So, I recently returned home from Tampa, Florida – where I attended as a presenter once again at Camp Widow. It always seems impossible to even begin to describe the experience of what goes on during those few days at that Marriott Hotel, because it always feels so special and so big and so life-changing, and something that just cant be seen or felt or understood, unless you were there inside of it. Each and every time.
And I figured out the reason for that. It’s because we are living life every day. Sometimes we are living life poorly, other times we are barely hanging on, and still other times we might feel like we could be doing okay. The pieces of our life are in constant movement. Each time we attend camp, and are surrounded by a couple hundred other widowed people – our tribe – things have changed in our own lives. We are in a different place than we were the last time, even if its not a good place. Grief does not stand still – its always shifting – as is life, whether you fight the changes of it or not. They still keep happening. So each time I attend, I receive brand new messages, gain new knowledge, and walk away with something I didnt have just a few days earlier. I also meet more new people that are on this path of loss, and I reunite with my friends that I met there last year. Not to mention I have the amazing honor of providing laughter to a room filled with widowed people – and widowed people laughing, has become my very favorite sound to hear.
At each camp, the founder of Soaring Spirits International, my dear friend Michele Neff Hernandez, widowed at age 35 when her husband Phil was hit by a car while cycling – delivers a Key Note Address. It is always the perfect message for us to go home with, and always something to make us think in a new way about something. As it turns out, this one hit home for me, in ways that were quite unexpected. She normally uses some type of metaphor or image as part of her overall theme, and this time, that image was boats.
Michele spoke about how common it is to hear people comparing grief to the ocean. She then noted that she liked to think of it more as a boat. That when our loved one dies, we are left with this boat (our grief, our “after” life, all of it), and it is our mission, eventually, to make sure our boats were seaworthy – in good enough condition to sail on the sea. She talked about what a ginormous task this was, and how all of our boats were in different conditions and some of our boats had other passengers to take care of (children), while others were completely alone in their boats. She talked about having to fix our boats over and over, and how new holes would appear and how we had to keep starting over, and how sometimes, you just wanted to sit there and tread water and not deal with this boat or deal with anything. Or how you wanted to just give up and sell your boat, but you couldntt, because you have the deed and its yours forever. You had no choice but to take your boat, your life, and make it seaworthy.
Later that day, after the Key Note Address, I did my presentation, which went very well, and then attended the big party that night where we both honor our forever loves with a message release, and celebrate our own lives, and love and life itself. Everything was great, and I felt such a sense of life-affirmation and hope – the way I always feel when around my widowed family.
The next night, Sunday, I was hit with a huge emotional breakdown. A panic attack. It happened at a random moment, while sitting in my hotel room alone. The reasons as to why it happened aren’t important here and cannot be shared here, so I will only say that it was an extremely emotional week for me in Florida, and it was very difficult being there for personal reasons. My heart was hurting all week long, and in that moment, it all came to a head.
So, on that Sunday, I found myself on the floor of my hotel room, crumpled up in a corner, sobbing hysterically and barely able to catch my breath. It was that kind of crying where you start hyperventilating, and where you are absolutely positive that the severity of your crying and your pain, will indeed kill you. You are positive that you will die from this pain, and you sort of very much want to die, in that moment. Here I was, 5 and a half years from my loss, and still, grief and life and pain was attacking. But because I am over 5 years from my loss, I knew enough, somewhere deep inside, that I was having a panic attack, and that I probably would not die from it. I knew enough that I needed a friend to help me breathe through this, and I needed to talk with someone I could trust with all of this pain. So I texted Michele. It just felt right. She was the person I needed in that moment, to say the words I needed to say out loud, that would be kept between only us.
I got through the night somehow. I cried hysterically for a long time that night. Hours, maybe. With the help of a sleeping pill, I finally drifted off into crying sleep. On Monday morning, I woke up with a headache, and a return text from Michele that she had been asleep the night before and just received my text now. I was still in a very bad place, and asked her if she could somehow spare even just a few minutes for me in person, because I felt as if I was going to collapse from pain. I wasnt sure how to get through the next minute, never mind the day. This woman, this beautiful friend of mine who was literally in the middle of packing up all of Camp Widow into trucks, several meetings, and things other than my sobbing ass – scheduled a private conference room for us to meet in, and was there waiting for me when I arrived at the appointed time.
I sat down next to her, and just collapsed into her. I let myself cry horribly and loudly. I let everything that was inside, come out. And she sat there, holding me, and giving me the space I so desperately needed, to let all the hurt escape out of me. I needed a private place to feel safe, away from everyone and everything, and she gave me exactly that. We talked for a long time, and many things were said that I can’t get into in a public forum, but this was the part that is important to this story, that I will share here.
She looked me in the eyes, as I cried and cried and cried, and she ordered me to go outside. “You can cry all you want, but you are not allowed back into your room until tonight, to sleep. I want you outside in the fresh air. Take a walk, sit by the pool, whatever. If I find out you went back to your room, I’m going to be really upset with you.You have to find a way to release this from your heart, at least until your TED talk is done at the end of the month. You have to focus on that. This is a huge deal, a huge opportunity and platform, and you cannot let this thing, steal that away from you.”
I cried some more, and she wiped my tears and asked me if I had any sunglasses. I shook my head no. She took her own beautiful sunglasses, and put them on my face gently. She said: “Here. These are yours. Now you can go outside, and see yourself through my eyes. Youre beautiful. Youre so worthy. You cant see that right now, but I can. Look through my eyes. You are allowed to grieve and mourn and feel everything that’s happened, but do it outside, and put these on so you don’t have to face questions about why you’re crying. When you get outside, you never know what could happen, who you might run into, what new perspective you might see. Go outside. I love you.” I walked down the hall, still crying, and said: “I love you too.” And I went outside.
Minutes later, I got a text from one of my widow friends, Leah. “A few of us are going on a boat cruise around Tampa Bay. Wanna come?” Without thinking about anything other than the words that Michele had just spoken to me, I texted back: “Yes.” Because I was ordered to stay outside, and her Key Note was all about boats, so the idea of a boat ride seemed absolutely perfect.
So off we went, onto this boat ride, which was supposed to be a dolphin watch, but there were no dolphins. There was a captain, and a co-captain. The co-captain was at the back of the boat, where me and my friends were sitting, and he was chatting it up with us and being friendly and personable, because that’s his job. I was telling my friends about how I never took my late husband’s last name, Shepherd, an how I was going to now use it as a pen name in my book about him – Kelley Lynn Shepherd. The co-captain/2nd mate heard me and commented: “Thats a really beautiful way to honor him, by taking his name for the book. Wow. I like that.” He then asked us if we wanted to request any songs for the boat tour, so I requested “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. He yelled out to the captain my song request, and the captain responded: “You got it, Phil.” Then this man, Phil, who has the same name as my dear friend Michele’s late husband – just minutes after she ordered me to go outside and I ended up on a boat – says out of nowhere to me: “I love your sunglasses.” “Thanks.”
When the boat tour was over, my friends and I started walking down the pier after saying our farewells to the captain and co-captain. He shouted out to me, something about “next time, I hope I can be your shepherd.” And then winked. My friend Rhonda turned to me and said: “Wow. He was really into you, huh?” “What?”, I responded, completely clueless. Leah and Tara agreed. “How could you not know? It was so obvious! He was listening to everything you said. He was standing over by you the whole cruise, talking to you.”I was stunned. “Really? I thought he was just doing his job and being nice. You really think he was flirting with me?””YES!!!!”, they all practically screamed at me.
So, with my new sunglasses on where I could see myself through Michele’s eyes, and with my newfound “who gives a shit and why the hell not” bravery, I said: “Well, I dont think he was flirting with me at all, but if you guys really think so, Ill go back there and give him my card. Why not, right? He was super nice. And his name was Phil! And he commented on my sunglasses. On a boat! I mean, come ON. That HAS to mean SOMETHING!” So I fished through my bag to find my card, and then sprinted back toward the boat. But it was too late. The next cruise was already taking off – they had literally JUST left the dock. “Dammit!”, I said.
We walked back to the hotel, and sat outside on the patio, because I was ordered to stay outside. Leah came up with a plan. “Lets find the boat tour company, see if they have a Facebook page. Then find him, and send him a message that you just took the tour and thought he had a great sense of humor, and that you were wondering if they give private group tours, because its something you may look into for our widowed convention next year. This way, if he wasn’t flirting with you, then you wont feel like you’re putting yourself out there or feel silly. And if he was, it will be obvious.” So I did. And I was pretty damn proud of myself for having the courage to walk back there and give this total stranger my card, AND follow it up by reaching out with this message.
The next morning, he did not reply, so I assumed that I was correct and that my friends were crazy for thinking he was into me. But the morning after that, after my flight had been pushed back a day due to snow back home, he did reply. Saying that yes, they do private group tours. He then asked me if I had some time right now to talk about it further. I was in the hotel, with a couple hours before having to leave for the airport to head back to NY. So I said sure. And then my phone rang (apparently people can call you from the Facebook Messenger thing, without having your number. I had no idea because I suck at technology). And then, we were suddenly talking, for a very long time. The subject of boat tours only came up for a few minutes. The rest of the time, he asked me about my late husband, and about the widow convention, and he noted how it must be “very comforting and validating in a way” to be part of an event such as Camp Widow, and to know that you arent alone. I then decided to take a chance and just come out and ask him if he was, indeed, flirting with me during the tour. Because I still didnt really know. Because I suck at knowing those types of things, and I suck at reading men and their intentions, apparently. So I asked him. “My friends insisted that you were flirting with me on the cruise. I told them they were crazy.” He paused a second, and then said: “Oh, I was totally flirting with you. You’re absolutely beautiful. I have a thing for sexy brunettes with long hair from Massachusetts, who change their name to author a book about their husband, and who have a great personality and sense of humor and gorgeous eyes. Oh, and the cleavage didnt hurt anything either. ”
I could literally feel myself blushing through the phone. To be feeling so horrible and awful and low and hopeless just hours before and the day before, and be literally crumpled up on the floor not wanting to do anything but die in my sorrow – and then to hear that, coming from a total stranger named Phil who I met on a boat, with my new sunglasses on – it was magic. It was the universe giving me the exact thing that I needed, at that exact moment. We talked about how I love sunsets, and how they do a nightly sunset cruise, and how beautiful the sunsets are in Florida. And we talked about how we didnt see any dolphins on our dolphin tour, and he lightly mocked me for being in a bathing suit and tank top on a “chilly” day in the high 60’s, while all my friends were literally covering themselves up with blankets and coats and things, as I yelled out mockingly: “Wimps!” And he said: “Its too bad you have to leave today. Im off work, and I was going to see if you wanted to get together.”
In talking with him more, his life situation is extremely complicated, and because of that, I doubt this will ever be any kind of relationship with us. And just a week before leaving for Florida, I had a first date with someone I recently met on the dating sites, and our date went quite well, and I really like him. And that situation, or THIS situation, or any situation, could all turn out to be absolutely nothing. If there is one thing I have learned in the most painful way possible – it is that you can spend a whole lot of time and emotions on someone, only for it to turn out to be absolutely nothing. And so Phil, or the really nice guy from back home, or anything else -could all be just more nothing. But that does not erase the moments that happened. It does not mean that they were not 100% real, when they happened. Moments like that are real, and they are fleeting, and they live in my heart, and nobody can ever try and take that away.
What’s important is this: Phil and I have kept in touch, and he has been sending me nightly sunset pictures from the boat cruise, and they make me smile and feel peaceful and calm and tranquil. And he called me beautiful, and on a boat filled with other people, he chose ME to flirt with, he chose me to interact with. And when that was pointed out to me by my friends, I took a chance and tried to give him my card. And when that didnt pan out, I took another chance and sent him a message. And that felt brave, somehow. Because just hours before, I was crumpled up in the corner, and I just wanted nothing more than to die.
And then I went outside.
So even if all of this, all of these situations, all pan out into nothing – they are still not nothing.
The universe giving me hope and a new perspective, in a moment where I felt like nothing, is never nothing.
It is the furthest thing from nothing.
And in those moments,
with the wind in my hair,
and focusing only on the sound of the water,
lapping up pieces of air and life …
In that one moment,
I felt Seaworthy.