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Monday, October 20th, 2014 | Author:

Tackling myths & cliches: Everything Happens for a Reason

“She’s not going to die,” she said to me, her eyes wide, her hands on both of my upper arms, desperation and edge in her voice.

“What are you going to say to me when she does?” I wondered silently.

My sister passed away the next day.

That was just the first of the misguided things people said to me in the wake of her death. But my absolute least favorite thing that anyone could ever say in the wake of death or disaster is this: Everything happens for a reason.

The reasons are that pain and sickness and sin and death exist in our world. Not because it was part of God’s plan. Not because God needed another angel. Not because this was something that me or my family had to go through for us to where we ended up. Not that our story needed this plot-twist.

When my older sister died, I was 14 and I was devastated, but I remember daring God on the day she died, thinking he wouldn’t be able to come through: “If you can, show me one good thing that comes from this.”

That was my deal, my plea to God. One good thing. I didn’t believe that even one good thing could come from such tragedy.

I realize now how naive I was, because God is big, and good, and the way the world works, redemption can come forth, and when you press into pain it changes you and reveals you in ways that would’ve taken years otherwise.

I don’t even know who I’d be today if my sister hadn’t died. I can see how much things changed because of her death, and I can see all kinds of growth and beauty that has come forth in my life as a result of walking through that valley of grief and loss.

large_774419510photo credit: Jimmy_Joe via photopin cc

So why do I still want to give people nose bleeds when they say everything happens for a reason? Because it’s too easy. It’s too easy to minimize the devastation of tragedy if we choose to believe that it was somehow some part of a divine or cosmic plan. The puppet master at work again, killing off characters for character development of another player. No.

There is a very real aspect to tragedy that demands the admittance that this was never supposed to be this way. That is what our souls cry out, and that is what we silence when we do not let that truth breathe, but try to console ourselves with cheap consolation of the cliche’s “it’s Ok. It’s in God’s plan. It’s supposed to be this way for some unknown reason.”

No. I know a God who cries out the same thing. IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE THIS

WAY. I know a God who weeps with me over the loss of life, over the breaking of hearts, over the destruction of what was good, over the abuse of the innocent.

And while my naive dare to God was really a “F— you, God” challenge, He was faithful. He has shown me how much good he can bring forth from the things that were never supposed to be this way. He has proven faithful to bring beauty of our ruins. But I don’t for a moment believe that it had to go this way. He could’ve developed me another way. I could’ve had other paths in life that were different, perhaps better than this one. There were other ways.  I don’t believe my sister’s death had to happen for a reason.

I don’t believe that death, divorce, abuse, disaster, devastation happen for a reason other that this world is not always good. But I have come to trust that God is good when the world isn’t. God weeps with me while trying to make beauty rise out of the ruins. That’s what people confuse — they think that everything has to burn so beauty can come from the ashes. Which is as nonsensical as saying that fires happen so that firefighters can be heroes. We see the result and we call it the reason.

I am heavily shaped by my experience with grief. I grew up much sooner, and knew grief much deeper than I would wish on any teenager. And the good is that it has deepened my spirituality, my emotional capacity, and my maturity in mounds, I am positive.

But I would give all of that to have my sister back. To have my family whole again. To know what it’s like to experience 9th and 10th grade without the devastation of pain and depression. To not know that gut-wrenching acid of grief in the back of my throat, to not know the loss that weights you like lead in your bones.

This is not how it was supposed to be. It didn’t happen for a reason. There have been some beautiful results that have come of it. But at the end of the day, I am accepting of the way life has been, not accepting that it’s the way it had to go.

This is not how it should be, but this is how it is, and once I grieve that I can begin to see the ways that life can be beautiful again.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 | Author:

Tackling Myths & Cliches: Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

50 MPH speed limit. That seems fast for this road. But OK. I’ll go 50.

Shoot this hill is long. I hear my dad’s mantra: “Don’t ride your breaks. They’ll burn out.” Ok, I’ll keep it near 50. 53. 54. 55. 54. 53. 54.

Green lights all the way.


Large truck turning into our path. Going fast. Too fast. We’re going fast.

Break. Break! BREAK! My foot can’t move that fast.

This is it. We’re going to die.

I see the panic on the blond girl’s face through the passenger side window of the truck.

My world goes black as I hear the deafening sound of metal colliding.

Silence. I am gone.

I come to in a car filled with airbag dust. I look, horrified at the passenger seat. What will I find there?

I see Kate. Her eyes like deer in headlights. Staring at me. Alive. Conscious. In shock.

I see smoke starting to fill the car. More and more. I’m still looking into Kate’s wide eyes. She does not blink.

I look around at the smoke, and back to her. “GET OUT! GET OUT OF THE CAR NOW!” I order her. Movie scenes of cars exploding in flame race through my mind. No.

“GET OUT OF THE CAR!” I say again.

Our doors open. I step out of the car and struggle to stand. Something is wrong with my foot. I hobble to the median of the broad intersection. It is at Kate’s side of the car. She is there already.

I slump down. People flood to our sides. Are we OK?

What’s my name?

Who can we call?

I don’t know. We don’t live here.

Where are my shoes? I get up to walk. Can’t. You, fireman. Can you find my shoes? Where is my phone? Can you find my phone?

Ambulance. Kate and I laugh lots of shocky laughs that make us cry out from the pain of moving. Emergency Room. Exams. Long, painful night.

Two years ago I was in a head on collision at around 50 MPH. I broke my foot, and suffered what we later learned to be a concussion which began giving me daily migraines.

My foot healed within 8 weeks. My migraines, though I have made MUCH progress, still punctuate my life several times a month.

It is one of only two times that I was certain that was it, that I was going to die.

But we didn’t.


Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Right?

No. I don’t accept that. That’s BS.

After my sister died, after my car accident, after my life imploded, after I moved because of a bad living situation — people told me I was so strong. And I’m starting to see that they were right. But I thought that they were saying these things were making me strong (some did say that). And deep down I knew that wasn’t true. These things, they were testing me, sometimes they threatened to destroy me. They weren’t making me strong. I was strong through them, not because of them. Those life obstacles were revealing to me the depth of strength that I had to find to survive those times, but they were devastating me in the process.

Pain doesn’t make you strong. It reveals your strength. You don’t actually need the painful things of life to be strong. But sometimes you don’t realize how strong you are without them. It’s the revealing that has value.

We should be honest that pain sucks. Bad things suck. That there are things that we wish we never had to live through.

It’s not about the positive spin. It’s about the true revealing of who we are so that we can go forward as the person we want to be or become.


photo credit: mcandrea via photopin cc

But whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is false.

The first person to ever run the distance of a marathon was actually running to the city of Marathon from the battle field to tell that the battle had been won. He ran the whole way, and the myth says that he died immediately after delivering the message.

Many strong people run marathons all the time now, but marathons don’t make you strong. Actually they temporarily damage your body, having pushed it so far. But they reveal the strength you’ve built up in training.

In the wake of the things that are destroying you, it is OK to not feel strong.

Sometimes, the strength that is revealed doesn’t feel like strength, it feels like taking one ragged breathe, one faltering step at a time, one after the other. And we slowly move forward. We slowly discover how much strength there is in us. And undoubtedly, we all have times where we feel too weak to carry on, and we have to sit down and take a break, or sometimes collapse and weep. But then we discover that we might have another morsel of strength. So we continue.

That is the true strength that is revealed when we think we might just die.

Marathon runners make it to the finish line, and their body takes a toll.

Broken bones, when re-healed, still ache sometimes, even years later. Strong people walk through the ache. But when they walked without ache, they were just as strong.

Our lives would be better without conflict. But the conflict reveals us to ourselves. And when we live as revealed people, we use the strength we’ve always had more fully.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Wednesday, August 06th, 2014 | Author:

*This is a fictional short story I wrote as a part of my list of 25 goals to accomplish before I turned 25.

This Isn’t Funny

A Short work of Fiction

by Joanna O’Hanlon

“Hi!” she said, smiling while leaning in to give him a peck on the lips when he opened the door. He looked confused. He wasn’t expecting her. He was glad she was there, she just always told him when she was coming over. But she hadn’t this time.

He had been curious and slightly annoyed when the doorbell rang.

He was home alone — well, at his parents’ home, which used to be his home, but now it felt unnatural for him to be spending all his time there. To be staying, no, living, in his childhood room. At least it didn’t have bunk beds anymore for he and his older brother. But, still. They kept those goddamn bunk beds forever. Even after his brother had left for the army, and he knew he’d never come back. But still they kept them. Wouldn’t let him nix the top one and pretend to be the only actual inhabitant of that room. No, Bill’s stuff had to have a place to stay in case he needed to move home again. Or visit. Now that Bill had been married for 10 years and lived on the other side of the country, they’d finally agreed to get rid of them, and get a queen bed for the room. It’s about freaking time, he had thought when they finally made the change. That was about two months before he got the diagnosis and moved back in with them. Two months before everyone started to know, to say, that he was dying.

So he was home alone, in the middle of the day, watching CSI reruns on daytime TV when the doorbell rang. He’d thought maybe it’d be one of those young, bright-eyed, naive Mormon boys in their white shirts and name tags. He was annoyed at the thought because they were the only people who wouldn’t just shut up when he dropped the “thanks, I would, but I’m dying” bomb on them.  That was just fuel for them.  If only they didn’t come to his parents neighborhood so much. But they did.

He’d started to play a game with them: “How fast will your drop your convictions” is what he called it in his head.

He’d invite them in and then offer them a coke. They’d say they couldn’t drink caffeine. So he’d bring them a beer.

Soon he would ask them if they wanted to call their parents. He wouldn’t tell. He promised.  Or maybe they’d like to Skype with their girlfriend. He had FaceTime on his phone. It was so simple… wouldn’t she be so happy? Their girlfriends must miss them so much. Maybe too much. “Maybe distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder… ” he would say, trailing off at the end, sounding sad and concerned for them.

And lastly, if they asked to use the restroom, he’d be sure to call out, “the playboys are under the sink!” as they walked into the bath room. He’d never been a big playboy fan himself, but he’d bought a copy specifically to put under the sink. Just in case he actually got them to abandon their convictions.

That’s the thing when you’re dying, he thought. It brings out the devil in you a little.

He didn’t mind religion. And he actually didn’t have anything against these guys that would come to the house other than the fact that he was bored out of his mind, sitting at his parents’ house, with nothing to do, waiting to die. And it annoyed him that they cared about more than death. It’s insensitive to talk to a dying man about his soul – he thought.

But when he’d opened the door, already with a coke in his hand, ready to start his game, but not really feeling up to it, she’d been standing there. In a yellow sundress with an old fashioned picnic basket in her hand. She kissed him briskly and then slid past him through the doorway into the living room in the way she always did. She was fit and thin, but not skinny. But the way she moved – light as a feather – and the way she smiled and always knew what she was doing, where she was going — it made her seem like she was much more slender and dainty than she really was. It was endearing. She never seemed fragile, no. She reminded him of the wind. Powerful, but graceful and light.

He was moving slowly, turning to follow her into the living room when she’d already popped herself down onto the area rug and was sitting, cross legged, shoes off, looking up at him with a look of self-contentment in her wide smile.

His confused look gave way and he laughed. She was beautiful. Like a piece of art. Too goofy and too excited for the girlfriend of a 25 year old cancer patient. That’s what made her perfect. Everything else in his life had gone dark. Even the Mormons, when concerned about his soul, got a graver facial expression when they knew he was sick. But she kept smiling. Kept laughing. And with that yellow dress — man, she just looked like sunshine.

“What are you doing?” he couldn’t help but smile at her as he asked it.

“Well, we’re having a picnic!” she said, confident, pleased with herself for the idea. “But I wasn’t sure how well you were feeling today, so we’re just going to have it here, on this rug.” She softened a bit as she said the last part, her tone asking the undesired question — “Are you feeling up to it?”

“Picnics shouldn’t be on rugs,” he said, his smile slipping. These moments were not uncommon — the ones where she was a beam of light, reminding him that he was 25 and alive, and when, instead, he could only think of the fact that he was 25 and dying.

He plopped down on the couch behind her, to the side of where she was sitting on the floor. He sighed, leaned his head back on the back of the couch, and reached his hand down toward her, open.

She twisted her torso around toward his legs, and reach her hand up to his open one, lacing her fingers through his.

“We don’t have to, buddy, if you don’t want to,” she said softly. She was tracing the outline of his fingers and hand with her index finger — something she always did subconsciously when she was comfortable or comforting him. Same as the way she called him “Buddy.” He always noticed both of these things, but never had said anything.  They were those things that made him feel normal and young and in love. He knew her. Her little quirks. Her ways. The ones he wasn’t even sure she was aware of.

He still didn’t say anything, just left his hand open to be traced, flexing his fingers up one at a time as she followed their edges.

“I just know that you’ve been bored, and I love being with you even when we’re doing nothing. But I’ve been trying to think of how we could do something that we used to do.  Nothing big, just the simple stuff. Like just going out to eat or stuff like that. So this was what I came up with… ”

She felt herself rambling. “I know, it’s kind of a stupid idea… with the picnic basket and everything…” she finally trailed off.

He was listening. Thinking. She knew this. He took a long time to respond sometimes these days. There was a lot on his mind, she knew. And unlike her habit of thinking things through out loud, he didn’t say what he thought until he knew what he thought.

She had learned this about him before they knew he was sick. Now it was even more exacerbated. But she was OK with it.

She sat for a few more minutes like that, sitting on the ground with her head leaning gently against his leg, tracing his fingers. She had his hand memorized. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember his different features while she waited in the silence. She’d been doing that a lot more recently. Trying to memorize every piece of him while she could.

“It’s just,” he said finally, still with his head back, staring blankly at the ceiling, “you can’t have a picnic on a goddamn living room rug. And I don’t think I can handle going up to apple hill or down to the river  or anywhere where a goddamn picnic should happen.”

“Careful there, Holden Caulfield. The whole phony world isn’t out to get you,” she smirked as she said it. He brought his head upright and flicked her hand playfully.

“You know what I mean!” he said, a little exasperated, a little playful. She gave him a sad smile.

“I know. I know, buddy. It’s ok. We can just call it what it is, and eat our sandwiches on the couch and watch TV like normal Americans. No picnic. No goddamn pretending.” She glanced at him to make sure he’d caught her little quip.

He’d been saying goddamn a lot. He got it from one of those CSI characters who he couldn’t stand at first, and now he was talking just like him. The word also lent itself to sad, angry, dying 20-somethings.

But that’s not who he wanted to be.

He grabbed her hand and pushed himself up, pulling her to a stand with him.

“Nope,” he said stubbornly. “You’re right. We’re gonna do this. It’s gonna be great.”

“Really??” She said, her excitement coming back again. Even if he wasn’t stubborn, and feeling slightly hurt by the Holden comparison, he wanted to do as many things as possible to make that smile of hers shine. It was like medicine that didn’t make you barf your guts up and have your hair fall out — which, by the way, is the best kind of medicine.

“Let’s go into the back yard though.”

“Yes! Brilliant idea!” She squealed a little. Her dress swirled with how quickly she turned around and bent down to grab the picnic basket.

He followed her outside, guiding her through the door with his hand on her lower back. This was one thing she loved — the guy’s body was dying, but his chivalry was alive and well. Not in the macho-man way. But in all the simple things. Her glass was always filled. Her door always opened. It was like he was still trying to impress her — and he did. He always would.

She spread out the blanket and brought out a few throw pillows from the couch and they set their picnic space up like the magazines and movies tell you it’s supposed to be. They’d never actually picnicked like this before, with the basket and all. But for a pretend back yard picnic, it was actually pretty great.

“Look!” she said. He looked where she was pointing, over by the tree. There was a squirrel almost all the way down the tree, clinging to the trunk, deciding his next move.

“How cute!  Look at him!” She was already up with a piece of sandwich in her hands going toward the squirrel before he could say anything. “See, we didn’t need to go somewhere else. This is so picnic-y! We’ve got a squirrel. It’s like we’re in Central Park.”

He’d seen this squirrel before. It had a nest up in that tree and whenever he’d left the sliding glass door to the back yard open and just had the screen door closed, it would come up to the door, look directly at him, and begin gnawing on the screen. No matter what he’d done or how loudly he’d yelled, this goddamn squirrel  would not stop. Not until he got up from the couch, walked all the way across the room and finally started to open the door. Then it would run away and run half way up the tree and just stare at him, taunting, waiting. One day it had actually tried to dart inside when he’d opened the screen door. He’d tried to kick it and had missed, but had scared it enough to do the trick. That had been the last straw though. He had vowed, one day that stupid fur ball was going down.

She was getting close and he was trying to say “No, babe. Don’t feed that little bastard…” when the squirrel darted down, grabbed the sandwich piece, and bit her finger.

“AHHH!” she screamed! That freaking squirrel bit me!!” She yelled, laughing and in pain. She couldn’t believe it. “He FREAKING bit me!”

He picked up a rock and threw it at the tree, but the squirrel was already up and gone to the trees in the neighbor’s yard.

“Well,” he looked at her with his sarcastic smirk, “you were the one who wanted to have a picnic…”

“Inside! On the living room rug!” She couldn’t stop laughing. “But this really hurts! I’m going to get rabies. And go crazy. And then people really won’t know how to handle you. ‘Oh no, there’s the dying cancer kid with the crazy rabies girlfriend. Look away! Look away!’  Is this what you want?”

Her ability to make everything about her always made him laugh. He had cancer. And she was looking for sympathy for pretend rabies. From a pretend picnic.

“Let me see this rabies bite,” he said after he’d stopped laughing at her.

“THERE!” she said like a toddler, shoving her finger in his face.

“Here I’ll kiss it and make it better,” he said playfully,

“No!” She pulled her hand away. “Then you’ll get rabies too. Stop trying to steal my thunder, ya jerk.” She stuck her nose up in the air as she marched back to her side of the blanket and took her seat again.

They ate the sandwiches, and drank champagne out of those plastic wedding champagne flutes that you have to pop together, and he entertained her fancy notions of “It will be fun! Feed me these grapes like I’m a Roman royal!” And she’d made a cake – his favorite, not hers — German Chocolate.

He couldn’t believe she remembered. He told her this was his favorite when they first, first met. Before they were friends, or “talking”, or dating or anything. You know, when you play those get to know each other games and you text back and forth random questions about each other. She’d asked what his favorite dessert was. That was one of her very first questions. And then they’d never talked about it again.

He hadn’t had it in years. Not because he couldn’t, just because he was too lazy to buy a box mix and make it, and most people in his life liked other things better. He wasn’t really a sweets guy, anyway. So his splurges had always been for chips and crap like that.

The last time he’d had German chocolate cake was on his 9th birthday. His brother was still at home, his parents still seemed happy, his grandparents were even there visiting. It had been his best birthday.

“What’s this for?” he asked, memories flooding him. Maybe she forgot and it was just coincidence.

“Well obviously we needed dessert,” she said as if this were the same as “obviously we’ll be breathing air today.”

“And this is your favorite, right?” she said simply, distracted while she was pulling the cutting knife out of the picnic basket.

“Yeah,” he said, staring at her. She was unaware of his eyes, of his awe. He always looked at her with a kind of awe. Everybody else noticed. She just kept doing her thing, though. Unaware or unabashed by it all.

“Yeah, it is.”

“So I baked one!” He thought she was so cute when she was proud of herself like this.

She was still looking down, fussing with the make-shift cover she’d made for the knife when he saw the squirrel. He couldn’t say anything before it had run, no leapt!, directly up the blanket and landed on the cake.

He swung at it with his fist, but it dodged him, jumping onto the picnic basket and his hand went straight into the cake. He was up on his feet faster than he’d moved in months. This was it, he was going to catch that squirrel and end this.

The squirrel hopped from the picnic basket onto his girlfriend’s chest, clinging to her dress, scratching her. She screamed.

“Get it off me!” she said trying to push it off with her hands. He grabbed for the squirrel, but the damn thing dodged his grip and skittered up his arm and literally to the top of his head. It was holding onto his hair, he was spinning in circles, frantic, not sure what to do, when he grabbed for it and finally caught it. The squirrel bit him square on the hand between his thumb and index finger, right in the webbing.

The squirrel locked his jaw, biting down on him and he started flinging his hand up and down trying to shake it off. He was in this angry frantic shake when he heard a laugh.

She was laughing. Softer at first, and then it was her full belly, fill-the-whole-backyard loud laugh. She was laughing at him!  The squirrel was biting down on him in a death grip and he was ready to kill this varmint and she was laughing!

“Stop laughing!” He yelled, still shaking his hand up and down as hard as he could, obviously panicked and in pain. “This isn’t funny!!”

“I’m sorry!” She breathed in between her bursts, “I can’t stop!”

“This isn’t funny!” he yelled again, louder. He ran close to the tree and just as he tried to smash the little bastard’s body against the trunk to get him to let go, the squirrel let go of his hand, and jumped onto the tree scampering up, and his fist hit the trunk of the tree at full swing.

“Ahhhhhh!” he screamed. “ARGHHHHHH!!!! AHhhh ha! ha.” He screamed, and as his breath sputtered, it turned from a scream of rage and pain to a chuckle. He felt his anger deflating and he continued to hear her loud laughs from behind him.

When he turned around, in a instant he took it all in. He saw her and her yellow dress with little rips and with chocolate cakes smudges from the stupid animal. And he saw the cake, ruined, his bleeding, hurting fist still bearing a large portion of it, and the picnic set-up scattered by the panic dance with the squirrel. And there she was still laughing. He bent over, hands on his knees, catching his breath, when he saw her start to flail her hand up and down mimicking him while her loud laughs washed over him like waves.

Then he smirked.

“This isn’t funny!” He imitated himself in a sing-song voice, still bent over, looking up at her bright, open-smile face. And then he got caught in her happiness. “It’s not funny!” he said again, laughing, and starting to fling his hand again and spin in circles. re-creating his squirrel hatred dance.

She had flopped herself over, laying down on the picnic blanket, shaking with laughter. She couldn’t catch her breath. He kept going like this until his energy gave out, which was soon, and then he went and laid down on the chocolate covered blanket behind her.

“It’s not funny!” he laughed again, softly, close to her, as he playfully bit her shoulder.

“Hey, don’t bite me!” she yelled.

“Sorry, can’t help it. I’ve got rabies now, too.”

“Thunder stealer.”

Their laughs died down and they laid there in the messed up picnic for a moment before he said anything.

“How’d you remember this was my favorite dessert?” he asked.

“I remember everything about you. I’ve been memorizing you since the day we met.” It was a weird thing to say, but it was out before she knew what she was admitting to.

“But,” he paused, hesitating, “but we met way before I was sick.” He couldn’t put into words the question he implied.

“I know,” she said without missing a beat. “But we’re all dying sometime. I just knew you were someone I want to remember.”

His throat tightened. Something like gratitude and wonder and love stung at his tear ducts. He brushed past it quickly.

“Well, now that you have rabies, your time may be short. I guess it’s good you got a head start,” he said.

“Exactly! ” she smiled again. “Also, as I’m now dying, I better start to get some special treatment or something. That’s how that works right? Do they have a make a wish foundation for 20-somethings with rabies? Maybe I should have a statue carved of me so you remember how beautiful I am. Will you love me still when I start foaming at the mouth? We should have another picnic before then…”

He kissed her to shut her up. That’s what he let her believe, at least.

Nobody dared to laugh at death and prepare for it like she did, he thought. He didn’t understand it, but she, this living ball of sunshine, was teaching him how to die.

* * *

His cancer was fast moving. That was the last of the good days. Within two months, he died.

And when he did, she wept and screamed, and camped out all day in his parents back yard with a 22 until she killed that goddamn squirrel. And on the day of his funeral, she wore her yellow dress with the little rips in it from the squirrel’s claws. And through tears, she laughed, sadly, at him again as she told the story to her table of friends at the funeral reception. “‘It’s not funny!’ he yelled at me. But there’s nothing NOT funny about a sad dying guy fighting off a squirrel covered in chocolate cake.”

“You shouldn’t laugh at a time like this,” an older woman said, scornfully, passing by their reception table. “Disrespectful…” she muttered.

“Did she not hear the part about the goddamn squirrel pouncing on the chocolate cake like we were in a freakin’ cartoon?” she asked her friends, feigning a smile, but feeling that tightening in her throat and chest.

Her friends chuckled a little, and the conversation went on to other, less humorous memories about him.

She wept in her car in the parking lot when she left. And ugly mascara tears dripped onto her yellow dress near the little rips where chocolate stains once were.

It would be harder to laugh now, she thought. Not because of grief or death or crap like that. Ok, maybe some of that. But mostly because nobody let her, encouraged her to laugh at things like he had.

She’d memorized that way he looked at her when she laughed like that — like he thought she was sunshine in Seattle, she thought. He’d looked at her that way since the first day she met him. She’d pretended not to notice it. But he made her feel like she was sunshine in a world where everyone was wearing sunscreen. Everyone but him.

She was just now realizing, he’d been helping her discover how brightly she could live.

“Goddammit, buddy. I miss you,” she said out loud to her empty car.

She took a deep sigh, then mimicked again, “‘It’s not funny!!'” her burst of laughter louder this time, tears and mascara still on her cheeks. “‘It’s not funny!'”

She kept saying it and playing the scene over and over in her mind as she drove away, both laughing and crying at the same time.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | Author:

About a year and a half ago, my world shattered. Today is not the day for those details. Just know that I don’t use the word “shattered” lightly. I lost people, places, calling. I used the word “decimated” a lot.

I walked around in a fog of grief: The heaviness that weights you, making every single task a deliberating, exhausting undertaking. I wasn’t even sure of how I was spending my days. Time got away from me a lot as I sat in my thoughts and memories and questions.

At the beginning, right when everything shattered, a friend sent me a quote from George Matheson that has kept me going like a light at the end of a very very long, very very dark tunnel: “Waiting with hope is very difficult, but true patience is expressed when we must even wait for hope. I will have reached the point of greatest strength once I have learned to wait for hope.”

This has been a season of waiting for hope. When the word “decimated” describes your life, it’s hard to have hope. I didn’t. I was hopeful for hope. And that’s a hard distinction to make, and a hard thing to admit.

This is part of a poem I wrote on January 29, 2013 in the midst of my heavy, empty season.

…Yearning for a new life, a new land, for some hope.

I can see it on the horizon, but the horizon is far away.
I hope I’ll someday get there, but it won’t be today.

I want the joy of healing, i just haven’t found it yet.
Today I’m still alone,  my companions heartache and regret.

Soon I’ll trade them in, trade them new, for hope of better things,
But today I’m lost. I cry. I grieve.

Here are some lines from a bit later in the journey:

I want to have hope
right now I have none
(I want to be done).
But I am hopeful for hope
— I believe it will come.

I have not known hope in 19 months. That is, until a few weeks ago.

The logic in my head said that things would progress in life. That I could rebuild. That in time, with effort, it wouldn’t always be like this. But my heart could not feel it, could not believe it.

But after 19 months of my heart being earnestly on the lookout for hope, I found it.

I’m like Kevin in Home Alone, having the revelation and yelling at the furnace “I’m not afraid anymore!”


My soul feels like a broken jar that leaks, but enough has run into my broken heart for long enough that what is being poured in is overcompensating for what the cracks are leaking out. It’s taken a while to fill up because of those cracks. But I’m full again, and filling still.

And I believe part the reason is that in the last few months I’ve begun to take the hard, painful, intimidating step of telling my story — to people I have known for my whole life, to people who I’m just meeting. I’m telling my painful story, again and again, and in the telling, I feel myself getting fuller. I feel the cracks in my heart and my life decreasing in their gaping size.

I believe this is the stage of grief that they call “acceptance.” I had accepted it for myself a while back. But this step of accepting my loss, accepting my story out loud, is different. It is scary and powerful and freeing.  And, it turns out, in the breathing out of the painful story, hope is breathed in.

Last week, I found myself thinking, unfiltered, “I love my life” as I went to bed. And it was true. It’s not even a great life. But I love it and the people in it. And it’s because I’m in love with life again. I’m full of hope again. I’m excited again.

large_127012194photo credit: fanz via photopin cc

Like walking down a dark tunnel toward the light at the end, I could see hope ahead of me this whole journey. My eyes were on it. My focus was toward it. But that night last week was that moment when you finally realize, you not just see the light, you are in the light. Under it. Surrounded by it. You may still be in the tunnel, but you are engulfed in the light of day ahead.

I laugh easily now. Often too loud. The loss doesn’t seem as heavy on most days. The broken pieces don’t feel so “decimated” anymore. The effort it takes to breathe is unnoticeable, as it’s meant to be. I know how I spend my days, and I spend them doing things I love, things that bring me back to life.

I am engulfed in hope.

And I’m giddy like a little kid on Christmas about the whole thing.

And to you who have walked with me through the tunnel, who have assured me that the light of day at the end is real when it felt like it was just an illusion — thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Let’s celebrate. You were right!

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 | Author:

Recently I was with a group of people and we were talking about what was going on in our lives and the topic turned to one of the girls there who is leaving her job soon. “I know it may be bad,” she relayed, “but I’m really giving it my all now. I want them to miss me when I’m gone. I want them to be sad to see me go, and not think ‘Oh, she was leaving, that’s why she was slacking those last few months.'”

Other people in the room chimed in saying they felt the same way. It was quickly clear the desire to be hard to replace seems to be almost innate. Except in me.

For a long time now, I’ve been trying to make myself replaceable. And it’s just been the last few months that I’ve really realized how this mindset has sunk in to most every area of my life.

I create “truck binders” for projects I work on so that if I were run over by a truck, someone could use the binder to carry forward. I delegate tasks and responsibilities to teams and train others how to do my job in my absence. I plan ahead and I make notes about what I do and how I do it. And I’ve realized, I keep people at bay in my life, and I try to get them close to other people who could fill my role when I leave.

When I left for college, I didn’t want to be replaceable, because I wanted to stay in my hometown. But because I left, I wanted to see my people taken care of. I was happy for her when my best friend began to be good friends with another girl who is her best friend to this day. I was glad that someone could fill the hole I left in the day to day life of my friend. I’ve been tentative to sign art pieces that I make for people as gifts, because I want them to be able to enjoy the art piece regardless of what happens to me. I don’t want them to have to remember me with each glance at it if they don’t want to. (I know this is poor logic, and not healthy, but it’s the truth.)

In my self-realization that I do this, this is what I’ve found.


I mentioned in my “write your own eulogy” post that I always thought I would die young.  As early as I can remember I just assumed this to be true. I told this to my friend recently and she said, “see… that’s why I’m scared to have kids. How do you know that your toddler is thinking about death? That scares the crap out of me.”

And really, she’s right. How would anyone have known? I never bothered to mention it. I just thought it was a given. I was extremely happy and adventurous and risk-taking. I was well socialized. I connected well with people of all ages. But I’ve always thought my time was limited.

The only thing I can think of that I believe made me assume my life would be short was this: My mom always used to tell us stories about her and her brothers as they were growing up. One of my uncles was older than her and one younger. But the thing was, in the story I had two uncles, but in life I only had one. Her younger brother had died before I was born.  I only knew him through the stories.

And somehow I think that my little mind drew a lot of similarities between myself and my Uncle Randy. We were both the youngest of 3 kids. We both had allergies. We both got manipulated by older siblings, but still loved them. Just typical stuff. But somehow I believed that my fate would be like his – I thought my life would be short. So I lived that way.

When I was in 6th grade I started to have medical problems. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong but I underwent test after test, with no results giving an answer. I had my blood drawn weekly for a while for these. I saw specialists. I missed lots of school. I was just waiting for what I knew would eventually be a fatal diagnosis. I could manage life 5 or 6 days out of 7, but I missed at least one day of school a week. But  on my good days I would play hard, laugh hard, study hard, and be who I wanted to be. I knew time was short.

And then, when my medical problems were still going on, but were becoming less demanding, and almost seemed like they were fading, my older sister died suddenly.

I felt like the universe had gotten confused. She was supposed to live. My brother too. They were supposed to live long, full lives. They were both so accomplished. So smart. Smarter and better than me, I always thought. It was supposed to be me. I had always known. It was supposed to be me who died young. I was supposed to live an entertaining full, short, life that she could tell stories about to her children. It wasn’t supposed to be her.

I was ready for the fatal diagnosis. I wasn’t ready for the fatal call of someone else’s death, though. Cancer, some weird disease, “You have 3 days to live,” I could’ve handled. But watching the life go out of my brilliant, vibrant, feisty, 21-year-old sister who had so much promise for the world and for the people around her — that ruined everything I thought I knew about how to live well and die well.

This death was not like the movies, with time to prepare and goodbyes properly said. It was her birthday 3 days before. We didn’t get to say goodbye. She didn’t get to graduate college one month later like she was ready to. She didn’t get to celebrate her one year wedding anniversary that summer on the cruise they had already bought. There were no tears of parting on her part. It just ended. Like a book that just stops a quarter of the way in, leaving you hanging, knowing there was supposed to be more.

My poetic notions of short life well lived were smashed. This was not like that. This was a life-halting, heart-breaking, “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO F***ING DO NOW!?!?” chapter. It was not poetic. It was horrendous.

origin_2594318333photo credit: mugley via photopin cc

And what had once been a decision to live fully so that I’d soak up all opportunity and so that people could remember me in their stories they told, turned to a desire to minimize collateral damage. I know the pain and ache of someone dying. And I, still subconsciously believing I would die young, was determined to lessen that pain for others as much as possible.

I wanted to be replaceable. I wanted to be able to die and have everything go on without me as smoothly as possible.

I wanted to prepare people for my death — living like a cancer patient without the diagnosis. I wanted people to know how I loved them, cared for them, and that they didn’t really need me. That there were others who could fill my slot in the program of their life.

The first time I talked about “when I die…” to my friend Kate, we were roommates in college. I don’t even know what I said, but probably something flippant like “when I die, I want to have “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta” on my tombstone. I didn’t know it then (this is just how I talk and think), but she got really angry with me for thinking about death, and talking about it so frankly.

A couple of years later, I had just attended yet another funeral for someone I respected, and I wrote an email to Kate. I told her if I died I wanted her to speak at my funeral, and there were certain things I wanted her to mention: One, namely, is one time that I had the best parallel parking job in the world, on the first try, in golden gate park in San Francisco, and we took a picture that she made me promise I wouldn’t use to brag. I asked her to show said bragging picture, because hey, I’d be dead.

It was in her gracious response that she’d let me in on her reaction to my candor about death. She understands now that it’s part of how I live, but I had never known before that it had angered her and made her sad when I brought it up the first time. Which is understandable. There I was, getting to be great friends with someone, and simultaneously trying to keep a distance, to prepare her for life without me, to make myself replaceable. I believe I may well live a long life now. But I’m still scared of hurting people. I’m scared of leaving a wake of pain should the unexpected happen.

But the thing is, I’m not replaceable. I work hard to make sure I am replaceable in my jobs and roles in life. Because those things you can be replaced in. But I cannot be replaced as a person. Nobody can. I’ve believed that about others, but I thought I could be the exception if I tried hard enough.

I’ve had other people who have stepped in and acted as big sisters for me. But nobody will ever be Julie. And the fact is, if her death had happened like the movies, and we’d had our time for goodbyes, it wouldn’t have made it hurt less. It wouldn’t have lessened the loss. She would still be gone, and still be irreplaceable.

Positions are replaceable. People are not.

So I am working on trying to let myself see this and embrace it in the ways I relate to the people in my life. Because I’ve realized in my efforts to minimize pain for people at my potential leaving, I’m actually stunting the joy of relationships for myself and for them.

I want to step into the fullness of who I am and embrace the value of that woman. And as much as I don’t want people to bear the hurt of loss that I so well know, it’s a lie to go on believing that I can prevent that.  Loss and pain are certainties in life. I’d like to focus from now on at caring, loving, giving, and being the kind of friend that I would never want to see leave my own life.

And it’s OK if you miss me when I’m gone.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon


Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 | Author:

Tackling myths & clichés: When Life gives you lemons, make lemonade

First of all, life doesn’t give you lemons.

But since we’re talking about them, you know who has a lot of lemons? The Italians. And they’re some of the warmest, happiest people out there. Go to Sorrento in Italy and tell me that you do not love all of the lemony things. I dare you. Lemon scented soap. Lemon chicken. Lemon liqueur. Lemonade. Lemon candies. Lemon paintings and tables and glasswork. Lemon towels and pottery. Whole shops full of lemons and lemon-inspired things.

Lemons are not a bad thing. But the pain of life, unfortunately, is not like lemons at all. Lemons, if eaten plain, are pretty sour, but to be honest, they still taste pretty good in the realm of things.

And that’s the reality — you can make lemonade out of lemons because they taste pretty good to start with.

You know what life gives you that you can’t make lemonade out of? Crap.

Ever heard that saying, “You can’t polish a turd?” It’s true (I’d imagine). You can’t. You also can’t make lemonade out of it.

You can’t make lemonade out of your life falling apart.
You can’t make lemonade out of your loved ones dying.
You can’t make lemonade out of betrayal.
You can’t make lemonade out of a broken heart.
You can’t make lemonade out of losing everything.
You can’t make lemonade out of abuse.
You can’t make lemonade out of poverty.
You can’t make lemonade out of a fatal diagnosis.

You just can’t. You can’t make lemonade out of those hard, painful, gut-wrenching things in life.
Nor should anyone persuade you to try.

It’s ok to let the bad things be bad.
It’s ok to let the painful things be painful.
Don’t be persuaded to try to act like the silver lining is all that matters. Because your pain, your ugly, horrible plot turns of your life that you’ve had to endure — those matter. Suffering matters.

Redemption matters, too. But your suffering matters in its own right, even before you may see any good come from it.  If you’re experiencing pain or suffering right now, I am so sorry. You matter. And this season of life may not last forever, but I am sorry you are in it right now.

Beauty does come from pain. (It exists apart from pain, too.) But it’s not that your pain has to be beautiful. It’s not that you have to use lemons to make lemonade. You don’t have to transform your grief into a sweet summery treat overnight.

The reality is that when the hard pain of life comes, and you endure, beauty and life can spring forth again. Your story doesn’t have to end in pain. But you do not have to sugar-coat those painful times. It’s ok to not be ok.

It’s ok to not be the ever-singing optimist lemonade-maker.

And there’s one more thing. While those hard pieces of life are more like crap than they are like lemons… crap is good fertilizer. You can’t make lemonade out of the crap of pain. But as you journey through these hard pieces of life — as you grieve and are honest about the fact that this feels like something you never wanted to go through — your life is being fertilized. You don’t have to make lemonade. Just journeying through your pain will fertilize your life for potential beauty to bloom forth in the future.

origin_5807957068photo credit: DanieleCivello via photopin cc

So in your own life and in the lives of those around you, let the hard parts of life be just what they are. Hard. Painful. Heart-breaking. Life-altering. I-wish-this-never-happened saddening. I-want-to-punch-a-hole-in-this-wall maddening. I-just-don’t-think-I-can-take-another-day-of-this-reality exhausting.

There is hope for healing and new life in the future. But in the midst of fresh pain, that’s hardly a refreshing drink of consolation. And that’s OK to admit.

Later, when you have grieved, when you have slept, when you have plodded forth for what felt like too long and you come into a new season of life where you’re ready to rebuild, re-dream, and to come alive again, you can plant a lemon tree later in that fertile ground of your life and make lemonade if you really want to.

Or just ignore the rules and plant something sweet like oranges or berries to begin with.

Revised saying:
I’m sorry life is so painful and crappy right now. I’ll sit here with you in the stench of heart-break and life-ache. And I’ll be here still when you want to plant something new. But no rush. Take the time you need.

It’s not as catchy, I know. I’m OK with that.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Tuesday, July 08th, 2014 | Author:

A few weeks ago I wrote my own eulogy. It’s a writing exercise I’d heard of many times, but one I had never done. But, I’ve thought about my own death since I was a young kid. As someone who always assumed I’d die young (a belief I’m just recently beginning to challenge internally), I’d thought about this type of thing many times before.

The difference is that I wrote this eulogy as a sort of “weekly review” of my life in the most grave sense. And then two days later I was in a doctor’s office having them tell me, “Well, with you being as young as you are, it’d be rare that this is cancer, but we need to be real that that’s a real possibility here. We can’t do anything now. Come back in 3 weeks.”

I’ve been thinking about this eulogy a lot over the past few weeks, and while I understand that I don’t control all of my fate, I went from being scared and overwhelmed, to being determined that this is not where my story ends. That I will not let it end right as I was on the brink of what I talk about  below.

I have since received the good news that I am (almost) in the clear cancer-scare-wise. But it has been a poignant few weeks and I’ve realized that I am not done fighting. I am not done adventuring. I am not done working on things and becoming the best version of me that I can be. I will not lay down and die. If I die right now, I will die fighting if that is an option. But as long as I am breathing, my story is not yet finished.

So, here’s my weird eulogy post. It’s a mix of attempted honest self-reflection and how I hope, maybe, people would remember me should the story stop here.



Joanna O’Hanlon died today. She spent her last day reading blog posts, having fun texting a cute boy, and trying to sort out information from other “productivity” blog posts that she could steal and make her own for a company blog. She was trying to get this done by 3pm, but her mind kept wandering. She went on a run, finished an art project, and went to a cheap movie. It was an ordinary day.

She didn’t know today would be the last day. She would’ve bought and eaten dessert at lunch had she known. She did try V8 finally for the first time before she passed though. She’d continually passed that option in life until today. She actually really liked it, even though it was like drinking cold tomato soup.

The story ending as it is, is a tragedy. She was on the brink of new life. On the brink of hope. On the brink of finding meaning in life again. But she hadn’t quite teetered over the edge. She had weathered the horrible, vomit-inducing, life-wrecking, heart-bulldozing times. She’d wandered in the desert. And when she was almost into the new, beautiful, life-giving season, it just stopped. That’s what makes this so sad. Knowing that joy and hope and adventure were right around the corner.

She had no real romantic involvement ever in her life. She struggled with receiving love. Her independent spirit was her fateful flaw. “You never needed anybody,” her best friend had said to her one time. But in the last year, she’d learned what it was to need people, and to need them without being able to ask for them. And they showed up. Again and again they showed up. She was working on making that translation into her romantic potential. But before she died, she knew she was loved. Not by a man — but by many men and women who gave her their love when she was really broken. When she felt the most unlovable. When she really needed love.

She was reckless in her honesty. She defied the regular rules of propriety about what you could say out loud. She was honest about how she felt, about how life felt, about how death felt. She couldn’t stomach the trite positive-spins that the church and the ignorant put on pain. She would speak out against that with colorful language deep from her gut anytime she heard it. She made many people uncomfortable. And she wasn’t sorry about that. The truth was important to her, because she saw what lack of honesty, what positive-spins and secrets did to people. She’d been hurt by that before. She was finding freedom in the truth, and she wanted to share it with the suffering, even at the cost of making the non-suffering uncomfortable.

She dug into her pain. She let it fill her. She let it burn away the excess in her. And she sought healing. She so badly wanted to be healed. But when God told her he wanted to use her while she was still broken, she cried, and said OK.

Jo loved God. He was her only constant in life. She looked like a wanderer to many. She was, I suppose. Her heart was not at home. It had known pain. It had loved this world. But the only real roots she had were in her God. He had held her, traveled with her. She loved God because he was good in a world that so often felt bad. She loved him because He was there for her when her pain and shame were too much for others. He was there when she wandered. He was there in the wails in the middle of the night. She loved God in the most selfish way possible — she loved Him because she needed him and trusted him. And because she knew He loved her.

Jo loved life. She loved to laugh at funny things. She laughed and squealed with joy when she did child-like things like go to the carnival or swim in the snowy river. Joy might’ve looked like it came naturally to Jo, but really, it was a choice. A choice to not let her sorrow hold her. She would seek joy out. It was a priority in her life. Fun was a priority in her life. She believed she was on an adventure. She chose to believe that.

She really liked high places. She was a climber. Always had been. She could still be seen sometimes on a run, coming across a play ground in the neighborhood, and swinging unabashedly on one of the swings — swinging higher and higher until it felt like her adult-weight would make the whole thing topple.

She loved people. Especially broken people. Especially people who had shown her love. She thought nothing of giving time, money, opportunity, or energy to make these people a priority in their times of need. She needed to work on making them a priority when they weren’t in need, too, though.

And she loved stories. Her curiosity was a bit much for most people, so she was learning how to curb it for the sake of others. But she always, always wanted to know more. She wanted to learn about people and places and things.

About what makes the pressure in a fire hydrant so great that the water literally SHOOTS out of it, while the water in nearby houses simply drizzles out regularly. And which Roman emperor built the coliseum, and which one finished it. And what’s the difference in technique/approach of a barber verses a hair stylist. And how to put in a pool. And how Lewis and Clark crossed the Columbia river. And how did they know they would even find an end to the continent? And what seasonings are in V8? And how did you get to be the person you are today?

Her curiosity for knowledge, and her love of stories defined her. There were six words that always caught her interest: “Let me tell you a story…”

She was working on writing her own story, too. It is incomplete. But so is life, I suppose.

She is survived by some of her immediate family, not all of them: her mother, her father, her brother. She is survived by extended family and her friends — too many good ones to mention them all. But they live all over the country, all over the world. She is survived by her town: Oroville – the land of the hopeless and broken and stuck. She really loved that town. We don’t know why, but she did.

We don’t know what we should do with her body. She used to say to just throw it in the sea because it was the cheapest option. But we’re not sure it’s the cheapest option. And we’re not sure if that’s what she wanted anymore. She had definite desires — but they changed… it was hard to keep track sometimes.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 | Author:

powells bookstore card

I was in the famous Powell’s bookstore in Portland, spending over an hour browsing through their cards-and-quirky-things section when I pulled up one of the last cards that caught my eye, and it made me freeze.

In the middle of Powell’s, I could see people meandering around, chatting, browsing, loading their arms and their baskets with books, and I was paralyzed with gratitude. The card in my hand was plain white with a simple, dark-faded-to-light blue font. It’s message was simple: “I’d like to be the sort of friend that you have been to me. -Edgar A. Guest”

And just like that, I was that emotional lady in the greeting card aisle. The memories started bubbling up and brimming at the rim of my eyes: the faces, words, touches, presence of the people who have been a friend to me. And I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

It was this beautiful mosaic of love flashing before my eyes showing me that in the midst of what has often felt like a life of brokenness and heartache, I am blessed. I am so blessed.

I have had people face shame with me, literally hand in hand. I have had friends who physically held me when I so desperately needed someone to, but didn’t even have the words to ask for it. I have had people who brought me comfort food in the dark hours. Friends who call me several times over the course of days and weeks, and when I don’t answer their calls, they aren’t deterred, they keep calling, keep checking in.

I have had friends who have made midnight drives when I needed them, friends who have flown to other continents to vsiit and adventure, friends who have loved me not because of what I do, but because of who I am and the fact that they decided to be my friend.

I’ve had friends who let me share my painful moments with them. Who, when I say honest things like, “I don’t know how to do this,” have responded honest things like, “You’re not supposed to know how.”

Friends who watch FRIENDS with me when it’s too hard to cope with the heaviness of life. Friends who make me laugh. Friends who let me cry (and some who cry with me). Friends who are honest with me about their own crap. Who journey with me. Who support me and let me support them. Who accept me, enjoy me, and make me lovable through the process of loving me.

And in the card aisle, as I wiped away the sweet tears of gratitude, I put the card back, because I couldn’t afford to buy it for every one of the people I had thought of in those moments. But as I moved from that spot into the rest of the store, I felt like it was time for me to make a move in my heart — a move from gratitude to fruitfulness. Like the card says, I want to be the sort of friend that you have been to me. I am so blessed by these people throughout my life. But it’s time I started to be a blessing to them, and others too.

Thank you for blessing me, and for showing me how incredibly powerful it is to be loved by a friend like you. And thank you for modeling how to be that kind of friend. Some of you may never read this, but you have shaped my life, and now you’re shaping my heart. I thank God for you.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Thursday, March 06th, 2014 | Author:

Dear Julie,
Its been 10 years. How can that be? 10 years of life without you. 10 years of this ache in my heart and stinging sensation in my eyes and nose when people speak of loss. When they experience grief, my heart breaks for them, because I still know the feeling of my heart breaking over you. 10 years of thinking of you in those moments.

10 years of answering how many siblings do you havewith a different answer every time.

10 years to figure out who I am apart from you. Without your influence or your example.

10 years to figure out how different from you I am.

And 10 years to figure out how similar we are, after all.

10 years of seeing things about sister loveand feeling that hollow pang, knowing I dont have a sister anymore.

10 years of trying to establish a new normal.

And after 10 years, its clear that we have developed new rhythms, but that we still dont feel whole. Were still trying to figure out who we are as a family. And thats a really hard thing to admit. Because its admitting that this is not the way things were meant to be, even after all the healing, and coping and growing, and changing and redeveloping.

We have adapted, and while we have found joy again, we have entered back into life again, part of us still knows that there was another way this story couldve gone. And I am starting to see that that knowledge will never go away completely.

Walking into this, I never knew just how long death takes its toll. Never realized how deeply woven into our stories the threads of grief would be.

Here is the truth that no one says out loud.

I dont think about you every day anymore. 10 years ago I wouldve been appalled at myself for this being true, for admitting it. I thought about you every day for years. For the whole first year I didnt want to move on. But my soul began to die, to suffocate from unobserved grief after a year of it. Grieving and finding joy again felt like betraying you at first. I was 15, but I imagine it must feel similar even to adults who walk through that valley.

But at some point I did establish new rhythms of life. I gradually stopped having those moments where I expected to see you somewhere, expected you to be at dinner that night, thought of something to tell you only to remember that you were no longer there to tell.

At some point, I began to be able to tell people that I had a sister, but that you had died, and I began to be able to do it without my throat tightening, without tears falling too easily from my eyes. The statement stopped being a reminder, and started being a fact.

Eventually, people stopped calling me by your name accidentally. That was both a helpful thing yet a sad realization a few years in. It meant that you had been gone long enough that even acquaintances had made the mental shift to know your name should no longer be in their name bankfor the OHanlons.

People stopped comparing me to you altogether by the time I graduated high school. I had already begun to blaze my own trail. And of course by the time that I graduated college, I had surpassed the point in life that youd lived through, so the mention of your name didnt even come up.

I thought of you, though. I thought about the picture we took together at my 8th grade graduation. The only graduation of mine youd get to attend. I hope youd be proud of me, and happy for me for the happy things of my life, and sad with me for the heart-breaking ones. I trust that that would be the case. You were always really compassionate like that, deep down.

This is what makes me saddest. How much youve missed, and how much weve missed that wouldve come in your life. So much has changed for us in 10 years, Im sure life wouldve changed for you, too.

Ive met a few people in life who remind me a lot of you.  They are people that others sometimes have a hard time getting close to, but they feel so familiar to me, because its like seeing a glimpse of you.  It is comfortable to be near them, just as I was always comfortable around you.

Heres another painful confession. I dont remember what your voice sounded like anymore. I wish we had had digital cameras and video cameras back then, but I didnt yet. I got my first one the Christmas after you died. I haven’t heard your voice in a decade.

I havent heard you play piano in just as long.

I know from memory what you looked like still but the details of your face, or your person, theyre starting to get a little fuzzy. I have static images of you in mind, from the pictures, but I dont remember how you moved.

There are, of course, lots of pictures of you at mom and dads house, but I only have a couple of my own. I have a picture frame collage with 2 in it of you I have taken it with me everywhere Ive lived even in another country.

It is a very weird thing to look at pictures of you from the end, and to know that you are only 20 years old. You are 4 years younger than I am now. Which is so strange because you were always so much older and cooler. How could you be younger than me?

I remember what you smelled like still, vaguely, because I still have one of your shirts. Ive washed it a bunch of times (because Ive worn it), but sometimes, on the occasions that I did wear it, I would catch a whiff of you.  I stopped wearing it because I was afraid that eventually, after too many washes, the smell would leave. Thats the last piece of your clothing I have. I just cant get rid of it. I got rid of the rest though which was much harder than getting rid of clothes should ever be. I blame you, and grief, for me staying out of current style for so long.

Heres another confession. While I have gone to the cemetery a lot over the past 10 years, I have visited your grave only a dozen or less times. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that your body is there. But I like to visit the cemetery in general, because I feel close to you there I know that was a place you used to go when you ditched school, or just to get away from things. It is because of that, not because of your grave, that I go.

I always think of you when someone makes a comment about red heads being feisty.

I always think of you when I see one of those pens that you always used. Youre right, they really are the best pens.

I always think of you when I watch Ever After, Sweet Home Alabama (I still have your burned copy), Gattaca,  and Finding Forrester (which I watched yesterday, and yesI cried when he talks about his brother). I watched Monsters University the other day finally (sequel to Monsters Inc.) and I remembered you really liked the original. The sequel is pretty cute, too.

I always think of you when I see something or hear something about the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember all of those afternoons of all three of us watching some combination of that, Sister Sister, The Nanny, and Arthur that added up to an hour of our TV time. I love that we all watched all of those together.

And of course, anywhere that they sell cheap, gas station, soft-serve ice creams makes me think of the times you got Jason and I to pay for yours if you drove us there and back.

Whenever a phone book is delivered to my door step I think of that summer, and the fact that the dress you bought me was not NEAR enough payment for the hours I put in, but I had no idea at the time. I thought you were being so gracious. I wish I could rag on you now about that.

After 10 years without you, the pain has lessened, the heaviness of the sadness has lifted, but the fact is that the loss remains. Weve lost you and life will never be the same.

And while we have to make peace with that, and we have, we do, and we willwe still miss you. We still love you. And it seems that time will not wash that away. Nor should it, I suppose.

P.S. This picture, this is how I remember you. No wonder I know how to make a splash. I got that from you, I think. (Julie, age 17, after a Mock Trial competition. Those are boxers.)


Category: Everyday Stories  | Tags: , , , , ,  | 8 Comments
Thursday, October 03rd, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: A grandmother’s legacy of love and life
by Joanna O’Hanlon

She didn’t want my sister’s grave to be alone.

She was nearing death — she had been nearing it for over a decade — and yet as she was thinking about her final resting place, she was thinking not of herself, but of her late granddaughter.

Because that’s who she was: My grandmother, Evelyn, was a woman who loved people, and loved life. She was feisty and gentle, and somehow, in her, they were not separate like oil and water, but blended like a smooth peach sorbet — both sweet and tart in the same bite.

In the story of her life, her plot-turns read like tragedy, but she breathed vitality. She was born into the Depression, the youngest child in her family. She was young when her brothers went to war. She saw the death of her son, siblings, granddaughter and husband. And ever since I was young, I’d been told “Grandma’s dying.”

She’d had serious health problems: illnesses, surgeries, on and off of oxygen tanks for her emphysema. It’s as if death had been trying to take her, and she kept saying “No.”

With her stubbornness against death, she chose to love life.

I remember shopping with her for hours, until her strength would give out. She loved a good sale and cute clothes.

I remember watching TV with her — her brushing my long hair, working gently through my tangles.

I remember going through the misty gardens on the Oregon Coast with her. We pushed her through in her wheelchair, but she loved to take her time to literally smell the roses and take in the beauty.

I remember when I was a little girl, when everyone in my family would give me a hard time for having to stop for “potty breaks” often on the nine-hour ride to her house, she’d just say to me, “It’s OK, Sweetie. You drink a lot, you go a lot.”

I remember eating dessert at her house — this woman is where I inherited my sweet teeth (because all my teeth are sweet). We’d have raspberry ice cream, peach ice cream, cobblers, cakes and candies. She’d say “just serve me a little bit” by which she meant a portion three times larger than normal people would have. Sometimes when life is sour, food is better sweet.

But in the end, her body was exhausted. She was still fighting to live, but it was clear, with the pain she was in, her body just couldn’t do it anymore. She’d had several close calls over the previous months but when we gave her our blessing, she decided that it was time. She took her last breath not even 24 hours later. Even Death seemed to have to take her on her terms.

It’s been a few years since she passed away now, and we finally scattered her ashes this past month. After being reassured that my sister’s grave would not be alone, she decided that she’d like her ashes to be scattered together with my grandfather’s.

“But I don’t want you to dump mine and then dump his,” she frankly told my mom. Her solution: She instructed my mom to put both her and my Grandpa Buzz’s ashes into a brown grocery bag, shake them up, and then scatter them. She wanted to truly be with him forever. And she was unashamed of the means of getting there.

When our family was together on the boat, after we’d laughed at her somewhat bossy and unconventional instructions, we said our goodbyes, each dropping a flower onto the water of the gray San Francisco Bay. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, and each of us with our wet jackets and wet eyes went for a round of hugs.

My mom, after their hug, looked down at my cousin’s pregnant belly and said through tears and rain that somewhere in storage was a blanket that Grandma had instructed my mom to give to the first great-grandchild.

She died in 2008, and she’s still taking care of the people she loves.

That was my grandma. With a life of heartbreak, a family with life-aches, her legacy is resilience. Life weighed its heavy hand on her, so she held it and walked on.

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.  Other places are

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