honoring empty seats....

My ability to thrive and be great at work is not lessoned by the deep pain from losing my mom. I need to stop letting myself fear that being in pain is weakness, in fact I’ve found strength I didn’t know existed. Every once in a while, I’ll wake up crying or close my door because something reminded me of my mom and it is too much to hold in. So I am writing it down and sharing it because I am not authentic if I don’t share the mess under the sweater vest, which one day I’ll write a book and that’ll be the title.  

I was visiting my mom one time while I was in undergrad at Georgia State and I just finished The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The book is his speech from his last lecture at Carnegie Melon as he left his role due to Pancratic Cancer. I told my mom about the book sitting on her couch in the House Mom suite of the Delta Zeta house at Texas State. She asked to read it and so I left it with her.  I am now left to honor the empty seat left by Pancreatic Cancer, which took my mother from me almost two years ago  

It is not fair and it not right that a woman who suffered through so many twists and turns and burns in life should have to face  an early end. The thing is for a while now I’ve been living with the rage left in my heart, but it’s time to live in her memory and to honor that empty seat. I am accepting this new reality (because my therapist says it’s important part of grieving) that I feel deep pain and deep joy simultaneously.

       As I accomplish new milestones that missing seat will be there and the tears of joy and pain will mix together. I have dreams of taking on my first (insert role here) and being hooded when I finish my Ph.D. in 2022 and to know my mother won't be sitting out in the crowd hurts. That hurt has made me stronger, it has made me a better friend, and it's made me a better professional. I lived through her death so living on is my responsibility. 

          Here's to all of us who are living with empty seats and working every day to make them proud. Here’s to kicking fall 2018’s ass with tears, laughs, love, hurt, and healing. 

 

When the "clocks almost done ticking".....

I am the person you probably don't want to share a community table with or sit next to on an airplane if you want to be left alone. I get the hint when your earphones go in, but I will try to start a conversation because strangers are just friends I haven't met yet, right? 

This morning with Diet Coke in hand I met my match in a woman named Sue. I chose a long table to work on some outstanding items before my flight and I sat next to a woman who was quick to introduce herself and compliment the lyrics of Rent on my wrist....obviously a great start to any conversation.  She asked me where I was headed and what I do. When I asked the same question she stopped for a moment. I knew that look. It's the look where you decide what to disclose and I have found myself making it every time a person asks about where my mom is. A moment later she shared that she went to her doctor a couple weeks ago and after some tests found out she has terminal cancer. Pancreatic Cancer. My face winced and she simply asked who and then I made the same face she had moments earlier. From then on the conversation flowed between two people that a terrible disease eliminated barriers and so I asked why Paris. 

Her response was simple and perfect, which was that her "clocks almost done ticking" and she spent her whole life investing in others so she wanted to end with dignity and wonderful memories in her mind. The power of that shook me to my core.

I believe deeply in signs present themselves to us when we need them most and today Sue was just the sign that I think I needed. I have been in a rough place emotionally with grief and some self-doubt, yet this wonderful woman who is being taken from the world far too early is living her life fully. She loved others deeply, she dedicated herself to her work and she wouldn't take it back, and in the end, she could say her time was well spent. 

I will love myself more fiercely, I will believe in my ability and capabilities, and I will never let someone else have me question that again. When I am looking at the final minutes tick away on my clock, I don't want to say I skipped the show or left something great because of the issues of other.  So now I need to board my plane, but when I come back to Atlanta I am coming back with a fire that I will never let anyone dim again.  So thank you Sue.

Sincerely,

The boy with a diet coke.

 

 

 

Lessons from Mom...

Every morning I wake up and strive to honor the empty seat in my life...the seat left when Pancreatic Cancer took my mother from me far too early.

Marchia Gault Williams was a light in the world for many, but she was first and foremost to me...my mom. The past year and a half for most of you reading this have happened as normal(normal-ish), but for me they've been marked with a terrible pain that sits in my chest every single day. I still reach for the phone to call her after work some days when I "forget" that she's not going to answer. I take moments away just so I can let my emotions crash and feel the thing that I avoid. I have a framed piece of art from her apartment I walk by every morning and when I see it, I see her. I have a picture of us in my office that stares at me every day so when I need to see her, I can. I hate grieving, but what I've come to learn most is that it's hard to grieve when you are grieving your person. My mom was my world. I talked to her almost every day after work and though I couldn't always make visiting her work...oh the stories I could tell you of our UHAUL adventure from Atlanta to San Marcos or the wonderful weekend we shared in Oxford, Ohio.

If you asked, I could also run down the list of all the ways I didn't do right by my mom. I should have taken that extra time to go see her last Christmas, because it would have been my last one. I should have been more thoughtful at birthdays, I should have sent flowers more than I did, and on....some nights my mind is full of nothing, but the should have done list. This is the harder part to deal with because I have the memories of the wonderful times, but nothing will take the regrets.

Grieving is a process as unique as the person experiencing it and in my grief I wrote a list of lessons my mom taught me that felt like it should be shared. She taught me so much more than these three things, but these are the three that I think the world could use. There are dozen more and maybe in time I can share them, but for now these three are

Love with all you have: My mom throughout her life did everything for those she loved. From the birthday parties, the signs in the front yard to celebrate accomplishments, to the holiday packages (yes you can create a basket for almost any holiday, trust me) she sent. These are all choices of love. A love so deep and enduring that it found moments to celebrate in darkness and was so selfless. A love that made sure every house girl had a present when they moved in and that there was a fun box sent to her children for every holiday.

You need to help others: My mom made a career of helping others. Whether it be working for non-profits or being a house mom, she was there for those who needed her. I couldn't tell you when the cancer started, but I can tell you that she worked through pain her whole life. Her father was sick so she drove from Atlanta to Lufkin and ended up damaging her Achilles tendon and was in pain, but she knew she was needed. She was sick at times in the sorority house, but when the girls needed her, she would be there to take them to class or pick them up from that party they didn't feel safe at. She paid her rent on this planet thirty times over even though her life was cut short.

You aren't guaranteed tomorrow: The hardest lesson I've learned from my mother has come from her death. On September 3rd, 2016, at 8:30 am, she called me to say she wasn't feeling well and was going to the Urgent Care. A couple hours later she was going to the E.R., and at around 1 o'clock she called me saying we needed to call some people and that phone call ended with her asking me "if this was all fatal." Those words still bounce in the back of my head. My answer was no, but ten days later my beautiful, strong, and resilient mother left this world. The likelihood of you walking outside tomorrow and getting hit by an actual bus is small. The chance of you going to the Dr. and finding out you life is changed forever isn't as small. A car wreck, cancer, and other tragedies could be second away from ending any of us. My mother lived her life to the fullest and though I know some things didn't get checked off that bucket list....If I can live to be half the person she was....I'll be doing alright.

I miss my mom each and every day. I'll carry her with me and be the best man I can...so that wherever she's watching from....she can be proud of the man she shaped me to be.

What I learned about Leadership by being out...

  I came out  in the summer of 2007 and in my mind the opportunities to be a leader or to be respected by society went out the door in that moment. I chose my happiness over society and over the years that same society tried to teach me that by being myself I was choosing a life on the margins of society. I do not believe that being gay is a choice, but I did have to choose whether I would live a lie or if I would live as who I was.  The act of coming out would lead to an amazing journey, but in those initial moments aspirations, dreams, and ideas of contributing back to society seemed to fly away. I would learn about people like Bayard Rustin or Harvey Milk, but in my life I didn't have any gay role models to look up to. Queer as Folk and Pride in Atlanta were the representations I had in high school, but I don't know if I saw myself in that. The saying "grow where you are planted" is a nice concept, but if you are planted in a place where homosexuality isn't celebrated or you don't have access to the Harvey Milk & Bayard Rustin's of the world....you might just wither a little too. 

     So fast forward and  I went into undergrad thinking I could never find a place outside of the LGBTQ community. The vandalism of my car, the hurtful words, and other things had left me a little withered after high school. I got involved in the Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity, had an opportunity to take on a chair position, and figured that organization would be my journey. Then this thing happened....street preachers came, I stood up, and provided a counter narrative. A different perspective, a challenge to the ideals that caused me pain, and realized that the messages of society pushed me to be better, to stand for more, and to fight for a better world where regardless of the color of your skin, the gender of your significant other, and the god(s) you believe in.

      The narrative changed because the approach and the understanding of what it meant to be a leader changed for me. A leader wasn't just the heterosexual men serving as president, it wasn't the elite making policies to benefit themselves, and it wasn't a world where "leaders" would allow individuals to be marginalized for simply how they were born.  My definition changed and how I viewed the world changed with it. I define leadership as the capacity to positively influence and impact the world outside of the authority of your position or identities. A leader is a person who stands with not for those who continue to be marginalized. A leader is an individual who works tirelessly for the benefit of others with little thought of their personal gain. Finally, a leader is a person who does not accept the status quo, when the way things have been done leave individuals withering where they are planted. 

   Now I am  a white, cisgender, educated, middle class gay man. I grew up in a privileged space where my identity as a gay man was really  the only thing that made me different from the individuals I grew up around. There were two families of color in my neighborhood and very few at the schools I attended. My family's Socioeconomic Status matched those who we lived around and who I went to school with until my Junior Year of high school, where I found myself in a lower SES. I am able bodied and do not have any mental or physical impairments that limit me. I share this to provide context that besides being gay I lived a privileged life.  If my race or SES had been different, my perspective could be different, but the lessons I learned are a testament to the importance of a leadership construct that is inclusive and representative of the people of this nation.

      When I interviewed for my previous job in campus programming at the University of Colorado, Boulder I was asked how I define Social Justice and how I  integrate the concept into my practice. Without thinking words began to flow from my mouth, which demonstrated to me what those two words meant. For context, I define Social Justice as the work done to create a social system that is equitable and creates protections and supports for  marginalized groups in American society. In my practice this means owning my whiteness, my education, my middle class background, my level of ability,  my identity as a gay man, and standing in support WITH those who continue to be oppressed and marginalized. I end with this as a charge to anyone who will take it that even in spaces where it may not be common place or feel like it "makes sense" we should challenge the norms and status quo of our society. The leader I am today is because I was able to make it through, but what if we made the journey a little easier....imagine what could happen then.