It’s my first letter to you, dear heart and I feel some pressure to get this right because “first impressions..” and all that. The story of the red balloons in a cemetery seems like the right place to start.
My dad died seven years ago. I hate to just put it out there like that, but there you have it. My dad was an extraordinary man and we had a relationship unlike any father-daughter duo I’d ever known. It was safe, rooted, playful, close. That relationship was a place of becoming, arms that were always only open to me. It was the truest home I had known for most of my life.
He was all here, then one day he was all gone. I still shake my head at the moment when spirit and breath left his body, when Kent became Kent’s shell. My dad gave his last days on this planet to cancer, but not in a “suffering patient” kind of way. He gave his last days to finding wholehearted purpose and grace in his cancer. His pain became a pathway to supernatural joy, love, reconciliation. In his absence he was determined to leave a mark of his wild joy behind. He left wishes and songs, conversations and tears. He left intangibles that still follow me around and a stack of five identical black journals chronicling his last year on earth.
I won’t get far into it now, but the last day was so hard. If you’ve lived through a similar one, you know, I don’t have to explain it. I was there, husband was there, my beloved mom (“mops”) was there. I’m thankful for that, that he went out being held and sung over. After he had exhaled long and slow, after the undertakers took his body from the house, after the first wave of mourning hit, the doorbell rang.
Two of my dad’s friends waited at the door with tear-filled eyes and arms filled with kites. Kites? After condolences and wiping their cheeks, they explained, “..Your dad asked us to do him a favor and deliver these kites to y’all on the day he died. He asked you to take the boys and visit the cemetery each year on the anniversary, to fly these kites and remember him with a lot of laughs and good memories. He didn’t want you to be sad when you went to visit him.” We wept and hugged these strangers, then we accepted the most colorful grace gift on the darkest day.
We fly kites every year, but this year it got a little hairy and the kite was dismembered. Zion, five years old, decided to use one of the cross-pieces as a sword. As is the case with many items in the hands of Zion, the crucial piece was lost forever. Being the type A. planners that we are (lie) we had breakfast the morning of the anniversary, loaded everyone up, and only then did we discover the unusable kite.
Earlier that morning I woke up and read from my dad’s last journal and stumbled on an entry I don’t remember reading before. He had been writing about hope – the hope of death to life, grave to resurrection, and he wrote a poem. I had never known this side of my dad, but there it was, “I want to sing, I want to dance, I want to send up a sky full of red balloons…”
“That does it.” We drove to the party store and bought as many red balloons as would possibly fit in the minivan. We took the long country highway to the cemetery and I felt my heart sink deep as we got close. The morbidity creeps up on me every time. We pulled up to the spot that gets us closest to his grave, to the rows of pristine military headstones, and the blue sky turned cloudy. In an instant, the clouds opened up and rain poured down hard on the windshield. But we were there, we had a standing invitation, we had the red balloons. I had never missed a date with my dad and I wasn’t about to miss this one.
“Take off your shoes, brothers. We’re going out there.”
We piled out of the shitty van we drive in order to not have a car payment and ran over rows of death, laughing through our tears. The salt water mixed with rain on my cheeks as I stood over the cracked dirt covering my dad’s shell. I thanked him and Jesus for being in cahoots once again, for giving us yet another intangible gift of grace.
Grace. Lately, it’s what I think about the most.. It’s becoming my new haven and home, my place of becoming, the arms that are always, only open to me . . and to you.
So much love to you today, fellow grave-runner.
Ash! Oh, wow. I can’t tell if it’s hormones or not, but this brought me to tears. There’s something about this– it’s raw (not like “raw” #authentic) in the kind of way that stares the guts of life and the reality of grace in the face and holds them both. Thank you for your words, your honesty, your perspective. The way you carry grace is oh-so-refreshing. Happy Saturday!
First of all, hormones.. haha. Been there, done that. But Dear heart.. thank you for these words and for letting yourself be brought to tears, hormones or not. Geez, you’re right.. it’s raw and sharing words like this feels gutsy to me. But I have to believe I’m not alone in it.. That we are all in such need of guts and reality and grace in our messes. I’m so glad you found it refreshing, and I hope you write your own letter back to me sometime. I’d love to hear where grace is intersecting your mess and your story. with love..
You just popped up in my Instagram feed this afternoon and this is the first letter I have read yet. This is such a beautiful, heartbreaking, happy story. Thank you for sharing, I can’t wait to dig deeper and read more of your lovely words. Shedding tears and sending love from Nova Scotia, Canada.
Dear heart amanda,
Oh thank you so very much for sharing, for writing me in response to this letter and for shedding tears over the story. Life can be so tiring and overwhelmingly sad, and yet there are these moments – moments like this where I get to share my experience being human with you and find I”m not alone and my experience fits somehow with yours. it’s lovely and it’s the best kind of life’s work. write me a letter of your own sometime. I would love to hear how grace might be intersecting with your story, too. so much love, you Canada-dwelling angel!! xx ash
This is the first piece of your heart that I’ve read. Ordinarily, I’d devoir the writing of someone who could touch my heart so swiftly and deeply, but something about this story tells me your words are meant to be taken in slowly. With time to breathe in between. Like when you come to the end of a chapter that hits you just so and feel a need to hold the page and take a few moments of space before resuming.
I’ve wondered for a long time if there’s a word for the aching, poignant feeling of pain and meaning, tenderness and beauty all rolled into one. And while the definition doesn’t state anything along those lines, I’m beginning to think it has something to do with grace.
Thank you so much for this.
piece of my heart.. what a true way to put it. That’s exactly what it feels like going onto the page.. putting a line into the vein and slowly transferring (what I’m brave enough to) part of myself. Thank you for your response to it. Honestly, what you described in the idea of savoring is exactly what I do with my favorite authors. I hoard chapters and endings until I know it’s time. I think the act of slowing down is a sacred and holy practice.. monks are onto something, and I’m honored that you’re approaching these words with slowness. Thank you for honoring me with your presence and your words.
And what you said.. your wondering if grace has something to do with the unknown word for the ache, for meaning and beauty, etc.. oh how lovely and what a good question. thank you times a million. Can you tell me, what do you think the word could be? and what is your experience with grace, dear heart?
Oh my goodness, Ash! This is so touching & beautiful. I lost my Dad also & similarly felt a strong & unique connection with him that left a gigantic hole in my heart when I lost him. This gave me so much hope & a fresh perspective, even years after having lost him. I wish you all the love & smiling in the world! <3 xx
Hello dear Shannon,
First off, welcome to the club.. the dead dad’s club. No one should have to be in it, none of us signed up for it, but we’re here so we might as well take care of each other. There’s something about this club that you just can’t understand until you’ve been there, felt that loss, ached in your gut and cried yourself to sleep hoping the tears would fill the giant hole. I’m so sorry for your loss. That’s what we are supposed to say, but it really is sometimes the best we can offer each other. I. am. so. sorry. for. your. loss. I’m sorry your dad died. I’m sorry the deepest, biggest tree in your life got cut down. It sucks and it still surprises me sometimes how much it sucks. But you aren’t alone. Tell me, if you feel like it.. how do you navigate the loss these days? how long has it been? thanks for sharing your loss with me.
Ash this first letter is incredibly moving and all at once inspiring. I hope that our daughter feels the way you say about how you felt about your father…”It was the truest home I had known for most of my life”, about her father, my husband. She’s only a year and half but this give me so much hope during a time when i feel like everyday I’m doing it not right and she’s not getting the very best parent I can be.
I’m so so sorry about your loss, but I hope that we can help to shape a person as open, honest, and gifted as you. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to read more.
Hello dear Baltina,
Oh thank you so much for your sweet words of love and kindness over this letter. My goodness, yes, I hope my sons can say the same thing about their dad and I someday.. arms that are the truest home.. although sometimes I worry that my boys will say, “they guaranteed we’d need therapy.” lol. I say that only half-serious. ;) I’m so glad that this gave you hope, though. truly, it’s a beautiful thing when we can let grace parent our children. I have to accept that I’ve made countless mistakes along the way, that my husband has too. But so did my dad. And what I remember is his deep and wide love for me. Your daughter is getting the exact parent she needs right now. Maybe you don’t feel like it, but you are co-parenting with grace. Grace is that invisible force in the room that brings her joy and laughter when you can’t, the force that holds her when she sleeps in the middle of the night, the butterfly she notices at the park when no one else is looking. Grace is parenting our little ones right alongside us. And hopefully, grace is the thing they remember most from these years. That and a lot of hugs and “I love you”‘s. keep resting in grace and giving her what you can. It’s the best any parent can do.
and thank you for your sorrow over my loss. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s been a birthplace of truer, richer life for me. Write me a letter sometime.. I’d love to hear the ways parenting sucks, the things you love about it, the places you feel your need for grace.
It’s almost 1am, I should be studying for finals, and I’m reading this and crying and feeling FULL. Thank you for baring and sharing your heart–your words matter so much to this healing, searching, and procrastinating Texan.
Finals, shminals! Just kidding.. finals are kind of important, haha. I’m so thankful, though, that at 1am you found my words. I think something magic hovers in the air at 1am.. that land where we should be sleeping . there’s an extra availability to be vulnerable and be moved. We should all write and have conversations about life and it’s realness at 1am. Thank you for sharing that they touched you.. especially procrastinating with me. :) I want to hear from you.. write me your own letter.. tell me what a procrastinating Texan thinks about grace.. where are you finding it these days? write back at 1am exactly and let the honesty flow… or just whenever. xo
Thank you so much for this. I’ve been trying to relearn what grace actually means, and your words give me so much hope! Sending love and gratefulness your way.
thank you so much for your response, and for reading the letter. “I’ve been trying to relearn what grace actually means” geez. that’s the truth about all of us, I think, if we’re dead honest. It’s like a language we know fluently at birth but somehow life beats the snot out of us and shit happens and we find ourselves getting older and forgetting how to speak the language of grace. I am so grateful my words gave you hope, and even more, I would love to hear from you on this.. can you tell me where you think you lost the grace dialect? what do you think the pathway might be to relearning it, to becoming fluent again?
so thankful for your honesty,
This is such a poetic piece that brings me straight to tears. I lost my dad 7 years ago as well, one moment we were chatting on the phone that morning and by that night he was gone in an accident.
U said it best when you say welcome to the club that nobody wants to join- thru the hurt & everything, I am grateful for the people that surround me thru the good & hard moments. Thanks for writing this- I am so sorry for your loss.
oh dear brave hurting soul. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry your dad died and I’m so sorry you had no warning, no time, no way to drink him in and ask him all those last questions we need to go through life with peace when someone dies. I’m so sorry I hear your words “one moment we were chatting on the phone that morning and by that night he was gone in an accident.” it wrecks me. My loss of my dad has been felt so deeply, but it was not a surprise. although you can never be prepared for death, we got to say our goodbyes in a way. I’m sorry you didn’t have that same level of closure. I have good friends who have experienced the same open ended surprise goodbye with the loss of their parents, and it’s just the worst thing. it’s the cruelest joke life can play..
but then.. grace. Grace shows up at our doorstep in the form of friends and good people, in the form of kites or frozen dinners or someone to take us out to coffee or simply tell us “I am sorry for your loss.” Grace showed up here for me with your kind and empathetic words, with another member of “the club” linking arms to say that I’m not alone. You’re not alone either. write me anytime.
[…] We remembered Ashley’s father on the anniversary of his death – graveside – under a driving rain storm. Go here to read more. […]
Dear Ash, I saw your Instagram feed through Emily Anderson, who I went to Spain with in our long ago college days. Oh how I love that girl. And oh how I loved your parents. I worked with sweet Kent and Elizabeth for 3 years right after college. I even met you once extremely briefly when you came to the office for a visit. That time in my life seems so long ago. A time of working side by side with men and women who had faith so big it filled the building and squeezed right out of the windows to mix with the fresh mountain air. Your dad’s joy and absolute expectant belief in Jesus was unlike any faith I had seen. I’m sad to think of him gone from this Earth, but thank you for sharing a bit about his last year and your celebration of his life and heart with red balloons. I’ve lost that faith I once had. Maybe it’s not completely lost, but it seems to be hiding, elusive, confusing. Buried somewhere under anger at hypocrisy and Injustice, deep beneath doubt and fear. Stumbling upon your feed, clicking your link, reading about your dad, though, has certainly stirred up some long forgotten wisps of something in my soul, and brought back such sweet memories of those short years shared with a group of kind, warm, sure people. Thank you so much for sharing.
this is incredible. I can’t put to words in this moment what this means to me, and what a joy it is to hear from someone who knew my dad in a separate sphere. It’s such a gift. I’ll be sitting down to write you an email soon. Thank you for these words and for sharing a bit of your experience and self here with me.
Beautiful, Ash. Crying at 5am reading your story, because I can’t fall back asleep after waking up to feed my baby. I just found out that you are back on IG and found this page. When you think something is important and worthwhile (photography, waytogogals health thing, giving up social media, podcasting, and now this) you always give it 110% – I admire that.
This means so much to me. I remember those 5am feedings and I remember those quiet hours often led me to some sweet and important places.. I am so honored that your early morning led you to me and to my words. Thank you for your kindness, for your generous words. And so much grace and kindness to you today..