pockets of grief, wells of memory

This past weekend, I flew to Nashville to celebrate a very special occasion: my friend Holly was ordained as a minister! She has been working for years towards this milestone, and I am so incredibly proud of her.

I had never before attended an ordination, and I was blown away by the beauty and emotion of the ceremony. It reminded me a lot of a wedding, but instead of celebrating the union of a couple, we were celebrating Holly’s commitment to generously serve others as a minister. Perhaps my favorite part of the ceremony was right after Holly was officially ordained and became Reverend Holly. The entire church stood up and burst into applause, and Holly looked out at all of us, her face glowing. Tears sprung to my eyes in that moment. The room was so palpably filled with love for my dear friend, who has already touched so many lives and is adored by so many people.

In preparing for the weekend, I expected to feel pride. I expected to feel joy. I expected to feel love and connection and excitement and peace. And I did feel all of these things. What I did not expect to feel was… grief.

I felt fresh, unexpected waves of missing Celine, the ache of her loss filling my chest more fiercely than it has in a long time. In the past year or so, my grief over her death has settled into a quiet place within my heart. I think of her often — but, unlike in the immediate aftermath of her death, my thoughts of her now are often accompanied by happiness. I can smile at my memories of her, even as I deeply miss her presence.

But grief is not a straight line. Grief can surprise you. Grief can sneak up on you. You can stumble upon pockets of grief that steal all the breath from your lungs and suddenly it is like you just lost your person, all over again, in that instant.

I was expecting to miss Celine at Holly’s ordination, just like I missed her at my wedding — crossing the threshold of another Big Life Event that she should be here to experience with us. But the way I missed her this weekend was sharp and personal and raw.

The really neat thing about an ordination is that people from all corners and phases of your life come to honor the person you were, the person you are, and the person you are still becoming. Holly’s family was there, and her friends from childhood, and her friends from divinity school. People were there from the church she grew up attending and the church she interned with and her current church home. Old classmates and old professors and old family friends.

What I hadn’t put together beforehand was that I would be the sole ambassador from Holly’s college years, the years we were roommates, the years our friendship blossomed and grew strong. As I walked into the church and sat down in a pew, I found myself looking around for the third pea in our pod: Celine.

Everyone else had their people from their phase of Holly’s life. Celine would have been my person there. I felt like I was trying to hold up a mantle for both of us, a mantle that was meant to be shared, that was too heavy for me alone. I felt sad and awkward under the weight. Because Celine should have been there, too. If life were even close to fair or sensible, she would have been there sitting next to me, holding my hand as we both blinked back proud tears for our girl Holly.

Holly’s childhood friends came in then, and I have met them all before and they are lovely, and they scooted over on their pew so I could sit with them. We chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. It was comforting to know that they had met Celine — that if I spoke her name they would share stories of her and remember her, too. I wondered if they thought of her when they saw me.

The strange thing was, even as I grieved anew the loss of one of the brightest lights I have ever known, I could also feel her presence more vividly than I had in a long time. I could imagine her there next to me, wearing a white top and a yellow skirt and a purple belt, with dangly earrings and red lipstick, her long hair pulled partly back with bobby pins. I could clearly imagine her hand in mine, with her round nails painted turquoise. I could see her looking at me with her big eyes, smiling at me as we talked about some random memory from college. She would stand up and greet people, shake their hands and say, “We’re Holly’s friends from college.” We are. How lonely the “I” is, when compared with “we.”

But as the service began, I was overcome by a profound sense that I was there not just as Dallas, but that I was representing Celine, too. I knew without a doubt that she was there in spirit — that she was indeed sitting beside me, holding my hand, in whatever way she could. Only in the physical, mortal sense was I there alone.

At the ordination after-party, they served lasagna.

*

After an amazing whirlwind weekend, on the plane from Nashville yesterday morning, I was reading through an old issue of a literary journal. An essay by Emily Arnason Casey described a Greek myth of the lark, taking place in a time before the world began, back when there was only air and sky and wind. The lark’s father dies and there is nowhere to bury his body–no ground for him to rest in for eternity. The birds all gather together and try to decide what to do, but they cannot think of any solutions. Until finally, Casey writes, “the lark decides she will bury the body of her father in the back of her mind, and this is the beginning of memory.

When I looked up the symbolism of larks, I found these words that burst with resonance of Celine:

Larks are known for their melodious singing. They also sing while they are flying, unlike most other birds, who only sing when perched. This indicates cheerfulness and reminds us to find joy in our own lives.

Larks have a crescent shape across their breasts. The crescent shape often signifies lunar qualities, and the moon is often linked with the concept of self. Therefore the lark reflects the inward journey that’s often associated with self-discovery. This goes hand in hand with their singing, something that, for humans, is often considered a private activity and a deep reflection of inner self. Lark encourages us to explore our inner selves and sing out loud.

I don’t think I came across this essay in a random literary journal from 2012 by accident during my flight home. I believe it was a message from Celine. She wanted to remind me that she is buried inside me, and inside of all of us who love her, and the well of our memories with her runs ever-deep, like a cup that can never be emptied. Her memory encourages all of us to find joy in our lives, to explore our inner selves, to sing out loud.

Celine would be turning 30 this Friday. I am celebrating her birthday by getting together with friends for dinner and then going out to a bar where the waiters sing show-tunes. I am going to remember Celine by laughing unselfconsciously and squeezing people I love in big bear hugs and singing along to Broadway show-tunes at the top of my lungs.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following prompts as inspiration for some free-writing:

  • Write about a person you miss, whether they are gone from this life or are simply someone you have lost touch with. What do you miss most about them? What memories with them do you treasure?
  • Think about an animal that carries symbolism for you, and write about the ways this meaning has touched your life at different points.
  • Write a love letter to one of your dearest friends about all the things you love about them. Bonus: send it to them!

the {un}luckiest day

I.

December 23, 2017 was one of the unluckiest days of my life.

I was six weeks and two days pregnant, and Allyn and I could not have been more excited. We had been hoping and praying for a baby, and it seemed like such a crazy miracle when we saw that tiny blue “+” on the pregnancy test. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I found myself jumping up and down like a little kid on a trampoline as I exclaimed to Allyn, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” Over the coming days, as I felt my body already beginning to change, it was like I had the most delicious secret. Like I had a superpower. Like I was never alone, even when I was by myself running errands or driving to meet with a student or walking around the lake, because I had a precious little soul inside me, growing bigger every single day.

We made plans to share the news with our families and close friends over the holidays. I could not wait to celebrate our joyful news with them.

It was a Thursday afternoon when I felt the first sharp, cramping pain. I was on a Skype call with a student at the time and the pain was intense enough to be distracting. After we hung up, trying to calm my alarm, I googled “pregnancy cramps” and found out that what I was experiencing seemed to be normal. Still, I felt uneasy. I cancelled my next student session and took a nap.

The cramping would wax and wane, but it never fully went away. By Friday night, I was feeling worried, even though I told myself that I was probably overreacting just like I often do about health-related matters. {I have banned myself from going on WebMD because it always makes me convinced I am suffering from some deadly illness or rare malady.} I told Allyn that I wanted to go to Urgent Care the next morning, if only to get some reassurance. “Maybe I have a bladder infection or something,” I mused. I refused to let myself think that anything was wrong with our baby.

Yet, this despair was seeping through my bones. I refused to let myself think about it. But, in a deep inner place, I knew.

On Saturday, December 23, I woke up in a lot of pain. I curled onto my side and scrolled through online pregnancy forums on my phone. All of the women who described experiencing cramping during pregnancy wrote about how it lasted an hour or two, usually in the evening. They wrote about how warm compresses or shifting position would help alleviate the pain.

Tears pricked my eyes. Nothing was alleviating my pain. My pain was getting worse and worse.

I told Allyn I needed to go to Urgent Care. It was crowded, filled with coughing and sniffling people. The receptionist told me they did not have ultrasound equipment, and suggested I go next door to the E.R.

The E.R.? This wasn’t really an emergency, was it? I almost turned around and went home. I wanted so badly to just “tough it out” and pretend like nothing was happening, like nothing was wrong. Maybe if I ignored it, the pain would go away. What if this was totally normal and I was overreacting? We had plans to get lunch with friends and Allyn’s family. His brother Colin was only in town for a few days. Who knew how long we’d be stuck in the E.R. My overactive worried imagination would ruin all of our plans.

Still, something propelled me forward. We checked into the E.R. They called me back, gave me a wristband, assigned me a room. Nurses took my vitals and bloodwork, scheduled an ultrasound to “check things out.” It would be our first ever ultrasound. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt as the technician rubbed the wand over my belly, pressing down hard. I couldn’t see the screen. Allyn could, but it was impossible for him to read. The technician was silent. I kept hoping she would say, “Look, there’s your baby!” But she didn’t. In my mind, I talked to our baby, saying over and over, We love you so much. We love you so much already, sweetheart. It’s going to be okay. Eventually, I found myself praying. Please, please, please. 

They wheeled me back to my room. Allyn and I tried to watch a movie on the TV to distract ourselves, to pass the time. Eventually the nurse came back. Her face looked sad. “Do you know what an ectopic pregnancy is?” she asked.

I did. I had read about it on the pregnancy forums. An ectopic pregnancy is one that implants in the fallopian tube, instead of in the uterus.

She explained how ectopic pregnancies are not viable with life. How I would have to take medication to terminate the pregnancy. How, otherwise, my fallopian tube would rupture as the baby grew, and then my life would be at risk as well.

“We’re still waiting for the doctor to give us the final report from the ultrasound,” the nurse said. “But we’re afraid that’s what it looks like. We’re having trouble finding the pregnancy in the uterus. It’s possible that it is just very small at this point.”

Allyn and I held hands, clinging to the hope that maybe our baby was there, where it was supposed to be. Maybe it was just hard to see something so small, so early on. Maybe… maybe…

A short time later, the ob-gyn doctor on call came in. She showed us the ultrasound images, pointing out the gaping emptiness of my uterus. The emptiness hit me like a slap. I felt like I had done something wrong. Like my body had failed me — had failed our baby.

“There is nothing you did to cause this,” the doctor said, as if reading my mind. “You have no risk factors. You’re young and healthy. This is just extremely bad luck.”

Our bad luck worsened. She showed us the dark blobs on the ultrasound, explaining in a calm voice that it was blood. “You have a lot of internal bleeding,” she told me. “Your tube has already ruptured. We need to do surgery.”

“Surgery?” my mind was whirring. “When?”

“As soon as possible. When was the last time you ate anything?”

From then on, time compressed. Everything happened very quickly. I was prepped for surgery. I signed a bunch of forms. I called my parents. I held Allyn’s hand for as long as I could as they wheeled me down the hospital corridors to the operating room. I remember being in the operating room, worrying that I would somehow wake up in the middle of the procedure. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a hospital corridor. Allyn was there. “You did great,” he said softly. “Everything is okay.”

I had left our apartment that morning as a woman who was six weeks and two days pregnant. I returned as a normal woman again. Back to my previous self. Drained of my superpowers.

{source}

II.

December 23, 2017 was one of the luckiest days of my life.

Yes, it was one of the most terrible days I have ever experienced. But it could have been so much worse. It could have been the end of my life.

That morning, I absolutely did not want to go to the E.R. I wanted to shove the pain down and pretend it didn’t exist. But there was a little voice inside me, telling me not to do that. Telling me to listen to my body. And so I did. I’m so lucky that I did.

I’m so lucky that I have medical insurance. That this state-of-the-art hospital was just down the street. That, for whatever reason — maybe because it was two days before Christmas — the E.R. was not crowded. I was admitted and seen right away. I did not have to wait long to get my bloodwork and ultrasound results. Allyn and I were given a private room, which meant we had space to cry and grieve, alone together.

I was extremely lucky that the ob-gyn doctor on call that day happened to be MY ob-gyn, Dr. Garima Loharuka. A doctor I had built a relationship with, who knew my history, who knew me. A doctor I had just emailed the previous week to tell her I was pregnant, who swept into our room with the most loving aura of compassion, who gave me a big hug and said, “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” A doctor I trusted completely, who explained clearly and calmly what would happen, who answered our many questions with patience and grace. A doctor who got tears in her eyes right before I was wheeled into surgery, when I told her, “I am so glad you are here,” and she said, “There’s nowhere else I would be. I just really wish you didn’t have to be here right now.” A doctor who truly cared, and who made me feel like I was in the best hands.

I am so lucky that the operation went well — that my other fallopian tube and both of my ovaries are intact; that my doctor says I should be able to have heathy pregnancies in the future; that she says I should have no greater risk factor for another ectopic pregnancy.

I am so lucky to be living in the era of modern medicine, where surgery for an ectopic pregnancy is even possible. In the past, there would have been nothing they could have done. This would have killed me.

We are so lucky to have such amazing and supportive families. Allyn’s sister came to the hospital and brought Allyn food, since he never did each lunch, and sat with him while I was in surgery. She went to our apartment to bring me some comfortable sweatpants to change into after the operation, and she also brought me Mendo, the stuffed animal frog who lives on our bed, so I would have something to make me smile when I woke up. Plus she thoughtfully did our dishes and made our bed and tidied up our apartment.

I am lucky to have such a wonderful mother-in-law, who cooked an entire Christmas dinner at her home and then brought everything to our tiny apartment, where we crammed around the dinner table together and Colin fell asleep on the couch with a beer in his hand and I laughed for the first time since Allyn and I saw the tragic truth on those ultrasound images.

I am so lucky that my parents and my brother Greg were able to scrap our Christmas plans and take time off work and pile into the car and drive up to the Bay Area to spend the week with us. Being with them was such a healing balm for my heart. They watched a marathon of corny Hallmark Christmas movies with me, made sure I was eating and drinking enough, held my hand when I broke into tears. I felt incredibly nurtured and surrounded by love from our families and close friends, many of whom cried on the phone with me when I told them what had happened.

And I am incredibly lucky to have my husband. I told him that we have made it through our first real crisis together, and we have come through on the other side even more tightly joined. My love for him has only deepened and strengthened through this ordeal. Despite his own grief and pain, he was my rock through it all — never wavering in his comforting presence. He was my advocate, asking questions and making sure I had everything I needed. He filled my prescriptions and kept track of when I needed to take my medications. He got up in the middle of the night to help me out of bed when I had to use the bathroom, since I wasn’t supposed to use my ab muscles at all {where much of my internal bleeding was} and he gently laid me back down into bed when I was done. He helped me walk. He knelt and dried off my legs after the shower because it hurt my abs to bend down. He tucked away my pregnancy and baby books into a drawer so I wouldn’t have to face them. He held me. He hugged me. He told me, “The most important thing is that you’re okay.” When I felt like a failure, he convinced me otherwise.

The grief of this experience has made Allyn and I even more grateful for each other. We’ve always tried not to take our life together for granted, but I think that our gratitude run even deeper now. Nor do we take a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby for granted. When it comes — and hopefully it will come for us, one day — we will cherish it with every fiber of our beings.

I still feel sad sometimes. I still mourn the baby we lost. And yet, I do feel hopeful. I am hopeful that we will someday get to experience the joy of a rainbow baby after this heartbreaking storm.

In my entire life, the unluckiest day of all was January 26, 2015, when Celine was killed. But there is comfort to think of her somewhere out there, lovingly cuddling the soul of this baby we will never meet here on Earth, but who will always live in our hearts.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Turn to a new page in your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following prompts as “jumping off” points:

  • Write about one of your unluckiest days. Write about everything that was so painful about the experience. Letting it out helps to let go of it.
  • Now, see if you can find any threads of luck in that day. Is there anything you can be grateful for? Anything that could have been worse? Any ways in which you were spared? Any lessons you have learned from it?
  • Write a love letter to someone who was there for you during one of your bleakest times.

you take home with you

I’m sure you’ve heard on the news about the wildfires sweeping through southern California. The Thomas Fire has ravaged my beautiful hometown of Ventura. It is hard to even wrap my mind around the horrific destruction of so many homes and neighborhoods. I may be physically in the Bay Area, but my mind and heart are in Ventura right now. One inspiring thing has been the way my hometown community has rallied together to support each other. Ventura has always possessed wonderful qualities of inclusion, generosity, optimism and resilience, and never have these virtues been in such strong display as they are right now. I am so proud of my hometown. #venturastrong

Please send your prayers — for our community, the people who call it home now and for those like me who may live far away but still think of it as home, for the firefighters and first responders and s/heroes working round the clock to defeat these vicious, horrendous fires.

The most important thing is that everyone is safe. Thank God for that.

But the personally devastating news, for my family, is that my 91-year-old grandfather’s home burned entirely to the ground. It is gone. This was the home that my dad, his sister, and his two older brothers grew up in. The home my grandmother picked out after the family moved cross-country, from Ohio to California, in the 1970s. The home she decorated and hosted parties in. The home she died in, twenty-five years ago, of a heart attack. The home my Gramps has lived in for 44 years.

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The house is gone, just a pile of rubble and ash. But also, the house lives on in our memories. So many memories. I can close my eyes any time I want to and I can drive up to that house, which has always reminded me of a grand mansion out of an old movie, and I can park at the bottom of the driveway. In my mind, I can open the white wrought-iron mailbox to check the mail for my Gramps so he doesn’t have to walk down the narrow brick steps that evening to check it himself. I can walk up the steps, under the huge trees, across the cracked and rutted concrete driveway, past the American flag hanging from his porch banister, and up the four steps onto his front porch. I can ring the doorbell or use the iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head — knock, knock, knock! That particular sound that was only made by that one knocker on that one specific front door. In my mind, I can hear Gramps shout, “Com-ing!” and I can peer in the window alongside the door and watch him slowly climb up the steps from the family room, into the marble-floored entryway. Above him are the chandeliers that turn on with automatic timers, suffusing the hallway with golden light, and he flicks on the porch lights, which are blue. He has always had blue porch lights — the only house I’ve known with blue porch lights. In my mind, he unlocks the front door and it squeaks that particular squeak as it opens. I step inside, into his arms for a big hug. The house smells like his cinnamon bread, if he’s baked it that day. Or maybe it smells like the cleaning products the housekeeper used if she came recently. But, underneath all of that, it smells like Gramps’ house. There is no other place in the world that has this exact smell — Gramps, childhood, nostalgia, the past. My grandma. My family. It’s all here, in the air.

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If I walk inside the house in my memory and keep going straight, I’ll enter the kitchen, with the round table and yellow-padded kitchen chairs, the table piled high with newspaper crosswords and papers and photos and cards. I remember sitting down at this table with Gramps on mornings before I left Ventura, heading off for college or grad school, when I would stop by to visit him one more time to say goodbye before I left. It was rare for me to visit him in the morning — normally it was my aunt Kay who would visit him then, walking the neighborhood with her dog Troy, and they would stop by for a cup of coffee (Kay) and a peanut-butter dog biscuit (Troy) and mostly, for a chat and a visit. I remember the soft morning light through the sliding glass door, the scent of Gramps’ coffee in the air, his reading glasses on his nose as he worked on the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. In my mind, I can sit at that table with him still. I can look at the bookshelf piled with my grandma’s cookbooks. The built-in shelves housing figurines and mugs and delicate plates that my great-grandmother painted with beautiful flower patterns. I can stand up and walk across the kitchen, take one of the plastic blue glasses down from the cupboard, and get myself some water from the fridge. I can see the fridge, covered with photos of his grandchildren, a collage of holiday cards sent over the past decade. I can see, still taped to the side, a watercolor I made in eighth grade for him of an Audrey Rose, after my grandma. Taped to one of the cupboards is a drawing of Gramps’s house that my brother did in second grade, the teacher’s handwriting proclaiming “Good job, Greggie!” On the wall, I can see a framed recipe that my cousin Rhett wrote out in elementary school, decorated with glitter glue, for Grampie’s Bread — a favorite of all of us, an Amish recipe that took ten days to make, spiced with cinnamon, dense and cakey. The version Gramps made for us was more of a cake than a bread, studded with chocolate chips. He would make the bread with craisins during the holidays. The starter living in his fridge, ready and waiting for the next batch.

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In my mind, the past can come back to life again. I can stand beside the fridge with my grandma as she laughs and laughs, the freezer dispenser brokenly spewing crushed ice onto the floor. I can follow her out the sliding glass door and down the back steps into the yard, joining the rest of my cousins in the annual Easter egg hunt — hardboiled eggs outside, plastic eggs inside, Gramps dressed as the Easter Bunny. I can follow my cousins up the stairs and into the first room on the right, my dad’s old room — wood-paneled, with hundreds of tennis ball cans lined up on a shelf that trails around the room, still there from his tennis-playing days in junior high and high school — and make my way to the wooden chest at the foot of the bed. I can throw it open, sifting with my cousins through the “dress up clothes” and old Halloween costumes. The one I remember best is the Peter Pan hat. And I can follow my cousins down the blue-carpeted stairs, marching in our costumes in a giggly, giddy parade for the adults. Even though the costumes never changed, opening up that wooden chest always felt magical, filled with possibilities. I can follow Gramps through the attic up onto the roof, where my brother and I help him string up Christmas lights onto the iron latticework. I can laugh with my brother and Gramps at our puppy Gar as he makes a huge mess on the kitchen floor, splashing water as he drinks from his plastic Snoopy dog bowl. We always said that Gramps’ water must taste the best because Gar could never get enough. Even though Gar died eleven years ago, I can close my eyes and see him there still, tail wagging in Gramps’ kitchen.

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I can stand beside Gramps as he chops lettuce for salad at the butcher block kitchen island covered with his Ohio State Buckeyes red towel. I can watch him stir the rice and water in his covered dish, sliding it in the microwave. I always loved his Minute rice and he always laughed and told me how easy I was to please. I can smell the popcorn he used to make when my brother and I would come over on Mondays after school, pouring the popcorn from the bag into the big plastic yellow bowl, shaking Molly McButter over the whole thing. We would sit on the couch with him in the family room and watch cooking shows — Great Chefs of America came on at 4, followed immediately by Great Chefs around the World. Often we would fall asleep curled against Gramps’ belly, my brother on one side, me on the other. Then Mom would come by and pick us up on her way home from work; on Mondays, my dad worked nights at the newspaper. Sometimes she would bring pizza or Chinese takeout and we would stay for dinner, sitting around the table in the family room, the table with the wicker base that was hollow inside, that we used to hide in as small children, all of us grandkids, before we grew too big to fit.

Now that we’re down in the family room, I can wander around a little bit. There’s the closet where Gramps & Auden used to keep toys for us grandkids when we were little. I remember the tiny books I would pick out and read with my grandma on the couch. I remember the teddy bear that talked when you pressed his paw. I remember watching Flipper the Dolphin and Yogi Bear on TV. On the wall, the clock my dad and my Uncle Doug made as teenagers out of a wooden tennis racket. The big fireplace with the painting hanging above it that my brother made, an oil painting of him and his namesake, my Gramps’ dad Ansel. In the corner, Gramps’ ancient exercise bike that he used to ride in the mornings as he watched the news. The wooden coffee table, covered so completely with framed photos of Gramps’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that it looked like it might collapse at any moment from the weight. And the photo of my grandma on her wedding day. That beautiful hoop-skirted princess dress; her radiant smile. I can close my eyes and see it all. And a funny memory: long ago, before the coffee table was covered with framed photos, coming over to see Gramps after a family vacation when we had been away for a week or so. Our dog Gar was so excited to see Gramps that he raced down the stairs into the den, leaped over the couch, skidded across the coffee table, and landed in the fireplace. Gramps, who is infamous in our family for getting quite grouchy if you accidentally pressed the wrong button and messed up his TV remote or flicked the wrong light switch and messed up the automatic timers on his lights, said, “Oh Gar, are you okay honey?” Not mad in the least as Gar licked his face in jubilant greeting.

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Off the family room is the bathroom where, in shock, I changed out of my grubby jeans and tennis shoes into the skirt and sandals my mom brought for me, when Aunt Kymmie threw a surprise bridal shower for me two summers ago at Gramps’ house. Mom drove me up there right after Summer Writing Camp, ostensibly to say hi to Gramps, and I was totally floored when I opened the front door and my friends and family jumped up from the living room and shouted, “SURPRISE!!!” That was the same living room where we hosted my cousin Amanda’s bridal shower, and where we used to have huge Christmas Eve gatherings when my grandma was alive, with a white-flocked tree and an ocean of wrapping paper, and where as kids we loved to pick at the keys of the white grand piano. That was the hushed room, the fancy room, with my grandma’s Waterford and Wedgewood, the trinkets and treasures and figurines. I remember going around the room like it was a museum, my brother and I “helping” Gramps as he cleaned and dusted everything one spring, telling us the story of each object as he placed it back in its spot. I remember the fancy Christmas dinners at the large formal dining room table, and also the meal we had there the day I came back from studying abroad for a summer in Cambridge, England, so jet-lagged I almost fell asleep right at the table. And I remember setting up the big screen and the noisy machine and sitting in chairs with Gramps in the living room, as he clicked though slides from his and Auden’s honeymoon trip to Mt. Rushmore and the early days of their marriage in NYC.

I can walk into the warm, sunlit study filled with dusty hardcover books and papers and mementos. Gramps taking the ancient family Bible down off the shelf, carefully turning the thin pages for us, showing us the family records of births and marriages and deaths stretching back through the generations. I remember the delicate script handwriting, the awed sense of history I felt as I looked at those lists, the lives pared down to columns of names and dates. The comfort, to be part of that line. It made me feel small in a good way.

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Memories spill into each other– too many to record them all here. Memories stretch into memories into more memories. One of my earliest memories: climbing the stairs as a little girl up to Gramps and Auden’s bedroom. Sitting with them on their bed, facing backwards– looking out the window, watching the tree branches sway in the wind.

There were countless childhood afternoons that I took the bus home from school to Gramps’ neighborhood, trudging up the steep steep hill Via Pasito with the other neighborhood kids, our backpacks heavy on our shoulders, thumping against our backs. As we walked up the hill different kids would turn off when they reached their houses. I was always the last one left at the end. Gramps’ house was at the top of the hill. His backyard had an unbelievably gorgeous view of our town, laid out below like a quilted blanket, with the glittering ocean stretching out to the Channel Islands in the distance.

Now, so many of those homes are gone. Destroyed by fickle winds and savage flames.

But also, not destroyed completely. Maya Angelou said, “When you leave home, you take home with you.” These houses live on in all of our hearts. Our love is what made them homes– and what continues to make them so.

sautéing my way through grief

Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you a piece I have published on Modern Loss, about how cooking has been a helpful grieving process for me in the aftermath of my dear friend Céline’s death. You can read the piece on Modern Loss here, which also includes a few of my favorite recipes.

The first week after my friend Céline died in a car accident, I barely ate at all. I was too consumed by grief to even think about food.

The second week, my appetite was back and I craved junk. Potato chips, cookies, greasy burgers. You know, college food — which, in a way, made sense.

Ten years before she died, I met Céline on the very first day of college, as I was unpacking my clothes and trying to suppress my anxiety. Céline knocked on my door. She said she lived across the hall and asked if I wanted a popsicle. I chose cherry; she picked orange. Then we sat on my bed and chatted. With her stylish asymmetrical haircut and dangly earrings, she seemed way too cool to be my friend — I figured we would be dorm-acquaintances before drifting apart sophomore year. But that was okay. Céline had a wonderful warm presence that you were just grateful to bask in for as long as you could…

Read the rest of the piece here.

 

Here are some other posts I’ve written about grief:

my slobbery, comforting shadow

Hi friends! Just wanted to let you know that my essay “My Slobbery, Comforting Shadow” — about how our beloved family dog Murray helped me during a difficult time of my life — was recently published on the website Sweatpants and Coffee. You can read it here.

“Welcome home, honey,” my mom said, ushering me inside the front door of my childhood house. My dad followed close behind with my suitcases. As soon as we stepped through the door, we were greeted by a wriggling 82-pound bundle of brown-furred energy: our family dog, a boxer named Murray. I hadn’t seen him in five months, not since I had been home for Christmas. He yelped and barked with joy, leaping up to kiss my face, then running around the living room—his own version of welcoming me home.

“It’s good to be back,” I said, petting Murray’s head. He slobbered all over my hand, but I didn’t mind.

“I’m going to make you a sandwich,” my mom said, heading into the kitchen. “I can tell you haven’t been eating enough.”

I didn’t argue—I hadn’t really been eating or sleeping much the past month and a half, not since my engagement had quite suddenly but irrevocably unraveled….

Read the rest of the piece here: http://sweatpantsandcoffee.com/personal-essays-slobbery-comforting-shadow/ 

on listening

When it happens, I can always feel it physically: an internal shifting, a sense of shutting down. At a cocktail party, when someone asks me about myself, then glances around the room as I begin to answer. When I’m having lunch with a friend who keeps checking Facebook at the table. During a phone conversation, when I finish a story and the pause on the other end of the line is a tad too long and the person’s voice sounds like they are returning from somewhere else far away.

In all of these moments, I know that I am speaking, but am not being heard. The other person is not listening to me at all. And I always feel myself shrink. I quickly summarize whatever story I was telling. I curtail my remarks. Any chance at opening up to this person and being vulnerable in this moment is gone.

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All of us can remember times when we have felt not listened to. And, to be fair, all of us have been that distracted person as well, experiencing the vertigo that comes when a conversation ends and you realize you have zero recollection of what was just said.

But also, I hope every one of us can remember a time when we felt wholly listened to. Because of this, we felt connected, cared for, understood. As Ed Cunningham said, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.”

And not only friends — sometimes acquaintances, or even strangers, are the listeners we need the most. When my dear friend Céline died, I was fortunate to have many friends and family members who lovingly and generously listened to me. I particularly remember crying on the phone with my parents and brother the morning we learned the news, and also the way Greg held my hand and listened during the weekend of Céline’s funeral and celebration of life. Allyn unfortunately never got to meet Céline, but his smile when he listens to my stories about her makes it seem as if he knew her. The same is true for my friend Dana, who met me for lunch on the anniversary of her death. And I don’t know what I would do without my long conversations with Holly as we continue to navigate through grief together.

And also, when I think of listening, I think of an acquaintance I have named Cynthia who is a hospital chaplain and volunteers through my church’s grief group. When Céline passed away, Cynthia invited me to coffee. I remember driving to the coffeeshop, feeling numb, thinking that I didn’t have much to say. Yet when I sat down with Cynthia, and she asked, “How are you doing?” with so much concern in her voice, all of these words and emotions came spilling out of me. I was trying to “be strong” in front of all the people I loved in my life, who knew me and worried about me, to show them that I was doing okay. With Cynthia, I didn’t have to prove anything. In the wake of my life’s biggest loss, that experience of being deeply listened to by a near-stranger meant so much.

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In one of my favorite songs — “Quiet” by Jason Mraz — the lyrics of the chorus go like this:

I will hold your hand

And watch the world spin madly round

This life we’re in

Everything goes quiet

When it’s you I’m with

These words make me think of sanctuary. Often, in everyday life — and especially when it feels like the world is spinning madly around us — what we yearn for is simply someone to hold our hand and sit quietly beside us. Listening creates sanctuary for each other.

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Karl Menniger says, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” Let us be brave enough to listen — to create, unfold, expand. To be there for each other. To offer grace and understanding. To listen, really listen, truly and deeply and gratefully. Because when show up in this way for each other, we are also showing up for ourselves. In strengthening these authentic relationships, we are strengthening the best part of ourselves. In learning to listen to others, we practice listening to those quiet, wise voices within us.

Questions of the day:

  • When was the last time you felt deeply listened to?
  • Who can you give a listening ear to this week?

donating my hair

Last Tuesday, I cut off 8+ inches of my hair.

I’ve been planning this for a while. I’ve wanted to donate my hair for a long time, but I would always chicken out, worried it would look bad. I’m a pretty low-risk, low-maintenance gal: my hair has pretty much always been medium-length. I usually let it air dry. I’ve never dyed it. My dad actually is the one who usually cuts my hair, just giving it a trim every six months or so when it begins to look split-end-y. So the idea of growing out my hair and then chopping most of it off — well {this sounds a little silly as I type it out now} but if I’m being honest, it felt SCARY to me.

Before this, the last haircut I got was in early January 2015. My dad gave me a little trim while I was home during the holidays, and then I headed off to Nashville to visit my girl Holly.

me and hol sunshine

Then I flew back to the Bay Area. And then, less than a week later, Celine passed away.

The first time I ever met Celine, she had super-short hair. We had both just moved into the dorms and she brought over popsicles to my room. I remember she was wearing a chic beret and had these dangly earrings, and I thought, This girl is waaaay too cool to want to be my friend! But, to my unending gratitude, she did want to be my friend. And I later learned that the reason her hair was so short was that she had donated it to Locks of Love.

Celebrating your 21st birthday... what a fun night that was!

When she died, I knew that I wanted to live my life more richly and deeply and bravely than ever before, in tribute to her. She was one of the most life-giving, affirming, energetic and brave people I have ever met. And one of the ways I immediately knew that I would be brave is that I would finally donate my hair to help those in need. I would finally live out my values and my heart-desires by not listening to those fearful inner voices worrying that “my hair might look bad short.” I would grow out my hair all year long, and on the anniversary of Celine’s death, I would chop off my “grief hair” in honor of my dear friend.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Hair after

I scheduled an appointment at a local salon that had great Yelp reviews, the Bobbie Freitas Salon. I made an appointment for mid-morning and then scheduled lunch with my dear friend Dana afterwards. {I knew she would tell me it looked GREAT no matter how the haircut turned out!} I was a little nervous leading up to the big day. I even had a couple anxiety dreams about it! But when the day came, I felt excited and ready. I wanted to do something special for Celine, and this felt perfect. I snapped a “Before” selfie and headed out!

Hair before

When I got to the salon, my hair stylist Anastasia immediately put me at ease. The atmosphere was quiet and homey; there was only one other customer there, and the layout of the salon made it feel spacious and private. I wasn’t planning to do so, but when Anastasia asked me why I was donating my hair, I ended up telling her all about Celine. She was quiet for a moment, and then she opened up to me that her best friend had also died in a car accident, seven years ago. “The first anniversary is the hardest,” she said. “It gets better, just hang in there.” I remember sinking back into the seat, letting myself relax into the understanding of this woman who suddenly did not feel like a stranger.

stars quote

The first thing Anastasia did, before even washing my hair, was to tie a rubber band around it and cut off the 8+ inches for my donation. {I ended up donating through Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths campaign.} Apparently you aren’t supposed to donate hair that is at all wet because it could get moldy during shipping. After she chopped it off and sealed it in a Ziplock bag, Anastasia took me over to the sink and washed and conditioned my newly shorn locks. Then she styled it, giving me face-framing layers before blowing it dry.

“Do you like it?” she asked, spinning my chair around so I could see my new haircut from all angles.

“I love it!” I said. It looked so much healthier, and I just felt freer and lighter — inside and out.

When I went up to pay, Anastasia smiled and said, “Oh, no. It’s on us.”

I was shocked. “At least let me tip you,” I said, trying to hand her some bills.

“No, no. It’s for your friend,” she said.

I wish I could express to you how I felt in that moment. Surprised, moved, completely overwhelmed — none of those words quite capture the flood of emotion that washed over me. It felt somehow like Celine was there with us. Like somehow she had brought me to this particular stylist at this particular salon at this particular moment.

“You’re going to make me cry,” I said, and then I was crying, barely able to choke out a “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

for celine

Here’s to you, dear Celine. I miss you and I love you, always and always and always. I can hear your voice in my head as I type this, telling me: “Oh my god, your hair! You look FABULOUS!”

grief and the holidays

This has been a unique holiday season for me. It has been joyous in many ways: filled with love and laughter, delicious food and warm conversations.  More than any other year, I have savored and treasured my time with my family and dear friends.

But also, this has been the hardest holiday season for me, because I have been missing my friend Celine a lot. She used to come home to Los Angeles from Paris for the holidays, and we would “meet halfway” in Malibu for dinner. I keep catching myself thinking that I need to call her, that we need to schedule our yearly tradition. I can’t quite wrap my head around her being gone, even now, eleven months since her death.

me and celine bart station

The holidays are a complicated time. Everywhere around us, commercials and holiday tunes are telling us to be joyful, to be cheerful, that this is the most wonderful time of the year. I love the warmth and connection of the holiday season, and the messages of gratitude and love that abound during this time. {And that we should all try to continue throughout the year!} But I think it is oversimplifying and counterproductive to attempt to squeeze the holiday season into a one-size-fits-all box marked CHEER. I believe it is important to honor your feelings, all of them, by feeling them authentically. If you try to shove sadness aside or quash it, the sadness will only come back stronger. If instead you let yourself feel your sadness, breathe into it, and let it go, then you are acknowledging life’s complexity and recognizing sadness as what it is: the other side of the coin of happiness. They are both products of a beautiful thing: LOVE. And love, even in grief, is something to celebrate.

Maybe, like me, you are grieving a loved one who is no longer with us. Or maybe you are grieving a broken relationship, or a lost job, or a foreclosed home, or something else. As I have learned in grief group, grief is an interconnected web: when we lose something or someone important to us, we often feel renewed grief for past losses we have experienced. It can be painful. It can be overwhelming. But it can also be meaningful in its own way.

Here are some tips that have helped me this holiday season:

Take some quiet time for yourself. The holidays are a notoriously busy time. You have a plethora of things pulling at you, wanting your attention: presents to buy, holiday parties to attend, gatherings with relatives, baking and cooking to do, traditions to uphold, etc etc. When you are grieving, your internal well has run dry. So give yourself pockets of time amidst the craziness to fill yourself up. Curl up and read a book that nurtures your soul. Cook a simple, nourishing meal for yourself. Get a massage. Take a nap. Forgive yourself and be gentle with yourself.  It doesn’t matter what you do to fill your well back up: just do something that makes you feel happy and at peace.

Connect with others who loved the person you are grieving. I always feel better after talking with my friend Holly. And this year, instead of sending my usual Christmas card to Celine, I sent one to her mom and brothers. I wrote about my favorite holiday memories of Celine, like how she taught us to string popcorn and cranberries to decorate our Christmas tree in college. If things are this difficult for me, I can’t even imagine what these weeks have been like for her family. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Writing them a note to let them know they are in my thoughts and prayers was a small gesture that brought me comfort, and I hope brought a little comfort to them, too.

all the ladies soph year

Write a letter to the person {or thing} you miss. In addition to sending a Christmas card to Celine’s family, I also wrote a card to my dear friend, just as I have done every year since we met in the college dorms. I told her what has been happening in my life, what I am excited about in the new year, and how much I miss her. Coach John Wooden used to write a letter to his late wife Nell every month after she passed, and stacked them on her pillow on their bed. I am keeping my letters to Celine in a special box on my bookshelf. Writing letters makes me feel connected to her. As my minister says in grief group: just because someone has died, does not mean our relationship with them has ended. Our relationship lives on, just in a different form.

Buy yourself a gift from the person you have lost. If they were still with you, what would they buy for you as a gift? Go buy that for yourself, wrap it up, and stick on a card from that person to you. Ever since Celine died, and especially in the past couple months, I have been feeling the urge to be more crafty. Celine was incredible at seeing the possibilities for treasure among what other people might throw away as trash. An amazing fashion designer, I also remember her making jewelry, belts, bags — she could take old pieces and make them new again. Inspired by Celine, this year I have bravely tried lots of new recipes {spaghetti squash! homemade granola! cilantro pesto!} and I have felt the urge to try crafting new pieces out of old scraps of things, like a braided rug I am sewing right now out of old T-shirt strips. I bought myself some Mod-Podge from Celine this Christmas because I want to try out some decoupage projects, and I know she would approve!

me and celine halloween

Share stories about the person {or thing} you have lost. There is so much joy in stories — they are how the past lives on in the present. However, the important thing to note about this is to be mindful about who you share your stories with. Our culture has interesting, often harmful, ways of reacting to grief — namely, expecting that people should be “over” their grief in a certain amount of time, when in reality grieving is a lifelong process. Some people might be uncomfortable with grief or not know how to react when you share a funny story about the person you miss — they might not understand how you can laugh about a person while still missing them. For me, I know that it is painful to talk about Celine with people who did not know her or know how important she was to me; I hate the feeling of her becoming a brief “cocktail party tidbit.” All it took was one experience of the other person blindly moving on to the artichoke dip while I stood there, breathless under a fresh wave of grief, for me to realize how important it is to guard my heart when it comes to Celine. Now, I only open myself up with people who make me feel safe and listened to.

Do something kind or fun or spontaneous in honor of the person you lost. Maybe this means an act of charity like volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating toys for kids in need. Or perhaps you could honor the person you are grieving by doing something zany they would do that feels out of your comfort zone: going rock-climbing or dyeing your hair or trying zumba for the first time. I am growing out my hair to donate to Locks of Love in honor of Celine, and every time I glance in the mirror and notice how long it is, I think of her and my heart fills.

me and celine

Honoring my true emotions has given this holiday season a new type of beauty for me: less shiny tinsel, and more authentic joy. Yes, I have learned that joy and grief are intertwined. My first real comprehension of loss has also meant that I understand gratitude much more deeply. Everything I hold dear is that much more precious.

fam at beach

Sending love and gratitude for all of you this holiday season, and beyond. I hope this post was helpful, and I would love to hear any of your tips in the comments section below. And I am always just an email away, if any of you are grieving and just need someone to listen. We are here for each other.

8 reasons you haven’t heard from me in a month and a half

Hello, friends! Gosh, I cannot believe it is already the end of July. I did not intend to take such a long blogging hiatus… it was one of those things that just kind of *happened* the way that life happens sometimes! Here’s what I’ve been up to this summer {and why you haven’t heard from me in a while…}

1. I went on a trip to Europe! It was absolutely beautiful, and restful, and adventurous, and sad, and healing, and exactly what I needed. This trip was born about a year ago, when I was invited along for a weeklong trip to the south of France with Allyn’s family. Allyn and I decided to extend our trip a little bit and spend some time in Paris to see my friend Celine. We booked our tickets back in December. I could not wait to see Celine again in her favorite city, and to introduce Allyn to her, and for us all to spend time together.

When Celine died, I wasn’t sure if I could still bear to go to Paris without her there. But I knew that she would want me to go — she would have been furious if I canceled that part of the trip! And so I went. And later I will write a whole post about all the things I learned there, but suffice to say it was very hard, and missing her was a whole-body ache, and I felt and saw her everywhere — and there was something very comforting in that underneath all the pain.

sunflowers

In addition to Paris and the south of France, we also spent a few days in Barcelona with Allyn’s brother Colin and Colin’s girlfriend Charlotte, which was lovely. One of the treasures of the trip was getting to spend so much time with Allyn’s siblings — they are such fun, thoughtful, easy-to-be-around people, and I am grateful to have them as friends.

allyns siblings

me and Allyn France

2. I got an eye infection. Immediately upon returning home from our trip. The doc thinks I must have picked something up on the train/metro/plane/airport/etc. So many germs while traveling! Anyway, this derailed me for a bit, with doctors appointments and antibiotics and hot eye compresses. Fun! But it is all better now, thankfully. And now I am much more appreciative of my un-itchy eyes!

3. I’m teaching summer camps for Communication Academy. In the summer, instead of weekly classes, we teach week-long camps for kids and teens. I teach public speaking, journalism, and academic writing. I love teaching the camps because the class becomes very close during the week, spending so much time together, and you see a lot of growth in the students. It’s very inspiring! However, my workdays are longer than during the school year — more of a traditional 9-5 as opposed to three hours in the afternoons — and it can be hard to fit in writing/emailing/blogging time.

4. My role at church is expanding. In addition to serving as a Worship Associate this summer, I am giving my own sermon and leading the service on August 16. I’ve also taken on a leadership position as co-facilitator of a Young Adult Community Circle. All of this is enriching, important work for my soul, and is challenging me to grow in new ways!

5. Janet came to visit for a few days. Allyn and his family took us out on a boat ride around the San Francisco Bay!

me and janet

6. Holly and I met up in Chicago to see our girl Taylor Swift in concert! It was an amazing show, even though we were sitting in the_very_last_row! Spending time with Holly fills my heart up so much. I wish we lived closer, but I am beyond grateful for every moment I get to spend with this lovely lady!

me and Holly

tswift concert 1989

7. Some terrific developments have been happening for me professionally these past couple weeks… I landed a new copywriting gig, won second place in a national writing contest, and have exciting news regarding my novel that I will share with you at a later date, once I am no longer afraid of jinxing things! 😉 I also wrote a few short essays about writing that you might be interested in:

8. Now I am back in my hometown, soaking up time with my fam and my brother before he leaves for his new job in NYC on Friday! I am also teaching my writing camp this weekend and next weekend. Yesterday I gave a book talk and signing at a local bookstore, Mrs. Figs’ Bookworm, and was so surprised and grateful at how many people came out to support me! I have such wonderful friends. So, so lucky!

friends at booksigning

book signing sign

And now you’re pretty much caught up! I hope the summer has been treating you wonderfully, too. I hope you are getting time to relax and recharge your batteries. Is there anything you need to take a brief hiatus from? If you feel like you are juggling lots of plates — is there one you can set down, even for a short while?

I missed blogging and I missed checking in with all of you, and after my time away I am feeling rejuvenated and eager to be back! Thank you for reading and being part of my little corner of the internet.

P.S. Murray sends you a big kiss! TGIF & happy weekend!

murray kiss

fabulous friday #51: recap edition!

Hi friends, and happy Friday! Sorry for the radio silence around here the past week or so… it’s been an especially busy time, filled with lots of emotion! I thought I would make today’s Fabulous Friday post a recap version of all the neat things I’ve been grateful to experience and celebrate recently.

Happy weekend! Hope you’re up to something fun!

Here are 5 things I’m loving right now:

1. Memorial Day weekend was Céline’s Celebration of Life, which was basically a big party honoring her memory and celebrating the amazing, one-of-a-kind, treasure of a person she was.

celine celebration of life

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or how I would be feeling, and while the evening was bittersweet and there were certainly tears shed, it was an overwhelmingly loving and beautiful experience. It was a gift to be with my friends from college, and to spend time talking to and connecting with other people who knew and loved Céline from all different facets of her life. The party was themed “Around the World” and I dressed up as Ireland — an excuse to wear my gold dress from college that I always associate with Céline and our college parties.

celine celebration group

me and holly

I think Céline would have really loved it. I miss her every day.

2. My 28th birthday yielded all sorts of sweet surprises. One of my students wrote me this lovely card, and another gave me a piece of her own artwork — a stunning painting of birch trees! She is nine. NINE. I am in awe.

rosalie card

birch trees painting

And my darling Dana surprised me with these gorgeous sunny tulips! They make me smile every time I walk past. Thank you, Dana! ❤

bday tulips

bday tulips 2

3. For my birthday, Allyn surprised me with a cooking class in San Francisco at Sur La Table! It was my first time ever taking a cooking class and it was so much fun. Normally the class would hold up to 16 people, but we lucked out that we were the only two people who showed up — it ended up being a “private” class just for us! I think we got to do a lot more “hands-on” cooking ourselves than we would have if it had been a full class. And when the instructor found out it was my birthday, she brought me a cupcake with a candle in it and everyone sang me “Happy Birthday.” So thoughtful!

cooking class

We learned to make grilled pizzas with homemade dough and toppings. That’s right, pizza cooked on a grill pan over your stovetop! It was much easier than I expected and turned out amazing. My favorite part was the thick, chewy crust. We made a classic margarita pizza; a Greek-influenced bell pepper and chorizo-topped pizza; and a pizza topped with seasoned lamb and mint pesto. They were all fabulous!

pizzas

Allyn had a fun time too and we are definitely hoping to take more cooking classes together in the future. Such a unique and cute date!

sur la table date

4. The evening of my birthday, my extended family gathered at my Aunt Annie’s house for dinner. It was wonderful to get to spend time with them all. As always, there was lots of laughter and storytelling around the table. And my grandma baked and decorated my birthday cake herself! Have you ever seen a more adorable cake?

birthday cake

ally and gparents

me with my aunts

me and seeeees

allyn with poodles

5. On May 30, Allyn graduated with his MBA! He has worked so hard the past two years on his degree and I could not be more proud of him. If graduating were not enough, he was also honored as the Outstanding Student of the Year, chosen by faculty and fellow students. Congrats, sweetheart!!

allyn graduating

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me and al graduation

Questions for the evening:

  • What are you loving right now?
  • What do you have on the agenda for this weekend?