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July 2007. I can't believe this is my life! I just married my best friend on the most beautiful beach of Lake Superior. I'm part of a new family where I finally have sisters; one even calls me "Sistah," and nobody gives hugs stronger than her two young girls. James and I are sad to leave them, but are excited about our new adventure living on the east coast. The day he proposed to me was the day he persuaded his boss to let him work remotely so that I could follow my dream job. My husband - so excited to use that word! - emails me poetic musings during the day, dances with me in the living room, and is the most compassionate person I've ever met. Even when he talks about the pain of his parents' divorce, his empathy - not bitterness - is revealed as he tries to see the world through their broken shoes. I find that my priorities are changing the longer I'm with him: Instead of focusing on earning a prestigious position, I strive to create a life of mindfulness and family. 

As I look down at my wedding ring and recall the many lonely days before I met my James, I'm so utterly happy.

September 2009. I've been pacing around my living room for hours, unable to rid my mind of bloody scenes from the accident. Can you even call it an accident? Bad drivers have choices - to speed, to talk on the phone, to drive without a license or insurance. James paid the ultimate consequence for one driver's negligence, and for 13 months ... I have been completely lost without him. Some said the second year would be easier, but the widows I met said it would be harder. The shock wears off, and reality sets in. My thoughts swing like a pendulum, alternating between violent anger, which can only be subdued by smashing plates, and overwhelming sadness that makes me gasp for air in my hysterical crying. I can't believe this is my life! I'm only 24 years old! 

I feel so broken. I have panic attacks when I drive anywhere, as I just envision James dying on the road. I quit my job, as I was barely able to function and I couldn't take one more day of "I know how you feel because I lost (insert relation that is NOT a spouse). You just have to stay strong!" Strong. What a terrible social construct. If suppressing your feelings and pretending your smile is genuine means that you are strong, then what is being honest, present, and willing to go through the process? If only they knew how much strength it takes to go through the mail everyday. If only they knew how hard it is to hear talk about crashes, motorcycles, husbands and not descend into PTSD. 

My best friend puts her house up for rent so she can come live with me. She's worried about me. 

December 2011. "Ms. Davis: You are the best teacher I've ever had. By sharing your story, you've helped me open up about mine. Thank you for talking with me, being interested in me, and sharing coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression. You give me hope." It's my last month of being a student-teacher (I realized that I needed to change careers to move forward in 2010), and my inbox is flooded with notes such as this from my high schoolers. Life feels purposeful again, as I've found a way to use my experiences and help others who are suffering. I don't have all the answers, but what I give them is honesty about how dark the hole was, why I didn't give in to suicide, and the little joys that I've been able to find again. Like teaching English literature and the writing process. Helping another widow who has kids. Learning how to tile a floor and unclog a drain in my own house. Creating stunning mosaics out of broken plates. Reconnecting with faith. Being open to a new friendship. Feeling gratitude for the people who have supported me. 

I'm still here, and somehow, I'm living again. I can't believe this is my life. 

June 2013. Sean and I spend many days walking through the woods, feeling the peacefulness within nature as we talk about our days at work AND our upcoming wedding. He is so easy to talk to. He gets me. I once thought only another widow(er) could understand, but through the losses in his life, he knows the roller coaster of anger, denial, depression, and acceptance too. No topic is off-limits between us; in fact, he helps me process my grief and PTSD when it's triggered, and I help him process his dreams and sorrows. I no longer see myself as broken, but rather as a woman who found her core and lives fully and realistically (accepting life's journey as it is, not pretending to be "fine" when it's not). I still have some work to do, and still need my coping mechanisms: making Ukrainian eggs, mosaics, and gratitude cards; rocking in a chair; walking outside and labeling beautiful things; talking to my best friend. BUT I get excited about things again - adventures, people, food, possibilities. I feel like I've found a new life that make me genuinely happy: being a mentor, teacher, friend, and soon-to-be-wife. 

Gosh, in some ways, 2008 feels like a long time ago. 

As I ready myself to say vows again for the second time, I feel the fear creep up that I'll be a widow again. So I close my eyes and use my imagery of water in a pan on the stove. It will always be there, but it doesn't have to boil; it can simmer. With a few deep breaths and the knowledge of what I want for my life, I continue to move forward.

May 2015. I'm turning 30 this month. I'm one of those weirdos who's wanted to be 30 since I was 10. The picture of 30, to me, always included kids, marriage, a good job because of a college education, no more homework, respect (because people can't say, "oh, you're so young" anymore), and a solid understanding of who I am and where I'm going. After James died and I figured that my happy dreams of the future were gone, the only good thing about aging was that it put me farther away from the terrible day he died. Now, through hard work and the grace of God, I am more ready to embrace my 30s than ever. I say "more ready" because what I went through gave me a deeper acceptance and gratitude for life than I could know without my grief. I am proud to say that the sorrow's anvil leveled me, and I found a way to rise back up. A healthy way. A way that continues to open my heart, uses art to mend brokenness, and helps me write about my lessons learned over the last (almost) seven years. 

This year has been the best yet. I was able to collect those lessons and publish a book in January, validating the trauma of "then" and vitalizing the newness of "now." I was also blessed with the ability to take time off from work and prepare for motherhood in February. I read dozens of psychology and neuroscience books on parenting best practices, kept my body healthy, and made a library in the nursery! Now my days consist of reading, singing, feeding, rocking, and walking with a little one whose smiles and coos make me tear up with joy. When she naps, I get to write and connect with a plethora of incredible people, supporting one another through the realities of this ugly and beautiful world. And at night, I lay next to a man whose soul I love. 

I wish I could write a letter to myself at 24, though I'm not sure my 24-year-old self would believe how good and hopeful it can get. I can't believe this is my life!