Living the Day

*CW: suicide, death, pandemic. I wrote a blog post on my previous blog in October 2016 about a day at the park with my son. While I’ve changed parts of the post to reflect where I am now, the point is still the same. We only have one life to live, so we better get to living it.

I remember everything about this day as if it happened yesterday, even though it was a good twenty-four years ago.

If I close my eyes, I can even feel myself standing right there, in that decade, that front yard, inside that house.

I smell my dad’s cologne and my stepmom’s hairspray. They hadn’t been married five years at this point, and this house was still fairly new to us all.

I feel the soft touch of my nephew’s wispy hair. He would come stay with us some weekends, and we got to smother him with kisses and spoil him rotten.

I soak in the squeeze of my sweet “sister-in-law,” who never was quite that, but was always that and more, one of the dearest people to me.

And I remember fondly the young man who- if memory serves correctly- took this photo. I thought we would be married someday. I’d loved him nearly a quarter of my life at that point.

When you’re young, you are supposed to believe that life will never change.

You believe that the way things are is the way they’ll always be.

I stopped believing that around the age of twelve, when my parents divorced, and the already not quite secure but now totally gone rug was ripped out from under me.

Divorce changes a family, even the good ones.

It’s a death, of sorts.

And truly, from that time on, I grew comfortable with death, especially the metaphorical kind.

There was the death of my childhood home when I moved away.

The death of the hope my parents would remarry when they both married other people.

The death that maybe my “sister-in-law” and brother could work things out.

There were literal deaths, too, of friends in college, of family members I thought could never go.

But that’s life, right? Death, both the literal and figurative, happens all the time.

my sweet nephew with my first born child

I don’t remember this photograph of my nephew and his mother with my first born quite as well.

I was a new mom, a young new mom, tired and afraid. My now-husband was in the picture, but we still weren’t sure we were ready to go from “couple who dated and got pregnant” to “couple who marries and stays together forever.”

Stay together… forever? Even though I’d seen it, I’d yet to see it done well.

My sweet grandparents, together though they were, weren’t exactly a bastion of joy.

And my father was navigating a new life of his own, as my mom had gone off to sow her wild oats, which honestly, now that I’m a mom, I feel certain she needed to do.

We married, that boy and me, and I’m so glad we did. But marriage didn’t automatically make my life perfect, nor did it take away the fact that death is the one sure thing we all face in life. Well, that and taxes, as my mom always said.

Through twenty years, I’ve died many deaths. Of dreams, of expectations, of hopes.

I’ve lost people that I loved more than anything in this world, people who were anchors that secured my stormy ship.

People like my grandmother, who passed away in 2012, not even six months after I moved, in part, to be closer to her.

This woman was a gift!

You expect your grandparents to go, but you always hope it will not be for a very long time. And it’s funny- the older you get, the younger they get. When I was ten, seventy-seven seemed ancient. When I was thirty-one, it seemed too young.

After my grandmother died, there were other deaths, mainly the kind that teaches you not to hope for anything new.

Financial and familial stress plagued our family, and I tried to run, but there are some things you just can’t outrun, yourself being one of them.

But there were highs, too.

One high was that my sweet baby nephew, all grown up, became a father to his first child.

My precious gift with his gift.

That’s life, isn’t it? A lot of highs and a lot of lows. If you’re lucky the former outweighs the latter.

We had some highs for a while. My nephew, who’d struggled in his life to make amends with things totally out of his control, who’d dealt with his own not-fair share of metaphorical death, was doing well. He was working a job, taking care of his little family.

He and his wife gave birth to another baby very shortly after the first.

While I wish I could say what a joyous occasion having lots of babies is at a young age, the Duggars don’t tell the whole truth. Having a baby is hard enough. Having two within two years is WILD.

I should know. I did it twice.

Wouldn’t trade ’em.

Even in the most ideal of situations, raising children is hard.

My nephew’s situation, for many reasons, was less than ideal.

And eventually, it got the better of him.

The evening still resides in my head, and I fight daily to keep it out of my heart.

My “sister-in-law” called. I could barely make out her words.

He did it, Toni. Chris did it.

I knew exactly what she meant.

Though we’d hoped and prayed he wouldn’t, we both expected and never expected that my nephew would decide this was all too much.

It’s a weird space to live in, the knowing and not knowing. I’d written in my journal a couple of months before, in the days where it seemed the pandemic was behind us, and we were slowly moving on, that I wasn’t moving on. I felt there was more to come.

I need strength, I wrote in October 2020, but for what I don’t know. I feel as if I’ve left a curling iron on or the stove still burning. This isn’t over yet.

Thus began a two-year journey that took me into the dark night of my soul.

This weekend marks the second anniversary of my nephew’s death.

I miss him so much it’s not funny.

He was an amazing musician, which he got from both sides of his family. His mom could lull a drunken sailor to sleep with her smooth voice, and his father could play any tune on just about any instrument by ear.

He was a good friend. He loved and loved hard. And sometimes that got him in trouble.

And he was the best brother and cousin. My daughter Ry was especially close to him. His brother Gav was, too.

Haehae, Chris, my dad and Gav

My nephew tried really hard to be all he needed to be. I say that and know it is 100% true.

But some of us just aren’t cut out for as harsh a world as this. And I think his sweet little soul could only handle so much.

I’ve made peace with that, I really have. I honor his decision to go when he felt he could no longer be here.

But it doesn’t make the pain hurt any less. As much as it hurts me, I can only imagine (actually, I can’t even imagine) how much his mother hurts.

Even so, no matter what, I love my nephew. I was so blessed to be able to squeeze him one last time, Christmas 2020.

I spoke to him a week before his death. He was going to bring his babies to Oxford and let me keep them for the weekend.

Every once in a while, I do this now. Make the hour and a half drive, pick up his babies, “my boogies,” I call them, and keep them for the weekend.

But life seems to constantly get in the way. I’m determined this year to make more time to see them. They are balm to my soul.

Beautiful angels playing guitar with Gav

Life constantly gets in the way…that phrase has been running through my head a lot lately, as I’m entering a season full of change.

I have a new business starting soon. I’m leaving behind a career in teaching, most likely, for good.

My children are changing schools, returning to the place they started.

We are continuing to renovate our home…even as I’m feeling that all too familiar itch to run again.

And I’m celebrating another year of sobriety. I gave up drinking alcohol for good, and it was the best decision I ever made. Another vine from my family tree, cut and burned. Thank you, Jesus.

Life constantly gets in the way…or does it?

This year, to honor my nephew, I choose to live.

I choose to remember that day by that tree- when I was holding that baby so tightly and praying that nothing would change- well, I choose to remember that day with gratitude.

I’m thankful I had those years of turmoil- yes, even my parents’ divorce. It brought me closer to God, and allowed people into my life I wouldn’t have had it not happened.

I’m thankful for my nephew’s birth. Even with all the chaos surrounding it, he was a blessing to all of our lives. And I’m better having known him.

my silly nephew laying on the cold kitchen floor on a hot summer day

I’m thankful that the boy who took that picture didn’t end up being my husband, after all. I am grateful for the time we shared, and I’m happy that both of our lives are full of peace.

And more than anything, I’m so thankful that all of these new souls have entered our space.

My children, my other nephew, a brand-new niece, my great niece and nephew. All of these angels are here to teach us how to be more human.

I thank God for all of them every day.

I’m not sure if life really does “constantly get in the way.” I think we make it that way. We over-complicate our schedules, our expectations, our hopes and our dreams.

Life doesn’t get in the way unless we allow it. But life most certainly changes, all the time.

And for now, I’m going to ride the wave of life I’m on, praying strength to make it through the next storm, praying peace on the other side of it.

Praying gratitude for where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

********

You know, this season reminds me very much of one I was in not too long ago but so long ago it feels like another lifetime.

It was the fall of 2016, and like now, I was in the midst of change, trying to figure out what was going on in our world, understanding that I’d made a very poor choice in who I’d voted for, but not knowing how to change the belief-system that had been deeply ingrained in my brain. (Thank God for the January 6 insurrection, but that’s a post for another day.)

Taking my littles to the park, I soaked in the afternoon sun and tried to clear my head.

I knew who I was and who I wanted to be, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there without hurting a whole lot of people in the process.

I didn’t know how to die well.

All of these thoughts were swirling in my head as I was swirling my youngest son in the tire swing.

Mama, he began with a content smile…

I’m really living the day.

I knew what he meant.

We all wish for that perfect space of total peace, of happiness, of contentment.

We all want to live the dream.

But life doesn’t work like that. It changes, it gets in the way.

We have to let go of our expectations, sometimes, and just accept that life doesn’t always give us what we want.

We have to live the day. And that’s all we can do.

My dearest nephew, you are now “living the day.”

At total peace, at rest, at contentment. Watching over us, shining down on us, praying the same peace and contentment over us that you’ve now received.

I’m so happy for you, thankful for you, and blessed to have known you.

I carry you with me each day I live. You are the little boy I’m holding by that tree, and you always will be.

See you soon,

Aunt To-To

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