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Running From Grief


Have you ever felt deep despair?  Despair that leaves you on the ground in a fetal position? Sobbing so hard, sounds struggle to escape? Sadness and anguish felt so deep no amount of screaming seems to give relief.


This feeling is a big part of where I am coming from in this world.

I am writing blogs/stories that are eventually going to become my published Memoir. I feel led to share my story to help myself continue to heal and to give hope to anyone feeling the same. Life can throw some major curve balls our way. When we experience pain and suffering we can learn and grow from it and also really appreciate the good things life brings if we stay grateful.


I’m here to tell you we can get through it and be happy again.


I grew up in a suburb of Memphis, TN called Bartlett. Bartlett was a smallish town with a smallish town feel. I went to school with mostly the same people from grade school all the way through high school.


There were two elementary schools, two Jr. high schools and two high schools in town. I wasn’t in the school district that gave me the opportunity to go to Bartlett Elementary. My Elementary school didn’t have any sports teams. This was the beginning of not fitting in with the cool crowd.


Cheerleading is a big deal in the South and I dreamt of being a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and model. I mean, it was the 70’s and The Dallas Cowboys were a pretty big deal and their cheerleaders were the epitome of beauty and perfection in my mind. Panty hose, lots of hair spray, blue eye shadow, thick pan cake make up, big breasts and curves, all the things I didn’t have but wanted as a little girl.


Instead of cheering for Bartlett and wearing the coveted red, white and blue Panthers uniform, I cheered for the Bartlett Optimist Club. It always felt like a step down in my mind but I was excited to be a cheerleader. My mom helped out with getting our uniforms with some other moms. They were a kelly green color and were cotton/polyester with sort of a longer circle skirt without pleats. ALL cheerleaders wore cute pleated skirts back then. My name was embroidered across the back in big white cursive letters, instead of the team name. I just felt so very NOT cool.


Still I made the best of my optimist club fate and had a lot of fun cheering on the team in both football and basketball. We had car washes for fund raisers down the street at the nearby gas station on one of the main roads that went through town. I really had fun. I went to practice weekly and memorized all the dance routines and cheers. In my heart I wanted to be a Bartlett High School cheerleader one day and then move on to cheer for the cowboys.

  

In so many ways I feel like I was somehow born into this world with low self esteem already intact and a deep desire for acceptance from everyone. From the start of grade school I never really felt like I fit in anywhere and I wasn’t very popular.  Kids made fun of my big lips and called me names like “chicken lips”.  I was tall and skinny, with an awkward body that felt too big for me somehow. I was clumsy and had slightly bucked teeth until I got braces in 7th grade.


My self esteem continued to take a downward spiral when I didn’t make the cheerleading team at my Jr. High. This was pretty upsetting for me. I had no cheerleading talent really and instead of deciding to work hard to get better, I just gave up my Dallas Cowboy cheerleading dreams.


My mom and I always struggled to get along. I love her dearly. As I’ve grown up and become a mother myself I have come to better understand her struggles as a mother. Outside of our differences and opposite opinions over just about anything, I was definitely a handful at times. I was often busy being a bit of a bad influence on my childhood friends. Vandalizing houses in grade school and just being a selfish only child. There is much to unpack here. I will share more about this in another chapter/blog. Suffice it to say our very difficult relationship was part of my struggle as I grew up.


I made mostly D’s and F’s beginning in 1st grade. I struggled to understand school and stared out the window most of the school day. I was put back into the 3rd grade after I was already in the 4th grade because I couldn’t seem to remember my multiplication tables. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time I had  ADHD. I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder in my late 30’s. For most of my life I truly and deeply believed I was just stupid.


My self esteem issues continued to rule my life. Besides my best friend Paige (whom I’m still friends with 45 years later) the main person in my world, who I felt accepted and loved me no matter what, was, my dad. I’d say for certain I was a daddy’s girl.


From what I can tell, John Clarence Long III, better known as Jack, was not your average dad or human being. He was truly loved by all who knew him. There are stories that many tell about my dad that make this evident.


This is how I remember him.


He seemed to stand even taller than his already tall; six foot, four inches. He was mostly legs. He would perm his very fine, straight, dark blonde hair. He had the rather large “Long” family nose with a mustache and a big smile. I clearly inherited a lot of his physical traits outside of his infamous mustache.


He was a bit eccentric. He loved the finer things in life and always dressed in fashionable clothes and seemed proud in his newest digs. He loved gadgets. We were one of the 1st people on the block with a microwave and VCR. He was obsessed with the lawn and was always talking about getting the “Yard of the Month” sign, which we sadly never had in our yard.


More importantly, I could talk with him about a lot of things. I felt safe with him. I knew he’d kick any boys ass that might mistreat me. He joked about making future dates and boyfriends sign contracts. He danced with me. We often planned my would be future wedding day.  We wrestled until I cried and made my mom mad for him being too rough with me.


My dad loved to eat. It’s safe to say we bonded over LOTS of sweet treats and food in general. My mom happens to be an amazing gourmet cook. We always had something yummy for dinner and of course, desert.


We had dinner together every night as a family. No TV. Just ate and talked about our day. We had movie nights and ate entire boxes of Soft Batch cookies AND Oreo’s dipped in milk. We both loved donuts and went to get them often on the weekends together. Watching the Krispy Kreme production line through the window and eating fresh hot donuts was a BIG deal on a Saturday morning with him.


My dad was the President of an optical lab called Precision Optical. His lab was very successful. He was up before dawn and worked long hours but was always home before dinner. Many times after my dad got home from work I’d help him pull off his cowboy boots. He always had smelly hot feet and smelled like a mixture of cigarettes, grease and oil from the lab. He was always helping and working along side his employees. He wore an apron over his jeans and looked like everyone else. You wouldn’t have known he was the guy in charge. His employees respected him.


He smoked cigarettes daily and drank scotch whiskey on the weekends. His weekend drinking was not one of his best traits and did cause problems. It just seemed like it wasn’t really a problem because he was successful, mainly drank on the weekends. He ALWAYS made everyone laugh. He told stories and was impulsive at times. He really was a lot of fun sober or drunk.


SO. MUCH. FUN.


My mom, dad and I always visited my mom’s side of the family over Memorial Day weekend in St. Louis for the holiday. On one visit, after drinking to excess, which was often the case on holidays and weekends, there was a car wash fight. My cousins were graduating high school and well, everyone was drinking. We wound up at a car wash to rinse off my dads Ocean Pacific pants. He’d sat in some goose poop earlier. It turned into an all out war with the car wash wands, everyone spraying each other. He loved it all so much, not long after we returned home he bought a nearby car wash in Bartlett. Another time in St. Louis, he and my mom dressed up like Micheal Jackson and Santa Clause and went to stand in line at Ted Drews custard at 1:00 A.M causing a hilarious scene with all the teens there.


To say my dad was unpredictable is an understatement! He also enjoyed buying and reselling cars in the auto exchange magazine. At cheerleading practice one day he showed up unexpectedly to pick me up in an old Cadillac limousine he had suddenly bought that day. He got down on one knee and said “your chariot my lady”. He was my hero.


This limousine was a lot of fun for my dad. It was old and black. Smelled like old museums and had a little hole in the windshield. He liked to tell people it had been Elvis’s car and the hole was from a bullet. One summer day he dressed up in formal wear with my mom and had my neighbor pretend to be his chauffeur. We rode around Bartlett in this crazy limousine while my mom pretended to smoke a cigarette attached to a fancy long cigarette holder. We stopped to ask for directions and he told everyone his name was Lord Ashely Dunsmore III. He also took me and my friends to the skating rink some weekends, we felt super important.


I think my favorite was when he took all of my cousins and her friends through the Mc Donald’s drive through. There were about 13 of us piled up in the back in between the rumble seats. He ordered a shake and 13 straws To Go.  All the workers came to the window to see who he was, laughing at his silly request. We drove this old limo to family weddings on my dads side too. Everyone enjoyed the limo shenanigans.


Thanksgiving with my dads family in Kentucky was one of the biggest holiday events in my family. We all played games and sang family songs. These still go on today. My dads brothers and one sister always seemed so close. I enjoyed seeing them all together. They were always singing a lot of songs and reminiscing about old times. Always A LOT of laughter.


My dad was always telling a joke and making up stories. My parents had block parties every summer on Fridays. A lot of neighbors brought chairs and everyone laughed and carried on till the late night hours. The men drank whiskey sours and the women, strawberry daiquiris.


There are endless stories of my dad and all the life and laughter he brought to the world around him. His life certainty impacted me in so many ways.


My dad joked and told me often that I had a “BA”.  BA stood for bad attitude and he’d tell me I needed an attitude adjustment. Because of my low self esteem and not understanding that I had ADHD, I was already on the wrong path in life. I found kids that accepted me and were also coping with life with sex, drugs and alcohol. I began pulling away from my dad, I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me.


My dad had been sick with cancer and in the hospital by the time I was in high school. They removed one of his lungs but the cancer spread and he was going for radiation treatments. I knew he was sick. I just didn’t understand how sick. He was always so strong and full of life. I didn’t have the skills to cope with life much less the idea of my dad possibly dying, so I pulled away even more.


Wednesday, April 9th, 1986 started out like any other day. I was getting ready for the day. I was in high school and 3 months away from my 16th birthday. My dad had bought me an old Mustang he was working on but it sat in the garage unpainted, he was waiting until he felt better to finish it in time for my birthday.


I was sitting on my bathroom sink putting on my make up, the upstairs living room TV was blaring MTV (back when they actually played music videos). I hear my mom yelling my name, telling me to turn the music down. I ignore her, she yells again. This time I start to yell back but I can tell there is something different about her voice and she starts to yell my name again before I can yell back at her.


I come to the top of the stairs and as she is beginning to say “It’s your dad “ I can see on her face what I already somehow knew without her saying anything else, as she try’s to finish her sentence.


I don’t remember running down the stairs or passing her once I hit the end of the stairs. I just remember running and getting to the door of their bedroom that was directly below mine.


I don’t remember anything except seeing my dad laying on the bed. He was on his back, his left leg halfway off the bed, his right hand clutching his chest and his mouth in the shape of an O.


I ran crying and jump on the bed. He was already stiff and cold. I lay beside my dad  hugging him and crying so hard, yelling “dad, dad, dad…” I remember those feelings all so well as I retell one of the most traumatic moments of my life, 36 years later.


He had a stroke. My mom had to get the neighbor to pull me off of him. I just remember the ambulance and paramedics with their radios going off and strange medical terms being said. I was in a state of shock. My boyfriend, Kevin and best friend Paige showed up. The school bus stopped for a minute and all the kids stared as the bus slowly took off again.


Apparently he died before his alarm clock went off for work earlier in the morning. My mom was telling him to turn off his alarm. She nudged his arm to wake him and discovered he was cold.


The paramedics put my dad on the floor and covered him with a sheet. The coroner was unable to locate our house for sometime. He laid in the bedroom on the floor for hours. Close friends came over and sat in our living room. Everyone was crying off and on. My mom decided she should send me to get my dads clothes at the dry cleaners. No one thinks very clearly during times like this so of course it just seems logical.


I have plenty of shoes but for some reason I must have the one pair that’s in my parents room. No one thinks to tell me to go get a different pair from my room. I crept inside the room and sit in the chair next to my dads body. I just sat and stared for a while thinking I could see the sheet moving. Surely this was all a joke. I would be super mad any minute when he started to laugh at how he fooled us all. I sat and stared in disbelief. How could he be dead? I literally just couldn’t comprehend the truth of the matter.


My boyfriend, Kevin and (I think) my best friend, Paige, take me to get my dads dry cleaning in Kevin’s old Datsun pick up truck. “I’m never smoking cigarettes again!” I yelled through tears as I threw my pack of camel light cigarettes out the window in a moment of conviction that wouldn’t stick for long.


The sweet lady behind the counter turns her back to me as she pushes the button to find his clothes she begins to chatter on in her southern drawl. She’s asking about my dad, “How is he doing? He’s not been feeling well, sure hope he’s back to his old self soon, he’s such a nice man”… tears streamed down my face quietly as I watched the clothes go around on the track. I wanted to stop her, I felt bad to tell her he had died.  It seemed like forever until she finally turned around, with his clothes in her hands. Once she saw my face she sort of gasped and asked “oh no, is everything ok?” I felt the need to apologize to her and she of course did the same. She said she was so sorry and I said the same. This was just the beginning of all the awkwardness that seems to accompany people and death.


No one knows how to talk about it. Everyone seems to just get quite and uncomfortable. It must be because of their own pain in dealing with death. I think sorrow and grief is the most difficult emotion to handle. It always has been for me.


The days that followed my dads death are strange. So many people stopped by with casseroles. My mom had my half brother’s (he grew up in St. Louis) ex girlfriend take me funeral clothes shopping. At some point I grew so tired of the people coming to our house, I locked myself in my room and refused to come out or even answer anyone who pleaded with me on the other side of my door. I went back and forth between crying fits, staring off into space for long periods and feeling intense anger. I felt so lost already without my dad. He took up so much space in my world. EVERYTHING was so different. The house was quite. I didn’t want to talk to my mom. I didn’t know how I was supposed to behave or what to do with my deep sadness and regret.


My dad had two visitations. The 1st was in Memphis, the 2nd in Louisville, Ky where he was from in his younger years. The funeral home in Memphis had to move his casket from the small room to the main big chapel that had a stage with curtains because so many people where coming to visit. My dads coffin was put on the stage. For 3 days people from all over came to pay their respects. Flowers lined the entire side walls and poured out into the hallway.


We put pictures in the coffin. My dad wore a navy blue suit coat and red tie. I stared at his face. His mustache was trimmed too short. He looked sort of plastic with a lot of make up. It was strange and not at all the way I thought he would look. I kept thinking his chest was moving. I was still SURE he was going to regret playing this terrible joke on us all. After they closed the coffin in front of us I was hysterical once again and they had to close the curtain because everyone was watching as they forced me to say goodbye a second time.


My brother John had come with his very funny best friend Jim to Memphis to help. My mom flew with my dads body and casket to Louisville, KY. We had to drive to KY with my dads casket flowers in the back of the hatchback my brother was driving. It was my job to spray the flowers every so often. Once we got to Louisville I just remember a lot of older people. My dads picture in a frame sat next to his casket on an easel. In the picture he wore a yellow Izod sweater and his Panamá Jack hat. He was obsessed with Tom Selleck’s  character in the old 80’s show, Magnum P. I. He often dressed the part and introduced himself as Tom Selleck. I stared at his picture for a really long time. I just couldn’t comprehend that he was actually dead. Shock after someone dies suddenly seems to carry with it the biggest loads of grief.


He was buried in a historic cemetery. Civil war graves and even Colonel Sanders are all around. There are two columns with “LONG” engraved at the bottom. I  remember so many strange things. Holding my moms hand and thinking she had the softest skin. I still think about it after so many years. I remember ducks walking by and my brother John sitting next to me as people whispered and sniffled.


I don’t remember going back home to Tennessee. I don’t remember a lot of things once we made it to the 2nd visitation. I felt detached and unable to accept reality. I was young, confused and felt so alone. My favorite person in the world was gone. My mom detached as well. We already had problems and she was dealing with her own grief. My heart goes out to her now. She stayed in her room and went into her own depression. I stayed in my room and gradually started to hang out with my friends. I hated being in the house. It felt dark and empty.


Everything felt strange. Everyone gave me a sympathy type stare or smile. A girl in my gym class had everyone donate money to the cancer society and sign a card for me. It touched me so much but I couldn’t deal with my feelings.

People tried in their own ways to help but everything just continued to feel strange. I became depressed and the only thing I knew to do was to drink and party.


The one person that helped me the most was my English teacher. I think he saved my life back then. Coach McKee knew I was in need of some help. He reached out and encouraged me to join my high school cross country track team that spring not long after my dads passing. I showed up and ran my 1st 3 miles ever in some old Tretorns (1980’s canvas tennis shoes) and no socks. Haha, I was really clueless back then and paid dearly for my ignorance with some pretty nasty blisters.


I thought I might die everytime I went to practice. It took me months to build up my lung and heart capacity before running was not so grueling. Smoking camel lights before and after school didn’t help much. I got lost and separated from the team in the woods the 1st time we went out to practice the trail runs. Coach McKee was really upset with me. He yelled at me to keep up. I cried from embarrassment I couldn’t contain once I finally made my way out of the woods. I could tell he was worried. I never did get lost or separated from the team again.


  I absolutely hated running on the track. During interval training I would constantly think about pretending to fall. I’d imagine limping off the track field, crying about my ankle and not being able to finish running. What’s really crazy about this time in my life is the fact that I got up three mornings a week, at 5AM, all summer to run with the team at Bartlett Park. I am not a morning person. I was 16 and partied as many nights as I could, smoking cigarettes and weed and drinking often into a black out.


I never missed a practice. I grew to love running. I led my team in a 13 mile run one really hot July Tennessee day. I always felt so good after a run. I felt cleansed. I felt refreshed. I felt like I could conquer the world. My bond with running was so personal. I continued to run off and on for the next 25 years. I am sad my knees and hip won’t really allow my trail runs these days. It was my therapy and friend through so many rough times.


I continued to run and party in an attempt to drown out my feelings of insecurity and grief. I partied too much and my grades were always terrible. Coach Mc Kee interrupted my dreaded interval training one day after school to tell me I couldn’t compete in the 1st cross country meet. It was a couple days away. Report cards came and well, my D’s and F’s  prohibited my competing. Instead of continuing on with my practice and working to improve my grades, I quit the team and partied more and more, adding this failure to my list of reasons my life sucked. As long as I stayed the victim in my life, I would not need to change.


I skipped school, partied and spiraled into a deep haze of alcohol, drugs and sex, anything to distract me from the deep sadness I felt inside. I failed 10th grade English and Biology. Now I was a 16 year old in 10th grade. My relationship with my mother continued to deteriorate. We were getting into more and more physical fights. I had little concern for rules or authority. I shoplifted regularly. One evening I got a reckless driving ticket while  driving myself home drunk. This was 1986 or 87. The cop let me drive myself home the rest of the way even though I was obviously very inebriated.


In the early part of 1988, I was almost 18 years old. I was out of control in every way imaginable. I decided I didn’t want to go to high school anymore. I pretended to go to school and have homework everyday. After a couple weeks I went into the office to sign myself out of school so I could stop my charade. The school counselor informed me I would need to have my mom sign me out due to being a minor. Of course the school notified my mom that day of my attempting to quit school.


I was such a little brat. I had used my mom’s Dillards credit card to buy a sexy  denim dress earlier in the day after not being able to sign myself out.  I went home with my new dress and informed my mom of my plans to drop out of school and my need for her signature to do so as soon as possible. This spurred a series of arguments and deals to get me back in school. I returned to  with an even more belligerent attitude. I was just unable to control my anger anymore. All my grief was bursting out at the seams. My mom sought out counseling at a church for the two of us after I gave her a bruised jaw from a fight we had a week before. Something had to change. I was becoming more and more difficult and unhappy. To cope and not feel anything I was drinking and partying into black outs and being promiscuous most days.


We discussed me moving in with my Uncle in Kentucky. We decided to talk to my newest counselor about a plan. It’s funny, you think you know what’s happening in life, that you know where you’re headed. The truth is everyday things can happen to change the course of your life. People can cross your path that you never knew could change everything. My counselor, Pastor —-, had a last minute emergency and instead of seeing him that day I met with a man who was on a mission to find clients for his brand new drug and alcohol program he was starting up in Memphis for teenagers. I had no idea who he was or what he was doing. This meeting would not only save my life but impact and change the course of my life and many, many other lives forever.


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Next blog/chapter starts…Life took a change of direction the day I met with Reverend Scotty Cassidy.



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Your dad was the greatest! he was always so much fun! Just hold on to the memories, they were so good! I think you are alot like him. Love you always. Paige

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Kristina Long
Kristina Long
15 mar 2023
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Awwww thanks Paige! That’s really sweet to hear. 🥰 I know you remember him too. It really means a lot that you took the time to read this and respond so sweetly. 💗


Love you!! 😘


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