“Proof through the night.”
Good thing I randomly walked into the Smithsonian American History Museum on New Year’s Eve 2014 and stumbled upon the life-changing meaning of that concept, because it made March 23, 2015, starting at about 5am, the best day of my life, the real beginning of Life 2.0 with Sheila, Joe and Crosby, and now sweet little Eugenia.
Otherwise five years ago this Monday would have been a pretty shitty day.
Sheila heard two loud thuds as I crashed face-first into a stairwell wall and fell lifeless into the landing, and a few minutes later she calmly called 911 and gave emergency communications expert Brandi Palma all the pertinent information, and together they triggered a chain of heroic activity among dozens of other lifesaving experts like firefighter Patrick Evans, who arrived with other bad-ass first responder colleagues within minutes to get my paralyzed 200 lb body out of the house and into an ambulance enroute to George Washington University Trauma Center, where nurses, PAs, doctors, and surgeons put me in traction to stretch out my spine to prepare for six hours of spinal fusion surgery the next day, followed by a couple years of tedious rehab, constant pain, and ever-present anxiety about trying to return to the real world and (all of a sudden) learning be a good dad and husband. (You can read about some of that in Sheila's beautiful voice here.)
That could have been a rough day. But it was instead a powerfully positive inflection point, largely because, for some reason, New Year’s Eve 2014 had provided a pertinent lesson.
The first half of December 31, 2014 was very bad. My marriage was dying. Actually it was already dead, although at the moment I mercifully didn’t know it yet. My closest confidant in grief, Chip Kennett, was also dying, although at the moment I mercifully didn’t know that it was only 18 days away. And my self-important “most likely to succeed” dreams of professional excellence seemed in my depressed state of mind to be dying as well in an unhappy job.
I was in the process of developing my evacuation plans to start my life over in Georgia, but on New Year’s Eve 2014, I was alone in DC, and alone in my office at the FCC, distracting myself with cybersecurity information sharing legislation.
I profoundly dreaded – in a way, feared – the evening. What would I do? Kill time, of course… but to get to what exactly? Go to a bar with other “single” friends? Watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV by myself? Pretend it wasn’t New Year’s Eve and try to read a book or watch a movie until I was drunk enough to fall asleep on the couch?
My lovely younger sister Anna called me early that afternoon and gave me a pep talk that brought my head into my hands, sobbing silently, my office door closed as she talked with me, for two reasons: (1) what she said was very loving and rang true to me, and also (2) my baby sister was giving me a pep talk as my life appeared to be falling apart. (Funny fact: She and my mom were calling me from the road, on the way back from taking her daughter, my niece Marydee, to get a “baby” from BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, the delightful and utterly bizarre place where Cabbage Patch Kids are born.)
Anna’s pep talk helped. Eventually I left the office and walked across the National Mall toward downtown. It was about 4pm, and I had no idea where I was going. I was just wandering. When I got across the Mall at the intersection of 12th and Constitution, I randomly decided to go left to the American History Museum instead of right toward the Natural History Museum, or across the street towards downtown. No idea why. It was totally random. There was no decision; it just so happened that I turned left. I had not been in the American History Museum in 25 years, since Franklin County High School took a group of us social studies students to Washington in 11th grade. There was nothing I was particularly interested in seeing that day. Maybe Dorothy’s ruby slippers? No. I was just killing time.
I listened to the newest Drive By Truckers album, English Oceans, on repeat on my ear buds as I wandered around the museum. That album is the soundtrack of that dark period. I wandered through multiple songs and multiple exhibits for probably an hour, and at some point ambled into the exhibit for the Star Spangled Banner, the enormous and now thin, cut up, torn flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, our first war of survival as a nation.
It's a great exhibit, but I was paying zero attention, just killing time as I walked past the historical explainers and the examples of rockets and bombs of that time period, and turned left to the main exhibit as the Smithsonian employee repetitively told us that photos are not allowed. (The light from the flashes damages the frail threads of the 200+ year old fabric.) The flag was laid out before me, behind glass, in a reverential dark room, with Francis Scott Key's verse in white capital letters behind and above it.
Something (spoiler alert, it was God) compelled me to stop wandering and to pay attention as my eyes crossed these words:
AND THE ROCKETS’ RED GLARE!
THE BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR!
GAVE PROOF THROUGH THE NIGHT
THAT OUR FLAG WAS STILL THERE…
To be clear, it was not a “voice from above” or an out of body experience. It was just an unmistakable moment of clarity, a palpable feeling of my gut being told: “Listen, son, pay attention.” And knowing that the deepest reaches of my soul wanted – needed – to do so.
I took my earbuds out – aware of the melodrama in doing so, but I couldn’t listen to music just now – and read those words over and over and over, probably 50 times.
What an exhilarating revelation that hit me in that moment. It is the very peril that we face – the rockets and bombs – that illuminates that which is good and true, namely this:
Love and peace and joy exist and cannot be extinguished.
Love and peace and joy are indomitable.
God’s grace (the flag) is still there, always. It will never go away.
Grace is indomitable.
We often (usually?) forget that, and too often it takes danger or tragedy or death or loss to illuminate that divine fact.
I left the museum that day in an almost goofy state of giddiness. Ok, not “almost goofy,” as I’m pretty sure I did a few indomitable MC Hammer “Can’t Touch This” slides along the sidewalk until I eventually regained my composure somewhere near 12th Street and started listening to the Truckers again.
But let's be honest: "Can't Touch This."
New Year’s Eve was great. I watched a movie and then texted funny happy things with my mom and dad and brother and sister as we watched Times Square together from DC, Chattanooga, New Orleans, and Eagle Grove. Then I spent New Year’s Day packing up my stuff to move into my own place, and later watching college football with Chip and Sheila. I told them a bit about the flag, and they laughed at me and also loved it. (Because of cancer, they had already learned what I had just learned.)
Chip and I assured each other through gallows humor jokes during the football games we were watching that everything would be ok on the other side of all this, whatever it was. In a more somber 30 seconds, Sheila and I assured each other we were through the worst of it, no matter what happened next.
We were standing right next to that stairwell landing when we had that tearful discussion. Weird. But everything we said was true. We were through the worst of it.
On January 17, Chip died. It’s his “birthday in heaven” as we and the kids now know it. (As Crosby would put it, “Duh. That’s what it is. That's when he went in heaven.”) My marriage’s late December separation became a divorce, lovingly the best thing for both of us. I would not start over in Georgia, because Joe couldn’t lose me too, right after he lost Chip.
All of it was excruciating, so extreme as to be indescribable.
But also, it was proof of God’s grace through the dark night of death and grief and loss and pain, as individual moments of piercing love, peace, and joy forced their way into our lives, filling our extremely difficult days with a brightness we had never before had the occasion to see.
It happened all the time, starting the day of Chip’s death, with rocket ships blasting the kids through the house and big plans for Joe to host the Patriots Football Sunday gang for the AFC Championship game the next day.
“No rest! Fly!” said two-year old Crosby.
“We’re gonna need some beers,” said five-year old Joe.
And on and on, day after every painful, loving, peaceful, joyful day.
So when I broke my neck on March 23, in a way it seemed an obvious – and sort of awesome – next step. This was just a black diamond run to show us the extremity of how great God’s grace is.
And yes, it is extremely great.
Let’s not forget that now, as this virus begins to takes its toll.
Let’s look for -- focus intently on -- what the rockets and bombs illuminate.
It is twilight’s last gleaming right now. We are entering a period of profoundly dark night. Nobody alive today has experienced what we are about to live through in the coming weeks. Thousands of our loved ones will die, and in many cases we will not be able to attend their funerals or mourn with our family members.
That is extreme darkness.
But look around as the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air light up the night’s sky. What will be proven through this night?
In every moment of grief, in every person suffering loss, in every community mourning, there is love and peace and joy everywhere, all around us.
What will this peril illuminate?
At dawn’s early light -- and it will come, have no doubt -- what will we so proudly hail in ourselves?
Let us see -- and be -- grace in America. It’s up to us. We control that part of this night.
"We can do it." -Rosie
"We've got this." -Chip
In the early morning hours of March 23, 2015, Clete, not being one to half-ass anything, took a head-over-heels tumble down my back staircase, broke and dislocated his neck, and almost died right there in my stairwell. True story. And I, being no stranger to life-changing events, was right there beside him through it all. But what on earth was Clete even doing at my house at four in the morning on that fateful Monday? Well, back in those days, whatever Clete’s godson, Joe Kennett, asked of him, Joe received.
Just months before, my husband Chip, who was also one of Clete’s closest friends, had passed away after living with non-small cell lung cancer for two years and three months. Clete, who had recently separated gracefully from a marriage that had supported us dearly during our struggle with cancer, began to devote pretty much all of his free time to the kids and me. Clete and I originally met in 2007 when we worked together in the same U.S. Senate office. In the months before Chip's death, Chip and I had selected Clete to be the legal guardian of our kids, my power of attorney, and acting agent on my own advanced medical directive after Chip died. Clete, being the secondary agent on Chip’s directive, was our go-to driver for Chip’s middle of the night emergency room runs, so I could stay at home with the kids. Clete was Team Kennett’s biggest champion, teammate and confidant throughout and most specifically, in Chip’s final months. When Chip went into the hospital the week before he died, Clete was the one he asked to come stay overnight with him, so I could go home to get some much needed sleep and be with our kids.
Joe, who had just turned five, had crippling separation anxiety from me after Chip died, and there were few places and people that felt safe to him, but Joe always asked for Clete, so on the weekends and some weeknights, Clete would come over. Our weekends were filled with the kids’ sports, activities and church. After we would get the kids to bed, the evenings usually ended with carry-out and emotional deep dives as we discussed everything from death to divorce to God. In a very painful and scary time, it all felt perfectly safe, and it was, because it was Clete. Clete had always been there and simply continued to be. We had already experienced so many life events together and over time, we began to fill in some of the missing blanks in our respective stories for each other.
On this particular weekend, Clete had come over that Saturday, and we took Joe to baseball, played with the kids in the park, and then the boys took a “Dawg time” trip to the Natural History Museum while I stayed at home with Crosby while she napped.
On Sunday afternoon, when Clete was getting ready to leave following church and lunch, Joe asked if he was going to come back later to put him to bed. I immediately said no and that we needed to give Clete a break, but Clete told him if that’s what he wanted, then he would be back. Later that night, as we were getting the kids ready for bed, Joe then asked for the first time, “Are you going to spend the night tonight?” Clete looked at me, and I gestured it was up to him. Clete told Joe, "Sure, buddy. I'll stay."
Clete slept on the couch in the living room on the first floor that night. Sometime around four in the morning, Crosby cried out from her crib. I immediately jumped out of bed and hurried into her bedroom which was right next door to mine on the second floor. Joe was asleep in the big bed in her room as he did not like being separated from either of us in those early months. When Crosby cried out, it woke Clete up, and as men do when they wake up in the middle of the night, he needed to go to the bathroom. Having no bathroom on the ground floor, Clete went up the back staircase to our other bathroom, because he did not want to come up the front staircase and disrupt my efforts to get Crosby back to sleep.
After soothing Crosby, as I was walking back to my bedroom, I heard this loud thud. I paused and wondered if Clete had actually fallen off the couch in his sleep. I then heard a second, loud thud. I raced down the front stairs to find the blankets tossed from the couch onto the floor. I noticed a light on in the back of the house, so as I walking back towards the kitchen, I caught sight of Clete. He was crumpled in the bottom of the back stairwell, one leg turned awkwardly up the wall, the other tangled in the baby gate, and his head was lying back on a wooden step, and he was completely unconscious.
I opened the gate and touched his arm. He immediately opened his eyes and asked me how he had gotten there. I told him I guess he had fallen, and I thought I needed to get him to the hospital. He told me "no, this happened before in football," and he just needed "a minute" before he could try to get up. Thankfully, we can now laugh about this part.
I stood there barefoot in my pajamas trying desperately to wrap my head around the impact of this new line that had been drawn in the sand. There it was again. The before and the after. However frail mine and the kids’ “new normal” may have been, I knew it had suddenly vanished in that instant.
When Clete indicated he was ready for me to help him get up, I crossed my right arm over to meet his, and when I clasped his hand, it was completely limp. Everyone tries to give me credit for being smart enough in that moment not to move him, but truth be told, I was not that smart. The entire right side of his six foot body was listless, and I was simply incapable of getting him to budge.
Since I do not have a landline, I told Clete I had to run upstairs to grab my phone, but I assured him I would be right back. I called 911 for the second time in ten weeks. I somehow had the wherewithal to ask 911 to please tell the paramedics not to turn their sirens on, because I had sleeping babies, and that I would have the front door unlocked and the front light on for them. As soon as I hung up, I once again called my dear friend, Maria, who was not on standby this particular night, but thankfully answered her phone and beat the ambulance to my house.
As I was climbing into the front of the ambulance, I heard Clete asking the EMTs where I was. His head was taped to the stretcher so he could only see the ceiling of the ambulance. I told him I was right there, and he said, “Sheila Kennett, is this your life?” as I had shared with him in the hospital on the first night he came to see Chip that that was one of the things going through my mind as we pulled away from our house that night. I told Clete I guessed it was, and we laughed for the very first time that morning. I knew his good natured sense of humor was still intact, even with a broken neck, and as I peered at him in the back of the ambulance, tears of relief rolled down my face when I saw him wiggle his foot and fingers on his left side.
I once joked I could probably write Yelp! reviews of hospitals up and down the East coast Chip and I had been in and out of so many, but in all of my trips to the ER, I had never experienced anything quite as scary as when we arrived at the Trauma Center at George Washington University Hospital. It was largely a blur of bright lights, loud noises, and doctors and nurses swarming around Clete, cutting his clothes off and carefully transferring him to a table without moving his neck. Someone escorted me to a chair right outside of his room, and the hospital chaplain joined me there. I have only had a hospital chaplain join me one other time, so that is when I lost it. I was not receptive to her company, and I remember yelling, “Do you know something I don’t know? Why are you here?” In the meantime, if it was possible for Clete to grab a doctor by the throat with his eyes, he did. I heard him asking where I was, and with all the force his voice could muster, he told them not to leave me in the dark, that anything they knew, I needed to know, that I could handle it, and I could make medical decisions on his behalf if necessary.
While Clete was getting his MRI, I called his sweet mom, Suzanne, at their farm in Georgia to let her know what had happened. Within the hour, I was communicating via group text, every detail of what was happening with his immediate family. The MRI revealed Clete had broken and jumped the facets at his C4 and C5 vertebrae, and the physicians placed Clete in traction by adding 40 pounds of weight to a pulley, that was attached to his skull with screws, to elongate his spine to pop his vertebrae back into alignment relieving the pressure off his spinal cord.
It was a critical 24 hour period in which any further movement could potentially cause further damage to his spinal cord. I spent that day sitting in the room with Clete which was the very room where President Reagan had been taken after he was shot. Clete was heavily sedated, but when he was awake, I would rib him about all of the hot nurses he was missing out on seeing, because they had his head immobile, screwed to that “Game of Thrones” torture device hanging off the back of his bed. While he slept, I badgered every doctor and nurse who walked through the door to teach me everything they were willing about his broken neck. When Clete fell, his chin had hit the opposing wall, throwing his head back, causing the dislocation. He then slid down the wall, chin first, and flipped over onto the second landing. The way he had broken his neck was basically the same break Christopher Reeve had suffered.
Suzanne flew in from Atlanta and arrived to the ICU later that night. Before I left, I leaned over so I could get right in Clete’s face in order for him to be able to see me. I promised him I would be back the following morning before he went into surgery. He said to me, “You saved my life,” and I responded with, “You saved mine.” We cried painful, joyful tears. Suzanne, witnessing the whole exchange, said, “You two love each other.”
I spent the next two weeks of my bereavement leave in the hospital and at the National Rehabilitation Hospital with Clete and his Mom. For the longest time, I willingly ceded ownership of the physical trauma to Clete, because he was the one who had endured the injury and marched through the long months of rehabilitation after all, and I was doing all I could to physically take care of the kids and myself. But the emotional trauma from that injury? We intimately shared it and healed together from it all.
It turns out Suzanne was right, and two years later, Clete and I are now married and rearing these two extraordinary kids together. The four of us have truly saved each other. Life is for the living, and we are both so grateful to be able to share ours together.
Some of us bear physical scars, which serve as outward displays and reminders of past injuries, while others bear emotional scars which cannot be seen, but both are to be honored as they serve as gentle reminders of the fragility of life, and they represent the resilience we all possess to not only survive, but to thrive. That does not mean our hearts (or neck!) don’t still ache sometimes, because they do, but Clete and I know the power of healing is greater than our injuries, and we thank God for that.
Originally appeared on Alexandria Stylebook
Jennifer Kearney Desiderio
If you have been anxiously awaiting the return of the wildly popular 116 King Seasonal Pop-Up, great news! The doors to 116 King will re-open with a grand opening event this Wednesday, March 22nd from 4-8pm. 116 King Seasonal Pop-up, which opened before the Christmas holidays last year, was met with huge success, so as proprietor and glutton for punishment, I decided to reopen 116 King, bringing back the best-of-the-best vendors and adding a variety of specially selected retailers boasting incredible product lines.
I am thrilled to throw open the doors to my new and improved mixed retail store with a grand opening event on Wednesday night. South Block Juice Co., who will also be popping up at 116 King, will be at the grand opening with samples of their fresh-pressed juices. Everyone is invited to attend, so be sure to come out for this fun event!
While I excel in shopping, sourcing new product lines, and creating beautiful retail spaces, writing is not my jam, so I enlisted the help of my former roommate and dear friend, local Alexandria resident, and writer Sheila Kennett Johnson to assist with this project.
In life’s most joyful moments and in the darkest of hours and seemingly impossible circumstances, there is grace. Abundant grace always abounds if you allow yourself to see it. This I know, and these are my lessons in grace.
Read about what came before Sweetness Follows at TeamKennett.com.