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I will do it afraid
Loving other people is the bravest thing we can do.
It has now been six years since my husband Jamie died. And while each February 4th has been different, one thing remains the same: My mind and body automatically recall the timeline of that fateful morning.
Depending on when I wake up, I think of what had already passed — the kiss goodbye, the coffee I drank while waiting along the race course, the pleasant conversation with friends — and what was still to come.
February 4th fell on a Saturday this year, the same day of the week that Jamie died. I got out of bed not long after 8:00, groggy but grateful to get a little extra sleep on a hard day. I shuffled into the living room, where my two-year-old was eating breakfast and watching Peppa Pig.
“Good morning, honey!” I said as her sweet little face broke into a giant smile. I swept her into a hug. She was still snug and warm in her pajamas.
I took a deep breath, trying to stay in the moment. But there it was. Oh. This is about the time that Jamie ran past us, I thought.
We were standing at mile nine of the 13.1-mile race, giddy from waiting and eager to cheer. My friends and I took a silly group selfie while shouting from the sidelines. In the background of the photo, Jamie offered a tired half wave.
I hugged my daughter a little bit tighter. She’s here. She’s alive.
I then headed to the kitchen, where Billy had coffee waiting for me. He gave me a gentle hug, and asked how I was feeling. We went over our plans. He’ll drop our girl off to spend the day with my mom and aunt. I’ll go hiking. He’ll pick up groceries and enjoy some quiet time alone. We’ll watch a movie together tonight.
At that moment, we were a team. I rested my head on Billy’s shoulder. That fateful timeline, sometimes a whisper, came roaring back. This won’t last forever.
I dressed my daughter in warm clothes for the day, lots of layers for an unusually chilly morning. It was 75 degrees in 2017, cloudy then sunny. I took a photo because it was such a beautiful day. I planned to post it on Instagram after the race.
My toddler’s laugh brought me back to the present moment. “Dis a mu-jick heart!” she said, pointing to the heart with musical notes on her sweatshirt. It’s a hand-me-down, but new to her, and she was delighted by the design. “I love it!” she shouted. I want to bottle up her tiny, high-pitched voice and hold onto it as long as I can.
I was heading to the finish line to meet Jamie. I couldn’t wait to celebrate with him.
I joined Billy in the living room, where he and I wrestled our wiggly toddler into boots and a puffy jacket. “What do you think you’ll do today? Are you excited?” we asked, trading turns preparing her for the day ahead. “I’ll miss you!” I said to both of them. They each gave me a hug and kiss and headed out the door.
For a brief moment, my brain, like my house, was quiet. But not for long. This is it, I thought, taking a sharp breath. I was waiting at the finish line, wondering why Jamie hadn’t crossed yet.
When Billy returned home, we sat on the couch together. I told him about the timeline that had been playing through my head all morning. “By this point, Jamie was pronounced dead,” I shared. It was 10:20 a.m. The day had barely begun.
As humans, we tend to look at others at any given moment and believe that we have a good idea of what their life must be like. We see someone who is fashionable and think that they always know exactly what to wear. We see someone who travels to exotic places and imagine that they are always doing exciting things. We see someone sharing a professional announcement and think that they are a confident, successful person — always, no matter what.
Then we look at ourselves. And we wonder why we can’t seem to figure it out. Why aren’t we as fashionable, exciting, or successful? Why aren’t we as happy as they must be? Why haven’t we cracked the code yet?
Of course, there’s no code to crack. Those people you admire are struggling just the same as you are. They have their own insecurities, their own private challenges, their own what-ifs. Just like you, they have plenty of ups and downs. And they, too, will experience horrible moments when everything comes crashing down.
One of the reasons I love writing this newsletter versus producing something finite like, say, a book, is that it gives me room to show how much life shifts and changes. If something I wrote or believed transforms over time, I can share that transformation with you as it occurs. The confidence I feel today can easily evaporate tomorrow. The place where my life is right now is a temporary one.
Knowing that things will change — that we will grow and learn, and can share our growth and lessons with others — is wonderful. But the ephemeral nature of life is terrifying too. This moment will not last.
A year after Jamie died, I gave a speech to a standing-room-only audience. The talk was hosted by CreativeMornings, a global breakfast lecture series that centers around a different theme each month. The theme for my talk was anxiety, and I spoke about how losing my husband — ironically — helped me to better manage my anxious thoughts.
I rewatched that talk this weekend, and I was struck by how vibrant I seemed, how confident I was. I was all laughs and jokes, poise and grace. There was a slight shake in my voice, but besides that, it was difficult to tell that I was nervous, much less grieving.
As I watched the video, I felt intimidated by that past version of myself. There I was, a year out from becoming a widow, full of confidence and good advice! And here I am now, five years later, feeling a lot less buoyant.
But then I remembered that I was observing a snippet of time. From the outside, I came across as well-adjusted and composed. The reality was that I turned on my brightest light to deliver that speech, after months of wallowing in darkness. I practiced my lines endlessly. I smiled as wide and made as many jokes as I did to protect myself from crying — something I did more often than not. The person on that stage wasn’t an accurate representation of the everyday me, someone who was still very much finding her way a year after becoming a widow.
Still, I gave that talk. At one point, I shared, “One of the things I was most anxious about today was that I had to do this alone, and that I didn’t have my number one fan in the crowd.” I explained that years earlier, when I’d given a similar talk, Jamie was right in the front row, cheering me on. Afterwards, we got lunch and spent a lovely day together.
“I drove here alone, and I’m eventually going to go home alone,” I continued. “And that is still really hard for me.”
“But the fact that I had to do this talk alone today was not a good enough reason to not do this talk,” I added.
Watching my presentation now hits differently than it did five years ago. Off to the side of the stage was Billy — the man who is now my life partner and father to our wonderful girl. We met that day, and would go on our first date several months later.
My number one fan was sitting in the audience, after all. I just didn’t know it yet.
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This is not a story about finding love again. It’s not about the myth that I found a new partner and, boom!, life is back to a good place.
It’s about finding the bravery to love again. Today, when I watch that talk — when I see that version of me, at that moment in time — I think about how she’s brave not only to get on stage, but to later make choices that allow her to open her heart again to someone new. She knew what happened the morning of February 4, 2017. And, with that knowledge, she made choices that led her to February 4, 2023 — a normal-from-the-outside day that began with sweet toddler kisses and kitchen hugs.
We intuitively know that we will die, and that everyone we love will die. But it’s not until you experience a close death firsthand that you know how life-shattering loss can really be. And it’s not until that point that you discover how insanely brave we all are, to fall in love and make friends and bring new people into this world.
Each day, we open our hearts — to the possibility of love and to the inevitability of pain.
If I were to take a snapshot of my life today, it’d look pretty sweet. It’s not especially flashy or fancy, but it’s packed with love. Billy is alive. My precious daughter is alive. My mom and brother and many aunts and uncles and cousins are alive. I just got a text from a friend who’s alive. I am sitting at a desk with flowers from another friend who is alive. I am alive. I feel happy and grateful and a little bit sad, because I know that this moment won’t last.
Not long after I watched that video of my talk, I went to the kitchen to make dinner. I picked a random podcast to listen to — an interview between comedic actor Tony Hale and happiness scholar Dr. Laurie Santos — and I smiled when I realized how much their conversation complimented the speech I gave all those years ago.
During their conversation, Hale spoke candidly about his own struggles with anxiety. He described how scared he was about the possibility of having a panic attack during performances. “It was just absolute terror,” he said.
But Hale kept getting back on stage. He told Santos about the Christian speaker Joyce Myers, “who would always say, many times we feel like we have to be in this place of peace or strength in order to do stuff.”
“And she's like, you know what? You just gotta do it afraid,” Hale recalled. “You just gotta keep walking and do it afraid.” That’s the mantra that he took with him, every time he got back in front of a crowd: Do it afraid.
More often than not, I write this newsletter afraid. I’ve wondered what would happen if I had to write about a new death in my life or some other tragedy that shakes my world. I know that, at some point, another fateful day will replay itself in my head, year after year. Everything will be normal, until it’s not. Eventually, I will have to decide whether or not to share that part of my story.
But until then, I will keep showing up. I will keep loving and writing and making mistakes. I will try to stay in the present as best I can, while also acknowledging the lessons and gifts of the past. I will try not to predict or worry about the future too much. And I will do it all afraid.