Thursday, May 17, 2018
“How Lucky I am to have something that makes
saying goodbye so hard.” Winnie the Pooh
21 years ago, while at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was on a third date with a very big man. He was a 6’5, 300 lb football player who had “been around the block” and was wearing FUBU sweats. His intensity was high, his pauses were long, and his desire to find the meaning of life was deep. I was wearing Ann Taylor shorts and Birkenstocks and at one point he said, “We should dance.” Even though there was no dance floor and no one else dancing, we got up and swayed around a bit. Then he went to the bathroom. While he was gone, some guys I knew at the bar jokingly commented to me, “You two look like Beauty and the Beast.”
When Nate came back I nervously told him what they said. I didn't know what he would do. He paused, gave me a big hug, and whispered in my ear “Don’t you ever let someone call you Beast again.”
I was 19 and I fell in love with him that night.
Fast forward a lifetime of amazing memories and 2 phenomenal kids. We had just gotten to the good part of life. The ‘sweet spot’ of parenting. The kids were old enough to get dressed and stay home alone…but too young to be into sex and drugs. Our careers were good, we loved our home, and we had a great community. We had made it…
Last summer, an opportunity to go on a spiritual retreat in Jamaica with one of my best friends Tobie had come up. Tobie is married to Tony Gonzalez and the four of us (mostly Nate and Tony) had all been working on becoming the best versions of ourselves. When together, Tobie and I mostly laughed while Nate and Tony tried to fix the worlds problems. We had all recently read the book “The Code of the Extraordinary Mind” by Vishen Lakhaini and it had rocked our worlds. The retreat was a continuation of that book and our journey.
On November 8th, I got on a plane and headed 4,000 miles away to a retreat in Jamaica that would be some of the best days I have had in my life. I was fully immersed, living in the moment, and learning so much. And then on the last day, I actually experienced the worst day of my life…. the irony of it all is not lost on me.
It was late morning on Saturday, November 11th. I had just finished a glorious swim in the ocean and could literally feel the Divine around me. As I toweled off, I knew I was changed…and I couldn’t wait to share it with Nate. About an hour later I got a text from Nate’s best friend saying, “Call us ASAP.” Once I reached my best friend she calmly said, “Don’t freak out, everything is fine, but Nate fell while at the trampoline park with the kids. We don’t have any details but he is on the way to the hospital and your mom is meeting him there.” I can’t explain why or how but I knew on some deep level that nothing was fine and that my husband was dead.
Time shifted into a dream like state and my only focus was getting home. While still in my bathing suit and flip flops, I threw my clothes in a bag, got in a taxi and headed to the airport. I had no ticket, no idea if there was a flight, and no idea what the hell I was doing. While in the taxi, on a bumpy Jamaican road, I answered my phone and it was my mom. “Oh Sweetie, the doctor wants to speak with you.” The connection was horrible but the message was clear “I am so sorry, we tried everything, we did CPR for 50 minutes because we could feel his soul trying to come back. But in the end, he didn’t make it. He passed of a massive heart attack.”
My healthy, gifted, amazing, Super Bowl Champion, lover of ALL people, husband and father to our 9 and 12 year old kids had died at the age of 42.
Most days it still feels like a dream. For a long time, I actually felt like I was in a movie, especially at the Memorial. I literally felt like I was playing the role of the grieving widow and my kids were crushing the parts of children who had lost their Dad. Surreal is the only way to describe it.
Early on though, through all the chaos and crying, sadness and shock, I also experienced a strange level of peace and acceptance. It’s like I had been waiting for this ‘big’ thing to happen all my life and it finally did. I had hoped it might be hosting the Oscars or being on Oprah...widowed at 40 with two kids was not on my radar.
When someone you love suddenly dies, you look for relief in every nook and cranny of your life. You have an insatiable desire to understand WHY this happened. Your brain, and its old neuro pathways, simply can’t accept that the person is gone. You feel them, smell them, miss them, and yearn for them in ways that are hard to describe. You feel like your life is over…and in many ways it is. The finality of never seeing that person again is something that is impossible to comprehend. To this day, I still sometimes think he may just walk in the house, kiss me and say “Sorry about that.”
I miss the story of our life…the whole “we met in college, white picket fence (broken gate), best friends married to best friends, love our kids” story. Sometimes it makes me so sad, and sometimes I get mad…mostly at Nate, for being dead. I feel like everywhere we go there are Dads and Husbands walking around, hearts beating, lungs pumping, brains firing…its very rude and annoying. Did I mention that he died at a Sky Zone Trampoline park, during Toddler time, in front of my kids??? Who dies at Sky Zone??? Of course every adult wants to die when they walk into a Chucky Cheese or a Trampoline park, but ONLY Nate would have gone through with it. The whole thing is so ridiculous, unbelievable. and over the top, that it reminds me of something Nate would do…And on good days, that makes me laugh.
At some point, I got tired of feeling awful and decided to look at this experience and grief in a totally different way. At times I can tell it makes people nervous. They don’t understand how I can be filled with so much joy and gratitude yet also be experiencing such sadness. I am fully aware that I didn’t have a choice in losing him, but I do have a choice in how I experience this new reality and I am determined to handle it with great care and dedication.
When the reset button gets pressed on your life, whether by choice or circumstance, you have so many decisions to make. But there is one decision that will shape your entire experience moving forward. You can either lean in and accept, or resist and deny. Both are valid choices but one just comes with more peace.
I am at peace because I choose to believe Nate would not have left us if we weren’t ready…it just wasn’t his style. I’m at peace because I choose to believe he is happy and that he had a part in this decision to leave. I believe where he is now is SO grand, SO amazing and SO big that I can’t really comprehend it. Call it Heaven, the Afterlife, another realm, or the Divine….basically, he loves it there. What a relief! I choose to believe when he arrived he took a deep breathe, gave some Angels slightly inappropriate hugs and screamed “Hallelujah, I’m home!”
Watching my kids move through this loss is painful and humbling AND inspiring and amazing. The best parenting advice I have ever received came from them. When I asked my kids what they needed from me to get through this, they simply said “If you’re ok, we’re ok.” That mantra has become my North Star.
We make a choice not to hide from the pain, we don’t try to be “happy” and we don’t pretend its always ok. We lean into the waves of grief, we pray for help, we pray for others and we stay grateful. We send the love we were given back out into the world, and we focus on what we have instead of what we lost. We cuss, we scream and we break plates into the trash. We talk about Nate, we dance, we have fun, we spend time with friends, and we laugh a lot. All of that helps in so many ways.
We don’t feel his presence yet but we're still hopeful. If you knew Nate, you understand he was a very slow mover…we assume his spirit is just taking its sweet time. The good news is that we see lots of signs. He sends them through birds and grasshoppers and old school hip hop….I’ve heard Rappers Delight 42 times since he died. The Super Bowl commercial with Eli Manning dancing to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack was some of his best work. Ten days before he died, Nate and I had gone to a Halloween party as Johnny and Baby. We performed (horribly) the exact dance and exact lift that they did on the commercial. It’s so amazing it makes me smile.
Through all of this, I am certain about one thing: The process of grief and enduring epic loss is one of the hardest, saddest, AND most amazing situations a human being can find themselves in. It breaks you open, it changes you and it brings you to the core of your being. You begin to ask the big questions like “Why are we here?” and “What is my purpose?” and “How can I make this life worth living”. This is the good stuff, the questions that get forgotten as we muscle through the day to day bustle of life, kids, marriage and careers. Death forces you to stop and look around. It opens you up to your pain and all the pain in the world. You feel connected to people in ways you didn’t before. And if you so desire, it invites you to become more of everything good in this world. More grateful, more aware, more compassionate, and ultimately more prepared to give the world everything it needs from you.
I wouldn't trade one minute with that man for anything, and if this is the path he/we were on, then I simply say “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I am confident we will not only survive but we will thrive.