Letters From Tour – 31 MAY

Dear Family,

I’d like to tell you a story. A story of colors and first things. This tour has been full of firsts, but last week’s wasn’t my favorite: an ambulance ride.

Prologue: it wasn’t my favorite night, but there were still good things about it. We were in Gypsy’s hometown, she and Lady did everything, her mother drove, we were at a church with a very gracious nurse, I was able to go home that night…many good things. Many less than, though; and to be honest, I don’t entirely remember everything from that night. Mostly pieces and colors. Here they are, disparate and disassembled.

Black: I wore my Chorale dress the whole night. I tried to sing the first set (ha), came off for the second, and tried again for the third. The last song I had enough oxygen to sing was The Lord Bless You and Keep You, even though the world was already spinning by then (per usual). It’s a good song to end on.

Blue: I remember getting into Gypsy Mother’s car afterwards (being handed in, mostly), and being cold and it being very dark out. I thought it was funny that they always wheel you out in a wheelchair yet somehow expect you to get home alright. I also remember being annoyed at how much clothing I was wearing when Lady and Gypsy helped me get ready for bed.

Green: Green and blue and dirty-looking but almost overwhelming? There was too much already, so when I think of the color of the ER now, I’m glad it was muted to that side of the color wheel. My eyes and mind couldn’t really take much more. I wanted to sleep and couldn’t really and for a long time they didn’t want me to close my eyes, then they said I could, then I didn’t want to for the things that happen when you close your eyes without breath. Funny how an oxygen mask can’t convince you that you aren’t suffocating.

Red/Orange: I don’t remember the ambulance people, but their vests were orange and there were red things around. I still had people telling me to open my eyes when they came, or maybe it was after… I only remember the pricks of early tests and those slices of color and far, far too much noise that still sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Pink: the color of the sky for the sunset I didn’t see. I think Nae Nae and Mountain Man had said it was beautiful, but by the time the concert ended I was heading out of daylight pretty fast. I wanted to catch my breath so I could go see the sunset, and I never found either.

Ivory and Brown: I think of Nae Nae in those colors, when the world went nope and turned into mud colors and went sideways. Her lap was soft and felt so safely unhurried when everything went very fast. I have never realized the measure of confidence one receives when one is heard and understood. Lady, Nae Nae, Gypsy…the Lord placed them under my head and around myself and somehow, they heard me and there was never a time when this highly verbal person did not feel like her voice was not heard through the fog.

White: the nurses and people with the cold and gooey EKG stickys and the one who kept telling me to look straight ahead when I was trying to leave and the world still wanted to tilt and I couldn’t squeeze his finger even when I tried. It’s amazing how frustrated you can be with the kindest of people when whom you are really frustrated with is yourself. I do recall the relief of leaning into someone and not having them push you away because at that point, you’ve returned to a body that feels as hollow and unfamiliar as a seed husk that was ground underfoot.

Gray: that’s the color I remember most of the night. Gray hands that didn’t work and were the sort of all-encompassing pain that made me forget everything else but that couldn’t be distracted away themselves like all the others; the sort of bewildering force that is almost too great to be responded to with something as little as tears. Gray lungs and body that folded up like creaky billows that get stuck and never quite open up for air. Gray self that spent itself like water wringing out of a towel and managed to hurt when there was nothing left to hurt. I was proud of this analogy that I said (and remembered!) from the ER: I am a juice box. One that is emptied out and all twisted up and can’t be undone yet. I’m still undoing it.

Epilogue: so there was my night, in the full spectrum of color. Except yellow and purple. Yellow was the color of Lady’s hair when she smiled at me and made the downhill slide feel not quite so fast. Purple wasn’t a color I remember, but maybe it’ll come later, like most of these pieces have.

I woke up sometime in the dark that night, still looking for that elusive breath, but the Lord, with His gentle hand that wastes nothing, taught me once more how to pray.

With all the dizziness of mind and disembodiment that comes with pain, somehow the thing that keeps me tethered to myself is this called prayer. I once would have said prayer is an ethereal thing; a paper crane that cannot fly. But when it is your soul and self that wants to fly away and make it stop, prayer is a tether strong enough to keep a kite in a hurricane. Is it the meeting of heaven and earth, the way prayer takes the physical self to the throne room of God and keeps your soul on its knees when the walls tumble down? Is it because it doesn’t matter whether or not the trembling walls are the skin that holds us together or the soul that shakes us apart?

When we return to these husks and hollows of ourselves and find that the muscles and mind and lungs don’t work like they should, prayer draws in the lines that should be there, returning the loose cotton to these empty cloth dolls, knitting soul and body together with prayer and breath, holding our fragile seed husks with hands we cannot see that work better than our own.

I remember my father’s hand, so large and heavy, and the way it felt to pick it up and draw his arm around my shoulders. That night, prayer began without the strength to pick up the Father’s great hand and place His arm around me..but in that yawning nothingness of my own strength, I found, underneath, the everlasting arms.

In the shifting prisms of graying color and the ungrounded firsts of that night, that was all I needed.

~Rae

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Letters From An MBI Student – 11/30

Dear Family,

Am I poor?

Please don’t answer that question. I think I know your answer. It’s not actually a question, or maybe it is. Consider it rhetorical, one I’ve asked myself daily.

Am I poor?

But I mean it in regards to money. I’m not talking about poor in spirit or poor in thankfulness or that sort of poor. But money poor. Pennies-in-the-bank poor. Tomorrow-is-the-1st poor. So maybe it’s not entirely rhetorical.

Am I poor?

I know what I have, pennies included. I know I have more than the average college student, but I know I’m hip-deep in debt, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, but I know that God’s will doesn’t mean debt-free…

Right?

Being a college student is doing weird things to my outlook on life. It’s hard not to resent knowing that when adjusted for Chicago living, I used to make more than my current bosses. It’s hard not to resent the fact that I don’t get to plan extravagant Christmases just because I can. It’s hard to look at church opportunities and support letters and the vast need for finances in ministry and to know that I have no pennies to give because I need fifteen cents for a scantron on Friday.

Am I poor?

I’m still learning to live like I’m poor, and I despise it. I still want to buy chocolate for my sister every time I’m at the store. I still want to ship random Amazon packages to my sister just because I can. I still want to take my siblings out for birthday trips to buy their new jeans for that year. I still want to send those birthday flowers, because this is year five and it’s a tradition now. I still want to give the way that money used to enable. That’s not selfish, is it?

That’s not a rhetorical question, either.

Am I poor?

No. Yes. No? Yes?

No. No, no, forever, no. Nuances to this conversation abound, but in asking this question over and over again, I’m realizing that the question itself is a dangerous thing. Because the minute I say “Yes,” I start living like it. And I start despising all those things I can’t do and other people can. I despise the Amazon boxes and plane tickets and resent the careless pennies of Apple and Spotify. I cut corners and bury my money in the ground and hope a tree of Benjis will appear. I stare at the sidewalk for the dime that will save my life, or stare out at sea waiting for my ship to come in. I wait and wait to not be poor because I hate it so much. Because I have chosen that as my title and it has made me so, so, so much less. It has shrunk my pennies to be tiny, bitter things, but it has also shrunk my perspective so that all I can see are those things that will never be enough.

Here, let me start this conversation again.

Am I poor?

No.

Why?

I am not materially poor because I have a thousand more pennies than I could, praise God. I have food in the fridge on even the worst day, an apple a day in the SDR, and three ways to make coffee in my room. I have gift cards to Starbucks and student discounts at Treasure Island Foods and rice cakes all day long. I have had gift cards in my CPO and emergency cash to tide me over to the next cycle and a doctor that takes very, very late payments.

I am not materially poor, because once upon a different season, I had the opportunity to buy many uncounted treasures: sturdy shoes, dress pants, a yogurt maker and coffee pot and a vehicle that has passed 150k with only the occasional murmur. I have clothes that meet the dress code, a winter coat that has lasted me four good years now, and Christmas lights stolen from home to drape around the window that looks at Chicago.

I am not materially poor, because I have a paycheck every two weeks and my church takes electronic deposits to take it off my hands the very next day. I had long days of work this summer and bosses that asked me to stay and the ability to take care of the little things and still, pennies in the bank.

Am I poor?

I’m trying to say that I think I may be as poor as I choose to be. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the thousands of priceless things that fill me right now: carols and Christmas lights and the hugs of a friend. I have my sister to bless me with words of cheer when I only have two pairs of jeans because I ripped the other one and when my six-year-old shoes finally give up the ghost and I can’t replace them. I have running shirts galore and sweatshirts I love that were $4 at Goodwill. I have plaid for days because “Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, that’s our store; we shop there because we’re poor!” I have a friend that trades me in coffee purchases and a mother that sends a jar of yogurt with me back to school every time. I have so many things I could try to count and yet still fail to value.

It’s true that I can’t pay my bills with high-fives, and smiles aren’t currency in the bank. So I sit in an office and make my pennies and save them for coffee at Joe’s and don’t go if I can’t leave a tip. I pay my late doctor bills with sticky notes of apologies and thanksgiving that I could actually pay it this time. I take out a loan with a sigh and a prayer for those pennies as the trickle their way to Moody and return to me tenfold in the wisdom and love of those who teach and care for me. I write a support letter for Chorale with the yo-yo of shame and marvel, because if I am poor I hate that I have to ask, and if I am not poor I am eager and brimming with the gratitude that these people will even consider sharing their pennies with us.

If I am not poor, these coins are not mine. These scraps of paper are not mine, whether or not they are printed with Benjamin Franklin’s face or “FINAL NOTICE.” They are just another choice, another opportunity like the thousands God has given before.

Sorry for the long writing again. I’ll get back to the short ones, but this is what is on my mind. Tomorrow’s December 1st and I’m trying to figure out what Christmas looks like, and I’m trying to do it without “POOR” emblazoned across my forehead. I’m trying to figure out what generosity looks like without “CAN’T PAY FOR IT” barring the way. I’m trying to figure out how to love in new ways when I can’t afford the old ones. I’m trying to figure out what joyous work looks like when it will never pay the bills.

They say that tithe is just giving back to God what is His in the first place. I don’t want to look at my pennies with the view that maybe He didn’t give me enough. The bank may not say it is enough, but what does He say?

So I work and wait and save and make decisions based on what I have. I won’t buy new shoes or those jeans or tickets to the Nutcracker. But, dear family, please catch me when I say “I’m poor.” Because I’m not, truly. I’m not able to buy you the moon, but I will lay out under the stars and laugh with you. I’m not able to gift you with the wealth of the world because I have none of it, but I will gift you with the wealth of what I have been given: pennies and joys and love beyond measure.

Because I am not poor; I just have very little money.

Maybe missing you,

~Rae

P.S. Also…how can I be poor when I have a wonderful family like you?

Letters From An MBI Student – 10/22

Dear Family,

You’re the ones who listen to me when I’m rambling, right? That’s what family is for, right? Well, that and being the voice of reason on the other side of the table?

Because today I’m going to ramble. Here’s the brain dump, all under the verbose subtitle of “Thoughts On Being Sunshine When I Am Not.”

Our family was never big on nicknames, were we? Not when I was young, anyway, because I remember being inordinately proud of “Sunshine” and all that it entailed. Grandpa started it, I think, and I was always a little jealous if I ever heard him call someone else that name. It was special, it was mine (in my eyes), and it felt unique in our family of formalities (until Babes and her litany came along and the rest of us dissolved into the shortest versions possible, right? Heh.).

The new one is “Rae” here at school, unless you’re the dude at the counter at Joe’s last night who saw my ID and said my full name and threw me for a loop because only Lady and Nae really do that. I reintroduced my shortened self so it wouldn’t be awkward, which it was anyway. It was a bit of a jump, a blip in the day, a bumpy precursor to what happened today.

Something about a name…funny how a name wraps you up in a brand new wardrobe that you maybe used to wear. I’m my full name in certain workplaces, sometimes at home, and in a lot of old memories–some wonderful, some darkly less than that. Sometimes that name feels like a homecoming, sometimes it feels like an inside joke, but more often it feels far older than I am; something other than myself and what life is now.

I like “Rae,” though. I like being “Rae” at school and at home and at my new job. I like a new version to occupy, because so much of me feels new. Whether that is through the renewal of God or my own poor choices is still being sorted through.

But “Sunshine”…that is the old standby, the old spelling, the OG. The first other name I can remember that I wanted as mine. But sometimes it feels like the farthest thing from who I am now than I have ever been. I remember times when it was a glorious pinpoint of identity: times in middle school and early high school when someone else applied that designator without any idea of what it meant to me. But the flip side of that coin have been the times when that name was–is–dredged up like an old photograph: a toothless child, a version of me 50 lbs ago, myself in a tracksuit in garish 90s colors. I’ve never had a mirror quite like that name – a recalcitrant, encouraging, reflective, combative, warped, airbrushed, far-seeing mirror. A mirror that speaks back to me of pasts joys and past sins, present statuses and present failings, future possibilities and future impossibilities. I love and hate and don’t always want the expectation and promise and lingering of a name that doesn’t feel entirely mine but I can’t actually let go.

Sorry, I told you it was a ramble. Here’s the pb&j version, the 411, the juddering in my day after yesterday’s brief tremor: I was introduced to my replacement at a job. A lovely, lovely person: an older newlywed, new believer, excellent conversationalist, good listener, and already a friend (in the “I-just-met-you-today” sort of way). I was my work self, which means I can be chatty, laughing, engaging…all of those proper things that were made easier by her honest and friendly response. [Side note: I just realized that I have truly have the best sort of people to train. People who do my job far better than I and who allow me to exit with peace that the job will be done well, regardless of whether that means my way or not.] We laughed, talked, and will probably meet for coffee outside of our two Saturdays together, because her interests and mine converge in a way that can’t be explored when we’re talking about investments and securities.

Half an hour into the morning, after introductions and wheres and whys, she asked, “Is your family Christian?” –I nodded and smiled [and by the grace of God in your lives and mine, Parentals, I was able to be proud]–“because you have such joy.” The conversation blinked into something else and that comment didn’t initially register. Not until we left at the same time, after only two hours together, and walked out to see her husband waiting for her. She eagerly wanted to introduce me and in the quick, muddled conversation that happens in unexpected introductions, she said: “She’s such a ray of sunshine!”

And I returned the compliment–genuinely, because I’m looking forward to a longer time with her–and walked down my little alleyway to the train that takes me back to my home here in the city where I’m “Rae,” which she didn’t know, 520 miles away from where I used to be “Sunshine,” which no one here knows, where I’m not “[full name],” where I’m a version of myself that feels like all of those don’t coexist. I can’t describe to you what it feels like to have someone ignorantly, instantly apply those names to you as if they are the most natural thing in the world and of course these three iterations of myself are all the same person. Of course what’s on my birth certificate and what was my childhood and what is myself now are all the same person. Of course. Of course.

Funny how saying that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile. Because I’m not “Sunshine,” and I haven’t been in a long, long while. I’m functioning in endless variations of different worlds: one where God is so, so good; the other where He is so, so incomprehensible. The former is external, my lexicon, the world of “Sunshine,” the world of Moody speech and Moody expectation, the world of conversation and pat answers, the world where I’m drawing from the words of faith that I have existed in for as long as I have been alive. The latter is the internal, the heart language, the world where names attack and answers falter and words feel as useless as paper promises that never become real.

Yeah, I should have probably warned you that this is not a brain dump; this is a heart dump, too. Someday I’ll write to you of the faithfulness of God that is continually and graciously walking me from the words of His goodness to the truth of it. Today I heard all of the names I have ever wanted for myself and today I heard all of the names I have that used to be myself and today I heard all of the names that are not myself. And they were all the same.

Final thought [Side note: if this letter were in ink you’d never receive it because the postage for this book would put me in the red]: I am not any of those names. I am not the name on birth certificate, I am not the name first written on a whiteboard inside a welding cell, I am not the nickname heard while smelling lacquer and sawdust. All of those are mine, but they are not always me. And I cannot return or embody all of the history and assumption that each of those names create.

I have to untie those threads of expectation, I have to acknowledge those old photographs, I have to confess those good and dark memories, but I do not have to occupy their paths, because they aren’t me. They’re part, not the whole, and not the fault of the label or the labeler; they exist and mean something but not everything and sometimes I forget that.

Sigh, sorry, I think this is actually the end of my ramble: Today I was jarred by the realization that I am not what I would like to be, but what I would like to be is not who I was. Today I was grabbed by an old and present and future self and saw my warped reflection in an unexpected mirror. Today I needed my God for the simple reason that I needed to be known better than anyone else has ever known me. Today all I wanted was to be named by the He Who calls me His. Today I needed to know that who I truly, truly am is a wavering sinner rescued by unwavering grace. Today I needed Isaiah 41.

 

“But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.'”

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.”

“Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;”

“Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”

Maybe missing you and realizing again that you love me a little like Him,

~

Documenting Life

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I take pictures. Of stuff. And people, sometimes. I can’t really call myself a photographer, because I don’t try hard enough to be a good photographer. I don’t think of my photography as some careful art…I think of it as just…it.

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I just take pictures. Of scenes and slices of life that remind me of greater things. I take pictures of landscapes because the wider the horizon, the more I am able to breathe. I take pictures of things because the tiniest details can be captured and seen over and over again. I take pictures of people because I don’t want to forget. I take pictures because I document joy.

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Except when I don’t. I don’t take photos when I am angry, when I am sorrowful, when I am lost. Because in all of those times, I don’t know how to see those things in a photograph. I’m not looking at the world around me like it is beautiful, so I don’t bother to save a piece of it. There is no joy, so there is nothing kept. I don’t want to remember those times.

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And that’s the problem. Because it’s not because the beauty is gone or even tarnished. It’s just that my sight of it is a little dim. Eventually I come around to seeing the way the sun streaks through the clouds, and then I pull out my camera or pick up my pen, and I document joy once again.

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But shouldn’t we be documenting the not-joy moments, too? Shouldn’t we be telling of the days when life is less than glorious, when the sun-streaks are dull or not there at all? Look at the Bible. What if we were missing the lament of Job or the rebuke of Jeremiah? What if we were missing the tears of Lamentations or the repentance of Hosea? What if the only thing documented was joy?

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Psalm 51 is a photograph; a photograph without sunshine. At first.

“For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight–
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.”

Why take this picture? This is not a sunset that takes your breath away or a perfectly red rose. This photograph is snot and tears and mostly regret. And yet.

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“O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart–
These, O God, You will not despise.”

But these photographs are the ones we need, too. The ones that are just as honest as the rest. Because the truth is this: there is sunshine and sunsets and glorious horizons. There is laughter and joy and yes, please, document it.

But there is sorrow, and sadness, and brokenness, and loss. There is sin and chaos and yes, please document it.

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Because the times of the thunderstorms come before the times of the rainbow. Because the records of sin and sorrow come before the triumph of salvation. Documenting joy is wonderful and necessary and keeps our souls healthy, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say that God is only good, or only delightful, or only as present as the sun we can see. It is far more honest to say that God is greater than these, delightful and demanding, and present in every circumstance.

So here is my document of both. Of both pain and pleasure, for the grace of God exists in both.

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Share your joy, O saints and sinners,
Share your grief, O saved of God,
Share your home, O long sojourners,
Share your hope, O redeemed soul

Little Pieces

Writing is hard. Sharing is worse.

I’ve been a storyteller since I was little, scripting plays with my teddy bears and reenacting Robin Hood between the swing sets. The packed dirt was the brook, a railroad tie was the bridge, and in my version, Robin Hood never lost to Little John. They ended the fight as friends and equals, since that was what my sister and I were and would always be. Also, she was two years younger, and it was too much for my ego to fall into the brook.

I enjoyed drawing, but I discovered that I was invariably pulled to write and that my sketchpad was a messy writing surface for an eight-year-old hand. Thus began the first in a series of red notebooks–my favorite color–as I wrote and plotted and realized that I could be an author.

My sister read my stories. She and I were two halves of each other, and I needed the ego boost that her unbounded enthusiasm brought. She and I entered into something of a writing circle with three of our friends, and I was jealous to learn that they’d been doing this for years.  They had interesting characters and completed stories and I was behind on the times. I wasn’t used to no longer being the oldest and most experienced of our group. So I wrote, desperately, needing to pull out every shred of story that I had imagined. I wanted to impress, to create, and the writing felt disconnected from me. My characters were strange people to me, and it felt like our collective group was getting to know them together; like strange pen pals, only I wielded both pens.

Then we entered high school, and our little circle dissolved. One girl moved away. Another started public school. The last held on, and we emailed our chapters and scraps to each other. I gushed with pride when my hero died and it made her cry. I used copious punctuation and a multitude of emoticons to encourage her to continue her writing. She didn’t.

Then it was just my sister and I again, and I missed our community. I was writing more than ever, now, but it didn’t feel official. I didn’t feel like an author. The writing was too hard, too painful, too personal. Stress in my real life was encroaching on my writing. It became journal entries on the page, and it was entirely inadequate. No one else was reading it except my sister, and I loathed it and wanted it that way.

The therapy that writing gave me lasted through three hundred and fifty typed, single-spaced pages. My sister read it, but said little. It was enough for me to have written it, to have released it. My own emotional turmoil was over, enough for me to write “real author things” now, as if that was some safe category that I could arrive at and be satisfied with.

I’ve been writing “real author things” for some time now. They’ve been unfinished NaNoWriMos and second-drafter short stories. But there is still something terrifying about sharing it with others. I’ve never regained that disconnectedness I had when I first started writing, and I know that is a good thing for my craft, but not for my person.

My parents and other siblings never–still have not–read my writing. I hated the idea that they would read them and look at me differently. Just because I wrote about a girl looking for her father didn’t mean that I was equally lost. I wrote about trophy wives, but my mother was never one. My characters had half siblings and abusive bruises and loneliness. I grew up in the middle of six best friends; we played Dutch Blitz together and made pizza on Saturday nights.

But there were little pieces of me, scattered among the imaginary.  I remembered the first time I held my littlest sister, and the wonder at the tiny hands and perfect toes. I remembered the confused bitterness of an older sister who loved and hated with equal passion.  I knew about false promises and empty apologies and what it was like to miss someone until your heart ached.

But to give that to someone else? I’m not sure if I’m more afraid that they will attribute false emotions to me … or that they will recognize those parts that are mine.

I tell myself that I’ll let others read it when I’m satisfied. When I’ve parked my trailer and hung my curtains on that plateau of “real author things”. Yes, there is a perfectionist in me, and she can be quite persuasive. I listen to her when I’d rather not hear from the part of me that knows I’m simply too insecure to share it.

I think my perspective is all backwards. In handing over a manuscript, it feels like my story. Like this will be analyzed for posterity as a reflection of my current mental state. But maybe it’s not. Sometimes I forget that I’m writing fiction, that I’m telling someone else’s story. Someone else who is broken and challenged in different ways than I ever was. Yes, I recognize those little pieces in her that remind me of myself. But there’s far more to her than just me. I have to ask myself if her story is worth telling. And if it is … then why am I not?

In Memoriam

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In memory of my cousin, who is recognized on Memorial Day, but remembered every day.

They played these songs at your funeral, and a thousand hearts cried in that auditorium.

Hawkeye sat at your casket, and the world caught sight of it.

The American flag was hung from the firetruck ladders, and hundreds of flags were carried by the Patriot Guard. I will forever love those people. They were the wall against Westboro and the wall keeping us together. Their flag line at the cemetery was unforgettable, as the sun blazed and they stood motionless, holding their flags and holding our hearts.

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I will never hear taps the same way again, and the trident symbol is no longer just a symbol. It’s a memory, of row upon row of pins in a cherry red casket, pounded in with hurt and anger and without a spoken word.

There are a thousand more things to remember that day, because you never forget. Sacrifice is unforgettable, and this is our chance to remember.

Thank you.