I started writing this story four months ago. Even now I’m afraid to be completely honest… afraid of who in my family might see this, pass it on to other family members who will riot and shout at me till their hoarse. Funny how the truth can be a wedge between you and your loved ones if they live in a façade.
However participating in the photo shoot was far less daunting. At first. The message behind this project is something I believe in and act on daily in my art; the power of vulnerability and the healing powers of storytelling. As an actress I am vulnerable in front of crowds and in front of cameras often. And yet there was a certain trepidation once I sat down in front of the cameras for this photo shoot. Even with all of my experience, telling this particular story - my story - was something very new. I’ve never felt so exposed in front of a camera before, and oddly enough, I’ve never felt so beautiful. It was entirely fulfilling, especially having LeeAnn’s koala with me. It was a birthday gift sent to me after she moved away. She made it with her very hands. She and her husband recorded themselves singing me happy birthday – it’s been an incredibly comforting sound as I’ve grown older. Having that bear ensured me with the strength and courage to live and tell this story.
To understand me at my core is to know of LeeAnn. I’ve been told that as an infant I would sit on her lap, resting my hands on hers, as she vigorously played the piano. I have a feeling we communicated through music from the start. And not just the start of my life on Earth, but before we were born. My relationship with her was unique and cemented long before the Earth was inhabited. Our love and connection ascended age, life experience, and language. We were the best of friends, true companions. We would share stories and secrets, comfort each other, laugh, cry with each other, and give advice. It was irrelevant that she was born twenty years before I was. Our bond was spiritual and full, whole, good. We protected each other – though because the world runs by life experience she was able to protect me more than I could her. (At the time anyway.) She was the one who inspired me to dream passionately and instilled the seed of faith in myself I would need in years to come. She was the one who introduced me to my favorite things: to the worlds you could create from your imagination through music and theatre. She started me down my path and helped set my life-long goals – ones I’m sure she didn’t even know she was setting. I just want to be as kind and good as she is, and to forge my own performance path.
One of my favorite bragging rights is that I was her maid of honor at eight years old. I knew that I wasn’t the maid of honor out of pity – she has three sisters and a widowed mother – but it was me all the same. It felt like she shouted to the world how important I was to her. And even though it’s just a silly tradition, it meant the world to me. It wasn’t long after her marriage that LeeAnn was diagnosed with Chondrosarcoma, a very rare bone disease. Cancer. Six months to live. For a long time I think I believed she wouldn’t die – the thought too horrible to comprehend. And LeeAnn fought, boy did she fight. Six months breezed by with little change. She had lost her hair but she was still the same LeeAnn I knew. The doctors were wrong, she wasn’t dead yet, and she would keep on fighting. So I didn’t let myself believe the end could really come. But then the cancer started to rule her.
I remember the moment I knew; how Death in his dark, cold carriage would come for her. She was visiting Missouri from her newlywed home. I hadn’t seen her in months and was ecstatic. I saw the car pull up and family members went outside to meet her. I ran down my grandmother’s front steps and rushed across the yard. Someone was helping her into her wheelchair, hiding her from my view. My little sister got there first and was hugging her. I waited my turn. When my sister moved out of the way LeeAnn looked up to me and smiled. Her face was gray – grayer than I knew possible for someone still living – with dark, hallowed circles under her eyes. Her entire face was gaunt, and the rest of her was too. Through her shirt I could see her shoulder bone jutting out as if it were a mountaintop. Her smile was just as wide, but somehow dimmer. My joy shifted into shock. She literally was skin and bones. My hug was less full than usual – she looked so fragile I didn’t want to break her. And the rest of my energy was held within to keep myself from bursting into tears. It was then I knew my favorite person, my cherished LeeAnn, was dying right before my eyes.
It took 2 and a half years longer than anticipated before she left. I’ve always been so proud of how hard and long she fought. The funeral was sad, but it wasn’t as full of grief as I anticipated – not for me anyway. I had faith I would see her again. It’s made death less frightening. I believe families are eternal and as she’s family I will be reunited with her. I of course missed her incessantly growing up. I wanted her there for all the milestones like my 13th birthday – being a teenager is an important accomplishment. But it wasn’t until the end of high school that I truly started missing her.
It’s in my darkest moments that I miss her most – that I literally cry out for her.
And since my senior year of high school I’ve had plenty.
It wasn’t until that year I realized how imperfect my “perfect” little family was. How I had been bred to believe that my entire self-worth was directly reflected in my weight. Since I was bigger than I should have been (this of course being relative,) I would never become an actress, never marry (or have kids) because I couldn’t be attractive to guys, wasn’t hardworking because I didn’t lose the weight. And all of this meant I didn’t care about anything - which made me a failed attempt at a good person. Home life was a constant battleground. I looked to college for relief but found myself more depressed at BYU; I was isolated and invisible in a foreign land, where high mountains caged me.
I eventually gave in to my heart and pursued acting anyway, despite other voices. Accepted into the acting program, I did well for a while but soon became stagnant. Because I wasn’t aware of my depression, I couldn’t get necessary help. Then, in a class, I was sexually assaulted.
I tried to brush it off to myself and those I told the story to. I confronted my assaulter saying how inappropriate it was, but for the next year I fought off his attentions at school daily. In hindsight it appears this event was a catalyst for my depression and new-found, crippling anxiety. At the time I was completely bewildered and confused: what was happening to me? Any attempt to find solace in my parents was futile - it was assumed that these things weren’t real, that I was choosing to be unhappy. It was all my fault.
For the first time in my life my faith was shaken. I started asking God why – if He knew that no one else in my family would listen to me or understand, why did He take away the one person who I knew could? But I kept moving forward, seeking professional and friendly help. But the more I attempted to heal myself the more my world seemed out of control. My parents didn’t talk to me anymore. Extended family began attacking me and my new, small circle of support. I was on academic warning. Depression was thick and suffocating, heavier than I knew possible. Anxiety attacks gained power. Suicidal thoughts started creeping forward. I began flirting with self-harm, several times.
I started crying for LeeAnn constantly. The pain of her absence was more piercing than ever. I was grieving – for her and for myself. But then I started learning how to recognize her presence.
I can feel her near. She’ll whisper “I love you”. She’ll hold my hand. She’ll walk with me when I’m doing something we both love. She helps me know it’s okay that good things end – greater things lie ahead. That letting go to move on is a good thing. She’ll hold me when I’m alone and need comfort; when I need to be reminded I am worthy of love. She reminds me how she’s proud of me. Through her, thanks to the many gifts from my Heavenly Father, I’ve found the strength to progress.
I still have depression and anxiety. Sometimes I still have nightmares about my assaulter. Family members still attack. But I am moving forward. My relationship with my parents is the healthiest it’s ever been, and we’re continuing to work on improving. And I recognize that even though she’s passed through the veil, LeeAnn is with me more now than she was while on Earth. I’ve always prided myself in being a strong woman, but I know now that with the desire of reaching full potential it is imperative to go through trials and pain. As gracefully as possible I have walked a road not nearly as lonesome as I once thought it would be. The road’s journey is far from over, but I will courageously keep moving forward. It makes the world more beautiful, and I with it.
I am loved and I am not alone.