The Fourth February 27th

I wrote my grandmother a letter on her birthday in 2016 – the first birthday after her death. It has since become a tradition. It’s a way for me to honor her memory and document the evolution of my grief.

Recently found this photo…

It’s been an eventful year, and there were moments where I felt your presence in the midst of it all.

You would’ve loved this year’s family wedding because it was a beautiful reflection of love. I made a fool of myself on the dance floor in your honor. We all did.

I shaved my head…again. You’d be thrilled at the fact that I raised so much money for a good cause, but I know you’d still say, “Your beautiful hair is gone!” You’d laugh-cry about it.

I got a tattoo. I know you would’ve thrown a fit because I remember how you reacted when Mom got one. I can imagine the scene: I would tell you I got it and you would start lecturing about how they’re permanent and I’m probably going to regret it, and what if it’s in a spot I can’t hide. But then I’d remove the bandage and you’d smile and cry. Because you see, I chose to permanently mark myself with the name you gave me at birth. You said you couldn’t remember life before I was born, and I can’t imagine living life without an external representation of the truth you spoke into my soul.

The tattoo on my left arm.

I have roommates now. You’d approve of them and our house. It has lots of natural light, and I catch myself staring out the window and thinking about how much you loved the sun. Your Michelangelo print hangs in my hallway. I spent so many hours staring at that frame in your house, and now it hangs in mine. Maybe next year I’ll finally get to see the original in Italy.

Proof that I used to stare at the art prints in Grandma’s house. The print in the top left corner is the one I have now. She framed it soon after this photo was taken.

We had a very warm day a few weeks ago. You know if it’s warm in February I drive to your park and spend some time. Since my last letter, I’ve taken a lot of photos in that park. It seems my clients enjoy the setting as much as you did. But on this warm, February day I did not bring my camera. I stood barefoot at the edge of the lake and absorbed the peace. I thanked God for the honor of sharing life with you. You gave me the privilege of being and feeling known; you fully saw me in a way I can’t explain to others. Even if I never feel that way again on this earth, I had it in the formative years when I needed it most. You helped instill resilience, and I’m ever grateful for the lasting effects.

I had a moment the other day. Those moments are fewer and further between with each passing year, but they still catch me every so often. This one transported me back to the last time we spoke. After several rounds of singing your favorite hymns and quoting from Tombstone, you saw us and we had you back for a few minutes. You grabbed my hands and I’ll never forget the look in your eyes – you knew you’d been freed from your prison and were on borrowed time. With an urgency as you held my hands you said, “I love you so much. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

In that moment, I couldn’t argue. It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. Silly me, I thought you’d be here in my 30s and 40s because you’d only be in your 70s and 80s. You weren’t supposed to die in your 60s. That amazing mind of yours wasn’t supposed to wither and rob us of precious time. I guess that’s the whole point: we aren’t promised any amount of time – regardless of our expectations.

One of our last photos. She always preferred making silly faces rather than smiling.

I started writing your story, and in a way, my own. It’s still in progress, but it’s been very healing for me. One day the world will know your story…or at least your life through my eyes. What a wild and redemptive ride.

Until next year, Sunshine loves you – infinity plus 72.

Ode to a House

On a crisp November day six years ago, you became a shelter for a weary family held together by a thread. We were hurting, exhausted, and needed a place to live. We had very little steady income and just a bunch of promises that we’d pay the rent on time, but the landlord said yes. Signing that lease coincided with my first deep breath in many months.

We began the healing process while living within your walls. We’ve grieved, laughed, played, and grown while calling you home. You housed us through two high school graduations, two and a half bachelor’s degrees, two engagements and weddings, career launches, and so many other memories.

You are the last house the four of us siblings collectively called home.

As I removed the last of my stuff a few weeks ago, it was bittersweet. I never intended to stay as long as I did – I had plans to move years ago…but it turns out I stayed for exactly the right amount of time.

You, townhouse with all your quirks and flaws, gave us a place to find our strengths. Hope was reborn and we all began to thrive again inside your walls.

An era is over…and the future is bright.

Any Day of the Week

As a child, Holy Week was steeped in family tradition and lots of celebration. I loved Palm Sunday because I love the word “Hosanna.” It’s just a really good word…and you get to say or sing it a lot on Palm Sunday. Sometime during the week we’d dye more eggs than we could possibly eat.  As I reached middle school, we began observing Passover Seders with friends in remembrance of the Last Supper.  On Good Friday, we’d avoid meat and Grandma would make us all watch “Jesus of Nazareth” – the interminably long mini-series with a blue-eyed, never blinking, emaciated Jesus.

Easter. Was. The. Best. I had a fun dress to wear, the worship songs at church were peppy, I ate chocolate for breakfast, and I usually got to wear a delicate orchid corsage on my wrist. Easter afternoons were spent at the park with family, eating burgers and playing ball.

I always had a concept of the spiritual gravity of Holy Week and Easter, but it took on new meaning in college. I spent Palm Sunday 2005 in a tiny basement church in the projects of New Orleans. There were no palm fronds, no hosanna’s, and very few dresses. What I found were earnest believers who treated every Sunday as special and holy. I sat through the 3-hour service with a wiggly, young girl on my lap. She was covered in baby powder, wearing clothes that were a few sizes too small…and barefoot. If you’d seen the ground she traversed between her home and the church you’d be mortified at her lack of shoes. She loved me instantly, without hesitation or trepidation. She didn’t care who I was or where I’d come from…she just decided I was the right person to keep her company during the service.

I spent Easter Sunday of that same year in a large, formal church in Texas. The hats and dresses were on full display. The fragrance of lilies filled the air. We sang “Up From the Grave He Arose” at least three full times. It was a joyous celebration, but my heart and mind were back in New Orleans. In the midst of another rousing Easter hymn, it finally sunk in: The little girl in New Orleans was a walking example of Christ’s love – the way she embraced me and had no regard for the circumstances surrounding her. It might seem like an obvious thing, but in that moment it finally transferred from my head to my heart.

I think our lives cycle through the Easter progression on a regular basis. I’m in a Saturday period of my life right now. I’ve endured the darkness and pain of Friday, and now I’m in the silent waiting. I eagerly await the arrival of Sunday…but I know there is much to learn in the patience and uncertainty of Saturday. It would be easy to look at someone’s circumstances and guess what “day” they’re in, but that’s not the full story. The little girl in New Orleans based on her circumstances appeared to be in the midst of Friday…but her behavior? It indicated Sunday all the way.

Whatever “day” you’re in, take solace in the fact that it’s not the end and you’re not alone. I believe Christ holds us through our Fridays and Saturdays because He’s already made it to Sunday and knows what joy it brings.

Wishing you all a blessed Easter, friends.

The Third February 27th

It’s become a tradition to write a letter to my Grandma every year on her birthday. This also serves as the third installment in my February series about significant people.

I think of you often. Mostly the good times (though we had our share of tough ones, too). I hear your exuberant voice every time I play a game of Yahtzee, and I smell your awful perfume when I bump into that one lady at work. In those moments, I always notice a glimmer of sadness followed by a snicker of joy. Rather than consider those instances a reinforcement of my grief, I choose to accept them as reminders of your continued presence in my heart and life.

When I think of all that is going on in the world right now, I find myself mourning the absence of our inevitable discussions. I know we would have common ground on many things and passionately disagree on a few. There would be tears, loud voices, hugs, and laughter. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good, heated debate with someone where it’s safe to say anything because you’re confident that it won’t change the relationship between the two of you. I know this void will take the longest to fill because of the depth of trust it takes to cultivate such a relationship. It feels like a piece of me lies dormant since I lost you as a mental sparring partner.

I’ve been in a little bit of a funk lately because I don’t know what I want to do with the next phase of my life. I know what I want to accomplish…I just don’t know how I’m going to get there. In a perfect world, I’d go to your house to sort out my mind. We’d watch Singin’ in the Rain for the bazillionth time and talk about how much we want to dance like Gene Kelly. Or we’d strut around the living room while Rod Stewart’s Hot Legs played through the speakers. We’d be silly and free and light-hearted…and sometime in the midst of all that joy, the voice in my heart would give me answers to the dilemma in my mind.

You never gave me the answers I needed…you created the space for me to find them. I want to create that space for others who need the freedom to let go for a while. Maybe in that process I’ll find some answers of my own.

My days aren’t always rosy, but I’ve had some pretty great adventures this year. You’d be proud. One of these years, my letter will say I finally made our trip to Italy.

Until next year: Sunshine loves you infinity plus seventy-one.

Of Bingo and Boldness

Here is installment 2 of my February series:

 

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” That line from Shakespeare always makes me think of Dorothy. She stood 4 feet 10 inches tall in her prime. She shrunk a bit with age, but she claimed her full height all her life. Her personality could rival those of men twice her size.

Dorothy was a nurse in the World War 2 era, worked hard, loved her parents, and was devout in her faith. She spitefully told the story of how she was born left-handed, but the nuns in her Catholic school tied her arm behind her back until she learned to use her right hand. As a senior citizen, Dorothy would joke around with her priests, but give nuns the side-eye…probably a little grudge held from those early years.

She wasn’t afraid of hard choices. In the prime of her life, she took in children and raised them as her own. One of her good friends had a rocky marriage and Dorothy agreed to give some of the kids a place to stay for as long as needed. At least one of the children stayed for the long haul…my grandmother. Dorothy loved her as her own child, and became a “grandmother” and “great-grandmother” over the subsequent decades. I never knew my grandmother (she died young), but I knew Dorothy.

Oh, Dorothy was a force. She had zero tolerance for crap. She spoke her mind freely. Most of the priests in the archdiocese knew of her…and grew to love her. Inside that tough old bird exterior was a heart of gold. She had a soft spot for the rambunctious and rebellious kids, whether in church or within our own family.

My favorite thing to do with her was bingo. If she didn’t have a ride from a friend, we’d take the public bus to the parish or the Knights of Columbus. I learned all about the ritual of bingo. People are serious about their cards, the set-up of their lucky troll dolls, and the quality of the snacks for sale. I preferred the Knights of Columbus because they sold pizza and the sodas came out of the tap. She rarely won money, but the social aspect of the game was a big part of her life.

When I spent time with her, we didn’t do a lot of “kid” stuff. She lived her life and I tagged along. I got to observe her independence, tenacity, and unconditional love. She stayed in touch with in-laws, exes, and step-relatives long after other parts of the family cut them off.  No one dared give her a hard time about it because they knew they’d get a tongue-lashing or one of her infamous stares.

Dorothy lived on her own until the day she left this earth. She never had a spouse and she once jokingly referred to her hope chest as the pit of despair. I’m sure she had lonely moments, but she never regretted her life. She built a family and a rich legacy of love. She didn’t have much money, but Dorothy volunteered and served throughout her life. She taught me not to waste a minute because there’s always someone who could use some help.

When I decided to throw myself a 30th birthday party, I remembered the twinkle in her eye when she was up to something. That night I gave a tribute to my grandmother who’d passed the previous year, but there was a also a subtle tribute to Dorothy. The event took place in that old Knights of Columbus hall where she taught me all about bingo. I had a soda from the tap just for her.

Joy and Jazz

During this month of love, I thought I’d profile a few people who matter quite a bit to me. They’ve all passed away, but they helped shape the person behind The Fantastic Introvert. It might help you understand why this site covers such a variety of topics. On this site you’re likely to see a product review followed by a deeply personal story…because that’s the kind of person I am.

Without further ado, here is installment #1:

I enjoy finding adventures and memories in unexpected places with people who matter to me. I attribute some of that joy to my experiences with a man I called Fahfie. In technical terms, he was my stepfather’s stepfather…but he was so much more to me.

He taught me to find the joys in life. I have many memories with him, but my favorite took place when I was approximately eight years old. We hopped into the car with a picnic basket and set off for a large bookstore. The two of us wandered through the stacks until we found a bit of a clearing where a trio of jazz musicians were preparing to play. As they performed, Fahfie would quietly point out different techniques or musical elements that he enjoyed. I was a kid raised on classic rock, country, and pop…so jazz was a completely new world for me. It was a world I was ready to explore.

Eventually, it was time to eat the picnic that rested in the basket. You’d think we would eat in the coffee shop of the store or in the car, but Fahfie wouldn’t entertain those options. He stepped away and spoke to the store manager. Next thing I knew the two of us were following the manager to the back of the store into the area reserved for employees. The manager led us out back to the loading dock and promptly left. Fahfie set up the picnic with great fanfare on the dock. We ate with our legs swinging off the edge of the dock and you’d have thought we were in the grandest place in the world.

I had several opportunities to put on fancy dresses to attend the symphony and shows with Fahfie, and while they were amazing experiences, I’ll always have a fondness for that first concert among the books. It’s not just because that was my first exposure to jazz (though I’m sure that’s why I chose the clarinet when I joined the elementary band). See, Fahfie ate in fancy restaurants with important people…but on that day I was the important person and he didn’t want to be anywhere other than on that loading dock. His attention was focused on that moment, not on other things or other people. It was also incredibly fun to “break the rules” and eat in an unconventional space.

Fahfie believed I had things to contribute to this world when I was young and he made sure I knew it. He introduced me to fine food, art, and music because it was never too early to learn. He challenged me to grow, but he also showed me how to pause and enjoy the present. He took time to enjoy a meal with people and to laugh. Life must be a balance.

All of the ways he invested in my life not only contributed to my knowledge…they reinforced the belief that I mattered. The knowledge was great, but the confidence that came from feeling significant is what I needed most.

I carry those lessons with me to this day. I give my best when I’m at work, but when I’m spending time with people I strive to give them my undivided attention. I also remember that I have to take time to enjoy the good parts of life. Sometimes when I’m stressed, I’ll grab some nice chocolate and play some jazz to remind myself how to smile.

The next time you’re with people who are important to you, put the phone away. Spend some undivided time. You might discover something!