The Best Day

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It was not the first time I had performed “I’m A Little Teapot,” but it was certainly the most important. With hair that curled into q’s and fire station red Keds, I bounced down the hallway, locking hands with my grandmother. We’d run a few errands on the way there, including a visit to my favorite mailman, Oddly, but our final stop held enough excitement that even my two-and-a-half year old stomach knew to drop.

I marveled over the hospital’s automatic doors and abundance of latex gloves, turning the corner to see two familiar faces: mom and dad. His face covered in a scary-looking mask to conceal his perfectly-timed pink eye, my dad called me over to a tall box on wheels with a blanket placed inside. Unsure of what the box would hold, I did the only thing I knew to do–distract. “But have you heard my song?,” I said.

Without pause for response, the words slipped out, dripped in that hilarious Southern twang I mysteriously caught for a few years of my childhood. “I’m a little teapot, short and stayyyout. Here is my handle; Here is my spayyyouuttt.”

They politely listened to the tune, their attention obviously elsewhere.

The blankets inside the box held something much better than a teapot–my newborn baby brother.

The next day, my dad let me help him choose a cake from the bakery, and I of course picked the one with flowers. We stood in line as the baker topped it with the words “Welcome home, mom and Kendall!” in blue icing. Later, we sat on the couch–my mom holding the baby, my dad holding the cake. As soon as he put it down, I decided to help by removing the flowers so we could eat the rest. Reaching for a petal, my hand dove into a glob of icing. Previously, I had no mental category for icing flowers. I had no category for being a sister, either.

This is my oldest memory. It includes all of the things that psychologists say fill out significant memories — hospitals, transition, fear and cake, of course. Our first memories hinge between what we value and who we are, setting the precedent for both to continue taking shape.

I can’t remember life before I became a sister. Of course, I have home videos on VHS to remind me of my first steps and birthday parties, but I could not recall these things on my own. Kendall and I have been commonly mistaken for twins, and I don’t think this is too far from the truth. In many ways, the day his life began was when mine did, too.

23 years later, it couldn’t be more true. I can’t think of a day that would define the rest of my life more than that one. Welcoming him home and into our lives felt like inviting joy to stay.

And 23 years ago, I would never predict that I’d be spending today alone. I couldn’t have stretched my imagination far enough to cover the misery, grief and death that would one day follow my brother’s birth. But more importantly, and the thing I see the most today, my little mind could never perceive the profoundly extravagant gift of being his sister. Even on my darkest day, it will always win.

The day those little blue blankets appeared was my first day worth remembering, so it would be wrong to drift through today just trying to make it through. Today commemorates the 23rd anniversary of the best day of my life. I sure wish I knew 23-year-old Kendall, but I’m thankful to hope that a little part of him lives within 25-year-old me.

Happy Birthday, sweet boy. Here’s to an eternity of days like these to spend together. Don’t worry, I’ll be bringing a little teapot, short and stout.

I Ran A Half-Marathon (!!!)

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“Pusher Love Girl”: The Backstory

I’ve listened to “Pusher Love Girl” four times since Kendall passed away. The first, on the way to visit the cemetery the first time by myself, when flowers didn’t seem to suffice. The second, it becoming my little tradition, the next time I visited the cemetery alone. Although I do usually bring flowers, I feel like they are more for myself—Justin Timberlake seems a better offering to a 20-year-old brother than tulips ever will.

Both the third and fourth rounds of “Pusher Love Girl” happened Saturday.

The song was never officially dubbed “ours” or “his” persay, but it’s the most current reminder I have of him in my head. I imagine others who have unexpected loss may feel the same way about a cereal they saw their loved one eat before leaving home or the reading glasses left on the bedside table. “Pusher Love Girl” is my favorite because, well, it’s slightly explicit and full of pop, and a memory that is solely mine.

The last summer we had together, both back in our childhood rooms across the hall from one another, he’d listen to it in the mornings, his electric razor buzzing and falsetto voice unashamedly belting. I was the only one who ever woke to a voice-cracking “I’m just a j-j-j-junkie for your love” from the next room. Unlike the heaviness of tombstones and obituaries, this song reminds me of life. The song is full and peppy, just like those mornings filled with spritzes of cologne and scents of waffles. It’s the unscathed joy we didn’t know to savor from our side-by-side life, the one before we became separated by tragedy. The safe and sound version of us.

My running was not motivated by reminders of his death, but of his life. And that half marathon? I did the dang thing.

In Which We Talk About The Race and Not “Pusher Love Girl”:

Saturday morning brought a 4:30 am wake-up call and the hottest morning Nashville’s seen in quite a while. I’d never trained in this kind of heat, in addition to never before wearing the knee brace and tank top I decided to wear on race day. AKA I basically broke all of the “running world” violations before getting out of the car, watching the odds stack up against me before my eyes. Anxious runners filled Broadway, pushing through the crowds to locate their running corrals. I was supposed to be in corral 38, but in a blackout moment of sheer naivety, I made the oh-so-obvious determination that I AM NOT A CORRAL 38 KIND OF GIRL. And thus, my corral 10 career was born. Split seconds after making that decision, I heard the announcer say the number 10 and FELT MY LEGS MOVING WITHOUT MY BRAIN. Like, hello? Stretching? What’s that? Beyonce? Is that you?

It wasn’t until the end of Broadway that I realized I hadn’t started my music or running app and remembered to take a beginning-of-the-race selfie. With expletives dancing in my head, I rounded the country music- filled corner with flashback memories of all the 5Ks I’ve ever hated filling my steps with angst. And then, the Space Jam theme song came on and I WAS BUGS BUNNY WITH THE ALLEY-OOP. “Welcome to your jam,” the honky-tonk heavens sang. (Don’t quote me on this theology, but I BELIEVE THEY EXIST, OK?)

The angst was gone and the first five miles were like Christmas morning. I passed the 5K mark with a confident scoff at my formerly-lacking self with internal shouts of YOU ARE DOING THE THING, GIRL. GET IT. I had no chill, and why yes, I sang all the songs that were blasting in my earbuds with complete choreography while running, loving my life. I decided that since I had already set a personal record of “showing up to a half-marathon,” I was going to also have the most fun ever. And I did.

But did I mention it was hot? And there were hills? It was entirely, hilariously toasty, and I downed unidentified glucose packets and running goo all along the way. On mile 10, they gave out wet sponges and it was a definite highlight. (Did I just say that mile TEN was a highlight? You guys. I think I’ve been hacked.)

I’m not going to tell you that it was all butterflies and roses, except, in retrospect, it was. I did the thing I didn’t ever ever ever think I could possibly do. It was HARD and it was HOLY and it was life-altering.

Post-glorious sponge distribution, I’m starting to feel like I will not live to see the finish line. Until this point, I have diligently timed my run/walk ratios, but with three miles to go, my body takes over and I do everything I can to just keep going. I’m delirious and see ambulances and stretchers occupied with runners in the distance. NOT TODAY, I tell myself. NOT TODAY.

In the midst of my delirium, I hear someone in the crowd shout, “Last mile! You can do it!,” and suddenly wonder if I’ve lost track of the mileage or a true marathon miracle has occurred. Although I thought I was just beginning mile 11, I am terrible at geography and am extremely gullible, thus whipping out my last mile playlist like I was born for this moment.

Back to “Pusher Love Girl”

I am wearing a wristband that says “Make Him Proud,” a reminder of the brother I started running for. Because I was unable to emotionally prepare for the last mile, I was suddenly overcome with emotion at the start of “Pusher Love Girl.” The buzzing, the falsetto, the waffles, my brother–it was all there, aching into my muscles. I sped up, ready to finish strong, but the song kept going and going, with no finish line in sight. The tears were streaming, and for the first time, my physical pain matched the brokenness I’ve felt all along. My feet were bleeding, my knees throbbing, and my patience thinning.

And then I began the actual last mile. I’d run mile twelve as if it were my last, with nothing left for mile thirteen. Pro tip: Don’t listen to spectators, friends. With my heart set on the playlist, I clicked “play” again, but this round was different. I was slower, softer, exhausted. I was weak, I was out of control, and by grace, I was straight-up joyful. I fist-pumped and sang my own falsetto to “I’m just a j-j-junkie for your love.” Steadying myself, I crossed the real, genuine finish line, in complete and total shock. It wasn’t just victory; it was redemption.

Death isn’t the end. Sadness isn’t the end. In Christ, we cross the finish line stripped of our own strength, with joy renewed and darkness removed. He will play back the sad songs we’ve written and show us their worth. This is our story. This is our song.

I am overwhelmed. He has overcome.

I can barely walk today, but it was worth it. The training, the blisters, the soreness, it was all so, very worth it. And I wonder if this can help me navigate suffering, this in-between life that feels like a never-ending race without my brother. Maybe healing begins when we intentionally show up to our brokenness, expecting it to be hard and pushing forward anyway. I walked away Saturday feeling a little more whole, a little more

Kendall, I hope I made you proud, buddy. See you at the finish line.

“Do not let it cross your mind that you do not have what it takes to pursue your dreams.”
-Kendall Wernet

s.o.s | half marathon

We’ve started a little Friday “Cheers” tradition around here, but today, we’re going to call it something a little more fitting: “S.O.S.”jon-tyson-232630

I’m running a half marathon tomorrow. Save my freaking soul.

Tomorrow’s headlines: Kaitlin Wernet, 25, resident of Nashville, TN, innocent bystander in most cases (except this one), is hesitant to announce that she has officially gone INSANE. IN-SAY-NE. She’s currently seeking intensive counseling, serious hydration, and warm baths.

Here are the things you need to know:

I am an emotional wreck. I started running in January, hoping to explore something my brother loved—a productive, empowering way to grieve. I wanted blood pumping in my dry, tired bones, giving life to the sad narrative I’ve been living. And that’s exactly what happened. It’s come to life—all of it, wholly,—and I think tomorrow will be 13.1 miles of reliving the story. I’ve learned that it’s hard to run and cry at the same time, but my goal is to run toward and through the feelings instead of away from them. Endurance is a mental game I’ve been learning for two-and-a-half years.

Kendall did not run 13.1 miles. (To my knowledge.) In case I needed one, this is an indication that I am a high-functioning fool. But I also kind of love this, because I know that if he were here, he would be doing it. This is uncharted territory, and when I think about how crazy of an idea it is, I know his dimples would be beaming.

The most I’ve run is 10.5 miles. And I limped back to my car (and everywhere else for the next two days) when that happened.

I do not think I can do this. But I cannot wait to do it anyway.

Tonight, I’m eating pasta for dinner. Because that’s all I know to do. Obviously, I’m really good at this. I’ll be qualifying for Boston any moment now.

Tomorrow, I’m eating running goo every forty-five minutes. You probably know more about this than I do. Carry on.

I’m running with a fanny pack. Speaks for itself, really.

My knees are weak. They kneed prayer. (Sorry not sorry.) But really, they haven’t been strong since a few minor knee surgeries I had in high school, and this distance will be pushing it.

I made a running playlist filled with songs I’m too embarrassed to show you, but you can see my “Final Mile” playlist:

These are all songs that remind me of Kendall, and if they can’t get me through the last mile, go ahead and call the stretcher.

  1. “Brother” by NeedToBreathe and Gavin DeGraw
  2. “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit
  3. “Pusher Love Girl” by Justin Timberlake

I’ll (hopefully) cross that finish line listening to Justin sing lyrics about drugs I don’t know about and a brother I miss more than anything. When it plays, I hear Kendall’s silly falsetto voice and electric razor buzzing in the background. It was his morning getting ready song, and I can’t wait for it to be our half-marathon finishing song. We will discuss these things in heaven, I’m quite sure of it.

All in all, I’m ecstatic. I’m confident. I also feel like I’m going to throw up. I’m trusting. I’m thankful.

S.O.S.

Cheers.

You guys are the best cheerleaders around. See you on the other side of the finish line, I hope. xo

The Song in My Head

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Pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’ berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries.
It is his kindergarten play. He is, hilariously, the lead—Old MacDonald. He is, diligently, the one picking (pickin’) berries—strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries. He is, bashfully, facing the gymnasium filled with parents. He is, heroically, recalling his lines and playing the part. He is, decidedly, never going to be in a play, much less a musical, again.

And that’s all there is to it.

Pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’ berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries.
It is his 16th birthday. He is, begrudgingly, indulging us with home videos. He is, traditionally, trying to fast-forward through Old MacDonald. He is, secretly, loving it. He is, of course, singing along. We are, decidedly, doing this more often.

And that’s all there is to it.

Pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’ berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries.
It is yesterday. The song is, strangely, stuck in my head. He is, of course, not singing along. I, surprisingly, remember every word.

That’s not all there is to it.

Pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’ berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries.
It is today. I, accidentally, sing the words out loud. I, quickly, cover them up. I, traditionally, am not quick enough. I, awkwardly, must explain about this song.

There’s a lot to it, it turns out.

But, for the first time, I do not feel guilty about not telling it all.

“It’s a song that reminds me of my brother,” I say, unable to hold back my grin.

I am supposed to be sad. I am sad. But today, I choose to pick the berries, and they are more sweet than bitter.

Pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’, pickin’ berries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries.
It is tomorrow. I, of course, do not know how I will feel.

But there’s more to love than that, isn’t there?

 

Running

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He was always a runner. I remember the way the living room would shake as he dribbled that mostly-deflated plastic ball up and down its center, aiming at invisible targets above the door frame. Kendall would play basketball and tag in the cul-de-sac with the neighborhood boys, which, as they grew, turned into soccer teams and cross country meets. They’d load up on spaghetti the night before a long run, the team calling him “Kev” even though I’m still not quite sure why. And long after the season was over, when school was stressful or he’d been indoors too long, he’d lace up his shoes and choose to run up and down the steepest hills in the neighborhood.

I have never been a runner. On the first day of high school PE, the coach said, “You have the legs, you just don’t know how to use them.” As if I hadn’t been, oh you know, using them EVERY DAY OF MY ENTIRE LIFE. While I was busy trying to catch some kind of sickness (Once I overachieved and got mono, but success because the doctor’s orders were literally ‘no physical activity.’) before the bi-annual 5Ks my family ran together, Kendall would win his division. It’s a good thing I loved my brother so much, because otherwise, I would have had a serious jealousy problem. Okay, maybe I did a little bit anyway.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to save onlookers from my (lack of) athletic ability. And in turn, I’ve spent a lot of time hiding from the shame that stems from it. As long as the attention was on someone else, I was thrilled to be the spectator cheering in the stands. When Kendall was running, I always had the satisfaction of being a fan of the winning team. But now, I don’t have anyone to cheer for.

The past few months, I’ve been angry. Angry that all of my gut reactions to cheer for him are still dead ends. Angry that I cannot just force someone else to take up his place. Angry about how quiet it is to sit in the stands and realize I’m still alone. Angry about feeling unseen. Angry about the concept of long-suffering. Angry about saying even more goodbyes. Angry that I can’t remember him like I used to. Angry about feeling like my family can’t catch a break and the hurt keeps coming, pounding, again and again.

So I did the thing I swore I’d never do. I started running. But this time, it wasn’t for my shame or the PE coach. It was for my brother. One clumsy, slow step at a time, I lost my breath in prayers that ached to learn why he loved it. I wanted to unveil the mystery of his enjoyment of running, but really, I just wanted to feel close to him again. I wished to take back all of the times he’d gone running alone and make sure we did it together. And as I prayed these shallow prayers, asking God to help me remember things I’ve forgotten and endure the next tenth of a mile, I wasn’t alone. The steps kept coming, pounding, again and again. Mile after mile, it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not, just that I did whatever I could to not stop.

I began to crave it–not the running, but the newness. For so long, the grief has felt so old and inescapable, and I cannot shake the fear that it will always feel this way. I grieve knowing that a brother-shaped void will be in every future memory, accomplishment and milestone. Nothing can happen that will be purely sweet without bitterness. But when I lace up the shoes I never thought I’d use, it’s the kind of sweet I never expected to taste again, like considering that when God says He makes all things new, He may actually mean all things. All of the time I’ve spent trying to hide it–the shame, the doubt, the fear, the grief–hasn’t prevented Him from tending to it. It doesn’t resolve or relieve my hurt, but for the first time, I’m noticing something beautiful sprout next to it, up from the ground I thought was fruitless. Beauty from ashes.

As I run, it’s nothing fancy and mostly still a struggle, but the pounding on the pavement remains the same:
I miss you. I love you. I miss you.

This weekend I ran the farthest I’ve ever run, a distance I cannot even believe is true. I completely feel like an imposter, but I did it. Seven miles.

And while I don’t think I’ve exactly nailed down why he loved running yet, I’ve been reminded of something he loved more, something I think I’d pushed aside:
He misses me too. He misses me too. He misses me too.
He loves me back. He loves me back. He loves me back.

Beauty from ashes.
I don’t know if running is something I’ll keep up or not, but I think I hear cheering coming from the stands. I’ve always hoped it was still there, I just never expected it to be for me.

when the holidays feel broken

photo-1463569643904-4fbae71ed917A table, four chairs, three bodies—this is what the holidays are to us now.

Our best china is overflowing with oranges and cranberries, turkey and dressing, potatoes and stuffing. We use cloth napkins and stemmed glasses, untying red aprons and warming serving trays. We sing songs and pray prayers, sharing knowing looks while holding shaking hands. This is what celebration is now.

Winter will blow her best winds—A cool, crisp gust signaling the start of gathering season. The breeze teases tradition and hope, whistling through our newfound holes and gaps. Its chill bites our wounds, echoing loudly against the empty chair. The table is full, but the chair remains unoccupied.

This year, we’ll listen to old recordings of Charlie Brown songs instead of a live performance on the piano. We’ll decide against hanging stockings, but maybe make Christmas morning cinnamon rolls if we’re feeling brave. Neighbors will visit and family will call, some avoiding the empty chair while others call it out, both serving as acknowledgments to us. We are thankful, and we are hurting.

The thing I remember most about past holidays, those with four filled chairs, is the raisin bread. It was and is our favorite, a holiday staple and familiar smell. We’d pass it around the table, the basket barely making it around the table once before needing to be refilled. It was a joyful, steady communion.

Now, we sit in a different arrangement than we used to—three at one end of the table, the gap moving to the end. I’m not sure if we do it to be closer or for the empty chair to be less pronounced, but my guess is certainly both. Yet, we still pass a basket of raisin bread during the holidays, our arms passing it through the empty space, but not around it. There’s no forgetting, no levity, no distracting, but there’s a steady communion nonetheless.

I wonder if Jesus’ disciples felt this way at the Last Supper, knowing their brother’s chair would soon be empty.

“And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
-1 Corinthians 11:24

We are called to remember the festive things, the joyful things, and, especially, the broken things. We do not hide away the empty chair, but rather, pull it closer to the table. Because, friends, once we allow it to sit amongst us, fellowshipping with the shattered holes we can’t cover any longer, we remember—we too, are broken. Yes, we are broken, but so is the bread. So was His body. All so that we may be whole once again. This is what celebration is now.

Lord, help us remember.
Be with the empty chairs and empty hearts this season.
Sit at our tables and show us the hope of Your wholeness.
May we partake in steady communion with Your presence.
We have walked in darkness; point us to your Great Light.
Amen.

let us make art

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Every time I wear a dress, someone asks about the scar on my knee. It’s a pretty good one, as far as scars go, spreading across my left kneecap with little dots where the stitches used to be.

I had three knee surgeries in high school for—what we didn’t know at the time was— a benign tumor.(Don’t worry—the medical talk stops here because #squeamish). Anyway, all you need to know is that I’m totally fine, I got to wear hot pink bandages, and the doctor assured me the scar would be gone within a year.

It’s still here. But oddly, I love that scar. It represents the awkward eleventh grader who had to sit on the sidelines of marching practice with the most uncool “injury” of all time. (I was already in marching band, so I’m being very serious when I emphasize my steadily-increasing level of uncool.) It reminds me of the self-conscious girl who’d cover the healing yet unfading scar with a fresh Band-Aid each morning. And oddly, I love that girl, too.

Now, after getting over the fact that my kneecap will never be cute (I mean. It truly had potential.), I mostly have forgotten about the scar until someone else points it out. When they do, I love to tell a good battle wound story. However, there are things that I’m afraid someone will notice that I’m less proud of—wounds that will take longer to become scars, brokenness that may never become whole. I hide them with my own Band-Aids of “I’m fine, you?” and “Oh, good. Busy, but good.”

I was once sitting on a place next to a woman in her mid-thirties. She had a designer purse and blonde locks, both of which I envied. She asked where I was headed.

“Florida,” I said. “Disney World. You?”
“New York,” she said. “Rehab.”

She didn’t justify, just stated. There I was, sitting next to her in 12B, on a trip I’d planned with my brother, without him. I’d spent the day before—his birthday—at the cemetery, and I’d been unable to eat solid food for a few days. Yet, all she knew about me was EVERYTHING WAS GREAT AND I WAS HEADED FOR DISNEY WORLD. YIPEE!!

I was a jerk. A jerk who didn’t know what to say.

Seeing my surprised reaction, she explained that it was a good thing. She was relieved. The only bad part, she explained, was that she wasn’t allowed to bring her paintbrushes.

Her paintbrushes. I clung to this detail like a sentence from my own story. It was sacred.

She was going to rehab and she wanted to make art.

And while she could have easily just said she was going to New York, she was doing more than that. She was making beauty from broken. Better yet, she was giving me permission to do the same.

Although I don’t know her name, I think about my friend sitting in 12A a lot. I pray for her and wonder how she’s doing, but most of all, I dream about the day she returns home—whole and healed, paintbrush in hand. In this dream, a crowd of her closest people are celebrating, for they know what the paintbrush means. She will make art. She already has.

And then I think about who would be in the crowd at my own celebration.
If I say “I’m fine” and keep the scars-in-progress hidden, would anyone be there?

What if hiding our broken places means withholding our best art?

Maybe we don’t have to shrink away when someone notices our brokenness.
Maybe we won’t have to be alone the first time we pick up a paintbrush.

We will make art. You already have.