Friday, November 3, 2017

When Choosing Between Two Men... Choose Wisely.

I sat in my car watching Tanaka throw a flawless 4th inning on a tiny phone screen in front of the restaurant. I was 20 minutes early based on the fear that Monday rush hour Dallas traffic would overwhelm me and I would find myself lost and going the wrong way down a one way street. I didn't expect the only spot to be open on a busy street would be the one directly in front of the place I was supposed to be at for 7 o'clock. So I watched the game and felt the butterflies grow in strength.

Then my second phone rang. A multi-family fire in Dallas with possible need for mutual aid from my team. "Don't cancel, Kristen... .Don't cancel, Kristen." I kept saying that in my mind over and over as I tried to come up with a solution to keeping me in the restaurant and out of the field. And out of the corner of my eye I saw him walk towards the front door and politely hold it open for the people walking in before him. I got my coworker off the phone telling him that I definitely owed him one but to please give me until at least 10 o'clock (but if he really needed me to call and I would be there in a heartbeat). I turned the game to just a play by play. Grabbed my keys. Looked in the rear view mirror. Took a deep breath. And said, "Here we go." 

I didn't want to make it look like I got there so early but I was mildly excited he was early as well. He didn't see me and sent a text, "In a plaid shirt by the entrance in case you forgot what I look like." I smiled and thought, "I don't think anyone in this place missed you walk through that door." I  affectionately referred to him as "The Greek" because pronouncing his name was more difficult for this girl with a mild speech impediment than it should have been. But he was funny. He was incredibly well-read and educated (he asked to know more details about my thesis and it wasn't so he could fall asleep). He was successful and sarcastic. And as I quickly texted under the table "NO EMERGENCY 10-13 TEXT NEEDED!!! ALL GOOD!!" to my sister (saving me from becoming a skin suit) I smiled thinking, "I'm on a good date?!"

It was right after ordering that he turned to me and said, "So what are your thoughts on the storm coming towards Texas?" I laughed and said, "I have been told by many people who have lived here their entire life that this may be nothing. That it could fizzle out in the Gulf and we are making a big deal out of nothing. We'll obviously know more Thursday but my fingers are crossed that everyone is right. I know tornadoes and floods. But I don't know hurricanes." I remember him saying, "If this is a big one you're going to have your hands full." And I looked at him across the table, the drinks being put down in front of us at that moment and said, "I'm feeling pretty lucky right about now."

Wrong. Few people have actually ever been that wrong. 

When the date was over and that awkward saying "goodbye" moment came around he asked for a second date. The Greek looked like he walked off of a movie set and was so incredibly out of my league that I kept looking over my shoulder to see if cameras would come around the corner to reveal some sick reality show stunt. This was my first date in years. And it was actually successful. Of course I would agree to a second date. So we made plans to figure out when we would meet up later that weekend and said goodbye. I had a really good feeling about everything at that moment. Things may have been falling into place. I may have finally found myself on a path to good things where my life was making sense and the decisions I had made in the past were playing out as I had hoped they would. Everything was going to be okay for once.

Wrong. How could I be more wrong than I was just a few hours after breaking a record in wrongness? 

The storm kept growing and meteorologists were dumbfounded at the size and strength of this new beast heading straight for the Texas Coast. It had a name now too: Harvey. Historic damage and destruction was predicted and the rain totals appeared to be typographical errors. On Wednesday my second phone rang and I immediately answered it awaiting the news on the other end with bated breath, "Kristen, you're officially assigned and deployed. Let's go." I texted The Greek and said, "Well it looks like this storm isn't a joke. Someone has been officially called up to respond." He told me he thought it was just a matter of time before I would get that call and we talked about what I would be doing... and how long I would be doing it. And the answer to that last question was, "I really don't know but our plans for this weekend are probably going to be hurricane-checked." I laughed at my own wittiness and looking back with hindsight I find amusement in that comment still. But for different reasons now.

I walked out of my apartment door that morning and it would be a long time until I walked back into it. I lived inside an Emergency Operations Center working for 36 hours at a time and then sleeping for 3 hours. The news coming from the South on the huge televisions throughout the room was growing worse with every commercial break. In terms of safety: I was in no danger. In terms of what was to come: no one had any idea. People were trapped. Shelters were flooding and there weren't enough places to put those who needed help. So the planes starting taking off and heading to us. Plane after plane landed and brought evacuees into Dallas and Fort Worth. Those that headed to Dallas I would never see. Those that got on the bus to Fort Worth would become a part of my life for the foreseeable future... and then some.

My phone didn't go off hourly... it went off by the minute. And in the mix or calls and messages from volunteers, first responders, emergency managers, my supervisors and teammates there was a text or two daily from The Greek asking me how things were going, how I was holding up and checking to make sure I was getting sleep and at least eating a meal or two.

But I didn't answer those texts. They moved down in succession behind ones asking "how many blankets are you requesting?" and "how many people do you have right this minute?" or "what's the ETA?" or "I need you to do this 5 minutes ago." And the more texts and calls that came into my phone the further down the totem poll The Greek found himself. I had been entrusted with a position of leadership that I had never had before in my career. If I could answer all the questions related to Harvey and the action items needing my immediate attention for him I could reach out to The Greek afterwards. I could text him after that operational briefing meeting.... after I finished that request in the database... after I called the logistics coordinator back... after that volunteer spoke to me about an incident during their shift... after I tried to get a 30 minute nap on the floor of the back room.

But there was never an "after." There was always a "next." And my focus wasn't on my future with The Greek. My focus was on my present with Harvey. And he consumed every minute of the day. In reality, for the duration of my deployment with Harvey we spent 43,200 minutes together. Or 2,592,000 seconds together. We were inseparable for 720 hours... 30 days... 4 weeks and 2 days... or 8.22% of all of 2017. There was only room for one man in my life and Harvey owned that role more than I ever thought he could.

And he was one of the most unhealthy relationships I have ever been in. I gave him absolutely everything I had to give and then dug even deeper to find the reserve I knew I had somewhere so he could have that too. We had our moments where I felt appreciated and accepted. We had our moments where I felt like I knew what I was doing and what I was doing was good. We had our moments where I blindly followed him where he told me to go without questioning why or if it was a good idea. They always say when you're in a relationship that the two parties should compliment each other. It should be a 50/50 split. And no outside force should influence your bond. Harvey and I did not compliment each other. The split was 90/10 and that was on a good day. And every single outside force that could influence our relationship found it's way in... and stayed there.

I had been presented with a challenge: The Greek and The Storm. My past was riddled with broken relationships and dead ends that I didn't see coming. My batting average for relationships wasn't even minor league. I was sitting in the stands with the rest of the spectators just hoping for a fly ball. So when given the chance to be with another man who I thought I could at least take control of the future with and have some say in the course of events... I chose that one. The Greek was a first date that seemed improbable and too good to be true. Harvey was a formidable force that I was entrusted with somehow calming and a challenge I wanted to accept.

The first rule of dating is you never going into a relationship thinking you can change that person. I forgot that rule. And in the process of trying to change him I wound up changing myself. And it wasn't in the hair that thinned, the face that broke out or the blood that ran thick with caffeine. It was in my outlook of my priorities. It was in my heart. It was that feeling in my chest knowing I had done something good but my soul is tired.

After a few sparse, "Things are crazy and I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to you!" texts here and there I reached out to The Greek to tell him we were closing the shelters down and I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And this time... he didn't respond. It took a while for my phone to go off with his name on the screen and the message was impersonal and generic. He was a nice enough person to text me back but I knew exactly what I had done. I had pushed him to the side to be with someone else. And when I was through with that someone else and I tried to circle back... he had moved on.

And rightfully so. I didn't hold his decision against him and I never will. The Greek and I were not meant to be (and part of me knew that on the first date) but I needed to learn that lesson and a few more as well. I needed to throw everything away and be broken down to see what exactly it was I was doing wrong and how I could be better. Not just a better date. But a better manager... sister... aunt... friend... and person all together.

I couldn't expect someone to wait for me while I tried to excel in my career but in the process was tried and tested on levels I never thought possible. It will take some time before I can put into words exactly what those 30 days with Harvey were like but until those words are written I can simply say that it was not for someone that was faint of heart. It was not for someone who didn't know how to stand up after being knocked down. And it was not for someone who can't find beauty even in the most horrific hour. I find irony in that the night that I met The Greek for dinner I was so nervous that the Dallas traffic would overwhelm me and I would find myself driving the wrong way down a one way street. Yet that's exactly what I did just a few days later- just not with a car... but with my life. And I was bound and determined not to make that mistake again.

So when the opportunity presented itself to go on a date with someone new for dinner one night I didn't pass up the chance for a new start. The same early arrival. The same baseball game on the screen. But a different pitcher. And different butterflies. And a very different, "Here we go." Because this time I knew what was on the line. This time I wasn't balancing the "what if" with the "what is." I was focusing only on the "here and now."

He sat across the table from me and we shared nachos and laughed about the insanely horrible first date happening over our shoulder (as if this wasn't our own first date we were on). We talked about what I did for a living and I listened intently about what he did for a living and about his family and his friends. And as he talked my second phone went off. I had put it on vibrate but on top of that wooden high top table the sound echoed. He looked and waited for me to answer it. I looked at the screen... hit the ignore button... and turned the phone face down. I wasn't choosing this time. I had made my choice by saying yes to dinner. And I still had more to hear about his two dogs and he hadn't even heard the beginning of my life as an aunt. And whatever that call was about... could wait.

After the plates had been cleared and we sat on the patio laughing a group sat down at the table next to us. We didn't pay any attention to them until one woman drunkenly and loudly declared, "You know what I really hate right now. The Red Cross..." And with that he looked at me and I looked at him and he read my mind. We stood up and left the restaurant together. 

I could have argued with her and debated whatever accusations she was making about Harvey. I could have put up a fight and defended what I knew to be true. Instead I put my business card on the table, smiled and walked away. I didn't have to choose. That night was about getting to know a really funny and good looking guy... and my past with another man... no matter who he was... wasn't invited to join. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

One Year: A Bridge and a Box

As the weekend of my "Birthday with a Purpose" draws to a close I am overwhelmed with the wide spectrum of emotions I experienced in just a couple of days. There were times I was laughing with Dallas Police Officers as they heckled one of their own and there was a moment at 10:02 am when I was physically holding up a female officer on the side of the road as she sobbed on my shoulder. There were jokes about my height and hesitation about my presence. But as I went Station to Station I was met with men and women who did their best to heal me while my sole purpose was to heal them. But that shouldn't surprise me because that's exactly what one officer did when I was at the Memorial last year.

In 105 degree temperatures she stood out there in front of the Dallas Police Headquarters in full uniform. And in my Red Cross vest I asked if she wanted a bottle of water. It was a simple gesture but one that never left my mind because of her smile. She was so sweet and so appreciative in a moment when I was supposed to be expressing my appreciation to her. And because of her smile she is the only officer I had my picture taken with at the Memorial. I held on to that picture and found comfort in it somehow. Two females serving their community. Both wearing vests. One incredibly brave and the other incredibly grateful. And this July 7th we were reunited. This time I didn't have water for the officer but a thank-you card. And I was able to explain to her who I was, what she meant to me and how I found strength in her smile. I took a piece of the pain from last year and I put a new smile on it.

To end the Birthday with a Purpose I decided it would be special to participate in a "Run for the Blue" 5K race. "Special" was one way to put it. It was 90 degrees at 6:45 in the morning. Not the slightest of a breeze was blowing. Clouds were nowhere to be found. And almost 3,000 people had shown up to run. I wore my special shirt. I presented the check for the Signal 15 Fund to an officer with the organization. I stood at attention for the National Anthem. I bowed my head for the prayer. And when the race began... I cried.

I cried. I cried as I ran past officers standing in front of their squad cars with lights flashing and clapping their hands to cheer us on. Tears streamed down my face as I let it all out: the fear, the heartbreak, the anxiety, the helplessness, the confusion and the anger. I cried as I thought back to July 7th and watched the images of that nightmare Downtown play over and over in my head. I cried at the anger I felt at the protesters and their heartless words for police officers trying to protect them. And I cried at the memory of the man I was going to marry telling me that he "just couldn't do it anymore" so that somehow in the midst of the chaos that night I became single. I ran harder. And I cried more.

Then we came to a bridge.

The race went up and over the bridge and then the course reversed and went back up and over the bridge on the other side. At every turn there were officers with their hand out to slap yours. Some were standing in full uniform in the unbelievable heat. They cheered us on as we ran a race dedicated to supporting them. It was cyclical appreciation at it's finest. At the bottom of the bridge there was an officer that I had seen at the Memorial last year. I remember him bending down to talk to a couple of kids who were upset because they thought there were more "bad guys" out there. And this officer was crouched down and assuring the kids that the policemen were there to keep them safe and he promised that all the bad guys would be kept away from them. I will never forget that conversation or the way in which he comforted those kids who hung onto their Dad.

And there at the bottom of the bridge, on a bicycle, was the officer I saw that evening cheering me on as I ascended what must be one of the only inclines in the city of Dallas. I alternated between jogging and walking and nearly falling over from heat as I made my way across the bridge. And I thought, as I crossed it and turned back around at the bottom to climb it again, of the symbolism on that bridge. I was crossing over the past and leaving the intense pain, the confusion, the disbelief and the heartbreak on the other side. The events of July 7th, 2016: where the lives of five brave men were tragically ended in Dallas and in a house outside of the city my future became a past. I crossed the bridge into the present day. I crossed the bridge from when the officer was comforting a scared child to when he was encouraging me to finish the race.

And I did finish. But waiting for me to run that last stretch to the finish line was my brother and together we crossed it. Just like always, the people that I love stepped up and stepped in to help me accomplish something I was positive I could do on my own. But it was better done with them by my side. 

That sentiment is what made today's gift so special. Just as I was adamant last year that my family come together to celebrate my birthday, I was beyond vocal that I wasn't celebrating mine this year. It was no secret. (If banners could have been flown overhead I would have done that too.) But there was a big secret being kept to which I was at the core of... without even knowing. My sister decided that she couldn't let July 7th go unacknowledged. And so she reached out to countless friends through social media and asked them to help create a "Box of Love" for me. In a message that she wrote to each of them she told them that she would like to collect letters, cards, stories, memories, pictures, etc. that will make me smile on a bad day. She collected all of these items from across the world and presented me with that box today. 

I could not have been more surprised nor humbled at the site of a beautiful box filled with letters and cards from childhood playmates, high school friends, family, Nashville loves, new Texas friends and even my unborn nephew. The box is huge and my heart is full. 

If I learned anything this past year it's that even though I try to be independent and headstrong I can do nothing without the support of loved ones. And those loved ones don't have to be right next door to me. They can be back home in Nashville... in California... on base in Japan... doing missionary work in Brazil... in a small town in Vermont... in the big city of New York... and down the road here in Texas. For the girl who didn't have a single person show up to her 12th birthday party it's hard to wrap my head around the dozens of letters and envelopes in that box. How did I meet all of these people and what did I do to deserve so much love and affection? 

A year ago my heart was broken by a man who told me that he had a broken wing. And despite all my attempts to fix his wing and love him through it... I failed. Recently someone said to me, "You've earned those wings you wear." And I thought to myself, "I don't want wings because they break and from what I've seen- they're irreparable."  But now I know that perhaps they don't always break. Maybe they just bend a little. And sometimes those wings get a little heavy too. That's when we need to turn to our loved ones and ask for help. That is: If you know how to. And I didn't know how to this past year. I didn't ask for help but every time I thought I was going to fall someone was there to pick me up. 

You gave me a spare bedroom to sleep in so I didn't feel alone.... But I never asked. 
You met me at a Memorial and then you found me 3 months later... But I never asked. 
You sent me care packages to help with tumor medicine side affects... But I never asked. 
You texted me funny pictures and quotes that made me smile... But I never asked. 
You loved me through it all... And I never even asked. 

Thank you for all the love, support, kindness, sweetness and strength you have given me this past year. I won't lie and say that it's been an easy one and I won't lie and try to say everything will be good going forward. But in crossing that bridge yesterday I found the freedom to move forward with a renewed faith and strength... and in receiving that box today I found the source of the love to get me there. 

A year ago I wrote how I felt I had fallen through a rabbit hole like Alice... and I couldn't have been more correct. So with that I say, "A very unmerry unbirthday to me" and here's to a birthday that will forever be celebrated with a Purpose. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Blue Bloods and Birthdays...

In the chaos of life these days I don't think I realized just how close it was until I looked at my screen and saw "June 7, 2017." One month.

One month until the day I used to count down to with an excited smile growing up. 
One month until the day written on every legal document I own. 
One month until the day I wish I could remove from the calendar. 
One month until my birthday. 
One month until July 7th. 

We all sat around a big table at a restaurant eating chicken and chugging cold tea. Everyone that was important to me was seated in a circle. Parents. Siblings. A nephew. A friend. And a love. It was a sweltering Thursday night and for once no one was working. We were all gathered to celebrate the big day... my birthday. I don't know why I was more adamant that most years to get everyone together for one night with no excuses. When dinner was over we took a group photo. Eight adults smiling and one baby in a bow tie. A peaceful moment encapsulated in time. We walked to our cars. And we began the drive home. The sunset over the water tower was countless shades of pink and you could feel the heat on the passenger window. Just another Texas summer night. Then my phone went off.... His phone went off... and both continued to go off. I looked down, saw the message and told him to park the car and get into the house immediately. We needed the news because whatever texts we were receiving were obviously wrong. 

A shooting. 
A sniper. 
Dallas Police officers down. 
Active situation. 

The only access to television we had was a social media live stream of a local news station on a 70 inch television. There was no delay in the feed. The screen was so large it was like watching a movie in a theater. But the images on the screen were not a scene from a movie. It was real. It was the culmination of worst nightmares and biggest fears coming together and unfolding right in front of us. The phones would not stop sounding with alerts. I looked at my brother who had his hands on his head. I looked at my sister on the floor with a confused expression on her face. I clutched the hand of the man I loved and tears streamed down my face. And I looked back at the huge screen. And as I looked up I saw an officer fall to the ground. You didn't need narration to know what had happened. I gasped out loud. I heard my brother swear under his breath. And I felt the hand holding mine let go. I looked at his face after he let go and the color was gone. There was just a blank stare in his eyes. I was sitting on the floor in a room filled with police officers as they watched their brothers and sisters in blue gunned down in the streets of Dallas. 

Numbers scrolled across the screen. 3 officers shot. No. 7 officers shot. No. 12 officers possibly shot. I reached for his hand. I tried desperately to hold his hand. But he wouldn't take it. And I had no idea at that moment, as chaos and fear and disgust and helplessness took over, that he would never hold my hand again. 

Time stopped as the magnitude of what was unraveling in Dallas become more and more clear. And the reality that these men- the men that I love and desperately wanted to somehow protect- needed to put their uniforms on and head out into this world that I no longer understood. Nothing made sense. There were more questions than answers. There was more confusion than any clarity. The only thing I knew for certain was that the most important men in my life were police officers and they were walking out the door into a war zone. 

The hours blurred together and the messages on my phone continued to pour in. But one message caught me by surprise. It was from a friend, who like every year, was a day late in wishing me a "Happy Birthday." In the midst of "Are they ok?" and "Any updates?" messages was a lone message that just read, "Happy Birthday" on my phone screen. And at that moment it struck me that this massacre had happened on my birthday. And I made the decision that I would never celebrate that day again. 

Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days. I was curled up in bed because the sadness and the fear and the confusion were somehow easier to physically handle if I was curled in a ball. I knew facts now though. I knew that 5 officers were dead and more than a half dozen injured. I knew that my loved ones were now working their shift with targets on their back wearing a vest that wasn't strong enough to protect them. And I knew I would never walk down the aisle with the man I loved because when he let go of my hand... I lost him. 

I didn't want to get out of bed. I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. But I had received a message asking for help from the Red Cross. They needed me to volunteer outside the Dallas Police Department. A memorial had been set up and given the extreme heat we needed to hand out water. I pulled together whatever energy I had reserved inside of me and put my vest on. It wasn't the bullet proof kind but for some reason I felt safer with it on. I had never said "no" to the Red Cross before and I couldn't do it this time. So I got in my car and I drove.

I drove through streets barricaded with police tape and Texas Rangers standing guard. There were tarps on the ground and stone columns covered in bullet holes now colored orange. There were news vehicles as far as the eye could see and there were officers every where. I don't remember parking. I don't remember walking up to the building. But I remember seeing the flowers, balloons, police cruisers and teddy bears when I got there. And I remember getting down on my knees in front of this sea of blue and crying.

I looked around me and was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support for law enforcement officers. There were tears but there were also hugs and thank-you's. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a teenage girl. And from the look on her face it was obvious that she wasn't visiting the Dallas Police Department to pay her respects. She was a cop's daughter. I saw it in her eyes because the expression on her face was all too familiar for this kid cop herself. 

I knew if I did nothing else while at this memorial in that red vest that I needed to talk to that girl. So I reached deep within me to find whatever smile I could possibly have hidden inside and I walked up to this girl and introduced myself. Her name was Peyton. She was 16. And that man in uniform with the shield to my right... was her Dad.  I talked at length to this sweet girl about the benefits of being a "cop kid" and the downfalls. I told her about the immense pressure put on us and how quickly we have to grow up because there are only a handful of other kids that say goodbye to a parent as they go off to work and know the chance of welcoming them home is not a given. I got her to laugh when I told about the joys of dating when your Dad is a cop and how that immediately means you have about 20 other Dads interrogating your date. And I tried to help make sense, what little I could, of the nightmare she had just lived through. I realized the words I spoke to her were the words I desperately needed to hear myself. I noticed the entire time we talked though she would look over my shoulder at her Dad behind me as if to check that he was ok. And every time she looked over at him, I looked down at my phone... doing the same exact thing. 

Peyton's mom asked to take a photo of us because she thought it was a sweet encounter between two cop kids. I didn't feel like smiling but I gave it my best effort and posed for a photo with a teenage girl I knew I wouldn't see again. As I walked away from her I hoped I had made just a small difference in her ability to understand what had happened and prepared her for what's to come. This was the new normal now and things would never be the same when our loved ones put on that uniform and walked out that door. 

I spent the next week working the memorial and the funerals. I don't remember all the details but I remember finding strength in volunteering. In knowing that I could do something, no matter how small, to help offset the heartache and helplessness I felt. I couldn't protect my dad or brothers or the man I loved from harm while they were out doing their job. But I could do my part to help others. And as the summer dragged on and I adjusted to the new normal that the July 7th Dallas Police Shooting had created in my life, I found myself at crossroads. 

I had been presented with the opportunity to leave a museum position and work full time for the Red Cross... and I took it. I had drawn so much strength from wearing that red vest in the wake of tragedy and I wanted the opportunity to serve my community. My family are all first responders- generations of them. So I decided being a disaster responder would be my way of wearing the family crest. While they wore their vests... I would wear mine. And I would do exactly what I had done after the July 7th shooting: help people I knew I would never see again. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email my third week of work from a woman who wanted to thank me. She had met me two months prior outside the Dallas Police Department when I approached her daughter Peyton. She wanted me to know that I had touched her daughter's heart and made a difference. She wanted to reintroduce herself as not only Peyton's mom but also a new employee of the Red Cross herself, Marni. And she wanted me to know that there was more to the story of Peyton that I didn't know: that July 7th was her 16th birthday and she was adamant about never celebrating it again. And she attached a photo to her email. 

Marni had no way of knowing that July 7th was my birthday. But she learned in my reply. She also learned of all the ways that Peyton and I were alike in more than just height, hair and Cop Dads. I told her that I too would never celebrate July 7th as a birthday again because it would never feel like the right thing to do. Second only to September 11th, our birthday was now the day of the deadliest attack on law enforcement in American history and it was our home that it took place in... and our loved ones that wore the uniform. 

But then we remembered that special thing about Cop Kids and Blue Bloods... they don't give up. No matter what. If the men and women we love are brave enough to do what they do every day by putting their life on the line to serve and protect then we must be brave enough to not only let them but support them. And there is power and strength in that realization. So Peyton and I will join together one month from today on July 7th. We will come together to have "A Birthday with a Purpose" and we will give the day back to our heroes in blue. A birthday "celebration": a celebration of heroism, remembrance, perseverance, appreciation and the promise to Never Forget. 

We may be but two brunette girls but our blood runs blue. And for that we are honored and proud. On July 7th we'll give our birthday back to law enforcement... and you're cordially invited to attend. All of you. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Missing Chapter in Little House...

There's something about Laura Ingalls Wilder that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it was her tenacity and rebelliousness. I mean she was the one who refused to say "obey" in her wedding vows. Perhaps it was her resiliency through every disaster and hardship a person could experience. Perhaps it was her determination and drive to succeed despite the odds always being stacked against her. Perhaps it was her wandering spirit and desire to see and do more. Or perhaps, since I related to none of the aforementioned characteristics when I read her book as a 6 year old, it was the her tiny house and her family that I felt most connected to. A middle child with brown hair, bucked teeth, a tomboy attitude and a little house I called home.

With a Dad that worked nights and a mom that worked days this house wasn't always filled to the brim with the five of us. And nothing was ever perfect. While Laura's Pa struggled with the stresses of bad crop seasons and making ends meet on the salary of a farmer, my Dad struggled with the stresses of a bad shift and making ends meet on the salary of a city beat cop. Yet like Laura I looked up to my Dad as a hero. Someone invincible, indestructible and steadfast. While Laura's Ma struggled to educate her children and keep them fed, my Mom struggled to work a full time job with minimal childcare and an incredibly tight budget. And I looked up to her as someone who could make it all work.

My parents married very young. By the time they were my age they had three children under the age of ten, two of the most stressful jobs in this country, a mortgage, and an ever growing stack of bills. Overtime and holiday pay meant we could stay afloat and like the Ingalls', we were ok for another month. And it continued to be this way, within this tiny house, for years. While my Dad never pulled out a fiddle and sat around the campfire, he did introduce me to the twin fiddles in George Strait songs and we all huddled around that kerosene heater during the Blizzard of '94. 

The more books in the Little House series I read the more I drew parallels to my life and Laura's. When my family moved to the country I could only reason with myself that I had actually entered the books as Laura herself (now with orthodontic assistance) as snow engulfed our house, we grew most of our own food in the summer time, there was a general store, and there was nothing to see for miles but wide open spaces and mountaintops. Our house was bigger yet my parents worked tirelessly to provide for their children. My sister and I never shared a cup and our presents were never shiny pennies or candy sticks we had to save. But like Mary and Laura the competition between my older sister and myself was strong. And in the same likeness so was the discipline handed down to make sure all three of us knew better. 

As I grew older the idea of laying roots grew more obscure and the dream of having wings took shape. I had the drive in me to venture away from the little town and make something of myself on my own. Like Laura, my heart was set on independence and roaming with a purpose. And I looked to my parents as two strong oak trees that would withstand the strongest winds in the Big Woods and survive the raging waters that sometimes came to the banks of Plum Creek... just like Ma and Pa . 

But the book ended. 

It ended without a preface in italics preparing you for what was to come. There were no Garth Williams illustrations to make the impact of the finality more comforting. The Ingalls Family was no longer comparable to mine. And the parallels I had spent over 25 years drawing between my family and Laura's came to an abrupt and permanent end. While the children were grown and on their own, the home Laura would come back to and the faces around the dinner table she knew would be there when she walked through the door, were gone.

The finality of Ma and Pa... the finality of my parents... was nowhere to be found in a Little House on the Prairie book. I knew how to prepare for floods, famine, failed jobs, bullies, blizzards, and blindness. But despite every disaster Laura held my hand through she never guided me through divorce. And after more than 30 years as the daughter of a Mr. and Mrs. I find myself the daughter of two people who share the same last name but no longer the same address. 

Can I be angry that my family dynamic has changed into something I never predicted it would be? No. I try to rationalize that being angry serves no purpose but to create friction and tension. Can I be confused and apprehensive as to what the next steps are in this new uncharted territory? It's absolutely inevitable. Not only did Laura Ingalls Wilder not prepare me for this detour in my life but there are actually no books out there for grown children who have recently divorced parents. There are plenty of books for children on this topic essentially letting the child know "it's not your fault" but it's as if adult children should know what to do and how to do it without question. Unfortunately that's not the case. We may not have to worry about custody agreements but we're faced with the looming question, "What now?" 

What about Christmas? Mr. Edwards can't come and fix this one with presents he has packed in brown paper and sweet potatoes he hid in his pockets. No. Christmas means figuring out a balance between each parent while trying not to lose yourself in the mathematical equation of times, places and side dishes. Holidays mean a separate but equal existence in a situation I never thought could be shared. Reservations arise about the first date small talk I'll have to make and saying the words, "they're divorced." Hesitations arise about first dates in general because not only will there be mine in the future... my parents will have their own. 

You're continuously told "you want them to be happy, don't you?" and "it's always for the best" and my personal favorite, "nothing is really changing since you're an adult." Everything is changing. Maybe despite all my growing, life experiences and spreading of wings I still find myself a little girl in that little house sitting around that kerosene heater. I still find myself the untamable teenager staring down the road to what's ahead yet looking back over my shoulder at the two solid oak trees standing side by side knowing what's behind me. 

Without question I want my parents to be happy. And at times I feel selfish and immature for taking a while to process what happened and how it happened. But at the same time, unlike a little kid, I had a longer time period to see my parents together and establish what "normal" was for our family. Divorce is not easy on any party involved. Everyone is hurt. Everyone is confused and knocked off balance for a while. It may not all come at once to each family member. One may feel it first. Stand back up. And walk straight. While another starts to waver, loses their step and begins to process. There is no playbook for this situation. There is no manual. There is no 19th cross-stitch embroidered quote sitting on the Ingalls' hearth that will answer all the questions divorce creates. 

But there is time. There is patience. There is honesty. There is the realization that decisions made by one person or two people have a ripple effect. Everyone is essentially brought into the situation. I guess that's the problem with a family. You think your actions are solely yours but they actually shuffle the entire deck thereby changing the cards everyone is holding. It's ok to feel like you need time to wrap your head around the new normal. Just as it's ok to make decisions that you believe are made for the greater good. It's ok not to be ok. 

It was always obvious that Pa Ingalls, despite his continuous set backs and trials, knew that everything was going to work out in the end. The crops would grow. The wagon would be fixed. The horse would be found. Ma Ingalls would provide that moral support and do what was best for the family at the end of the day. And perhaps I find some comfort in that as I try to find the Ingalls in my parents once again. Divorce is not failure when it's done because it's what is best for the family and with the mindset that everything will work out in the end. 

So perhaps that's the crossroads we stand at right now. Through time, patience, honesty and an understanding that the new normal will somehow find it's way into each of our own little houses. My Dad's little house. My mom's little house. My siblings little houses. And my little apartment. We're no longer all under one roof, stepping on each other's toes and reaching for that last piece of cake at the dinner table. We're a group of little houses that have their own kitchen tables. Their own tin cups. Their own kerosene heaters. Their own fiddles and nighttime stories. And hopefully we'll all be able to take a piece of each little house we call home and bring it together to eventually make that one little house again. A house that's no longer broken and divided but pieced together to create a little house, in it's entirety, that's just... our family. 

I may no longer be the daughter of a husband and a wife. I may no longer be Laura Ingalls Wilder inside her parent's home eating Ma's cooking and listening to Pa's stories around the kitchen table. And that's ok. Because the one thing that can't be taken from me is the pioneer spirit in my heart. And one day, like my own covered wagon across the prairie, I'll take an Airstream and pick up where Laura left off. And still come back to a little house... 

Friday, May 12, 2017

When a Photo Remembers a "Boy Like That"...

It started with a photo. You see I'm not someone who will just add someone as a friend on social media because we had biology together in 1998. I at least want to make sure there is a reason we're cyber-friends and that I actually remember more than what you wrote in my yearbook about my summer plans. Unlike most people who have been on Facebook since 2004 my list of friends is pretty selective. So when I received a notification that I was tagged in a photo yesterday I was intrigued because I hadn't seen that person in almost 15 years. I was tagged by a mutual friend and when I opened the image up I was taken right back to that day: November. 2001. Dress rehearsal. Fuller Hall. West Side Story. My screen was filled with names I hadn't thought about (or even remembered) in a decade and a half. There were names of people who I could never forget. And then there were those names that I said, "who?" when I saw them. It amused me that I had spent dozens of hours- even days- of my life with these people and there were countless faces that I could not remotely remember. But it amazed me to go back to November 2001 and just sit there for a moment (wearing something American Eagle and smelling of Cucumber Melon of course) and think.

In November 2001... 
- I was hoping the big envelope would come from Belmont University so I could move to Nashville
- I had just begun to date my very first boyfriend and was beyond twitterpaited about this reality
- I had pictures of George W. Bush on my wall and in my locker
- My brother and I got along about as well as a cat and a dog
- I wanted to be a district attorney
- My best friend had brown hair, an infectious laugh and lived 2 minutes away
- I drove a 1991 Ford Taurus with a cassette player payed for by a summer job washing dishes
- I had no idea how to process or make sense of what happened two months prior

In November 2001... 
- I had never lived on my own in a city called Nashville sometimes choosing electricity over food
- I had never had my heart broken by any boy or heard the harsh words, "It's over."
- I had no idea the pictures on my wall would be framed photos of me and George W. Bush
- I didn't look up to my brother as a source of guidance or an invaluable friend
- I didn't know I would never go to Law School or even apply to one
- I didn't know my best friend would still have brown hair, that laugh but live 2 time zones away
- I never imagined a monthly car payment on a SUV or how much gas it uses
- I had no idea that I would truly never process nor make sense of what happened 2 months prior

I spent all day and into the night thinking about the impact that this photo had on my mind and heart. Obviously in my own photo albums I will stumble across images I remember because I have seen them so many times before going through boxes and flipping through scrapbooks. But I had never seen this photo. I hadn't seen those "tagged" names in what seemed like a lifetime. I found myself remembering events that I had long since filed away in my memory Rolodex but I fondly remembered the comfort of American Eagle clothing and the sweet smell of Cucumber Melon.

Maybe it's the historian in me that takes my hand and walks me down these winding roads of my past bringing alive the memories of every single detail. Every question left unanswered. Every wish that was never granted. Every dream that never came true... As well as the ones that did.

But one memory stuck out above all the rest. 

He had orange-red hair. He laughed from what seemed like his very core. He had green eyes and a huge smile. He loved to write poetry and read old novels. He was thin, he was funny, he was sweet (and if John Hughes was casting him in a movie-Farmer Ted would have definitely made the cut over Jake Ryan). But in November 2001 with Train's "Drops of Jupiter" playing in my 1991 Ford Taurus he asked me to be his girlfriend on the way home from West Side Story rehearsal. And I said, "Yes."

It was November in Vermont which meant snow was inevitable. I remember saying to him "I think the perfect first kiss would be one in the falling snow when the you have a couple of flakes on your eyelashes." And he said, "I think we could make that happen." And as God as my witness it began to snow when he said those words. And we had our first kiss. (This scene can't be made up. It is so incredibly clich├ęd and Victorian that my now sarcastic and jaded mind could not concoct this type of scenario). And so began what one could only declare the best possible high school sweetheart I could have asked for my senior year. I fell in love but made sure he knew my love came with an eviction notice: August 2002. He was a junior and I was leaving that little town as soon as I could.

When August came I moved to Nashville... and (like a Hallmark movie you want to turn off but you're too lazy to find the remote to do so)... we stayed together. No cell phones. No social media. Just 1200 miles connected by handwritten letters... cards... poems... short stories... phone card dates... and then his decision to follow me to Nashville upon graduation. We were that couple. That one you just wanted to hate because he could make it snow on cue somehow for the perfect first kiss and I had a car that could play handmade mixed CDs filled with country love songs and Train.

But not everything stays on a Hallmark movie. Sometimes you find the remote and you change the channel to something less romantic and more real. Some times all good things end and that's exactly what happened to this sweetheart relationship: 3 years in and he decided we were done. And for the first time since November 2001 I didn't know who I was but I knew I would never trust or love innocently again. We went our separate ways. We didn't stay in touch. We didn't follow each other on social media. We just lived completely separate lives in the city I had wanted to live in my whole life and the one he moved to because he once loved someone there. For once I saw real life. For once I felt what heart break truly felt like. You don't forget that kind of pain and it changes you in every possible way. It will make you stronger (you hope). It will make you more jaded. It will make you less trusting and more hesitant to fall in love again. It will leave a mark on you that somehow, a decade down the road, a photo will bring you right back to. That night. That time. That person.

I went about my life changing careers a few times, finding new hobbies, discovering new passions, meeting new people, writing new chapters and closing a few along the way. I made new friends. I learned valuable life skills (how to survive a Flood). I fell in love. I fell on my face. I moved around the city. I set roots and I held tightly to my wings. But I kept his letters and cards in a box with our pictures. I wondered if he had stayed in Nashville. What he was doing... if he was happy... if he was married... did he remember me? Our breakup was anything but pleasant. I knew he feared my Dad. Had he entered Witness Protection just to be safe?

It was about 6 years ago that I ran into him one night in Nashville. Somehow God woke up that morning and said, "I'm in a really good mood. I'm going to give Kristen the best hair day ever and some random doctor is going to ask her out on a date in the afternoon for dinner." (Have I thanked you lately God?) So with the best hair day of my life and an incredibly good looking doctor (who may or may not have been visually impaired-I still question what happened if not just divine intervention) I went to a bar. When I got there I felt the presence of someone from my past. And when I heard that laugh I turned around and immediately knew who it was. When I said, "Hey, I think I know you" and he looked straight over: November of 2001 was right there in front of me. Over the music we answered generic questions like, "How's your family?" and "What are you doing these days?" (I'm a historian/I'm an English teacher!) He complimented my hair (it was inevitable). And like a perfect scene out of a movie (I swear I can't make these things up) when he asked if I was there alone, over walked the incredibly good looking doctor who gave me the glass of whiskey he had just stood in line for half an hour to get and I said, "No I'm not." He smiled and nodded. I smiled and introduced him to the "One-Date-Only-Perfect-Timing-Miracle-I-Owe-You-One-God-Doctor" and said, "We better be going." We promised each other we would catch up- maybe over coffee or a drink- but we never exchanged numbers. And we both knew it was just a way to be polite. Unless our paths haphazardly crossed again in the next 6 years.... that was our moment. That was our way of the universe checking in to make sure I knew I survived a breakup I never thought I would and although scarred, I was ok after it all. I never saw that doctor again and I never was able to get my hair to have that bounce or perfect shine ever again either. But I had a moment of closure I never thought I would experience. And for that I am grateful because I don't have to question "if" or "does" anymore. I know.

Every now and then those memories will come back. Whether it's the song remembering when as "Drops of Jupiter" plays on the "classic pop" station or it's a photo that brings you back to a moment you had forgotten. I had no way of knowing that the perfect high school sweetheart relationship would end the way that it did. I had no way of knowing that 15 years after my first kiss I would still be single having what could be one of the longest runs of bad luck with guys that really only country songs are written about. I had no way of knowing all the things that I knew then were eventually going to change. Life always has other plans and there are always more questions than answers. So yesterday I spent some time back in the Fall of 2001. Back when I was dating a Jet and Feeling Pretty. I was younger. I was starry-eyed. And I was certain Something Was Coming.

I had no way of knowing that when I took the stage for that final curtain call in November of 2001, I was taking a bow to the innocence of youthful fairy tales and setting the stage for reality. And part of me is glad I didn't know how the show would eventually end because maybe I wouldn't have auditioned in the first place.