Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wear the Red Hat - Use the Good Dishes - And Live Out Loud

"Nice hat!" he says with a smile. He pauses, and then: "You don't see people wear hats like that often anymore. We should, I think," and he nods and smiles again and walks away, leaving me standing in the aisle at the grocery store on the verge of tears.

I have just come from a long meeting at work and on my head is perched a jaunty little red chapeau, one of those felt and feather numbers. It has been stuck in my closet too long, the felt a little ruffled and the feathers slightly bent. It is not my favourite hat but the night before when I went digging for a hat it was the only one I could find that was suitable for a day of -35 windchills, as most of my other hats are the wide-brimmed sun hat variety or the John Deere ball cap I consider my lawn mowing hat. No, this was the only hat suitable for the winter, and so that morning I had placed it carefully on my head and snapped a photo, because the hat wasn't entirely for me.

While my body and part of my mind was at the meeting yesterday, my heart and a good portion of my thoughts were with a friend some distance away. While I sat and gazed at my red hat on the table in front of me hundreds of other hat-wearing people were gathered to celebrate the life of a young man who left us entirely too soon.

I wrote about him before in this blog, my dear friend Kathleen's son Mackenzie. Kathleen and her family, in their infinite courage, have been very open about the fact that Mackenzie, at the age of 18, chose to end his own life. Kathleen has shared the journey with many of us through her social media, something not everyone understands but that I certainly do. Someone commented to me on her openness and willingness to share this intimate dance of grief with the world, and I could only respond that some of us, like Kathleeen, choose to live our lives out loud, with the world a witness to our triumphs and failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, and, on this occasion, pain.

Yesterday my social media feeds were flooded with people wearing hats of every kind, snapping photos of themselves in a show of support for Kathleen, in memory of Mack and to help blow the lid off mental illness and end the stigma that drives this disease underground. Far too often we still try to hide mental illness, treating it as if it is different from all the other diseases that ravage us, and yet it is exactly the same and quite often more likely to touch our lives than some of the other diseases we are so open about. We shy away from talking about depression and anxiety and suicide, as if we are afraid these things are contagious. And we just don't know what to say when someone we know loses someone they love - especially a child - to suicide.

And so yesterday we donned hats, hundreds of us who know Kathleen personally and those who know her only through social media. We tweeted, facebooked and instagrammed photos of us and our kids in our hats, letting her know she is not alone and that she is supported and cared for - and that we too want to ensure we are talking about mental health. And while Mack's family and friends remembered his life I was reminded of something else.

I stood in the grocery store aisle for some time after my brief conversation about my hat. I was reminded of a story from another mother who lost a son under different circumstances, and how one day for a semi-special occasion before his death he had asked why they weren't using the good dishes, and why they saved them instead of using them daily. And as I stood there in my red hat I wondered the same thing, why we save the good dishes and why we don't wear the jaunty red hats and why we don't do and say all the things that make our hearts sing when we know life is so fragile and uncertain. Why do we put off living when we never know if we will be alive to live it?

When I left the grocery store I sat in my cold car, my fingers quite numb, crying as I thought of my friend and her family and her son. I thought about ways to keep this conversation about mental health going, because I know that suicide in youth has touched my community, too, and I know other mothers and father and brothers and sisters in pain. But I thought too about good dishes and red hats, and about living every single day as if you did not know what would happen the next, because the truth is you don't.

Just as the jaunty red hat is not my favourite hat this is not my favourite band - but this song perhaps sums it up better than I ever could. If today was your last day, or the last day for someone you love, what would you want to do or say? Maybe we need to stop saving the good dishes, maybe we need to start wearing the hats we have shoved in our closets, and maybe, just maybe, we need to begin living out loud. It took a red hat, a kind man in a grocery store, and tragic loss to remind me to do those things, and to ask the questions that really matter.

I was reminded of why I choose to wear the red hat, use the good dishes - and live out loud.

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