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You’ve Got A Friend In Me

It’s amazing how God brings people to us in the season we need them most, even when we may not realize it until later.

I remember when Katie first started working with me. She doesn’t know this, but I just assumed I didn’t like her. (I’m sure she’s laughing right now, because she knows my terrible habit of disliking literally everyone before I even meet them.) I wanted nothing to do with her, actually. So, I said very little to her in the beginning. I regret that so much now, because I think of all the crazy adventures we missed out on due to my stubbornness. Our boss probably misses those days of me hiding out in my office, “working,” though, since Katie and I have become virtually inseparable now.

I have always imagined life as a puzzle. The people we meet, the moments we share, all coming together to form a beautiful picture. One of Katie’s favorite hobbies is doing jigsaw puzzles so it seems fitting to write about her with this analogy.

Katie has become a key piece to my puzzle. Over the last year or so, a lot of my pieces have fallen apart. I’ve lost many pieces: some by choice, some by cancer, and some by geography. Losing these pieces changed my picture. I forgot how lively, fun, and beautiful the picture could be with the right pieces.

In those early days, I assumed Katie’s piece didn’t fit with mine. Boy, was I ever wrong. You see, Katie’s piece is actually the connector to so many of my life’s puzzle pieces.  Her piece brought loyalty, joy, support, silliness, and encouragement back into my life. Once I let our pieces connect, it was like a domino effect. All of these good and lovely feelings came flooding into my life. I was reminded about what it truly means to have a friend in this crazy life.

First, Katie’s piece reconnected my own puzzle with loyalty. She is an incredibly reliable, faithful friend. I know I can count on her, no matter how big or small my obstacle may be. If I need someone to vent to and eat ice cream with, she’s there. No questions asked, even if she’s had a long day. If I need someone to drink too many margaritas with on a Tuesday night, she’s my girl. No judgement, even if she’d rather be in bed.  Katie is the friend that will volunteer to a six hour road trip to help you take care of your niece and nephew on a Thursday night. No complaints, just a willingness to help.

I’ve encountered a lot of people whose loyalty pieces only jammed together with excessive force. They might say “Let me know if you need anything” or “I’m here if you need me,” but they never just showed up. Katie always shows up first, then asks how she can make my life easier. Sometimes she doesn’t even ask, she just jumps in and starts making my life better. I’m not sure if I will ever find someone who has such a natural sense of loyalty. I’m forever thankful for the lessons of faithfulness in friendship that she has shown me.

If there is ever a Red Rover tournament, I know I want to lock arms with Katie because I’m not sure the biggest, toughest man in the world could break through the support her friendship builds. Seriously, Katie’s piece of the puzzle has such a strong, supportive core. If you know me, I like to say that I follow the motto, “Go big or go home.” I can’t do anything halfway or small in nature. It has to be bigger and better than anything I’ve ever done. Unfortunately, my oldest sister got all of the artistic genes in my family. So, while I can envision epic ideas, I can never turn them into a reality. Katie has this ability to understand the craziness of my thoughts and turn them into exactly what I envisioned. Last fall, our boss let me create a game for our annual volunteer banquet. She suggested something basic like BINGO or trivia about our workplace. But I imagined a giant game board, tied into the theme of the banquet and combining elements of many of my favorite childhood board games. I explained it all to Katie and then she produced this amazing, giant game board. And, being supportive, she stayed and facilitated my game when I had a basketball game on the night of the banquet. Then, there was the day last winter when I looked at her and said, “I think we should do a 5k fundraiser.” She got that “bring it on” look on her face, and we immediately started planning. It was an amazing, successful event, and she put so much work into pulling it off. It was my wild idea at the start, but with my busy schedule away from work, Katie picked up the slack and never complained about doing the majority of the prep work. The fundraiser never would have had a finish without her support in the middle. Katie has this determination that inspires people around her. When I give birth to these insane ideas, I get tired about halfway through. I want to give up, and I get discouraged. But Katie comes alongside me and encourages me to the finish. She leads by example rather than words. Katie truly is a woman of action, and I am forever thankful for her leadership in my life.

While I will always be thankful for the loyalty and support Katie has brought into my life, I think I am most thankful for her childlike heart. (I promise, I mean this in a really good way!) She is always, always down for one of my silly adventures. Whether it’s impromptu balloon darts or three-legged races, staff egg races or water balloon fights, or rounds of Guess Who or games of Scrabble at Dairy Queen, Katie is always ready to feed my love of fun.

She always gets behind my love of silly holidays, birthday celebrations, and Taco Tuesdays. She tells me often that she loves my laugh, but the truth is, I love that someone has brought so much joy back into my life so that I can laugh freely again. It has been a long time since I have chosen happiness, and I have no doubt Katie is the source of my choice. 

Katie will always be “my person.” I am a dark and twisty person by nature, and while Katie can be, too, she is mostly light. We tease her at work that, despite being in our presence for a year, she still has some hope and goodness inside of her. We couldn’t quite bring her over to the dark side. Joking aside, I am glad Katie is like the light at the end of a long tunnel. When she showed up down the hall from my office a year ago, I had no idea how much light she would bring me.

While I am sad that the light in her office will be turned off, I am so excited for what lies ahead. I know Katie has amazing things awaiting her. Because of who she is, she will accomplish greatness. Her loyalty, support, and light will make the puzzle a bit clearer for someone else.

I am also excited to see what pieces we will continue to connect together. I know our story is only beginning, and based on the pieces we’ve put together so far, only good things lie ahead. I have no idea what our pictures may look like, but I know, together, we will make them beautiful.

Katie, thank you for being the best work bestie I could have ever asked for. I’ll miss spending my work days with you, but I look forward to spending a lifetime as your friend! 

Cheers.


-rs

For My Soul Friend

Most people have a few of those dark chapters in their book of life… the ones scattered within the shadows, the ones we don’t like to reread. 2013 was one of those chapters in my book of life. I had my first experience with death and loss… the kind of loss that shakes you and empties you and drains the last bit of hope from your soul. She was my best friend, which may be weird to some, given that she was 20 years older than me. She filled other roles, too: my second Mom, my encourager, my support system, my comedic relief, my listening ear, my shoulder to cry on, my rock. And then, overnight, she was gone.

I struggled. I cried. I grieved. I vented. I screamed. I tried to put one foot in front of the other. Other days, I didn’t get out of bed. By 2014, I knew I had to be more proactive in my climb out of grief. It was like a giant pit, and every time I got close to the top, I lost my grip and fell back to the bottom. After hitting rock bottom for what felt like the 100th time, I made the decision to finally get out of the pit.

I committed to attending a local grief group for a few months. It was an emotional choice… I felt embarrassed, ashamed, but I also felt a sense of belonging, a sense of relief. I hid my weekly meetings from most everyone (some family and friends may be learning of this for the first time through these words). But it was here that my post truly begins. It was here that my soul connected with Aaron Fry.

Normally, I would ask Aaron’s permission to share these intimate moments, but, with his recent death, I think it will be okay. I want to share the beauty that was Aaron Fry, and I want to create an opportunity for others to continue on the legacy his kind-hearted nature started.

For those of you who have never attended a grief group, it is everything like you see on TV and it is nothing like you see on TV. I missed the first few weeks of this group, but on my first day, I had to introduce myself and tell about the person I lost. I was hesitant to speak, my voice was quiet and fragile. I was uncomfortable; I didn’t want to be there. But, you see, Aaron and I had first crossed paths in the halls of our high school a few years prior. He knew the person I had lost, a beloved teacher. As I spoke, I looked at Aaron, and he smiled at me and nodded for me to keep going. I will never forget that silent sense of support, a smile that felt like 100 bear hugs. A face of reassurance that gave me the confidence to share my story.

The first meeting I attended had been created as a day to share music that reminded you of your lost loved one. Most everyone brought in a cell phone or a mix CD and shared a few songs. And then there was Aaron. He pulled out his guitar, and he began to sing. I have never felt such powerful emotions from a song. Aaron wrote this song, it was called “Undertow,” and he sang it with such hurt but also such hope. He sang a couple other songs, and I remember the anger he sang with. I could feel his pain and his sorrow. But Aaron didn’t live life as an angry, depressed man. In fact, he was just the opposite. Aaron greeted everyone with a smile, and he was friendly to strangers. He was easy-going, and he had a heart of gold.

For months after my experiences in grief group, I tried to write Aaron a note. I wanted him to know what a difference he made for me. He could have been so angry or bitter towards me… here I was grieving a loss of a teacher (she was so much more than that to me, but exteriorly, she was a teacher) while he was suffering the loss of his mother. I had never known the loss of a parent or sibling. But Aaron never made me feel judged… he just helped me heal.

I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Aaron as a close friend, and I will always regret not reaching out and getting to know him. However, his recent death has greatly rattled me. I have questioned why for days until I realized how unique our relationship was. We shared such precious moments within those walls of grief. We learned about stories and feelings that may have only been discussed inside those walls. Moments so personal that I cannot yet share them here. In so many ways, we shared our souls with each other. We trusted each other, and we simply grieved our great loss. From now on, I will always think of Aaron as my “soul friend,” because he not only shared his soul and listened to the secrets within my own, but he also was a man with a cherished soul. Aaron was truly special.

Aaron, these are the words I tried for so long to write to you. These are the thoughts I have kept tucked inside my heart for over two years now. I will forever be thankful for your gentle spirit and kind eyes… many days, you were the only reason I was able to sit through grief group. And through our experiences there, I started to find the healing I was so desperately searching for.

Forgive me if I mess up the words, but from my memory, these were a few of the lyrics to “Undertow.”

Wherever I am going… wherever I go, I’ll just call it home.

Aaron, thank you for teaching me, through my healing, that home is wherever I go. Home is all the pieces and people that have stitched together my soul… thank you for being one of those people.

Aaron, you will be missed. But I truly hope you are Home, and you will forever find peaceful rest.

-rs

Goodbye, Grandma

February is a HARD month for my family. Last year, my sister experienced life-threatening complications during a surgery. A few weeks ago, the youngest member of the Swigert clan, my sweet baby niece, spent a few days in the hospital battling RSV. There are not enough words to express how thankful I am to have these two ladies healthy once again.

Then, the February struggle reared its head once again. A few days ago, my grandmother was taken to the hospital and our worlds were forever changed. As soon as I heard that she was taken to the hospital, my mind began to race. I called my boss to inform her I may need to miss the following work day, and her words will forever haunt me: “Don’t say things can’t get worse.” I didn’t say it, but Someone must have overheard our conversation anyways. I can’t described the way my stomach dropped, my heart stopped, and my mind froze when I read my Dad’s text: “Grandma’s abdomen is full of cancer.”

By that evening, I was travelling to the hospital with some of my family. We found our precious grandmother, still in the emergency room, still in excruciating pain. My heart will forever be comforted by our brief conversations that evening. Grandma knew who I was, and we exchanged the typical “I love you” conversation. Later, I joked with her about dog-sitting and how I needed to get home to let the crazy dogs out. She gave me her best attempt at a chuckle, and I promised to visit again soon.

Less than twelve hours after that conversation, I did visit again. But Grandma had already deteriorated to a state of unresponsiveness. The Grandma I grew up learning to love and adore had already left us. I squeezed her hand, holding onto a thin shred of hope that she would squeeze back, and I kissed her forehead before I left for work. By the time I arrived to work, about 20 minutes after that goodbye kiss, she was gone. She was free of her chains of pain, and she was reunited with her beloved husband. She was free.

My mind is still working hard to process what has happened. Twenty-four hours before her last breath, she was f.i.n.e. Three days before her last, she was celebrating my brother-in-law’s birthday with the family. I have yet to fully grasp that she will no longer welcome us into her home on Christmas Eve or sip Pepsi from her favorite orange cup. She won’t sneak up behind me at family get-togethers and slip money into my back pocket. I will never hear her joyful laugh or see her bright smile again. She won’t show off her new earrings or pretty sweatshirt. I won’t tease her for being twelve feet shorter than everyone else.

While I list all of these “can’ts” and won’ts,” I am left with the words my boss spoke to me today: “They focus on what we can’t do, but I wish they would see all the things we can do.” While we were simply having a conversation about a program at work, I found myself drawing a connection from her words to my grieving process. There are so many things I can do to remember my Grandma and keep her spirit alive.

I can frost graham crackers with my nieces and nephews, and I can tell them how their Great Grandma’s house always smelled like frosted graham crackers. I can teach the Christmas Eve traditions she taught me to my nieces and nephews and someday, my own kids. I can keep a few of her bells from her giant (literally, giant) collection, and I can gently ring them from time to time, remembering how her laugh also produced a pretty sound. I can always keep my love for fun, something I am sure I learned from her.

While the next family birthday party or Easter dinner will be a little quieter, and a bit sorrowful, we have so many pieces of Grandma that we can always share and keep her spirit with us. She will never truly be gone. As I prepare to lay my Grandma to rest next week, I am finding great comfort in my final moments with her that dreary Tuesday evening.

My oldest sister and I visited Grandma first after she was settled in her ICU room. (I liked how my dad introduced us to a nurse the next morning, “my oldest and my youngest.”) The two bookends of the Swigert siblings, standing strong for our siblings that couldn’t make it in time. We loved on our Grandma, and we gave her hugs as she suffered through her pain. Our final conversation with her will always leave me with chills. We told her that “Andrew (our brother) will be here soon, and Becca (our sister) will be coming, too.” My oldest sister told our Grandma that she would be back, and, as I have already mentioned, I promised to visit soon. In that moment, my sister and I thought we were talking in terms of days or hours. But now, I believe we spoke those words through a Higher Power. I believe Grandma left this world knowing her grandkids would follow her one day… she knows we will be coming for a visit when our time here is finished. And I know that we are counting down the days until we get to have that Heavenly visit with our beloved Grandmother.

Until that day, I will love you, cherish our memories, and miss you to no end. As my mom beautifully wrote on Facebook the morning you left, “She liked her angel figurines… now she is with the angels!” Rejoice, Grandma, and, with time, we will, too. You will never know pain or suffering again, and, in that, I find great comfort.

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Maybe February brings our family these moments of hardship not to cause pain, but to remind us what is important… more importantly, who is important.

-rs

“How Lucky I Am To Have Something That Makes Saying Goodbye So Hard”

“It’s Rachel!”

While working at Cottage Rehab (CR), a local physical therapy place, over the past four years, I have heard similar greetings from many of the wellness members as they walk through the front doors.

After graduating from Monmouth College this spring, I knew my time at CR was winding down. I decided to continue working throughout most of the summer before tackling my next adventure. A few weeks ago my boss asked me if I had picked a final day for my time at CR; he jokingly asked if I was just going to stay forever. It really is the perfect job. I could hang out (sometimes literally!), do a little work, and maybe watch some ESPN from a treadmill.

This is what I get paid for??
This is what I get paid for??

As I’ve thought more about what my boss said, I wish I could keep this job forever. Most of the members have 30+ years of life experiences on me, but I still consider them my good friends. In fact, many of these people stopped by my recent graduation open house. My mom noticed that the majority of my friends at the party were 65+. I just smiled at this comment, because I am blessed to have friends with so much wisdom. From them, I have learned what it means to truly be a “friend.”

  • Friends are constant. My friends at CR constantly checked in about my school plans, my job(s), and they always remembered my weekend plans. While I was still in school, they asked what books I was reading and what papers I was working on. They would remember these assignments throughout the week, and they never failed to check in the following week: Did you finish your reading? What grade did you earn on your paper? I have worked many random “side-jobs” throughout my time at CR. I have been a babysitter, dogsitter, housesitter, and even plantsitter. (Some of these jobs have actually been for the members of CR!) My friends here always ask me how these jobs are going. They never forget. Every Saturday, many of my CR friends ask what my weekend plans are. They are genuinely interested, and they always ask how things went the following week. They also hold me accountable by reminding me to “Be safe” and “Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.”
  • Friends notice the small things. Like when I get my hair cut or what my t-shirt says. (I have had entire conversations evolve from the few simple words on my t-shirt.) My friends here noticed when I straighten my hair versus wearing it up in a ponytail. Sometimes, my friends came inside and immediately asked if I recently washed my car, claiming it looked shinier than usual. They went beyond simply noticing these small things, however. They complimented me. They made me feel happy. Whether it was the headband in my hair or the color of my phone case, my CR friends made me feel good inside through these kind-hearted compliments.
  • Friends share in major life moments, but they also congratulate each other for the small victories. While I received cards from my CR friends for my birthday and graduation, I found far greater joy when they shared in my small, day-to-day victories. When I went through the teacher education program at Monmouth College, they shared in each small step of the process. Whenever I finished a long paper for a college class, they praised me for my work ethic. When I survived a long week of being a full-time student and working multiple part-time jobs, they cheered me on and motivated me to keep pushing forward.
  • Friends share endless encouragement through every step of life’s journey. I will share more in future posts, but 2015 has been a year of self-growth. In January, I made the decision to flip my entire world upside down. I took everything I had been working toward for many years, professionally, and packed it away. Instead of pursuing teacher certification, I made the decision to explore alternative methods of learning and with different age groups. It was crazy.. to leap without seeing the safety net. Most people expressed their immediate disappointment or frustration or confusion with my choice. However, my friends at CR never once criticized my decision.image3 (2) They asked questions until they understood from my perspective. They offered constant advice and shared their own personal experiences. I felt comforted, encouraged, and determined to continue forward with my new journey.

Through these moments and many others, I have learned one more critical piece of friendship: it has to be two-sided. These friendships would not have developed if I wouldn’t have offered a friendly hello as the CR members walked through the doors. And I wouldn’t have continued saying hello if these people brushed away my greetings.

Friendships are not easy. They require hard work from both people invested in the relationship. Throughout my time at CR, I found common interests with my eventual friends. I also discovered what topics were unique to each of my friends, and they learned what topics made my eyes light up with passion.

Throughout my time at CR, I kept working on these friendships and the members here worked towards knowing me better. In the beginning, our evolving friendships were often like a match of tug of war. I would pull too hard and knock down my friends by asking about a topic that made them sad or upset. My friends would then pull me to the ground by asking too many questions or being overly enthusiastic on those early Saturday mornings (did I mention I’m not a morning person??). We eventually found the balance, and the topics and hobbies, that made our friendships grow.

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After spending four years at a physical therapy place, it might seem odd that my biggest take-away is an understanding of authentic friendship. It has nothing to do with the exercise equipment or my daily work tasks. It has everything to do with the people on those exercise machines. People are what matter.

If friendship were a flower, I have learned that it must be rooted in unconditional encouragement. It must be watered with consistency. The gardener and the flower are in a relationship together; the flower relies on the gardener as much as the gardener relies on the flower. The gardener must not overlook the little complexities of the flower, and the flower must appreciate the extra moments of pruning and care given by the gardener. While blooming is the ultimate goal for the flower and the gardener, the bloom will not happen without the aforementioned pieces.

-rs

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