I got the news at 20 minutes past 10 PM on Wednesday night, July 1st. I was told there was a motorcycle accident and you didn’t make it. You were the one on the motorcycle.
I can’t process it.
Jordan Benjamin – or “Jordy B.” as I’ve called you since your birth – you went to rest with Jesus that night. I always thought of you more as a brother, not a cousin. I look back at all my favorite memories from childhood, and there you are.
This is how I remember you.
That was you. Always close to me, always up for a good laugh, a great joke, or a fun time. If you were around, we were together. You were one of the few people I could tolerate for long periods of time without needing to rest afterwards to recharge. You knew when I needed to be chill for a while and you knew when it was time to get into some mischief. I could count on you to be my partner in crime or my partner in laughter. No one else in our family got our humor – except maybe Grandpa when he would help us play a prank on someone else.
Even two and a half decades later, we still laughed about the time when Pa helped me play a trick on Josh because he was being mean and bossy. Just because he was the oldest didn’t mean he could boss us around, right? Right. And Pa drank apple cider vinegar and water every morning, and it looked a lot like apple juice, so a plan was hatched. Pa and I would replace your juice and Josh’s juice with vinegar water and see how that went. He thought we could get you, too. Only you came into the kitchen early to sit down – before Josh – and I couldn’t do it. So I caught your eye when you went to grab your cup and shook my head.
You knew. You set the cup back down on the table.
You grinned, in on the joke without a word needed.
I’ll never figure out how he couldn’t smell the difference, but when Josh drank from his cup and spit the vinegar across the table (and all over his breakfast), the other three of us lost it. You sat across from me, slapping the table, and we had tears rolling down our cheeks it was so funny. Even last Christmas when we were reminiscing about that very story, we got so tickled we couldn’t retell it. That was only 6 months ago.
It probably wouldn’t have been that funny to anyone else, but it was to us.
You would do just about anything I asked you to when we were little kids. No one has ever trusted me the way you did. (I’m not sure you should have, but we made some of the best memories and there were no injuries, so I’m keeping that on the books as a win.) No one has ever been able to read my mind quite so well, either. With a look, you knew when I was getting ready to blow a gasket or when I needed you to run interference. With a look, we could both burst into uncontrollable giggles that would have us rolling in the floor and crying from laughing so hard, even if no one else knew what on earth we were laughing about.
We would say, “You just had to be there and see their face.” And it was hysterical for both of us, because we were there. We saw their faces – could still see them in our heads.
That is how I remember you.
And this is how I remember you.
Always just over my shoulder. Always next to me when it mattered. Always willing to flatten anyone who might hurt me, whether they were blood-related to us or not.
Then again, you kept me posted on things. Will joked once that you called me in to be the heavy when you needed back-up on something. I told him he was wrong; I knew you. It wasn’t that you needed back-up, it was that your truth was sometimes a little more passive-aggressive and you knew that, while we had that in common, if I felt backed into a corner I would swing first before you could.
You knew that if you asked me, I would fight Hell with a water gun to make whatever you needed happen. (Never mind that there was a solid chance I needed the same thing but wouldn’t have done it for just myself.) You knew I would say things we both meant and I would do it in a way so no one would hate me for it later but everyone got the point.
You also knew I would say them to anyone, whether family, friend, or stranger. You would elbow me then pretend you didn’t. I always took the bait.
Then you would tell me later that I was too nice, but it seemed to work, so you were okay with it. You’d say, “I would have just…” then filled in the blanks with a half smirk, finishing with, “…but that worked, so whatever.”
I would then say, “Yep, but you didn’t,” then stare at you until you gave up with, “Fair point.” Then we would grin at each other and go on about our day.
This is not a good illustration of the man you were or the brother you were. This is not at all indicative of why people have confused us for twins all our lives (or triplets that one summer, but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke and only happened because Grandma made our clothes so Josh, you, and me were always wearing the same thing). Even last year, at the hospital, a nurse asked if we were twins. We both started laughing. You were over 6 feet tall and I’m 5 foot nothing. She said it was because of the way we acted. I don’t know how to capture that in words.
There are too many memories for me to sort through the vignettes so quickly. It will take time.
People keep asking me for details. I keep telling them I don’t know any of them – I always got details from you. You always called me or texted to tell me what was happening. You always ended with, “I’m doing this if you want to, too.” From the very first memory I have of you, that is what you would say. It was your way of asking me to show up for you.
People keep asking me how I’m doing. What am I supposed to say to that?
My sarcastic “Jordan voice” has a few things to say, but I ignore it. My abrasive “me voice” wants to let them know that’s a stupid question. I ignore that one, too. I take a page from your book (not the sarcastic one, the more pragmatic one) and say I’m doing about as well as can be expected.
I know I will see you in Heaven, so I feel comforted and at peace with that knowledge.
I am heartbroken for all of us you left behind for now; I was not prepared for this. None of us were.
I feel a little lost. You were my lynch pin.
I keep picking up my phone to call and text you to see what everyone else needs, then I remember you can’t tell me any more. That is the weirdest…
Your light was bright. Days will be dimmer, now. So I will be remembering your light, your laughter, your sense of adventure.
See you soon, bro. Until we laugh again, together.
And tell Grandma (Clara) I said hello and that her peach cobbler is still fabulous.
Here’s something fun: I went to the doctor in March right before the pandemic situation went crazy and she told me she’s pretty sure any GI diagnosis I got in the past has been incorrect or – at the very least – was not treated properly. She said this because no one in my medical records agrees on what’s wrong with me (Crohn’s disease like my dad? IBS? UC? Celiac? Lactose-intolerant? Just plain cooky?) and regardless of what each prior APRN or MD has said, none of them offered the appropriate treatment for whatever it was they thought was wrong with me.
Because of that, I have gotten to do lots of fun lab tests in the past few weeks, have a colonoscopy, and they tell me this week I get to do more fun lab tests.
I was going to write this blog post about my colonoscopy and prep but decided against it. There is enough poo going around in the world right now. (You’re welcome for my restraint.)
What I will tell you about the prep is that it isn’t as bad as it used to be, but I still give it zero stars and do not recommend it. The prep – if you’re lucky enough to get a newer kind prescribed – tastes like childhood illness on a beach vacation. More specifically, it tastes like you just vomited up seawater then your mom made you chase it back down with Dimetapp and 64 ounces of water within the same hour. I can also confidently say that if you have never had the pleasure of experiencing colonoscopy prep and you find yourself in a similar situation, I have two expert pieces of advice: (1) keep your charger cords in the bathroom with you with whatever devices you need to keep yourself occupied for several hours – I chose my iPad and phone so I could scroll through Pinterest or watch funny movies or shows, and (2) for the love of goodness when you go in for the procedure wear warm cabin socks and keep those suckers on your feet – hospitals are cold. (And yes, I followed my own advice – it wasn’t my first rodeo.)
Since I’m not going to go into further detail on that front, let’s talk about genetics at 37 years old and how I’m working on embracing me, shall we? Yes, I believe we shall, because it’s my blog.
My dad’s side of the family is Cherokee and Welsh-American (confirmed on the Cherokee since my great-grandmother was Cherokee, or at least half, and the Welsh is as far back as we’ve been able to trace, which wasn’t really that far if we’re honest – maybe one or two more generations back). My mom’s side of the family is German-American (also easily confirmed). When I was little, my dad had brown-black hair, the kind of complexion that turns into a clover-honey tan, and bright blue eyes. He also has Crohn’s disease and is super smart. My mom had a creamy complexion that would still tan to a golden, peaches-and-cream color, dark blond hair that she used to lighten to a platinum blond color when she was in high school, and aqua blue eyes. She also has a mild form of scoliosis that is easily treatable with chiropractic care. Oh, and she’s nearsighted and she has an astigmatism.
Mom used to iron her hair out straight since it had just a little bit of a wavy texture to it – almost like beach waves, but not really curls. Her mom always got perms, so I’m not sure what her hair texture was like, but mom’s three sisters had/have some wavy texture, too. Dad’s hair, when he grows it long (yes, even when he grew mullets – and yes, he has grown a mullet several times, unfortunately), is crazy thick and a little wavy.
Both my parents come from boisterous families where everyone sings or plays an instrument or both. Everyone grew up performing. I am quite proud to say it’s a little bit stupid how talented my extended family is.
My older brother was born with honey blond hair that gradually turned dark brown over time and was delightfully shiny with little to no curl or wave to it. He tans in about 5 minutes to that clover-honey tint my dad has year-round and his eyes are bright, ocean blue. He does not have Crohn’s disease or any other GI issues and he does not have scoliosis. He also has perfect vision. He is extroverted and has my dad’s charisma – he never met a stranger – and has been known since he could take his first steps to be ready to perform on the spot and with no warning. He draws, he sings, he plays an instrument or three. He is a public speaker and has traveled around the state to give anti-bullying talks. He even helped get an anti-bullying bill passed into law. (Thank goodness he’s not the greatest dancer – that would just be too much.) People love him.
How nice for him.
I have creamy pale skin that turns slightly reddish but will not really burn unless I’m on some sort of medication (which I usually am) and if I get the chance to spend some time in the sun, I can build a nice tan. I was also born with honey blond hair that slowly got darker over time and landed at medium ash brown with some darker blond highlights that come naturally.
I am very beige during winter months.
My eyes are green. My hair is and has always been quite curly. I am 100% introverted and have been tested enough times since kindergarten to say that with full confidence. More than one or two people at a time for me is incredibly unappealing. I love me some me time. I crave it. It makes me happy.
My older brother used to tell me all the time that I was adopted.
I totally believed him.
It still kind of makes sense, except that while my skin, hair, and eyes don’t resemble either of my parents at all, I did manage to inherit a few of their other traits – like GI/immune issues, scoliosis, intellect, my dad’s circadian rhythm (mornings are gross, nighttime is awesome), some of the family talent minus the extroversion and social grace, my dad’s love of cooking, my mom’s nearsightedness and astigmatism, sarcasm as my first love language, etc.
I remember my hair, though, being the biggest obstacle for me growing up. You’d think it would have been introversion, but no. Introversion just made me really, really good at hide-and-seek. I was a champion hider.
With my curly hair, I could look around the rest of my family and easily win the game, “Which One of These Is Not Like the Others.” (I did have some cousins with super-curly hair, but they were boys, so it was always cut short. There was no help for me from that front.) My parents didn’t really know what to do with my hair.
My mom was and is an awesome mom. But she had straight hair. So she treated mine the same way she treated hers. It got washed, then it got brushed a few times throughout the day. We eventually had to invest heavily in detangling spray (Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears saved my life). I used to cry because brushing my hair hurt so bad. I would beg my dad to brush my hair instead of my mom because I could trick him into using the natural-bristle brush and he only touched the top layer, so it was painless. Also useless and made me look a lot worse. But it didn’t hurt. At age 3, that’s all I cared about.
As I got older, the battle continued. Ironically, it was the 80s and big hair was all the rage. Women were getting perms and making the manufacturers of Aquanet and White Rain boat-loads of money. Mom even got a perm. It was quite poodle-like. But everyone in my family still thought my hair was a tangled mess that just needed taming, and by taming I mean brushing, and by brushing I mean fluffing it into a hot mess that made it look even more unruly. Here’s a picture from my fourth or fifth birthday party. Please ignore my little brother picking his nose (also, you’re welcome Heath) and see if you can look past him and spot me. It won’t be difficult. I’m the Cabbage-Patch Kid look-alike with hair that appears to be growing straight out before succumbing to gravity and hanging in limp tangles.
My hair was always a mess, and no matter how smooth, perfect, and untangled it was when Mom got done brushing it, within three minutes it turned into a frizzy nest from hell.
In middle school and high school, I discovered that if I used a hairdryer on high heat with a giant paddle brush, then went over all of that with a large-barreled curling iron, my hair would fall in slightly less frizzy, shiny-ish waves. I was delighted.
Unless it rained. Rain is the common enemy of every blow-out and flat-ironed style. It brings its best buddy, Frizz, along with it. They do not discriminate.
By the time I got to college, popular haircare lines like Pantene and L’Oreal were coming out with shampoo/conditioner and styling products meant to enhance curly hair. That was around the same time I realized how incredibly lazy I am and that working so hard to dry and straighten my hair while living on the tenth floor of a dorm with no A/C (it was broken half the time) and no elevators (also broken more than half the time) in the eastern half of Kentucky during late summer, fall, and spring is an exercise in futility. (It was dumb, y’all.)
So, I bought all. the. products. for curly hair that I could find in the usual haircare aisle and started experimenting. I met some amazing women of color on campus who yelled at me to come over and chat one day. They asked me what the hell I was thinking brushing curly hair and they gently convinced me to stop it and use a pick or wide-toothed comb instead. They also pointed me to a different aisle of haircare products made for textured hair. Those young women were angels.
With the hard water in the dorm, natural humidity, and sweat build-up from climbing stairs wearing 50 pounds of textbooks on my shoulder, the new products and routine helped me rebuild my hair’s health. It turned out, I had some pretty tight ringlets.
While in college, I did still enjoy experimenting with straightening my hair some days or changing its color, but I wore it curly about half the time, maybe more. I worked in two different restaurants and always made better tips when I wore my hair curly. People seemed to smile at me and want to interact more. They assumed I was fun and outgoing. (I wasn’t.) From an intellectual standpoint, I observed that I got treated differently depending on how I wore my hair. It was… interesting.
Fast forward to graduation and getting my first “big girl” job. I had gone on a few interviews and had read an article somewhere that suggested women with textured hair should straighten it so it appeared sleek and more put together for things like job interviews so others would take us seriously. So that’s what I did, and I got hired in for-profit education working as an Admissions Rep. I continued straightening my hair almost every day to appear more business-like for the first couple of years. After that, I realized how damaged my hair was and decided to lay off the heat styling for a while and let it do it’s thing. I was also very sick, malnourished (due to GI issues), and my hair showed it. Much like my energy levels, it was limp. It had started to fall out. I needed to give it a break.
I was okay at that job. I hated it (loved my coworkers) but I was good at it. I applied for a few other positions over the nine years I was there, landing some interviews at the local university. I didn’t get any of the positions I had applied for – I was under-qualified for one (fair enough), over-qualified for another (I call bull), and for the last two I was told I didn’t appear professional enough to be considered.
I asked questions about those last two. Was I unprofessional in my manner? I was told no. My dress? Also no. My speech? Oh, no, I was very polished and clearly intelligent.
Then what was it? No one could quite put their finger on it. It just seemed to them that some of the other candidates were more polished. There was nothing in my history or in my social media that gave the impression that I would poorly represent any company. Quite the opposite, I was told. I just seemed… like a social butterfly, less serious.
I was floored. That was the antithesis of who I was. I was the person at work who didn’t socialize as much. I was the person who didn’t gossip. I was the one who wore suits to work and full business attire in the business casual environment. I’m the introvert, the intellectual, the observer, the overachieving straight-A student who gets her work turned in on time – often early – and it’s precise and correct. I had friends who called me “Bones” after the main character in that show who takes everything so literally and seriously. How on earth had I shown up as unpolished and less serious?
One of the ladies I worked with at the time pulled me aside one day when I was lamenting my situation and got brutally honest with me. It was my hair.
I had worn it curly (though pulled back neatly) to the last few interviews. I was trying to undo the damage I had done with heat styles over the years. This kind lady – herself with course, kinky-curly hair and herself still in the entry-level position she had gotten over a decade ago – told me the truth: in our world, people just don’t take women with curly hair as seriously.
I didn’t believe her. I thought that was dumb. Surely potential employers understood that was discriminatory and biased. It’s illegal to make hiring decisions like that.
Then I had a conversation with another acquaintance who was also a hiring employer. I wanted advice on how to show up better for job interviews. I had finished my Master’s degree and my family needed me to make more money.
She told me to make sure I straightened my hair. She said curly hair looks unkempt. She personally hadn’t ever gotten a good impression from anyone who showed up to interviews “like that.” In her opinion, if they couldn’t take the time and care needed to “make themselves presentable and look polished,” well, they probably wouldn’t take the time and care needed to do their job the right way.
I felt hot and cold all over. I was embarrassed – for me and for her. Here she was, saying things that were discriminatory based on hair texture, of all things, and thinking it was okay. Here I was, listening to her basically tell me that in my natural state, I would never be enough, never be taken seriously, never be promoted or awarded for the quality of my work or for my accomplishments. In her world, in my natural state, I was incapable of accomplishing anything noteworthy.
What an ugly thing to feel.
I severed ties with that acquaintance pretty quickly. I also quickly got hired at my current company. I am focusing on being as healthy as I can be, and that includes my hair.
All of this has happened within the past 15 years. I have colored and straightened my hair a lot in that time, still, but now I am at a point where I need to focus on my overall health, and that includes my hair. So the other day, I decided to get rid of my heat styling tools, haul out my diffuser, and go curly-product shopping. There is an entire, gigantic community of humans all over the globe who are embracing their natural hair textures and who are focusing on healthy self-image that includes those textures. I’m joining it.
My hair is now more wavy than curly due to damage and lack of nutrients. But I’m a on a mostly plant-based diet, now, so with lots of time (it takes a year or two of patience) I’m thinking I can reclaim some of the actual curl. That’s the goal.
I’ve also been promoted twice in the past three years, and the last time I was promoted I went through the interview process with my hair in its natural state. Progress.
There’s not really a point to this post other than for me to celebrate the fact that at 37 years old I am deciding to be even more me.
Unless the point is about how liberating/frightening/traumatic/rewarding/amazing it can be to embrace everything about how you were made and learn to love it. Unless it’s about loving your life even if you’ve always been the weirdo, the underdog, the different one. It’s important to remember we are made exactly as we are for a reason and that we bring something to the world that no one else brings. It’s important to know that we don’t have to change who we are or how we look to be effective, successful, and most importantly, to be enough.
So cheers to my family for doing their best with what they knew and for supporting me even though I look a little different and act a little different than they do. That kind of love and support feeds feeling comfortable in your own skin and helps you build a good sense of humor.
Cheers to the people (Is it rude to say idiots? Yes? Well, then.) who passed over me because of some serious, deep-rooted social constructs they had developed that were wildly discriminatory. Coming up against that kind of fear after being raised with love and support creates grit and strength of character.
And cheers to me for embarking on this journey back to great hair and good health. And cheers to you for whatever it is that’s unique about you that you were somehow taught made you less than, or other, or not enough. Because how you were made is awesome and just. exactly. right. Be you.
(I’m still a little peeved about not getting the darker complexion and perfect eyesight, tbh, and about the fact that I just found a bobby pin in my hair that may have been from a couple days ago. At least it isn’t sticks and leaves any more like it was when I was little. Ha! I have matured. #curlyhairprobs)
(P.S. I cannot believe I forgot one important group of ladies who also helped me accept my curls and love them! Okay, I can totally believe it, but I have to say… my extroverted brother told me when I started college that I was socially inept – he used a different, non-Kosher word – and should join a sorority to learn how to ‘people’ correctly. He pointed me to three he would recommend and I was invited to join all three. Some of my favorite humans in the world came from all of those organizations and I shunned the one for which I was a legacy to join the one I was most comfortable with. What was the difference? I looked around at my new sisters and a lot of them had curly hair. It was like I found the tribe I looked like, finally. Acceptance is a big deal and a universal language. Never forget that. And cheers to all my sisters from other misters!)
As I sit here, the sounds of my 11-year-old son and my husband wrestling the daylights out of each other (and probably injuring an arm and a kidney or two between them) are literally vibrating through the house, followed by squeals of delights and the yowls of defeat (mostly coming from my husband, it seems). My almost 16-year-old daughter is at church with her aunt and cousin, in one of her favorite spring dresses and my super-tall wedges that fit her almost perfectly. What makes today different than any other day, though, is that it’s Mother’s Day, so I am not at church with her and I’m instead sitting at home, writing.
That may seem weird, except I’m not really their mom – I’m their step-mom. My husband and his ex-wife share joint custody of their two children, so we have them (or one or the other, depending in the season) almost as much as she does. I call them mine, because their father and I, and their mother and their step-father, have been living like this for a decade. (Our youngest has no recollection of a time when he didn’t have four parents.) I love them just as much as I would if they were mine. Parents without step-children would probably disagree with me there, since I’ve repeatedly been told by several supposedly well-meaning busy-bodies that it’s different.
Is it? Can you prove it? Have you lived inside my heart and seen the height and depth and breadth of my love for them? Because unless you have (and I’m pretty sure you’re not God), you can’t say with 100% certainty that it is different. You can say that you think it would be different if I had my own children. You can say that you’re in a similar situation and you know it’s different, and you can even say that you’ve seen multiple situations like mine and you’ve observed the differences. But you can’t say that you know our situation.
But I can tell you that I come from a blended family, and I love my step-brothers and step-sister just as much and just as deeply as I do my biological brother, so it’s not a stretch for me to feel the same about these two children. And I can say I love them just as much as if they were my own because their mom and I have a pretty good relationship, and I react to their successes and failures the same way she does. We’ve talked about how it makes us feel, and we’ve found we feel the same. And I commend her for that, because I can’t say that if the situation were reversed I would handle it as well; that’s how much I do love them.
But back to the layout of today…
I take them to church every other Sunday, sometimes more often depending upon their mom’s work schedule and if we have them back-to-back weekends. So today is weird, because I didn’t take them, and I didn’t go by myself. Why? Because it’s Mother’s Day, and I’m not their mother, nor would I ever try to replace her or pretend I’m equal to her. Maybe in their eyes I am. In fact, I hope they love and respect all four of us – mom, dad, step-dad, and me – equally. That means we’re doing something right. But I can’t fault them if they don’t. Their biological mother and father get to be at the top of the pecking order, and that’s as it should be. We are all equally involved in their lives. We plan and coordinate and re-plan and adjust based on everyone’s needs, and that gets us to school, soccer practices, baseball practices, archery, family events, birthday parties, and everywhere else. And it takes all four of us (they have a younger half-brother who is part of all of the logistics, too). But they have a mother, and I’m not her, and they need to know I understand that.
So, since I’m not their mother, I didn’t go to church. I don’t want to stand up when they do the usual “Recognition of the Mothers” and get the strange looks and the judgments and the stilted applause. I don’t go to “Muffins with Mom” at school every year, and when asked, I tell people they’re my step-children. I don’t want to take any attention away from their real mother, who is very much in the picture and works just as hard to make sure they know and feel secure in how much they’re loved. It’s not my right, it’s not my place, and it’s not my desire to detract from that.
And you know what? It’s hard to know you’re number 2 (or number 4, depending on the day and the kid) forever. That number isn’t exactly equated with great things. (Think about it.) In fact, it really, really sucks some days – especially on the days when not even my husband recognizes the sacrifices I make because life is just that hectic and stressful and it’s hard to notice. I won’t even sit here and lie and say my feelings don’t get hurt, because they do, until I remember that oh yeah, it’s not really about me, is it? It’s still worth it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I. Chose. This. And I would do it again.
So on Mother’s Day, the oldest gets to spend over half the day with the women in her mother’s family. Because she got the reminder two weeks ago, she already put thought into and bought flowers for her mother and gave them to her. The 11-year-old and I are working together and painting a sign for his mom so she knows he thinks she’s the best mom ever.
Because this day – no matter how commercialized and Hallmarked it may or may not be – is not about me. This day is and should always be about her. That is the life and truth of a step-parent. We know this; we chose it with eyes wide open and willingly.
And you know what? It’s kind of super awesome. Because if we do it right, we get to see these kids grow up into loving, considerate, wholly fulfilled human beings.
Note: It’s also really funny at birthday parties and parent-teacher conferences when we show up en masse and have to explain everyone’s relationship a dozen times before people get it. And it was extremely funny when the kids were little and would look at other kids with pity and say, “You mean you only have one mom and one dad?! Wow, that must be awful.” (To be fair, that only happened a couple times before we had to have the “every-family-is-different-and-you-can’t-judge-them-for-it-or-say-things-like-that” talk in order to avoid future embarrassment.)
So to all the ‘real’ moms and step-moms, and to all the single dads who are also moms, and to all the grandparents and aunts and godparents and brothers and sisters and anyone else who steps into that role, Happy Mother’s Day. May it be delightful and rewarding no matter your situation and how you live it.