Monday, October 5, 2009

Live and learn.

I was watching So You Think You Can Dance the other night, because uh, see last week's post about TV.

Anyway, there was this one guy with a total hard luck story. His mom was a drug addict and he was born addicted. He grew up in a tough neighborhood full of gang members and prostitutes. His mother couldn't take care of him so his aunt raised him. He was hoping dance would be his escape route from poverty.

Sad story. And yet . . . something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

Fast forward toward the end of the show and a cute young blonde girl about to take the stage. Turns out she had just found out the day before on the drive down to the audition that her grandfather passed away. She danced anyway. She danced her little her heart out, and if it wasn't the most elegant dance of the night, it was certainly the most heartfelt. Her face shone and she said something about she had always liked the words to her song, but now they told a story. She cried, because who wouldn't, but it wasn't self-pitying. She set her chin in determination, and with a smile, said she figured her grandfather had really just tried to guarantee himself a front row seat.

She gripped me in the way the guy with the earlier sad story didn't. I thought about it for a while and then I figured it out. The first case was a guy who was defined by his tragedy. The second case, the girl, was defined by her reaction to her tragedy.

I thought about it again when I was flipping through pictures in my Facebook album and I ran across this one from our last family reunion three years ago:

See that grumpy looking guy in the middle in the white shirt? The one I'm standing behind? That's my Pawpaw. He laughed all the time but he rarely smiled for pictures. To his left in dark green is my dad. Above him to my left is my mom. I'm surrounded on three sides by some of the dearest people in my life in this picture.

In six months, all three of them were dead. We didn't know this picture would be two months before my dad's first episode of respiratory failure. Or that a week after that we would find out that my mom's breast cancer had returned after four years and it was stage four. We didn't know that my dad would die six weeks before my wedding or that my mom would die a month after that. Or that my Pawpaw would die of a completely unexpected heart attack the day after that.

For the first year, I won't lie: it really did define me. I was the girl who'd become an orphan at 32. I was the girl who had buried her father, gotten married, and buried her mother and favorite grandfather in less than three months. I almost couldn't keep from spewing it out to everyone who said, "Hello."

But now . . . I think it's become more about how I've moved past that.

No, that's not right. Those experiences are a permanent part of me. But they're not an anchor holding me back. They're just part of the fabric of me, something that I've woven in over time.

I'm thankful I know how to do that. Do you want to know who taught me that?

The cute man in the middle. And his son to his left. And the pretty lady just above him.

28 comments:

Lara said...

Wow, Melanie. I think it is pretty hard not to let those types of hard experiences define us. I'm not really sure how I'd react in such a situation.

Good for you for not letting it hold you back and for knowing how to move on joyfully.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

girl. I wanted to cry reading this. What a hard thing to go through. good for you for rising above this!

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

great insight, Melanie. And coming fresh off conference, it made me think of Elder Clayton's talk about burdens, and how they are lifted in stages.

Becca said...

Such good stuff. I think I defined myself for years as the girl who's mom died when she was 16 (the girl, not the mom) and then the girl who had to deal with a step-twin. And then as the girl... you know. It's kind of freeing to move past that sort of definition and become a real person, molded by circumstance and stamped by history, but defined by decision and choice.

Kristina P. said...

So poingant, Melanie.

I haven't had near the kind of loss and heartache you experienced, but I did have a lot of crap happen when I was younger. And I'm a stronger person because of it.

Working in social work for so long, I work with a lot of people who define themselves as victims, and refuse to decide that they don't have to let their past define them.

wonder woman said...

Oh, my, Melanie. I don't see how something like that WOULDN'T define you for a time.

side note: I HAVE to get a DVR! You can't get much reality TV on hulu.

MommyJ said...

Holy smokes. I can't imagine going through something like that. I LOVE your perspective though... and what you said about not being defined by your tragedy.

You are one tough cookie, and such a good writer, I'm glad you are willing to share with others your perspective.

Becky said...

What a beautiful post.

Like Kristina, I haven't dealt with anything of this magnitude, but I did grow up in an emotionally abusive home. For a long, long time I excused a lot of bad decisions I made because I figured they weren't my fault. At some point, you just have to take that grief, or anger, or hurt, and let it go enough to be who you really want to be.

LisAway said...

What a lovely post. I'm so happy to see a picture of Pawpaw. I think of him as a character in a favorite book of mine or something.

I love life with those people and experiencing the tragedy of their loss actually HAS defined you. Made you the great person you are through all you learned from them and working through your pain and heartache. Thanks for sharing this.

Annette Lyon said...

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Kimberly said...

Wow. This just makes so much sense, Melanie. The concept of being defined by what you've experienced or by how you've reacted to it/made it a part of the fabric of yourself. I'm suddenly better understand my feelings towards certain people in my life, and why I respect some more than others. Beautifully put.

InkMom said...

What Steph said! I thought immediately of Elder Clayton's talk as well.

Extremely well written post, and the ideas you conveyed were pretty darn valuable, too.

Debbie said...

What an eloquent post. Of course, I expect that from you. And when you were telling the stories from the TV, I was feeling the same way just from your description. I know your dear family is proud of you. You learned well.

DeNae said...

I felt the exact same way when I saw those stories on SYTYCD. I was also interested in the girl who had lost her hand to cancer and came out and danced with such energy and with a beautiful smile on her face. Even she is managing not to be defined by her trial, although with such physical evidence it would be nearly impossible NOT to be.

And Melanie, I've never seen you put your story into one chapter like this before. You really are a wonderful person, and I consider myself lucky to have you in my life.

Much love!

Erin said...

Wow, that must have been such a difficult time for you. I don't know how I would have fared. And yet, I know that isn't why you wrote this post - you are talking about how you aren't defined by tragedies in your life. You have learned from them and taken the positive memories and now I'm rambling. But I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this with us.

(P.S. I watched SYTYCD and felt the same as you.)

Colipoki said...

Thanks for making me cry.

Colipoki said...

Colipoki is Susan Auten.

Valerie said...

I got choked up reading your post. Thank you for sharing something so personal and well written.

Andrew & Sarah Clawson said...

Am in tears Melanie! Loved this post.. I am sure - no I KNOW that your parents and paw-paw are looking down at you and smiling. They did a good job raising you..
Missing your parents too!

L.T. Elliot said...

I have always seen in you this giant well of strength. Whenever you've spoken of your family and your loss, it has been with reverence, pride, and the very fabric of joy. It always felt to me that you lived life more fully in the face of those tragedies. I remember reading a post you wrote about your parents and signing and how it felt to lose them. I was struck by your strength.
And I still am.
So proud of you--so proud of you.

Kazzy said...

I don't know what to say. Wow. Of course those things defined you. How could they not?

Thank you, M.

myimaginaryblog said...

What a beautiful photo.

I'm grateful when people do talk about stuff while they're going through it, (as well as afterward,) both because it gives me an opening to feel and show compassion, and because it makes me feel free to share my own woes. (That wasn't a direct response to anything you said, just something that your story made me think of.) I know a few people who've experienced large tragedies and talk about it all the time, and others who don't at all, and I really prefer the former reaction. I guess there are some kinds of personal tragedies that can't really be talked about publicly, but whenever possible I'm glad if people do. Especially, of course, if they ARE rising to the challenges they face.

Stephanie Faris said...

So true. I'm sorry you had to go through all of that all at once. That had to have been really hard. But yes, we all will go through adversity in our lives but it's all in how we handle it. We move past it and become stronger...we never forget those who have come before us, but we also strive to make them proud with our every action.

Jessica G. said...

Not gonna cry...not gonna cry...

But i think you're right about the two different dancers.

charrette said...

Excellent post. (So good, it crashed my computer while I was trying to comment, but I'm back...)

Anyway, I already knew this about your background (and mine was similar, so I totally get this.) But what I love here is what you have to say about the response to our circumstances. You're right -- those people, and their loss, never leave us. But that legacy of strength and love and survival never leaves either.

Amateur Steph said...

Wow. I love it when you write about your family. That must have been so hard. What a good insight about defining experiences and defining reactions.

Eowyn said...

So, I read this a long time ago and apparently never commented. I'm sorry about that!

This was an awesome post and I'm glad that you are my friend.

AzĂșcar said...

Amazing story.


(And I love TV.)

(But you knew that.)