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Lessons Julia Taught Me

I met Julia twenty years ago. I had left college after my junior year, found a job and a roommate, and taken a slight detour from the “chosen path.”

After a particularly horrendous Thanksgiving that included bounced checks, broken lamps, undercooked pumpkin bread and wretched food poisoning, I let my mom talk me into moving back to New England to share her house and start over.

My first weekend in town, I found myself at a matchbook-sized church with a tiny, round pastor and his tiny, round wife. They had heard from my mother that I could play piano, and without a pause to check the status of my soul, they ushered me to the front to coax “Amazing Grace” from the chilly keys.

Julia was there. We immediately hit it off, in spite of our 21 year age gap. We were both single, we were both starting over, we both enjoyed music. Julia played the flute and sang, and we would often sing/play duets for the church. We would go out for dinner and then chat for hours – both avoiding the lonely rooms at home.

Julia lived in a tiny apartment at the tip-top of an old Victorian house. It was barely 2 bedrooms, a napkin-sized kitchen, and a slanted hallway to a narrow bath. She had a roommate that seemed nice enough.

Julia helped me get a job. She worked in retail, I got a job at their corporate call center. Julia would have loved to work in the corporate call center, but she didn’t have the computer skills. I was able to juggle a full college schedule and work schedule. Julia would have loved to have gone back to college.

I got a promotion at work, and moved out on my own. Julia would have loved to move, but just couldn’t seem to land a job that paid her more.

I began dating and was soon engaged to be married. Julia started dating too. Fred was a very nice man, although a little bit of a fuddy duddy. But he loved Julia and she wasn’t as alone. They got engaged too.

I played the piano for her wedding in the tiny church where we had first met. I didn’t go there anymore, I’d outgrown it. But she didn’t seem to be able to let go.

Her roommate moved out and Fred moved in. She had hoped that they would be able to afford a bigger place together, but it just didn’t seem a good time.

I got married and moved in to a bigger apartment. Julia would often come to visit me – exclaiming over the room I had, and how comfortable my place was. She would often fall asleep sitting on my couch – the only place she said she could relax.

I’d try to help her make the changes she said she wanted. I tried to give her the courage to go out and get what she deserved. But the tiny pastor and the tiny church and the tiny apartment seemed to keep a tight grasp on her, and she couldn’t seem to break free.

My husband and I eventually bought a house – a cute little cottage at the bottom of a nicer-than-average street. Julia and Fred came to visit, although the drive took a little longer than normal. I’d make dinner, we’d sit and talk and have coffee, and Julia, relaxed, would fall asleep sitting on the couch with a smile on her face.

It was late August and Julia asked if she could come visit. She drove up and we had breakfast (pancakes) and then we just hung out all day – shopping, talking, laughing. She brought her flute and for the first time in a long time, we played and sang like we used to.

We chatted about our dreams – hers were the same as always: better job, bigger house, different life. I told her she just needed to go out and get it. She sighed and nodded, but didn’t seem so sure.

She napped on the couch while I did dishes, and then we had dinner and coffee and hugged and said we’d get together again soon.

Nine days later, her husband called me. Julia had strangled herself with a bungee cord in their tiny little apartment. He broke down in tears, and in his grief, blamed me for not being a better friend. I know he didn’t mean it. The family had decided to keep her suicide a secret, they felt she would not have wanted it known. I think for them it was just easier to pretend.

I went to her wake – but the body in the box was not my Julia. Her family had dressed her in this horrible outfit – the only one they could fit on her bloated body. She would have been mortified. And like the tiny apartment and tiny life she was trying to get free from, she seemed cramped in the coffin box they had put her in.

Her tiny pastor grasped my hands and asked me if I would play and sing for her funeral. I nodded my head yes, knowing that there was no one else to play. My husband couldn’t take the time off work, so the next day I drove alone down to the funeral.

Like a movie, it was rainy and dreary. The little church was full to capacity, although it didn’t take many people to fill it. I had practiced a song to sing for Julia, but when I told the pastor my selection he shook his head. “Fred wants you to sing the one you used to always perform together.”

How could I say no? Her grieving husband making a final request? I nodded my head yes. But there is nothing more depressing than a duet sung by only one.

As I made the way to the piano, I realized that they had to switch things around to make room. The piano, which usually faced the pulpit, now faced the wall. And Julia’s coffin was now directly behind me as I played.
Somehow I got through the playing and the singing, the people wanting to offer sorry and shock at her “sudden death” and not being able to tell them the real reason. I decided not to go the cemetery – I couldn’t stomach seeing my friend lowered in to the ground. I made the drive home wondering what I could have done differently, grieving the loss of a dear friend.

I felt sorry for Julia, and sorry for myself. The next day I called my assistant and told her I was not going in to work – and spent the morning restless in bed, all the memories flooding through my brain. I wanted to be angry at her for taking her life instead of taking the chance to improve it – but the grief and sorrow were too much.

I turned on the TV and watched in horror as the second plane crashed in to the World Trade Center.

The rest of the day was one lived in shock. One friend called to see if I had seen the news– and we sat in silence on the phone as we watched everything continue to unfold. Another friend buzzed in and asked if I had heard from my friend Beth, a flight attendant assigned to Flight 11. It took us over 13 hours to find out that she had been unexpectedly re-routed from her scheduled flight to have her air safety training certificate renewed and was driving back in a van from Oklahoma. My husband was evacuated from his office just outside Boston – they evacuated everyone who worked in a building with more than 4 floors, just in case. My church planned a candlelight vigil for later in the week. The phones and the television were not silent all day.

It was only later that night that I thought on Julia again. Although suicide is not something I agree with, I realized my anger had refocused. The juxtaposition of her decision to take her own life in contrast to the thousands who had that choice to live or die taken from them gave me perspective. I still miss her, I still wish things had happened differently, I still wish I could have helped her take that leap of faith to a better life and helped her not to choose death. But she did choose, and I had to let it go.

Every day we get to make choices is a day of freedom. Not having a choice is the biggest tragedy, and I am thankful for the right to choose.

And We Called Him . . . Fish Lips

In online dating, there were usually 2 kinds of guys you talked to: ones that lived close and you could realistically date, and those that lived farther away but you chatted with anyway.

JJ lived farther away.

He seemed like a nice enough fellow. He worked in data analysis, had pretty accurate spelling, and wasn’t one to ask for naughty pictures or cyber-talking. He had his own place, but lived farther away (about 4 hours one way).

I had been dating with no real connections, and JJ was always a welcome distraction. After what seemed like several months of casual chatting, JJ proposed that maybe we meet halfway for a movie and a bite to eat. It seemed like a reasonable request.

I was pretty sure he had said he was 5’9” when we first started chatting, but now his profile said 5’8.” (I’m almost 5’10” barefoot, and more like 6’2” in heels). I joked about this, and that’s when he admitted he was more like 5’7.” Not that I was going to cancel a date over height, but y’know.

He had picked out a Chinese sit-down restaurant near a movie theater, and given that our date was going to consist of mostly sitting, I took a chance and wore my knee-high black boots rather than my more height appropriate flats.

When I arrived, he was already seated, so we did the awkward half-standing hug and then I slid in to my seat. He was awkward also at small talk – something I hadn’t noticed much in our emailing or phone calls. Then again, I tend to be chatty enough by myself. When I asked about the movies, he suggested we go to the mall instead, so we could chat more and get to know each other better.

I am not a mall girl. But I tried to be a good sport, and so we rode in his car the 2 miles to the mall and began to walk around. At this point, a few things became clear: JJ may be 5’7”, but he had back problems and therefore stooped over making him more like 5’4” or 5’5”. So in my high-heeled boots I towered over him by 9-10 inches. Also, can I add – malls with slick marble floors? Not a fan.

So he shuffled and I skidded around the mall, not really stopping to look at anything. We might as well have been reprobate mall walkers. I suggested we sit and chat in one of the conversation areas set up around the mall – but again, he didn’t have a lot to say – he just smiled and stared at me a lot. Finally, I spotted a mall cafe and announced I was going to get a coffee. We sat down across from each other and he announced that he was going back to school in Oregon. To get his degree in fermentation science so he could open his own brewery. I recognize that college and beer go hand in hand, but had no idea you could study it. It was the most interesting part of the conversation. And then he just stared and smiled again.

Desperate, but not wanting to be rude, I finally confessed that I needed to get back home to read a book for the book club I ran. It was a lame excuse, but legitimate. He nodded and smiled and we walked back to his car.

He fiddled with his keys without putting them in the ignition and looked down at his lap. Then he looked up and smiled and said, “I had a great time” and leaned in for the kiss.

I admit, I melted a little inside. It was sweet. So I leaned in as well. And then . . .fish lips. Like a fish sucking for air at the top of the fish tank, JJ’s lips brushed against mine – ever moving, barely touching, just puckering and pursing against the air and my face.

And then the brain started going: How long do I have to stay like this? If I pull away too fast, he’ll feel rejected. If I stay too long, he’ll think I like it. How long is enough? It was so bizarre and weird, it was hard not to smile. I wanted to laugh, but it seemed cruel. I counted to 5 and then sat back.

The smile on my face must have made him think he’d done well. A part of me wondered if I should have told him or taught him something different. Should I do a favor for the next girl? But then again, if I tell him, would I just make it that much worse? I said nothing.

As he put the car in drive, it occurred to me – we still had to drive to my car and that meant another goodbye. How do I avoid another fishy encounter? I decided the best defense was a good offense, so when we arrived at my car, I swooped in with a kiss on the cheek, thanked him for everything, and bolted out of the car.

For an hour I drove south, that fishy feeling on my lips. I made an emergency stop at Rocker’s work.

“I need you to remind me what a good kiss feels like,” I explained. “His kiss cannot be the one left on my lips when I go to sleep.”

Thankfully, the doctor was in and soon my lips had happy memories of the day.

When I returned to dating a few months ago, JJ was on OKCupid again (still?). I didn’t contact him, he hasn’t contacted me. And I may always wonder – has he left his fishy ways? This blog may never know.

A Shout and a Whisper

On Tuesday, I had the honor to participate in “Shout Out! Against Sexual Violence,” an annual event hosted by the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.  It was the first time I had ever publicly read something out loud about my childhood molestation, and although I was told my voice remained steady and strong, my right hand was trembling like a leaf.  I was glad I hadn’t worn any jangling bracelets or big rings or I would have been a personal music factory.

I admired so many of the brave women and men (did you know that 1 of every 6 men are also a victim of sexual violations?) that got up and shared their stories.  Some did it through music, poetry, art.  Many got up and read something they had prepared, others with tears in their eyes just spoke from their hearts.  Some spoke on behalf of themselves, several shared on behalf of others. 

After it was over, 4 of us went out for dinner and it felt good to laugh and be silly after the intensity of emotions.    But invariably, the conversation ended with us circling back to the sexual harassments and abuses we have seen in the community and talking about what can be done to help. 

One of the harshest realities was how many religious communities, and particularly women, will shun the victims of abuse.  One woman was told that her rape was her fault because she had put herself in a position where she was alone with a man. Another woman was told that she had brought the sexual harassment upon herself because, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  Many were encouraged to be quiet and just get over it.

It’s hard to wrap my head around – that these acts of victim blame are still perpetuated today.  Haven’t we come further along than this?  Are we still so quick to protect the guilty and blame or discredit the abused?

In contrast, this morning I met behind closed doors with others who asked to hear my story.  To speak above a whisper about the abuse and perceptions and teachings and attitudes I knew about.  To not name names as much as to communicate failings and areas which need to be improved.

To come from an evening of such openness and then recall events so shrouded with secrecy was heartbreaking.  To boldly discuss a place of opportunity that had often been a place of judgment for me and others. Where I found myself to be found wanting in so many areas, and unable to entrust those I should with my hurt, pain, and emotional struggles.

It was liberating to tell my story to this group as we sat in this private conference room.  To unflinchingly discuss things I’d been told I shouldn’t.  I know that others told stories beyond what I had experienced, and that what I said was on the periphery of the core information they sought.  But if I helped to explain the picture just a little clearer, and to show that I had made it through to the other side, maybe I had helped.

I confronted my molester almost a decade ago, and have worked my way through to a place of healing and forgiveness now.  There are those who may read this and be worried.  Don’t be.  I was telling my story, not yours. 

When I was done, one of the interviewers leaned forward and asked me, “What do you hope to see happen as a result of what you shared?”

I thought about it for a minute.  “I don’t regret what happened to me – it has made me who I am, and helped me to understand and help others.  But I hope that maybe in the future there won’t be so many who need to be helped.  And maybe making it easier for there to be open communication, that it won’t be just brushed off with a ‘these things just happen sometimes’ shrug.  I’m not seeking to hurt or punish anyone – but to help others from having to go through this in the future.”

I’m not trying to be a  hero when I say this.  I’m just thankful I’m a survivor – and want to make sure others survive as well.

So Say We All?

Hold On Tight

The night my sister died, I was alone.  Sully was out having drinks with his best friend Pete.  I called him several times, but he didn’t answer, so I called Pete and soon Sully was on his way.

I had seen my sister just a few days before when I flew back for Easter.  At that time she had asked me rather earnestly to let her join me out in Denver.  I had said no, that this was my time to get myself together.  I was going through my divorce, learning how to be me again, and I wasn’t ready to share yet.

Now I was desperately wishing I had said yes, realizing that even that probably wouldn’t have stopped her from dying.  But the guilt was overwhelming.  So was the aloneness.  Looking out the bedroom window between the concrete buildings, wishing Sully would get there faster, it started to snow. 

Normally, snow might indicate peace and calm.  But for me, snow meant complications in flying from Denver to Boston – one more way that I wouldn’t get where I needed to be.  Then Sully finally arrived.

I cried while he held me, but it wasn’t enough.  I needed to feel closer and closer, to be enveloped in something bigger than me and my pain.  I kissed him hungrily and drew him over to my bed. He looked at me and said, “Are you sure?” and I just nodded and whispered “Please.”

Tears and kisses and caresses and pain all tumbled in to one and I clung to him like a drowning man clings to a jagged rock.  The waves of emotion that swept over me and clawed at me made me hold on tighter.  I didn’t want to think or feel anything but that moment and just find escape. 

When we finished, I could breathe again.  The pain was still there, but I could face it now. 

Sometimes, it’s not about having sex or making love.  It’s about feeling connected to the world again.  About not feeling out on the ledge by yourself.  I’ll always be grateful to Sully for giving that connection back to me.

The days, weeks and months after my sister’s death brought me to one of the darkest times in my life.  I lost my sister, than my job, than my home, than my boyfriend.  I hit rock bottom and had to crawl my way back up.

But I survived because of the people who stood by me no matter what – that sometimes understood that words were too much, that sympathy was not enough.  Sometimes you just have to hold on tight.

I Don’t Mean To Judge

Seen on a dating website:

My self-summary:  I am currently dealing with a bad back and leg pain with nerve damage and I am hoping to meet some new ppl here.

What I’m doing with my life: I am currently waiting on my lawyer to work a settlement so I can go back to school and improve my life I am wanting to do something with my life.

The gentleman who penned this saw me viewing his profile and immediately messaged me, wanting to get to know each other better.

I don’t mean to judge – but if these are the only 2 things you have on your profile (there are like 6-8 areas to fill out) this just tells me you are a little more passive and in need than I am prepared to deal with at this time.

Is that mean?  I guess it’s mean.  But to me it tells me what your doctor is doing and what your lawyer doing – but not what you are doing or your back up plan if these things don’t change.  And that worries me.


So today has been . . .interesting.

I spent most of Saturday being a sloth, and playing lots and lots of Rift.  How much is lots?  I went up 5 levels on my Eth Warrior.  (If you don’t understand that, I’m sorry – let’s just say, it was a whole lot)

I tried to get my phone repaired – they said that I would have to wait until December 1st or pay an upgrade fee.  It was hissing and clicking at me, and I can’t really talk on it – but I’m surviving amazingly well given the circumstances.  Having wifi and 2 computers help – plus its been a good reason just to ignore the world a little bit.

Sunday, a good friend came over to do Christmas decorations.  Lots and lots of Christmas shopping of said decorations and several hours of me making bows and prepping ornaments while the Small but Mighty One transformed my house from everyday to Christmas Lodge.  Rather amazing.

Today, where I was previously feeling alone, I suddenly find myself with a date on Thursday, and lots of group activities throughout the week.  Of course, I’m still broke and sick – but things are looking up.

I was emailing with a friend of mine who has also hit a hurricane of health issues far greater than mine..  I told her my theory:  that last week was kind of like an accelerated recovery course – all the crises that you have to go through to move forward to be prepared for a new relationship.  I had to remember how to be more self-reliant again – to reach out to new friends and establish new, healthier patterns apart from the dependency one has after an extended relationship.

So far – I’m doing okay.  And it’s only getting better.

On Being Thankful

So many of the things I think about these days are first world issues.  Whether I will find love, whether I will get my feelings hurt, whether I will be understood.

Today, I’d like to just focus on those things that I don’t have to think about:  where I’m going to sleep, how I’m going to pay for food or my bills, if I have a job.  Right now, even though I’m not flush with wealth, these things are all manageable.

Today I dropped my phone in a cup of coffee.  Maybe it will work tomorrow – maybe it will not.  As frustrating and annoying as it is – it is not the end of the world.  I don’t have much control over whether or not it repairs itself – and if it doesn’t work – just like everything else, I’ll just have to make it work.

I’m thankful that I don’t need a phone to survive.  It may feel hard to not play with the phone the way that I’m used to playing.  But in reality – I’ll make it.

I’m thankful for friends that seek to pick me up.  I’m thankful for family that I have by blood, and family I have by love.  I’m thankful for a warm bed, a safe neighborhood, and not waking up to the sounds of gunshot or bombs.  I’m thinkful for a bill of rights, and a chance to make a mistake and then correct it.  But most of all – I’m thankful for each day, no matter what it may bring.  Not that God should take this is a personal challenge to see if I still think this way later . . .

Upsand Downs

One of my favorite movies is Auntie Mame.  Not the Lucille Ball musical – but the Rosalind Russell gem.  And there is a scene where she meets the future in-laws at their place and is continually having to deal with their lack of couth and charm. 

Today I feel a bit like her as I politely responded to the news that my former boyfriend was officially announcing his new relationship.  He then shared that he had received the thumbs up from her friends, and that they were meeting each other’s moms. 

He politely asked if I had any prospects, and I responded, “Nope.” He offered his condolences and told me that it would happen.  I finally had to explain that I didn’t want to go down that path of conversation with him at that moment.

Whatever his reasons for sharing – I didn’t need to know. I sat still at my desk, fighting back tears.  It doesn’t matter that our break up was for the best.  I still didn’t need to be reminded that he had someone and I was back alone to start over.

My friend came to take me to lunch, and as I told her what had happened, she wanted to jump in her car and drive over and slash his tires. Although it was not anything I would ever do – I was so thankful to have someone so eager to defend me.  It made me feel a lot less alone.

Because it’s not just me – and everything is surviveable.  This is so not an uncommon thing and I’ll be fine.  We will overcome!

When It Rains, It Hurricanes

Last week I had to go to the doctor because I was having pains in my side.  After a few tests, I was diagnosed with a slight kidney infection.  I also found out that my blood pressure meds were no longer working and that I needed to add a few more prescriptions to my daily repetoire.

I’ve been definitely feeling better, but the additional expenses made me very budget-conscious.  So naturally, when my car died last night and I realized I never renewed my AAA (why bother, the former boyfriend had it) – my heart sank.

My knee-jerk reaction would be to reach out to the ex and ask for help.  I know he would have offered it.  But that wouldn’t have been healthy.  So instead, I counted on the help of my friends and my own wits, and have sussed out the situation myself.

It may seem like a natural thing to others – but to me, this was a big step. 

In the meantime, several of my friends are also taking ill.  It’s not just pouring here now – it’s a hurricane.

But in reality, how much rain can pour on you before you are just soaked and that’s it?  If you can survive a little rain or a lot of rain, it just all becomes the same and you just push on, looking for a place to get warm and dry.

Happy Birthday, Paya

Today is my father’s birthday.  And even though it has been over 9 years since we’ve talked over the phone – I’ve heard his voice many times lately. 

I loved to make my dad laugh – to see his eyes sparkle as I told him about something funny that had happened at work or while I was dating.  He was a great storyteller – and we used to love to have secret jokes together.

I remember the time when I was 8 and we went up on the garage roof and just sat together, watching the blue-black sky of the early night and bright off-white of the moon. He put his arm around me so I couldn’t fall – and I felt so fearless. I could have stayed up on that roof with him forever. 

My dad always made me think – to consider my paths.  In fact, his death was a motivating factor in my divorce.  I cringed that he died thinking that I had hitched myself to the man I did.  I wanted him to be so proud of me and to not have to worry. I still want him to be proud – and as I meet men, I often imagine what my dad would think of them.  It has saved me from several bad choices, knowing they wouldn’t meet his muster. 

If I could call him on the phone today, we would most likey talk of “walking briskly” and movies we had seen.  We’d talk about future plans to get together and eating habits and people we both knew.  And I’d tell him now what I tell him in my heart each day:  I love you and miss you so much.