This morning I sat on the side of my bed pondering my fate. Most mornings I utter some form of gratitude for seeing another day when so many others don’t. This morning it was a quick something, but my mind wandered to rough waters. The kind of rough waters that threaten to upend a boat right before it reaches the safety of the shore. The kind of rough waters that are overcome by the exhausted being who has found, somewhere deep inside, the determination, heart and scream-down the storm raging in your face will to continue on to reach the elusive yet visible shore.
The waters are crashing over my head, filling my eyes, nose and mouth with brackish water, but I saw the shore. About a year ago one of my business mentors told me I was in the middle of the ocean. He said it would take as much effort to give up and get back to shore as it would to power on. I chose to power on. I mean, really. That’s not much of a choice. I’d spent 7 years of my life in pursuit of my dreams, had one devastating set back and now I was offered the choice of giving up on all I had accomplished with not much to show for it but a mountain of debt and hope. The other choice was to take all of the hours I had invested in educating myself, the knowledge I had gained in those classes, attending film festivals, workshops and incubators, the manifestation of projects in various stages of development, the sweat, time and expertise of all of the freelancers who collaborated on my projects – unpaid, deferred and paid, the monies I was able to raise through crowdfunding, grants and platforms like Patreon and Fundly, the few messages of my need to capitulate and get a real job and the ocean of messages of support from friends, family and mentors and push on. When you look at it like that, there is no choice. I had to keep moving forward.
The rough water is chest level and the punishing waves have elicited an unending barrage of stress, fear, anxiety and doubt, but I saw the shore. In one of my workshops for artists, the instructor told us, “No one is coming to save you.” Damn. Damn. Damn. Seven years fighting each day towards this dream and no one would come rescue me? Damn. To tell you the truth, as frustrating as that message is, it is liberating to know that you are going to have to pull your head out of your own arse and figure things out. Sure there will be people to support your journey, but this is one trip across the ocean that you’re going to have to take on your own.
If you believe, as I do, that everything happens for a reason and that you are where you are supposed to be, then the dark times can be paralyzing. I have always looked at it from the perspective that I am here because I still have something to learn before I can transcend to my next level of consciousness and overcome my worldly rough waters.
In 2008 when I was an actress deciding to write a show with my friend so we could see positive representations of ourselves on television and work in the field we so loved, I could never have imagined how soul crushing and financially debilitating this journey would become. I guarantee you that I would NEVER have decided to embark on the journey if anyone had shared that with my then 34 year-old self. I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have enough courage. I wasn’t worthy enough. I couldn’t tolerate that much pain, shame, longing and despair. That’s who I would have believed I was back then.
The woman I am today is in the boat with the rough pounding waters demanding that I turn back, that I give up, that I abandon this pipe dream and go back to where I belong. The problem is that I’ve seen the shore, and even more important than the shore is that lined up along the path to the shore are lifeboats of love, compassion, support, encouragement, inspiration, motivation, empathy, self-discovery and wonder! I’m not sure why I couldn’t see it before, but I am eternally grateful to know that although they can’t save me, they won’t let me go down with my ship! They are pacing me, lighting the way and making sure I know that we are in this together. I have to get my boat to the shore, but I am not alone. I see the shore. I don’t know how many days, weeks, months or years it will take me to get there, but I do know that I will get there and oh, the celebration we will have when all of our boats are on the shore together.
In the midst of swirls of grief there are moments of happiness, joy and pure creative expression. I’ve been working to get a documentary concept out of my head and down onto paper for the last 18 months. The spark was clear and strong but unraveling the story, angle and approach would not come easy.
The initial feeling was, “Of course this should be a film!” but then when I started to think about who should be interviewed for this film I began to hesitate. When I’m developing a concept I intrinsically put myself on set, in the producer/director’s seat and in the vicinity of the action. This very thought meant that I would be in the same room with a person I had been creatively in awe of for most of my life. That’s when the doubts began to creep in.
The challenge with these doubts were that there is no way to tell this story without sitting across from all of the things that intimidate me. Over the last 18 months and through the prodding of mentors, peers and collaborators I kept coming back to my notes and drafts. I wrote my dream. I didn’t pull any punches. I finally went with the thought that the worst they can do is tell me no – but if they told me yes…
The mere act of doing the work to define the random rumblings in my head have made this real. Yesterday I sent off a proposal to two trusted colleagues who are attached to this project and then sat in a puddle of vulnerability as I waited for them to get back to me. That act of being vulnerable is why I’ve failed before. It’s why I waited a year to respond to someone who graciously offered to get me an audition with a friend of his in Hollywood.
It’s all fear. As much as I tell my little girl that feelings can’t hurt you, I find myself being paralyzed by my fear. After coming clean to my friend about why I ignored his email and promising myself to do better, I realize that I can be scared and still take action. The fear paralysis is what will kill my creative expression and ultimately my happiness. Today I am relieved and happy that I was able to wrestle the random ramblings in my head onto a 2-1/2 page proposal. This is always the first step in my process and so often the hardest.
As I remember my late aunt and celebrate her life this weekend, I’ll take with me some of her fearlessness and ingenuity and do my best to incorporate that into my creative practice. No matter what happens beyond this point with this project, my artistic voice will never be heard if I hide in the shadows. Future possibilities exist because I stepped into the light. I invite you to step out of your shadows and join me in the light…even if just for a moment.
While tonight doesn’t feel like part 3 of the previous posts I’ve written about living life after losing Coby, it also doesn’t feel like “normal” or “new normal” or whatever. I guess it’s just whatever there is on the other side. For tonight’s sake, let’s just call it a remix.
Today was a good day. It’s been an exhausting week full of client demands and creative hurdles to overcome but I’m keeping pace, and maybe even picking up steam. When I think back to the time when I couldn’t even answer the phone, I know that is huge progress. I still haven’t listened to my voicemail messages from the weeks following Coby’s death. My phone keeps sending me warning messages that my voicemail is 90+% full.
Do I listen to these messages that might sink me because they are full of my friends and loved ones concern for my family? The kindness hurts sometimes. As weird as that sounds, a hug can crush and tear-filled eyes have the power to unleash the feelings that are being held at bay by the hustle and bustle of the end of the school year, conference calls, piles of mail and happy occasions.
Nah. They can stay right there for now. For the moment I get to celebrate a few victories -My little one getting an academic award and a call back for a great project, hitting a significant milestone with our newest documentary and remembering most of my passwords while I plow through work.
I celebrate a tiny bit while being reminded that Coby will never graduate like so many of the friends I see on social media and in the world. I’m thrilled for them, yet I can’t help but think that he should be there clowning with his friends in a cap and gown. We should be showering him with love and praise for one of the greatest accomplishments one can have – successfully pursuing an education. Alas, it is not to be for Coby and that hurts. If I’m honest, typing that, acknowledging that fact brings on the tears.
I think of the shadows left behind in the souls of his classmates. I think of the carnage that is left behind after. After. After. After. I think of the carnage of the world we live in and I struggle to stay in the light as I wonder how the hell we can hold human potential and the essence of life in such disregard. A deranged man in a nightclub extinguishing precious lives, petty grievances in neighborhoods all over the country handled with terminal consequences, hate, fear and anguish all around.
In moments like this I remind myself I have a choice. Light or dark. Each moment I get to choose and sometimes making that choice is a Herculean effort, but today – as I took my girl to try sushi for the first time (in honor of seeing a great indie film East Side Sushi) and told her how proud I was of her, choosing the light was an easy choice. In a year, where she lost the only “big brother”she was ever going to have, being able to find the light together is a blessing.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I know that the sun will rise and the birds will sing, and that has to be enough for now.
I think of Coby. I close my eyes. I don’t see or hear a train screaming down the tracks. It’s a brilliant breakthrough that I am eternally grateful to have experienced. I no longer have to rip my eyes open and calm my racing heart.
I think of Coby and a lovely thought mingles with the residual sadness leaving me with a bittersweet warmth. It still seems unreal. It still couldn’t have happened to us, but it did. My little one put it best when she said that now when she thinks of Coby she isn’t sad anymore, but that she feels happy. Time beginning to heal.
I’d be foolish to think that there aren’t going to be many moments when the old feelings surface, but today I’m so, so, so grateful that they have given way and allow me to see another possibility. I miss Coby. I love Coby. Eternally 18 and eternally in my heart. I guess that will have to be enough.
Passion, hustle, relentless, inspired, driven, tireless – those were words that could have been used to describe the pursuit of my creative dreams before 8:45 am on March 7, 2016. Listless, unfocused, lost, self-preservative, conciliatory, slow – these words feel closer to where I am today, 10 am on May 9, 2016.
On Sunday, March 6th my 18 year-old nephew Coby ended his life by stepping in front of a train. I pause at the writing of that sentence because of the tightening in my throat, the tears that threaten to blur my vision and the current that runs up and down my arms. This moment, the moment I wish I could freeze like a superhero in a film, is the moment that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.
I graduated with a degree in Psychology, have a bunch of friends who are clinicians and have been down the terrifying path of suicide with others in the past. I have worked in Emergency Response and with children in crisis in the past but nothing could have prepared me for the donkey kick to the solar plexus that was the notification call from my brother that Monday morning.
There was no doubt in what I was hearing, “Coby took his life” but I still heard myself scream, “NO! WHAT??” I’m not sure how the human mind processes trauma. I’m not a clinician. I decided to go another route into the creative world, but I doubt whether clinician or not, that I would have an understanding of what my body and mind was doing in those moments to protect me. My mind is still protecting me and it is the very act of protection that has altered who I am right now.
Coby’s journey is over and I am left behind trying to make sense out of the senseless. There are certain truths I have been able to accept. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. Some people talk about committing suicide but never do and others don’t talk about it but execute the act.
When I became a parent I learned that I wasn’t in control. It was one of the scariest realizations of my lifetime. To love this little being more than my own life and to know that I could not control how long she would remain on this Earth was the most painful and terrifying discovery. It gave way to my faith. It found me praying that we would be allowed to have a long life together and that I would be around to see her triumphs and tribulations. It gave me the freedom to “offer up” my worries and fears.
I have never, nor would I ever be prepared for my recent internal dialogue about suicide. The questions about what I did, what I could have done and how I missed the breadcrumbs Coby floated out into the social media universe about the pain he was living with. I live online. So much of the work I do is online but all I could think was that I missed it. What could I have been doing that was more important than being there for the man-child I had watched grow from an adorable, precocious, sweet, mischievous and goofy kid?
I sat with those thoughts for a short while before I let myself off the hook. I know, and I knew in other situations, that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. He was 18 and in my world that means he had his own life. A life full of sports, friends, pop culture and his own dreams. I was the Aunt who was there when he forgot to bring candy to school one day and who showed up for family gatherings, but I was also the Aunt that was caught up trying to figure out how to navigate life as a divorced, single-parent solo mompreneur.
I wasn’t around for the soccer games, the birthdays (unless they were specifically for the family) and the ins and outs of his life. I misguidedly figured I’d be there for the important days – his high school graduation, his first college soccer game, his wedding and the birth of his kids.) I was here waiting in the wings if he needed anything, but I was in the wings. That was the relationship we had and if his life ended differently I wouldn’t even be here writing about it.
This post isn’t about Coby or his life. I couldn’t do him justice in a blog post. How do you sum up the moments, giggles, guffaws, bursts of pride, stern looks and gusts of love into words? How can you encapsulate what 18 years of loving an ever-changing human being means? I can’t. I won’t even try.
This post is about life after Coby. It’s easy to get distracted from the morass of feelings that sneak up from time to time because I didn’t see him all that often. It’s easy for my brain to default to an alternate reality where he will be there the next time I visit my brother, sister-in-law and niece at their house…but he won’t be there…and every now and then it comes screaming back.
In between the alternate reality and the screaming back there lies the space and time where I need to be mom, business owner and human being. The problem is I feel like I’ve forgotten who I was and how to get back there. Gone is my playful, social justice-themed and inspired social media chatter. Gone is my frequent “third shift” role call when I check in on Facebook to see who else is burning the midnight oil working on projects, grant applications or grad school work. Gone is my ability to stay up late and work all night. Gone is my willingness to want to listen to the voicemail messages that have been filling up my phone. Gone is the spark that fueled my creative engine.
Intellectually I know that my creative engine is in neutral and that life is the spark. I’m treading water until my heart receives that message and decides to return to my creative sandbox. The million dollar question is how do I navigate my work, parenting and creative demands in the meantime? My daughter wants her “happy mom” back. I thought I was being happy mom, but I appears that I am only the happy mom stand-in.
Coby’s death leaves me wondering what really matters? How much of what I do results in a positive impact on this world we share? I am grateful that the work I have chosen to do at this point in my life is meaningful and that I can see a reason to keep moving forward. I don’t have to ask myself how important it is to show up as a mom, which is another reason to feel gratitude. On the tough days since Coby has passed I remind myself that the sun will rise and the birds will sing…and so will I.
Thankfully I have some outstanding client obligations that drag me back to my computer but the biggest challenge I am facing is how I move forward with the stuff that filled my head and heart before Coby’s death left a gash behind. I know that it will take time to heal and transcend this trauma but my head and heart are at war because I was raised in a society where you work! You grind, hustle and then grind some more until you fall out…and then you start all over again.
There was never a chapter on what to do when the world stops, your heart contracts and you can’t see straight anymore. I miss Coby. The absolute hardest part is parenting my little one through the big questions about where he is and all of her memories of Coby. Just when I get myself in check she lobs me a question or a memory or just sits down with a sad, tear-filled face.
There are no answers. There is no normal. There is only life after. In our life after I hold her close, I rest when I’m tired, I ignore the calls I can’t handle and I do my best to be kind to my heart as it finds the resources it needs to heal. On my best days I’m a poor imitation of happy mom and on my worst I am the best that I can be. Life moves on and as I had to remind myself, life is for the living.
I wish with every fiber of my being that I could have been there in the moment Coby decided to go ahead with his plan, but it was not meant to be. My heart goes out to my brother, sister-in-law, niece and all of those who were close to Coby. I can’t imagine what it is like to have seen him every day and now to have to live with that loss…how you put your life back together when a entire piece of your heart is missing.
People have asked how I’m doing. Many have reached out with messages of love and support. I’m grateful. In time I believe I will be able to read and listen to them all, but right now my heart isn’t up to it. I have created a safe space filled with people who were there when it happened and who knew nothing about it. In some weird way it gives me freedom to fall apart or pretend nothing is wrong, depending on the situation.
My heart won’t allow me to do the “getting to know you” conversation about his passing anymore. I know people don’t mean anything by it, but I just know that I can’t relive or debate the details of his passing one more time – not right now. Right now I’m going to work out, cook things I never cooked before, love up on my prickly, hormonal pre-teen and spend time nurturing my spark so that it will come back to my creative sandbox.
She only knew that Brene was one of her aunt’s favorite author/speakers. Although she has been struggling with identity, snarky comments from peers about her appearance, intelligence or whatever criticism du jour and general tween embarrassment about …everything, she had no idea that she was talking to THE expert in shame, human connection, vulnerability and so much of the stuff that makes our hearts twitch.
A long time ago, in an uncharacteristic aha moment, I realized that I had a ridiculously smart, sensitive and empathetic child. She seemed to be wise beyond her years and at times both fragile of spirit and courageous of heart – my little lioness. I was a newly divorced mom trying to find myself in the dark and often very scary emotional place that was my new reality. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to handle the over the top needs of a gifted mind that was raging with curiosity. I just wanted her to be quiet. I wanted her to sit down, be quiet and let me think. Let me grieve the loss of my marriage and wallow in the shame of being alone, broke and afraid. If you’re a parent, I don’t need to say another word. For those of you who are not, I just described Fantasy Land. For most of us, you don’t get to turn off being a parent because you’re in a tough spot – I’m sure that’s part of the master plan. You are forced to find a way to the other side, often while falling apart into a beautifully authentic mess.
This isn’t about the mess, but about the breakthrough. Thankfully I had a moment of clarity where I recognized that I needed to empower my daughter to step into her voice, mind, heart and soul. I needed to be her champion in a world of images and messages that didn’t include girls that looked like her or thought like her. So we embarked on a journey about five years ago to empower her to get the answers to every question her little brain could conceive. In order to maintain my sanity, I decided the best way to do that would be to partner her up with experts who would delight in sharing their knowledge with a precocious little girl. Because I was an actor turned filmmaker I realized the power of the medium to connect with all of the other young curious minds around the world.
It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. We continue to build our show, On the JOB with Lani Lou, where she gets to interview experts in their field about how things work and how she can become that type of expert. In the last four years she has interviewed a restaurateur, pediatrician, attorney and paleontologist and has developed an ownership for this program. We come across a lot of people, and we tell a lot of people our story, but not everyone takes the time to make the connection and let the significance of who she is and what she’s doing land. That is what made her moment with Brene Brown so special. Brene saw her, really saw her.
Each time another human being recognizes her sparkle and celebrates with her, a criticism, doubt and emotional wound is tended to. The one thing I know for sure is that my worldly success, material gain and sense of professional fulfillment would be hollow if that little girl was left behind. It was beautiful to watch her step up into all that she is and to make an authentic connection.
So, Brene – Thank you from my heart to yours for being a blessing in a haze of crowds, marketing and the frenzy of commerce. The loving encouragement you offered in those few moments will arm her to go out and slay the next round of dragons.