving 2016 behind.
There was much to love… I fell in love/stayed in love/am still in love with an incredible man. My two sisters gave me a baby niece and nephew over the summer. Two of my best friends got married, and my childhood bestfriend welcomed a baby girl right around my birthday. I finished filming a music documentary coming out later this year. I wrote & recorded songs that I’m extremely proud of. I’ve sang in the studio and on the stage with some of my musical heroes. My boyfriend and I adopted a sheltie puppy and named her Blanche (Devereaux), after my favorite Golden Girl. I spent time with the ocean, the Great Lakes, New York City, the West Coast, and got to take my 89 year old Granny to Nashville to see her family twice. I read more books and wrote more songs/poems/stories/blogs than I have in years.
There was much I could have done without too.
There was death. There was a cancer diagnosis for my uncle. There were internal battles within myself that felt like a Target bag over the head. There were growing aches and pains for the girl and the life I was growing out of. There were days of crippling self-doubt. There were moments of family drama/crisis that made me feel like I was imploding. There were career/timeline setbacks.
There was life. There was loss.
Nothing better portrayed this than my last blog entry.
On December 2, 2016, I wrote a long-winded blog about the significance of my 1st nephew, Nolan and his entrance into this world 6 years ago. Hundreds of you read it/commented/”liked”… It felt like such a release to share part of mine & my family’s story with you.
On that same day, December 2, 2016, my boyfriend’s best friend passed away.
We didn’t find out until the following night.
“Unexpected” is what they called it, but it felt much more severe than that. When you’re having some beer and chicken pot pie at a neighborhood dive bar with someone, and 24 hours later, that person is gone… “unexpected” doesn’t begin to cover it.
EJ Grossi died at 34 years old.
I didn’t know EJ very well. Him and my boyfriend had over a decade’s worth of friendship. EJ actually lived with my boyfriend for awhile before/at the beginning of us dating. When things started getting more serious, EJ moved out and me & my dogs moved in. My boyfriend and EJ resumed their “best friend status” and were always hanging out when I’d go out of town, mostly just sitting at the house and talking. He loved our dogs. EJ was quirky and weird in the best way, super spontaneous, unassumingly thoughtful, and truly loved his people…and always wanted his people to know his people. Case in point, when my boyfriend & I hung out with him the night before he died, he handed me 2 CD’s there in the bar. It was music by a couple of his friends and he said he thought of me and that I might enjoy a listen. He also said if I thought the music sucked, I could use them as coasters, ha.
His funeral was surreal. There were so many people and never a good place to stand that was “out of the way” of everyone else. Looking at photos of him on the memory boards was numbing and shocking at the same time. He looked just like me, just like any of us. There were tears and laughs as everyone reminisced with each other. I couldn’t attach to any of it. I just fixated on my boyfriend the entire time…wanting to scoop him up if I detected any slight sign of an emotional collapse. I was prepared to save him. I wanted to save him.
I also wanted to cry. But I “talked myself out it”.
I’ve cried since then. Only a few times, and always by myself. I don’t know if it’s my distain for crying…or my fear that my boyfriend will sink into depression if he sees how I affected I am…or that I don’t know/don’t want to think about all the things that are surfacing inside of me because of this loss. I still haven’t figured it out. Which is why, every time I thought about blogging, I didn’t know where to start. It seemed inappropriate to write about someone I didn’t know very well or for very long. Because, as you know, I like to talk myself out of things.
But somewhere, in the last couple days, I started to grasp that it’s okay to speak of things you don’t understand. Because if you don’t speak it, how will you ever understand it? I need to remind myself of that. My feelings are real. EJ’s presence was/continues to be real. My boyfriend’s memories are real.
I think if this gut-punching end to 2016 is teaching me anything about what a new year of life to live should really mean, it would be… Quit fucking talking myself out of it.
Mortality is something I’ve thought about a lot this year. And when I wasn’t thinking about it, well…it’d come back and slap me in the face a few times to remind me it was still a thing that needed to be thought on.
This year taught me a lot about shutting up. Listening. Learning. I absorbed everything… the softness of baby cheeks, the rush I’d get when creating a song that enthralls me the more we write it, the indescribable beauty I see on every walk/road-trip/sunrise and sunset, the wrinkles in my Granny’s hands, the loudness & the ridiculousness of my family in a room and how I’ll laugh until I borderline pee myself, the heaviness and fluffiness of my 13 year old dog laying on my chest and remembering the good/bad/complete chaos of the last 13 years, stopping and actually smelling the flowers that are always waiting for me on the kitchen table when I get back to town. There was a lot of hurt, disappointment, and loss to take in too.
I’ll admit, I haven’t been as adamant about blogging as I was when I initially started this particular blog. I guess that’s life. At least, that’s what I chalked it up to… But what happens when that lifeis a lot more fragile than we ever care to admit to ourselves? It’s brutal when it shows it’s cracks…even more brutal when it shatters to something that feels like it can’t be salvaged. And most heart-breaking of all, is when it’s gone forever.
I love to write. A lot of people say I should be a writer, and not just of songs. It’s not that I don’t agree, I just always think that it’s something I’ll get around to. I have plenty of time for “side” careers. My story (or stories) will get written and it’ll be insane and hysterical and touching and heart-wrenching. Right now, I’m busy enough being a singer & songwriter, a big sister/daughter/Auntie to a rather needy (but hilarious) group of crazies, a mother to 4 dogs, a therapist to any girlfriend that calls on me for advice, and a somewhat sane girlfriend to the man of my dreams.
Writing can wait.
Babies can wait. (That one, I’m pretty sure can wait.)
Travelling can wait.
It’s not “the right time”.
The “right time” in 2016 has been showing up, even when it was beyond inconvenient, when I couldn’t explain it. When my head was convinced of one thing but my gut was telling me another, so I prayed to the sky that whichever way I proceeded didn’t completely #@*! up the course of life. Thankfully, the world did not end.
And now I’m sitting at a computer at 8PM on a Monday evening, the eve of Election Day. Thinking. Feeling. It’s never the right time to feel things and blog about things that are unpleasant. The Election is one of these things. Death is definitely one of these things. Don’t you worry, I’ll only be talking about the latter.
My last living grandparent turned 89 years old in August. Clearly anyone that knows anything about me knows that I worship the ground she walks on. My Grandpa (her husband) was my world when I was younger. He died unexpectedly in an accident when I was barely 6 years old. I remember everything about how they told me, where I was, the look on my Dad’s face… I remember the funeral and how I cried in the corner until the pastor came and found me, how I stepped on my Grandma’s toes when everyone stood in line to hug her after the service. I remember how strange and empty it felt to go to her house for awhile after he was gone. It was my first loss.
A couple years later, my Mom’s Mom, my Nana, died from an unexpected blood clot during a hip-replacement surgery when I was 8. One day we were visiting her in the hospital and she was fine, the next day she was gone. She was the same height as me and I loved her. I can still put myself right back in her house, smell the food she was cooking, me clunking the keys on her piano by the front door. My mother has never been whole since.
Nine days before my 9th birthday, my best friend died of leukemia. Followed by her father a few years later, also from cancer. I remember her birthday and the day of her death every single year. Any time I find an old photo of her, I treat it like gold.
Around the same time, my Mother’s oldest brother, my Uncle Joe passed of leukemia.
My sophomore year of high school, my Mother’s father passed away in hospice. I remember the teddy bear I gave my Papa when he moved out of his house and into a home. I still have the rocking horse he made me as a kid.
There have certainly been deaths that have occurred in my life, in my family & friend’s life during those times and since then that have hurt like hell. But the ones listed above were the ones that were fundamental in shaping my understanding of death. More importantly, they shaped my understanding of God. Because there’s no way I could have comprehended anything about love & life, heartbreak & compassion, without praying & pleading to someone above.
So now here we are…
My Granny’s oldest brother, my Great Uncle Wilburn, passed away this spring. It was divine intervention that I was in the right place at the right time to help her travel between Detroit and Tennessee. The decision to not drive her back to Detroit the morning I was supposed to will forever be chiseled in my heart. Her brother died that night.
My mother’s brother, my Uncle Corky, died of cancer this summer. I didn’t see him all that much as I got older, but I remember his funny mumbles and his banter with the family growing up. I remember how cool I thought his basement was as a kid. The cathedral that his funeral service was held in made me nostalgic for my grandparents. All the Catholic services that I felt forced to attend as a kid suddenly seem downright beautiful to me now.
Literally, one week later, my mother’s last surviving brother, my Godfather…Uncle Mike…was diagnosed with leukemia. I don’t remember the last time I cried so hard. This is my long-haired, Polish Superman. It’s been bad, it’s been good, it’s been us over-eating Polish food at his house last night. I’m optimistic because God told me to be. And I love him so much. And he will see me get married.
The last 2 weeks
My sister and niece were rear-ended in a horrific-looking accident. One minute, she was calling me to ask if I wanted her to pick me up a few pumpkins from a roadside stand. A few minutes later, her car was totaled. Thanks be to God, no one was injured.
I got the unbelievable privilege to see St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. I’ve played benefits for St. Jude in Nashville before. We’ve all heard the telethons & commercials for St. Jude…but nothing was like seeing it for yourself. Meeting the people that work there, the kids who are just the brightest of lights, and the parents of these kids who are doing everything to make their children’s light even brighter. It was beautiful. If a place like this exists and exudes nothing but hope…why can’t I.
Someone that is like a second mother to me had a cancer scare a few weeks ago and surgery to remove a tumor. It’s taken awhile for the results to come back, so my chats with God have been pretty constant. We just found out today that she’s in the clear 🙂
And most recently…
I found out a couple days ago that a very close friend of 2 of my best friends (and newlyweds) died while deployed in Jordan. Staff Sgt.Kevin J. McEnroe was in the US Army Special Forces with Shawn. I remember meeting him casually with Kristine and Shawn in Nashville. They told me he had a girlfriend so I quickly got over thinking he was “the handsome friend”. A year or so later, I saw him again with his beautiful girlfriend at Kristine & Shawn’s wedding this September. We all danced and celebrated the night away. That was only 2 months ago. I’ve been praying for his family & friends and Kristine & Shawn so hard. Kevin’s sacrifice shakes me at my core.
It’s time we talk about Death. It’s time we talk about what we fear and what we truly dream for ourselves…openly and honestly. What we’re going to do with the life we still have while we’re still able to do something with it.
Not cliché quotes.
Not photos or hashtags or song lyrics.
What are you going to DO? What are you going to SAY? WHO do you want in your circle, standing with you? Who do you want to be NOW? Seriously. No bullshit.
After I click “Publish” on this post, I’m going to pray that I’m always awake to these questions.