Thursday, January 25, 2018

Two Years

I’m sure that everyone can name at least one person who has held a place of influence in their life. Some people are fortunate enough to name several, or many. I consider myself to have known and loved some truly fantastic people in my day, but there are those special souls—those comet-like individuals—that shoot through the sky of your life and light it up with wonder. I was changed by a little light named Clara Quinn Phillips.

Today marks 2 years since that precious light left this earth, but not a day has gone by since that I have not mourned her passing and been grateful for the joy and laughter she brought to others while she was here. When she was just a little bit of a girl (not even a year old), I had a near shrine to her hanging in my cubicle at work; her smile was THAT infectious. Every time I felt even the slightest bit stressed out, I would just look at her face and remember that there were much better and more important things to think about than worrying about some meeting or project deadline. I don’t think there was a Facebook picture or video of her that I ever missed seeing (or liking, or commenting on); her cuteness was unparalleled, and I was a huge fan. She was her mom’s little snack-eating sidekick, and she was always a part of our interactions and stories, whether she was physically present or not.

Since that day 2 years ago, I have experienced a lot of joy in meeting and growing to love Clara’s baby sister. I have laughed and looked at hundreds of photos and shared stories and memories in my times with her mom. I have also cried a lot of tears, and I cry even more as I write this now. Clara’s name is never far from my tongue, nor her face from my thoughts. I have a birdcage decoration on the wall of my bedroom, and on it hang a few little artifacts that remind me of the things I want to focus on. Clara’s picture is front and center. Because more than just mourning her death, I want to continue honoring and celebrating her life with how I live my own. One evening in early spring of 2017, after a long visit with Clara’s mom and dad, I drove home in the darkness, tears streaming down my face. The sadness was almost too much to bear. I knew that, on some levels, it would make sense in the face of so much grief to protect my own heart from any further pain or discomfort—to dial in to ‘business as usual.’ It was a pivotal moment for me, though, because I also knew that being broken open like this was an opportunity to head in a new direction with my stop being afraid of some things and to make some real and lasting changes, to get my priorities in order. This one thing I knew for sure: I owed it to Clara’s legacy to run headlong into the unknown and risk failing and being hurt for the possibility that I might find something much greater in front of me. 

And I did just that. Over the next few months, I chose to dedicate some efforts in my life to Clara—things I may share publicly at some point, and some I may never tell another soul. But in my heart, I know that Clara knows. She inspires me every day in the way that she loved her friends, her mom and dad, and even her dog Miller. She loved to dance and be silly. She loved music and singing. She wasn’t afraid of who she was, and she was living her best life. She deserved the very best. We all do. 

Clara’s mom told me one day a few months after Clara’s passing that she and her husband had been taking a walk in their neighborhood and had found that Clara carved her name on the stop sign at the end of their road, where she used to wait for the bus. I kept that little detail tucked away and recently stopped one day after a visit to see if I could find it. I admit I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and I was both thrilled and pained to see her name written there. Clara made her indelible mark in that place—in this place. She left behind pieces of herself, of her spirit, in this world, and I like to think that some of those pieces are inside of me now, too. 

Clara, sweet girl, I’ve made many promises to you over the last 2 years that I won’t let you down—that I’ll be there for your mom and dad, that I’ll be the best friend to your little sister, that I’ll never, ever forget you and do my best to ensure that no one else does, either. You’ve changed me for good, little light. You’ve left an indelible mark on my heart. I will always carry you with me, and with sadness and joy, I remember you today.

Love always, Sarah

Saturday, December 31, 2016

new year's eve, 2016

It's the last day of 2016, y'all. Hard to believe we've made it another trip around the sun. A friend just asked me whether I was going out or staying in to celebrate, and I told him I was staying in - but not to celebrate. I just don't feel like it. It's not that I'm not glad on some level that this filled-with-tragedy year is coming to a close, because in many ways, that's true, but this morning I had a stark realization: 2016 is also the last calendar year when Clara was still here with her mom and dad. She was here for almost 25 days of 2016, which feels, in retrospect, like the blink of an eye, but SHE. WAS. HERE. Still full of joy and hope, still happy and silly and goofy and kind and smart and amazing. 2016 started off with her in it, and because it's ending without her, I just can't bring myself to toast to something new right now. I need one more day (at least) to remember a year when her parents carried everyday burdens like everyone else and not the profound sadness and heartache that they struggle to shoulder now.

No matter what happens this year (or any other year ahead), I will ALWAYS keep Clara's memory alive. I will ALWAYS treasure that precious girl. I will ALWAYS love and support my dear friends in whatever way I can. This year has taught me a lot, but what it really reminded me more than anything is that LOVE is the only thing worth investing yourself in, and if you see it in the actions of others, then you know the feelings are there to back it up. Just as faith requires deeds/evidence to demonstrate its authenticity, so, too, does love.

So tonight, I will watch the clock quietly wind down without fanfare or champagne. I will say goodbye to 2016, with both tears and thanksgiving, and I will turn the page to the next chapter and get on about the business of real love. To all my friends and loved ones: In good times and in bad, may you know this kind of love every day, all year long.

And Clara, sweet girl, you are missed and loved as much as ever - for always 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On the eve of 11 months

It's Christmas Eve and I'm at home prepping food for tomorrow's dinner at my parents' house. The Christmas movies have been on a near-constant loop for the last two days. I've wrapped gifts, packaged treats, mailed cards, and visited with a few friends. Last night we went to a show at Center Stage (which was fantastic, by the way) and all the speakers in the apartment (and my car) have been pumping out holiday tunes out the wazoo. And in the midst of the ribbons and wrapping paper, the flour dust on my apron and the warm wishes, I feel broken.

Christmas is about hope, about peace and love, about the light that broke through the darkness of this weary world. And by God, after the year that has passed, filled with disappointments and stress, struggle and death and sorrow, my heart is indeed weary. I've found myself weeping on more than one occasion over the last several days, crying for the sadness of others...crying for my own.

Tomorrow marks 11 months since my little friend Clara’s passing. Christmas Day. I still cannot believe it. There are no presents to open this year, no tree, no decorations, no precious girl to love on. She is not of this earth any longer. And that, in the midst of a season of celebrating, feels like a swift kick in the gut. And my strong, incredibly brave friends are feeling the heel of that particular boot every day…all day long.

Grief stretches out like a long road, and even during the times when its presence grows thin for a few paces and joy breaks through, it is still there, waiting for you to round the next turn up ahead. It plays cruel jokes on you, throwing up the proverbial oases in the desert, only to leave you thirsty when you arrive to what you think will be some relief. But even in its seeming cruelty, it can be kind, too, offering up sweet memories, laughter, opportunities to have real connection and throw off the day-to-day muck that deadens our senses and separates us from others…and from ourselves.

And if you find others to join you on your journey, there is some comfort in that, too: knowing you aren’t alone. One of my greatest prayers for my dear friends over the last year is that they would know the love and care of others and feel bolstered by it. And though I know that hasn’t arrived to the level I would have loved to see, I have witnessed God’s love for them in the form of other people and their kindness, compassion, and presence.

Isn’t that really what matters most – on Christmas or any other day? To know you are loved is the greatest gift there is. And even as I sit here, with a lump in my throat, I know that there IS much to celebrate, even through the pain. And I choose to receive the sweetness, the light, the hope however it comes, with open hands and heart.

If you’re reading this today, I wish the same for you. However your year has been (and for many of us, it’s been a mixed bag, at a minimum) and whatever fears or uncertainties you may be facing even now, may hope fill your heart, and may the light break through whatever darkness surrounds you and bring your weary heart some joy, this Christmas and always.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas recollections

Every time I hear the song "Silent Night," it brings back such a visceral memory of Christmas, 1982. I was in 2nd grade and we had just finished up our school's Christmas concert. It was evening time and the air was crisp. My then 'boyfriend' had run up to me and, with bright eyes and a huge smile, given me a Christmas card, a pin reading 'Virginia is for Lovers,' and a copy of "The Wizard of Oz." In the card, he told me he loved me. I remembered going to bed that night with the card tucked under my pillow feeling like I had been told some delicious secret. 

And, to be honest, I guess I had. Someone pouring out his heart to you, whether at the age of 7, or as a grown man, is a pretty big deal. And it makes you remember that sometimes grand gestures really DO mean something. (Of course, said boyfriend broke up with me a year and a half later at the beginning of 4th grade because I cut all my hair off over the summer, and he just couldn't handle that. Oh well.) But here I am, taking a 5-minute break from an otherwise hectic work week, and as the familiar tune plays in my ears, I can still recall the feelings of magic and possibility of that Christmas. Maybe a little of 1982 will rub off on me this year. I sure could use a little magic right about now....

Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer Solstice

The beginning of summer always reminds me of being sent off to my grandparents' farm for a couple of weeks once school ended. We would make the trek up from Virginia and meet my grandparents halfway, often in Frederick, MD. We'd always have lunch at a Burger King (my grandpa liked their strawberry shakes), and then we would move luggage from one car to the next, and my grandma would begin the long drive up into the mountains towards their home. I would 'entertain' them in the car by singing all the songs I knew and playing the license plate game or 'I spy,' and my grandmother, ever the cheerful one, laughed and sang along and made the hours pass by quickly. There was always a thermos of iced tea in the trunk, so when we stopped at a rest area, we had plenty of refreshment. 

Getting to the house was a thrill, and I always raced immediately upstairs to unpack my bags, folding all my things neatly into the dresser drawers or hanging them in the closet. Summer days were long and sweet then, filled with singing and frolicking in green pastures, tending to horses, swimming in my uncle's pool that was freezing cold and filled with water from a mountain spring, picking vegetables in the garden, listening to my grandfather tell stories, helping my grandma cook and run errands, and swinging on the small wooden swing (made from some rope and an old board) under the huge pine tree. When we would go on adventures (which was usually to a garden club meeting, to church, or to check in on a relative), I would stick my arm out the window as we buzzed up and down those winding mountain roads, and sometimes, when we hit a particular bend in the road just right, I almost felt like I was flying.

Evenings were spent watching the news (well, my grandfather watched), playing monopoly after dinner, and staying up as late as I wanted reading or talking with my grandma, a fellow night owl. Sometimes we would drive into one of the neighboring towns to have dinner and see a play, but usually time was spent tucked up in those familiar hills, with only the lightning bugs and the echo of our voices against the quiet mountains to keep us company.

For as long as I am here on this earth, I will remember the smell of the sweet grass in the pastures, the cool of the horse feed I would plunge my arm into to see how far down into the barrel I could reach, the sound of the birds lazily singing in the trees during the heat of the afternoon, the softness of my grandmother's arms around me when I ran to her for a hug, my grandfather's booming voice (much too loud to ever become a whisper, though he tried in the mornings not to wake me)...all the details, big and small, that made those times the closest thing to perfection this side of heaven.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Miss Babygirl

There is something that happens when an animal gets into your heart. The experience brings you back down to your most basic, instinctual level. It makes you get over yourself. It reminds you that pure, simple joy is found in the eyes of this furry creature who sees you as you are and doesn't need to know much more beyond you being willing to share your space, your time, and maybe your food :).

When I first met Babygirl up close and personal, she was in her prime—solid, muscular, territorial to protect her 'people' (she is part chow), alert, and ready to play. She was staying with my best friend for several months, and I had come over to her apartment to visit. She growled at me ferociously, unsure of my intentions toward her pack member and ready to let me know she wasn't taking any shit from anybody.

But as soon as my best friend put her hand on me, gathered my scent onto her fingers, and let Baby know that I was okay—that I was part of the pack—that was it. Then, it was all tail wagging and ear scratches. The next time I came to visit, I heard that familiar growl from behind the door, but as soon as I called her name ("Baby, it's me!"), the growls turned to excitement and I could feel her willing the door to open so we could get on about the business of the love-fest.

Fast forward to several months later, I had gone through a pretty difficult breakup and was overcome with sadness. I didn't want to be in my apartment, so I fled to my bff's place to stay with her and Babygirl. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Baby stayed by my side while I was there. She seemed to take on my sadness and had a hard time eating. My pain became her burden, my concerns furrowing her little doggie brow. I tried to get her to eat, but I realized that just as my best friend was having a hard time force-feeding me bagels, the dog didn't want to be consoled either. She was content, instead, with watching junk tv with me on the couch and napping in between my crying jags. I told her all my problems and she listened. I asked her questions about why things hadn't worked out, and while she didn't have the words to speak, I felt that she got it somehow. We bonded so strongly during that time, and I knew that she had fully drawn me into her 'pack.' I was one of her people, and that was something that would never change.

On Sunday of this week, many of Baby's friends gathered at a beautiful garden in the city to pay our last respects to this cherished soul. She had reached the ripe old age of 15 and her body had been slowly failing her for months. It was time to send her off with the celebration she deserved. We spread out on blankets under a big tree and the diva herself (complete with feather boa and coat) let us all come and pet her and feed her treats and tell her how much we love her. When I arrived, she was resting peacefully, head all the way down to the ground. I gave her an ear scratch and told her it was me, but then I realized that she couldn't hear me and probably didn't know who it was. So I reached down and put my fingers in front of her nose and said again, "Baby, it's me," and she immediately lifted her head and leaned into my hand, nuzzling it. From that first day years before, she had never forgotten me. I was in her pack, after all.

When I left the park later that afternoon, I went to say goodbye to her. I kissed her head and whispered to her, "Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for letting me be yours." She didn't say anything then, either, but I knew she still got it somehow.

This morning, that beautiful girl crossed over the rainbow bridge with her family around her and with so much love sending her into the light. I am heartbroken and in tears as I write this, but here is what I know for sure and what gives me comfort:

Babygirl was a beautiful gift to this family and to my life. She never judged, never held a grudge, never got angry with us, never wanted anything more than to love and be loved. Once you were in, you were IN. She even tolerated us singing to her, dancing with her, calling her silly nicknames (dupa!), dressing her in ridiculous outfits, and generally cutting up and being fools. In fact, her favorite place was in the middle of a room full of her people, laughing and carrying on. Oh, how she was loved!! She was the focus of tons of pictures and she is part of most memories I have with this family. She loved on all of us when we were sad, happy, or somewhere in between. She saw her mama through some tough transitions. She brought calm into chaotic circumstances. And she was the best friend and most loyal companion you'd ever want.

I know that she is free now from any pain and any limitation, and I hope that there are unlimited doggie treats and head scratches where she is—because she deserves them all.

Thank you, sweet lady, for taking me into your life. You're in my heart for good and I am so honored to have known and loved you.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

On Grief and Loss: Springtime Edition

March came in like a lion and brought with it more sadness and death. I swear, this whole year so far has been a series of obituaries and hard news. I'm not trying to be negative; it's just true.

And as ever, I'm sitting here just trying to process it all. My heart breaks at least once a day (but often many more times over) and tears are not often far from me lately. I feel like that raw place that you keep skinning again and again that never quite heals over.

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying all of this as a complaint—far from it. I really do consider it an honor to 'mourn with those who mourn' (Romans 12:15), but it is a reminder to me that every time you open your heart to love anyone (or anything), you also open yourself up to loss. And sometimes, that's a really hard pill to swallow.

I have a friend who keeps most people and most feelings at a distance from himself, and though he's never overtly shared with me why he does this, I know that he has deep hurts and wounds that have never healed over. He's felt safer retreating into a shell than opening himself up to more loss and hurt, but in doing so, he's also missed opportunities to really give and receive love in a deeper way.

It is quite easy in the face of profound grief, hurt, and loss to understand why someone would pull away and allow those wounds to scab over (though I would submit that true healing can only come from really going through the fullness of our experience rather than running from it). It's terrifying to think of enduring the kind of pain that will last a lifetime.

But then, what is living, really, if we avoid any feeling that might lead to pain? What is the meaning of our time here if not to love and experience all the richness that life offers—even if some of that richness hurts like hell?

Every time I am tempted to wall my heart off and cloister myself in a tower of numbness, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Edgar Lee Masters:

George Gray
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

If I'm being honest, I have fears, too, of losing what I hold dear and of being hurt. Is there anyone who doesn't, on some level? But I am convinced that to try and avoid pain really causes more loss than plowing ahead with abandon and taking your chances. Though everyone's time here reaches an end eventually—and those who are left behind are changed forever as a result—it is important to remain undeterred from the quest to lift the sail in our own lives. It may end in madness, in grief, in realizing your greatest fears, but it may also end in your heart getting what it really needs: a way to fill that hunger for more.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Have a little faith....

"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark." —Rabindranath Tagore

These days, I find myself growing tired (even more quickly than usual) of things that don't feel significant enough to warrant my emotional energy or time. People are getting up in arms about their kid not cleaning his or her room or running 10 minutes late for a meeting or temporarily misplacing their phone. And all I'm thinking is that a little girl has died and two parents are shell-shocked and grief-stricken and what else even matters now? 

I don't really have an answer for that question, because, to them, nothing else really does. Their lives have been irrevocably changed and there is nothing I—or anyone else—can do to change reality. It is beyond heartbreaking, beyond unimaginable, beyond any words that do any shred of justice to the magnitude of this situation. And I know it happens every day to countless people, but these are people I care about, so yeah, it's hitting home to me in a way that it hasn't before. Tragedy is all around, but right now, it's sitting with me in my bed and at my dining room table, and it's on my friends' front doorstep, behind every cabinet door, around every corner inside every room. It has flooded their lives and there is no Red Cross effort that can sweep in and save them from this pain. 

In moments like these, many turn to God, either to seek comfort or to vent their anger—or both. For me, it isn't so much a turning toward as a redirection of prayer and conversation. He is ever present and very much close to me in times of brokenness (and joy), but not everyone feels this way. 

If I'm being honest, I have known despair the likes of which I cannot describe. I have walked through that shadowy valley and was convinced for many years that I would never emerge. I'm not trying to be dramatic. This shit is real. Depression and the crushing pain of grief and trauma can surround your every movement and suck the life and very breath out of you (even in a metaphorical sense). And even in my darkest hour, even when I felt I had no hope and no reason for existing, I still felt a nudge, a gentle urge to try one more day, one more minute. In the face of hopelessness, with little to no evidence that things would ever get better, some part of my soul knew that the sun would, indeed, rise again. 

God is a million things, all at once, every day. He is the reminder that we are never truly alone, the quiet voice in your head telling you to trust your gut, the provider of peace when all around is strife, the warmth and squeeze in a friend's hug, the faithfulness and kindness of strangers, the beauty of trees in a forest, the majesty of the ocean, the joy in a baby's laugh. I have him to thank for everything I am and all that I've been able to do. Yes, I put in the work, but he gave me the assurance that, even when I couldn't see a way forward, I would be protected and provided for along my journey. 

In this time of darkness and deep sadness, I pray that my friends would find His light inside themselves...that they would know the peace that transcends every earthly hurt and find some relief for their suffering. I pray that the wave of holy, divine love that is rushing to meet them at every turn (through the kindness of so many friends, known and unknown) would overwhelm their pain and bring sweetness and comfort to allow them to rest and gain strength for the long road ahead. 

And in my own grief, I, too, am like that bird singing in anticipation of the light. I don't know how it will come—or when—but my heart believes that the dawn will indeed break again. Even a tiny bit of faith right now is enough.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Love is.

To quote John Mayer, "Love ain't a thing. Love is a verb." I think about that often, especially on Valentine's Day when sentimentality runs high and there is this notion of 'the loving feeling.' No disrespect to those who are giving cards, chocolates, and flowers or writing sonnets or limericks on construction paper hearts. I'm all in favor of love, but it's the feeling part that always falls flat to me. Besides, in the midst of all of Cupid's arrows being slung hither and yon, I think about people I love who are out there in the muck of life enduring the hardest moments you can comprehend. In the midst of tragedy that hits close to home, your mind starts shedding dead weight and getting down to the heart of the matter. And in between the tears, you begin to formulate a plan for how you can make a you can take what little you have and try to bring some measure of hope or happiness to your loved one. Flowers wilt in a matter of days and cards get packed into boxes, but real love? It has a chance to flourish in the midst of what feels like emotional ruins. 

In my mind, love is palpable. It is proactive. It is the choice to put in work. It is presence, support, and hugs. It is grief and sorrow for another's pain - and for your own. It is generosity and patience. It is remembering important moments and the random, mundane ones as well. It is swallowing pride and selfish ambition to see another happy and successful. It is protection. It is safety. It is knowing and being known. It is laughter over drinks and dinner. It is giving advice and lending a listening ear. It is choosing kindness over anger when you're in a bad mood. It is organization projects and peanut butter sandwiches and picking up band-aids at the drugstore on the way home. It is acceptance. It is telling the truth, even when the words are hard. It is nicknames and birthday presents and inside jokes. It is the tears running down your face and onto someone else's lapel. It is sacrifice and joy. It is filling up and pouring out. It is admitting when you're wrong and being gracious when you're right. It is the song that sticks in your brain for weeks on end. It is prayers breathed into the wind. It is beach vacations and long drives with the windows down. It is trips to Target and heart-to-heart conversations in a quiet office at work. It is the promise that, even when things are messy, you'll stick close by. It is also moving on and letting go if/when the time comes. It is wishing someone the absolute best and extending true forgiveness after years of anger and frustration. It is celebrating every miracle, big and small. It is light for the path when all around feels like darkness. It is the quiet whisper of birds taking flight in a field. It is the gentle touch and the tight squeeze. It is the strength to keep trying. It is the signs that follow you everywhere you go. It is the push of labor that brings you into this world. And it is the grace that, in your last breath, leads you home. 

'So you gotta show, show, show me.
Show, show, show me
Show, show, show me
That love is a verb.'

Monday, October 12, 2015

101 years

Remembering my beautiful, blue-eyed spitfire of a grandma (whose first name I share) on what would have been her 101st birthday. Born a farm girl in central PA, my grandma got herself on a train to New York City and put herself through nursing school. She remained in NYC and eventually met my grandfather, Dr. Alexander Franco, when they were both working at the same hospital. After many years building a successful private practice, they retired back to 'the hills of home' in PA where they had a lovely farm with horses and big gardens and plenty of room for a little kid to wander and dream and re-enact the opening scenes from 'the sound of music.' smile emoticon
My grandmother was a strong-willed, indomitable spirit. She was smart as a whip and extremely industrious (and yes, maybe even a little bossy). She was a phenomenal cook and seamstress and had a head for all matters practical. She fostered my own passion for cooking and baking for others by letting me help her with everything she did in the kitchen—from preparing big family meals (for swarms of relatives), to baking hundreds of cookies and pies, to scrubbing, prepping, and canning/jarring countless bushels of vegetables from my great-uncle's gardens. She was also the consummate caregiver, always helping the "little old ladies" from church or her garden club (who were often not much older than she) by taking them to lunch and appointments. She made sure others never went without and always magically had some fresh coffee and a sandwich to anyone who drove up the lane to her house 'just for a visit.' She paid attention to the unnoticed, sending birthday and holiday cards to folks many others never took the time to acknowledge. She was a night owl, loved playing cards and monopoly with her grandchildren, and stayed up with me reading on nights when I felt too scared or anxious to sleep. Her heart was much bigger than her little 4'11" body and she always had a twinkle in her eye, especially when she laughed.
Happy birthday, Sarah E. Johnson Franco. I'll love you forever but always feel you closest to me when I'm throwing flour around in the kitchen heart emoticon.