Photo (L to R): Alyssa Rojas Dellisanti, Amber Elise, and Ann (Annie) Marie Dellisanti.

Last weekend I gathered with family and friends to honor my niece Annie in her “Afterlife Graduation Party.”  

This was supposed to have been the party she had for her 50th birthday party last year.  But she was never able to make it.  Instead, as her daughter put it, she graduated into the next level.  And we were there to celebrate that.

She passed away too young from complications from a stroke she had last year.  She hung on for many months, but her body finally had too much. And now, here we all were at the party her daughter, daughter-in-law & friends had originally planned for the year before.  Saying goodbye rather than hello to her.

One last party, just for Annie.

It was a great party.  She would have loved it.  She did love it.  We all felt her there the entire time, and we kept looking around for her to walk in with that gorgeous smile she had, eyes twinkling with humor, grateful and happy to simply be with those she loved, as she always was.

She was humble, sweet, generous, kind, beautiful, vivacious, loving, laughing… she was the sort of person everyone loved and who loved everyone back.  She put others before herself to a fault, if you knew her you knew she’d go to the moon and back for you if she could.  She brought nothing but light into this world, and into our lives. 

I miss that light. 

I miss her twinkling eyes and smiling face.  I miss the sound of her voice and her laughter.

I was thinking of her voice as I rode to her graduation party.  Of the voices of so many I’ve lost recently, and not-so-recently.  My mom. My dad.  My Pop-in-law.  My sister-in-law.  Friends.  My niece… so many.

I tried to remember how their voices sounded while they were here.  I listened in my mind to their timbre, tonal quality, pitch, the pacing of their words.  I tried to capture and recall it as exactly as I could.  And I realized that those sounds will never be re-created on this planet again.  Only that human in that form was able to produce exactly those sounds.  And now that they’re gone, that voice is gone forever as well, at least in this three-dimensional reality.

And I thought how unique we all are, and how important it is that we each use our voice while we have it, while we are here on this planet.  Because once we’re gone, it will never be heard again.

Annie’s voice spoke through her hands.  As a professional hair stylist it made her feel great to help others feel great about themselves through a cut, trim, or color.  She’s the one who helped me find the hairstyle that made me feel most myself, she was a master at getting exactly the right “look” for a person’s personality.

She also was great at making people laugh.  She had a wicked sense of humor, and shared that distinctive sparkling smile and those twinkling teasing eyes with everyone.  I can’t remember a single time with her where there wasn’t at least one moment spent in laughter over something she’d said or commented about.  

So though her “voice” wasn’t her actual physical voice (though that was part of it), it was sung out loud and clear through her hands and her laughter.

And then I thought about what it is that keeps us from using that voice, from speaking or singing or writing or expressing ourselves.  What is it that shuts down our voices?

What is your voice?  Are you using it?  And if not, what is it that has kept it quiet?

Because I know for sure that I haven’t fully used my own voice yet.  And I had to wonder why.

Which is when I realized: generally, it is fear that quiets my voice.

It is fear of not being heard, or perhaps of being heard too well and being laughed at or misunderstood.  Or fear of not being good enough, or being too good and perhaps leaving behind some we love (a real fear many people have that holds them back).  It is fear of… whatever.  Fear causes us to lose our voices, and to keep them from being heard while we are here.

I have long thought that courage was most needed in the face of death – and don’t get me wrong, it is indeed needed then.  To face your own mortality takes a certain kind of courage, a determination to not allow it to overwhelm you but to instead embrace life more fully even while looking death directly in the eyes.

And facing the death of those you love, whether human or animal, takes a whole other level of courage, as we allow the grief to pass through us while we recognize that life goes on without them in it.

So yes, facing death takes a great deal of courage.

But when I asked myself the question about my own voice, and whether or not it’s been heard on this planet, that’s when I realized something significant. 

Life is the thing we need the real courage to face, especially as we level up another year of it on each birthday.  

I once wrote these words down after a difficult day with some hard-to-deal-with people, and then seeing some ballet dancers performing later that night:

“It takes a lot of strength to be gentle. 
It takes a lot of courage to be kind.  
It takes a lot of guts to be gracious. 
It takes a lot of power to be peaceful.  
It takes a lot of grit to have gratitude.
It takes a lot of confidence to be calm.  
Especially in the face of adversity or pain –  
It takes a lot of courage… just to live.”

Dancers, gymnasts and other physical performers or athletes make it look so easy.  They delicately move with a fluidity that makes everything seem effortless, flowing, beautiful.  Yet I know they work very hard to make it look that easy, to have that much grace in every moment.  

In fact, they work so hard that they must build up their muscles, get very strong, in order to make those fingers stretch just so, their toes point delicately, as they bend their body into beautiful shapes and float through the air seemingly on wings as they leap.  

Every moment of apparent effortless beauty is in fact created from a lot of work and a great deal of effort, even within the moment of doing it.

Yet once they’ve trained and transformed their muscles the movements become second nature.  They find joy in it.  They do it because they love it, and that love shines through as they fluidly create the magic of their motion.  That love of it is what keeps them pushing forward even when they are tired or in pain.  Love gives them the courage to put in the work and effort to allow their voices of their bodies to sing.  

Yet love itself, like using your voice, can take a lot of courage.  Love, you see, can break your heart.

The Courage to live

In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that when you love, your heart will be broken at some point.

Even if you find the love of your life, if you marry them and make amazing memories together, even if everything in that relationship is the best it can be and you find yourself literally living your greatest dreams – your heart will be broken one day by that love.  

Because one day that person will leave you, if you don’t leave first.  And I don’t mean they’ll cheat or get a divorce, though that does happen to many.  I mean that no matter how young we try to stay, we all age, and we all ultimately die. 

(And there’s that death thing again that takes so much courage to face if we want to really live.)

One day that love of your life, no matter how long you have been together, no matter how happy you have been with one another, will die.  And your heart will break.  You may be 92 years old, and they may be 100, and you may be ready for it, and you may be stoic and handling it well.  But your heart will still break, even more so because now you have a lifetime of memories to sort through as you say goodbye to them, now you have a lifetime of habits you have to change to accommodate being without them.

It takes a lot of courage to face life again after love has left.  The people – and animals – I’ve lost lately have taught me that.

But we also know the love we give and receive far outweighs the heartache we will feel when they are gone.  We don’t think of the possible and probable pain of the future, but focus on the joy of the present moment, as we should.  And the reality is, that love never really dies or leaves, even if it was a divorce or death that caused it to leave us in this physical plane.  

Every moment we had in time where we were happy in that love is still there inside of us, a part of our cells.  That love lives on within us.  Just as our bodies can carry the traumas of the past, so do they carry the love and joys of it.  So fill your body with that love, for it will help heal you in the future.

We love because it makes life worth living.  And when we lose someone we love, every single moment we had with that person (or animal) becomes precious jewels strewn across the velvety darkness of grief in our hearts and minds.  We wouldn’t trade a single one of them, even had we known we’d lose them.  In fact, we find ourselves wishing we’d paid more attention in the moment, appreciated their presence on this planet more at the time, said those three little words more often… “I love you.”

Any disagreements, any differences, any unrealized dreams, none of that matters anymore.  You look at their lives intertwined with yours and see how the threads of love created the most incredible colorful tapestry of time in your life.  You see how it didn’t matter what they did for a living or how successful they were or how much money they made or how much weight they gained or lost or who they voted for (yes, even that).  

We come to understand that the only thing that was ever really important was their presence on this planet and in our lives.

The people (and animals) I’ve lost have taught me that as well.

As we get older, it takes more courage to live.  For it takes more courage to do nearly anything, but especially to love.  

As your heart gets broken on deeper levels, it can be harder to open it again for anything new.  And yet, in many ways, we also find the courage we have is deeper, stronger, more resilient.  For we are stronger and more resilient, even as our bodies are aging, our soul is growing more powerful as it processes the lessons of life.  The lessons of love.

As we age we learn to live more fully, for we learn to love more fully.  But as we “level up” another year and another year and another, we also find it takes a lot more strength – a lot more courage – to do so.  However, just as with dancers, when we work at it, when we exercise those muscles of courage, we find ourselves doing it with greater joy, greater ease, and making it look effortless though it can take a great deal of work indeed.

When we are younger love seems to come easier, it is fluid, those connections come and go at a faster pace as we explore and test our love muscles and figure out who we are and what we want.  We desire connection, all of us, even if we mistakenly think something besides love is a connection, even if we know what we are connecting to may not be the best thing for us, we still crave it, and so we pull love – or the feeling of it – into our lives.

We think we know what love is when we’re young, but most of us don’t really know the strength and courage it takes to truly love until we’re older.  Some young people have gone through enough in their lives that they understand – but most of us are clueless.

Yet we become pretty badass lovers as we age. 

Because we’ve experienced enough loss to have had to exercise our courage muscles quite a bit.  We’ve gotten so strong that we become pretty amazing at living life.  We know death and change is not just a possibility but a reality, yet still we choose to love.  Why? Are we crazy?

No, we’re courageous.

So, do you have the courage to allow yourself to love?  And to allow that love to influence your voice so it can sing out loud and strong?

This is another way that we can have fear of using our voices – of doing that which we love – there is the fear of losing it all once we’ve had it.  Of finding ourselves unable to do that which we love anymore.  

The dancer whose body gets MS and can no longer move, perhaps, or the singer whose voice gets nodules and can no longer make music.  The writer or scientists who gets Alzheimers or the musician who loses their hearing.  

And this doesn’t even take into account the idea of failing at it all completely. We can try to use our voice and find it singing out strongly and absolutely love doing that, only to lose it one day and have our hearts broken by it.  There are so many ways that we may lose the ability to do that which we love most, so why even bother trying?   

It takes a lot of courage to love even knowing that love can and probably will one day break your heart.  Yet what are you to do?  Not love at all?  What kind of life is that?

Which is why, though you may not know it, simply by living your life and loving it and those who are in it with you as you go, you are being a courageous warrior.  

courage to live

Let me say that again: Life has made you a Courageous Warrior.

There are people who  choose not to love, though.  They close themselves off, put up walls, and drift through life on the surface of it all, not allowing anyone or anything to touch them.  But we know how things work out for those people – they end up alone and lonely.  Usually they end up with some kind of addiction or anger management issues.  Mostly they end up in therapy.

I say it jokingly, but then again – maybe not.  We need connection, and love is that connection.  Anyone who chooses to deny this connection is literally killing themselves slowly from the inside-out. 

But these people are also Courageous Warriors of Life.  Because they have the courage to set up their boundaries and stick to them, even if it ultimately closes them off and makes them a hermit.  There is a type of courage in that as well.

And if they choose to break down those walls and come out again, wow!  The courage it takes to do something like that is immense.  To step into vulnerability again when you’ve been so shut up so long in a fortress.  

Many of us, even if we don’t close ourselves off completely, will close ourselves off in some ways when our hearts have been deeply broken. And this is fine, and even necessary at times.  If we need to put ourselves in a cave for awhile in order to rest and recover from the wounding that has happened, that’s OK.  In fact, we should recognize when we need that, and allow ourselves and others the ability to do that.

But when we continue to stay in the cave, to not allow anyone in or ourselves to go out even after we’ve recovered, that’s when we get into problems.  That’s when the big courage has to kick in, the courage to choose to live again even after that much pain. The courage to allow love to enter our lives again even knowing it can and probably will break our hearts once again.  The courage to crawl out of the cave into the light and live again.  Huge amounts of leveling up courage happens then.

It takes a lot of inner strength to do that, especially if you’ve been wounded badly. Because what else can we do?  To not have the courage to do that is to not live.

To be alive, to experience this life and participate in it, to enjoy it, to explore it, to fully occupy this life… we must have courage.

Because getting older is hard.  I won’t lie – as our Aunt Edie used to say, “Getting old ‘aint for wimps, but it’s better than the only other alternative.”

This is so true.  If we aren’t getting older there is literally only one other thing that we can be, and that is dead.  With a capital “D.”

I’d rather age, thanks.

Yet getting older requires another part of the whole “life = courage” equation.  Not just because of the physical body aging and having health problems that arise, though that is a big part of it.  It takes a lot of stamina to face the health issues that age can bring.

It takes a lot of guts to face a body that isn’t functioning as fully as it could be in the traditional sense, as well.  To be differently abled, dealing with the daily frustrations of living inside of a body that has needs that are not being met by a large part of society.  For so many just getting inside of a building that has no ramps but only stairs is a challenge that requires a great deal of fortitude indeed.  Not to mention dealing daily with people who look upon you as “less than” simply because you are not as they are. 

Annie showed me what true courage is in that regard as well.  After her initial stroke, she was in intensive care for a very long time.  There were many days they didn’t think she’d make it.  But she hung on, determined to live for her daughter.  Determined to sit up again.  To communicate again.  To live again, even as she fought to keep her body going.  

And while it was very, very hard, once again she had the courage to use her voice – the voice of her laughter.  She found the humor in her life, even as it was so limited.  She chose to smile and give us love, even as she lay in that bed struggling. 

On her last day on this planet, her voice of laughter rang out with her daughter and daughter-in-law as they joked together, despite her weakness and pain.  This is the final memory she left them with before her body finally gave way to the long-term weaknesses the stroke had caused.  Her beautiful voice, expressed through her laughter.

I saw how hard it was, facing the challenges of a physical body that is failing and falling apart.  And though I try to stay positive, I often look at myself and get frustrated by my own limitations as my body ages.

But in my mind those are peanuts compare to the heart issues we have to face as we get older.  That whole “love” thing.

As we get older, we accumulate more love.  We love more people, more animals, more places, more things.  We fall in love with more moments, more memories, more of our lives.  

But then we also begin to see those same things we love change, grow away from us, disappear, leave us, get ill, and die.  We begin to grieve more.  And in that time, we still have to find a way to find the joy of being alive, and to find a purpose in it.

But I am telling you – it is worth it to have the courage to find that joy and purpose.  To allow ourselves to still love and receive more love and give even more love as we get older.  It is so worth it.  Because that is what will fill us up and make our lives so worth every breath of it in the end.

Living is made up of these moments: the time we spend loving each other, loving our animals, loving this planet, and loving ourselves.  That’s about it.  All else falls away when it comes down to it.

The courage to live gives us the best moments in our lives.

The moments of getting your hair styled by your niece and laughing until you cry as you swap stories about holidays together.

The moments of drinking Mimosas on a Christmas morning with family swirling around you in a hubbub of love, and sharing a wink with her at the chaos and joy of it all.

The moments of holding her hand as she lays in a hospital bed, looking deep into her eyes and telling her; “I love you.”

The moments of her gazing into your eyes one last time with so much love and compassion it nearly stops your heart with the fulness of it, her body so frail, as she reaches up to touch your cheek with the most gentle butterfly wings of her fingertips, caressing your face as she nods, and you understand she is telling you she loves you too, though she’s unable to speak.

The moments of sitting around a firepit late into the night in someone’s backyard drinking Tennessee bourbon brought by her brother and swapping memories of that one you all loved who is now gone, the love she gave now palpable between all of you as you raise a glass in her name… 

…those moments are worth hanging out for.  

Even as you are crying because you miss the one you are saying goodbye to, you are also soaking in the beauty of the ones still alive around you, and how special they are, and how you see with so much more clarity their preciousness in the light of the loss you all just had.

We cannot allow the grief in life, the hard times, the assholes, the anger, the frustrations, the pain to stop us from having the courage to live.  Because when we have the courage to live – the courage to be kind, the courage to be patient, the courage to be happy, the courage to be joyful, the courage to love – then we are giving ourselves the best gift anyone could ever hope to receive.

We are giving ourselves the best life ever.

It takes a lot of courage to be alive.  But if you have the guts to do it, you can live a life that you look back upon at the end of it and smile.  You can leave it knowing that you are leaving nothing but love behind.  Your voice was heard, and the message it gave was love.

And that love will give others the courage to live great lives of their own as their voices sing out strong.

(…Here’s to the voices of those who’ve gone before me, encouraging me to use my own now. Thank you.)


Jeanette is a film & tv editor, writer, director and producer who’s worked on Emmy & Telly Award winning shows, movies, and music videos for a variety of networks.  She’s also a trained operatic who mostly sings to her cats now, though sometimes she expands her audience to her family & friends.  She loves gardening, good books, good wine, and good conversations, preferably all at the same time.

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I’m Just Curious

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