“Staring at the roots, nobody there to help me grow / I was longing for the rain, you were the flood that made me overflow / A stranger to my skin, but now I’m braver in my bones.” -Lewis Watson
“The rings are fine,” she says, folding her hands for the picture after I ask if she’d like to remove any identifiers for the photo.
They’re hands that have been put to work ever since she was fifteen, balancing serving people and studying and holding onto those who are closest to her.
Mid-September and hurricane Florence is on her way up the coast, the winds beginning to pick up even in our upstate city of Greenville, South Carolina. I meet her at a Starbucks, twenty minutes late, and I rush over, apologizing and remarking that I’d forgotten how heavy traffic could be in that area. It’s been two years since I worked five minutes from where we sat, her sipping on a latte and me unfolding my computer and digging around in my bag for a pen. We take the time to catch up, talking gossip and old times. The jazz music from the speaker outside blares near us and we move to a different table on the opposite side of the patio, only to sit next to another speaker that’s blaring jazz music. We laugh and shrug it off. I tell her my recorder has survived many motorcycles and people laughing in the background just fine.
She grew up in the area, just off central Greenville. Her favorite things are her mom, her dog, coffee, spending time with her friends, and pigs. She loves the colors army green and burgundy. Her favorite book is 13 Reasons Why because of how brutally honest it is, saying that we don’t know what other people are going through. When she thinks of childhood, she thinks of going on vacation with her family and grandparents to the Outer Banks. She feels the most connected to Cape Hatteras because the lighthouse on the island was her grandma’s favorite.
Right now, she works as an assistant manager for a fast-casual style restaurant where she’s worked since she was fifteen. She’s a sophomore in college, studying psychology with a goal of working in either clinical or criminal psychology one day. She dreams of being surrounded by a career, family, and animals.
“Pigs!” she exclaims.
“Oh, you’ve got to get a pig!” I laugh.
One of the most difficult things about being her, she explains, is that she oftentimes feels misunderstood. She explains that with the load that’s placed on her from both work and academic expectations, it can be difficult to take a step away from all the expectations when she needs to. She pauses and then heads into a story I hadn’t heard before, one that changes everything I know about her.
She has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that largely affects the nervous system. It’s difficult because it makes the smallest parts of day-to-day life more difficult, she explains. I ask her what if feels like and she describes it as her bones breaking, but her nerves also going crazy on top of that. She asks me if I know the sensation of my foot falling asleep but where you can’t stand to touch it and I nod, “Yeah.” That feeling will be all over her body, she explains–her mouth, her hands, her legs.
“Some days are better than others, but it makes doing your average things a lot harder. So literally getting out of bed is harder for me than it is for the average person and like wearing clothes is harder for me than it is the average person since it does have a lot to do with nerves, like if I have too many blankets touching me it hurts. It actually hurts–it’s the weirdest thing ever.” She goes on to say that what makes the disorder even more difficult to navigate is the lack of understanding from many of those around her, including doctors who have been known to say it’s all in her head.
She began showing symptoms at age 8, the doctors telling her mom that they were just growing pains. But her mom, one of her personal heroes, pushed back, having the disorder herself, and fought for her daughter to receive the care she needed. Finally, at age 15, she was taken down to a hospital in the Charleston area to receive further clarification on the things they’d known for years, but it ended up being another shut-door. Though they did diagnose her, the doctor’s only advice to exercise more and steer clear of wheat, gluten, and sugar. It would be later that year when she would receive the medication she needed, but two full years before she began learning to manage the pain. To help manage the pain, she tries to take care of herself by exercising and taking her medication, refusing to allow fibromyalgia to keep her from doing all the things she wants to do.
As she speaks, the resilience she owns shines through and I jot down notes, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’ll do great and brave things. We go a little deeper and I ask the question I ask everyone, but don’t always include in the actual post because I think that the most fascinating thing about their answers is that everyone has an answer to the question. With her, though, the answer is integral to who she is. “What do you think happens after life?” I ask.
She immediately says that she thinks souls can come back in different forms and I chuckle knowingly, saying she and a friend of mine would have a lot in common. She has a reason for it, though, and I listen as she tells me the story of how her grandma died, someone who showed love better than anyone she knew and had a deep love of butterflies. Her grandma was like her twin, from the way she interacted with people to her sense of humor. She died around 8 years ago, with her grandfather following soon after. It was a hard time, she tells me, but something kept showing up in that time, and in all the difficult times to follow–butterflies.
“Whenever anything’s happening in my life that’s bad, I always see butterflies,” she explains, telling me that she doesn’t see them all the time. She began seeing them after her grandmother died and saw them everywhere after her grandfather died. She says without even thinking about it, she just knew it was her grandma.
She tells me more about her grandma as we wind down the interview, how she’s never known anyone who loved as well as she did. Her grandma was the sort of person who would give you the shirt off her back, she says.
“Sounds like she was an incredible person,” I murmur, a picture of a field of butterflies stamped onto my mind.
“She was awesome,” she agrees.
“Where do you feel safe?” I ask her. She laughs lightly, looking past me while she thinks. The answer is weird, she says, but she feels the safest outside. Oftentimes, she’ll go find a nice park and just sit because it makes her feel at peace.
The last question, I tell her, is one I’d given prior to the interview, the one I ask everyone and then use for the article title. “If you were in charge of what would be placed on your gravestone, what would it be?” She’d thought a lot about the question, she says, but only one answer had stuck:
She lived + she loved.
I nod, jotting it down. It was perfect. I collect her lyrics and close my notebook, that visual of a field of butterflies not leaving me and it’s like I’m seeing her with new eyes. I don’t say it–I typically don’t say the things I mean in person, but I know that she’ll be just fine. I thank her again for coming out and we part ways, excitement all the way home at how much I learned and how much God is part of this project. The moon was full that night, traffic lights turning reds and greens and yellows in sequence the whole way home. I slip into the last rays of summer, feeling a little more like myself.
Hey, # 5–when I think of you, I’ll always think of fields of butterflies and a little girl building castles on Cape Hatteras with her grandma. I’m on the sidelines, rooting for you. All the way, kid.