So, I survived the storytelling event last weekend. Two sold out shows – can you believe it? There were eight storytellers total, six had performed with Live Ink Theater before, one was a newbie like me. Everybody killed it.
Me, well, I froze at one point at Saturday’s show. Yep, I forgot what I’d said and what was next – complete blank. I had nothing and the quiet was deafening until one lady yelled out, “That’s okay! We love your accent!” When everyone laughed, I was able to pick back up where I was. Thank god. I made it through Sunday’s show without any hiccups, surprising myself more than anybody else. I’m thankful that Live Ink Theater gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I could.
I’d forgotten how much I loved the feeling of sharing your story with strangers and seeing the looks on their faces when they connect with your words. So many people came up afterwards and thanked me for sharing my story. I met more than one person who’s survived the same situation, and a few that are still trying to get there. You never know what others are going through.
Several people back in Tennessee have asked to read the story. It’s a very personal story, but after my friend told me she was approached by two women at her bridge club who wanted her to thank me for sharing, I decided to put it here. The theme was Hope for The Holidays. Here’s my story –
This time last year my pups and I were freezing our tails off in an empty old farmhouse in Adams Tennessee.
Everything I had was on loan or gifted from friends. The air mattress we slept on and the space heater we ran nonstop – even the silverware I ate with was a gift from my friend Mary Beth. Or actually a gift from her mother who had turned into a kleptomaniac in her last year at the nursing home.
My friend Lisa gave me a soup pot just so she could say, “Well at least you’ll have a pot, even if you don’t have a window…”
How did I get myself into that situation?
Four months before that, without any planning what so ever, I decided to put my house in East Nashville up for sale, by owner. I wrote a resignation letter just for fun and started downsizing just in case.
Well – I got an offer on my house in just a couple of weeks. We signed a contract, set a closing date and quit my job. I gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in my van. My plan was to start fresh with good karma. Thanks to the housing market in Nashville, I was going to be just fine.
But two days before closing, the offer fell through.
A second offer came through just when I was about to cry uncle. But that one fell through in a couple of weeks. I didn’t know anything about selling a house myself – obviously. And at that point I could’ve called and asked for my job back, but I called a realtor instead and drained my savings account to do some repairs on my house. I knew it was a huge risk, but I had no intention of turning back.
My dad, god love him, was convinced I was making the worst mistake in my life. See, I’d left home at the age of fifteen, but somehow, I’d gotten a job at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A job where I’d worked my way up from the mailroom twenty-six years before to a position in pediatric cardiology as a cardiac sonographer. I worked with some of the best doctors in the nation, where I did ultrasounds of some of the most complex congenital heart defects imagined—a pretty sweet gig for a high school dropout. My dad couldn’t understand how I could I give up such an opportunity.
But working for the Children’s Hospital had taken its toll. I’d never learned how to separate myself from the patients or their families. In reality – I’d only taken the job in the mailroom to use the tuition benefits to put my son through college. He’d graduated years ago – was a married man now living his best life – but I was still there.
No offense, but I was supposed to be living in a hippie communion somewhere – raising goats, making art and writing fiction. That had been my dream anyway. I was not cut out for such a high stress job. I’d always thought of Vanderbilt as a temporary thing – but somehow twenty-six years had passed.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Right? Well, I’d spent the last few years of my life completely batshit crazy.
Letting go of that fat paycheck and all the stuff I’d bought that was supposed to make me happy was the first step to taking back my life.
A friend offered me a place to stay while my house was being worked on, so that’s how we ended up at RockARosa farm freezing our butts off and eating from stolen silverware. I actually had a house – with a mortgage – I just couldn’t live in it.
I had no plan B. I was running on pure faith that things would work out.
But there were no new offers on my house. And it was getting colder every day. The pups stayed around the electric heater at my feet while I worked, lying on a heating pad I’d put on their beds because those old wood floors were as cold as ice. I closed off all the rooms we weren’t using and rationed the propane in the furnace.
I had a lot of time to sit and worry and doubt my choices – not just recent choices but every single one I’d made in the last forty years.
Then I got a message that turned everything around. My seventh-grade science teacher had been following my adventures on Facebook. Ms. Nita Heilman said she was proud of me for doing what I was doing.
She asked if I’d like to give her a hand at her church the next time they hosted a program called Room in the Inn. It’s a great program where churches open their doors during the cold months to give people a warm place to sleep and a hot meal when there’s no room in the shelters due to overcrowding. I assumed I’d cook and serve dinner – but Nita had other plans.
“You just be you.” She said. “Dinner is covered. I’d like you to get our guests to open up and feel comfortable. I think that’s where you’d do the most good.”
I showed up that following Friday raring to go. I made my way out where the guests were gathered and tried to start a few of conversations, but nothing worked.
I made coffee but had no takers, except for one guy. I was so excited when he walked up. Finally – someone to talk to. But as I was asking him how he took his coffee, he pointed at his throat, shook his head and fixed his own cup. He obviously couldn’t talk, and I felt like an idiot.
Then I spied two guys playing cards at a table in the back, so I made my way over.
“What are you playing?” I asked.
One of them half whispered, “Bullshit.”
“Bullshit?” I laughed – he didn’t.
In a very serious voice he explained the game to me. “It’s a liar’s game. Anyone can call bullshit on you. And if you are bullshittin’ you pick up the stack.”
“Deal me in.” I said.
In a few minutes we were deep in the game, laughing like kids every time someone whispered the word bullshit or some four-letter word when they had to pick up the cards. We were in a church after all.
I’d notice others watching and ask them to join in. The same people who didn’t trust me to make their coffee a few minutes ago, were sitting at the table accepting the cards I dealt.
I noticed the man who couldn’t talk was watching us from across the room, so I pulled out the chair next to me and motioned him over. A guy named Billy, shook his head. “Jeffrey won’t play.”
Jeffrey answered back. “I ain’t gonna play a game where I have to lie in church.”
I yelled out. “I call Bullshit Jeffrey.”
Everybody burst out laughing – Jeffrey included.
After a few minutes, someone asked what was for dinner. I didn’t know the answer. Then someone asked if there were any extra blankets. I didn’t know the answer to that either, but I said I could find out.
“Hang on a second.” Billy said, really looking at me. “Are you on this side,” he asked (pointing at the group at the table) or that side?” he asked (pointing at the volunteers busy in the kitchen).
I laughed which is always my first response, but it hit me. I could easily be on their side if my house didn’t sell. And I’d done this to myself.
Billy was suspicious of me then and asked, “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m not working anywhere right now,” I said. “I quit my job a few months ago.”
Billy let loose. “What?! Why? How could you do that?”
Everyone was staring, waiting for an answer. I felt like such a jerk.
Everyone there was looking for a job, any job, that would pay enough to get them out of the shelters and off the streets and I’d quit a career to live in my van IF my house sold.
“I don’t know.” I said and at that moment I had no idea how I could’ve done something so stupid. I’d never been so irresponsible in my entire life. I started to tear up.
Billy reached over and touched my wrist. “Hey now, it’s okay. I’m sorry.”
Then he took my hand and gave it a squeeze, “I shouldn’t judge you, I don’t even know you.” He said.
That was such a powerful thing. I’d been judged all my life but had never heard one apology. Any girl that has a child at fifteen knows what it’s like to be judged. No matter what you accomplish or how good you are or how far you or your child goes – there will always be someone who thinks they know your story.
After dinner we played more games of Bullshit. What had started out as two people playing cards had turned into twelve.
When I stood up to leave Billy asked if he could give me a hug and wished me luck. Before I knew it, everybody was hugging me and thanking me for making their night fun. They asked if I would come back.
I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with my new friends and heard so many stories and met some incredibly smart people, including an angel named Ms. Brenda.
She was a tough nut to crack, but once she felt comfortable that lady was a card shark.
And talk about calling bullshit on somebody. Brenda knew there was more to my story. She wasn’t fooled by my corny jokes and funny stories and she wouldn’t give in until I explained why I had decided to get rid of everything I owned and run away.
So I told her.
I told her how my only son and his wife cut me out of their life six years ago. And somehow – this had become normal for everyone else, but it would never be normal for me. Seeing pictures of my grandchildren – who don’t even know my name- displayed in my mother’s house – is not normal. Walking into my sister’s house and realizing that there are no pictures of me in her big family collage, even though I’d been a part of her daughter’s lives. I’d been erased so she wouldn’t have to explain to my grandchildren who that lady in the picture was? Or maybe I’d never been included. Either way – it’s not normal. Having panic attacks on the way to work because you’re closer to your patients than you are your own family and you’re afraid you’ll be the tech that has to take the last pictures on a patient that’s not going to make it– is not normal.
How spending almost every waking moment of your day, grieving for people you lost – especially for the ones who are still alive – was not normal.
Six years was too long to wait for a change that’s never going to happen.
Selling my house and getting the hell out of dodge was more than some fun adventure. I couldn’t go on living that way – and I probably wouldn’t go on living that way. I’d been telling my family for years, but nobody was listening.
Ms. Brenda listened to every word.
“I’m going to pray for you.” She said. “Promise me you won’t give up. You cain’t give up hope, baby. You are worth it.”
Volunteering for Room In the Inn saved me. I was supposed to be there for them, but they gave me so much. These gifts from strangers. To be accepted for who I was – just as I was. To be heard.
I’d walk in the door and everybody would yell. “You playing cards tonight?”
“Deal me in!” I’d say, and we’d be laughing – real laughs – before I even sat down.
Every one of us able to forget our troubles for a little while. And every single one of us glad to be alive.
Like Ms. Brenda told me, “Hope, baby. You ain’t lost it – it’s perched in your soul.”