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Kendra Tillberry

You asked me how I am doing months ago, and I didn’t reply. Not replying was easier than having to struggle with the words to explain the seemingly unexplainable. I’ve been thinking about how to answer your question for the past few months. The words just seemed too wrong as if I don’t have the vocabulary quite yet to describe myself and my situation. As a writer, I feel like a failure. I am frustrated with myself thinking that I should have the ability to articulate myself right now. I don’t have the right words, but today I have a newfound sense of courage to try.

My story starts at a nursing home in the northwest corner of Minnesota – just a few miles from the Canada and North Dakota borders. The earth there flattens beneath my feet, a prairie landscape spreading out like an even pancake where I begin to see for miles all around me with nothing blocking my view. Every year this nursing home hosts a Valentine’s Day contest for the king and queen of all the home. Every resident casts their ballot and recognizes a lucky couple as their sweethearts. This time-honored tradition was a favorite of the residents who welcomed the distraction from their daytime television ritual where clumps of people would watch for hours in their wheelchairs as their eyes clouded and glazed over.

Each year whenever the lucky couple was named, though, the man always passes away shortly after the coronation. Sometimes he would live a few months or half a year, but it almost always signaled the end of a relationship. This year, my grandparents had the votes. But my grandpa died on February 13. My grandma followed his lead, as she had in all things for the past 60+ years they were married, and she died shortly after. The memorial service took place a week later on March 11 just days before Minnesota went into quarantine lockdown. The only two grandparents I have left traveled seven hours for the memorial service and holding them felt like a guarded treasure, like they were the buoys in the water keeping me afloat. I didn’t know it at the time, but this memorial service was the last time I would truly hug people without fear or guilt that it might be a contagious act. As I half-heartedly sang the hymns my grandparents planned for their funerals years before and as I watched my dad collapse on the ground in grief, I soon realized how ill-equipped I am to be in this world.

Since then, I’ve been operating in a state of complicated grief. Complicated because of its compounding nature and the inability to be around those I love without fear or guilt. Since then, nothing seems to make sense in my head. I had almost made it 29 years without anyone in my first circle of family members (grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins) dying. I was woefully unprepared to deal with grief especially now when everything in the U.S. feels upside down from what it should be.

Then a few months passed. My community erupted into hopeless despair as we grieved the murder of George Floyd. Helicopters swarmed the skies above my house that week as buildings and businesses just miles away from my block burned to the ground. The experience forced me to reckon with my white privilege in a way I had never before. I made a plan to build my consciousness and grow my skills and knowledge by reading books, joining an anti-racist book club in my neighborhood, and talking with friends, family and coworkers in ways I never I had before. I learned words like white rage, white superiority, white women’s tears. Guilt hung on my mouth like the taste of spoiled milk, its curdled whiteness dripping from my lips. My grief swelled.

The masks – while I fully support wearing them and believe the science around how helpful they are in protecting me and others around me from the spread of the coronavirus – cover us up. Make us hide our feelings. Like the masks at Halloween, our intentions, our essence, half of our faces, are hidden. They make me feel suspicious of others and the germs they might have. Disconnected. Distanced well beyond the necessary six feet. The gulf between us as Americans only widens with each day, each day filled with record-setting numbers of cases and the continuing count of unnecessary deaths.

I’ve tried distracting myself. Reading books – mostly lots of fantasy and fiction. A few post-apocalyptic novels to remind me things could get worse. Took on a few home improvement projects that mostly pissed me off and kept the house in disarray for weeks at a time. Learned about the types of drains (overflow or not) by buying the wrong ones one too many times. Learned about what kind of sick, twisted hell it is to hunch over a 40-pound edger to sand the areas of the hardwood floors that the belt sander couldn’t reach. The damn thing has to be suspended in the air before it can be started or stopped – a backbreaking maneuver even with perfect technique.

Downloaded TikTok and lost a week of my life I’ll never get back from constantly scrolling for hours and hours on end. The songs from that week play a continuous loop in my head – like “I’m a savage,” or “don’t be suspicious, don’t be suspicious…” or “Bored in the house and I’m in the house bored.” The reading, home improving, hours of endless scrolling never eased my sadness. I became a vegan much to my family’s chagrin especially when I rattle off newly learned facts about the reduced cancer risks I now have with a plant-based diet. But no amount of oat milk, nutritional yeast, avocado-based ice cream or sweet potatoes will save me.

I find myself dreading the winter as I’m afraid it will take away all the goodness we have right now. The ability to work from home on my patio under the shade of the most handsome pine tree I’ve ever seen. The outdoor picnics carefully spaced from friends on patios in backyards. Winter was bearable before only because of the cozy winter celebrations, the intimate concerts at cafes with ice covered windows, indoor shopping malls with miles of walkways, breweries and restaurants – all of which I no longer feel safe at. All places that have lost their luster.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in my journal a list of all my worries – every single one and a few I made up. My therapist calls it catastrophizing. I call it a daily pastime. I took a picture of the page and sent it to my team of powerful women who I text every day – my mom, two of my aunts and my grandma – and I dared them to help me solve for this list of worries all posed as questions. About 30 minutes later, my aunt responded with a picture of her own – her beautiful loopy cursive handwriting on a page in her journal that changed the questions into new questions. I had expected to receive answers from them. My mind didn’t know how to compute what I was reading on her page. “What if I lose my job” turned in to “What if I have a fulfilling and rewarding career that I love?” It was like magic reading question after question and how each one was transformed. There was one question that burned my eyes with many tears as I wrote it down; it burns itself into everything I do lately. It’s a question I think about all the time: “What if someone else I love dies?” My aunt transformed that question into “What if I have many more moments and memories with the people I love before we go?” Her loopy cursive unlocked something for me, giving me a tremendous gift of perspective that I’ll never forget.

This weekend, I went backpacking on the northern shore of Lake Superior. 24 miles. 11 blisters to boot. Nothing humbles me more than backpacking. At one lake on the trail, my partner pointed out a tree growing next to the water’s edge with its roots sprawled out above the soil over top of the rocks weaving in and out of each other. Its roots exposed, vulnerable to everything that exists above. I remember wondering: How much taller would this tree be without all these rocks impeding its ability to grow? Leave it up to me, of course, I would ask this question to myself. I’m always focused on over-achieving, getting farther, pushing myself, trying to get to the top. But now, I remember my first round of questions might not be the questions I should answer. A better question might be: Isn’t it miraculous that this tree is alive and living next to this pristine lake in the wilderness adapting to the world around it? Miraculous we are indeed.

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