When I parted ways with Servantis, I had no backup plan. That isn’t entirely true, because as a copywriter working in the advertising business, freelancing was always an option. Unfortunately, it didn’t offer the kind of security I preferred. But my preferences weren’t my biggest concern just then, my bills were.

One could ask, why didn’t I just stay home? Simple. Even without the daycare bills, our mortgage was based on the expectation that both of us would work. And frankly, the option of not working never crossed my mind. There’s a quote from Andrew Jackson that sums it up well: “I was born for the storm, and a calm does not suit me.” And while staying home with two young boys wouldn’t qualify as anyone’s idea of calm, I needed to keep paddling if I wanted to keep both me and my family afloat.

For the next six months, I called all my old agency friends and drummed up enough work to stay busy. In fact, I made more money than I had in six months at my last job. Then one day, I got a call from a headhunter about a job as the director of marketing for Data Transit, a small company in Norcross. I interviewed and threw out a salary that was equal to my current income, but also a nice bump up from last fulltime job. The company bit and I went back to having a regular salary and benefits.

In my years at Data Transit, I spearheaded all their marketing communications efforts, and having been given a lot of latitude, I did really good work for them. Not long after the annual Christmas party, I was complaining to Rick that I didn’t feel appreciated there, and he was taken aback. He reminded me that nearly every person in the company had complimented my work at the party. So I had some work to do before I could take in being acknowledged in such a positive way. Fortunately, a deeper way of working was just around the corner.

During the summer I was freelancing, in 1996, the Olympics came to Atlanta. Tickets were available by lottery, so although Rick and I had requested events like gymnastics and track, we ended up seeing badminton, soccer and the marathon (the last being open to anyone). The torchbearer ran right past our neighborhood, a block from our house, and the city was shining like a new penny.

Around that same time, talk in my family was that the wheels were falling off for Sarah, my brother Pete’s daughter. Approaching her senior year, she was scraping by in her classes by the skin of her teeth. She was partying a lot and her parents were running out of patience. “Why don’t you send her to Atlanta for a week?” I suggested. For all her struggles, she was a very sweet girl, and besides, we were going to need a babysitter while we went to watch Olympic events. Soccer, for example, was over in Athens, an hour and a half away.

Sarah did indeed come for a visit, and after Rick and I watched badminton—which unfortunately was about as exciting as it sounds—she joined us in Little Five Points for lunch. I had a sneaking suspicion she’d like that area, and she did. I called the area “dinner and a show”: Everyone gets what they came for, whether watching or offering the entertainment.

I hadn’t spent much time with Sarah since we’d made a gingerbread house together when she was little, so we were enjoying spending time together. She found a t-shirt at Junkman’s Daughter and wore it a few days later when we went for a hike in the North Georgia Mountains and stopped for a photo-op at an emu farm.

Meanwhile I heard that my mother was pissed. She felt it wasn’t right that Sarah should essentially be given a vacation when she wasn’t living up to expectations.

What struck me most about Sarah’s time with us was that she didn’t badmouth anyone. She was having a very hard time in life, but she never painted those around her in a bad light. She was helpful, kind and took a shine to our boys, watching them the entire day we were gone for the soccer match.

I was deeply touched that in her schoolwork the following year, when asked to name a favorite relative, she’d written my name. Her mother, Mary, showed that to me after Sarah had died at 18 in a car accident in the wee morning hours of the Fourth of July, one year after her visit to Atlanta. Her friends selected the Little Five Points t-shirt for her to be buried in because they knew how much she’d loved the place.

I’d been to Wisconsin with Rick and the boys for a weeklong vacation in June, a month before, and when I left I had vowed I would never, ever go back. One might think that my parents and I must have had a major blowout; words must have been said. Nothing could be further from the truth. Looking from the outside in, I’m not sure if anyone could have even detected there was a problem. But beneath the surface of my skin, I was on fire.

My mother has a very strong will, and as a young girl, I’d learned that I could not win with her. So I’d stopped trying. During that week of vacation, as she orchestrated and over-controlled one activity after another, asking for my input and then going her own way, all my old painful feelings about being overlooked and ignored were activated. It was like angering one bee and having the whole hive get ready to attack. My body was the beehive and it was humming.

Yet there I was, one month later, sitting in my parent’s kitchen the morning of the funeral. But they weren’t home. The week before Sarah died, my parents had left on a trip to Europe, their first. When news reached them about Sarah, they were somewhere in Italy, singing with a choir in churches throughout the countryside. For whatever reason, they made the decision to not come home for the funeral.

I was there, in Pete’s kitchen, when he spoke with my mom on the phone, practically begging them to come home. But they did not. Sarah had died early on Friday morning and the funeral was held on Tuesday. ‘Anyone can get nearly anywhere in the world in that amount of time,’ I had thought. Here are some of the other thoughts that would cascade through my mind: ‘My mother is one of the most resourceful people I know. How could they not find a way to get home? Ask anyone at any of those churches in Italy for a ride to the nearest airport and surely someone would gladly come forward and help.’

What I don’t know is what went through my parent’s minds. Because for the next four years, I barely spoke to them. For me, I could find no way to make peace with their decision. At the same time, I was grateful to the depths of my soul they hadn’t come home. Their not being there allowed me the space I needed to be as present as I could be.

In truth, it had taken me a day or two to thaw enough for the tears to start to flow. I flew up on Sunday and was there that evening when Pete built a bonfire in the backyard and students from every walk showed up. With Sarah, everyone was a friend, and this was evident in that gathering of teenagers. My heart slowly opened and I wept more deeply.

By Tuesday, the day of the funeral, the pain in my heart was searing. My own two sons were at home with Rick, as money was too tight for us to buy that many last-minute plane tickets, especially for two children who were so young they wouldn’t have understood the situation, but who would have made it hard for me to be present. There were times during those days I didn’t think I could tolerate how much it hurt to be there.

The morning of the funeral, as I sat in my parent’s kitchen overlooking the gentle, slow-moving Red Cedar River, this thought—really more like a prayer—came clearly into my mind: ‘Sarah’s gone to heaven, and I have no idea what that means. I want to know what that means.’ As prayers go, that one was deep.

At that point, I had eight years of sobriety under my belt, following the wisdom and guidance of the highly spiritual program, Alcoholics Anonymous. (I once heard someone say in a meeting that they struggled with the spiritual part of the program. Someone else responded, “There isn’t a spiritual part; it’s a spiritual program.”) But I was angry from the inside out. This poem captures the inner climate of my being at that time:

My Mother, My Egg

You gave me an egg. To look at, not touch. How appropriate.
Brought it with you on the plane. Delivered it with great care. Nursed it, made it feel special for a short time.
Then you left it to sit on a shelf. Look pretty, little egg.
Don’t move.
I broke your fucking egg.

It happened one day when I was cleaning.
I was always nervous about cleaning around Your egg. I didn’t mean to do it.
Right away, it began to ooze. And it seemed it couldn’t stop. I tried to patch up the painted shell with Elmer’s Glue.
But once cracked, it continued to weep. It wouldn’t stop.

You chose an orange and black egg for me. Not really very pretty. With a cross on it. Like a miniature shrine.
A plain white egg. Not good enough to be a plain white egg.
After a while, it couldn’t stand up on its own. The egg rested on its side. But now the cross looked funny.
So I glued it to the stand. And turned the crack to the wall. So it still looked pretty. If you like orange and black.
I don’t.

I was afraid you would find out about your egg.
It took a long time to realize that it was really my egg, to do with as I pleased. That my egg was now really safe from you.
Since you always kept yourself a world away from me. My egg. Your gift.
Funny how your gifts always say so much more about you than me.
I’ll bet you looked at that egg before you gave it to me and thought about not giving it to me.
After all, isn’t everything in your life about you?

Now the egg was a reminder of how I’d failed. I couldn’t keep up the facade.
The insides were supposed to dry up, and it would all be pretty forever after. The other day, I threw away your stupid egg.
Just tossed it in the kitchen trash.
It stunk.
The ooze was still stinking up my house. I’m glad it’s gone. I never liked it.

Two weeks later Sarah died.
She hadn’t masked herself with crosses for you to look at. To like. Sarah had her own design. I think she was a different kind of egg. Definitely a good egg.
She had a beautiful spirit. She was pretty as she was. And you never saw it.
If you did, your unkind words smeared always across that truth. When she died, her egg didn’t stink.
I’m glad she was not like you. You stink.
I never liked you.

So yeah, I still had a lot of work to do. As a result, I was in many ways deeply unhappy. I was grappling with how my career was going (or not going), as well as with how my marriage was going (or not going), and one day, I had this epiphany: it must be me. I didn’t know how, but I became abundantly aware that there was a common denominator for all the disharmonies in my life, and that was me.

[Addendum of Sorts, from my mom about “Sarah did indeed come for a visit…Meanwhile I heard that my mother was pissed.”: Where did that come from? We were concerned about Sarah. It was doubtful she’d be graduating from high school. Paul and Sherry, Pete and Mary, Ed and I spent some time with her one day, trying to get her to see that she had some problems to work through. She was into alcohol and her life was going down hill fast. We thought it was good that she could get away for a week. Maybe it would make a difference and she would consider making some changes when she got back. Truthfully, it didn’t look very hopeful.

{Jill again. This feels like a teaching moment, so I am going to take it. When we hate someone or some situation, it always seems so justified. But our hate is often just a cover for painful feelings we want to avoid feeling.

It’s the same with our judgments. They make us feel good because we feel so right. We don’t see how we are putting ourselves above others when we do this and creating separation. We are the ones doing this with our judgments, but then we blame others for making us feel this way. Meanwhile, we don’t understand why we feel lonely and separate from others.

Whenever we do this, the place where we are fundamentally disconnected is within; we don’t see where and how this is going on inside us. If we are judging others, we don’t want to look at our own self-judgment and self-criticism. It’s a projection.

Regarding Sarah, what I said is that my mother was pissed. Perhaps I didn’t characterize that quite right. What I recall is that my mother had a lot of judgments about Sarah. In middle school, Sarah didn’t do enough, and later, in so many ways, she was failing. Those things were essentially true, but the judgments my mother expressed were unkind. From what I was told, my mother also had judgment about Sarah coming down to Atlanta, and that came off as my mother being pissed about it.}

“I was there, in Pete’s kitchen, when he spoke with my mom on the phone, practically begging them to come home… Anyone can get nearly anywhere in the world in that amount of time…”: We were on a trip with an alumni choir from UW-RF and were, on the day of Sarah’s death, traveling through the Dolomite mountains of Germany, specifically near the Grossglockner. This is the highest point in Europe, at 12,454 ft. The area had remained relatively underdeveloped but there was a scary road to travel on. Our guide said American tourists never get to this area. It was the driver’s first trip, and he was a seasoned driver with many, many miles under his belt.

The director of the choir, the travel agent, and the tour director all tried to find a way for us to get to an airport so we could come home. They all advised it wasn’t a safe option. We were devastated. The choir was devastated. They surrounded us and sang “Break Bread” with lots of tears running down everyone’s faces. Later they sang “Give Me Jesus” to us and I still get tears when I hear that song.

When we got home and talked with a couple who had lived in an area adjacent to the area we were in, they said it was really good we hadn’t been able to get to the airport because it was very iffy when, and if, a flight to the U.S. would take place from that particular airport. They had been stranded there and they knew others who had been, too.

Your words in this part of the book are extremely hurtful to me and I have shed many, many tears, trying to understand your understanding of the situation. You thought I should have been able to find a way? I wish I had been able to.

“Sarah had a beautiful spirit. You never saw it. If you did, your unkind words smeared always across that truth. When she died, her egg didn’t stink. I’m glad she was not like you. You stink. I never liked you.”: I have no words to describe how this makes me feel, other than I had no idea I was so hated by my daughter. I love you, Jill. Always have, but I didn’t get that love through to you and for that I’m very sorry.]

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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