A friend asked me the other night how I was doing. My answer, I later realized, was pretty similar to what it’s been for the entire past year: “Ups and downs.”
Next week marks a year since I left North Carolina. A year since I left the place that has felt more like home than anywhere else in my adult life. A year since I planned a farewell dinner with three of my favorite people at the bizarre sushi/hamburger combo restaurant that has fantastic chocolate cake and the loudest gong. A year since I hugged one of my best friends goodbye, stepped into my silver Camry, and cried gut-wrenching tears as I drove away from a place I loved so dearly.
I can’t even count how many tears I have cried over the past year. How many tissues and rolls of toilet paper that were used to wipe those tears away. How many times I stared at the crucifix in my bedroom and just asked, “Why, God? Why?” How often I wished I could just spontaneously grab kombucha with one of my dear friends as we talked about boys, work, and life. How many times I wished I could go on a run at Umstead and be completely engulfed by trees, fireflies, and greenery.
Yes, there have been downs. I think it’s safe to say there have been many, many of them. Or rather, there have been just a few downs, but I felt them often and I felt them acutely. This has been one of the three hardest years in my life, trailing only slightly behind my year spent teaching and the year my parents divorced. It’s been hard, it’s been rough, and there have been times when I’ve been downright concerned about my mental and emotional state.
I was taking a sunset walk at the beach the other week with a friend and she point-blank asked me, “Why don’t you go back? We want you to be happy.” I thought about it for a moment, and as tears formed in my eyes, I told her, “Because as hard as it’s been, I know this is where I need to be right now.”
The last year has tested me in many ways, without a doubt. But in return, it’s also given me so much. I got to visit my grandfather a number of times before he passed away this month. I was able to see the glimmer of recognition in his eyes when he saw me, to give him a hug, and tell him how much I loved him just a few days before he left this earth. I was able to take the day after he passed away off to spend time with my grandmother, who I love dearly, and who spent the day telling stories about Pop and his life.
I’ve been able to develop stronger relationships with three of my nephews. I invite myself over at least once or twice a month and just play with those munchkins. In five years or so, they may not care much about hanging out with their crazy aunt, but right now, they love playing whatever latest game I taught them when I visit. It’s been such a gift to spend more time with them, to bake them cookies and hear that they like mine better than their dad’s (a highlight in my life that will never be overshadowed), to tuck them in and say bedtime prayers with them, and to spin them around blindfolded as we play Blindman’s Bluff in the dark.
I have a beautiful niece who’s just a year and a half, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch as she gets older – to see her progress from when she started walking all wobbly-like to now, where she bounces around the house without a care in the world and tells me what books she wants to “read” with those bright blue eyes looking intently at everything around her.
I’ve spent more time with my parents and some of my siblings and have enjoyed the little things – dinner here, a walk on the beach there, getting my dad hooked on the Bachelor, going shopping with my sister to find her a graduation dress, getting to spend more time with my sisters-in-law, thanking my brother for something he did and hearing his response: “that’s what family does.” I think it’s fair to say that I’ve rediscovered what family means and what it takes to nurture those bonds.
I traded in my Umstead runs for runs at the beach – sometimes in full daylight, sometimes at sunset, and occasionally, in a throwback to my college years, at night underneath the stars. I jump in the water after a long, hot run to cool off. I’ve gone to the ocean on the weekends and after work to go body surfing because hey, why not?
I’ve met some absolutely incredible people along the way. I met someone who I hope will be one of my bridesmaids someday – someone who listens to me go around in circles, who loves the world around her so beautifully, and who loves me unconditionally. I became good friends with someone whose strong faith and devotion to Mary inspired me to grow deeper and explore my own faith more without him ever saying a word about it. I’ve met folks in my run club who have kind hearts, positive outlooks, and welcoming spirits. I’ve made connections made through my church group, Ultimate Frisbee, and more.
When I arrived in California last year after a road trip spanning ten states and just shy of three thousand miles, I wrote, “Here’s to writing a new chapter while cherishing the path it took to get here.” I’m so grateful to all the friends who became family in North Carolina, and I miss many of them dearly. I wish I could pick up all the members of my tribe and move them into the same neighborhood so I could see them as often as I like. Barring that superpower, I’ll settle to just be grateful to each one of them for the person they helped me to become, the relationships created, and the memories shared. I will always cherish the path that took me to North Carolina, and I’m sure that some days, I’ll still have those acute longings for a place and the people I love so much.
But life moves on, and this year has been about writing that new chapter. It’s taken me a year to be able to say this, but I’m grateful for the tears, the heartache, the times I felt like I couldn’t do it, and the fear that I made that wrong decision. If it weren’t for any of that, I never would have felt the love, support, or sense of family that has come from this year.
It hasn’t been easy, but then again, life rarely is. It’s in those difficult moments, though, that we learn what we are made of and who we can rely on. We choose how to write the story that we then star in. I choose to feel all the emotions when they come (whatever they may be), to be grateful for what I have, to love fiercely those around me, and to continue to move forward with peace, joy, and faith.