White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

– From the song, “Light Me Up” by Ingrid Michaelson

I was sleeping when the call came. Not quite sleeping, but not yet awake either. Drifting in and out of dreams, dreaming of things far off and beautiful, dreaming of a life different than my own.

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I heard the phone ringing in my dream too, then realized, as one does when a pleasant reverie is interrupted by the nagging insistence of the real world, that this was not actually a dream, but my cell phone, cutting through the sleepy Sunday morning with its persistent staccato. “What in the hell?” I muttered, annoyed at being pulled away from the comfort of my bed and the hazy, lovely world I inhabited there. I stumbled into the next room and found my phone where I’d left it the night before, on top of a chest of drawers.

I listened, confused, to the voicemail from my Aunt Sandy. Why was she calling me? Why was she crying? “Call me back,” she urged, her voice breaking, “Or call your father. It’s an emergency.”

I chose to dial home. It’s a decision I would later live to regret. I heard a click on the other end of the line, the receiver being lifted, strange voices echoing through my parents’ house, someone handing the telephone to my father, who was frail, hard of hearing, ill with cancer. Finally, his low, gravelly voice: “Sar?”

“Dad?” I asked, panic rising in my throat and threatening to choke out the words. “What’s going on?”

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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I will probably always mark September 23rd as a sad anniversary. From that dark day in 2012 onward, it will forever be known to me as the day I learned that my mother, Anne Popelka Kelly – my best friend, my first phone call, my most important person – was gone. Her passing was my first real experience with death, and, though there have been many others since, hers remains – for me – the most significant.

There are few things I haven’t tried, in the four years since her death, to assuage a tremendous ocean of grief. I have consulted astrologers and tarot readers. I have purchased – and barely opened – an embarrassing number of self-help books. I have seen therapists. I have tried (and abandoned) nearly every feel-good remedy, every exercise regimen, every diet. I have consumed a revolting amount of whiskey and wine and cigarettes. I have run countless miles in bad shoes on blistered feet.

I don’t think there’s any feeling heavier than guilt, any destination harder to reach than forgiveness. But if I’ve learned anything about grief in these last four years, it’s this: you cannot possibly begin to heal without releasing the first and embracing the second. I was closer to my mother than anyone else in this world, but for the past four years, I have carried a crippling amount of guilt and shame over the fact that I saw her spiraling into a black pit of despair and addiction, and stood by, watching it happen. I knew I was losing her months before she was actually lost, but not knowing what to do, I did nothing.

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It may seem counterintuitive, but it was actually another experience with death that allowed me to turn the corner on my grief. Last October, I learned that my mother’s father, my sweet Grandpa Gerry, was abruptly, terminally, ill, his doctor giving him a timeline of a mere thirty days left to live. Without thinking, I put everything else on hold and traveled back to Washington State to help with his hospice care.

For the first time in my thirty-five years, I sat with someone as they faced the end of their life, and I felt the power of a love so enormous that all my fears about what would happen to me became secondary to my desire to provide my grandfather with the care and comfort that he needed. If there is such a thing as a “good” death, he had it, and his peaceful passing filled me not only with profound gratitude, but also with an unexpected surge of hope that the world could still be a good and decent place, as well as a fierce determination to not waste any more time punishing myself for a past that had already been written.

By the time I got to that July afternoon, two months ago, sitting across from the psychic medium Fleur in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room, I knew that the weight I had saddled myself with was simply too heavy to carry anymore. And so, when Fleur told me that my mother wanted me to forgive myself, that I couldn’t have altered or changed her death in any way, I chose to believe her. And when she told me that my mother was proud of me, that she was always with me, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know that she was thinking of me, I chose to believe that, too. And I’ll tell you something: before that day, I can’t ever remember seeing a white butterfly. But now, I see them all the time. Almost every day.

I’m still sad that I couldn’t save my mother. I probably always will be. But maybe we can’t save anyone. Maybe we can only love them. And forgive them. And forgive ourselves. And maybe, by doing that, we can – to paraphrase the words of my favorite poet, Mary Oliver – save the only life we ever really can: our own.

Until next time, friends.

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Familiar.

It’s funny the little habits that you get used to.  The everyday comforts that make up your daily routine; things you don’t really notice until they’re gone.  The gym is one of those comforts for me.  I’m a person who never stops going – I’m always working, juggling projects, tackling a to-do list that continually rolls over – and exercise is a crucial tool I use to not only stay healthy and feel good about myself, but also to manage stress and to release the tensions that build up in the course of my busy life.

The other day I found myself working out in an unfamiliar gym.  It was weird.  All of the equipment was different and suddenly I didn’t know which settings to put the machines on or how much weight to lift.  I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what I was doing, all the while trying to look like I knew what I was doing so that some testosterone-fueled meathead didn’t offer to help me.  Ugh.

Wandering around this unfamiliar place, a song I always skip on my iPod (because it’s too damn sad) came on, and suddenly it was a year ago and I was back in Olympia.  After our Dad died, my sister Deirdre and I spent a week camped out in the house he shared with my Mom.  We sorted through old books and music and photos.  We did everything from ordering flowers to placing obituaries in newspapers to picking out gravestones to meeting the lawyer, to booking travel to Medford, Oregon for the memorial, to figuring out how we were going to transport Dad’s ashes to said memorial (that is a story in and of itself), and about a million other little things.  I spent a couple days essentially living in my Mom’s closet, going through piles of clothes and jewelry and beauty products, and her epic collection of Stephanie Johnson bags that I’d given her over the last eight years.

We worked hard and it was sad but it also felt good to work, to do stuff.  We’d collapse each night and wake up with the sun each morning, the to-do list never ending.  We’d talk over coffee first thing in the morning and review the day and write absolutely everything down because our brains were so frazzled with overwhelm from impossibly hard jobs and the utter emotional exhaustion of sorting through a house filled with a lifetime of memories.

After several days of this, I hit a breaking point.  The never-ending freezing February Olympia rain made the thought of running outside unappealing, but I knew I had to exercise or I was going to lose my mind.  So I told Deirdre I was taking a break from the vortex (our term for this weird, disorienting time in our lives and the Olympia house in particular; time disappeared inside the vortex) and getting a guest pass to the local 24 Hour Fitness.

And there I was.  In a gym full of unfamiliar equipment, unfamiliar faces.  My Dad had a membership there and saw a trainer 2-3 times a week until very close to the end of his life.  Dad’s trainer’s name was Dave, an exceptionally wonderful soul who, when he found out that none of Dad’s kids were able to get to Olympia for Thanksgiving, delivered a turkey to his home so that he wouldn’t miss out on his Thanksgiving meal.

I wandered around the gym, wondering what type of exercise Dad could possibly do when he was so sick, wondered at Dave’s patience, wondered if I should ask for him so that I could meet this man who’d been so kind to my father, but also knew if I met him I’d break down instantly and I couldn’t do that because I was barely, barely holding it together.

I wandered around the gym like a zombie, tried and failed at a few machines.  I finally settled on a treadmill because that I knew how to do.  And I ran and ran and ran.  And that song that I always skip came on my iPod, with lyrics about trying your best and not succeeding, about losing something you can’t replace, about learning from mistakes (fuck you, Coldplay) and this time I decided to let it play.  I can only imagine what I must have looked like.  Between the endorphin release of the run, and that stupid song and fighting so hard against the vortex that was sucking me in. Scanning the gym in this unfamiliar place, looking for my missing father (did I somehow think he’d still be there, that I’d find him?), in a town that used to be my home but was so far away from home now.

I don’t know how long I ran.  I was exhausted, I was weeping, I was drenched in sweat, but I couldn’t stop.  I knew that back in the vortex more sad jobs were waiting and I didn’t want any part of them.

There’s a lyric from a new Ingrid Michaelson song that as of late has been running through my head:  I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet.  That’s how I felt in the vortex.  That’s how I felt in that 24 Hour Fitness in Olympia.  And that’s how I felt in the unfamiliar gym the other day.  I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet.

So I guess I’ll keep running.

Until next time, friends.

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