Take my hand, counting sheep to Never Never Land

While rocking Jax, my eyes scan the room. I notice dirty clothes on the floor I need to pick up. The baby monitor cord has fallen within arm’s reach. “He could electrocute himself if he chewed on it”, I think. Suddenly, I sense chill bumps on my arms and make a mental note to turn the AC up after I’ve moved the monitor cord. His breathing has slowed, finally dozing off. Looking down at his pure little face, I brush my cheek to his, think about our day together, and smile. I’m perplexed by the darling things he did and new words he learned, all while recognizing how rewarding it is to be his mommy

While admiring this perfect creature, my heart begins to pound. Here it comes again, the wave of reality that zaps me every night. I become aware, once again, that it’s US AGAINST THE WORLD.  Then come tears of love, pain, shock, disbelief, loneliness, sorrow, and fear. Did this really happen? WHY???

I place my little angel down and quietly exit his room. Cleaning up Jax’s mess from minutes earlier, I try to think of what I will tell him when he starts asking questions about Daddy. Is honesty really the best policy for such an innocent child? Just then, my guilt starts to eat away at me. How many times did I show him Justin’s picture today? I’m almost positive it wasn’t as many as yesterday, or maybe I forgot. Forgot??? What the hell!!! How could I forget to show him a picture of his father? Something that I vowed to do everyday after he passed.

I pour myself a glass of wine and weep. What now, I wonder. Having an 18 month old is beyond exhausting and most days I face it on my own (unless my amazing mom has pitched in). Three hours ago I would have jumped at the chance to pee, sleep, eat, think, breathe!!! But now something has shifted and I start to feel lonely. Guess I’ll just try to get some shut eye and call it a night.

I stare at my empty bed and feel sick. I can barely stand the thought of crawling into it by myself. Upon hitting the pillow, I instinctively turn to my left (where Justin slept), hug my dog Axl, and sob into his furry back. After a good cry, I feel like I can finally try to get some sleep.

The screams, sirens, bright lights, crowds, blank stares, and loud popping noises all start to surface. “Just ignore it and think of something pleasant,” I tell myself, “it will fade.” After trying to focus on anything except my internal struggle, I turn and look at the clock. It has to be really late by now, right? “WHAT??? It’s only been ten minutes! It’s gonna be a long one tonight.”

101_3078For some, getting a good night’s rest would take precedence over just about anything. A hot shower, a home-cooked meal, or even a paid vaycay in Tahiti all pale in comparison to catching some mad zzz’s. I can recall the days of sleep being a snap. When tossing and turning all night were few and far between, merely caused by the occasional stomach ache or frequent urination while pregnant. Melting into my plush covers used to be a peak moment of the day. A close second was relaxing with Justin over a glass of wine and discussing our day. But snuggling up to the one you love at the end of the night in a warm comfy bed was pretty hard to top. A dream come true, you could say, only to be followed by a blissful ten-hour slumber.

Some nights “Entering Sandman” isn’t quite so challenging. I’m not claiming my opening story is an every night occurrence, but it’s pretty realistic. Statisticbrain.com shows a whopping 70 million people suffer from insomnia and 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorder. These statistics are shocking and frankly, I’m a little frightened. To think of 70 million people on the road who’ve had little to no sleep is quite dangerous.

The CDC released a study in 2013 claiming 9 million Americans are using sleeping pills. With my diagnosis of PTSD, a psychologist could have easily prescribed me medication to (hopefully) solve my sleep struggles. But all drugs come with side effects and the heavier the drug, the larger the list. I’m funny about taking over-the-counter pain meds and it scares the hell out of me to think of what damage I could be doing to my body in an attempt to repair it. Not to mention, I am solely responsible for an eighteen month old who frequently wakes during the night. I’m terrified at the possibility of being so “zonked out” that my body might not wake at all. So, I have decided that for me personally, the risks outweigh the benefits. For the really tough nights, I’ll stick with an occasional shot of whiskey or glass of wine.

IMG_2431As for the nights I actually do sleep, I’m tormented with a contrasting struggle, NIGHTMARES.  I used to think the word nightmare only pertained to little girls in pigtails dreaming of monsters and goblins. They wake up to realize it wasn’t real and mommy comforts them with a glass of warm milk. Mommy assures them everything is just fine and snuggles her little one back to the Sandman. Unfortunately, nightmares don’t stop at age five. I now wake from a horrid nightmare with no one to comfort me. I look to warmth that is no longer there and realize that the nightmare can’t possibly be worse than my reality.

In my recurring nightmare I’m trying to warn everyone that Justin is going to die. Everyone is going about life as usual while I’m in agony. I’m screaming with such rage while everyone stares at me in disgust. “I got a text from him that it could happen at any moment and none of you care to go and help him? He’s going to die and he’s going to die alone while we all just sit here,” I shout at them. In logic, this makes no sense but that’s how dreams are. They take all logic and throw it out with the trash.

This is just one type of nightmare I have, as the others can get pretty dark. Because I was a witness to Justin’s death, I am still haunted with the horrendous tragedy and it’s managed to work it’s way into my dreams. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real thing and I have worked very hard to overcome it. I’m grateful that it doesn’t consume me as a person anymore but it does live on in my mind.

With every sunset, I sense the sleep battle getting a little less problematic. Yes, I do have nights when I gawk at the ceiling for eight hours then wake up in a cold sweat from a chilling dream. However, I’m also starting to have restful nights as well. A few nights ago, I was able to lay down with a smile on my face, in lieu of the usual frown. I smiled knowing I had done my best to give Jax a fun and fulfilling day. I closed my eyes peacefully and didn’t pine over my mistakes or agonize over my loss. I simply put him first, made an added effort to enjoy the day along with a good night’s sleep and wake up refreshed to do it again. Sometimes this is all that stands in the way of having a good or bad day.

41050_150323771656032_150314178323658_328887_7485066_nI recently heard a quote that stuck with me, “Happiness is a choice”. I believe this with all my heart. If I thought otherwise, I might find myself a different person today. I’d be eating pills like candy, drowning myself in booze, or falling into a dark hole too steep to climb out of. But I affirm, life is way too precious to waste on such selfish acts. People who are broken have to make a choice to be happy and present. Even if being present is the expanded path, it’s by far, the rightful one. As a mother, I’m tickled that one day I will be able to comfort my child when he wakes up frightened from a nightmare. I will make sure he knows it wasn’t real and make him a glass of warm milk. I will assure him everything is just fine, snuggle him back to Sandman, and off to Never Never Land.the singing widow blog logo

 

Searching For A New Hope

Guest writer: Justin Pepin

 

We honor the dead by not wasting the opportunity to live.  When I think back on my life 18 months ago, I know for a fact that I couldn’t have feasibly understood what this meant or entailed.  I was 32 and going through the motions like countless others my age.  Up to that point, I thought I had life figured out like a puzzle you seamlessly put together on a whim.  In reality, I didn’t have the first clue about life or how it worked.   

Justin, Me, and Brian Woodall in St Augustine for his 30th birthday

On June 17th, one phone call would indelibly change my life along with the way I think and view things in innumerable ways.  In order to better comprehend my thoughts and feelings, you need a little context concerning my relationship with Jessica and Justin.  I met Justin and Jessica in high school.  People always seem to be taken back by this because they automatically assume we must have grown up as childhood friends.   Have you ever met someone in your life and just know you’ve met someone that immediately gets you like you were twins separated at birth?  That’s precisely the feeling I got the first time I met Justin.  I still remember that day like it was yesterday.  I would love to say that we met in some far-flung cool and audacious setting that was steeped in revelry and raucous adolescent behavior, but alas, we did not.  We honestly met in basically the most nerdish way imaginable.  I was a freshman in high school and we got stuck taking some absurdly lame food class together.  Whenever I think back on that day, I can’t help but chuckle at the randomness of it.  There I was in my oversized basketball gear and sandals looking like a walking Nike commercial and here was a guy in a leather jacket, button up shirt, short hair, and some black Chuck Taylors.  Take a brief moment to close your eyes and picture the gloriousness that was mid-90s fashion and try not to burst out laughing from the mental image.  Being the antithesis of high school coolness and without saying a word, I immediately thought it would be an appropriate icebreaker to pull out a bag of 70s/80s original Star Wars action figures and plop them on the table.

Justin Ayers great sense of humor coming to life through his Star Wars figures in 2013
Justin had the best sense of humor. He posted this hilaious photo of his Star Wars figures having a funeral for his “Classic iPod” when it finally bit the dust

 Instead of getting unmercifully ridiculed or laughed out of the classroom (this is high school after all), Justin took one look and said, “that Darth Vader is looking rough without a lightsaber” and then proceeded to do a perfect lightsaber sound effect (one of his endless talents).  He would proceed to tell me that he had hundreds of Star Wars action figures at his house and that I should come by after school if I wanted to buy a few or just take a look.  

From that day forward, Justin always went out of this way to include me in the events of his life.  That included meeting Jessica, who from day one was far and away the most important part of his life (up until the birth of Jax).  Although Jessica is far too nice to admit it, I’m sure she probably wondered to herself why she had to put up with the likes of me on such a constant basis.  In all honesty, I don’t know why anyone bothered to put up with me back then.  I was truly a walking trainwreck during that period of my life.  I rarely share the following personal information, but I was suffering through serious anxiety, OCD, depression symptoms, and was prescribed medication as a result.   On one hand, I was obsessed and terrified about the thought of dying and on another hand, I truly didn’t care if I lived or died on most days.  I don’t really like to think back to that period of my life, but I can say without a doubt that my outlook on life was bleak, at best.  There was Justin though, always calling and stopping by announced or unannounced and in classic Justin fashion he never took no for an answer.  

I always like to the think the universe puts people in your life when you need them most.  Especially when they have no idea how profound of a difference they make.  I’ve always been blessed to have amazing people in my life and Jessica and Justin are two of the finest individuals that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Through my struggles and triumphs, Justin and Jessica were always the constants in my life.  They supported me in all my endeavors and provided me with much-needed balance and levity on days I wanted to fly completely off the rails. From smoky dive bars, crazy Vegas trips, endless concerts, pop culture conventions, inebriated ghost hunting, or just normal stay at the house TV/movie nights, they always made sure to include me in their lives.

 Not because they felt obligated, but because we were all best friends and we truly looked forward to each other’s company.  On those rare occasions, Justin was too busy or didn’t feel like doing anything, Jessica and I would hang out, and vice versa.  We never missed the opportunity to partake in random, spur of the moment adventures or to make memories I will cherish for a lifetime.  No amount of fame or fortune I could attain would even come close to surpassing those moments.  

One of our fun trips to Las Vegas
One of our fun trips to Las Vegas

Even if the memories now seem bittersweet, I’d still gladly take the pain from remembering the better days over not having any to look back on.

As similar as we were in most aspects, Justin and I did share some extreme differences in the way we thought and lived life.  Even in my darkest periods, I was always a “think to the future first” kind of guy that put little focus on the present.  My thought was that if I planned everything out, I would have the time to experience certain joys of life at a later date.  I like to call it the “kick the can down the line” approach to life.  Justin had a different approach that was more a hybrid of both our philosophies.

Us at one of my epic costume parties. Where else can you find Axl Rose and Michael Jackson chillin
Us at one of my epic costume parties. Where else can you find Axl Rose and Michael Jackson chillin

 He never said it more than a few times that I can recall, but I remember his words very vividly in my mind.  “You should keep your feet planted in the present, while keeping an eye to the future.”  When Justin died, I thought a lot about that statement and realized that I had been living my life backwards as long as I could remember.  I was banking on the future so heavily, that I didn’t take time to fully appreciate or experience life to its fullest potential each and every day.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “tomorrow is promised to no man”, but have you ever taken the time to fully grasp the depth of what that means?  Before Justin died, I can honestly say that I never took time to consider the magnitude of that statement.   I just went through the daily motions of life and gave little regard to the present.  Life is finite and precious though and we don’t know how much or little we have left of it.  It’s a notion that I was sadly reminded of last week when I paid my respects at another high school friend’s funeral service who passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Walker Stalker Con 2013

Over the course of the last 18 months, I’ve been inundated daily with a wide range of emotions and thoughts regarding life.  The prevailing theme being that we should adopt an approach that allows us to steal a moment away from the rigors of life and appreciate both the major and minor joys that happen daily, weekly, etc.  Jessica recently wrote about this topic and I highly suggest reading it if you haven’t or even going back and rereading it again.  After reading her entry, I was immediately reminded that we need to take the time to tell the people in our lives how much they mean to us.  How even the simplest gesture can make a profound impact in someone’s life in ways we may never be able to fully comprehend.  I know this is an extreme example, but the impact could be the difference between them choosing life or death.  I speak from experience because I’ve gone through dark periods like that before in my own life.

 I was only able to get through those periods because the people in my life stood with me on the days I took a step forward and loved and supported me twice as much on the days I went three steps back.  In fact, while editing this entry, I heard the song “Carry On” by Fun (whom Justin enjoyed listening to) and it immediately struck a chord with me that I previously never considered.  

It was an honor to a groomsman in Justin and Jessica's wedding
It was an honor to be a groomsman in Justin and Jessica’s wedding

In particular, the lyrics, “If you’re lost and alone or sinking like a stone, carry on.”  Our ability to find inner strength to carry on often comes from encouragement and love we get from people we allow to be a meaningful part of our lives.  Without that constant support, we would be like boats aimlessly adrift in the ocean of existence.

 We’re all guilty of putting things off though.  It’s just so easy to slide important stuff to the back burner, especially when everything feels like it’s moving at warp speed while you’re busy dealing with the daily grind of life.  Trust me when I say this though, you never know when that opportunity might cease to exist.  It’s truly one of life’s most unpleasant lessons.  One that often doesn’t resonate until you’ve had something precious stripped away from you.  If I would have known that the last time I’d see Justin alive was in the hospital after the birth of Jax, I would have said so many things to him.  As a result, I didn’t get to tell him a lot of things that guys are often extremely poor at communicating to one another.  I would have told him that he was an integral part in teaching me to feel comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone, and thank him for never giving up on me even when I tried to give up on myself so many times during years earlier.

Me and my buddy Jax
Me and my buddy Jax

 Mostly, though, I would tell him that I love him and that I promise to always be there to support Jessica and Jax in any manner possible.  That no matter how arduous the journey may be at times, I vow to push forward and make the most of my time on earth.  I will honor Justin and the others I have lost by appreciating life while not wasting the opportunity to live.

While I’m sure I could have ended on that last note, it doesn’t quite feel like a Justin way of ending.  In true Justin fashion, I’ll end this by telling a brief story (another one of his endless talents).  It’s not often that things come full circle in life.  Remember earlier when I said Justin and I met because of Star Wars?  As it would turn out, the history of those figures actually makes for a pretty cool side story that connects all three of us.  With my help, Justin sold his childhood Star Wars collection to a person I dealt with regularly back in the day (if you needed further proof that I’ve always been a nerd).  If my memory serves me correctly, Justin then used the money to buy the first gift he ever bought Jessica, whom he had just recently started dating.  Although, I can’t recall my exact words, I remember saying something to the effect of, “this girl must mean the world to you and I hope this relationship works out for the long haul because you’re absolutely giving these figures away dirt cheap at this price”.  Before selling them to the buyer, he let me keep a few for my own collection for brokering the deal.  Years later, I found those figures and gifted them and what was left of my own collection back to him for Christmas.  I told him since he was an avid Star Wars fan that he should save them for when he had children of his own.  From that point on, the thought of them never crossed my mind again.  A few months back, as I was organizing Jessica’s storage shed, a container lid fell off and some of the contents spilled out.  As I hurried to clean up what had fallen out of the container, I noticed a bag with action figures in it.  It made me do a double take because I couldn’t even believe what I was seeing.  He had meticulously saved all of the figures that I had given him years ago.  It was such an unexpected shock that I immediately burst into tears at the sight of them.  It was a good cry, though, the kind that gave me a sense of comfort and hope for the future knowing that he is always with me. “A New Hope” if you will, one that reminded me of a long time ago, in what seemed like a galaxy far, far away…

Holidaze

As seasons change, I find myself fighting to walk uphill instead of sliding down. From the sun setting so early, to Christmas music playing in department stores, the holidays are here and I’m faced with many emotional challenges. Last year, I was up against Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all less than seven months after losing Justin. Distraction was my best friend and I welcomed it with open arms. Traveling, shopping, making calendars of Jax, and helping my folks remodel their home were among the top choices. Basically, it didn’t really matter where I was going or what I was doing, as long as I wasn’t sitting still. Constant travel and a busy schedule were the only way I saw myself getting through the dreadful holiday season. Not only was I facing all three holidays for the first time without Justin, I was also a new mom.

 

Flashback to 2013 when we were expecting little Jax. We discovered the exciting news one week prior to Halloween. The news of Jax was kept under wraps (other than close friends and family) due to the risk you face in your first trimester. I wanted to keep our little bundle of joy a private and personal matter as long as possible. It’s the holiday season and you just discovered that a year from now, you will be parents for the first time.

One of Justin's epic costumes
One of Justin’s epic costumes

The anticipation and excitement begin immediately and you start saying things like, “Next Halloween, we will have a four-month-old to dress up”, “What should we dress him/her as?”. At this point the gender couldn’t be determined, so we started thinking of both costume options. Justin’s adoration for Halloween and the horror movie genre was quite intense. Every year in October, he would set the DVR to record scary movies on TV and we’d watch one or two every few nights. It was by far his favorite time of year (remember the Oktoberfest). He found himself over the moon anticipating the memories we would create with Jax. I’d never seen him so happy.

 

In 2014, I faced the first of many Halloweens as a widow and mother. After much debating on how to avoid the holiday, I decided “The heck with it”, and put Jax into a Kermit The Frog costume.

My little Kermit The Frog
My little Kermit The Frog

My parents, brother, mother-in-law, my friend Summer and her family all went trick-or-treating with us. I walked around all night watching families enjoy the holiday with one another. At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “This is not fair”, and I was envious. Envious of the joy I was missing. The joy I had looked so forward to only one year ago. The evening had ups and downs along with plenty of tears, but we banded together and made it through in the best way we knew how.

 

It’s always been a tradition for my family to take a moment at the Thanksgiving table and share what we are thankful for. In 2013, I, of course, said, “The little addition we will have at the table next year”.Justin turned to me and said, “I’m most thankful for my beautiful wife and all the wonderful years we’ve shared just us two”. Tears streamed down my face as I smiled at him and knew he meant every word. We all had a moment and talked about how excited we were for the years to follow. We sat around all night recording a Christmas favorite, “Silver Bells”, in four-part harmony while Justin plucked away at the guitar (dad was the cameraman of course, ha ha).

 

Celebrating Christmas Eve in 2013 at our house
Celebrating Christmas Eve in 2013 at our house

 

When December 2013 rolled around I was 15 weeks along. Since we’d made it through the first trimester with no issues, our baby excitement had grown exponentially. We browsed in stores eyeballing ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ ornaments with much anticipation, and talked about the additional stocking we’d put on the wall (our dog Axl already had one). When Christmas finally arrived, Justin and I decided to have a special Christmas Eve brunch with my family at our very first home. Since little Jax was constantly on our minds, we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas together and made sure to soak up every moment, knowing it would be our last year, just us two.  We had spent 16 wonderful Christmas’ together as a couple and would now spend the rest of our lives together as a family.  

 

Last year, after losing Justin, I decided to uproot everyone in my immediate family and hit the road for the holidays. For Thanksgiving, we flew to Newport Beach, CA for a visit with one of my best friends, Kimmy, and for Christmas,  we drove to Atlanta for a change of scenery. Looking back, I now realize I was running away from reality. I knew that this might be the only acceptable year for me to completely ditch the holidays.

Christmas 2014
Christmas 2014 in Atlanta

At this point, Jax was so young that he wouldn’t know a candy cane from a candy corn. Being able to run away from Jolly Ole Saint Nick took the edge off and I was able to hold it together for a few days, which still felt like an eternity.

 

As long as I can remember, I’ve been one of those obnoxious Christmas-obsessed people who go “balls to the wall”. I couldn’t put up enough lights, buy enough presents, or bake enough sweets. I basically added an automatic 8 lbs to my waistline, maxed out my credit card and ran a power bill well into the thousands (maybe a little over-exaggeration on all three). So how disappointing is it that now I hate Christmas!!

We had a great since of humor
We had a great since of humor

Hate is a little strong, but I can say I find myself looking forward to the day after Christmas instead of the day before like I used to.

My excitement for holidays and special occasions tends to peak about a day before they actually happen. I’ve found that the anticipation is almost better than the actual day. This tends to make the day after somewhat of a bummer.  But now I experience the opposite effect. Days that I dread kick me the hardest the day before and bring me relief the day after.

 

This year I have decided I have to quit running away. Sure, I could probably get away with it for at least another year but then I would be in the same place I am now. I’m not proud to say that I have dreaded Christmas 2015 since the day after Christmas 2014. Because I avoided it all together last year, this year I find myself feeling just as heartbroken.

 

I recently went with my mom, Aunt Jo Beth, and Jax to find a Christmas tree for my parents home. Pulling into the Home Depot parking lot, I got sick to my stomach. “Of course”, I thought, “This is the place we always bought our Christmas trees, what was I thinking?”. Mom had asked me a good place to go look and I instinctively said Home Depot or Lowes. Instead of seeing Christmas trees and smiling like I used to, I now roll my eyes. Statistics show suicide rates tend to skyrocket around the holidays and I never understood it until now. Of course, I have no plans to partake in this completely selfish act. But, I now understand the emptiness the holidays can bring when you are missing someone, feeling lonely, and broken.

 

Jax in 2014

Even though the emptiness feels constant, I have let some of the fullness and joys in as well. Jax is old enough to appreciate the exciting new things around him. Christmas trees, lights, reindeer, Santa, and Frosty all bring a huge smile to his face and I’m quickly reminded of all the reasons I once loved Christmas. Seeing a smile on Jax’s face is priceless and if showing him an obese man dressed in red and white does the trick, I’m gonna have to jump on board. Heck, I might even smile and enjoy it myself.  We will be taking Jax to see Mickey for Disney’s special Christmas celebration this year and I couldn’t be more excited to see my little boy having the time of his life.

Meeting Minnie Mouse
Meeting Minnie Mouse

The innocence a child brings into our lives should always be cherished. It is a beautiful thing above all else. I see the light in Jax’s eyes and it helps bring some light back into mine. To say I will never experience Christmas like I once did is true, but I will find a new love/hate relationship with the holiday and make sure my son knows just how magical it can be.the singing widow blog logo

Backstage hesitation, Center stage fears of isolation

Days, weeks, even months after losing Justin, I found myself in a deep hole and felt defeated to the point that I was ready to give up on who I was. I had always looked to my future with a bit of fear, but who doesn’t!  While it’s natural to fear the unfamiliar, I always figured I’d have my partner to help carry the torch. Besides playing music, Justin had fifty plus guitar students and was the primary breadwinner. Now it was only me and I was terrified! Here I was with a newborn baby and I’d lost my career, steady income, husband, and home of my own (I immediately left that home we had made together and would never return).

Our Album cover for our first and only full-length album Make Believe

At the time, I decided I would never sing, pick up a guitar, or set foot on any stage ever again. This decision wasn’t even something to think about, it was instantaneous.  Performing music now represented my life taken from me and I wanted nothing to do with it. After playing music with Justin for over ten years, I couldn’t possibly imagine continuing in his absence. Justin and I were much more than each other’s spouse. In addition to being best friends, lovers, and soulmates, we were business and creative partners. On the performing end, my role was to book gigs, handle money, and mostly pick material. Justin’s role was to manage band members, handle equipment/sound system, as well as plan our sets. When it came to writing and recording I wrote the lyrics and melodies. Justin wrote the music and recorded everything (besides lead vocals and drums). We collaborated on arrangements as well as gave input in all other areas. We were a well-oiled machine and had mastered our craft. Over time, we worked up from scummy bars (paying next to nothing) to opening for festivals and getting top dollar at casinos. We’d also written our first full-length album and spent over a year recording, getting it produced, and making a pretty awesome music video. These were all major accomplishments for us and we were extremely proud.

Ultimately, I had invested over ten years in our music brand and POOF it was gone. I was completely broken and as I saw it, done! I couldn’t even listen to music for four or five months. It made me want to vomit. The Promo picvery thing I’d always loved was now something I loathed. However, for some reason people started asking me (only weeks after) if I would ever sing again. They would assure me that I was too talented to give it up and Justin would want me singing again. I wanted to hear nothing of it. I can honestly say I was so certain I would never sing again that I would have sold my voice on the black market to the highest bidder and never looked back. “I only did it for Justin”, I would tell people, “He loved it more than I did”. And while I still believe that second statement to be true (Justin lived and breathed playing guitar), I would soon learn that I also loved it all on my own.

It had been close to eight months when I found myself feeling an urge I hadn’t experienced in a while. Compare it to someone who had been a smoker and quit cold turkey. They haven’t smelled a cigarette in almost a year when out of the blue someone lights up in their presence. To their surprise, they find themselves craving a cigarette and start smoking again. I understand this may not be the case with all smokers or whatever brings you a high (not talking about drugs here). Performing was always something I found myself constantly wanting more of. I considered myself a workaholic and wanted to feel the “high” as much as possible. Justin and I were one in the same and it worked to our advantage because once again, we were together. So how could I possibly crave this when it was the very thing that united us? Did it mean I would be forgetting about him if I pursued it on my own? Could I even enjoy it without him? These (along with many others) were thoughts and questions racing through my head at any given moment. The sheer fact that I had the urge to find out was shocking to me, but I felt I had to know for sure.

Justin and I performing with two of my current band mates

“You’re up next Jess”, a voice called to me from backstage. It was my friend Justin Pepin letting me know it was about time to sing for the first time in almost a year. My hands shook the entire ride over and my anxiety was through the roof. The fear in the pit of my stomach ran much deeper than nerves alone. I’ve been performing in front of crowds for years, this was nothing new. But was it? For the first time in over ten years, I was walking on that stage alone. The entire evening leading up to this very moment felt like a strange dream. The kind of dream you have when you can’t seem to run or keep tripping over the same uneven sidewalk. Getting glammed up for the evening started off my eerily familiar night. Deciding what to wear, if my eyeliner was even, what time to leave, and so many other things I always got his opinion on had thrown me for a loop. I soon realized that every single decision for that night was mine alone. I no

Performing in The Keys
Performing in The Keys at Sloppy Joes

longer had my partner in crime to discuss the events of the evening, whether good or bad. No more complaining to one another about an empty tip jar and less than enthusiastic crowd. This was always made better by having my partner to confide in, knowing “he gets it”.

Walking on stage for the first time was even stranger than I could have imagined. Not only was I singing a song I’d sang with Justin, but it was one of our favorites. The signature guitar riff wailed into my ears like a beautiful poem stabbing me through the heart. It felt so good, yet so painful all at once. I remember looking back at Justin Pepin before starting the first verse and the expression on his face said it all. “IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?”

My first time back in action
My first time back in action

I could tell that not only was it weird for him (he’d always frequented our shows), but both magical and heartbreaking all rolled into one. Although I’d taken major steps in my first year of widowhood, this felt like I’d crossed a bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge, nonetheless. Being on stage in that moment, I realized something I will never forget, “I can do this on my own”. Grasping something like this is exhilarating and gut-wrenching all at once. Exhilarating because I was understanding a few things about myself. I’m an individual, I’m strong, I actually love this, and hey, I’m pretty good at it!! I’d always known I loved to sing but figured it was something that came easy to me and, “since we can do this together, why not”. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be able to do it as an individual and still love it with all my heart. The gut wrenching side was a little less easy. Because I’m able to do it on my own, I felt like I was leaving Justin behind. To me, leaving him behind represented turning my back on him. Even though I know this will never be the case, I still feel guilt when I start to heal in certain areas. Music was the biggest part of our relationship and to continue without him still feels unnatural. But what I’ve come to realize instead (and have to remind myself every time I perform) is that I’m not leaving him behind. In fact, leaving him behind would mean turning my back on music forever. My connection to music will always have a direct line to Justin Ayers. It’s one of the best ways I can sense his spirit and know he is still with me. The pain may never subside, but it will always be welcome when it brings me so close to him.

the singing widow blog logo

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We’ve all heard the phrases, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” and “All that glitters is not gold”. We’d be kidding ourselves if we all swore by these phrases, right? How many times a day do you find yourself making assumptions and judgments about people you don’t know? More than likely, you come across someone in an unfortunate situation and assume they made poor choices. Someone might seem to have it all and you think, “life’s been royal for them”. These days, with our entire lives shared on sites like Facebook and Twitter, we’ve put up a certain face for the world to see which is hardly authentic!  More often than not, people only share the absolute best of their lives and, only on occasion, the worst. What you don’t see is the everyday ups and downs that is their reality. People put too much stock in social media and it’s proving to be unfulfilling. I recently read an article on nypost.com discussing scientific studies conducted with Facebook users. 

 

Facebook
A few of my “best” and “worst” posts from 2014 before I lost Justin.

 

The article stated:

“In 2013, scientists at two German universities monitored 584 Facebook users and found one out of three would feel worse after checking what their friends were up to – especially if those friends had just posted vacation photos. Overall shared content does not have to be ‘explicitly boastful’ for feelings of envy to emerge. In fact, a lonely user might envy numerous birthday wishes his more sociable peer receives on his Facebook wall. Equally, a friend’s change in the relationship status from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ might cause emotional havoc for someone undergoing a breakup”

 

Based on these statistics, it appears that many of us are living a double life. We live our ‘real’ life along with our ‘online’ life and end up confusing the two. Either way, we should never look at someone’s life and assume we know what they are going through.

 

Mommy and Jax Key West
Snapping a quick pic with Jax before heading out in Key West to perform.

I’m definitely not claiming to be supreme. I find myself making common snap judgments and natural assumptions about others on a daily basis.  However, when I meet someone new I try my best to listen to the actual person instead of what my eyes encounter. I try to stop myself from thinking negatively or positively based on what I see, and just listen. After I lost Justin I was very angry. I was jealous, bitter, envious, and YES, very judgemental. Because I had gone through such a horrific tragedy, I only saw my misery and nothing else. During this time, Facebook wasn’t very kind to me!  I was breastfeeding Jax all day every day and spent a lot of time in a chair with a baby attached to me. Therefore, I was stuck with nothing to do but pick up my phone and look at social media. Boy, was this a big mistake!! At first, I was amazed that the outside world was existing in such a normal state. How could others possibly care about movies, dates, youtube videos, or even their pets? Justin had died in such a tragic way and everyone else was going on with their lives? I found myself resentful that others weren’t understanding what I was going through. I also observed the joyous occasions people were sharing. Having babies, getting engaged, married, buying houses, new jobs, and celebrating birthdays. I can’t say this wasn’t a punch to the gut. It crushed me to see others celebrating life while I was merely trying to survive. From a different angle, I also saw horrible things and this was equally as hard. Death, illness, suicide,

Posing for a photo with my friend Rachel and here baby. You can see I was white and sporting that same blank stare I had every day for quite a while
Posing for a photo with my friend Rachel and her baby. You can see I was pale as a ghost and have a blank stare on my face. One I would have for a while

divorce, and miscarriage were just a few I read about and I could barely stop the tears. I then wondered, “What exactly did I want?” No matter

what I read or saw, it upset me. My mom always knew when I had looked on social media because I would sit with a blank stare while tears were streaming down my face. She’d come to me and say, “Did you go on Facebook again? Stop it!!” I decided to go with the “out of sight, out of mind” approach and delete the app off my phone. I wanted to permanently delete my page, but some said they worried about me when I deactivated it, so this seemed like my best option. Following this, I felt free from the burden of others’ happy existence. Maybe other people were having a good day but I didn’t have to know about it. Which at the time, was exactly what I needed.

 

IMG_1842
My mom sacrificing her 4th of July this year so I could perform with the band in Myrtle Beach. We are a team!!

These days, I can tell when I’m being labeled by people who don’t know me. They see a baby on my hip, no daddy in sight, and my mother in tow. It’s easy to assume she’s divorced, she got knocked up, she’s irresponsible, or perhaps she’s a military wife. What they never think is maybe she’s a widow. This bothers me!  These days I don’t think anyone looks down on mothers in these situations, I sure don’t.  It’s 2015 and we’ve been pretty accepting of most circumstances for a while now. Over 40% of our population are divorced with children and a recent study on nytimes.com stated nearly two-thirds of children in the United States born to mothers under 30 are born out of wedlock (statistics taken from divorcestatistics.org).  But that wasn’t me! I had a husband, I waited ten years to have a baby, I saved up and purchased a house to raise that baby in, and I had a great job that I loved. This was what I wanted people to notice because I was proud of it. I was proud of my choices in life and I wanted to be seen in that  light.

 

IMG_0666
Jax and I at his sprinkling ceremony. My Uncle Greg performed it for us.

About three months had passed since Justin died and I was slowly getting my ducks in a row.  Naturally, a few things had slipped through the cracks. In the midst of this, I was pulled over by a police officer while driving home from a grief counseling session when he pointed out my incorrect driver’s license address. Fast forward to the DMV (once again baby on my hip and mom in tow), the man helping me had to go through the standard questions for issuing a new driver’s license. Each question caused me to feel more panicky than the last. When he got to the final one, “Is Justin still your emergency contact?”, I simply stared at him in confusion and stumbled upon my answer of, “Uh nah nah, no”. I will never forget his expression after hearing my answer. He had a smirk plastered across his face and responded with, “So, I guess you decided to trade in Justin and the house, huh? Ha ha ha”. Need I say more? That seems about as judgemental as one can get. He assumed I was getting divorced, had moved in with my mother, and for some reason thought it was appropriate to laugh at my expense. After reacting with an evil stare, I chose to share my god-awful truth. I only hoped he might learn something from his childish behavior. Needless to say, I left the DMV in tears and was made to feel worse while facing an already tough day.  

 

But why did I even care? I know what I’ve done with my life and what I’ve accomplished, as do the people who love and care about me. Shouldn’t that be all that really matters? However, I dread having to explain my situation and story to a complete stranger when they ask me questions. I usually try to keep it short and sour, “I’m a widow”. If they have the balls to ask me what happened I sometimes say, “I don’t feel like talking about it” or maybe I share my story. No matter what option I choose, I still feel the impending panic attack and always feel worse after I’ve been asked.  

 

While performing with the band a few weeks back at a fancy wedding, some of the bridesmaids jumped on stage for a song. We were having so much fun when out of the blue one of them turned to me and said, “I wish I had your life”. With a glazed-over smile, I looked at her in shock. She had committed the cardinal sin of making an assumption about my life. From her perspective, I was living the dream. She saw glitz and

Glammed up and ready to perform at the wedding reception
Glammed up and ready to perform at the wedding reception

glamour and assumed my life was always like this. She saw a young bubbly girl singing, dancing, smiling, laughing, and entertaining hundreds of people. However, she had absolutely no clue of my daily obstacles or the darkness inside. Yes, I love what I do! I’m very blessed to have a God-given talent and the opportunity to use that talent. But even my work has difficult times. It can be emotionally and physically draining, demanding, extensive traveling, late hours, and even lonely at times. Even when I had the privilege of doing it alongside Justin, it still had major ups and downs. It almost seems comparable to the other end of the spectrum. People see me with a small child and make a different false assumption. Either way you look at it they are all judgments, and they are all false. You can never accurately pinpoint what the inside contains. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason, but why go there? The world is callous and we are all doing our best to make the most out of life. Some circumstances we can control and some we cannot. Assuming you know what others have been through can only result in unrealistic and incorrect conclusions. To truly accept people for who they are and to love one another means putting all judgments to rest. Why not start today!

the singing widow blog logo