Kirsty Strickland: Why 2016 was the year I learned to say Yes

CommonSpace columnist and feminist campaigner Kirsty Strickland explains how the sudden loss of her father motivated her to grab life's opportunities

I WAS in England when I got the call.

Me, my partner and my toddler had driven down to see his parents at their caravan in the beautiful, soul-cleansing scenery of Beadnell Bay, in Northumberland.

We hadn’t long arrived. My daughter's grandparents urged my then-partner to show me around the town, a place where they had spent so many wonderful holidays as a family. So we left our little girl with them, contentedly burrowing her toes in the sand and looking out in awe at the majesty of the sea.

I don’t remember much about that moment, but I remember instantly thinking, he’s got it wrong. As he started to tell me the details, I realised he hadn’t, and then everything fell apart. 

We got back in the car, drove and parked. It was only then that I realised I could hear my phone buzzing. I didn’t realise I had it with me, the whole journey down I thought I’d forgotten to pick it up when we left the house. It was lying in the boot of the car among the many bags of 'necessities' that seem to be a requirement when travelling with a child.

When I fished it out I remember joking that I had spent three hours bored to tears in the car when I could have been on Twitter instead.

It stopped buzzing before I could answer it. Only then did I see I had a number of missed calls from my two big brothers. I felt a sense of dread that I couldn’t place. 

In those few seconds one part of my brain was trying to calm the other down. My heart was quickening, but I tried to bat the feeling away. I don’t often speak to my brothers on the phone; why would they have both tried to call me so many times?

My partner and his sister stood waiting as I returned one of the calls. The quicker I did it, the quicker I’d find out it was something unimportant, and this daft weight in my stomach would dissipate.

I sunk to my knees in the middle of the car park, a noise leaving my mouth that I’d never heard before. A howl.

"Hiya, sorry I missed your call. We are down in England for the day, I didn’t realise I had my phone with..."

"Have you heard?"

My brother hadn’t said anything earth-shattering yet, but from his tone and those three little words – I knew in my heart he was about to.

"Dad was killed in a car accident this morning, we’ve been trying to reach you."

I don’t remember much about that moment, but I remember instantly thinking, he’s got it wrong. As he started to tell me the details, I realised he hadn’t, and then everything fell apart. 

Everything after that was like a grey, out of body experience. A film-reel that I could see, but didn’t want to believe I was part of.

I sunk to my knees in the middle of the car park, a noise leaving my mouth that I’d never heard before. A howl.

Everything after that was like a grey, out of body experience. A film-reel that I could see, but didn’t want to believe I was part of. My partner's sister walking away to phone her parents. Him peeling me off the ground. Passers-by glancing over, wondering if my guttural cries were something they needed to intervene in.

We left my daughter with her grandparents, and got straight back in the car to drive to Scotland. When we arrived, my mum’s house was busy. Aunties, uncles, my brothers and sisters, all gathered round because that is what you are supposed to do. I didn’t know what to do.

We pieced together what had happened. My Dad, doing his morning commute had been hit by a van while he was stationary. The driver of the van was fine, my Dad died almost instantly.

I was no use to anybody. I just wandered around in a daze, trying to find the words for my mum and my siblings, but coming up short. Somebody handed me a piece of paper and asked me to write a statement for the press. Just a few lines. The words were jumbled and nothing I wrote seemed to represent what I wanted to say. 

My partner's sister walking away to phone her parents. Him peeling me off the ground. Passers-by glancing over, wondering if my guttural cries were something they needed to intervene in.

I asked: "Why are we doing this right now? Can they not just wait?"

Apparently not. I was told that one journalist from a Scottish newspaper had already been to my mum's door, asking for a quote. If we didn’t give them a statement, they’d speak to neighbours and cobble something together from them.

So I wrote.

A few days later I was due to have an interview with Zero Tolerance. CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty had tweeted me a link to their bursary competition for The Write to End Violence Against Women Awards, saying she thought it was right up my street. I’d filled in the application, got a date for an interview – and then my dad died.

I didn’t know what to do, in all honestly. I knew they would have understood if I cancelled – but doing that didn’t feel right. I imagined my dad looking down on us, watching the chaos and the grief and the overwhelming sorrow of his departure; and I felt his eyes on me. 

A few days later I was due to have an interview with Zero Tolerance. I knew they would have understood if I cancelled – but doing that didn’t feel right. I imagined my dad looking down on us, watching the chaos and the grief and the overwhelming sorrow of his departure; and I felt his eyes on me. 

I was acutely aware of my shortcomings as a daughter. My infrequent phone calls, and being wrapped up in my own world; I wanted to do him proud.

Death does that. It makes you think in a way you never have before. So I went to the interview. I remember telling friends afterwards that it was a surreal experience. I felt so calm and together. 

I cancelled a job interview with Asda once because I was so anxious about it, so this was definitely a new one for me. At the time I was insistent that my dad was with me in that interview room, that it was his presence that soothed my normally ever-present nerves. Maybe he was. But looking back, I think it is more likely that I was still in a state of shock, given it was only a few days after his death.

I was told a few days later that I was the bursary winner, and that I’d be writing a series of articles for The National to promote The Write To End Violence Against Women Awards. 

I so badly needed to make my dad proud, and I wanted it with a shameful intensity that I never had when he was alive.

I so badly needed to make my dad proud, and I wanted it with a shameful intensity that I never had when he was alive.

Situations kept presenting themselves that I’d normally shy away from. Taped interviews, press photos, writing to a deadline; and for once I relished the feeling of being out of my comfort zone.

The Write To End Violence Against Women Awards came and went, but I didn’t want to stop pushing myself. So I called 2016 my 'Year of Yes'.

I challenged myself to say yes to scary things as much as possible. I was newly, painfully aware of the preciousness of life. All my previous self-doubt and self-sabotage suddenly seemed quite pointless.

Who cares if you aren’t perfect – it is surely better at least to try? What are we here for if not for that?

So I did.

Situations kept presenting themselves that I’d normally shy away from. Taped interviews, press photos, writing to a deadline; and for once I relished the feeling of being out of my comfort zone.

I carried on writing. I offered my opinion even when nobody asked for it. When I was asked to be in a short film about blogging by Phantom Power – I said yes. When I was asked to write articles for The National that needed to be filed in three hours – I said yes. When I was asked to speak at an event at Glasgow Women’s Library alongside accomplished women that I admire – I said yes.

A funny thing happened. The sky didn’t fall in. People were kind, encouraging and ever so willing to give advice and support. I had fun.

What started out as a personal challenge to distract me from grief turned into a whole new way of thinking and a different way of living. I still have self doubt and grapple with imposter syndrome – but I don’t let it determine my choices.

At this year’s Write To End Violence Against Women awards, I was there as a judge, not the bursary winner. I’d psyched myself up for presenting an award. I’d done much scarier things this year, a few words on a microphone couldn’t be that bad. 

I challenged myself to say yes to scary things as much as possible. I was newly, painfully aware of the preciousness of life. All my previous self-doubt and self-sabotage suddenly seemed quite pointless.

Then those pesky (wonderful) Zero Tolerance women threw me my last challenge of the year, and they asked me to do a speech. A 10-minute speech. All my friends are well aware of my 'Yes' year so when I told them I’d been asked to do it I received a chorus of "just say Yes!".

The symbolism of that last scary act wasn’t lost on me, one year on from the previous awards. This time, getting up in front of all those people felt exciting, not gut-wrenching. 

It was a fitting end to the year, and an end to my personal commitment to do away with fear; to embrace and appreciate life. Life, in all it’s terrifying, unpredictable glory.

We can’t predict the future. We can’t hold our loved ones with us forever. We can’t go back and make up for past mistakes. That is why this year, I said Yes. Yes to living. Yes to trying to do better. And Yes to appreciating now. 

In the end, now is all we have got; and we are more lucky than we know, to be living in it.

Picture courtesy of Michał Koralewski

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