My Uncle Jimmy died on Saturday.
I found out about it on Sunday morning while roaming through a random Target in the middle of Greensboro, North Carolina. I was trying on shoes I didn’t need when the call came through. My mother told me they were taking the ferry to Long Island the next day. One shoe was on. One shoe was off. Looking like Cinderella in a maxi dress with combat boots, I found out he was gone.
That’s the weird thing about losing someone— you expect everyone around you to stop what they’re doing. You expect them to get it. You expect them to put down the shoeboxes and stop surveying the hairspray that give the most volume. You just expect everyone to be still for a few minutes. That’d be nice.
And it would also be nice to walk up to the cashier, the one with the bright red shirt, and say to her, “You get it, right?” It would be nice for her to nod her head and then you’d get to tell her that your favorite memory with Uncle Jimmy happened when you were a sophomore in college. Twenty years old. You were so taken at the time by a boy who read you Walt Whitman poetry as the rest of the world lay sleeping.
It was America’s birthday. You wore a bedazzled dollar store crown made out of tacky red, white & blue parts. You knew it looked stupid but you didn’t really care because your aunt wore one too. And Uncle Jimmy told you that when he saw his wife for the first time, he knew he would marry her. She probably would have begged to differ— she was younger than him by a few years and hardly even knew he existed. He showed up one day with a dozen yellow roses, anxious to hand them off to her. She looked at them for a second, said thank you, threw the roses on a nearby picnic table and ran off to be with her friends. Still, he knew it was her. She would be his girl one day.
That was your favorite story of Uncle Jimmy’s— how he knew it was time to fight for what he wanted. And it was the first story you ever told yourself on repeat when you needed a reminder that some things in life are worth fighting for.
I’ve wanted to write about fighting for things for a while now.
It’s been sitting restlessly on my to-do list just like that, “Write about fighting for things.” But I didn’t really know what to say. Honestly, I still don’t. Every time I go to type something there is this little whisper that hisses inside my head, saying, “Telling me people to go after what they want is selfish. What if they can’t? What if you are filling people with false hope?”
And so I’ve stayed quiet. And I’ve shut up. And I’ve realized, in the days that have drawn in all around me, that not talking about fighting for things is a lot easier than coming outright and telling someone: hey, there is something I’ve always wanted— a job, a different grace, a crazy dream. I want it so bad it keeps me up at night. Is that selfish of me? Is it okay with the world if I still want it, even if I’ve already told myself no?
That’s often the anchor that pulls me down. It isn’t always others. It isn’t always the circumstances. It’s mostly myself. And spoon-feeding myself with the idea that I am not worthy enough, I am not good enough, I am not smart enough. There is someone out there who always gonna be so much more “enough” than me. That person will be the one to get the things I want.
Even in writing this, I’m afraid of the ways you might be sitting off somewhere thinking to yourself, “but you don’t know the way life has broken my heart.” You’re right. I don’t. And I can’t say that life won’t break your heart a million times more. It probably will. It’s heartbreaking to hear the words “you didn’t get it” and “I’m sorry” and “try again next year.” I get that.
But then why is there still a whisper that speaks against my mess? Why do I still hear something saying, louder & deeper than my hesitations: You’re still standing here. So it isn’t over yet. What you want is worth fighting for. Please don’t miss out on one of the most worthwhile things of this lifetime: the fight. The struggle. The battle for what is most worth it to you.
The first time I wrote about Uncle Jimmy and the yellow roses was in 2010.
Around Valentine’s Day over four years ago. It was about true love. It was terribly bad writing. I thought everything in life was simple and you could tie it all up in some pretty white bow. I sat in the parking lot of Target on Saturday morning and reread the words out loud of that post out loud. And I laughed because I was a completely different human. I probably would have never had the courage to say boldly enough back then: you’re worth fighting for.
But I remember that Uncle Jimmy got a hold of that first piece of writing. And he kept it with him for a long time, a folded up piece of printer paper with my words on it. And he let people read it. And he let strangers and doctors and the cleaning lady know I was out there in the world trying to be a writer. His niece’s daughter— trying to be a writer.
I remember him being really proud of me. And I remember how that feeling— that feeling like someone wanted to claim you because they were just so proud of you— meant everything to me. It kept me fighting to become a writer- a real writer. And he didn’t know it, and I didn’t know it, but two years later I would quit my job for a dream. My safe, secure job. It would happen instantly after months of praying. One day I would be sitting across from a mentor in the industry and I would watch her mouth the words to me, “If you don’t go for this now, while the steam is here, I am afraid you will forget how to go for it at all.”
That would be enough. It would be enough to mobilize me to march into my supervisor’s office that next Monday and quit my job.
And, just as I was ready to announce my six weeks notice, all the power in the entire building would go out. And I would be standing there, wondering if it was a sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be quitting. Friends, I was so terrified. I mean, I was trembling and shaking and thinking all these ugly thoughts in my head: you can’t do this. You can’t possibly make this work. You want to be a writer? Cool. Funny. Awesome. Good luck.
As everyone around me proceeded to pack up their things and leave work for the day at 2pm– thrilled to know half of the tiny town in Connecticut was having an unexpected power outage– I stayed in the doorway of my boss. I told her I had to say something, even in the dark. I could not leave until I said something.
And when it was over, I got into my car and I cried big, thick, “I am so fearful” tears. I remember Florence & the Machine coming on the radio. Just this one line pumping through the speakers: And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back. So shake it off.
In the 30 seconds it took to say out loud– I am leaving this job at the start of July— I did not become a different person. I didn’t become a fearless person. I was still me. I still cared too much. I still fell for strangers. I still misjudged the amount of mexican food I could handle. I still messed up (a lot) and failed (a lot) in the years to come. That was actually the first day of what would turn into a daily battle, a daily fight to live inside of a dream job I wanted for myself. And it would be tears. And sweat. And doubt. And judgement. And Yes. And No. And fighting in the face of maybe not getting what I wanted after all. And having to be okay with that.
But my mind was made up. And I did give up the devil that day in the car. I did decide that I was going to build a life out of words, no matter how crazy that seemed to admit out loud. I had an Uncle Jimmy moment. And I think him and I could agree on this: fighting for what you want won’t always make you a new person. And it won’t guarantee some red carpet or some dream coming true. You won’t always get the job. You won’t get the girl. You might not get picked. But maybe you will. And maybe “winning” or “getting it” or “arriving” has never been the point. Maybe we just came down here to learn how to be relentless, little fighters & good keepers of one another. I don’t know much but I know this: so much of life is worth the fight. You are never wrong to want to fight for the things that make you come alive.