We’re Nearly There: The Importance of Community

My grandfather died when I was 16 years old. I have no real memory of him – no endearing stories of “the time when Grandpa and I…” I’ve heard I once sat next to him on a piano bench, and that he was very sweet to me, his only grandchild at the time, while I listened to him play. I imagine toddler me probably helped with my chubby toddler fingers plunking away at the keys beside him while we shared our musical moment, creating a piece no one had heard before, nor will ever hear again. A perfect grandfather/granddaughter sonata as only a grandfather and grandchild can create.

By all accounts, my grandfather was quite an accomplished musician who played upwards of 17 instruments. I’ve only been able to play 5 proficiently. I still hope to add a couple more. While your bucket list may have “Tuscany,” mine has “cello.”

When he died, we weren’t informed. No one knew he had a family. There wasn’t an emergency contact the care facility had on file. In fact, we actually didn’t learn he’d passed until almost ten years after the event when my Mom started tracking him down.

My grandfather was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave in Henderson, Texas, where there is no headstone marking the site – only a number. His name was James, but maybe he went by Jim or Jimmy to his friends and family. I’ll never know because I only met him once.

My grandfather didn’t do anything to our family to deserve this end other than suffering from paranoia and schizophrenia. The reason I didn’t know him is that he spent the majority of his adult life in an institution. We didn’t visit. When I asked about him, asked what he was like, my Mom would say she didn’t want to talk about him. When I asked about his family, these great aunts and uncles I’d never met, his siblings, I was told they really didn’t want to have anything to do with him or us because of his mental illness. This seemed odd and a bit hurtful. We hadn’t done anything wrong that I was aware of other than be descended from their brother. How could someone judge me (or them) based on my grandfather’s illness? They didn’t know me. They had never spoken to me. Maybe they weren’t aware of the fact that my family tree isn’t a stick, and I actually have a lot of DNA from fairly diverse pools – not just his or his family’s. His descendants aren’t actual clones. I’m not his clone. Hey, the science of the time just wasn’t there. But apparently because he suffered from a mental illness, I’m not worthy of knowing. I’m not going to lie to you, I’m pretty delightful. I’m also exceptionally modest.

I’m aware of only one photo of him. I found it while on one of my extra-nosey Nancy Drew adventures looking for clues within my Grandmother’s framed photos. I would pop open the backs and look for hidden photos. And that’s how I found him – this young and serious face peeking back at me. A lost memory freed. I took the photo to my grandmother and tween-girl me demanded, “Who is he?” I expected to hear a story about an old friend. Maybe a cousin, or perhaps a boyfriend from college? “That’s your Grandfather.” I was stunned. I just stared at his photo – this stranger who is part of my story whom I don’t know anything about. My only real and tangible memory of him was discovering this one image. It’s now in my frame, displayed on my shelf – no longer hidden.

My Mom learned from his caseworker at the institution that my grandfather was well thought of – that he was a kind and gentle man, and that they had been saddened by his loss.

Over the years, I asked about his mother, my great-grandmother, and learned she’d also died in an institution. I always believed, and likely made-up, that she was institutionalized in North Carolina – that the family had left her behind when they moved to Texas. When I started digging for details, I discovered that not only was she a native Texan, but she was institutionalized in Austin – in a set of buildings that I had worked in. She died at 48 – in those same buildings – buildings whose halls I’ve walked through – buildings where I sat at a desk on a campus where she’d likely looked out upon from a window or even strolled through, as I have.

I taken aback, because I had no idea. We didn’t talk about her. Her illness was a mark on our family, like my grandfather’s.

I pulled up her father’s death certificate. He also died in an institution. The cause of death was from “exhaustion” after having a manic episode. It was near the three-year anniversary of the death of his daughter, my grandmother’s sister, whose death certificate indicates she had head trauma and then died… in an institution. I wanted to throw up. I had gone down this genealogical path in hopes of learning I was descended from Niall Nóigiallach or, you know, Sacagawea. I’m not picky. However, that’s not what I found. I found sadness, loneliness and abandonment in this branch.

I never knew these stories, their stories, because the stigma surrounding all of them, all of their struggles, was so awful that no one dared to openly talk about them. What would the neighbors think? What would the people at church think? What would our friends think? I have always believed my ancestors’ illnesses were a poor reflection on us – that their being ill said something terrible about me – that we would be judged by their suffering. In fact, I know that by sharing this information today, in our “enlightened” society, that some people will take what little they know about me, about things I’ve done (or will do), and they’ll now frame those actions in this particular context. “Oh, mental illness. Well, it runs deep in that family.” I even know that some people will take what they think they know about Jay and try to work my family’s personal history, something that had nothing to do with him or what happened to him, and they will try to weave it into his narrative.

Mental illness is isolating.

Most of us understand the importance of community. Just look at the word – “common” and “unity.” We thrive thanks to our community. It can give us a sense of belonging, of purpose, of identity. It bonds us together, it protects us and it provides us with support through our happiest and hardest times. Sure, there are also downsides. I’m certain the Hatfields felt a sense of community with Hatfields, and McCoys felt a sense of community with McCoys, and while the younger generations at times sought a new community, the elders weren’t having it. There’s us, and then there’s them. Go to any major sporting event, and you’ll find people, strangers, bonded together as they cheer on their team. Put those sides together at the end of the game, and riots can erupt. However, let one tragedy befall America, and we’ll cast aside political differences to come together, because we’re America. That’s also community. Incidentally, I will punch you out if you say something about Texas and you’re not from here.

There’s a reason being banished or exiled from a community is such a major punishment: the person becomes vulnerable – physically and mentally. They lose their support, they lose protection, and they lose their sense of identity/belonging – things almost all of us need to survive. At the extreme, it’s why prolonged periods of solitary confinement is so taxing on a person’s mental and emotional state. We are meant to be with a group.

We need each other to survive – to thrive.

Many times those suffering from a mental illness will not seek help – in large part, because of the stigma involved. They have a very real and valid fear that if others found out, they would be excluded from the group. Or they’d be treated to a series of denials in the form of, “You just need to buck up! Smile more! You’re not ‘really’ ill, you’re just not trying hard enough to be happy – to be well – to be sane.” So, people end up suffering and not seeking the critical medical care they need, which can lead to a series of cascading events as they attempt to address their issues on their own.

If I broke my arm, and I walked around with it hanging awkwardly at my side, wincing and grimacing with each jarring move I made, not only would family and friends try to intervene, strangers would likely stop me and say, “Honey, you need help – let me call someone.” No one would even think to suggest that if I just tried harder to have a straighter arm, it would all work out.

That’s another way we’re ignoring issues around mental illness, by telling people who suffer they’re not real.

Ignoring mental illness isn’t working.

Stigmatizing people for suffering, and stigmatizing their families, isn’t working. This failure in our society has resulted in 129 people dying each day by suicide in the US alone, and the numbers are increasing. 1 in 5 adults (20%) in America experience a mental illness. Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14, three-quarters by the age of 24. We are failing them.

Since my last post about this issue on September 22nd, approximately 2,838 Americans have died. People who were alive as I wrote my words who are no longer here today. It hasn’t even been a month. Of that total, approximately 440 of those have been our veterans. The men and women who have fought for our freedom – who sacrificed their personal freedom, their families, and their bodies to allow us to enjoy the lives we have today.

Approximately 2,322 Americans who are alive today will be gone by October 31st. That’s too many.

Right now those 2,322 people are struggling. Right now you can make a difference by reaching out to them, while they’re still here – before their pain exceeds their ability to cope – before they’re a statistic, before their family is writing a blog asking for your help.

You can make a difference.

My team is now $230 away from reaching our team goal of $5,000 in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). I’m now $400 from my personal goal. I am so grateful and in awe of the support we’ve received. I didn’t tell the team, but I honestly didn’t believe we’d make it this far. A huge thanks to everyone whose been able to make a donation.

We got this far, because as a community we have banded together to say:

  • Mental Health issues are important,
  • Finding ways to curb the ever increasing number of suicides through research is important,
  • Advocacy is important,
  • Helping survivors is important, and
  • Jay is important

People have occasionally come to me for advice on how to handle complex grief. I’m truly not an expert. I still grieve. I’m still deeply wounded. But I draw strength from my community – from my family, from my friends – they refuse to let me fall.

It will take a community coming together for one last push to reach our goal. It will take a community coming together to reduce the suicide rate in the US 20% by 2025.

If you’re able, please consider making a small donation to my team: The Jay Walkers for the Out of the Darkness Walk in Austin, which will be held on November 2nd. The money goes directly to AFSP.

We’re so close and we really need your help.

My grandfather lies in a pauper’s grave, because of the misfortune of suffering from a mental illness. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter concertos went unrealized, unheard, un-laughed about. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter moments of pouring over sheets of music, digging through scores, and having someone see music the way I see music were missed. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter hugs never happened. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter political debates weren’t enthusiastically debated.

A lifetime of being seen by his family, surrounded by their love was denied this man.

The only thing my grandfather did wrong was have a chemical imbalance in his brain. For that he was punished. For that he was exiled. For that he lies in an unmarked grave.

I walk to raise awareness about mental health issues. I walk to raise awareness about suicide. I walk because they can’t.

I need your help.

They need your help.

As always, if you see someone in crisis, assume you’re the only person who is reaching out and do so. Have a Real Conversation.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

I Won’t Be Silent

I returned to work a week after Jay died. I braced myself as I headed towards my desk; I needed to be prepared to cope with the cards and flowers that people likely left there. I needed to steel myself for the outpouring of sympathy, knowing it would be hard, but well-intentioned. It’s what we did as a group – we came together to support our teammates during their times of loss or need. Plus, for the most part, people generally like me (except that one woman who clearly has no taste). Why wouldn’t I expect a big show of support?

I wasn’t prepared for what I found as I rounded that corner. I found nothing. Absolutely nothing. No cards. No flowers. No little notes. In fact, people kept swinging by to ask me about my vacation, and I stared back at them dully, unable to speak. Others avoided me (for months). In fact, I asked one months later if they knew Jay had died. They did. They explained they didn’t know what to say, so they decided to say nothing. That friendship is dead to this day.

Let me clarify something real quick: I had an incredible core group of coworkers who rallied around me and supported me completely. They attended Jay’s memorial. They sent cards, texts, and called me on the phone. But when it came to telling the rest of the team, they found themselves in an extremely awkward situation. They worried about how to share my news and they had serious concerns about violating my privacy. Their silence on the subject was well-meaning. How do you tell everyone, “Beth’s husband died by suicide?” They decided it was better to err on the side of caution to avoid causing me additional pain. No one wanted to see me hurt more.

Unfortunately, the side effect was that I did not have the usual support that one would receive after losing a spouse. So, in the absence of a conga line of teary-eyed condolence hugs and cheer-up candy from my coworkers, I began to behave in ghastly ways. I was blunt. I was harsh. I was rude. I was unforgiving and unapologetic. When asked about my vacation, people staggered out of my office backwards while stammering out their apologies. When asked in meetings, “Is everything ok, Beth?” people suddenly wanted to end the meeting early while quickly excusing themselves. I was unpleasant on a good day, and intolerable on a bad day, and there were plenty of bad days.

I finally had to ask a team member to spread the word that Jay had died, because crushing people’s “welcome back from vacation” cheer was wearing me out.

What happened to me was not atypical.

There’s a stigma around suicide and around mental health issues. We, as a society, shy away from talking about it. If it happens in your family, you keep it in the family. I mean, what will the neighbors think? (Well, in my case, my neighbor threw Holy water over the fence into my yard.) What will your friends think? What will your co-workers think? What does it say about you, your lifestyle, your family…? And talking about it, except in hushed whispers, makes us uncomfortable.

Well, if suicide makes you uncomfortable, it should.  Here’s why – it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s steadily increasing each year. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. That same year, in the US, there were over 1.4 million attempts. There are approximately 129 suicides per day, 22 of those are veterans. Globally, over 800,000 die by suicide annually.

We need to talk about it. Hiding it isn’t working. Silence isn’t working.

People who are struggling need help, and we’re telling them to be silent. We’re telling them there’s shame in having a mental health issue – there’s shame in suffering. However, if they had a chronic condition like arthritis or asthma or even cystic fibrosis, we’d encourage them to seek treatment. If they had cancer, we’d make referrals to well-respected oncologists. We’d offer advice. Hell, we’d become WebMD authorities and merrily hop down every homeopathic trail in hopes of getting them relief.

What we wouldn’t do:

We would never ask a person with a chronic condition to suffer silently. We would never tell them they needed to smile more. We would never insinuate they were making a choice to be ill.

And if a co-worker lost a spouse to cancer, the team would rally around them because we understand cancer.  There is no shame in having a spouse die due to cancer.

Like many people who die by suicide, Jay suffered from depression. He’d suffered since he was a teen. Convincing him to see a medical professional was a battle. It took years of talking about medical intervention, and pointing out people he knew who, like him, suffered from depression but were having success with medication. I had to work on removing the stigma of seeking help just to get him to make an appointment. And once his medications started having an effect, he said something that broke my heart, “this is the first time I’ve ever felt happy.” Imagine going your whole life without knowing or remembering what “happy” felt like.

We must keep talking about suicide. We must keep talking about mental health. We must make mental health a priority.

When I first opened-up about Jay and the impact his death has had on me, I received feedback from a couple of people. They shared their personal struggles and said they didn’t fully realize how devastating suicide was to the people left behind; that my stories had made them think. Then last week another friend, also deeply was affected by Jay’s death, shared a similar story.

That’s why we keep talking about it. That’s why we cannot and should not be silenced or marginalized. Talk makes a difference. Talk saves lives.

Last year a co-worker attempted to admonish me by saying, “I don’t think you realize how much you talk about Jay.”

I will never stop.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) will also never stop. Their mission to fund important research into the best ways to prevent suicide, to advocate, educate, and provide support to those who have lost a loved one gives me hope that they will reach their goal to reduce suicide by 20% in 2025.

I believe in their mission.

That’s why on November 2nd I am walking in the Out of the Darkness Walk here in Austin, Texas. I’ve set a goal for our team of $5,000, and a personal goal of $3,000.

I believe it’s a challenging goal, but achievable with your support.

Please help by making a donation today.

We’d also be honored to have you walk with us! Just click the link! OR consider re-posting this blog post, and tell people your story.

But no matter what you decide to do, I ask one huge favor:

Never stop talking about mental health issues. Reach out to anyone you think may be struggling (assume you’re the only person who is reaching out).

Huge thanks to those who have already signed up to walk with me, and to those who have made a donation; it means a lot, it makes a huge difference, and I appreciate each of you!

If you or someone you know is in distress, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network
http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Veterans, press 1)

Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7

Veterans Crisis Line
Send a text to 838255

Is This Thing On?

I wanted to take a couple of minutes to write a quick thank you to my Facebook friends and family who recently subscribed to my blog. For starters, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that you’d take the time to actually read this thing, and for… ummm secondly? non-starters? for ‘nother reasons? you’re giving me a chance to take a break from Facebook.

I can now let my hair down and stop trying to be a Beth PR machine, because let’s face it, most days I’m not doing anything of FB note (like I suspect of most people) – not even taking pictures of my toes against an exotic background so you can have toe vacation envy. Look, my toes are near sand! Go toes!

The reality of my life, when I’m not staging toe photos, is that I spend a fair amount of time laying on the couch in some amorphous, barely human looking lumpy shape, surfing Netflix for my latest binge-worthy show, thinking something insanely sarcastic, and not doing whatever is on my chore “to-do” list. Trying to spin that into something glamorous can be a bit taxing, because apparently posting repeatedly, “was a lump again today” just doesn’t garner the “likes” once your followers realize you’re on a personal lump streak, and you’ve decided to regularly post about it like you’ve been elected as some universal lump ambassador.

Speaking of things that are grossly unfair, which we were speaking of, how is it there’s not even an app that gives you lump achievements like “One Month Lump Goal Achieved! Atta girl! Keep up the great lump work for lump kind!! Be the lump dream!” What kind of lazy world do we live in that some programmer is not all over this? Programmer dude, from me to you, get on that.

For the record, the lump selfies are pretty priceless.

So yeah, I’m taking a break from all the people who, after having not seen me in awhile, come up and say, “you do so many interesting things – I love catching up with you on FB.” I mean, yay, it makes me feel like I’m a great fiction writer, but actually trying to perpetuate that myth – the one that I’m actually interesting is exhausting. The rest of you, the ones who made the move over here, know better. Thanks for keeping my secret so long. Your payments are forthcoming. Honest. I’m totally trustworthy.

Of course, one of the things I will miss dearly is reading your stories – hearing what’s going on in your lives. So please, please, please, let me know what’s going on with you.

Remember back in the day when we all wrote letters? Drop me an email. Tell me a story. Send me a photo. Sing me a song. Make me smile and laugh like only you can do. If you want my personal email, drop me a note in Messenger, and let me know; I’m happy to share it. Or hey, let’s do something crazy, let’s catch up in person.

Quick Aside: Or How We Can Possibly Use this Space for Good

Many of you who took the plunge to follow me away from FB are out there doing some really cool things. You’re acting, directing, singing, playing, photographing, crafting, writing, teaching – creating new and interesting things that only you can create. I’d be absolutely honored to promote what you’re doing here – to give others the opportunity to see you the way I do – as the amazingly talented folks you are. Plus, quite selfishly, I just want to be invited to be in that audience celebrating you, and cheering you on. Think of it as a charitable contribution to Beth’s spinal column – that by encouraging me to get off the couch for a few hours I’ll be briefly lump-free (lump-less?), looking more like a Beth. Heck, I may even brush my hair. I know, right? That’s how much I like you! (Unless, of course, you’re IN a Netflix series, which would be pretty fantastic as it would combine my need to be lazy with my desire to celebrate you. Really a win-win scenario by my Beth-standards (which are high despite what you’ve heard). Actually, the more I think about this, the more I like it, and need you to be in Netflix for me! DO IT! Take one for Team Couch Beth!)

Wrapping it Up

Well, it does seem like this thing is on (unless you didn’t receive a notification in your news feed or your email, and in that case, how the heck did you get here?). So, welcome! Thank you guys for making the switch (and truly, for reading this blog – I cannot possibly tell you how absolutely flattered I am that you would honor me like that).

In the words of Becca (Anna Kendrick) from Pitch Perfect, “I love you awesome nerds!” I truly do.

A Great Day for a Walk

Out of the Darkness Walk 2018 – For Jay

Yesterday, 19 people – friends and family – walked in memory of Jay. Yesterday, our team joined 186 other teams in promoting the mission of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to “save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.  [They] create a culture that’s smart about mental health by engaging in the following core strategies:

  • Funding scientific research
  • Educating the public about mental health and suicide prevention
  • Advocating for public policies in mental health and suicide prevention
  • Supporting survivors of suicide loss and those affected by suicide in our mission”

To learn more about them, please follow the link provided above.

I want to take this moment to thank those who of you who sent their positive energy into the world yesterday in support of us and this cause. I want to thank those who volunteered your time and energy to be out with us on a cold Texas day. (To my friends living in the Northeast, it was cold!!! You don’t know! It was practically an arctic wasteland! Freezing. I’m sure I turned blue. I also”may” have worn four layers. Though, I suppose in all fairness, I did only plan for three, which is a perfectly reasonable amount when the temperature drops below, you know, 50 – heretofore be known as “FACT!”)

I want to thank my team who worked so hard to raise donations for this cause, and who many also contributed. We got 80 donations!! WOW!

When we started, I thought $500 would be a long shot, but I was hopeful. When we went over $3000, I was incredibly blown away and touched by everyone’s generosity.  You guys are helping to raise awareness, to fund research, and to help remove the stigmas that surround seeking help for mental illness. As we know, asking for help is never a weakness; it takes great strength.

That brings me to you guys – our donors. THANK YOU! We couldn’t have done this without your support. Several of you were kind enough to give multiple times, to multiple team members, and it all is going to such a worthy cause.

I am truly humbled by every one of you who participated.

I know over the past two years, several of you outside of my core group of family and friends have worried about me – about where I’m at in this journey, and you’ve wondered how I remained strong (sometimes, not “strong” so much as how I was able to continue to keep my head above water on the bad days, and there have been many), and to you I say look at the picture above. Look at those faces and know those are only a few of the people who have stood by me through all of the hard times. That’s my village – the people I love. They represent the ones who, when I was at my lowest moment – July 9, 2016 – stopped everything, turned their cars around, and walked through my door to create a protective shell.  We wrapped our arms around each other that day, because I wasn’t the only one who lost someone that day – Jay was a youngest son, a baby brother, an uncle, and a friend. We’re the ones left behind, and we’re the ones who stood strong yesterday as a group to honor him, and to remember that Jay was not one event on a horrible day in July; he quick witted, funny, and absolutely beautiful.

I love you guys!

Happy Anniversary

“Happy Anniversary” Jay’s whisper floated through the haze of my dreams every year on this day – spoken as he went to bed late in the night. “Happy Anniversary,” my groggy reply. “I love you.”

Today is the second year I woke up after midnight and whispered into the air that wish to an empty room. “Happy Anniversary,” spoken to the empty side of my bed – no longer our bed.

Someone told me I was strong today – for no particular reason, they just mentioned it. They had no idea that today was any different than any other day, and I suppose it’s not – not any more. It’s just a day whose lost its meaning.

I went to a quilt show once. Of all the random stories you get to hear about that now. At this quilt show hung a beautiful work of art that read, “My Son is Dead”. The card next to it explained that this is the invisible sign the artist wears every day. A sign no one sees, but that she now shouted out to the world with the creation of this quilt. And I get that.

I talk. I laugh. I tell stories. And all of that is part of who I am, but the invisible sign I wear every single day screams out, “My husband is dead” with the subtext “My favorite person is dead.” “His beautiful face.”  Some days it’s painted in bright angry colors, others are softer/more blurred, but it’s never not worn.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to talk about suicide and the aftermath. I haven’t chosen my direction, but I need you to be prepared. This may not be your topic. That’s ok. You don’t have to read or bear witness. I just have things to say, and they may not be beautiful or perfect or particularly meaningful, and that’s ok for me, too. But if you get to say I’m strong, then I get to show you all the cracks and imperfections that are also a huge part of who I am and my experience.

The Cruise: Final Installment

I suppose I’ve dragged this out long enough. This declaration has nothing to do with me running out of story ideas. Nosirree. Well, maybe… So, let me start where we started – the part where I decided I wasn’t a cruise girl, and the why behind it, picking up after some Galveston gal named Ginger tried to do me in with her obnoxious love of Scentsy, and questionable food recommendations. (Next time, we’re going to Gaido’s. I want zero arguments on this front.)

Any of my friends will tell you I’ve always wanted to travel, and they’ll probably follow that statement up with the fact that I’m exceptionally great at coming up with excuses for not travelling. Refusing to travel because of these excuses, and therefore, having never traveled, I have learned to live rather vicariously through my friend’s adventures as they regale me with tales of the distant songs of African tribesmen approaching their lodges, of fellow German tourists incensing Chinese chefs to the point said chef felt compelled to throw a cleaver into the middle of their table, to sneaking into the Forbidden City, to their private tours of the Roman baths in Malta, to “that one time in Spain…” and to drooling over every single photo my ex-pat friend takes on her hikes around New Zealand. On separate occasions, two friends have come back from Edinburgh, and not realizing the other had said it, expressed with absolute certainty that I needed to go and would love it. Each had gone on a particular tour, they knew I would completely dig beyond reason, and they’re right. Instead, on my one trip out of the country, I went to Montreal, which was lovely but… (No offense Irina. If I’d only known you and Ben then… Well, we would have had to have received your parent’s permission to hang out with us. Is the couch still open for visits/living if I become an ex-pat myself?)

A few months before Jay passed away, I got a passport. We were going places, I was excited, we would explore the world together, and then one day in July we weren’t. And then I blew out my knee, and then Sam passed away, and all the excuses piled back up along with a firm understanding that I would always have these unrealized dreams. Forget that I have a place to stay in Japan. Forget I have a friend to hang out with in New Zealand. I wasn’t going, but I would do my best to enjoy the postcards I’d receive, and sing praises about the posted photos from friends’ trips.

So, there I was on a cruise heading to three separate ports: Cozumel, Belize City, and Roatan (off the cost of Honduras). We had excursions planned for the first two, and a relaxing day on the beach planned for the other.

In Cozumel we did a Tastes of Mexico tour where we sampled tequila, made chocolate, and enjoyed some tacos.  The tour was solid, and my take away was: I like tequila in many things, but sipping tequila, swishing it around my mouth, and holding it there doesn’t make it any better – it just kind of burns the whole inside of your mouth instead of the back of your throat, which is right and proper despite what our guide was saying. And while I appreciate that our guide’s grandmother did this daily and lived to be 200, she is tougher than I am, and she likely has no taste buds. (And also may have questionable taste – no offense.) Also, you can dress Jose Cuervo up, call it the 1800 series, and it’s still not that great (unless in a drink). I also learned I love pineapple margaritas, and have now learned how to make them. Swing by my house; I’m ready to serve! I even have the chili/salt mix to rim the glass – so much better than plain salt. We also learned that everyone at that location would like a tip, and by the time we reached the fourth tip jar, we were kind of done, which was right at the taco server’s station, and I’m pretty sure she wanted to throw tacos at our heads.

Jose Cuervo 1800 Series – “Sipping” Tequila

In Belize we drove to Xuantunich, which I mentioned is on the border with Guatemala. Here we had an amazing guide who told us about the culture, history, politics (they just recently held an election in March), and natural features of Belize. In fact, if we pointed out an animal, he’d reach down, grab a laminated info sheet, and have us pass it around. If we pointed out a butterfly, out came the laminated butterfly info sheet. I suspect, he had a laminated sheet for everything. He was kind of the Belizean Mary Poppins with a magical bag of laminated info sheets.  We learned there were two major political parties, that a disproportionate amount of critters in Belize are deadly and murderous, and the country produces a million (exact figure) varieties of mangos – along with having no zoning laws, $10/gallon gas (approximately $5 US, but still), and howler monkeys! (Also, some rather amorous lizards who perform a happy little hoppy dance at the conclusion of their good times. High claw, iguana dude! Sorry about the voyeuristic gals taking photos. Humans. Am I right?)

In Roatan, we just looked at shops, went on a nature trail, and spent the day on the beach and in the water.

And when I first started talking about the trip, all I could say was it felt as if I never left the US thanks to the commercialization, and how everything is bent around capturing dollars from tourists – all the duty free shops, the “Made in China” goods, etc. My first trip out of the country seemed like a let down – like I hadn’t gone anywhere, and I was disappointed. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have a fine time, it just felt like I’d hit the Mercado in San Antonio and slept on a boat.

While on the ship, we’d spend the nights looking for things to do, and found ourselves at places like the piano bar with a Rod Stewart wanna be who went by the name “Roddy,” and who didn’t quite get the songs he was playing – he wins for oddest version of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve heard to date, but let’s say that by the end of the trip I was prepared to punch anyone who started singing “Sweet Caroline.” Then there was a couple of nights listening to bad karaoke, some trivia contests, a 70’s club, and a night of 80’s Rock & Glow dancing where there was a dance-off, and I was unfazed… until I stepped away from it all, so let me recap this paragraph after having time to really think about it.

While on the ship, I danced! I had forgotten how much I missed dancing. It started in the lobby one night, then there was the night at the 70’s club while I clung to my disco ball glass that I love, and ended with all of us dancing until they closed the party down for the 80’s Rock & Glow night – where we were completely decked out in every glow stick piece of jewelry one could imagine. This was the night my beautiful cousin Kim WON the ladies dance competition, and was completely robbed when she went head-to-head against the male champion. I’m sure he cheated. 🙂 The crowd, who’d formed a circle around them, knew it was “on” when Kim kicked off her sandals.  It got real in that moment, y’all. Kim wasn’t playing! At the end of it Kim said, “if I can do that, I can do anything!” Yes, she can! She was AWESOME! and AMAZING, and BEAUTIFUL!! I may have hurt my own ears scream cheering her on. Kim had been selected from the crowd after showing us all how it was done in the Thriller dance – best ladies zombie dancer out there! I also learned I need some work on the electric slide, but I’m up for the challenge!

Dancing reinforced that my knee could take it (within reason, of course) when I really thought I would never be able to dance again.

We won not one but TWO trivia contests. The last one was 80’s music trivia where we all received medals and a golden ship. Also, I need to say here I’m embarrassed for the other participants who couldn’t identify Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” from the first two notes. Come on!! I had a good showing in the Game of Thrones trivia, but really needed someone who’d read the books on my team. Pike, are you kidding me? By the way, I kind of love it that a friend of mine found me by looking at the schedule of activities and realizing, “yep, that’s where Beth is going to be.” Also, without having ever watched GoT, she helped me answer the first question. This is the same person who knew I’d be in the gym early in the morning. My friends get me.

I swam in the ocean! I haven’t donned a bathing suit in years, and there I was bobbing away and happy as I could be. I could have stayed out there all day. The ocean was the best! I love the water!

I went to Belize! I had a two hour trip to and from the Guatemalan border learning all of these things I’d never known about Belize, and I want to go back and spend time, and eat at least a ton of the millions (actual number, as mentioned before) of mangoes. Apparently, there’s a non-stop flight from Austin to Belize City, and it turns out that I have a passport. I also climbed Mayan ruins with a banged up knee, and I didn’t get winded, AND I didn’t go tumbling down, AND I didn’t have to be part of some emergency med evac as I’d anticipated.

I did abs with Gaybor, and was happy when I could keep up, including the plank part. (We will not mention here that my planks at home always get adjusted, and I may have figured out a way to easier planking. Go me! Shifting forward makes it so much harder.)

Gaybor – Exceptionally Inspirational Ab Coach (Hey, I’m old, not dead. Plus, Heather took the photo, so… well, I know my inner 16 year old cheered when she did it. 🙂 He’s a solid volleyball player, too. Just sayin’.)

During the entire trip, I had my phone off, which was absolutely liberating. I slept better than I had in months, thus ending months of insomnia. I’ll also admit, that until the super choppy day on sea, I didn’t really feel the ship move. I could tune it in or out, so I was showing off this newly found skill whenever I could. I brought Dramamine, and I never had cause to use it.

I watched the sun rise and set over the ocean.

In sum – I laughed a lot, I danced a lot, I relaxed, and I spent a solid week with my family and my friends – uninterrupted time I never get with them. I had the absolute best time I’ve had in a long time with people I love. I couldn’t ask for a better experience.  And while I still want to travel properly – wander the hidden paths, escape the commercialism and the demands that I “consume” things, I would do this all again with the same people. (Though, I’d take on an additional friend or two who couldn’t make it.)

Sunset with the Girls

So, who wants to sail with me from Miami to Havana?

Now go read the Game of Thrones series, and memorize this opening (I need you to be prepared):

Spa Day: A Fancy Cruise Story

I’m not really a fancy lady. I’d never gone to a proper spa nor had I ever had a professional massage until this cruise.  You see, spas and professional massages seemed like things fancy ladies did with their fancy disposable income. Whereas my disposable income tends to go towards things that appeal to say goofy men with Peter Pan syndrome. You know, the absolute antithesis (or arch nemesis, perhaps) of a proper “fancy lady,” but definitely someone Mary Martin could sing about.  And here I was on this fancy cruise, with my fancy friends and my fancy family, thinking maybe my fancy little back might deserve a fancy little rub on one of these “fun days at sea”. It turns out that for me, my fancy little traps, thanks to fancy leisurely rowing, are a little (lot) tight. In fact, they sense I’m typing about them now, and they’re tensing up just to get some attention (or it could be that I’m sitting at a desk and have been all day – or it could be that I threw a lot of axes last night (I’m not kidding, I totally did that) Anyway, I can anthropomorphize my trapezius muscle if I want to – you worry about yourself).

(For Heather :))

So, on Day 2 of the cruise I made my way to the ship’s spa and signed up. Now the original idea was to get a deep tissue massage, but that turned into The Manager’s Special with its promises of bamboo, hot oil, a facial, something with my feet, and the clear promise I’d emerge relaxed and fancy. Dream massage was sooo… dreamy.

My friend Heather prepped me on what to expect. See, one reason I dislike a lot of fancy things is that sometimes I fear there are certain unspoken rules, or rituals one must follow that everyone else is in the know about except for me. I mean, what if I did something wrong? I could be spa-shamed! Then that information would likely travel through the back channels of the masseuse/masseur world, and the next thing you know I’d be eyed warily every time I passed a spa, massage parlor, or sidewalk carnivorous foot nibbling fish bucket purveyor. I wouldn’t live it down! EVER!!! Breathe Beth, BREATHE! I can do this.

When I enter the room it’s pleasantly dim, smells delightful, the music is peaceful if a bit new age-y, and the masseuse speaks in a soothing calm voice. Whew. I can do this! She begins my brushing my arms and legs with a cactus bristle brush. She explains it’s used on autistic children to calm them down. I ummm… wait. What? What are you saying? Am I being odd? I don’t know. Quick check. Ok, well other than the talking in your head thing. People do that, you know. Don’t be a freak. Breathe. Make polite conversation. “Interesting.” Good one. Nice save. I can do this?

I’ll fast forward a bit, because pretty much it could be boiled down to: hot things on my body feel great, and all of my muscles being rubbed also feel great (save maybe some knots that couldn’t be worked out in my shoulders).  And being called “dahhh’ling” excessively is vaguely annoying, but tolerable because of the aforementioned hot things and massage. Then we hit part of the appointment that was the hard sell, and the hard sell went a bit like this:

Dahhhling, your back muscles are a complete MESS (in the most disappointed/horrified/silky voice ever). There are crystals forming in your back, and the muscles are LEECHING calcium from your bones, Dahhhling.  For $170 you can buy this amino acid that you just apply a few drops to your shoulders, and that will break up the crystals.

What? I’m not sure that’s even real science. (Inner voice)

Dahhhling, you may need a back massage once or twice a week, and it will never be right. It’s just a temporary fix, Dahhhling. Are you sure you don’t want the drops? No? Let me put those away then.

Dahhhling, your skin is so dry. You look old! You must moisturize. Here are (insert a host of products being lined up one by one starting as low as $45 and scaling up to about $80) that will make you look much younger. Even I use them, and I am 27, can you believe it?

No. I would have gone younger. (Inner voice)

Dahhhling, now here’s the final bill. You’ll see the 18% tip has been applied; however, you may tip more if you wish.

Bless your sweet little heart, darlin’, I do not wish, but thanks for the opportunity. (Inner voice)

By the time Heather got to me in the spa lobby, having had a wonderful massage, I was in a fetal position (on the inside) and feeling vaguely sticky, withered, like an un-moisturized husk who clearly looks every bit of 80. We won’t even talk about these parasitic muscles.

And that’s how I spent a part of the second day while trying to be fancy on the cruise, and six days later, when people asked for my opinion about the cruise, it added to what annoyed me. And yes, this always had to be the second story. It continues to set-up my initial knee-jerk reaction, but as I mentioned before, there’s always more to a story, and there’s still more to this one.

Welcome to installment part deux!

A Simple Wish

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself. –Neil Gaiman

At the beginning of 2017 I was given a box that held 260 colorful envelopes filled with notes/quotes/questions/advice from my friends and family. These lunchbox notes were to accompany me each day of work and were to be opened at lunch (thus, the name).  There were instructions directing me to open one first, and it ended up containing the quote above.  These, in turn, became the things I wanted to achieve – a list of what I wanted to accomplish throughout the year – a road map – a bucket list.

So, I wrote a little more. Maybe not sketches, as I’d planned. It turns out that in this political climate my attempts at satire have too sharp an edge to them. I started turning off NPR more (sorry guys, I still love you) and sang more, replacing the news with singing – each time I got into the car.  I even made it out to karaoke, something I hadn’t done in years, and belted out a little Lady Gaga, ABBA, and Kansas. I now have a baby stereo system in the house where I repeat the show daily. (To the delight of my neighbors, Elle King’s America’s Sweetheart is my current go-to.) I made some art, and sent cards off to friends and family. To surprise myself, I entered the Warrior Dash, and I can say I was in fact surprised in the end. This one set me back a bit, causing all of the things to stop, and me to momentarily forget the list.

As I grew stronger, I was able to dive back in – writing, singing, reading, laughing, and creating.  The only one left to tackle was “kiss someone who thinks [I’m] wonderful.” So, a month ago I decided “screw it” and I re-entered the online dating world to give it a more serious try.  I went on three dates over five days. André, of the infamous meltdown, was the first. See below for a recap.

The second was Todd. I have to admit that over the past three weeks I became a 16 year-old girl when it came to all things Todd – a distracted girly mess. One of my male friends joked, “hell, I’m starting to have a crush on Todd” thanks to all of my incessant Todd talk, usually followed by, “do you want to see his picture?” It was terrible, and kind of fun, and it reminded me of staying on the phone for hours in high school, of passing notes, of having my girlfriends spend the night, of listening to music in the darkness of my room, and of daydreaming. He was a reminder that I was still alive, and still able to be reduced to a blushy, giddy little girl mess.

I met Todd a day or two after the André-no-I-don’t-want-to-drive-to-Costco-for-the-great-gas-don’t-put-your-face-near-my-face incident. I went to his place, knowing my adopted big brothers would not be pleased for safety reasons, and watched him put together a doll house for his granddaughter. He was just as beautiful in person, and also very simple in ways I won’t be able to quite convey here.

A few highlights from that evening: He told me, “I’d totally mack with you, but I’ve had a lot of coffee, and I don’t like to kiss with coffee breath.” Wow, umm… I don’t think anyone has ever said they’d “mack” with me. I’m not sure I’ve “macked” with anyone. Maybe I’m not a macker? If we “macked” would this count towards my “…kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful?” Gaiman didn’t say anything about “macking with someone.” Then Todd professed his love of the phrase “that’s what she said” and probably used it 15-20 different times. Apparently, she says a lot. Todd expressed with certainty that a whole comedy routine based on that line would quite possibly be the best stand-up comedy routine ever.  I’m not so sure. I threw in a few “that’s what she said” lines to make him happy, and he giggled gleefully (alliteration also makes him happy) while continuing to work on this dollhouse (a bit of a structural mess, but it also made him happy). I then turned the conversation to why he loved the town we’re in, because frankly it’s a sea of HOA’s to me, and I hoped he might have some insight that would make me see it differently. His response: “I’m near three strip clubs.” Oh… “Yeah, I love strip clubs and I would totally pay for you to get a lap dance.” At this I had to say, “That actually wouldn’t do anything for me, but thank you.” He smiled and offered up, “well, it would do something for me.” Ohhhh kay… (For any of you thinking a strip club birthday gift card might make the perfect gift, you should give that to someone else.) I got a tour of his apartment and the multiple 8″x10″ prom pictures proudly displayed on the walls. I have to confess, my prom pictures are still in the “vintage” envelope they came in. (Sorry David! I did put one in a photo album and used it for a #TBT thing on FB.)

We ended with a side hug, and I sighed… so pretty. There goes my 16 year old girl, and a 49 year old woman drove home – music blaring, while singing at the top of her lungs.

Two days later, I had coffee with the runner post my half marathon (where I did surprise myself). He was absolutely brilliant. Smart, engaging, a fantastic storyteller (and we all know how I love good stories), and I was none of those things in return. And while I recognize I’m not his type physically, he’s the kind of person who absolutely should be one of my friends. I was lamenting this to my aunt yesterday, and she kindly offered to call him up and explain how great I was.  “You know if you want me to, I’d do it,” which made me laugh. All I could picture was a call that might sound like, “Hi, this is Beth’s aunt. She’s really great; you’d really like her. I’m so proud of her. Anyway, she thinks you’re really neat. She has a lot of really neat friends, so if she thinks you’re neat, then there’s probably something special about you. You should really be her friend. I’m going to have a get together at Easter, and she knows she’s always welcome. You could come, too.” While I loved this idea, and it made my heart smile, I can only imagine how that would sound to a stranger. “Please reconsider being my niece’s friend. We love her.” I love my aunt, and I love that she was serious. Also, a side note to my friends: she really does think you guys are neat. Also, damnit, he was really cool.

So Neil, I failed a little when it came to living up to your New Year’s wishes.

While the year continued to hold a few more hardship, it was also one that was filled with magic, and dreams, and good madness. I read some fine books. I made some art – I wrote, I drew a little, I sang loudly and often, I laughed, and I surprised myself (half marathon!!).  I was surrounded with the best people. Old friends, new friends, and family… and though there were tears, there was more joy.

I plan to do more of that next year.  And maybe… just maybe… I’ll “mack” with someone who thinks I’m wonderful.

Dedication: This was for Tori who suggested I had another blog piece in me before the end of the year. Hears to you, kid!

Jay Anthony Utz: 2/25/1976 – 7/9/2016

There wasn’t an official obituary announcing to the world the loss of my husband. Of all the things we had to deal with that day, and for the days that followed, this was one we pushed to the side. If you planned well, or worked with any funeral service, someone will likely handle this detail. We did not. We were reeling.

I learned that in trying to settle Jay’s affairs that there are companies who really would like one to prove a death has occurred by means of an obituary. I suppose a medical examiner’s report or a death certificate doesn’t carry the weight that an obituary posted in the newspaper does.

So, I give you this – for all the people who need one…

Jay Anthony Utz

Jay Anthony Utz of Pflugerville, TX passed away on Saturday, July 9, 2016.

A memorial was held at 10am on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at Restoration Covenant Church in Round Rock with Jay’s aunt, the Rev. Marsha Emery officiating.

Jay was born in San Antonio, Texas to Lois and Samuel Utz on February 25, 1976. He married Beth Doughty on May 21, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Jay is survived by his wife, Beth Doughty; his sister and brothers Enid Celeste Kowalik, Joel Samuel Utz, and Dale Eldon Utz; his parents, Lois Margaret and Samuel Franklin Utz; and his nephews and niece, Everett, Zachary and Katy Kowalik.

Beth’s aunt, Philis Goodwin read the following on Beth’s behalf:

Today we say goodbye to a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, and a friend who left us all too soon with so many words left unsaid, so many adventures left to do, so many wry/sardonic laughs left un-chortled, and so much love left unexpressed. For me I’m saying goodbye to my best friend, my confidante, my co-conspirator, my teacher, my hero, my voice of reason, and the only adult in the house.  And today and for all the days to come, I’m also saying goodbye to my very favorite person in this world.  The best person I know.

Monday was our 202nd Monthiversary which celebrates the day we started dating – it’s a ridiculous holiday unless you’re us. It also happens to be my very favorite.  This was the day I’d try my level best to wish him a Happy Monthiversary first.  I never really told him we were in competition, but still he almost always managed to win.  

And this is also one of the thousands of things I’ll miss.

Jay was the person who stayed with me each night until I fell asleep.  Then he’d be there when I’d wake in the middle of the night to ask important questions like: What’s the difference between alternating and direct current? Tell me about stationary objects in motion.  And he’d patiently answer until I was satisfied I completely understood and I’d wander off to fall back asleep. I suspect he shook his head when my back was turned, but I have no proof.

On the plane Saturday I realized I didn’t completely understand how planes generated lift, so I made a mental note to discover this information on our ride home.

There wasn’t a ride home – not with Jay, not on this Saturday when my best friend felt he had to leave.

Someone suggested I might be angry, and if I’m angry about anything it’s at this faceless disease called depression.  I’m angry that it took away the best person I know.  I’m angry it made him feel worthless and that it blinded him to being able to realize how amazing he truly was.  I’m angry that he tried and didn’t get the help he needed to fight it.  I’m angry it made him see so much bad about himself when all I could ever see was good and kind and beautiful, and he was absolutely beautiful. It robbed me of laughs, of the one person who understood me, of a thousand inside jokes, and a thousand more kisses.  It took away our ridiculous Monthiversaries, and it took away my favorite person.

I love you, Jay. You said I deserved better, but there will never be better than you.  You are the love of my life, and I miss you so much.

Jay’s brother Dale also spoke and shared personal stories that helped further bring to life a person whom we will all miss dearly – with whom we’ll never get to share another laugh, nor enjoy another character like “Laguardia”.