Over the last year, really two, I’ve been wrestling with a lot. I’ve been to counseling, read countless books, talked with trusted friends, and delved into my faith. Through it all, I’ve worked to not only address the accident and Rylie’s death, but I’ve also been digging into other aspects of my life that have shaped me into the person that I am.
One thing I’m realizing is that I don’t have to earn love or attention. I am worthy of it, just the way I am. As I look at those words on paper, I know them to be true, but I also find them hard to believe. I can’t honestly say why I would have believed otherwise, but my soul searching has proven that I have - for a long time. It seems that for as long as I can remember, I have equated my performance with how much love or attention I am worth.
I am someone who always has to be busy. I find it very hard to just sit and be still. I’m realizing that there’s a lot underlying this need for busyness and much of it is tied to using busyness to hide from challenging emotions / feelings. But I also know that I see being busy as being productive and contributing to the world around me.
Generally the only time I’m sitting still is when I’m at my computer (and then my fingers and brain are busy), or I’m reading a book.
Growing up, I read voraciously. I could always be found tucked away in a corner, or up in a tree reading. It was my happy place. I could visit worlds without leaving the comfort of my home. I could transform into people that inspired me. I could learn new things. My book friends were consistent. It didn’t matter if we’d moved to a new state, or if I was dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up, they were always there. I spent a lot of time in the land of story.
As I’ve gotten older, my love for reading is still strong, but I don’t do it nearly as much. It’s rare for me to leave the house without a book in my car or bag, but it’s also almost equally rare for me to actually read it.
It’s ridiculous really, but somewhere in my brain, I feel (although I’m moving in the direction of felt) that if I was working on my computer, I was at least “doing” something productive. In that same place in my brain, I feel that sitting on the couch and reading a book, regardless of the content, was too much of a luxury. It feels like something that should just be squeezed into awkward pockets of time (hence the book that’s always with me). Somewhere along the line, reading transformed into something that I needed to earn.
If I could hold up certain accomplishments, then I earned the right to just sit and relax. If I’d completed all the items on my to do list, then I could justify being swept away. The only problem is that the accomplishment list and checkboxes never seem to end, or I’m just too tired by the time they do.
I’m not sure how / why that transformation happened, but it did. Over the years, I became driven by this need to perform, to earn, to show that I am worthy. I am just now realizing how destructive this belief has been.
I am trying to retrain my brain, my being, to know and really believe that I am worthy. I don’t have to earn the right to read a book. I don’t have to earn time to relax on the couch and watch a movie. I don’t have to work out extra hard to earn the chocolate chip cookie.
Clearly, all of this has to be done in moderation and there is some element of ‘earning one’s keep,’ but it is definitely not an all or nothing equation.
I envision this need to earn things as a cape with badges (almost like Girl Scout badges). I am realizing, in just about every part of my life, I feel the need to wear this cape and wear it proudly flowing off my shoulders. As I’ve thought about it more, I realize that pride and performance are part of it all - I’ve worked hard for all those badges and have a right to be proud, but I also find myself clutching that cape tightly around my neck.
I’ve begun to wonder what would happen if I let that cape go. What would be left standing underneath?
In a way, my cape has been my suit of armor. I see it as what makes me worthy. I use it as a way to ‘prove’ that I’ve earned ‘fill in the blank’. It is also what has kept me from letting people see what I am underneath it all.
In many ways, underneath that cape, I am hiding a scared little girl. One who is afraid to admit if she hasn’t done something productive. One that is afraid to admit that she doesn’t have it all under control. One that is afraid to show how heavy that cape, with all those badges has become, and how hard it is to hold it up.
So I’ve been working to loosen my grip on the cape. I’m still terrified to let it go… I’m not sure if I’ll like the person that’s left underneath it, much less if anyone else will. But I also realize that if I don’t loosen the grip and let it go, I will be crushed beneath its weight.
There are some days when it’s easier to undo the clasp of my cape and let it flap in the wind. There are other days when I get scared and I revert to holding it so tightly that nothing could get it away. But I also realize that it is a process.
I know, that the more that I can loosen the grip and realize that the world hasn’t fallen apart, that I can read the book, or watch the show, or just sit still - the easier it will become.
I may not be able to fully let go of the cape yet, but I’m getting better about not trying to earn the badges at least. Each morning, often several times a day, I try to find ways to remind myself that I am more than what I do or how I perform.
I don’t think this is just a me thing; I think it’s part of how we’re built, but it seems that certain memories kind of ebb and flow through life. Some memories are forever prominent and can be recalled on demand, but others seem to lurk in the corners of my mind almost like the dog hair in the corners of the house or under the chairs. Much like the dog hair is stirred out of the corners with a swift breeze, these memories surface with the just the right triggers. Sometimes it’s a smell, a song, or a food. Somehow it always seems connected to one of my senses.
The other day it was both a song and muscle memory. Sure certain songs can take me back to middle school and the first romantic slow dance, while others make me think of a dance party in the living room to stave off boredom, still others bring back memories of adventure like skydiving at 18. The ABCs, however, was not a song I’d expected to spark a memory. Yet it did.
Tanner and I were going through the night time routine and somehow sign language came up. Years ago, I taught both kids the ABCs in sign language. It was one of those things that would entertain us on car rides or while waiting at a restaurant. It kept us sane and I figured it was good for the brain and dexterity. As the kids got older and we began to spell our names, it became even more entertaining - consider all the letters in our last name!
So as we chatted, both Tanner and I fell into old habits and started to form letters with our fingers. Tanner was a little rusty and he started at the beginning trying to shake out the cobwebs and remember how each letter was formed. He went slowly at first, looking to me for approval or hints. We both laughed at how we think the signs for r and x should be switched because their forms more closely resemble the opposite letter.
After he’d conquered each letter, we looked at each other and began signing and singing the ABCs. The muscle memory required to form the letters and the tune of the song became like the breeze and memories began surfacing. The further we got in the alphabet, the more our voices cracked, the more our eyes welled with tears. By the end we just leaned into each other and hugged letting the tears flow freely.
It was one of those moments that neither of us expected, but the memories of doing that exact thing with Rylie hit us both.
I wanted to ask him what was going through his mind, partially because I’m curious what these moments of grief are like in his head, but in all honesty, it would have been a welcome distraction from the emotions that were welling within me. Since I’ve been making an effort to sit in emotions when they come up instead of tamping them down, covering them up, or distracting myself, I sat there quietly. I just sat there (probably not as long as I should have, but certainly longer than normal) and let the memory wash over me.
For a brief moment, I could picture sitting with both a six year old Rylie and four year old Tanner helping them make the strange shapes with their chubby little fingers. I caught a glimpse of sitting at a table in a restaurant waiting for our food and having finger-spelling races for our last name. That one was always complete with giggles as our Gs and Us almost always got mixed up!
Then I sat there for a moment and just felt her absence. It was a VERY brief moment because for a girl who struggles with emotions, that’s a tough one. That’s the one I really want to cover up with conversation, awkward laughter, or sudden busyness.
But I could hear a few important people in my life ask, “What would it look like to just feel that absence? What’s the worst that could happen?” So I sat, leaned into Tanner and tried to honor the emotions we were both feeling.
I haven’t gotten to the point, that I sit in it long enough to really know what the “worst” is, but I’m making progress. A millisecond is better than no seconds, right?
After my brief dance with that loneliness and vulnerability, I whispered to Tanner, “I miss her so much.” He whispered back a muffled, “me too.” We leaned in a little closer.
I should have stayed in that place and let myself feel a little more, but I didn’t and I think that’s okay. It’s all part of the process.
Instead, I distracted myself with the mind boggling way that our memories work. It has to be our mind’s unique way of storing all the memories we make everyday since we can’t possibly keep them all front and center. I am so grateful that my senses can be like the breeze that stirs the dog hair from under the couches, and unearth those memories that seem long forgotten. Not only is it efficient, but it’s a relief to know that I’ll get another opportunity, when I least expect it, to practice sitting in an emotion.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working on me. Learning about me. Growing me. Shaping me. Liking me. Hating me. Challenging me. Testing me.
In many ways, it feels very self-centered. Just look at how many times I wrote ‘me’ in that last paragraph! What I’m really starting to figure out though is that it’s not as self-centered as it sounds. By focusing on me, I’m giving those around me a better version of myself than they had before.
Even though I know that to be true, I often find myself making comparisons. Not to where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but instead to all of the people that I see reflected around me. I look out in the world and it’s so easy to see all the things I think I should be, instead of all of the things that I already am.
As a person who has always had ridiculously high, and often unrealistic, expectations of herself and one that has always felt that I need to earn everything, I’m wrestling with a new idea. What would it look like to lower my expectations, but still hold the bar high?
I know, how can I both lower something and hold it high?!? Hence, the wrestling.
Here’s the thing though. What if lowering ones expectations isn’t really about lowering them, but recalibrating? What if the idea of lowering an expectation is actually about lessening the amount of expectations one puts on oneself?
On any given day, I have a zillion expectations of myself.
But here’s what I’m realizing. This list is not realistic (especially given that it’s a fraction of the list and a lot of the embarrassing ones didn’t make the cut).
I am forced to remind myself, every day, multiple times a day, that I am not superwoman. I cannot be all things to all people, myself included. When I try to do that, I spread myself too thin and am no good to anyone.
So here’s my theory. What if I look at my expectations differently? What if I focus on just a few (like one or two)? What if I zero in on those and give it my very best? Raise the bar on just those few things and let the others go?
Although, it’s a concept I’ve been wrestling for a while, it really hit me the other day. I have a cousin that’s just a year older than me. We haven’t seen each other in forever - literally forever. I think we were probably eight or nine last time we saw each other. We used to get together in the summer for a week. She’d come to me or I’d go to her. It was a big deal. Then, for some reason, it stopped. We drifted apart.
After Rylie died, she reached out and reconnected via Facebook. She continued to reach out. Every so often, I get a card in the mail - yep, old school mail - and it makes me giddy like a kid at Christmas. Her beautiful handwriting adorns the envelope and I open an adorable card to find a heartfelt note inside. It usually reminds me that she’s thinking of me. It often references something one of us has posted and how crazy similar we are, even after all these years.
Every time I get one of her cards, I think, “Man, I should be better about this!” I add another expectation to my long list. I should send her a card. I should send cards like this to people that I don’t connect with often enough, but to whom I feel a deep connection. I hang the envelope up on my board as a reminder to do just that. Then guess what… I rarely, if ever do.
I have another friend that is gifted with the ability to make people feel special and remembered. She’s one of those people who sees something she know someone will like. She picks it up, stores it (and somehow doesn’t forget where), then wraps it up with a million other little reminders and presents them on a birthday, a special day, or just a Tuesday because that’s what she does.
In both of these situations, I wish I could do those things. I aspire to be thoughtful and intentional in the same ways. I set an expectation of myself to do the same things. Nearly every time, I fail to execute.
What I’m starting to realize is that maybe I’m setting the wrong expectations. It’s not that I can’t be thoughtful or intentional, but perhaps my thoughtfulness or intentionality should manifest differently. Or maybe I just should focus my energies elsewhere.
As a society, I think we have a habit of looking around at what others are doing and trying to be just like them, or better. What a boring world that would become! If everyone was good at sending out heartfelt notes in cute cards or building the perfect gift for others, then those moments wouldn’t be special. They wouldn’t stand out.
I don’t want to be part of diluting the world, I want to be part of enriching it. I’m realizing that instead of trying to be the best at sending out cards or creating the perfect gift, I can honor the talents of those around me. I can recognize the value they bring to my life.
Then I can lower the number of expectations that I have of myself. I can refocus my energy on a few areas that make me giddy with excitement, that play to my personality and strengths, but also challenge me to grow a bit. I can raise the bar on execution in those areas.
So rather than a list a zillion miles long, I hope to adjust my expectations lowering the number of competing priorities. I’ll have a few things that I really want to be accountable to and for and I will do them really well. For all the other things, I aim to recognize those that do them better than me. To validate their gifts and efforts, maybe even be inspired by them. I will also, recognize that in order to be the best version of myself, I don’t have to be the best version of everyone else.
Like all of us, Rylie was unique. She had her own way of doing certain things and her own approach to making herself known. While I’d say that she was more about bringing others up, than being in the spotlight, one of the things I loved most about Rylie is the subtle little ways she would show up.
In a way, she kind of reminds me of the little leprechauns that she and Tanner used to trap. You know the little leprechauns that show up mysteriously on St. Patrick’s Day leaving green footprints on the floor, or green ‘poop’ in the toilets? One could never really catch those sneaky little leprechauns, but they would leave their mark behind in some little leprechaun sized way.
Rylie was a lot like that. It was not uncommon to find that she’d written her name on something random, or drawn on a container. Like the leprechauns, she was never caught in the act, but there were always little reminders that she’d been there and left her mark.
Sometimes her marks were intentional like when I noticed an “R” scratched on the handle of her side of the car and a “T” on Tanner’s handle… Or the lipstick imprint that is on the wall in her room. That was her way.
Other times, the marks were just an afterthought, a result of her being in a room, making a concoction, or trying a pinterest project. Kind of like the mystery item that’s melted on the carpet in her room. I’m still not sure if it’s crayon, candle or some sort of creation she made from a variety of substances.
One of my favorite Rylie “stamps” is Harry. I’m not sure when Harry happened, but at some point Rylie sketched a little face on the top of the large container of salt in our spice cabinet. Perhaps it was while she was baking a treat for us, or preparing a surprise meal. Perhaps it happened while she was leaning on the island talking to one of us as we prepared dinner. I really don’t remember.
Likely, I found it annoying at the time. I can almost hear myself saying something snarky like, “Really Rylie, you couldn’t doodle on a piece of paper?” or “Come on… I need to add salt to this recipe and now I have to wait for you to finish your doodle!”
It surely wouldn’t have been one of my finest parenting moments, but it’s also very much a reality. I’d say I probably have more parenting moments like that where something less than supportive, kind, or understanding bursts out of my mouth than moments where I’m championing my child(ren) or encouraging them.
Needless to say sometime in the last year and half, when the salt ran out, I was paralyzed. I know it’s just a 59 cent container of salt, but I couldn’t throw Harry away. Not after Rylie died and I knew that no more Harrys would magically appear.
So I kept it and bought another container. Then I had to do this weird shuffling routine, putting Harry in the cabinet along with his nameless and faceless counterpart. At one point, I told myself I should throw Harry away. I mean, really, it makes zero sense to take up space in an already crowded spice cabinet for an empty salt container, and it’s not like I could proudly display Harry in our cabinet of artwork either. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then a brilliant friend suggested that I simply pour the new salt into Harry.
So I’ve done that - a few times over. I have kept Harry around as a reminder - especially in those weird bewitching moments around dinner time. You know those times, when the worst version of yourself comes out? For me, I’m even quicker to judge, quicker to yell, and just generally feel frazzled.
Now when I reach for the salt, I see silly Harry staring back and me and I’m reminded that Rylie was there.
She stood in that kitchen with me countless times.
She made a giant mess of that kitchen countless times.
I was irritable with her for interrupting when I was measuring or reading a recipe, more times than I care to remember.
I was annoyed that I had to come in behind her and clean up after she’d made a giant mess, more times than I care to remember.
I was quick to forget that the giant mess came from a delicious meal that she’d created out of love, more times than I care to remember.
I use Harry as a visual cue to remember that the ones we love may not always be around, in more ways than one. I try to use Harry as a reminder to pause and find perspective.
Yes, it was annoying to be interrupted in the middle of a recipe and lose my place. But, that meant that Rylie was there. It meant that she might have been telling me a story, or asking for help. If I’m honest, it also more likely meant I’d called her down to lecture her on her grades, the condition of her room, or something equally silly. Oh, but what I would give to have that interruption. To have her pick on me because I follow a recipe to a T, while she would just add a little of this and a little of that and somehow have it turn out.
Yes, it was frustrating to have worked all day and have to come home and clean up after someone who was more than capable of cleaning up after herself. But that meant that I didn’t have to cook and clean. It meant that Rylie was loving us using one of her beautiful gifts. Oh, what I would give to have to clean up the kitchen after a Rylie meal.
Aside from Harry reminding me to treasure moments, even the frustrating ones, I use him as a reminder to pause and adjust my attitude. Why is it that I find it so easy to hurt the ones that I love the most? I know there were lots of times where that bewitching hour was a result of personal frustrations, disappointments or challenges, yet I’d lash out at the kids or Ziggy. So I try to look at Harry’s goofy face and remember that love is the language we are meant to speak.
Rylie spoke love more openly than I ever did. Harry is her way of reminding me to speak love to others, and myself. It’s her stamp. Her reminder that she’s still with me - still teasing me about my cooking skills or lack thereof. Still encouraging me to learn and grow with each passing day.
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.