Because She Loved Gift Giving

One of the hardest parts of grief is the unexpected ways it creeps into everyday events. Yesterday was of those days where everything brought on the tears, and I actually ended up just getting up and leaving less than halfway through church service so I could go cry in my car.

Today seemed better, and I was so thankful. I woke up and hit the ground running. By lunch time, I’d gotten 80% of my work tasks for the day finished, I had laundry running, and I used my lunch break to clean out the fridge. I wrapped up my work day and got on Facebook, then I saw a post and remembered I’d never finished the checkout process for something on Emily’s brother’s wedding registry, so I did that.

When I pushed button to finish the transaction, one of those waves hit me… And I spent the next 30 minutes wiping away the tears.

As I cried, I started asking myself why something that normally would bring me and Emily such joy was making me cry, especially when I’d been so stable all day. Of course, here I am hours later, still wondering why buying a registry gift tugged at my heartstrings so much. And, honestly, I don’t have an answer. But, I do know that Emily would be happy about the gift because she always loved getting the people she loved things that brought them joy.

Emily Lived For Holiday Shopping

Okay, let me rephrase that heading — Emily loved to shop all the time. However, she really enjoyed the opportunity to shop for other people.

Every Christmas that I knew her, she’d sit down and carefully plan out what to get each person on her list. She especially loved shopping for her nieces, but really everyone got special treatment. Sometimes I’d watch her hunt for weeks, trying to find the perfect gift, and every time, she’d get so happy when she came across an item that made her think of someone on her list.

Birthdays were done in a similar fashion. Whether it was her youngest niece or her dad, Emily made sure to find the perfect gift and the perfect card for each and every person when their birthday rolled around.

I don’t know that I’d ever seen someone who put so much thought and effort into gift giving. I also don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so happy to watch someone open the gifts she got for them, but Emily always was.

Of course, the fact that I not only have all of the gifts she ever gave me, but that I absolutely cherish them (and did even before she died) should tell you everything you need to know about her gift giving skills.

I have two different t-shirts she got me for two separate Christmases. One of them says, “You can talk to me about mental health… And cats.” The other one is a music joke and says, “These are difficult times,” then has two complicated time signatures on it. I also have the Grey’s Anatomy book and cactus shirt she got me for my birthday a couple years ago, which I’ll never forget.

Any Excuse Was A Good Excuse To Buy A Gift

Of course, holidays only come around so many times each year. But that didn’t stop Emily from finding other excuses to buy random gifts for the people she loved.

I’m pretty sure that every time that woman went into Five Below or Target, she came home with something for everyone in the house. And every time we’d clean up her apartment or clean out her car, she’d find a “just because gift” she’d picked up for someone from a store because “it made me think of them as soon as I saw it.”

I told her time and time again that she was spoiling the kids and I by buying random gifts. Every single time, she’d just smile and say, “I love all of you and you deserve to be spoiled.” And, given that most of the items came from $5 or less sections of stores, I guess I can’t argue with her too much.

However, I think what I really learned from watching her buy things for people is this: Emily always had other people on her mind, and she enjoyed expressing her love for them in any way that she possibly could. She bought items because they made her think of the person she got them for, and giving the item to the person was a way for her to let them know that they’re always on her mind… Even when she’s in the middle of Five Below.

I Would Love To Harness Her Gift-Giving Spirit

I’ll be honest, gift giving has never been a skill that I possess. I am terrible at remembering birthdays, and even worse at taking the time to go shopping for someone and pick out the perfect gift. But, after seeing the joy that doing it brought Emily and knowing how much I cherish the gifts she gave to me, I’d really like to see if I can get better at the whole gift giving thing this year.

It may be the best thing I’ve ever done. Or, it may completely flop. But, either way, it’s another thing I can do to try to keep Emily’s spirit alive. And that’s something I really, truly want to do with my entire soul.

I loved everything about Emily. And Emily loved giving gifts. So here goes nothing as I try to find pieces of myself in the things that mattered to the woman I loved.


Because A Bomb Went Off

Like many other people around Middle Tennessee, the kids and I woke up to no power this morning. Due to the unusually cold temperatures, electricity usage was exceeding what TVA could provide, so they mandated rolling blackouts. Unfortunately, our local power company wasn’t prepared to turn the generators back on, so we were without power for at least an hour (could be longer but we weren’t awake yet).

As we waited for the power to come back on, Meredith said, “This is almost like Christmas a couple years ago when the bomb broke the internet!” I laughed, and then I sat in my thoughts, replaying that entire Christmas day and the days after. It was an interesting Christmas, and funnily enough, it involved Emily in an unexpected way.

Such a Strange Christmas

I remember Christmas 2020 very well. The kids woke me up early that morning, excited over all the gifts under the tree. We opened presents, then started cinnamon rolls in the oven. We would only have the morning together, since their dad would be over to pick them up by lunchtime and they’d be spending the next week with them. Needless to say, I was trying to make the most of it.

Right before 8:00am, Emily texted me pictures of her parents’ yard. Knoxville got quite a bit of snow, and I was jealous of the beautiful view. I wished her a merry white Christmas, but she didn’t respond and I assumed she was busy with family.

But then, around 30 minutes later, she says, “Are y’all okay?” When I ask her if I missed something, she says, “Uh, yeah,” and includes a link to the news about the Nashville bombing. When I asked her if she was aware of the distance between Nashville and Murfreesboro, she told me to shut up because she has an anxiety disorder and panicked.

Within a few hours of that text exchange, I had no cell service, no home internet, and no one else in the house. It was a very lonely Christmas Day.

The next morning, Emily sent me a message on Facebook (so I could read it when I found public WiFi) letting me know she’d be back home from Knoxville later that day and I could crash at her place if I at least wanted the internet and someone to talk to since she had Comcast internet and used Verizon for cell service. She also mentioned that she was a little scared to be home alone since they still hadn’t located the bomber and they suspected someone who lived near her apartment complex. So I said yes.

After she mentioned her heat wasn’t working well, we decided to just split a hotel room if we could find one with working WiFi. This worked well because we’d have company, internet, and Emily would be close to her weekend job. It took some calling around on Emily’s part (I didn’t have a way to make phone calls), but we found a hotel and I used Panera’s WiFi to book a room.

It ended up being a pretty fun weekend, despite the cold weather and the lack of cell service. We talked for hours about everything and nothing, I worked on freelance writing while Emily went to her weekend job as a home health aid, and we are at Five Guys at one point. The hotel was cute, and Emily definitely mentioned we should stay there again sometime. For me, her company was what really made it an exceptional weekend.

Yet Another Moment of Missed Indications

Throughout the weekend, each of us took turns making jokes about the two of us dating or somehow being involved with each other. At Five Guys, I held the door open for her, and offered to pay for us both. She laughed and mentioned how I was a better gentleman than her boyfriend, and I told her to dump him for me. At the hotel, we cracked a joke about the sleeping situation. There were just little moments of playfulness, and it made me laugh.

It all seemed pretty on brand for us, and it definitely wasn’t the first time we’d made jokes like that. When she tagged along on the fall break trip to Gatlinburg with me and the kids that October, we had some similar banter. When I was starting the divorce process, she joked about us getting a place together and I said that might make us look like a couple, but we both laughed. So many little moments like that, going all the way back to 2019… yet neither of us picked up on the others underlying feelings.

Looking back, I wish I’d made my move much sooner. I knew for certain how I felt about her the night I drove home from that Lizzo concert, but I worried she wouldn’t reciprocate those feelings. And she told me several times that she stuffed down her feelings about me because she felt unsure about her sexuality.

Which, I guess at most it would have given us another year or so, but given how quickly things moved, that extra year would have gotten her the wedding of her dreams and let her avoid the dumpster that was the ex right before me. But I guess that’s yet another regret I get to add to my list of things I wish I’d done a better job of with her.

Picking Up The Rubble

This Christmas is going to resemble the Christmas from two years ago in many ways. The kids will leave sometime after the morning to be with their dad for a week. I’m going to leave my apartment and go stay in a hotel (well, a bed and breakfast for a few nights, then a couple different hotels). I’ll probably do some freelance work on someone else’s WiFi.

But, this time, instead of waiting for someone else to pick up the rubble and restore AT&T internet and cell service, I’m going to be dealing with my own shards to pick up: my broken heart.

I’m not going to lie, I’m somewhat using the next week to run away. I know it will only provide relief from some of the pain. I’ll get to take a break from living in a house full of her stuff and memories I made with her. I can leave behind a town where all I see are moments we shared together. I can ignore the people who try to talk to me but don’t understand, or I can even ignore everyone who knows me as Emily’s other half.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can make me the way I was before I watched the love of my life die, and that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Just like the bomb went off and destroyed a whole section of downtown Nashville, a wrecking ball called death obliterated the beautiful life I’d built with the most incredible woman I’ve ever met. And that isn’t something that can be repaired.

Because of Emily, I had someone to be with in the aftermath of an explosion. But because she’s gone, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put myself back together again.

Because She Loved Christmas

This morning I finished wrapping up the gifts for the angels we adopted from our church angel tree. The kids and I have always adopted an angel, and Emily often did the same. So last year we adopted two, and I did the same this year because it’s what Emily would have wanted.

Like me, Emily loves the giving aspect of Christmas. And although I’ve been dreading everything about Christmas this year, I have consistently found the strength to do anything I know in my heart Emily would urge me to do, and this is just one of those things.

A Girl Who Loved Christmas

To say Emily loved Christmas is an understatement. It was her favorite holiday (with Halloween being a close second). She loved everything about Christmas. The decorations, the music shopping for the perfect gift for everyone… You name it, she loved it.

Based on stories I’ve heard from both Emily and her family, it sounds like her love of all things Christmas has always been a thing. Her dad has always put up incredible Christmas light displays. She insisted on decorating sugar cookies even as an adult. One of her favorite church services each year is the Christmas Eve service because she loves the candlelight. I could go on forever… But I won’t.

I know that Emily especially loved gift giving. She always tried to find something thoughtful and personalized for people if she could, which I found especially adorable. I have several hilarious graphic tees she bought for me as proof of her love of thoughtful, personal gifts (one is a music reference, and one mentions cats and mental health).

Last year we went over an hour from our house so she could get a specific scent of soap and other items for her mom. She spent months slowly collecting items for her nieces. It was all thought out, and she put so much effort into making sure everyone on her list felt loved and smiled as they opened their gifts.

And, of course, Emily also adored Christmas trees. Like, this girl loved them more than I thought possible. I thought I enjoyed Christmas trees, but last year I learned just how much Emily loves them.

Last Christmas was our first one living together. As I started talking about our Christmas tree, Emily started talking about what the tree theme could be for each room. I remember looking at her and asking what she was talking about, and she said, “Like we can put a tree in each room. Do you only put up one?”

After discussing how much trees cost, I got her to compromise with the promise that we could put up two trees that year and we’d keep an eye out for sales so we could put up more trees in 2022. So we did a tree with everyone’s favorite and most sentimental ornaments for the main tree, and a smaller beach-themed tree in the dining room (yes, between Emily and Eleanor we had enough beach/ocean ornaments for an entire tree).

I loved how happy something so simple made Emily, and I promised her this year we’d do 4 trees: the main tree, a beach tree, a music tree, and a pride tree. I also had so many plans for this December, like a date night at Opryland, a family weekend of all things Christmas, and spending lots of quality time with her family for the holidays. She loved Christmas so much, and I wanted to make this one the best yet for her as we celebrated her five-year heartiversary (no, that’s probably not a real word).

The Christmas Miracle

I have always found it ironic that Emily loved Christmas so much and also received a sort of Christmas miracle back in 2017. I guess you could say it just made Christmas that much more magical for her, even if it already was her favorite time of year.

I know for a fact that Emily never expected to get a new heart just two days before Christmas. I know this because she told me that she actually had plans to check a final few things she could accomplish off her bucket list for December 23 because she’d all but given up on the possibility of living beyond Christmas. But then she got that life-changing call, and she ended up getting a new heart instead of going to the lights at Opryland and whatever else she had planned (I want to say seeing a movie like Pitch Perfect 3, but I could be remembering this story wrong).

I also find it incredibly ironic that something Emily loved (her dad’s Christmas lights) helped connect her with her donor’s mother three years after the transplant. I know it was one of her favorite post-transplant moments, and she stayed in touch with Norma up until the end.

I’m Not Feeling Holly or Jolly This Year

As I think back to how involved Emily was in my life for the past two Christmases, it makes me happy and sad all at once. I loved spending the holidays with her, and it also makes this year’s Christmas season feel anything but jolly.

I mentioned all the plans we had for Christmas. Plans which, now, are all but null and void. I also had so much I was looking forward to in all of the Christmases that are yet to come. I couldn’t wait to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple, our first Christmas with a dog, our first Christmas with a baby, our first Christmas in a home we purchased… I could come up with ideas for Christmas every year for the next century.

Emily loved Christmas. Because of that, I planned to make each Christmas magical for her for the rest of our lives. Yet, here I am, feeling like a huge Scrooge this year because I just don’t know how to celebrate Emily’s favorite holiday without her.

I know I need to put the Christmas tree up. I know I need to get my shopping done. But all I’ve been able to think about for the past two weeks is how much Emily loved Christmas, and the idea of celebrating it without her just feels wrong.

Because Family Meant Everything To Her

Thanksgiving is here, and it’s already feeling hard since my past two Thanksgivings have included Emily. Thanks to a COVID exposure at work, Emily had to stay home for Thanksgiving in 2020. Since I was also home by myself, we decided to eat lunch together over Zoom that day. Then last year, Emily brought me and the kids home to her family’s Thanksgiving in Knoxville, and we had an amazing time.

To me, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday about family. In fact, it’s one of my favorite holidays because of the way it brings people together. It just makes me happy. And I know Emily felt the same way about this holiday, because Emily’s family meant everything to her.

Emily’s Family Was Her World

Before we even started dating, I knew a ton about Emily’s family. Honestly, I think anyone who talked to her for more than a few minutes did. However, I loved the fact that Emily’s family meant so much to her because it allowed me to get to know each of them before I even got to meet them.

She told me about her two brothers, one older and one younger. She explained that, although she had a different relationship with each of them, they’d both do anything for her and she’d do anything for them. According to Emily, her older brother can be quiet, but he’d give anyone the shirt off his back if it would help them. Meanwhile, she said her younger brother was more likely to cut up and make you laugh. She knew which one to call if she had car trouble, and which one to call if she needed help with her computer. Either way, they’d always be there to help.

Emily also showed me dozens of pictures of her nieces. Her face would light up as she’d talk about them, and she would often see random items in stores and say, “My niece would love this!” She always listed them as her reasons to keep going, and she relished every moment she got to spend with them.

And, of course, I heard a lot about her parents too. She’d often compare food in restaurants to her dad’s version of the dish (dad’s was always better). She would say, “I’m a daddy’s girl,” yet she always wanted her mom there anytime she needed a medical procedure done, even if it was routine. She’d often say that she just wanted to be a person her parents would be proud of, and I could tell from the first time I met them that they absolutely were proud of the woman she’d become.

Emily loved each and every family member dearly, and she had lots to say about each of them. Her family was her world.

“What If They Don’t Like Me?”

I met Emily’s parents once before we started dating. She was moving into a new apartment, and I had a whole carload of items I’d helped her move out of the old apartment a few weeks prior. We talked a bit as we all hauled the items from my vehicle up three flights of stairs, but honestly I don’t remember much else from that first encounter aside from the fact that Emily gave me a huge hug as I got ready to leave… but that’s a whole other story.

Fast forward a year and a half, and I was on my way to Knoxville with Emily for July 4th weekend 2021. We were going to spend the weekend at her parents’ house, and although we’d been dating since late April, she still hadn’t told them because she wanted to tell them in-person while we were there.

I kept saying the anxious thoughts that popped into my head the entire three-hour car ride there. I worried they wouldn’t like me, or they’d be mad when they found out we were more than friends. I knew her family meant everything to her, and I assumed not getting their approval would be the end of our relationship.

Of course, Emily had a reassuring comment for every single one of my fears. Eventually, Emily just looked at me and said, “Babe, my family loves me and just wants me to be happy. I’m so happy with you and you are so good to me, so that’s all that matters.”

As it turned out, Emily was right… even if she did chicken out of telling her parents about our relationship until several months after the fact.

I Guess I’m Family Now

Since that first visit to Knoxville, I’ve spent a lot of time with Emily’s family. It’s easy to see why Emily was so fond of her family, because they’re all incredible people. And, of course, we all share a common bond — we all loved Emily dearly.

As I lurked the depths of Reddit in the week after Emily’s death, I worried once again about what my relationship with these incredible people would like in the aftermath of her death. However, as Emily’s younger brother and her parents have said multiple times over the past month, it looks like I’m part of the family now.

Emily had become an essential part of my family and really was my home. But because of Emily, I now have an entire brood of people I can call family. They’ve been a great source of comfort through what have very much been the darkest days of my life, and I will always be thankful for that.