Carolyn and The Empty
When I was little, my mom used to tell me the story of how she named me.
I’m older than #thebrunettesestra, and Stephanie Lauren was supposed to be my name. Mom was delivering me in the hospital and she grabbed my father’s arm and told him my name was Carolyn Joy. She said she just knew that I wasn’t a Stephanie at all. Even before she saw me. She told me that Carolyn means joyful song. And she knew I’d bring everyone joy—that this joy was forever a part of me.
I took it to heart. “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” became my favorite Bible verse. I made it my serious job to be joyful. And truthfully, I loved it.
When we moved across the country from Philadelphia to California at 10 years old, I considered myself a modern day Laura Ingalls Wilder, traveling west across the prairies. It was an adventure! As we drove across the country in a yellow Ryder truck and a little red Ford Escort, we talked to each other on CB radios which I found hilariously fun. I intensely looked for each new state’s license plate and crossed them off my list. I took pictures of the changing landscape with my disposable camera.
Stephanie, however, was sick for most of the ride. And oddly uninterested in my stack of travel games. We had to stop more often for her. And although I wanted to be in the big truck with my dad, Stephanie claimed that quiet spot next to him as hers. My mom told me she needed it. I was bummed, but I made the best of it because I had the cooler full of snacks next to me in the little red car. Dibs!
We arrived in California and I quickly fell in love. The sun, the mountains, wearing shorts on Christmas Day—seriously, why did anyone live outside of Southern California? Life was great. And it carried on that way (mostly) for the better part of a decade for me.
During my freshman year of college, I came home for Christmas. When it was time to go back to school, Stephanie held onto me and said she didn’t want me to go. We’re talking death grip. My mom said that my sister was having a tough time, but didn’t expand. I was worried. By Spring break I moved back home and decided to commute (stepping over drunken vomit all weekend wasn’t my style).
And that’s when I noticed. Stephanie was sad. Why was she so sad? Instead of answering that question, or at least pondering it, I jumped right into action. I set out, of course, to bring her more joy. That’s what I was good at. She just needed some cheering up.
Stephanie was comically and frustratingly resistant to many of my attempts at making everything better. She humored me, and loved me, but my rose-colored, the-glass-is-half-full glasses really annoyed her. It turns out when you are constantly trying to cheer someone up, it feels like you’re trying to fix them—and nobody wants to feel like they need fixing. She didn’t need fixing. She needed a sister to sit in the depths of the Empty with her… but I didn’t know how. I had never experienced a feeling like that before, and wouldn’t for a few more years.
My story is for another day. But thankfully, in the depth of my sadness (and after this amazing TedTalk), I was finally able to understand what she needed from me when she shared moments of her Empty.
Recently, Stephanie called me and said, “I sent you a new song. Did you listen to it?”
“I did! It’s beautiful.”
“It’s another sad song…”
Previously, I would have said, “Well why don’t I help you write a happy one! We could co-write it together!” Or worse, “I just know that happier times are ahead of you, Steph, and then the happy songs will just come to you.”
Instead, I took a breath, and said the truth—without trying to fix her.
“I love your sad songs, Stephanie.”
And I can’t remember what she said after that but I’m pretty sure a very surprised, “Thank you!” was involved. And since I’m her sister, and we have ESP about these things, I can confidently say that she was smiling on the other end.
Stephanie’s name was my parent’s version of naming a child after my father, Stephen. Sometimes I wonder if my mom not only knew I was a Carolyn Joy, but that my father’s name belonged to someone else that was yet to be born.