STORIES

LOVE, GRIEF, AND NCAA BASKETBALL: THE STORY OF MY HEART

April 19, 2018

Vulnerability

I began writing this blog for many reasons, but the underlying mission was to share some of the raw and real truth behind the shiny hyper-curated world of social media that we all are bombarded with every day. We look at our Facebook and Instagram feeds and see a version of people’s lives that seem, for the most part, something without a care in the world, without missteps, without struggle, without pain. A highlight reel. I’m guilty of producing that reel, and I’m guilty of believing that everyone’s reels are reality as well. Guilty of thinking their tropical vacations weren’t plagued with blow out fights with their partners or lonely nights, that their perfect little babies weren’t preceded by miscarriages and near broken marriages from infertility or infidelity, that those big fancy houses and cars weren’t paid for by back-breaking work hours and sacrificed friendships, or that person they’re mourning wasn’t flawed, their ending wasn’t horrific, and that grief isn’t complicated.

 

I’ve seen first hand time and time again what happens when we speak our truth out loud, when we’re vulnerable and brave enough to share our messy, complicated story. As the giver and receiver of this truth-sharing, when the veil is lifted, our perception of the world around us is changed, often triggering some deeper understanding of something in ourselves and our experience, and in the best case inspiring us to be more open in the hopes of paying this all forward.

 

I set out with that end-game in mind when I started writing last year, but I quickly learned achieving real vulnerability is a never-ending, complicated, and pretty brutal process. First of all, it’s wildly scary to share your private and complicated internal world, your fears, your damage, your ugly parts, and your dreams- no matter how brave you think you are. And while I’ve touched on them at times, I’ve left out some pretty big pieces of my story, pieces I was still grieving for and trying to make sense of and too filled with fear to say aloud. These pieces, pieces of lost love – lost lovers, lost father, and lost self – have shaped me in ways I’m only beginning to understand. Secondly, an unanticipated snag in the vulnerability plan: more often than not your story is so intimately intertwined with the people you love that you have to learn walk a very fine line of what is ok and not ok to bring to the surface; no matter how important it is to the narrative, some things need to stay unearthed.  So for them, even though I get frustrated and want to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I still censor, omit, and buff a little bit of shine on things to try and respect their right to choose the moment the light turns on for their own story. This piece was especially difficult, learning how best to honor and respect someone’s privacy that is no longer living – no easy feat when writing about a complicated relationship and an even more complicated human. 

 

But I’m ready now. Ready to tell you the story only a few of my closest friends know, in the closest version of the truth I can give. Ready to tell you because I know that parts of those friends’ lives, their paths, and the way they love, have changed in some beautiful ways by hearing my story. Ready to tell you because maybe something in here will resonate with you too.

An experiment: here’s some post-relevant mood music to keep you company while you read. 

Wounds

One of my favorite truth warriors, Glennon Doyle, advises to write from a scar rather than from a wound, and for all the wisdom contained in those words I have waited to write about some of the big topics that made last year a giant clusterfuck until this moment, when I have finally begun to feel the scar tissue forming.

 

The deepest of these wounds: my father’s unexpected death, one year ago today. A wound that has all the markings of the jagged and uneven healing process of grief, a wound that a year later seems to only have the most delicate layer of scar tissue, a wound that breaks open just at those moments when I start to think I’m completely fine.

 

I have tried and tried to find a way to write about his death in a way that honored his memory without pretending. Without pretending I had the first idea how to make some sort of sense of what happened, without pretending I knew how to help others dealing with the same experience, without pretending that he was a perfect man and still respecting his and my family’s privacy, and without pretending that death and grief and loss was a tidy little thing without complicated feelings and intertwined people and experiences and stories. I toyed with an idea for the better part of the last six months of relating the profound experiences and life altering lessons imparted upon me by my healer in Bali the day after my dad’s death, when I was reeling and angry at the world that I was across the globe when shit went down but then miraculously understood all the reasons why I was across the globe and why it would be essential to my grief process, and in turn my family’s. And then tying it into a neat little bow with my experience in Oaxaca during Dia de los Muertos, where families celebrate their passed loved ones with joy and storytelling and such a profound lightness that reinforced the concepts I learned in Bali about the concepts of death as a gift, the release from the suffering that is our human form and as the energy of life living on in the energy of the universe, and that family and remembrance is all there is. I even got 1000 words into the post, and while it had moments close to what I wanted to say, I still abandoned the thread because it just didn’t feel right. It felt too perfect and neat and impersonal, when death and grief was the opposite: messy and ugly and deeply tied to everything that makes you you. And while it would have been the right story for a travel blog (or whatever mixed up version of a travel blog this is), touching on the ever so important themes of how journeying to new countries and encountering other cultures and faiths shifts perspectives on big real-deal life issues and opens minds to new ways of thinking and changes lives forever, it just came down to the simple truth that while it may have been the “right” story, it was the wrong one for me, and for my dad. And that the things I would need to say in that tale, the things I would need to reveal, were too soon to escape from that sacred lockbox he and my family were not ready to open.

 

In the course of the healing process I realized what really happens when your parent dies when you’re all grown up, is that a whole heaping mess of your own shit gets stirred to the surface. The loss of one of the most important people in the history of making you, well – you, inevitably makes you face some serious parts of your origin story, take a long hard look at a lot of the reasons why you are who you are, why you feel the things you feel, think the things you think, and do the things you do, all in the own particularly specific way you feel and think and do them. A huge reason for why you are who you are is suddenly, just, gone. And you’re left with this gaping hole inside of you that you want to fill with memories and stories. And sometimes, when you think you’re doing just fine and the scars are barely visible, you have moments that, like bolts of lightning, hit you without warning, splitting you open and leaving you on the floor reeling. And more often than not, like in the aftermath of any core-shaking life or world event, you are left with some clear path-altering moments of clarity.

 

I was hit by one of these bolts last night, while in a bar watching the Michigan vs Villanova championship college basketball game, and in the aftermath I immediately decided it made all the sense in the world to write a story about my father within the context of the NCAA tournament and my love life.

 

I know. It doesn’t quite sound as profound as a spiritual awakening in Bali and Mexico, and you’re absolutely correct, it is not, but I believe it is all the more relevant to the story of my father, and in turn, the story of me. And when four entire pages of this post poured out of me onto my notes app on my phone, typed a little tipsy and single fingered, while I walked my dog upon my return from the game at midnight, I knew this was right path. The right story to tell at this point in my grief.

 

And you never have to force what’s right.

Context: #Sports and The University of Michigan Wolverines

For those of you that think basketball is played with a puck and goals are scored in football, I’ll give you a primer of why these things are a big part of my soul. I grew up in Detroit, where my my dad was born and raised, attended the University of Michigan, and raised us to become lovers of all things sports. From the time I could walk I sat in various nosebleed seats eating nachos and cheering for a bunch of grown ass men in endless outfields, fields, rinks, and courts for every team in the Motor City. Athletes were my crushes and heroes- the day I recognized Steve Yzerman on the street and demanded a hug, the time at a game when Isaiah Thomas (Sr) nearly sweat on me, and the moment I stepped foot on the Tigers’ infield to play catch with Alan Trammell in my flowered capris were the kind of pure bliss moments many girls my age reserved for musicians and movie stars (I don’t think, from the time I was 15, that I have dated someone that didn’t play a sport). I dreamed of riding a zamboni, rounding the bases, and kicking a field goal for as long as I can remember. And being a Hockey Wife (I know, as a strong independent woman I cringe that THAT is what I wanted to be when I grew up. Well, that and to own a mall. Balance!).

 

Now, that’s just the Detroit sports. The University of Michigan athletic fandom was on a whole other level: all things sports are akin to a religion at U of M – as they say, we bleed maize and blue. My first onesie was embroidered with a giant M, as a kid I would line up my stuffed animals around the living room during football games to make sure the team had an adequate cheering section, I learned the fight song long before I leaned the Star Spangled Banner, and probably learned my favorite word “fuck!” before I reached kindergarten from my dad screaming at interceptions and missed 3’s. I played soccer year-round from the time I was four, was captain of my high school team, and carry with me the trophy of a broken ankle that will always ache when it rains. It was my life and first love, but when I received a full scholarship to Wooster to play, I bowed out, even if it meant I would never play competitively again. Why?Because Michigan was in my blood. When my dad took me to Ann Arbor for my college visit and he took my photo in the stands of Big House, his smile beaming with pride, I knew that there was no other place than his alma mater for me to spend the next four years. That was how strong the pull was. As students we worked our asses off in the rigorous academic environment, but when it came to sports all thoughts of academics and majors and cramming were put on immediate hold. My football player friends were treated like royalty and the stadiums, fields, arenas, and rinks were our churches. We lived for Saturday morning tailgating, won the national championship football game my first year with Heisman winner Charles Woodson, I watched googly-eyed as Tom Brady come of age on the field, and briefly dated a basketball player until I got tired of standing on chairs to make out with him. And every step of the way I’ve never seen my dad so proud (ok, maybe not with the basketball player thing, but he practically raised me to be a cleat-chaser, so I blame it all on him).

 

Even after moving across the country to California, far away from the midwest and my family, Michigan remained a part of my story and the connection between my dad and I. Even when there was strife or distance between us, we still always texted or called on the big game days, so this year, as I sat in a bar and watching them get crushed in the final dance, next to two men my father’s age screaming at the TV’s just as he would have, I was overwhelmed with emotion when I realized I couldn’t shoot him a text to commiserate. And at that moment it hit me, maybe finally, that he was really gone. As I drove home I was sent down the rabbit hole of memory, about my dad, Michigan, basketball, and finally: how it all tied together to my love life (not an obvious sequitur, but one that will make sense soon). Now by this point in this blog of mine, you are well aware that thinking about love and what it all means ranks up there as one of my brain’s favorite pastimes, so you may not be surprised that love is a piece of this story, even if it is the story of my dad dying. But somehow it was a surprise to me to see how it all connected.

 

It hit me at that moment in the car that my love story, a story with a marquee feature in last two NCAA final games and a man who played a significant part in altering my path (games I wouldn’t have been watching if it weren’t for the way my father shaped me), is intimately intertwined with how my dad influenced the kind of men I love, and how his death gave me the gift of seeing the real stuff that people are made of.

Context: Love's Past

They say a father is a daughter’s first love, and the man that shapes the kind of partner she chooses down the road, for better or worse. My father was no exception to this rule. He wasn’t just my father, he was my champion. He loved me fiercely, held an unwavering belief that I could achieve anything I put my mind to, and freely gave me anything that would make me happy and help me along my path. I inherited some of my best qualities from him: he was fearless and a leap-taker, a traveler, adventurer, a seeker, a multi-passionate artist and a thinker, nature lover, and a deeply emotional and sensitive man. And also my worst: he was impatient with a short fuze and attention span, stubborn, restless, impulsive, selfish, emotionally volatile and prone to darkness. As I grew, because we were so similar, we butted heads often, but we were still thick as thieves. He was my biggest cheerleader in life, made it home for dinner every night, often at the stove, and was at the sideline of every soccer game, play, art show, and academic competition. He took me to my first musical, my first museum, my first Red Wings and Pistons and Lions and Tigers and Wolverines games, and bought me my first car and my first pair of soccer cleats. He was always learning, seeking, creating and exploring, whether diving and boating in the Great Lakes, peering through telescopes and dreaming of going to space, hiking, camping and constructing teepees in his beloved woods, starting a new business in the 90’s trying to convince companies they needed this crazy thing called a website, building sculptures and structures in the toolroom, developing black and white images in the red-lit darkroom, or changing careers from research in the advertising world to become a nurse in his 50’s. He was one hell of a renaissance man, and inspired me to seek greatness throughout my entire childhood.

 

As I entered college, I was shattered as I learned the harsh realities of the kind of husband he was to my mother, the kind of man he was in his personal life, and had a hard time reconciling the flawed man with the superhero father. Because of those crushing truths, and the havoc many of the traits I saw in myself had wreaked on my family, from that point on I sought to find the opposite man of my dad when looking for a partner: someone calm, steady, even, practical, all with the goal of balancing me out, of being safe from the kind of drama that had rocked my world. I spent my entire adult life dating, and marrying, someone completely different from my dad, and of myself, in a quest for that balance. It took 20 years of dating, one failed marriage, many great-on-paper candidates, and finally one Major League Baseball player to figure out what I really needed, to look at the traits I had feared for so long as the actual key to my happiness in love, and finally understand why my dad was disappointed in all my choices in love even though he couldn’t have been prouder of every other aspect of my life. It took him dying to truly understand the kind of man my father would have been proud for me to cheer alongside in head to toe maize and blue face paint.

 

It took him dying for him to speak to me in a way I finally understood.

The Husband

I married young, far too young, before either of us knew who we were, what we wanted out of life, and what real long-term commitment meant. We both thought we knew better than our parents, that we had all the secrets to a better love than they had, and that we had it all figured out. He was the polar opposite of my dad, so he was perfect. Until he wasn’t. Until I spent all my time becoming more and more of a shell of myself, losing any resemblance to the spirit I once was, burying any and all of the things that made me me, one day, one week, one month, and one year at a time.

 

Over our almost nine years together, we broke each other’s hearts over and over by the simple sad facts of loving each other far too little and both of us wanting desperately to be something we so clearly were not. When I finally had the courage to leave, after spending almost my entire 20’s together, I was convinced I would finally have the chance to be the person I knew I could be and to find the kind of love I believed in my heart of hearts existed out there in the world. At 31, I was brave enough to leave the comfort of familiar misery for the misery of the unknown, and I believed I would be rewarded for that bravery. I so much believed I would find someone, I didn’t even change my last name back because I thought I’d trade it in again soon enough. The most laughable piece of hindsight.

 

While bewildered by my choice in a husband, my dad always supported me throughout my marriage, but I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t thrilled when it was over.

Voldemort

I met a man shortly after my divorce that had all the makings of that person I was seeking. He checked all my (naively important) boxes and opened my world to all the things I had missed out on during the dormant years of my 20’s. I went all in, as all I knew of love and dating was all-in, yet when I first told him I loved him (or at least what I thought was love back then), after 6 months together, he just looked at me blankly and shut down. This was the beginning of the end, and the beginning of a 4+ year cycle of make-up/break-up, are we together or are we not?, we can’t keep doing this, I love you/I’m not sure, dating other people but still coming back to each other, something’s missing, pick me! Choose me! Love me!, cycle of being actually together 10% of that time span and that nearly broke my spirit and effectively prevented me from giving anyone else a chance at my heart. I spent the better part of the time believing I was unlovable and that I just wasn’t enough. My friends hated what he did to me so much that he earned the nickname Voldemort – he who shall not be named.

 

What I know now, that I did not know then, was that he was simply a slightly cooler, better looking, more fun version of my ex-husband with the very same issues that he had, ones perfectly suited for my own disfunction and ideas about love. While he knew all along we were not the right fit for each other, I was so single-minded in my focus of making it work and not knowing how to cut my losses and move on (as I do), that I could not see that he was 100% right. Looking back, I don’t regret my time with him. I know now that I needed those four years to meet myself again, but had no idea where to start to stand on my own. He was a safe harbor, and his rejection kept pushing me to grow while he somehow was still always there, catching me when I fell. He helped me dig deep to find much of what I had lost during my marriage, forced me to gain independence and resilience and grit, and showed me so much of what will never work for me in a partner.

 

My dad loathed him for his part in my constant heartbreak, and the one time they met he couldn’t understand why I was so in love. One night during a visit back home, in one of our off-again moments, my dad and I got in a horrible fight, where he not so kindly told me that I needed to open my eyes that Scott would never love me, he was all wrong for me, and I should walk away. This fight that had long-lasting repercussions on my relationship with my father, a fight I will regret not letting go of for the rest of my life. Furious at his cruelty, I flipped a switch in the way I interacted with him from that moment on. Looking back, I now see that while his delivery was shit, I should have listened and known that it was coming from a good place.

 

I shot the messenger.

Perfect on Paper

During the Voldemort era, I met another man who I would have loved to love, and at times I did, but again, he was carved from the same stone as the others – while kind, intelligent, hilarious, and driven, he was emotionally unavailable and closed off*, never made our relationship a priority, I still was in the loop of not giving anyone a real shot because I was so wrapped up in the drama of Scott, and I still, unbeknownst to me, had not experienced what love really felt like.

 

My dad would have loved Perry. Everyone loved Perry. On our third date, at the end of a beer bike crawl, my friends rode down the boardwalk chanting “Perry! Perry! Perry!” and proclaimed I would be an idiot if I didn’t keep him forever. But I just couldn’t, I couldn’t bring myself to feel the depth of feeling that somewhere, deep in my gut, I knew had to be there. So I cut my losses (learning!) and walked away.

 

*To this day, we’re still close and one of my favorite things is to tell him I LOVE YOU! to make him squirm, and he in turn makes a sport of making fun of all my “cut to the heart” moments of deep feeling. He’s going to have a field day with this post!

The Baseball Player

It took meeting a man that was on paper all kinds of wrong for me, so so very wrong, but in reality in the real-deal things that matter all kinds of right, to break the cycle I was in, change my entire view on relationships and feel a spark of real love for the first time in my life.

 

Ryan is the kind of man whose energy turns heads, and keeps them turned, in a room – his strength and fire and vibration make him a magnet, and when you hear his story and find out what he’s persevered through in his career and the attitude he has about it all, you can’t help but want to know him. The first time we kissed I literally got dizzy, breathless, like in the goddamn movies, and we both left the car on fire. The next night, I unequivocally cut the cord with Scott the moment Ryan declared his choice of our movie for the night would be Twilight. I instantly knew that this big hulk of a man who had teenage girl taste in movies was unlike anyone I’d ever met and would without a doubt crack my heart wide open in a way I’d never known, and all thoughts of previous loves vanished. We would listen to music and get naked and talk for hours and hours about life without the distractions I’d always needed to fill the space with someone, without television or outings or activities, without wanting to be anywhere else in the world. I had never had such an intense physical connection with someone while still loving their mind equally as much, and it opened up my mind to a while new construct of love.

 

During what I knew from the start would be our short-lived and non-committed time together for reasons that would take a whole other post to dissect, he taught me how to communicate and achieve a level of intimacy I never knew was possible before, showed me that I didn’t have to choose between passion and depth or strength and softness, and sherpa-ed me to find a side of myself, and of men, that I had no idea could exist. He challenged me to be brave, bold, and use my damn words (if you can believe it, I didn’t know how to at all back then. Without him, this blog wouldn’t even exist). It was like this small little flicker of a candle that had burning deep inside me my whole life had been all of a sudden ignited by a barrel of gasoline and my heart and soul was finally burst wide open in this giant “OH, NOW I GET IT!” moment. I experienced epiphany after epiphany about life and love, and knew that my life would be forever changed because of knowing this man. But, as I was prepared for and as these things go, he was sent to me for a brief period of time, was not in the same place in life as me, did not see love in me the way I saw the love in him, and left just as soon as I figured it all out (and with another woman at that).

 

The thing I came to realize only later on, was that Ryan was everything I had tried to squash in myself because I saw them as “too much”, too contrary,  and completely unlovable – too much fire, too much depth of emotion, too much passion, too much strength. And by being unapologetically all of these things himself, he showed me that it was possible to be the way I truly was and still be loved, because I loved him not in spite of, but because of, all these messy wild parts of him. I realized that for the first time that I loved someone exactly for who they were at that moment, without wanting to change them or wait for their potential to be realized or for what they were going to complete or balance in me. I wasn’t in love with the idea of someone, I was in love with the reality of someone, flaws and scars and fears and all, and that meant that maybe one day someone could love me like that too. And I realized, late in the game, finally, that it was better to love a person like this, a risky person, an emotional person – a wild fiery spirit, and truly deeply feel something, than to love someone safe but made you feel like you had to constantly edit and temper your true self because they were your opposite, in thinking and in feeling, and you just couldn’t see eye to eye to get to a deep place of connection. I learned that the risk was worth it, that the only possibility for a deep connected intimate love, at least for me, was to dive deep with my full heart with someone that had an endless depth of emotion to match mine. He showed me that a man could be like my dad, and all the things I admired about him and in turn myself, but without the parts I feared, the deeply troubled and tragic parts that broke my mom, my family, and me.

 

The greatest gift he gave me during this time: He taught me that I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. Afraid of myself, afraid of turning into my dad or ending up with a relationship like my parents’, afraid of feeling deep, afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of using my voice. 

 

Writing about it now, and recounting my past, I find it pretty hilariously appropriate that it took a man with two World Series rings on his fingers to get me to wake the fuck up; the only more appropriately relevant person I would have listened to would have been Tom Brady. I believe if they would have met, my dad and Ryan would have sparred for hours, Ryan gently digging through all my dad’s bullshit and my dad condescendingly testing Ryan’s intelligence and value and being as surprised as I was at every turn, and either ended up as best friends bonding over baseball or burned the damn house down after hours of butting heads. I like to think it would have been the former.

Perfect on Paper, Again

A year after I met Ryan, after many epiphanies about myself and a lot of hard work with the lessons I learned from being with him, I finally felt ready to receive the kind of love that I knew I needed. I went to a friend’s wedding with Perry as my date, we had a blast as we always do, had some pretty epic sex, and I woke the next morning thinking to myself, you know what, Stephanie? Perry is fucking awesome, and you really never gave him a fair shake. Be practical. He’s amazing, you have an incredible friendship and chemistry and SO WHAT IF HE’S NOT EMOTIONALLY AVAILABLE (My god, I actually remember saying this to myself. Read: forget everything you learned from Ryan you big idiot). I told myself that there’s no chance you can have it all, that someone like Ryan is as rare as the damn Hope Diamond so stop dreaming you could find another like him, and go with someone you know you could grow old and happy with. Someone that makes your friends cheer his name aloud and your dad would love.

 

Ok, finally, we’re at the point where  all this all leads us back to the point of this tale: love, death, and basketball.

 

Cut to: two years ago, Los Angeles.

UNC vs. Villanova: NCAA Finals 2016

My family had moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the home of the UNC Tarheels the year before, so while Michigan was out of the tournament I still went to cheer on our new hometown team. I sat in the bar with a friend, going back and forth on this decision about Perry, being wildly practical, and crafting what I would say to him to offer another shot at love. Convincing myself that it wasn’t settling, that he would open the vulnerability in his heart in time, I congratulated myself on how smart and mature I was being.

 

And then, as the Universe seems to like to do, BAM, this chubby loud gorgeous Italian thing that I would soon know as Matt walked to a bar like a goddamn freight train and stole my heart in about 30 seconds. A big, fat, impossible-to-ignore-reminder sent to literally save me, at the exact moment I needed, from settling for anything less than epic love. As he walks away following said 30 seconds to grab a drink, my friend turns to me completely wide eyed and says Oh my god, he’s Perry. And I, in turn, Yes, but my god, he’s also Ryan. I know at that moment I am complete and utter toast.

 

While Carolina suffered a devastating loss, we eased our collective pain by drinking an obscene amount of alcohol and making out in the middle of the bar like teenagers. We were inseparable from the moment we met, and I quickly felt things I had only had a glimpse of once before with Ryan. All the things that I learned about love and the kind of partner and relationship I needed and deserved, this man was the living, breathing, vision of it all. He said everything I had been waiting to hear, gave me the kind of love I had been dreaming of, and I was without a doubt 100% convinced that this was “it”. It was easy, natural, passionate, connected, and wildly fun. He looked at me like I walked on water, supported my demanding business venture as the exact kind of partner I needed, made me smile until my cheeks hurt, and challenged me to be better in all the ways just by living the way he lived. I was enamored. He met my mom two weeks in, and after he left, she was in tears, completely out of character, and turned to me with pure joy and said

 

Stephanie, I have been waiting your whole life for someone to look at you like Matt does, and for you to look at someone the way you look at him.

 

I knew my dad would love him when they finally got to meet, and was absolutely sure there was plenty of time for them to do so. The cumulative years of scars on my heart faded and my capacity for love deepened every day with him. It was life-altering.

 

Until he walked in the door as fast as he came in, one day without warning, told me I would never be his wife, he didn’t love me, was sorry, turned and walked out the door, and left me – and the country – without a trace. I was gutted, shocked, confused, and stay-in-bed-for-days-sobbing kind of depressed.

 

At that exact period in time, I found out that my dad was dying, and I faced the reality that I needed to leave the dream business I had been building, and had gone into a wild amount of debt for, due to irreconcilable differences with my business partner.

 

I was devastated at the diagnosis of my father, directionless with my career, broken-hearted and had no idea which way to turn. All in a matter of one week’s time.

 

In a unusual and serendipitous turn of events, soon after Matt ran away I found out that Ryan would be returning to Los Angeles, and in an effort to be platonically comfortable around each other in the presence of our now close-knit intertwined group of mutual friends when he returned, we reconnected. Since our parting, he had run off with a younger model to Puerto Rico, loved and lived with her since, and they had broken each other’s hearts at the exact time Matt broke mine. We soon became closely connected because of our mutual heartbreak, and as he lay immobile and lonely post-surgery in the middle of nowhere Colorado we slowly developed a deep friendship, explored the ways we had grown and changed since we had last met, and spent nearly every day helping each other through the darkness we were both experiencing. Where I had known that I could love him the first time around, it was during this long-distance intimacy that this possibility quickly turned into a very reality for me. It hit me hard and fast, and from hundreds of miles away, but I truly had never, and have never since, experienced the rich and varied waters of the things he awakened in my brain, body, and heart. He had grown in the time since we last saw each other, grown into the man I saw glimpses of the year before, but that he didn’t quite know how to be yet at that time. His relationship, heartbreak, injuries, and experiences had given him his own awakening, and it was beautiful to see him become this evolved version of himself in the raw honest way that only he could pull off. As it goes during times of serious growth, our friendship was far from sunshine and roses, and a few intense conversations and intimate encounters near and far made things complicated to say the least, but we always found our way back to being ok and toeing the line of a platonic relationship that helped us both more than it hurt us. It wasn’t long before I began to let Matt go as, through Ryan, I realized how much deeper love could be, that he and I had never even had the chance to come close to this type of intimacy I was now experiencing, and while I had believed deep in my heart it could have been the great love of my life, he never gave us that chance so I would never truly know. I had to let him go. So I slowly began to heal, started to learn how to trust gut again, re-prioritized, explored what I truly wanted out of life and love through some profound mushroom-fueled experiences, dated half-heartedly a bit here and there, fell into a tragic kind of unrequited love with Ryan more and more all the while knowing he would never, or never let himself, love me, developed a path forward with my career and location, and planned my first trip to Bali.

UNC vs. Gonzaga: NCAA Finals 2017

Last year, as my dad’s disease was quickly progressing, I had this sinking feeling that NCAA tournament would be his last. As I watched Michigan progress in the bracket, I held out hope that he would be given the joy of seeing them win a National Championship again before he died as a final gift from the Universe. I don’t even know if he was aware enough to know what was going on, but he still watched every single game.

 

Instead, Carolina made it once again, so bags packed and apartment subleased, 6am flight, I set out to watch the game, exactly one year later from the fateful meeting with Matt. I still was connected to him on social media, so I knew he was currently living in the mountains and so I’d be safe from a run-in if I went back to our favorite sports bar.

 

Until I wasn’t.

 

 

Within minutes of my first beer, in walks Matt…and his dad…and all his friends. He immediately walks over, wraps his arms around me, picks me up, plants a long deep slow kiss of death on my lips, and proceeds to tell me how much he loves me, that he hasn’t spent a day not missing me, that I was the first woman that ever made him face the shit he needed to face, that he has figured out all this said shit, and was finally ready to be with me and start our life together. It was straight out of a movie, perfectly scripted to crack my heart wide open again, every single thing I had imagined him saying wrapped up in a beautiful romantic sweeping moment that made my knees buckle. I realized I hadn’t so much as healed or let him go as put a few weak-adhesive band-aids patchworked all up on my heart. I forgot what he put me through, I forgave, because hey- isn’t all of that worth it for this epic movie-magic moment every woman dreams of?

 

After I regained my composure and stopped seeing stars everywhere I turned, I told him while he had done all his healing, I was only 80% of the way there, and Bali was my final piece in the puzzle before I could be ready to love him again. We agreed that I should go on and have an incredible experience and if we both felt the same way in a month, I’d come to Mammoth and we’d make a plan. I said goodbye to his dad, to Matt, to his friends, and flew into the sunrise.

 

I think I was still in shock as I landed in Indonesia – and with Ryan, my friends, and family beyond skeptical of Matt’s perfectly timed and stated epiphany and grand declaration, and my “if it’s too good to be true, it must be” PTSD instinct on high alert, I tried to maintain a state of hopeful skepticism. A week in, I texted him to ask if what happened was real, because it still felt like a dream. He responded that it most certainly was. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued my exploration of the island and myself.

Death Comes Knocking

Until, two weeks into my trip, while sitting in a cafe eating lunch, I received a call that would turn my world upside down.

 

My father was dead.

 

It turns out that the physical sensations that travel your body as your brain tries to comprehend something incomprehensible are just like you see in the movies. Time slows down. Your breathing becomes shallow. Lights around you get brighter and dimmer. Sensations in your body become amplified so much that you can hear your blood flowing in your ears. Then, when your brain catches up and starts to make sense of what you’ve heard, a giant ball of dread and sickness well up inside your stomach and then your chest and then your nerve endings start firing at hyperspeed and everything starts shaking. Then it all explodes and you sob. You sob like you’ve never been able to sob before. This all happened to me while my wifi signal failed immediately after the news was broken and as I got on a scooter and as I somehow drove the 5 minutes to my house so I could reconnect and find out what happened.

 

My dad was sick. We’d noticed his health failing for years, but we chalked it up to hard living. Until his balance and movements became increasingly unsteady and he started falling, until he started to not be quite all there in conversations, until his face became completely devoid of affect or movement, until things just became undeniably not right. I was far away from my family, them in North Carolina, me in California, so save from a visit a year, this entire progression was told to me in bits and pieces over frustrating and brief calls telling me not to worry. After months of scans and doctors visits where nothing was found but knowing something was terribly wrong, after being waitlisted for every neurologist in the city for months, he fell outside their home and broke his collarbone. While a horrible experience, it was a blessing, because he finally was able to see a neurologist and get the scans he needed, and he was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He was put on a drug cocktail to ease the symptoms and a physical therapy regimen to strengthen his body and mind to get him prepared for the long and steady battle ahead. While we were devastated by the diagnoses, we were relieved to finally have an answer and some sort of action plan after the many months of being in the dark and helpless. For a bit, it seemed as if the drugs were working. Until he insisted they weren’t, and stopped taking them, much to our anger and frustration. His diagnosis had been confirmed, and we attributed the lack of acceptance to his extreme stubbornness. Until my mom noticed something odd. He was having trouble moving his gaze up and down. After countless hours of digging she came across a rare disease, Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) is an uncommon brain disorder that affects movement, control of walking and balance, speech, swallowing, vision, mood and behavior, and thinking. The disease results from damage to nerve cells in the brain, and has no cure or treatment. It almost always is misdiagnosed as Parkinsons, and is rarely diagnosed until it advanced progression, and often is not confirmed until autopsy. The death is agonizing, leaving the person with no ability to walk, talk, see, and perform any basic functions. His progression was fast and furious. When I was home last August, he was walking with the help of a cane, in December, he couldn’t get up from his chair on his own, and in April, while I was in Bali, he was about ready for a wheelchair could barely care for himself without my mom’s help. He sat home, staring at the wall. Since my mom has a full time job and my family has no financial means for her not to work, he had nursing care that he hated.

 

I attended a PSP support group with him when I was home in August, and cried myself to sleep that night and many thereafter. Because while seeing the patients was horrific, seeing the caretakers, mostly wives, was far worse. They looked like they had been through war, they spoke of how their lives no longer were their own, how they were no longer partners but nurse and patient, how their friends stopped inviting them to their homes, how isolated they felt, how their entire life savings were gone from the medical care and home conversions, how they still had years of watching the person they had spend their lives with die a slow agonizing death. I thought of my mom becoming one of these women and it broke my heart into a million pieces. And I watched my father, a man who had always been fiercely independent, intellectual, and active, sit and stare at the wall, not able to communicate, read, or move.

 

I left that visit and spent months coming to the decision that I needed to leave my life, the chosen family I had made in Los Angeles, the career I had built, my home, to be with my father during the last years of his life and to help my mom with his care. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, when looking back it should have been a no-brainer, but the thought of putting my life on hold, returning home to live with my parents in landlocked North Carolina, and caring for a dying parent was something that I didn’t know how to face. Once I made the decision, I started looking at apartments in North Carolina for a September move when my lease was up. This is all happening within the context of Matt and of my failed business venture, and so, when I left for Bali, it was with full intention that it would be the last trip I took before a vastly different life back home. I never even told my dad that I had made the decision to move home, I was waiting until I returned back to LA.

 

And then, I got the call.

 

When they told me, I couldn’t process it, because the doctors had told us he had 1-2 years to live. In my mind, I had time. I had time to get my shit together before moving home. I had time to say the things I needed to say to him. I had time to forgive him for the Scott fight. I had time for Matt and I to fall in love and have them meet and love each other. I had time to tell him he was an incredible father. I had time to come live at home, show him that I cared enough, loved him enough, to be there as he died. I had time to watch more games listening to him yell at the tv. I had time.

 

Until I didn’t.

Offers of Condolences: An Awakening

Matt

He caught wind of my dad’s passing, and sent a standard condolences text. It just so happened, that at that very moment, I was facetiming with my family in the morgue to say goodbye to my dad one last time before his cremation. Matt’s text popped up over my dad’s face. Needless to say, I was broken and spinning, and I replied exactly that sentiment to the man who had just two weeks before professed his love and need to be with me.

 

Oh man 🙁 Well, keep your chin up! Remember why you went to Bali in the first place! 🙂 (SMILEY FACE?!?! WTF DUDE!)

 

I typed many versions of fuck you, until I just didn’t respond at all. I couldn’t. And then, crickets. Nothing. No follow up. No checking in on the woman who you just told two weeks ago that you loved and missed and wanted to start a life with. Nothing. Silence.

 

(Spoiler: I returned to LA after a week at home with my family and getting my dad’s belongings swiftly packed away. As the days went on, my blood continued to boil and I sat utterly confused as to what the hell happened with Matt. I can forgive the fuck up of saying the wrong thing in the face of confronting big things like death, but the silence thereafter? He knew I was back, he knew I was mourning, he knew I loved him and per his declaration he loved me too. So where the fuck was he? So I called him up and out.

The 10 minute conversation that ensued was one of the most disgusting memories I have. The conversation where Matt doesn’t understand why I was so upset, says he didn’t know if he was the one I would want to talk to while grieving based on our history, and that of course he would have been there for me if that’s what I wanted. The conversation where when I pressed on, with the what now question, he proceeds to tell me he doesn’t remember the night of the NCAA tournament game Volume 2., has no idea what he said to me, and when I lose my shit and repeat verbatim his grand proclamations of love, he replies that he is just so sorry, he tends to say things he doesn’t mean when he’s emotional and drinking.

It’s funny what happens when someone breaks your heart a second time around. The fragile stitches and patchwork scar tissue is ripped open again, issuing a familiar yet much deeper pain. A pain of, I should have known better! Didn’t you know this fool cut you so deep you had to hand poke 40 stitches all over your heart?!?! But I digress, back to the point…)

Versus: Ryan

You know those people that always seem say exactly what you need to hear when you need to hear it? The people that have such wisdom and emotional intelligence that they say even the hard tough things with love and kindness, the people that know you better than you know yourself so know just what you need to hear, the people that even when they don’t know what to say, they say just that with such bare honesty that it makes everything make sense? This is Ryan. And for these reasons he was the first person I told when I found out about my dad’s death. And the first person that made me feel like I might just be ok. He checked in on me non-stop, helped me process the things I was feeling, distracted me, and shifted the way I looked at my father and the circumstances surrounding his death in only a way that he could. He wrapped me in love and care from half a world away and I knew, during those moments, that he was truly the most special human I’d ever met.

 

The difference in the emotional intelligence of these two men had never been more glaringly apparent than at that moment. I realized that my relationship with Matt was more about the possibility of where I saw it could grow, but that idea of our possibility was never put to the test. And I do believe, this was that first test, right before I was going to open my heart to him again. A test sent from my dad. A dramatic and horrible test at that (totally my dad’s style) but one he had failed beyond my wildest dreams. The rest of my lovers past in the beginning of this story, all sent the standard, kind, texts or emails, somewhere in between the Matt and Ryan responses, just as they had been somewhere in between what I thought I needed and what I actually needed in life and love, which was also a revelation .

 

Somehow, it took my dad dying to open my eyes and finally, truly, understand what was real, and what most certainly was not.

Michigan vs. Villanova: NCAA Finals 2018

This tournament, one year after my dad’s death, one year after Matt broke my heart for a second time, one year after I learned that big moments reveal the true intentions behind glittery words, one year filled with big decisions and moves, one year filled with getting lost many times over, one year of working every day to mold my love for Ryan into a platonic one so he could remain in  my life, one year of keeping my heart for all intents and purposes tightly shuttered and closed for business while scar tissue formed, Michigan did, as the Universe goes, make it to the final game.

 

I kept thinking of how timing is certainly a bitch and how my dad would have been over the moon to watch them fight for the national championship. And how despite all my plans, and the release my dad’s death gave me from having to move back home to be there as he died, I still somehow was sitting in a bar in North Carolina, living at home, without any hope of loves past or present, and thinking on the inevitability of some things happening no matter how hard you fight them. How lessons are only revealed when you are ready to see them, and how love can be blind but death reveals the true face of most. And how almost a year after his death, a year after I first learned about love and true grief and how it reveals more about a person than I ever could have imagined, a year after Bali changed my life in all the ways, a year after a whole lot of wandering and wound healing and scar tissue growing, how even though I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be, how lucky I was to be sitting in a bar, alive, breathing, and watching a ball bounce around a court as if it were the most important thing in the world.

 

I posted up to watch the game in an alumni bar across the country from that trusty Los Angeles joint of years past (funny enough, though, Matt hails from here so I would not have been shocked based on how much the universe is fucking with me lately if he strolled up into this joint for Round 3). I sat alone, single as single could be, watching Michigan blow their shot at glory as if my dad was there beside me losing his shit. In the end, there was no triumphant win, no redeeming love story, no drama at all (save for the blind referees- I could just hear my dad screaming at them from his grave) that would have tied this story into a neat little bow. There was just me, my memories, and my scars, weaving together the story of my bleeding maize and blue broken heart; learning how to be alone, learning how to let go, and learning how to forgive.

 

When Ryan and I first started our broken-hearts club, he proclaimed it would take me a solid two-years to find my way back to my heart again. He put me on what he called my two-year plan, and while I hated the thought of that plan not including him, and it taking TWO DAMN YEARS, now that I’m coming up to the year and a half mark, I suppose he was right, as usual. While I’ve fumbled my way around in the dark for nearly two years, and while the memory of each of them are literally tattooed on three points on my body and forever in my scarred heart, I’m well on my way to learning how to let my dad, Ryan, and Matt go in the ways I need to in order to heal. I have started to become the woman I strive to be, tirelessly working on loving and trusting myself again with all my history and flaws. I am finally feeling some cracks of light creeping in once more, and am hopeful that I am nearing the moment where I will let someone in again, someone who will read this and not go running for the hills, someone who will follow the inked map on my body to the still-hidden places in my heart, someone who will embrace my scars and reveal theirs without shame, and someone who will be the man that my dad would be proud for me to stand beside, drunkenly joyous, in our chosen house of worship: The Big House.

 

It’s Great. To Be. A Michigan Wolverine. 

 

For more information on PSP and how you can help, visit www.curepsp.org

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