Last year I entered the Real Simple Life Lessons contest with the theme “When did you first understand love?” There were 10,000+ entries so, while I was hopeful, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear anything in January when they contacted the winners and runners-up. And when the April issue arrived in my mailbox, I pored over the winner’s lovely and deserving essay.
I’m pleased that I entered the contest because it fueled some new creativity in me, and writing and editing this story was a journey I needed to take.
I’m posting this essay today, Father’s Day, because it describes my amazing friend J.T.’s experience as he embarked on his fatherhood journey. J.T. has released a song he wrote and recorded on iTunes, download proceeds of which will support a very important cause. I’m very blessed to know J.T. and his family and am happy to share his/their story with you. Thanks for hanging in there–I know it’s a little long for a blog post, but I promise it’s a compelling story. I hope you will consider downloading the single and supporting this cause.
Life Lessons Contest Entry, September 2011
I’ve seen love. And while I’ve never said, “I love you,” to anyone but family members and close friends—saving those coveted three words for someone I hope to spend my life with—I do believe I understand love. That understanding came 10 years ago, over 328 miles of Kentucky and Ohio roads in a Chevrolet and the hours between.
There was no real emotional template for that particular September afternoon drive with my friend Joy’s husband, J.T., between Lexington, Kentucky, and Springfield, Ohio. A majority of the miles were silent, but that was OK. They weren’t of the uncomfortable sort. I was in a redeye-flight-induced stupor, and J.T. was boomeranging between the emotional extremes of elation, confusion, and grief, although I could tell the ricochet occurred mostly in his mind and heart.
My familiarity with J.T. at this point was mainly from Joy’s stories of his relentless pursuit of her heart. Joy and JT’s long-distance relationship culminated in nuptials earlier in the year, and I was just beginning to observe their dynamic in person. Three days prior to this drive, Joy called me and I’d answered in breathless anticipation of learning about their new baby’s arrival. Yes, Baby Grace had been born. No, she wasn’t OK, but that’s not the reason for the call. The call was to tell me that Troy was gone. I called the airline immediately for a redeye flight home from my vacation.
Troy, J.T.’s best friend, person responsible for introducing him to Joy, and groomsman, had caught my eye at their wedding—first his astounding height (not many people tower over 6-foot me), light eyes, and arresting auburn head of hair, then his courtesy evident in every gesture and glance. I had to meet this man, whose friends’ glowing descriptions of him multiplied as quickly as the you’ve-got-to-meet-her nudges became more intense. And while Troy was the first to admit he couldn’t dance, he made sure that we did anyway on one of the more memorable evenings of my life.
Months of correspondence ensued, and we went out a few times when visiting our respective cities. He was older, more pensive, and had an enviable dry wit. He was mature: He went on camping trips alone and read books, was working on his master’s degree, and made responsible decisions. He volunteered annually in regions of poverty. In living out a popular Eleanor Roosevelt quote that he had memorized, he always talked about ideas—never about people or things—and he exuded a rare aura of peacefulness and self-assuredness. Ultimately I was too young and clueless to grasp that what we had was worth a three-hour drive and exploring further. We agreed to be friends and to keep in touch.
Good intentions were exactly that and, a few months later an undiagnosed genetic disorder stopped Troy’s heart at age 26. Now, J.T. and I were in that Chevrolet, driving to the funeral home for Troy’s visitation, and we would be staying in town for his funeral the next day.
J.T.’s eyes were slightly bloodshot and mostly distant, and his words were few, but his presence was heavy and very much in that car. Occasionally, a non sequitur quip about a ridiculous, gaudy billboard would interrupt the silence. Sometimes J.T. worked aloud through the very real possibility that he and Joy might be raising a child with special needs, yet with the tone of an experienced father—not one who’d only had the title for a few days.
Somehow, against this contemplative backdrop J.T. still found it within himself to make sure that I was doing OK—the girl who couldn’t wrap her mind around a long-distance relationship with a remarkable man, but just flew across the country to go to his funeral. My needs seemed frivolous and easily dismissible. But J.T., mature like Troy, knew I needed this drive, too.
We made it to Springfield and casket-side conversations between mourners were stilted and awkward. Etiquette check: Does one talk about the deceased or ask about new mom and sick baby in the hospital? There was no template for this experience, either. I felt steel-faced, cold, unworthy of being there among so very many who had known Troy for much longer than I had.
J.T., Troy’s other friends, and I dispersed to a local watering hole and the experience transformed from one of clumsy expressions of grief to celebrations of a short but phenomenal life. We ordered pizza, toasted Troy’s memory, and laughed. I didn’t have many stories, but Troy’s friends welcomed me into their close-knit family anyway. The dark, somewhat unmemorable bar interior became a warm, happy haven of love that evening. It was nothing but stories of what a man of humor and integrity Troy was, how he’d touched so very many people. Between rounds of memories and drinks, Joy and J.T. checked in with one another intently on the phone to see how the other—and baby Grace—was doing.
There was an emotional shift in all of us that evening that we would need for saying goodbye the next day. Carpooling to the funeral, a call from another car: “Turn on the radio.” We switched it on and listened as the events of 9/11 unfolded during more conversation-less moments on the Interstate. The first tower fell as we walked into the funeral home.
As Troy would have wanted, our attentions were focused in those hours on lifting others in thoughts and prayer: Grace, Joy, and J.T. People trapped in the towers and their families. Our nation and its leaders.
The service and graveside time is all a blur. I simply remember Troy’s friends and family watching television reports later and embracing one another in an echo-ey church gymnasium. Calling a friend in New York City and verifying her safety. Sitting quietly in the passenger seat on the way home with J.T., who was intently focused on how he could best support and love his wife and daughter through the inevitable days of uncertain struggle ahead. His love had germinated, bloomed, and flourished despite the events of the week, and it was evident in every single word, expression, and statement.
I began to understand that love didn’t shrink back from loss, tragedy, or impossible-seeming scenarios. Rather, It swallowed them up, blotted them out.
Grace was diagnosed in the coming months with Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that will require her to have lifelong supervision. But despite these revelations that would clearly impact her family’s future, I continued to watch how Joy and J.T. took trauma that could’ve devastated their new marriage and family and allowed it to make their love stronger.
A couple of years later, Joy and J.T. had a baby boy. In the busyness of life and the pursuit of whatever it is you pursue in your early 20s, I hadn’t dwelled much on his birth until I made a spontaneous visit in the baby’s first weeks. Joy directed me to his room while she finished up something in the kitchen, and I proceeded there and peered into the crib where he slept serenely.
When I returned to the kitchen, Joy asked, “Was Troy buried?”
“Um … yes?’ I replied. Of course he was. Three years ago. That’s an odd question, I thought.
“He always manages to get himself buried in his blankets somehow,” Joy explained.
Oh, right, I said silently to myself, feeling as blonde as I ever had but also suddenly perceiving–in a rush of awareness that brought tears with it–that the Original Troy had made such an impression that he still pervaded my thoughts years later. My mind still defaulted to him when Joy mentioned the name of her son, whose new life was already starting out well (he was, after all, bearing the name of our legendary friend).
In the years since I’ve realized that my understanding of love was forged in the fire of loss and uncertainty—when one man, by leaving us, brought many others together to support one another through struggles for which none of us had a template. It was further established by watching my friends walk strong through that fire, supporting one another in love, honesty, prayer, and selfless concern.
Clearly, such love is contagious. Grace, who just turned 10, has grown into the most loving, compassionate child I know. And Troy, an active and enthusiastic 7-year-old, loves others around him unconditionally and makes a memorable impact wherever he goes. Each of these children has a developing character that reflects those of not only Joy and J.T. but also the Original Troy and his no-pretenses, grace-extending approach to life. Funny, considering they never met.
By understanding this love, some of it has rubbed off on me, too. And because of Joy, J.T., Grace, and the Troys, I’ll be all the more ready to say those three words to someone else peace-filled and self-assured–who talks about ideas and never things or people–when he walks into my life.