You should be 25 today.
I should be calling to sing to you off-key,
Should be able to speak with
More than just my recollection
Of your ears.
What’s it like to be Forever 24?
No store in the mall named for you,
No statue smiling with your crooked smile,
No cake with melting candles on the table
To wish on. (Still, we’ve wished…)
When the new year came, you stayed behind,
Frozen in time,
Never to marry or despair of a gray hair
Or buy a hokey wrinkle cream.
That as the months become years and
Your friends grow up –
As we all marry and travel and laugh –
I worry that our memories will
Not age gracefully, that they might
Even be tucked away at times, out of sight,
Lovingly packed up with our
Old photos and keepsakes and
Lost in the shuffle of life.
I promise we won’t forget.
Someday you may have
A niece or nephew with my big nose,
And if you do,
Those little ears will hear our stories
And love you too.
I read someplace that grief is like an ocean. There are waves. Some of the waves are small; while they can rock the boat, it’s possible to weather them and remain afloat. Waves of a certain size, though, can swallow up the boat and everything on it.
I survive small waves almost every day. I do this by focusing on what I have left, rather than what I’ve lost. What we’ve all lost. (There’s so much still to be thankful for, even on the worst days.) I try to remember your laugh and not think too much about your last night, or hurt myself with thoughts of what I could have done differently. How I could have kept you from getting into that car. So many what ifs.
I learned about your accident several hours after it happened — Dad called me around 1AM that night. I should have known something was wrong right away, but I didn’t realize how late it was. I was smiling at James (beside me on the couch) when I answered, “Hey, Dad!”
I heard your mother screaming in the background before Dad could say a word. I heard her crying, “No, no, no,” as if it were the only word she had left. And I knew. It made me want to crawl into my bed and never come out and sometimes it still does.
The first big wave hit me a few days later. James had been sorting through our wedding video for awhile, setting aside his favorite moments for the highlight reel. I walked into the office and asked for a favor. James wasn’t sure I was ready, but he found the video of your toast and left me alone to watch it.
I listened to you say how happy and proud you were to be there, how you loved us, and I understood for the first time in my life the expression to cry your heart out.
As I watched the video of your speech, I found myself remembering that I’d been nervous when you stood up to speak. We’d opted out of an open bar at the reception, but you loved to party; I figured you would bring your own drinks. You did — I heard later that you and Dad fought about it at the hotel — but that didn’t stop you from giving a funny, heartfelt speech for James and me.
Sam told me after the funeral how you’d spent weeks writing it, reading it aloud to her and making performance notes. Dad said you’d practiced on the phone for him too, and that you seemed very anxious to get it “just right.” You nailed it — did I ever tell you that?
Sam found a draft on her phone and emailed it to me. I was thinking of the words you chose so carefully while I wrote your eulogy on a little hotel notepad, just three months after the wedding. Public speaking has always terrified me, but I felt — and still feel — that I owed it to you. Writing your eulogy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, second only to delivering it. I hope I made you proud.
I celebrated my 25th birthday in December. The night before, James took me to a concert and then — because it was getting late and options were scarce — to a 24-hour bakery. As we sat together enjoying a shared coffee and our favorite pastries, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the clock on the wall. Midnight was moments away. I’d liked to tease that you were my “little” brother when we were kids, even though we were only two months apart. The night I turned 25, I struggled very hard with the concept that you never would.
I knew your birthday this month would be tough. I didn’t anticipate the tsunami-sized wave that snuck up on me at work today, three weeks early. It happened gradually. I spoke with your mother on my drive in – I heard your song on the radio (I’ll be / your crying shoulder) – and we celebrated a coworker’s birthday over breakfast. (Birthdays and holidays have been difficult since you died.) But I didn’t realize how rough the seas were until a stranger in my office received the type of phone call everyone hopes they’ll never get. I don’t know what happened, but the sound she made was all too familiar. It’s the sound your mother was making on the phone when Dad told me about your accident. The whole room went quiet, and we watched helplessly as the girl on the phone sobbed on a friend’s shoulder.
Hours have passed and I’m home now. I still feel that stranger’s grief in every cell in my body. In my quiet apartment I hear the echo of her cries, and mine, and the chorus of grief at your funeral. (So many people came.) I remember how Dad spoke about what an honor it had been to raise you, and how a former neighbor told me later that he’d left the funeral during my eulogy – that he “just couldn’t do it.”
I understood how he felt. In some ways, it feels as if I’ve never left your funeral — or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s never left me. No one can fill your seat at the table, and I will always wonder who you might have been, what you might have accomplished, if you had lived. I’ll be / the greatest fan of your life. I’m sorry I didn’t call you as often as I meant to. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good as you were about saying I love you. Most of all, I’m sorry your life was so unfairly short, and I’m still here, and you’re not. Our family will feel your absence everywhere we go, for the rest of our lives. I hope someday to laugh with you again in that cliche “better place,” and to entertain you with exaggerated stories of the adventures I had. Until then. Love always, Sis
Tonight I find myself reflecting about the fine education I’ve received.
My teachers did their best, whether they were teaching me how to manipulate logarithms or to read Old English¹. I can identify iambic pentameter from fifty paces, recite the periodic table, and write a mean essay… but these aren’t much more than party tricks.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m grateful. Each of my teachers had pearls of wisdom to impart, and I’ve done my best to hold onto them. But as I approach my 25th year of life this weekend – holy cow – I’m beginning to realize that the most meaningful lessons I’ve learned haven’t had much to do with multiplication tables.
Former ballplayer Vern Law is credited as saying, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” I agree. As I look back on my first quarter century of life, I think the study guide I didn’t have should have gone something like this.
Grades don’t matter outside of school. I worked my butt off in college to graduate Magna Cum Laude, but it still took me two years to land a job that excited me. If I’d known that, I think I’d have spent less time holed up in my room and more time enjoying my college years!
College isn’t right for everyone. There’s something wrong about expecting an 18-year-old to choose what they want to do for The Rest of Their Life™. Most of us have no idea at that age, and that leads to many of us changing majors, delaying graduation, and perhaps even dropping out, all while amassing crippling amounts of student debt.
Given the expense and time commitment, it makes sense to consider all options – not just four-year college – before you decide.
Most life skills are learn-as-you-go. How do you balance a checkbook? How does compound interest work? How should you shop for a car or a house? I don’t remember learning any of that in school, but by golly, I can recite the state capitals alphabetically! Google can help when you get stuck, but a lot of adult life seems to be winging it and hoping for the best. Not knowing what to do can be a little scary, but the best adventures are.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. When it was time to plan my wedding,I went a little nuts. I had a color-coded wedding binder. I hand-picked almost every detail, from decor to flowers to favors. (Don’t get me started on the seating chart. It was was the only logic puzzle I’ve ever worked where the pieces had feelings!) The funny thing is, none of that mattered the day of. Our wedding was a happy blur of hugs and cake and dancing; I didn’t – and don’t! – care that the flowers turned out more fuchsia than coral. This was a lesson that I’m still learning: worrying about little things is a waste of energy. It’s better to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Some experiences are worth more than money. For various reasons I became financially independent at a younger age than my friends, and quickly developed a habit for penny-pinching. I wanted to study abroad but never applied; I was afraid to spend that much. Looking back, I feel that in many cases the experiences I denied myself were more valuable than the money I saved. Take the trip and enjoy yourself.
Life is short. I bet you’ve heard that one before – but you won’t realize how true it is until you have to say goodbye to someone you love. For me, that someone was my brother Sean. His loss is with me every day, in everything I do. I wish I’d told him I loved him more often (I’ve never been as good at that as he was.) I wish I’d pushed harder for him to come visit like we’d talked about. Our lives are so finite; any time you spend with friends and family is precious. Make the time whenever and however you can. ♥
¹ All I remember is endlessly translating stories about how men “feng to rice” (came to rule), because the Old English were fond of beginning stories with the slaughter of the most recent king. Oh – and the annal we translated in which “hors” (horse) had been transcribed incorrectly to “hore” (whores), changing the meaning of the story quite a bit.
My notebooks in elementary and middle school overflowed with poems. In computer class, I’d write a few paragraphs when the teacher wasn’t looking. If she stepped out, I’d rush to print a few pages – without permission! on school copy paper! – and hoard them, crumpled up, in the bottom of my book bag for my mother to throw out at the end of the year.
Something has changed since then. I’ve learned hundreds of lovely new words. I’ve traveled and met many people that could inspire me. I’ve read books I loved (and books I didn’t.) But somehow, despite all that doing and feeling and living, I’ve written less each year.
These days, I’m intimidated by the blank page. I want to write, but when I sit down to do it, my angst that it’s taking so long kills the piece before it starts.
I try to fight through and write anyway. Sometimes I manage a few sentences before second-guessing them. Another sentence, then I backspace it away. Half an hour later it’s still just me and the cursor, blinking up at me as condescendingly as a few dozen pixels can; then I feel ashamed, and don’t try again for awhile.
In case this ever happens to you, I’d like to share something Ira Glass once said that makes me feel better:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions… You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Thanks so much for this, Ira! I think you’re right. It isn’t a lack of creativity or strength of character (?) that gives me so much trouble. It all comes down to my fear of writing something really bad, even though bad writing doesn’t hurt anyone.
The last short story I started (six months ago, wow) felt uninspired at the time. As I reread it tonight, there are a few sentences I actually like in there. Maybe all I need is that time between writing and reading – a buffer to help me approach the piece with the same openness I’d grant another writer. If I could suspend my own skepticism long enough to write, I might eventually create something to be proud of.
Easier said than done – but I’m working on it. These words are a step in the right direction.
¹ In my preschool yearbook, my teacher wrote that I’d told her I wanted to be a dolphin trainer at Sea World, and wished me the best of luck. I must have realized I had a better chance with words than porpoises soon after that.
I’m not sure if I do — but I’ve been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural since I was old enough to stay up for Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction? Dad, Angie, Sean, and I used to watch it together and write our predictions on napkins to compare at the end. Note for younger Millennials: before Twitter and Facebook, “joining the conversation” re: your favorite show meant discussing it with your family over ice cream. I really miss that. But anyway, I think “Beyond Belief” was so great because it blurred the lines between outlandish fact and engaging fiction. Each episode told a few short stories, and challenged viewers to sort out which ones were true.
Our love of good ghost stories isn’t a modern phenomenon. We’ve long been fond of the idea that our departed loved ones might be able to communicate with us from the Afterlife — that the person we love so much is still out there somewhere, and thinks of us too. I find the thought comforting, myself.
That’s why I’m so captivated by the little story I’m about to tell you. It’s a story about grief, my brother, and a song he loved to sing.
Sean was always singing something. You’d hear him belting out High School Musical while he made his 2am Ramen, in his room, and of course in the shower (most of his showers were long enough for a whole opera. Not that he cared much about opera.) One song he liked especially was “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain.
My husband and I used one of Sean’s recordings of “I’ll Be” when we made his memorial video. It just seemed right. Though the video was years old (I can tell by his Backstreet Boys haircut!), when I watched it, it felt like a reassuring message he’d left for us: I’ll be your crying shoulder. Ever since, I think of him every time I hear it. But it’s more than just that: the song seems to follow my family everywhere.
A few weeks after Sean’s death, my stepmom Angie came into Dad’s office and asked him to please turn his music down. She didn’t want to hear “I’ll Be” yet; it made her too sad. But she realized, even as Dad said so, that the music wasn’t coming from his office; it was blasting from the clock radio in their guest bedroom. They inspected the radio to disable the alarm, but the alarm wasn’t set. The radio wasn’t even tuned to a particular station. They couldn’t see any reason why it had started playing.
A few days later, my grandparents were sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room. For most of their wait, there wasn’t any music playing through the office’s speaker system — that is, until “I’ll Be” started. My grandfather asked the receptionist where the music was coming from, and she said she’d started up a music program for some background noise. It just happened to be Edwin McCain.
Here’s where I come in. Around the same time, I bought a new cell phone. While arranging and rearranging my apps on various home screens, I accidentally launched Pandora. I had not logged in and none of my custom stations were connected yet. Want to take a guess what song (out of about a million!) it selected for me?
Maybe this is just a series of eerie coincidences. Maybe hearing one of Sean’s favorite songs is significant to us because we’re looking for a sign from him — that he’s all right, that he knows what we’re going through on this side, and he loves us too.
Fact or Fiction? These are the facts; I suppose whether or not it’s Beyond Belief for you depends on what you think is possible.
I’m still not sure if I believe in ghosts. I do believe that my brother would find a way to sing to us if such a way existed. He’d know how much we need it.
Last week, I panicked. I anguished over making the “right” career decision. I had a rare moment of clarity; and then I dove in into the job search more intensely than ever before. Today (Day 8), I feel empowered to make a much-need change.
Since graduation, I have held three jobs. I knew when I chose to major in English that my career path would not be as clear as my classmates’ in accounting, pre-med, or computer science. I knew too that my income would be smaller, but I honestly believed that studying what I was passionate about would help me find my way into a field where I would be happy and fulfilled, and could do meaningful work.
It hasn’t yet — but to be fair, I’ve settled a lot. In past job searches, I’ve let my fear of unemployment dictate my choices. Hourly administrative jobs are everywhere and easy to get, so that’s where I’ve repeatedly landed. Each time I’ve told myself it’s only temporary, just a paycheck until I find something I’m excited about. The problem is, I’m very good at coping. Though unhappy and unchallenged in these different roles, I have a tendency to get comfortable, and to squander my energy on coping with undesirable circumstances, rather than trying to change them.
The moment of clarity I mentioned above came when discussing a contract with a former Zirtual client. The client asked me to 1) propose an hourly rate I was comfortable with, and 2) describe What I Wanted in my new role moving forward. These simple questions stumped me.
What did I want? I realized I hadn’t asked myself that question in a long time. Since graduation, my focus has been almost solely on making ends meet. I’ve felt sorry for myself for being a college graduate working barely above minimum wage, but I haven’t made any serious attempts to change course.
As for my hourly rate, what value should I assign to my time? As an educated person with a knack for research and writing, I have a skill set — but because of my career choices (or lack thereof), I have little to show for it. While I feel my pay in the past has been lower than I deserve, I have to admit that the demands of the work were also fairly low. I’d made sure of that each time I accepted a job that didn’t challenge me.
I’m grateful to this client. The questions he asked last week helped me realize that I wanted more out of my professional life than secretarial work. I didn’t — don’t! — want to coast anymore, or passively float into another job that doesn’t offer opportunities to better myself. I’ve submitted eight applications so far, and all of them are for jobs I’m actually interested in pursuing: jobs that will make me work hard, make me think, and put me on a path. I’m looking for a career this time, not just a day job.
This job search is different. For the first time, I’m taking responsibility for my own happiness. I’m not going to settle out of desperation, or talk myself out of applying for jobs I’d love because I’m intimidated by the qualifications requested. I am intelligent, resourceful, and good with people. I genuinely want to learn and get better. My skills are valuable; any employer who overlooks me due to my age is missing out.
Let’s go back in time for just a sec. A week or two before I graduated college, I applied for a high-paying tech/administrative job. After three rounds of interviews, I received a form letter rejection in response. I was crushed, but an English professor I respect very much told me something that has stuck with me through three job searches and two moves:
Sorry about the [job] decision. I know you were already spending the big bucks in your imagination, but it may be for the best. In fact, things always are… It’s a lousy job market, but you are a fine writer with a clear mind. Sooner than you think some employer is going to emerge who will be delighted to pay you roughly one fifth of what your intelligence deserves.
And you know what? Two years later, I’m starting to believe him! There’s a niche out there for me, and I’m going to find it. Thank goodness for the layoff last week; it was exactly the push I needed.
Yesterday morning, I ran fifteen minutes without stopping.
This was a serious milestone in my fitness journey. When I started with the Couch to 5K program back in May, running 30 seconds was very uncomfortable. I thought, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to do this. Running sucks. It hurts. It’s too hard. So, as I’d done many times before, I gave up.
Then, at the beginning of June, we lost my brother in a car accident. This was suffering on a level I had never experienced before. I thought, I’ll never make peace with this; it’s going to eat me alive for the rest of my life. Two months later, there are moments when I think my family is starting to heal — usually followed by moments of thinking we never will. Some days the grief swallows everything; some days it only throbs in the background. Every day I think of Sean.
Let’s be real for a second: funerals are really stressful. We go to the trouble because they offer a small measure of closure — allegedly. I’ve been to a handful of funerals in my life — four grandparents and a great aunt — and for the most part, I found crying and sharing happy memories made me feel better, and helped me come to terms with the loss more quickly than I would have on my own. Of course you never want to say goodbye, but you realize that you have to accept the reality of it, and find a way to go on living.
Sean’s service wasn’t like that. Loss is so different when it’s sudden and the person was young and healthy. Yes, his friends and family had many lovely things to say about him; yes, we were touched to realize that his entire office showed up to pay their respects, even though he’d only been working there a short time. Being in the presence of so many who love my brother was comforting, but when we left, I didn’t feel any closure. I only felt empty and guilty — guilty for not calling more, guilty for every moment of joy or even normalcy I’ve had since his death — and angry. The circumstances of my brother’s passing make it even harder to accept. I’m angry at the person who was driving his car. I’m angry that they were driving so fast. I’m angry that they crashed, and the driver survived, and my brother didn’t. It was all so senseless. It made me question a lot of my beliefs about Sean and about life in general.
When I came home from the funeral, I was hurting and mad as hell. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t enjoy the books I’d been reading before. I couldn’t think of anything but my brother’s death and what my family was going through in Florida. I cried by myself a lot: in the shower, while working, while walking the dog.
And then I started running again. It was like a switch flipped ON in my brain. There was so much in my life that I couldn’t control, so much hurt that I didn’t know how to express — but for thirty minutes a day, I could turn my music up and completely check out. For the first time in my life, I was running regularly. I hadn’t missed more than a day or two until last week, when my husband and I went on vacation with his family… and I let my running schedule slide a little.
When I got up to run yesterday, I knew it would be hard. I considered dialing it back a day or two in the program to make sure I could do it. As I finished my warm up lap, I looked at the interval and shuddered: a run with no walking at all?! I’d never done that before. I wasn’t sure I could. I stopped walking to stretch my trouble knee again, and had an Aha Moment. It didn’t matter how slow I was. It didn’t matter how long it took me to finish. I was determined to run that effing interval.
Here’s something you need to know about me: I have never been athletic. My flings with physical activity have always been characterized by a lot of giving up. So when I finished my run yesterday at a pace that exceeded my average, I felt like Rocky at the end of his training montage, dancing around and pumping his fists like a maniac. (This may have something to do with “Gotta Fly Now” being in my running playlist.) I simultaneously couldn’t believe I’d done it, and couldn’t believe I’d doubted my ability to do so.
In my limited experience, fitness really isn’t about competition with others. The only competition that matters is between past you and present you. Can you continue to surpass your personal best, and keep striving to be better? Yesterday I realized I’m more determined than ever to keep striving, and to keep moving forward. Rachel Platten said it best: I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.
Sean was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known. He would want me — and everyone else! — to keep fighting. So let’s make sure we do.
Up until this past Monday, I was a full-time employee of Zirtual, an internet startup offering virtual admin assistance to entrepreneurs and other professionals. My clients ranged from a startup CEO, to an attorney, to a musician, and my work was never the same day to day. I was fairly content with my job that required no commuting (and no pants!), and had no immediate plans to leave the company.
Our story begins at 9AM on Monday morning, August 10. I’m trying to sign in for work, but nothing’s working — Gmail won’t authenticate, LastPass says my account has been deactivated, and Harvest won’t load. I log into our group messaging program (HipChat) to find my coworkers expressing disbelief, anger, and sorrow re: an email from the CEO. We’re all out of work, just like that, effective immediately.
You can read all the sordid details on TechCrunch,Fortune, and CNN, but the SparkNotes version is that Zirtual leadership sent an email shortly after midnight on Monday morning informing employees that the company was shutting down due to a massive funding issue, and our last day of work had been the previous Friday.
Yep, the entire company was fired via email.
I’ll say this about Zirtual: it fostered a community of kind, kickass, resourceful people! Before lunchtime on the day of the shutdown, a Facebook group had been created and a Slack chatroom had been filled with former Zirtual Assistants (or ZAs), many of whom had already lost access to HipChat, banding together to share resources and figure out what would come next.
Early on, reports circulated that the email clients received was markedly different than what employees were told; CEO Maren Kate Donovan‘s internal email had referred to Zirtual closing up shop (she encouraged us to reach out to clients directly for work), while clients were told that Z was “pausing operations.” Then, the night after the shutdown, Maren announced that Zirtual had been acquired by Startups.co. Pretty shady, huh?
But it gets better: in the aftermath of the shutdown email, many of my former colleagues had reached out to their clients to sign on for work as independent contractors. Imagine their surprise when, later this week, their clients begin receiving sales calls and emails from New Zirtual, inviting them to “reactivate [their] account” and reunite with their ZA — though no one had yet been offered their job back! Cue confused client emails, again. Members of the Z team have since come forward to say it was an honest mistake, but some members of the community remain skeptical.
I understand that New Zirtual is business, and a business needs both employees and customers to operate. Since the acquisition, rumor is that some former ZAs will be hired back, at our same rate of pay, as independent contractors, i.e. without insurance, paid time off, etc. Given the way we were treated and what’s on the table — and the fact that the pay is much better as a free agent — I’d hazard a guess that the ZA return rate will be pretty darn low. And since so many clients have signed on with their former ZA, the client return rate doesn’t look good either. (To say nothing of Zirtual’s silence on former client refunds — people are ticked off all over the place.)
So what’s next for Zirtual? Probably a class action lawsuit based on a possible WARN Act violation. If our case does get its day in court, some former ZAs may still not benefit, since the WARN Act only benefits employees who have worked 6 months or longer in the past 12 months.
And me? I’ve spent the past few days applying for unemployment for the first time in my life. I was unable to file in my state of residence because, according to the local DOL, Zirtual has not reported any of my wages since I took the job in March. I was advised to apply in my previous state instead. The number of hoops I’ve jumped through for interstate filing and the number of rude, angry DOL employees I’ve spoken with has been the cherry on top of this lovely week — but that’s a subject for another post.
After a lot of agonizing, I’ve decided not to take the independent contractor route. Instead, I’m using this as an opportunity to find a job I’m really passionate about! I admire my former Zirtual colleagues so much for becoming their own bosses and making an opportunity out of the horribly unfair hand we were dealt this week. I will miss working with them. I will also miss my clients, many of whom I had grown to know and root for. I am touched by the support they have shown me through all this badness, which has affected them too.
My Zirtual experience may have had an unhappy ending, but it led me to cross paths with some truly incredible people. I’m grateful for that.