There are days I find myself yearning to have a conversation with the one person I could count on to offer comfort, wisdom, introspection and perspective — the love of my life, my late husband, Skip. He’s been gone for over 18 years and yet I can almost feel his hand slipping into mine, his long legs falling into lockstep with my own gait. I just want to look in those blue eyes and ask him my most pressing questions. I miss his ability to offer a safe space for complicated feelings. I miss his calming wisdom.
If you ever met my gregarious Skip, you would not have guessed that he had experienced a lot of heartache in his life. He was effervescent. His blue eyes would sparkle like that of a small boy about to stick his hand in the cookie jar. He used his voice like an instrument — tone and inflection combined with a few, but meaningful words could soothe and comfort, or stop you in your tracks. He would wink and smile at me as he offered “if you want someone’s attention, just whisper.“
Since I cannot have anything more than a one-sided conversation with him now, I looked for some comfort and insight from the letters he wrote to me all throughout our years together.
Before I opened my treasured scrapbooks of his cards and letters, I reflected on recent conversations with friends who are awash in their own sea of mixed emotions and ongoing uncertainty. We are arriving at a place where we no longer have a lot of resistance to opening up and sharing our vulnerabilities. Perhaps the toll that this past year has taken on us has freed us to “let go” of our armor and just share the raw truth of our stories. The more I hear of others’ stories, the stronger the bond of our friendship has grown. Empathy and compassion become the emotional glue we need.
It dawned on me that this was the very reason Skip and I had the deepest, most trust-worthy relationship I had ever known — our shared respect for each other’s life stories and the inherent vulnerabilities imbedded in them. His handwritten letters to me are revealing the secrets and wisdom of a whole-hearted man who overcame his own trials and heartbreaks to become a role model and mentor for so many.
Many years ago, I came to trust the instinct to randomly open a book and read only the page that revealed itself to me. And so it was, that I opened my scrapbook to page 2 of a letter that Skip had written to me about a year into our relationship.
He wrote about how surprised he was to discover that I was a source of encouragement and strength to him. Though he treasured this, he was confused by it. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he writes. “I am supposed to be stoic, not moved by sentiment.” He went on to share that he had usually worked out his own situations. “Despite my outward and buoyant personality believe me, beneath that veneer lies a man that has been hurt — often. You have allowed me openings to talk to you–and you have listened.”
I could not read another paragraph. I just sat with those written words, speaking directly to my heart, almost as though he were sitting beside me.
Please know that when I began writing this post, I was describing my effervescent Skip from my personal experience with him. I had not read this letter written to me over 20 years ago in a very long time. And yet, here was the confirmation in his own words. He chose an armor of “outward, buoyant personality” to hide his hurt and vulnerabilities. Skip was the kindest, most generous and encouraging human being I have ever known. Over our years together, I came to know that he was always giving to others what he himself needed the most.
What I did not consciously know so many years ago is the transformational power of owning our stories. Skip and I built our incredible relationship on a foundation of the truth of our life stories. Both of us had a lot of baggage and trauma from childhood on into adulthood. We had reached a point in our lives where we were bone weary from protecting ourselves from being hurt — again. So we spilled our broken parts out to each other and found that by being so vulnerable and real, we did not push each other away – but actually pulled each other closer. In fact, we often acknowledged it by saying to each other “two broken halves made a hell of a whole”.
Skip’s written words are resonating with me on deeper levels now. In part, it is due to conversations I’ve been having with friends about helping the men in their life (big and little) uncork their emotions and talk about their own life stories. For far too long, society has encouraged men to “tough it out” and “man up”. That was the stoic environment that Skip was raised in — both at home and in boarding school. But regardless of gender, this is unhealthy and often leads to over-reacting or numbing when emotions are suppressed for far too long. It blocks vulnerability and it blocks empathy — and both are cornerstones of trust.
The most revelational aspect about sharing our stories is the much-needed release from bottled up emotions and hurt. It lightens our emotional load, unpacks the baggage and frees up a lot of space in our life. I saw this in Skip and I know it to be true for me personally. We are no longer tethered to the past and old narratives.
What I have been observing over the recent weeks, is how many people can no longer carry their heavy loads of emotional baggage. I’ve witnessed it first hand in my book club and with my closest of friends. The safer we feel with each other, the more likely that our resistance will crumble and we are bound to open up. It has been much needed relief and an entry point for deeper connection.
And this brings me to the compelling advice that Brene Brown has been teaching to us for years. Trust is paramount when sharing our most personal stories:
“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.” – Brene Brown
Over this past year, I have been fortunate enough to witness the release of pain and healing transformation that unfolds when we hold space for others to tell their stories, with courage to share their vulnerabilities. Sharing the broken parts of ourselves with someone we trust — and feeling safe, feeling heard and free of judgment is the best gift we can offer to another in need.
Looking back to the beginning of my relationship with Skip, I remember being so afraid to “trust” again. My trust in others had been broken so many times that I was leary to believe that it was real and solid. In fact I told him point blank that love was easy but trust was hard. So the day I told him that I trusted him was pure gold to him.
I think anyone who knew Skip would agree that he was a charismatic, emotionally aware, vulnerable yet incredibly strong, trustworthy man. There is no doubt in my mind that it was his ability to tap into his own narrative and find the common ground with others that created that deep vein of empathy in his heart.