There are moments that define you, that define your life – the obvious ones and then the little moments, the day-to-day moments without much fanfare. There are the days of innocent youth, filled with laughter and conversations long since forgotten where you remember community and belonging and there are the days when you are honored, days filled with accomplishments and kind words and applause, days meant for you to remember. There are days when it rains and rains and rains because of course the world would mourn alongside you, where you learn to fear unexpected early morning phone calls and you are left broken and cracked. But it is the tenderness along those cracks that teach you what is truly precious in life, that remind you that it doesn’t matter where your name is engraved, but that your life is defined by truth and justice and above all, love. How you live your life, from sun up to sun down, and how much of it is filled with love are the truly defining moments, and all we really have when the sun sets.
Around this time of year – as summer slowly plods along and it feels as though the heat will never end – I always pause in reflection. Not when new school years begin or in December and January when the rest of the world turns to endings and beginnings, but in the waning days of July, I reflect over the years.
My friends who have known me a long time understand this, especially the friends who I grew alongside, who shared the same cramped desks in classrooms that formed us and who crammed into the backseats of cars together as we laughed and dreamed. As I’ve grown older, I talk about it less – it feels more personal; as the world has hardened me and I open up slower, it becomes one of those things I eventually tell someone – but not at first.
As I sit in Indianapolis, hundreds of miles from home, I think about these twenty-five years I have been lucky to live. Throughout this summer, I have found myself consciously pausing, in awe and sometimes surprise, while waiting to cross a busy street in downtown Indy or while walking in the shadows of Chicago’s buildings that stretch toward the sky with one of my best friends – I’ve been shocked that I am here.
So much of childhood and adolescence is filled with dreaming – dreaming of growing up and what you will do and what you will see. Even as a young undergrad, I remember talking with my roommates about where we saw ourselves, about the puppies we wanted and the husbands we hoped we’d find. Cuddling with my Beagle, in the basement of my old roommate’s home that she shares with her husband, as she cuddled her own dog, I couldn’t help but think, we’re here. We made it. What we talked and dreamed and worried about has come true.
Earlier this year, I watched her walk down the aisle. Earlier this year, I turned twenty five. Last year, I watched my baby sister graduate high school and start college. This year, I drove a thousand miles to a new city – something I wasn’t able to successfully do three years ago. Next year, I’ll graduate with a master’s degree and celebrate my parents thirty years of marriage.
And I think about the ones who aren’t here, who might not have had the chance to make it to twenty-five or the ones I can’t share these new experiences with.
I remember so vividly the Saturday morning my mother got the call that her father was dying. Among the hustle and bustle of getting my sister ready for a soccer game and my groggy teenage memory, I remember her rushing out of the house and I knew that she understood people didn’t call early in the morning, but that wasn’t my lesson to learn yet.
When I was nineteen years old, I learned that lesson myself as one of my oldest friends gave me the news, the news that our friend and his brothers and his father had all been killed. And I remember the phone calls. We were babies – relaying the news to other babies. Lying on the floor, next to each other, I thought it was the shock and our youth that left us without the words to understand, but I know now there are sometimes no words.
I remember how bright the afternoon sun was when I got up and left in the middle of class and sat under the trees on my university campus and called my mother on the phone. I remember when she told me my grandmother was being moved to hospice. When with my vision clouded by tears, an old woman who was visiting campus, came over to me and touched my shoulder, and asked if I was okay. And I had no words.
I remember these moments, because they are the moments that define me. That define my view of the world and define how I live. It is these moments that allow me to recognize the other moments that have also defined me, to understand their significance.
The moments like twirling in a circle with a small boy on my back, Jamaican mountains looming overhead while he laughed and laughed and laughed. Like all the times I have dipped my feet in oceans with friends and loved ones and been overcome by awe and by the realization that I am so small – on this planet and in history. Like the time I walked barefoot down the side of a highway, after my boyfriend’s car was crushed by a tractor trailer and called my mom pleading with her to understand that I was okay. I was okay.
Moments like the time spent sitting in a circle in a community center, listening to the wisdom of Catholic nuns who opened my eyes to the systematic injustices they had spent their lives fighting. Like standing under the fluorescent lights in a school hallway, as my heart broke watching a boy who looked like a man sob and sob because his friend had been shot beside him – a boy who has since died, the same way I lost my friend years ago.
I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky to be here, to be in Indianapolis pursuing my dreams. I’m lucky for the opportunities I’ve had to learn about the world and for those who have opened my eyes to both the tragedies and joys that build this life.
I’ve been honored to know strong women like my grandmother, or the nuns in Apopka fighting the good fight, or the women who filled the GED classes I tutored. I’ve been honored by students opening up to me, who taught me that a child can come to school overcoming immeasurable odds and still laugh with glee when he beats you at a card game or shyly hand you his report card and ask if it was correct because it said he was passing.
I’ve been honored to have dozens of friends across the country doing amazing things, who have sat beside me, when I was blackout drunk, when I was laughing hysterically, when I was sobbing. Even friends who played smaller parts, who I sat beside at bars or work, sharing food and drinks, and time and space in our lives.
I guess I am most in awe of the people I’ve had the opportunity to know, who I have encountered so far in this life, because I believe everyone serves a purpose, everyone teaches you something.
I am in awe of the past eight weeks I’ve spent in Indianapolis – how well I’ve learned the roads, how much I’ve learned about the communities and education system and how much I have left to learn. I am in awe that I’ve spent this time without tears and panic attacks, things that defined my time in Miami when I was too young and wasn’t ready for the world. I think I was able to do this because of the people I’ve met and the old friends who still fill my days, whether they fly up to visit me or call me just to say hi or text me memes and stupid jokes.
I guess I’m rambling – I had a plan for this post. I wanted to talk about defining moments and about Kelly. I wanted to talk about how grateful I am for this life and for the opportunities I’ve had and for the things I’ve accomplished.
I’ve been watching The West Wing per a suggestion from a good friend. Toward the end of an episode, a character was listening to the song “Ave Maria” in his office and I started bawling. I continued crying ridiculously, throughout the remaining few minutes of the episode. Martin Sheen who plays the president, looked over his staff, praised them for their accomplishments and their spirits and then said: “What will be the next thing that challenges us, Toby? That makes us go farther and work harder? You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers we touched the face of God.”
And I continued to bawl, probably because these few days at the end of July are tough. Probably because I’ve been blessed – even though there have been people who have cut through me and things that have happened in life that have shaken my faith in life and love and goodness – I’ve have seen so much good and lived such a life so far, that I am in constant awe…of the beautiful souls I’ve known, of living in a time when a woman is reaching for the highest seat in our country, of the majority of days filled with laughter and fun and smiles I’ve been lucky to live.
I hope my friends in every corner of the world, especially the ones who dressed in black and stood beside me to honor Kelly all those years ago, whether or not we’ve seen each other in awhile or talk often, I hope you understand your importance. I hope you smile today and look toward the sky and offer thanks to the universe or to your gods or to Kelly, for the days we’ve had and the life we’ve had and for the beautiful people we’ve had the privilege of knowing and of loving.