I watched my daughter futz around in her “kitchen:” She was grabbing plates and cups. She put bananas in the oven and took eggs out of the microwave. While she wasn’t doing anything specific — she was just moving things, organizing things … disorganizing things — I could tell she was having a great time. We were sitting together, we were playing together, and she was having fun.
My daughter picked up her pink teapot and shook it violently. (She would probably refer to her actions as “enthusiastic” — if she knew the word, or its meaning — but since that plastic kettle nearly collided with my face, I’m going with “violent.”) The teapot began laughing and playing music but instead of exciting my daughter, it frustrated her.
“Mommy! No working. No working!” she shouted.
I grabbed the Fisher Price pot from her hand, popped the lid open, and closed it. It began bubbling, boiling like water on a stove. My daughter smiled.
“See, it’s working,” I told her. “Here.”
I passed it back to her, and she immediately tilted it on it’s side to pour “tea” into a little lavender mug.
“Oh, for me?” I asked, before taking a sip. “Thank you.”
I’ve avoided the greeting card aisle for weeks now, since Mother’s Day in fact. (All of my June baby friends receive calls and emails instead of stamped envelopes filled with clichéd catch phrases.) I have tried to ignore the ads for power tools and beer mugs. I have stayed away from Sears and Best Buy and any location that may remind me of what I don’t have but desperately want to. I have tried to place myself in a bubble, but with my own husband now being a dad himself — and an amazing one at that — I know I can’t. And it hurts. It hurts today, 19 years later, and I know it will hurt tomorrow.
I’m sorry you know what that hurt feels like too.
While we all come from different places and different stages of grief — mourning the father we lost or lamenting the one we never had — we all find ourselves coming together one day a year, on a strange Sunday in June, when we feel alone but know we are not. We are brought together by emptiness and sadness, by memories left unmade and words left unspoken. We are brought together by a dull ache, a longing for what we want to have and need to have but cannot. And we are brought together by fate and by the simple fact that we are fatherless on Father’s Day.
I am not here to tell you I am sorry for your loss. I have heard that more than I needed to since my father’s own passing when I was just 12 years old. Those words seem so trite and trivial. They did then, and they still do now, especially for a pain that runs so deep — a pain that settles in you, cavernous and basin, while simultaneously running through. And while I know not everyone longs for a dad, on Father’s Day or any day for that matter, for those of us who do — for those of us newly grieving, still grieving, still searching, or still standing in a doorway and hanging onto hope, it is one of three days we try to avoid each year. (The others being our father’s birthday, if we know it, and the day our father passed, if he is deceased.)
What I can tell you is that I’m sorry you hurt. I’m sorry you know this pain, but know you are not alone, and it’s okay. It’s okay to cry or be angry and, in some cases, resentful. It’s okay to long for what you cannot have and, even with the best uncle’s or most well intention in-laws, will never have. You do not need to be ashamed or apologetic; you just need to feel — to feel your way through the day, and everyday. I cannot say it gets better or easier, but I can tell you days now pass where it doesn’t come to mind. I don’t wake up and cry; I don’t wake up and hear my mother crying.
When I grieve this Sunday I will flip through the photos (actual print photos, none of those digitized images we have nowadays) and remember the life my father lived, and be thankful for the memories we do have. 12 years was not enough, but it was 12 years none-the-less. My father taught me how to swim, how to ride a bicycle and how to burp the alphabet. He taught me how to laugh and how to be strong. He taught me how to be accountable for my actions and showed me it was okay for men to cry.
So whether or not you have memories of your father this Father’s Day know that — whatever you are feeling — you are not alone.
Yesterday I did something I don’t normally do: I stepped on the scale. I don’t know what compelled me to go upstairs, dig out that digital monstrosity and place my bare, unmanicured feet on its dusty surface, but I did. And then I took a deep breath.
And then I looked down.
I was shocked by the number I saw. It was upsetting, it was discouraging, and it was disheartening. I was sad. But the number didn’t upset me for reasons you may think. The number didn’t bother me because it was “too big” or “too small.”
The problem with the number was I was looking at it.
The problem with the number was that I decided to “weigh in” at all.
You see, we live in a numerical world: a world where our worth is defined by digits and figures. Think about it. Your beauty is defined by your waistband, and by the tag on your bra. Your value is defined by the size of your paycheck, by the clothes you wear and the car you drive. And your worth — the strength of your relationships and your sense of self — is defined by the number of likes your Facebook statuses garner, or by the number of “friends” you have. And I vowed years ago — after battling with an eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder — to give up on the BS. I vowed years ago to just be me: to embrace all aspects of me.
Yet here I was on the scale.
Here I was getting upset.
Here I was passing judgement, on my body and myself. The same body which rebounded — quickly and completely — from spinal surgery 16 years ago. The same body which birthed a beautiful and healthy baby girl three years ago. And the same body, the same “thick thighs,” which have carried me thousands of miles and across dozens of 5k, 10k, half marathon, and full marathon finish lines.
Instead of honoring my body, I was minimizing it.
Instead of praising my body, I was critiquing it.
And instead of loving myself, I was chasing ideals. (Unattainable and unrealistic ideals.) Because of a number: the number on my scale.
And I know what you may be thinking: “You ARE beautiful. You ARE skinny. What do you have to be worried about? You already have the ‘perfect’ body.” But perfection is all about perception, and where you see a cinched waist and cute little ass, I see a good, SUPPORTIVE pair of skinny jeans. You know, jeans which hide pot marks and dimples. Jeans with hold up sagging skin. Where you see an athletic frame, I see a boyish one: i.e. I see legs which are too muscular to be “ladylike.” I see bones which jut out in all the wrong places. I see a flat chest. And where you see the “perfect body” — where you see a size 0 body — I see flaws. I find fault.
And THAT is the problem, not just with me but with us all. Not just with me but with our beauty-centric society. You know, the one which glorifies filters and Photoshop and is constantly trying to sell us on lotions and potions and diets and surgeries to make us look 10 years younger, or to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.
And make no mistake: I’m not naive. I know I cannot change the world with one blog post. I know I cannot change our culture with a status update, but I hoping to change the mind of one girl, one young lady, or one woman who hates themselves because of a number: because of the tag on their pants or a few digits on a scale. I am hoping to change the mind of one person who avoids social situations to avoid eating. To avoid getting dressed. To avoid judgement and shame.
I am hoping to change myself.
So to the woman who loathes her hips, hates her ass or abhors her “thick thighs,” her flat chest, or her full breasts. To the woman who wants to lose 15 pounds before summer, or wishes she could bulk up her waifish figure. And to the woman yearning for her pre-pregnancy body — yearning for a smoother stomach, a flatter stomach, or a stomach without stretch marks (a body without stretch marks) — I say this: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. I know you may not see it, I know you probably don’t feel it, and I know you may never hear those words — “you are beautiful” — but you are. Because beauty isn’t a size or a shape. It isn’t the clothes you wear and it has nothing to do with your makeup, your weight, or even your hair. Beauty is authenticity. Beauty is strength. Beauty is confidence. Beauty is being you.
Even when you aren’t “at your best.”
Even when you are covered in spit up and sour milk.
Even when you are unshowered, sweaty, and – yes — a little stinky.
And even when you are rocking a ripped pair of yoga pants. Even when you are an exhausted and disheveled mess.
So wear your weight, your tattered and ill-fitting pants, and that sour milk stain as a badge of honor. Where them as badges of courage. Because you are amazing. You are beautiful. You are “perfect.” You are enough.
Shortly after Christmas, I noticed a shift. I was sleeping less and crying more. I was eating less and yelling more. I was losing motivation. I was losing my drive to write and work. I was missing deadlines. Ignoring deadlines. And I started pulling back; I began pulling away.
But before long, the sadness settled in. It worked its way through my body and lodged itself deep inside — in every joint, in every muscle, and in between every bone. Before long, irritability returned. The rage returned. And before long, the hopelessness returned, too. The feelings of worthlessness. Things started coming apart. I started falling apart.
The next thing I knew, I was shattered and completely broken. It was then that I realized I was deep in the throes of another depressive episode.
But this time, I handled things differently. Instead of trying to fight my feelings, I held them. I embraced them. I allowed myself to feel them. Instead of trying to avoid the truth, instead of hiding my depression from my friends and family, I wrote about it. I talked about it. And so, for the first time in 15 years, I immediately reached out for help.
On Friday as I left work a co-worker stopped me. “Aren’t you excited about this weekend? What are y’all going to do? It’s the official start of summer!”
Surprisingly I didn’t hit her, or yell, or try to explain why she is a complete idiot. I simply told her my plans would be much different from hers and that I hoped she enjoyed her long weekend.
I am excited to have the day off, but I will spend my time differently than most. For many people, Memorial Day is not “the official start of summer”.
Over nine years ago, on February 19, 2006, my parents’ phone rang. I knew that phone call was no good. I had not heard from my husband in five days.
It is a fuzzy but clear memory.
It was just a little after 5am. My dad woke me up and said I had visitors. He’s a strong man, 6’2″ and 240, and I’ve never seen him show fear. That morning was different.
I put on my red USMC sweatshirt and headed downstairs. I knew what I was about to see. Before me stood a Navy chaplain and two United States Marines. One shook my hand and began to speak; he had a terrible stutter.
I didn’t hear everything he said. I lost all of my senses momentarily, but I heard enough. With my left hand on my pregnant USMC-covered stomach and the other in the chaplain’s hand, I gritted my teeth and stared him straight in the eye. He had a whole scripted line to read me, but I didn’t need to hear that.
“Your husband, Cpl. Matthew Conley, was killed in action.”
I asked him if he was sure, and he stuttered, “Y-y-yes ma’am.” He walked me to my mother’s sofa to sit. I looked around the room. My parents and Matthew’s family were all crying. I remember Matthew’s father sobbing. I don’t remember crying myself; it was like a terrible scene from a horror story.
I couldn’t hear the Marine in front of me any longer or the sobs and sniffles around me. I heard only a few details throughout the Marine’s required reading. Later, I would see how it happened — there was a filmmaker in the backseat during the explosion — but in that moment, I just listened to what I could.
They found him a few hundred yards away from the blast. Matt had stepped out of the vehicle, basically right on top of an IED that was detonated when his feet hit the sand. Some of his face was missing, his trigger finger, his left leg, shrapnel everywhere.
There is a photo floating around of his Humvee. It’s unbelievable.
I remember asking what happened to the bomber, the Marine was not 100% sure. I found out later that the bomber had been gunned down along with many others.
I’m not sure how much time went by that morning. Everything stood still. At some point, Matt’s family and the Marines left. My mom told me to shower and prepare for a hard day full of people.
Wait, it gets harder? Oh man, did it ever.
I turned on the shower and gazed down at the protruding belly I had grown. My little girl was in there and she would never see him. Ever. She would never know how devoted he was to her, to me, and to his country. She would never get to hold his hand and gaze into his baby blues or experience his unbelievable laugh.
That is when it hit me. I sat on the shower floor and cried. I cried until the water ran cold, and continued to cry for a half hour after that. I decided I couldn’t make it without him, I’d never survive.
The next five days were a blur of shock and denial. I wouldn’t believe it until I saw him. Eventually, I did see him. That was the hardest part. He looked nothing like he did when I had said goodbye to him six months earlier. He was dead.
It was him, and he was dead.
We buried my Matt, Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, on February 26, 2006. It was his 22nd birthday and one month before my due date. I gave birth to our precious baby girl just 3 weeks later. It was the most beautiful moment of my life.
The nine years that have passed since Matt died have been a complete roller coaster. The circumstances that surrounded his death and the birth of our sweet girl made it something that almost no one could relate to.
Grief is a hard road to travel alone.
I prayed a lot the day he died that we would be the last ones to get news like that. I still pray that there will be an end to it all. I will never completely move past that day, but in the past few years I have been able to move forward.
Every year we spend our Memorial Day differently, but Matthew — and those who left before and after — are always on our minds
In honor of Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, we encourage you to please visit the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity and veterans service organization that offers a variety of programs, service and events for wounded veterans of the military actions following the events of September 11, 2001.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Casey Nicole is an Alabama girl, raised on comfort food and good music. She is a photographer, office manager and mother to her amazing daughter, Catherine. When she’s not busy momming, working, or cooking delicious food with her fiancée (Rob), she can be found watching Mad Men reruns on the left side of her recliner with her dog, and eating enough strawberries for two–because #2 is on the way!