Because She Couldn’t Say ‘No’

It’s 2:30 in the morning. I shouldn’t be awake at all. Yet, here I am, writing.

Right now, I’m experiencing one of those rare instances where I feel angry. I don’t know exactly who I’m angry at, but I do know why. And, I’m not just slightly angry — I’m absolutely livid. I’m so sick of “counting my blessings” and being “thankful for the time” I did get with Emily. For once, I just want to say, “No!” to all of that and sit with the anger I feel towards the situation.

Of course, the irony here is that Emily and I are probably two of the least likely people to say “no.”

She Refused to Rock The Boat

Emily and I were very different people. But, at the time, we shared several personality traits… One of them being the inability to say “no.”

In the time I knew Emily, I watched her say “yes” so many times. I watched her say it to extra shifts at work. I watched her say it to friends who needed rides or other help. I watched her say it to Julian.

And, although I know she genuinely wanted to help people, I also know that there were many times when the “yes” came as more of an obligation.

Emily hated conflict. She tried to live her life in a way that would create as few ripples in the water as possible. So, in many cases, she’d convince herself that saying “no” would rock the boat too much, so she’d choose the “yes” as a path of least resistance… regardless of the personal cost.

The Anger That Comes With ‘Yes’

Even before we started dating, Emily often reached out to me to discuss the “yes” situations where she wanted to say “no” but didn’t. Looking back, I’m not sure why she chose me to confide in me about those moments, but if I had to guess, it’s because she knew that I struggled with saying “no” as well.

Anyway, I’d sometimes laugh at her messages as I empathized with her because of how angry she’d be about the situation and how mad she’d be at herself for saying yes. Of course, I’d always have to play devil’s advocate a bit and remind her that, ultimately, she has the option to say no if she feels so strongly about it.

I would also sometimes express my own frustration in her “yes” moments when I knew she would have preferred to say “no.” For me, the frustration came when she’d choose saying “yes” to someone else over her own needs or established plans we had together. I think that sometimes my feelings for her would impact the way I viewed the situation because, although she rarely stood up for herself, I was always more than willing to put my life on the line for her.

For example, there was more than one occasion where she’d say “yes” to something that would interfere with her getting grad school assignments done. She’d always say, “I’ll find a way to get them done,” but I’d also overly lecture her on the fact that her entire future career depended on grad school assignments.

Then there were all the times she’d say yes to her ex, both when they were dating and after they broke up. I couldn’t believe all the things she put up with from him, and it made me not just mad at her, but mad at him for taking advantage of her in every way imaginable.

And, although I sometimes felt bad for pointing out these things, I always did it with the best of intentions. I just wanted her to learn to put herself first… but ultimately she never did.

It’s All in the Past Now

I look back on these seemingly silly moments now and feel angry all over again. I’m angry that so many people took advantage of Emily. I’m angry that she never valued herself enough to put her foot down. But, at the same time, I’m angry at myself for all the times I lectured her or argued with her for saying “yes.”

It’s probably stupid to look back and think, “How could I have handled that differently? How could I have supported her more?” But, at the same time, I have to wonder how much of what was happening with her at the end was the result of her sacrificing herself for others too many times.

Emily couldn’t say no, and sometimes it really irritated me. But, ultimately, it only made me mad because I loved her and wanted what was best for her, even when she didn’t prioritize these same things for herself.


Because We Made Joyful Noise

Over the past month, I have picked up a bad habit — I scroll through social media before I fall asleep. When I opened Facebook last night, one of the first things I saw was a post of The 5 Browns playing Sleigh Ride. (Note For Non-Music Folks: The 5 Browns is a group of siblings who play piano together, and they’re quite famous.) Listening made me smile, but also made me cry. I feel like it’s a new normal for me, because somehow my brain finds a way to connect everything to Emily just like people used to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

We Bonded Over Music

I vividly remember the moment Emily and I realized the full extent of our mutual love of music. We were waiting for Lizzo to take the stage at the TWLOHA concert in Nashville on Saturday, November 30, 2019. One of the people behind us was had been randomly talking to us on and off throughout the concert, and Emily turned to me and said, “He’s definitely a former band kid… what instrument do you think he plays?” which, of course, prompted me to ask her what instrument she played. As soon as she said, “I play the oboe,” my face lit up and I said, “Oh, we have to play duets together sometime!”

I later learned she not only played oboe, but also played piano and sang in choir regularly. I was so excited to have another friend who enjoyed music, and I couldn’t wait to find excuses to make joyful noise together. And, over the years we had together, we definitely did that.

We played oboe and flute duets together several times, both in my apartment and her parents’ house. In fact, I even have videos we recorded of ourselves playing duets together at my place during the pandemic (see above). We also sat around the piano together whenever we visited Emily’s parents. Sometimes Emily would play, and I’d listen, while other times she’d play something, and we’d sing. I loved the fact that we could just have fun together making music.

As the kids started to learn the guitar and piano, we also involved them in our fun sometimes. I remember one day in particular when Emily said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we all sat in the living room and took turns playing things for each other?” So we did! It eventually turned into us teaching each other how to play everyone’s instrument, and we smiled and laughed so much that day.

Emily and I had also found a community orchestra to make music with outside the home. The group rehearses on Monday nights, which worked perfectly with our schedule. We got through an entire concert season with them and had been going to rehearsals for a fall concert before Emily passed.

The Music We Never Got To Play

One place Emily really wanted us to perform music together was church. She’d been bugging me to get involved with music at our home church since we first started attending together. I recently joined the handbell choir this fall, and our music director had asked Emily and I to play flute and oboe alongside the choir for the anthem they were singing on November 6. We had the music, and we were excited. Of course, that all changed on October 19.

I still performed because I knew Emily would have wanted me to, but it was hard. The oboe player our music director found was very sweet, but she wasn’t Emily… and it broke my heart.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I really wish I’d found more ways for us to play together. I just always assumed it was one of those things we would be doing together until we were too old to play anymore. We’d both joked that when we retired, we would probably have a daily time when we sat down together and made joyful noise in some shape or form.

Because of Emily, I got to enjoy doing something I love with someone I love. It truly made my heart so happy, and I’ll cherish the memories (and videos) I have of us playing together for the rest of my life.