On grief and blooming

I.

I’ve spent so many years of my life wishing things were different: where I’m from, my body, being so damn shy, exploring my emotions as a man, and wishing I was a better brother/uncle/son. Much of that time trying to change to fit into other people’s vision for who I am meant I wasn’t being being present with myself. I was looking past everything that made me, me. At the end of the day, right before bed, I’d look in the mirror and not recognize the person I was trying to be. So I made a deal with myself for this year: bloom.

These last few years, I’ve been recognizing my commitment to people who have not served my heart well. People who are not showing up for my wisdom and joy in the ways that I might have hoped without really communicating. People who might not match my level of commitment to them. Sometimes, working to be a better friend for others is a lonely business. Lots of time spent on islands of thought, expectations, or understanding. I’ve thought about this extensively before; the idea that, even if I’m willing to go to the ends of the city to be with this specific person, they aren’t loving me well or showing up for me when I am expecting them to. Part of that is setting a really high expectation for them and part of it is also me not accepting their current capacities to love me in the ways that I need. That’s on me to re-examine and re-determine for what’s next. Some people will stick around when I least expect it and they always show me their cards. Some people will leave because they’ll need to. They’ll require it for their own hearts, and honestly, as much as that may hurt, I find it to be noble and brave. I, too, will have to leave.

I am constantly pouring into others. I see this mostly in my work life and I’m actively working through the thought that my job is thankless. So many folks are quick to write millennials and generation Z off as lazy, unmotivated, or needing constant affirmation. I don’t buy it. Of course the folks that say these things “know better” because they’re older, wiser, and more experienced. Perhaps it’d be better to compare this generation with generations of the past at the same chapter. It does nobody any good if we constantly compare differing chapters. This becomes the wedge between us, the hill many die on, widening until we can’t speak to one another without constantly misunderstanding each other. It doesn’t have to be this way, I tell myself. If I can just break the cycle and change the narrative, maybe things would be different. As a result, we are all burning out and I’m left wondering how we can change systems to fit the needs of today, not yesterday. Institutions should change with the transforming landscape of human experience. We make up these systems and uphold their rules, spoken or not, until we decide to change them. It’s not easy, of course, and merely writing these words down doesn’t make things different. If anything, it adds to the urgency that we must be willing to dismantle deeply-rooted and generational understanding of how humans get to exist in the spaces we create. The pouring has to be daily. I don’t need thanks for doing my job. But I can tell you that if you encourage me, give me critical feedback, and commit to loving me well in the process, I will work harder. 

Still, this pouring comes at a cost. Spending so much of my time giving giving giving to people, I have to do what is necessary for me to show up as myself, not the person others want me to be. Investing in what makes me who I am is necessary. I have to observe that which works against me, the forces seen or unseen that strive to cut me down, fit me into a box, or make me someone I’m not.

The people I interact with on a daily basis will sometimes need me in a limited way, and then they’re gone. What’s true about this model is that, if you’re like me, seeing the fruits of your labor make it worth it. The catch is that I may never see it. Manifesting might be months from now, long after they’ve moved to bigger cities, brighter lights, better opportunities to love and be loved. Could be years. Because of this, I have to keep moving and have hope that the work I’m doing will prove to be worth it. In small, unspoken moments, I have to move on.

Nobody teaches you how though. It’s a skill that you have to do first in order to learn. How to pack up a life, taking down the messily adorned walls of all your favorite moments, standing in an empty room, finally turning the lights off and closing the door behind you with a deep sigh. It’s saying goodbye even when you don’t want to. We never really know when we’re going to see each other again, so I believe in wishing someone warmly ahead despite everything that is up in the air. Their path might surely bring forth something difficult. I hope they give themselves grace. I hope they see what I can see in them, all the growing that is yet to come and the path already traveled, all the worthiness inside their being. I hope I can see it in myself, too.

I am only just now grasping this idea that I am worthy and deserving of that which I continue to give to others. I am deserving of the capacity stretching that I’m working to help others do. I’m worthy, and that’s enough to shift my energy inwards sometimes. I want to find all that blooms inside of me and continue to share it with the world. To be tender towards all that is hurting and healing, and mining myself for ways that I can continue to love people well. To be fierce and accepting of every moment where I come up short with myself, with others. To find beautiful fragments on the floor every morning and find the courage every day to piece things back together. To heal—everything I do, I hope to find gratitude and joy inside of, wisdom and bravery, and amidst the darkness, an indelible, unwavering light that can guide me. And to do so surrounded by all the people that light a fire inside of me. My best friends: the New Yorkers and the North Carolinians, the Michiganders and the Ohioans, the Californians and everyone in between, the people who have traveled so far to find a life that brings them meaning and purpose. My family: those who have passed and those who, no matter the amount of time in between visits, I never get enough time with. My mother who gives and gives and gives. My big sister who is writing her own story of becoming; a mother and a sister and a friend. My little brother who is bigger and faster and stronger than me now but will always be the little guy who brought so much joy to our family. My beautiful niece and sweet nephew who I am in a constant state of awe of; two humans who are smart and funny, working to become people with so many stories to tell. My dad who teaches me things every day without even knowing it, and yes, my father, too, who I am finding myself a soft spot for, even after all this hurting.

Most of all, I want every day to feel like something new. I want to stack hope in ways I didn’t know I could. I want every day full of doubts to bring clarity, too. What I’ve learned these past three years is that if I don’t try, I may never know. If I resist my heart instead of traveling deeper into it, I may never realize a life that is authentic and true. I want to find all the transformation in my bones, to love people and hold them, even my best friends who I’ve learned are the loves of my life, each and every one of them. To give the soft places in their heart a soft place to land.

I want to bloom inside of everything tomorrow and today; to look back, years from now, and see every horizon in my heart as a sign that all of everything has been worth it. Every closed door that led to heartache. Every open door giving me wonder. Every eve, every rainstorm, every moment passed where I decided that today was going to be the day. The day that I was going to be the only Robbie I can be today. The day, after years of building, that I finally walk through the door of blooming, today and tomorrow and everything that comes next.



* * *

 

Written in fragments between January and May of 2019. Finally pieced together in June, just before Father’s Day.

 


II.

I want to establish myself as someone independent from the opinions of those that do not love me well. And right now, that’s just not a possibility. I’m working through it, whatever that means, and I’m hoping things will change at some point. Hoping I’ll have the foresight to notice the change and to observe it as anything that doesn’t resemble trauma. The heart stretches not without aching for rest. I am hoping there will be better days. That I can find what’s bright in the sky on the days when I should have brimming gratitude. But the honest-to-universe truth is that the lights don’t always stay on. And there is not always a switch. And the grief is a circle, running with no corners to sleep, spinning wobbly into tomorrow and the next without care for sensible direction. I cannot help but be tender with myself, allowing the grief to take hold when it decides it’s time, shaking me away from what’s in front of me. It is a ball inside of a limited box with a big pain button on every wall, bouncing around, smashing into the hurting parts. The ball might get smaller over time but it never really dissolves. Some days are hurricanes with no end. 

A co-worker once told me that grief is like a leaky faucet, dripping at its own expense with no resolve. I know that to be true for the way it shows up in my life. The world will always spin without noticing me. Perhaps grief is swimming upstream against a current; there was always a before and after. Before you were told upstream is the only option. Before you got so tired. Before there was ever a pain you had to sit with, a gravity holding you in place. After the first breakdown. After something uncontrollable existing on your chest. After the calls and texts and notes, sweet words of solace amidst a lack of light. Before meant something different not long ago. After did, too. How different life can be in just a few hours and a phone call.

I can’t say with certainty who this writing is for. I just know that I have to write it to breathe again. I am usually okay with uncertainty—most of life is this way, isn’t it? I’ve been uncertain with myself for a long time, but I’ve taken steps before without seeing what’s next. This feels different. Like everything is moving forward and all I can do is watch. I know that, in time, all of this will make more sense. I will understand life in a new way. Time works that magic. That fact doesn’t answer my right-now questions, like what was his last thought? Did it hurt? Was there panic? Peace? Did he think of me? Was he mad at me for not responding to him quick enough? For not answering his calls or texts? For insisting on emails as the sole form of communication? Did he have regrets? Do I?

I don’t always know what it means to regret. But if I could go back, I might change a few things. I’d learn forgiveness much earlier. Buddy Wakefield says forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. Mom says it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. She talked to my father almost every day for nine months after his brother passed away in September of 2018. I don’t always know if I believe in a God or a series of Gods or the universe, but I imagine he wanted to spend more time in the place up high with his brother. I’m sure he thought of him daily after his own grief manifested. I imagine he had regrets.

Mom also says that you don’t become a true adult until one of your parents dies. It is then that you become last-in-line, the guardian of the family, a role that she’s done masterfully, gracefully for years now. It is then that you learn what it means to be alone, kids or not. Siblings or not. Your own demons or not. There is nobody you looked up to for years that will help you sort the socks or cut the coupons, nobody to make the salad for dinner, nobody to take to appointments for an ailing body, nobody but yourself. It is then that you realize that love, while it is a spectrum, is remembered best when you give it all you’ve got and give it away.

After 28 years, I have finally claimed the title of adult. And perhaps I do not carry grief well. But I hope, even after all of this, that deep in his heart, he was proud to be my father. I hope he knows that I loved him even if I never told him. I hope he found all the seasons in his days. It is windy today. Like wind, I hope his pain was fleeting, now gone except in memory and heart. Especially in heart.

I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day.



* * *



Written in June of 2019 almost a month after finding out my father passed away. I wrote him a letter in 2017 after years of hating him. It was right after a good friend of mine and my grandmother passed in a matter of four months and my mother told me to reach out to him. “Something could happen tomorrow and you don’t want to regret never talking to him again,” she said. I began communicating with him via email. It felt like it was all I could do. Texting and calling felt too close and I didn’t feel ready to let him in again. Dozens of emails later, we went back and forth about life—small updates and big, happy birthdays, Merry Christmas’s, plenty of ‘how are you?’s, and lots of questions. So many questions. We had plans of meeting halfway between Muncie and Wickliffe this summer to have a meal, catch up. To try to see each other. Even with all the anxiousness that brought me, I felt hope for the first time in a long time with him. He passed before that could happen and I’m left with so many questions that I may never get the answers to, hands full of things I wish I could change. I don’t have any pictures with him, just a few good memories that I will cherish. Stories I will tell my children one day. I can no longer wish for a better past or try to change it. Can no longer wish for a better tomorrow with him. All I know right now is that nobody will tell me how to grieve or when, and I deserve tenderness despite all the wreckage. My boat is always being built and I will never be done.

Blooming. Joy amidst a deep sadness. Answers that will surely come and peace for those that won’t. Mostly, just love in every corner, every turn.

Published by Robbie Williford

Writer from Flint, Michigan. Partial but slowly becoming. Educator. Storyteller. Bashful. Paying attention to the quiet.

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