When my grandmother passed away of breast cancer, I was fifteen and a freshman in highschool. My mother immediately suggested we join the 'Race for A Cure' to raise funds for breast cancer by walking a 5 mile run / walk marathon in her honor. Mile after mile we walked together and reminisced about 'happy memories' of my fathers mother and her zanny sense of humor. We discussed how my grandparents became a couple, they had been classmates throughout their childhood and in their senior year of highschool, my grandfather was drafted to serve in War War 2. He had always had a crush on my grandmother and asked my grandmother to wait for him until his return from the service. She obliged and for four years they wrote each other back and forth while my grandfather remained overseas. During a time of war, letters allowed a loving friendship to blossom into a fifty year love affair. Upon his return from the war they shared their life on a Ranch in East Texas and raised a family together. Through thick or through thin, they were the very best of friends and were inseperable. Half of my childhood was spent on the ranch riding horses, fishing with my father, shooting guns, playing out on the lake, helping my grandfather build two of his three houses. Some of my happiest memories were always surrounded by nature, sunshine, laughter and love.
As we continued walking, my mother and I laughed about the time my grandmother left the dryer door open in the garage and a possom with her three babies curled up on the warm clothes. It scared my grandmother half to death when she reached inside but her ' did a spider just fall in my hair' knee-jerk reaction was quite hilarious. I shared the stories about the many times when my black lab would leave my grandmother 'gifts' of little animals it could catch on the patio steps....every morning. Which drove my grandmother crazy because she was such a neat freak. And how still to this day, my cousin and I think my grandmother made the best cinnamon toast in the world. Memories and happy thoughts are good to focus on as you continue to carry on, and to walk towards the finish line of life. It took us a few hours to complete the walk-a-thon but family can accomplish anything, especially healing when we learn to channel the pain and grief we feel into something positive.
In retrospect, I believe both my mother and grandmother were preparing me for not just surviving but learning to thrive in life despite difficulties, loss and heartache. Later that same year tragedy would impact my life over and over again repeatedly. My closest childhood friend, someone who was like a brother to me committed suicide one evening after he and his step sister overheard his parents (who were divorced) arguing over custody of him. They were fighting about who would 'care for him' while one of them went away on vacation. In the process, his mother made a crude remark about 'wishing he were never born.' Later that evening he went upstairs alone and hung himself from a beam in his room. The life of my friend, a promising college bound, all star athlete and quarterback, suddenly came to an end.
Then right after he passed away, one of my girlfriends developed a rare form of brain cancer and tearfully shared with me that she would not survive the year. She however, gave me courage to 'fight the good fight' with courage. She taught me to smile no matter what people say or think about you. Regardless of how many students or people call you a 'racist skinhead' because your head is shaved. Little did they know, she shaved her hair off herself because she hated how chemotherapy made her hair fall out in clumps. She decided if her hair were going to fall out, if her life were going to end, it would be on her terms. She, in the midst of her illness fought to find the strength to attend school even on her bad days. Just like any witty teenager she often joked, "I may die but it will not be with the label of a Freshman...fish. Never!" She did exactly as she said, completed the year with us, graduated out of the Freshman class and passed away in the summer. Little did we know, another one of our good friends would be joining her. He was tragically struck by a drunk driver and cut in half while putting his surf board in the back of his truck while at the beach. It had been a very heart wrenching year to say the least.
I felt as though the University of Life had put me in the Advanced course for Love and Loss 101. The grief and tears that washed over me for months afterwards came in waves. The sorrow was immense and incredibly challenging at times, trying to stay afloat in a sea of depression. It was at this point in my life that I realized if I was going to make it through the year with my sanity in tact. I would have to focus on doing something constructive with my time and energy in order to cope and to honor the friends and family that I had lost. Re-living the past, beating myself up over the 'woulda, coulda, shoulda done or said' and 'feeling guilty' could only get me so far. I decided that a perpetual state of suffering was not meant to be my destiny, my loved ones would want me to carry on and move forward. As painful as it was, I had to make peace knowing my loved ones had finished their part of the race here and passed me the torch; the light of life, the gift of time, of hope and of carrying on my own light until my race was done.... then someone I loved would pick up the torch for me someday. Now it was my responsibility, my turn to grasp the torch with both hands and run with it.
Out of great loss came a gift, my passion for volunteer work: the Suicide Prevention Hotline, the Cancer Center, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign, etc.
There may be much pain and darkness in the world but we can still pick up the torch to honor those that we have loved and lost. Many brave men and women have passed on, and many more continue to fight for their lives overseas. Today, in this moment we have an opportunity to be a light to someone in need. How about helping one of our own United States Veterans?
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, " Tonight, nearly 200,000 veterans will sleep under bridges, in alleys and abandoned buildings because they have no home. They are this nation’s forgotten heroes – men and women who once proudly served in a military uniform. Though only 9% of the U.S. population have served in the armed forces, 23% of the homeless people in this country are veterans." Those Veterans who are not homeless are vulnerable to attempting suicide. "More than half of veterans who took their own lives after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan were members of the National Guard or Reserves, according to new government data. The Army said recently that as many as 121 soldiers committed suicide last year."
If you would like to get involved, please contact the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
Or if you know a Veteran who needs help with battling depression, please reach out to them and have them call the: Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK)
If you would prefer to support the healing of Children effected by 911, donate to the fund:
Children of September 11th
" This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine, This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine, This little light o' mine, I'm goin' let it shine, Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. " ~ Harry Loes
No matter your passion or which charity you choose to support, pick up the torch and be a light in honor of those you have lost, because love is a light that never goes out....