If you read the last post, you know it’s Kelly’s birthday today. A while back, I wrote an essay and made a dance party mix tape in Kelly’s honor and mailed it to some friends. I also wrote a post last week called “It’s okay. Cheer up. You’re perfect.” Some of you had already heard that phrase before, knew where it came from, but some of you didn’t. So, to continue the birthday tribute to Kelly, here’s that essay, followed by the track listing for Kelly’s Dance Mix, so you can have a dance party of your own today.
It’s okay. Cheer up. You’re perfect.
Right after my friend Kelly died (at only 37 years old, what started as a rare breast cancer the doctors told her “hardly ever came back” had instead metastasized to her liver), she started sending me messages in songs. The first was Pink’s song, “Glitter in the Air.” Every time I heard it, I felt her right there telling me “it’s okay, everything’s okay, ” and I knew it was true.
I’d flown to Kentucky to attend her memorial, sad/mad that I hadn’t gone to visit her there sooner, that I’d filled my heart with the hope she wanted us all to have and believed she would get better, believed that there was no other possible outcome, believed that it was okay to wait, that there would be time. I’d already lost my Obi to lymphoma, a treatable but ultimately incurable canine cancer, so that meant Kelly would be okay. That was the deal: I would lose Obi, but not Kelly.
At their house, after the memorial, when I hugged Kelly’s husband Matt again and then watched him move around the various groups of family and friends, I was overwhelmed with a sense that he really would be okay. I was glad to have come, because without seeing him that day, I couldn’t have known for sure. Of course this was horrible, of course he was devastated, we all were, but he was also strong and loved. It would be okay.
And then there was Ari, Kelly’s son, playing baseball in the backyard, whacking the ball and waiting for the cheers and then adding his own. I’d get the ball, put it back on the stand (he wasn’t quite yet two years old, so using a t-ball set), and he’d hit the ball again, the cheers his favorite part.
He walked through the bark dust after the ball once and got stickers in his sandals. He looked at me and said “Dirt?,” leaned down, pulling at his toes, and said it again. “Dirt?” I asked if he wanted me to help him. He sat in the grass and I took off his shoes, dusted off his feet, and as I did, I felt Kelly right there, and Ari gave me this look, part serious and part smile, like he knew she was right there too, and if he could say it, he’d tell me everything was going to be okay. She was okay, he and his dad would be okay, I’d be okay—we’d all be okay. In the midst of this horrible thing we all had to live through, there was this other thing that made it all okay.
And then I talked to Susan, Kelly’s mom, who has such similar energy to Kelly’s you can’t help but feel her right there. She hugged me and we cried. I told her how sorry I was, and she told me something that would both break my heart and heal it, that the last thing Kelly had said to her was “I’m happy.”
I had told Kelly, when the cancer came back and she started chemo and she asked us to visualize events we’d share in the future, that one thing we’d do, when she felt better, would be to have a dance party. It started as an aspiration, but then I thought, “why not?” and started to plan the music.
I’d have to include “I’ve Got a Feelin’” by the Black Eyed Peas. I always thought of her when I heard it, visualized how happy we’d all be when she got the news that her cancer was in remission or gone, although sometimes I cried all the way through it as I tried to sing along.
Another song would be “Say Hey (I Love You)” by Michael Franti & Spearhead. It is happy, joyful, all about the love. This song reminded me of Obi too, the line about how I’ll be gone, but I’ll come back, and the one sure thing being the love between us. At one point in the video for the song, they are dancing in the street, and I focused on the day we’d be doing the same with Kelly.
But, the absolutely impossible happened and Kelly died. The day they sent her home from the hospital, saying there was nothing else they could do, it would only be a matter of days, I spent hours on my knees, pulling the weeds in my neglected front flower bed, my own silent prayer. I had to do something, and this made me feel close to her, her being such an avid gardener. I had to keep myself busy. It felt like I should be doing something more, but there was nothing more to do, nothing that would stop it from happening. And yet, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I couldn’t make sense of it. It had to be a mistake. And two days later, when the phone call came telling me that she was gone, I still couldn’t believe it.
And yet, I went to Kentucky, attended her memorial service, talked with Matt, played with Ari, saw her family and friends, walked around the home she’d made, wondering why she wasn’t there and yet seeing her everywhere, cried and cried. And when I came back home to Colorado, I started hearing that song, “Glitter in the Air” by Pink. I love Pink. She is so strong and funny and brave—she isn’t afraid of who she is, and makes me want to be a better person, just like Kelly. I knew it was probably stupid, superstitious, silly, but I chose to believe that Kelly was telling me something with this song. It was a message directly from her. The song is all about being open to your life, being present, and how completely worth it and wonderful that can be, even as it breaks your heart.
Once, only two weeks after she passed, I was on my way to a hair appointment and the song came on just as I had parked my car. It was a warm, sunny Colorado day, so I’d parked in the shade of some trees. The sky was blue with big white clouds and it was windy. I sat in the car and sobbed. When Pink sang, “you called me Sugar,” a strong gust blew through the open window, pushing me back in my seat, my chest tight and my breath difficult. But as the wind softened, so did I. As Pink sang on, I felt so sure that everything was okay. That’s exactly what Kelly would tell me, was telling me. Not to forget about it or get over it, but that it’s okay, cry and be crazy, but know for sure that you are loved and it’s okay.
After a while, when I wasn’t crying every day about Obi and Kelly, (their cancers had been diagnosed just weeks apart and I’d lost him that same year), but I still was so hurt and sad and numb, Kelly sent another song: “Club Can’t Handle Me” by Flo Rida. That song makes me feel like dancing. Weirdly, my husband was noticing and loving it at the same time, so when it came on, we’d stop what we were doing, say something stupid like “that’s my jam!,” turn up the radio and dance like idiots.
When we found out Obi had cancer, we developed a shared sensitivity to bad news, to serious business. We started switching the radio from the news on NPR to the local Top 40 music station, reading celebrity gossip and comedy blogs instead of the news, and couldn’t watch horror movies anymore. With “Club Can’t Handle Me,” there were times when I was having a bad day and I’d get in the car to go to work, and it would come on the radio, and on the way home from work, it would come on again. The message from Kelly was “cheer up!” It still works every time I hear it, and I imagine her either laughing at my dorky dance moves or joining in.
When Eric and I first realized we both like the song: “I love this song!” “Seriously? Me too! Turn it up!”—I started to dance and Eric looked at me, started to laugh and said “I love you. You’re my favorite.” At Kelly’s memorial, when Matt was up front speaking, he ended by saying to her, “You will always be my favorite.” I hadn’t realized they said that to each other too.
After a few months, I started to worry. As popular as “Club Can’t Handle Me” was, it wouldn’t be on the radio forever, and what if there wasn’t anything after that? What would I do if Kelly stopped sending me messages? I couldn’t stand it if she stopped “talking” to me, if she were just gone.
Then it was the day before my birthday, six months after Kelly had passed and only a month after the sadness of her first birthday gone, and I had been really sick with a bad cold. My birthday the year before had been really hard, Obi had died just nine days before and Eric had to go to Chicago for a conference, so it was just me and Dexter, sad and on our own. I wasn’t looking forward to this year’s birthday either, as it was just reminding me of all that sadness, that feeling of emptiness and loss. Last year all I wanted was my Obi back–so that’d been on my mind a lot that week, and whenever I think about Obi being gone, I automatically think of Kelly too, doubling the sadness.
Pink released a new album two days before my birthday, a greatest hits with a few new songs, and the day before my birthday, I saw a link to a video from one of the new songs, and there it was, my latest message from Kelly: “Pretty, pretty please/Don’t you ever, ever feel/Like you’re less than/F**kin’ perfect.” I sobbed when I heard it. I was relieved, moved, sad.
Then, a few weeks later, I heard a new Katy Perry song called “Firework.” The message there was also that we are amazing and should never apologize or be afraid or hide who we are. She sings at one point that we are “even brighter than the moon.”
So, first Kelly sent me the message that “it’s okay,” and then “cheer up,” and now she’d again sent the exact message I needed. I could hear her, feel her saying “pretty, pretty please,” begging me to see just how perfect I already and always was, not a problem to solve or mistake to fix, but perfect the way I am, just as I am. I don’t care if I’m being stupid or irrational or weird: Kelly continues to love, encourage and inspire me and I am so thankful for that, even as I am so sad.
“Your light fills the darkest room / And I can see the miracle / That keeps us from falling”
In case you are wondering, Kelly is still sending me songs, and poems, and weather, and owls, and flowers, and bugs I’ve never seen before, and jokes, and books, and videos, and blogs, and websites, and movies, and new recipes, and things to laugh about, and things to love, and things that remind me that even when you have to let go, the love is never gone.
“We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.”
–from a poem by John O’Donohue
- Everybody DANCE!