Three. Years. Later.

Three years ago I flew home from a year abroad in Madrid. And three years ago, my life changed forever. No, this is not your average study-abroad-changed-my-life story (well, in most ways, it is…). This is your life can change in an instant story—the kind of change that is unexpected, unforeseen, unanticipated, unwanted, unimaginable, and, quite frankly, seemingly impossible.

I left Madrid with a f*ck off sign tattooed on my forehead. I really didn’t want to leave. A year wasn’t enough for me. I stepped off the plane at Newark airport and was greeted by my ecstatic family. I truly was so happy to see them. I arrived home to a sushi surprise by my closest friends. But I was still speaking Spanish, holding onto those wisps of Spain as tight as I could.

I was thinking about applying to Fulbright, as well as the Peer Mentor on-campus internship with API, and, of course, Madrid. I was home for two weeks when my dad realized he needed help. He crawled up the stairs, plopped onto my comfy desk chair that he bought and assembled for me, and told me something was wrong. He was having trouble breathing, and though he continued prepping the pool for summer and working outside, he was in pain, and he had to go get it checked out. That was Friday, May 31, 2013. On Saturday, he went to the hospital, and I continued on with my day thinking nothing of it. I didn’t go to the hospital with him. He asked, but I said no. I showed up later to see how he was doing. He had pneumonia in one lung. Then two. And then, nothing. He died the following Friday. June 7, 2013 – just a few weeks after my return home from a year abroad in Madrid – will forever be my turning point, my date of reference, my before or after date.

When May rolls around, these events repeat in my mind, without fail. I replay the blurred memories of my father’s death, and June comes and I’m paralyzed by flashbacks. Sometimes I tell people that I blacked out. I showed up to the hospital after 3 AM to the news. My mom told my brothers and I that daddy was in heaven. And I blacked out. Or so I say. Truthfully, I’m not sure there’s a correct verb to describe what exactly happened. It’s like a stop motion comic book with no sound. I saw my brothers turn red with anger and clenched fists. I saw nurses and family members run to aid them, or control them. And I dropped, physically unable to control myself. I don’t remember screaming. I don’t remember anything I said. I do remember catching a glimpse of my dad’s feet in the hospital room. And I do remember eventually standing by his side singing.

The next thing I remember is around 7 AM. I was sitting on my couch at home next to my mom just staring blankly into our family room.

What do we do now? I wondered.

You take one step forward, and then another, and then another. And before you know it, three years have gone by and you still wonder how you survived that moment, that day, those few isolated weeks.

Before you know it, it’s June 7, 2016, a day that carries the weight of your grief within its confined twenty-four hours. It’s a date you can’t escape, it looms on the horizon and waits for your arrival to send you back to the past.

I still wonder how I got through my dad’s death. So many factors played into it, but I did the only thing I could: I moved forward.

I wrote about it, and I continue to write about it. Because grief is inevitable. Death is a part of life. A part that I believe should be talked about more openly and honestly. I am tired of hearing the “I’m sorry for your loss” and “everything happens for a reason” responses. They are bullshit. They are broken façades of empathy that I don’t care to entertain. I want real responses – questions, doubts, feelings, emotions. I want to be able to talk to people about my dad without getting cut off with an “I’m sorry” from puppy dog eyes. I’m at the point where, frankly, I’m offended by others’ lack of maturity and empathy.

To share each other’s burdens is one of the greatest connections we can make as human beings. To truly be there for someone else, whether you understand their pain and grief or not, is beautiful. To  honestly tell someone that you are physically there to listen to them is admirable. To share their space by being present is necessary.

We need to do this more often. We need to be uncomfortable to bring others comfort. We need to realize that grief is not linear – in fact, life is not linear – in order to delve deeper than the broken record response of time heals all. Time does not heal. Time gives you the opportunity to reflect, accept, and deal with your pain. Time allows you the space to learn how to live with your pain. It does not go away. It is a part of you.

By sharing my seemingly impossible, life-changing moment, I hope to create a space for vulnerability. Writing as a method of working through my grief has helped me immensely. Three years ago I couldn’t even verbalize the phrase “My dad died.” Three years later, I still struggle with communicating my dad’s death, but lately I have been so inspired by those select few who have listened, empathized, and supported me in my pain and vulnerability. It’s something I hope to be able to say about more people as we navigate the unknown, unanticipated, unforeseen, and seemingly impossible moments of life.

The silver fox and his daughter who should look up

Why don’t you come on over, Valerie?

Well, sometimes I go out by myself and I …think about my daddy. It’s funny the things you remember: the highlights of your memory, and the flashbacks that are triggered by certain chord progressions, especially those that are continuously played all over Maceió. Amy Winehouse fills the sound waves here, and hearing “Valerie” takes me to our last jam session in Madrid.

I recently did this journal prompt: what I learned from my parents. And I thought of my daddy (and you, momma, of course!). All his sayings, his catch phrases of sorts, came rushing into my head.

You gotta believe in something
He parked the car at Allentown Presbyterian Church before another rockin’ Sunday service, rubbed his hand over the scar on his leg, and said “I don’t know what I did to get such a shitty hand dealt to me in life, but I do know this: you gotta believe in something.”

Clear your bed
…because you never know when you’re gonna wanna pass out—great advice (seriously though).

Nobody likes a Mr. Messy
Clean up after yourself. Dishes, clothes, anything. Common sense, right?

Show up & be there
Presents don’t matter, but your presence does. Holidays are meant to bring us all together sans the consumerist tendencies of America, and he’s the one who convinced me to head home from Spain for (our last) Christmas together.

That’s Justin! 
Just Incredible. Just in time. Just in case. He’d say ‘just’ is my mom’s favorite word because she preferred it to ‘please,’ and, as he said, it certainly does not mean the same thing. But he most certainly loved to use ‘just’ to emphasize the efficiency and practicality of things.

Be a social drinker
Unforgettable nights with friends and family shouldn’t be the ones you actually can’t remember. Guitars, good people, and just a few drinks.

Buy only what you need
And you don’t need much (especially when you go to the beach). This has become way more relevant navigating adult life abroad—groceries, clothes, and the things I think I need.

Use a small spoon for ice cream
More spoonfuls=more happiness. Trick your mind into thinking there’s more Rocky Road in that bowl.

It’ll all work out
Don’t freak out. Just breathe. It will be okay. Even when you think things are so completely screwed up, know that they will work out.

Pajamas, peepee, teeth, bed
Another super useful tip that has become second nature. My nightly routine remains unchanged.

And so does my undying love for my human, my best friend, and my daddy. Today, I celebrate you and your extraordinary life. It may have been too damn short, but it sure as hell was filled with great laughs, good music, melted ice cream, and sincere, genuine care and love for others. Happy Birthday, Doodle. I love you.

Keri Berry

Day 1 of Brazil: My Heart is Full

Of inspiration. Of happiness. Of excitement. Of a little bit of nervousness. But, mostly, of love: for new people, places, and prospects. The positive vibes are flowing and I’m feeling like I’ve found another tribe. It’s only the first day of our three-day orientation in São Paulo, and yet I’m already floating on that newness high. Yessssss. 

That was me about a week ago inhaling everything very deeply in São Paulo. And this is me now, laying on my Maceió bed in a fabulously colored pink-and-white apartment three blocks from the beach. Last Friday I flew to my new host city, the capital of the state of Alagoas in the northeast. Excited is an understatement (But srsly, what single word could sum up this feeling that’s much more than excited? Ecstatic? Elated? Energized?).

It is all those adjectives and more. I rocked up to Maceió with little to no expectations (but B’quilla comparisons have been unavoidable). Thus far—approximately six days in Maceió—I’m all about this city. And I’m all about this job (but I haven’t even started #lolz). Living this close to the sea and that oh-so-good ocean breeze is everything. My university is far (“I mean way out there…H, I, J…” – John Pinette’s “I Say Nay, Nay” anyone?), but it’s going to be okay. I’ll live. And I’ll most certainly enjoy the tapioca, açai, running/biking/roller blading on the boardwalk beautifully positioned next to bright blue beaches that won’t be taken for granted.

When Grief Presses Play

Saturday I was in pain. I hardly left comfy seated or horizontal positions and I only stopped crying for the duration of a movie almost as sad as my snowed-in, sad-as-hell day. Outside was changing at a rapid pace, snow piling on top of snow on top of a place so familiar. But I was trapped inside. Inside a familiar place without my person: my dad. A place I call home, but I returned here only to be reminded that it still doesn’t feel like what home should feel like. My dad still isn’t here, and yet I can find him everywhere. I feel him here. It’s subtle but it’s evident. Nothing has changed yet everything has changed. It’s been almost three years. Imagine that? A significant chunk of my life spent without my best friend. I’m still kicking. As they say, life goes on. But what goes on in my head isn’t moving forward. My head’s replaying every life-changing snapshot that my memory keeps on file for whenever grief takes control and presses play. No popcorn, no one else in the theater – just me all by myself watching what my slightly younger self witnessed in real life. 

It’s a lot, I know. To bear the weight of these memories is just as tough as living them. Death is inevitable – unexpected at times – but nonetheless, it’s bound to happen to all of us. Why is it not something we openly talk about? Why do we live as though we are invincible? As though we will live out everything we intend to do? Why do people place their goals, dreams and desires so far in their future? We think we have so much time, but when we consciously think of our eventual demise, we realize just how limited our existence in this world will be. We should be doing everything we say we will. Tomorrow is a new day, a fresh start, but it is completely unpredictable. You can plan ahead, sure, but how far ahead is too far ahead? It’s ideal to map out the future, but I believe it’s even more relevant to map out the now. What are you doing in this moment? What are you working on? What are you learning? Who are you with? Who are you right now

I’d like to know why we’re so inclined to think long term. It’s out of our control. What we can do is focus on this very moment, this very day and actually live it. Saturday I was in pain: I focused on it and I lived it. I argued internally with myself. “I could be doing this and I should be working on this.” But I was so damn sad and I realized that I just had to be sad. No, I didn’t deserve to be sad. But grief pressed play and I couldn’t look away. I felt raw and broken reliving what you’d call a ‘tragedy.’ I call it my biggest fear, something that only crossed my mind being physically far away from home. I’d always wanted to have the answer, the cure for my dad’s unexplainable combination of medical conditions. I feared something would happen to him. And something did happen. Something that changed my life and caused me to reevaluate everything; to re-see my surroundings; to re-adjust my perspective. And to re-live that defining moment I’ve already lived and relived and relived. 

I read a piece of advice today that urged readers to reflect on the past and what it has taught them. Most of the time, it said, we overcome challenges and we forget them. I paused. I re-read the sentence. I looked away to stare blankly into my surroundings as grief set my biggest fear in motion, again. My dad’s death wasn’t a challenge I overcame and forgot about, only revisiting it to remember its teachings. It is a part of who I am every day of the week since that Friday in June almost three years ago. In the story of my life, it is the turning point. The tragic event that sets the scene for the rest of the main character’s life. An intermission of sorts with an unforeseen change of events after the curtain reopens. And somehow (thank God), it isn’t the climax. It wasn’t downhill from there. While it has been the steepest uphill battle – with a few (okay, several) teary-eyed days in bed preventing forward movement – it has been an unforgettable reason to continue on. 

I ask all the questions that will hold my curiosity but will never be answered. I experience life from a perishable perspective. I see with new eyes, especially when grief’s in charge of the viewing. I plan for now. It’s all we’re guaranteed to have.