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 have literally thought to myself and/or said out loud to others, “I really feel like blogging” and yet… nothing. For quite awhile now.
That is always a huge indicator for me. I write when I have something that needs to be said. When the desire to write my heart, read it back, and allow myself to process is more overwhelming than anything going on externally. And sometimes, there’s just too much that needs to be said. So, instead of flushing them out and tackling these topics one by one, I stay silent. The chaos stays internal. The blog stays unwritten.
I’m currently 3 songs written, 2 hours of Golden Girls watched, and a bottle of wine consumed today so… here we go.
I left Detroit on April 22nd. That means, it’s been a whole 30 days since I’ve seen my dogs, my family, my porch swing, and my bed. It has been 20 days since I have seen my boyfriend. This probably seems extreme to a lot of you. To some of you musician/gypsy spirit types, this seems relatively normal. I rest somewhere between the two.
I make sacrifices all the way around, some days seeming more worthwhile than others. The documentary that initially prompted my split location finally wrapped filming 5 weeks ago, so now the “I have to be in Michigan for this” is up. Clearly, life is much different than it was 18 months ago when I made the decision to give up my ever-dramatic, forever busy, at times volatile, full-time living (and distracting myself from) “the dream” in Nashville.
I now live in an “old lady bungalow” in the suburbs with the greatest man I’ve ever known and all of our doggie children. I have a baby niece and nephew that I’m completely obsessed with. I have a Granny that turns 90 years old in August and lives 5 miles away from the rest of my family. I have an Aunt that probably doesn’t “need” me, but regardless, I feel called to be there for since the loss of my Godfather. I have a few friends (new and old) that truly “get me” and I’m grateful. The desire to create music and share it with Detroit remains strong. I’m “one of them” and I yearn to contribute in a way I haven’t just yet.
However, Nashville brought me up. It’s brought out the very best and the very worst in me. I’m now at a place where I can recognize where I was and who I’ll never be again, no matter how alluring it may seem at times. I am not that girl anymore, praise God. And I’m SO thankful that I can have that realization NOW and not on my 2nd stint in rehab or with a couple kids under my belt. Nashville, for all it’s hardships, is also where so much of my light is…it’s where I’m the most creative, the most productive, the most inspired. Re-working my boundaries and my social circle has been a lot, but I’ve already seen the benefits. I’m still working on eliminating the fog of self-defeating and self-sabotaging thoughts that held me down for so long, but I know the vision is getting clearer everyday. I’m not the same Rachel I was 18 months ago and the Rachel in Nashville today genuinely reflects that.
And yet, all this time and traveling that has taken place since I left my little domestic haven on Baker Avenue in Michigan weeks ago… somehow, my lines have been blurred, scribbled, and stomped on repeatedly. Two trips to Florida and 2 weeks in Nashville later, my sense of “peace” has been relatively non-existent for a month now. There’s definitely a few people I could blame for this, but what’s the point? It’s only partially their fault. Because at the end of the day, I could’ve handled their poor behavior and these toxic situations differently. And I’m disappointed that I didn’t. In a couple of these scenarios, I thought keeping neutral and “cool” would be for the best, for myself and the others traveling with me. It wasn’t. So I ended up feeling like a doormat and allowing a few people that I love to feel the same. Another scenario weighing heavy on my heart tonight is where I completely unloaded EVERYTHING, without ever coming up for air. And regardless if those things were on my heart, I’m disappointed that I allowed those buttons to be pushed so severely.
It’s all left me feeling exhausted.
So yesterday morning, slightly hungover (and definitely sleep-deprived from what is now considered a rare, “girls night” out downtown), I picked up my (nearly) 90 year old Granny from Nashville International Airport at 8:30AM. I immediately took her to the Cracker Barrel where I tried to nurse us both back to life with biscuits and a pot of coffee. I then proceeded to drive 90 minutes to her hometown of Hohenwald, TN, where I’d be dropping her off for a few days with her youngest (and last-surviving) brother, my Great Uncle Johnny and his wife, Aunt Lillie Mae. As tired as I was, I enjoyed the scenic drive with my ‘side-kick’. I hung on every story that my Granny’s hoarse voice tried to tell me of anything and everything.
When we arrived, I stayed most of the day with zero distraction. You see, Hohenwald is a “No Service” zone for Sprint. Not “Extended”, not 1 bar if you stand at the end of the drive…no, it’s “No Service” for at least 20 minutes in every direction. It stormed pretty hard for a majority of the afternoon, so that aided in my long visit. A few times, I just sat out on the porch and listened to this beautifully vast country-side get pummeled by rain. When it cleared up hours later (and I’d eaten about 10 pounds worth of good ol’ country cooking), I hit the road alone back to Nashville.
I was thankful for the solo drive. I typically use that time to explore, get a little lost, make a dead-stop in the middle of the street just to take a photo, admire all the farms/random country stores/abandoned houses/gas stations, and know that GPS isn’t going to work 95% of the time. And this time was no different. I definitely got lost without my navigation working.
It’s funny how that happens…
We rarely allow ourselves to get lost.
We rarely give ourselves permission or allow time for exploration.
I’m forever grateful for my drives to and from Hohenwald, even if it’s just for that.
Honestly, it’s a spiritual experience. I soak it all in. The scenery is always mystifying to me. My heart is literally pulled in. It was probably on my 3rd stop in the middle of the road to snap a photo that I realized that THIS WAS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED. The peace I SO craved with these Florida beaches, a “vacation” from the dogs and my family life was so completely and utterly unfulfilling for a reason.
Nothingness. No phone service. No social media. No making plans. No time-crunch. No traveling with others. No worrying what others would be thinking or doing or texting. No passive-aggressive bullshit. Just shutting the fuck up and taking it in.And it happened. The peace was unreal. And then, in the midst of trying to figure out which direction I was effin going down on some back country road, there was this….
And I thanked God at least a dozen times.
And then I drove directly to Kingston Springs, completely bypassing Nashville and the “night out” I had originally planned to have. I went to bed at 10PM and for the first time in forever, I SLEPT IN…until 11AM at that, my first night of more than 5 hours of sleep in weeks.
Turns out, you can really work some shit out in the middle of nowhere.
I don’t know, maybe getting lost is the best way to find your way.
Be sure to “follow” this blog, since I promise to remove my head from my ass and write more often ❤
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.
People take such pride in them, right? Mowing, watering, landscaping, gardening. Personally, I never got into it. However, I do remember how I enjoyed using my push lawn mower in my first rental house. **See photo below for proof** I was about 21 years old, renting a one bedroom, 500 square foot house on a dead end street in East Nashville. Mowing my lawn was my way of saying to the world, “Look at me, I’m grown up. I’m independent.” Never mind the fact that I was broke, watching the only 4 DVDs I owned on a little 15 inch TV (that had an attached VCR) from childhood. But hot damn, I mowed my lawn. That is…until my brand new lawn mower got stolen out of my backyard shed one weekend I was out of town. How East Nashville… I never loved mowing the lawn like that again.
It’s funny how seemingly insignificant little memories like that pop up and completely relate to your present-day life. How, you ask?
Because, in this exact moment, I am not taking ownership of my yard. Nope. I’m not tending to it, watching it, taking responsibility for it 90% of the time. You know what I AM doing? Obsessing about everyone else’s yard…who should be allowed on it and who shouldn’t be, where they need to water it, how to make it prettier. All the while, my yard goes to shit. But hey, at least I’m being a good neighbor, right?
Hopefully at this point, you’re getting my analogy. If you’re not, maybe you should stop smoking so much weed. Ha.
Boundaries are a real and essential thing. A thing that I’m forcing myself to acknowledge, understand, and set firmly for myself, regardless of my past. Because if we’re being honest here, my boundaries have been about as sturdy as a house burning to the ground. Oddly enough, I never knew the problem was as severe as it was until the last few months…
The moment I sat still long enough, I felt it. The weight. Like a 12 pound dumbbell, just hanging out on my chest. I can still breathe, I can still function, but fuck… it’s starting to irritate me and upset me in a way that I can no longer talk myself out of it. And anyone that knows me knows that I can definitely talk myself into or out of anything, ha. So now we have an issue that has to be addressed or else, I might end up on a episode of “Dateline”.
Factors into this new “boundary awareness”:
Being only a 50 minute drive from your family instead of the 8 hours of distance you’ve had for the last 10 years
Moving in with my boyfriend
Constantly travelling back and forth between Nashville and Michigan every few weeks
Trying to remain friends with people I was close to when I was a hot mess
Having physical and emotional space to re-evaluate some of the people I surround myself with, and yet I still manage to get stressed out
Adopting a puppy that has NO SENSE of personal space…nope, none.
If I could tell you the countless hours I’ve spent worrying/discussing/trying to find a solution for someone else’s health/finances/terrible exes they keep going back to/drug use/lack of sleep/car situation/relationship with their parents/retirement/toxic friends they hang around/Tinder hook ups and so on…you’d roll up a joint for me. And then hand me some Ambien.
I always justified it as one of the following, “But it’s family…She has nobody else to talk to…I’m the only positive influence he has…If I don’t help, no one else will…She looks up to me…He could have a heart attack if I don’t intervene…If it were me, I’d need someone to help me like this…Oh, she’d do the same for me…” and a million other reasons.
But the truth is…
I’m tired. People WILL live without me trying to solve their problems. People WILL figure it out one way or another. People WILL let me down and not come through for me like I have for them. I too will live. Friends/family should not expect me to carry their burdens nor should I so willingly volunteer to do so.
I’m literally reading a book right now called “Boundaries”. Real life. A therapist I went to see a few times, roughly 7 years ago, recommended it to me. I was grieving from a rather devastating break up (6 months later) so when he made this recommendation, I drove to Borders (yes, we still had one of those then) and purchased the book. I read the first chapter and then never thought about it again. Shortly after, I got back together with the ex that pummeled my heart, resulting in me ceasing my sessions with said therapist. If that isn’t a prime example of boundary misuse, I don’t know what is. The more I read, the more I talk about it, the more I realize that my boundaries have been blurred my entire life.
That stops. Effective immediately.
I have a yard. It has a wooden fence all around it, with a little front gate. The bad shit needs to be kicked out of my yard. The good stuff stays for me to tend to, inside my fence. The gate serves to close & lock on toxic people /situations/ways of thinking that don’t show respect to my yard and my fence. The gate will only open for love.
I need to own my yard again.
I need to learn to be the neighbor that smiles and waves and tries to keep her dogs from shitting in your yard. And even if/when they do, I will still not come over to your yard. Boundaries, y’all 🙂
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.
I will never, in my lifetime, forget December 2, 2010.
I was sleeping in bed alongside my “work-in-progress” boyfriend at the time, in my blue bedroom, in my new house in Hermitage, TN. I woke up to my phone vibrating on the nightstand. I picked it up and immediately saw a photo of a baby in an incubator, all 19 inches and 7 lbs 4 oz of him. The arrival of my first nephew, Nolan Robert was here. I immediately cried tears of pure joy as I admired this photo. That joy soon turned into tears of desperation and what felt like a hole in my heart the rest of the day/week. He was here, in the world, for me to hold, and I was 600 miles away looking at a photo on my phone.
I finally met and held this perfect baby roughly 2 weeks after his birth, when I was able to take off work/studio/girlfriend duty for Christmas and drive up to Michigan for the holidays. I cried again when I met him. In all honesty, I’ve been shedding tears for him/over him/because of him ever since.
It’s somewhat comical, really.
When I first met my boyfriend Jon and we started dating this time last year, he thought Nolan was secretly my child. I had so many photos of him on my phone and I proudly displayed them to anyone whose attention I had for more than 2 seconds. My friends laughed and said I was obsessed. I’m sure my Facebook and Instagram friends thought the same, with my endless photo/video uploads of him over the years. I was. And I am. But it’s not for reasons that are so obvious to the outside world.
I’m sure you’ve already heard me gush over him and the little person he’s becoming. So I’d like to take a different approach with this blog to acknowledge/celebrate/reminisce over his arrival into this world. I’d like to share with you the truest reason why I’ll love this child like he is my own forever and always. To put it bluntly…
Nolan saved my family.
He may never know that and I’ll never tell him. But I will always know. My sisters, my brother, and my parents will also always know, whether they’ll admit it publicly or not.
The loyalty within my family is ferocious. That is the only word I can use to describe it. It is protective. And just as it can be nurturing and safe, it can also tear you to shreds. No one can truly understand or appreciate our dynamic unless you’re within it’s folds. I’m not complaining about it whatsoever. I love it. It’s the only way I’ve known. It has also exhausted me plenty throughout my life.
I am the oldest of 4…2 sisters and a brother. When I first moved to Nashville, the youngest of the litter, my baby sister, took it the hardest. She was 11 or 12 years old when I moved. I remember her crying on the phone to me. I remember poems and photo collages she’d give to me when I’d come home to visit. I felt a very real responsibility to her. I wanted to show her that having big dreams is scary but beautiful and that she too could be brave enough to chase them…to risk the crash and burn, just like me. I’d drive and meet my dad halfway in Cincinnati, just to take her and my brother for a long weekend away with me in Nashville. I spent so much time trying to instill hope and confidence in her for a bigger life.
My baby sister got pregnant at 17. Out of nowhere. No warning. No sign of a boyfriend or partying or any type of rebellion in that sense. She was a senior in high school. She got impregnated by a “man” that I won’t dignify acknowledging except to say that he had the most minimal part in creating a baby…that, and my hatred for this person consumed me for years after the fact. Now? I still wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire, but I don’t wish him on fire anymore.
I wanted to save my sister from this. My heart was shattered that she didn’t want to be saved from this. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The downward spiral of the situation was fast, severe, and plunged below any level I knew existed. Suddenly there were enemy lines drawn and part of the family stood on one side and part of us on another. Watching my parents go through it was even more torturous than my own hurt. I was driving up to Michigan on a whim a couple times a month to make sure everyone was still breathing.
She can’t have this baby.
It was a thought we all had. It makes me sick to my stomach to look back on that now, but at the time…we really didn’t think the family or my sister would ever recover from bringing a baby into this mess.
I love my sister. I loved her despite the whirlwind of hurt and brokenness we were all swept up in. All the skeletons were out of the closet so there was nothing more to do…but watch her belly grow. I remember Halloween of 2010, she was 8 months along. It was the first time I talked to the baby in her belly. It was the first time I whole-heartedly acknowledged that the baby was coming, ready or not. I went back for Thanksgiving, hoping she’d go into labor during my visit. She didn’t. So I drove the long and lonely 8 hours back to Nashville at the end of November. By December 2nd, a baby was here.
I remember I had driven all through the night. I was tired. I was wearing an orange hoodie & yoga pants with my greasy hair tied up in a bun. She walked into my parent’s house with the baby in his carrier and I lost it. There was hope. Everything dark had led us to this.
My family did recover over time. It wasn’t instant, but there was a new flag for this family now. It wasn’t chaos, it wasn’t hurt. It was Nolan.
Over the years, my love and adoration would never waiver. I’d drive up every other month for him. I’d take him to Nashville with me, all by myself, for a week or two at a time, every single year. He brought out the good in me, the uninhibited and yet nurturing spirit in me. For a long time, nothing else brought out the good except for him and my Granny. I could be a train wreck every other day out of the year. But the days with Nolan, I wasn’t. I was Auntie Ray Ray. And out of all the people I felt I “needed” to be, all the people I pretended to be…Auntie Ray Ray was the most natural, most effortless role I’ve ever taken on.
It would take me 5 very long years to realize that if I built upon who I was with Nolan (and my Granny), I would be a happier person. If I could show myself the same love, support, and forgiveness that I was showing a toddler… I’d probably be living a much different life. How could I be one person that loves/would move mountains/self-sacrifice for her family and then another who just didn’t give a flying @#$* about anything…but who was still fun and funny, carefree and incredibly careless, who controlled her conscience like a light switch. The answer is… I couldn’t be both and do either of them well. One Rachel has to outweigh the other.
So I let the scales tip. And I’ve been letting them tip for the past year. And I’m so thankful that for once, it feels like they’re tipping in the right direction.
So on Nolan’s 6th birthday…I am a puddle of gratitude.