Just Hit Send

by Kelli Dunham on January 1, 2013

My life has been such that I’ve watched a fair number of people die. Close up and personal. It makes me a great party guest.

Being the youngest child of a rural family that loves alcohol and ambition in equal parts, I’m never wholly impressed with New Year celebrations.

You call that drunk? We puke up more vodka before 9 am than most people drink all day.

You call that planning for a New Year? My dad read us Brian Tracy’s “Seven Goal Setting Habits” in our cribs.

Of course, if you want to bypass the alcohol and go right to ambition, you’ve got to keep really really busy, so my wall is always covered with post it notes detailing my quarterly goals and foci no matter what time of year it is.

Adult children of alcoholics overcompensation notwithstanding, I’m a sucker for a good slogan and I’ve been thinking about one for this next year. I’ve decided on “just hit send”

“Just hit send” was a mini-meme created by the thoughtful Anne Elliott at the New York book release for Cheryl Burke’s My Awesome Place in October of this past year.

Cheryl Burke (aka my beautiful girlfriend) wrote this amazing memoir about her escape from New Jersey and parents who break plates of pasta on your head for getting into a good college, a descent into booze and drugs and really bad relationships with dudes and chicks, tearing up the 90s New York performance poetry scene, finding a community and a home of her own and ultimately getting sober. It was a damn good book, funny and heartbreaking with the sardonic humorous spin that was very engaging and very much the way of Cheryl.

She wrote it, and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. And then, of all things, her beautiful, vegetarian, nonsmoking, sober for over a decade self developed Hodkgkin’s lymphoma and within eight months she was dead from a pulmonary reaction to the chemo they gave her to cure it.

Her writing group, who had been working with her manuscript more than a half dozen years worked with Cheryl’s literary executor Sarah Schulman to polish the book as much they could. Sarah arranged for Topside to publish it. Cheryl’s other friends jumped in with help editing and promoting the book. Her community, her Awesome Place, showed just how awesome they are.

Thus, at the book release in October, Anne Elliott, a member of the writers’ group that put the manuscript together,a performer and a writer who had known Cheryl for almost two decades, read from her favorite part of the book,  and addressed the work they did with it: “Well we didn’t do that much to it. It was substantially done. She was just afraid to hit send.”

It’s true. The situation was slightly more complicated than that, because humans are pretty complicated (dead ones especially so, since you can’t chat with them to figure out what they’re thinking) but Anne had a rather poetic knife to cut through to the sad truth: Cheryl had been afraid to hit send.

There were good reasons Cheryl was afraid to hit send. She had been through some shit, both personally and in her career, major setbacks, artist on artist cruelty, rejection, bad relationships, losing a day job she had for a decade to a 23 year old blonde with big boobs and no qualifications. It’s possible (but not likely) that she was afraid of her family’s reaction. I know she was worried about how publishing a book about her worst years of drinking and drugging might effect her ability to make a living. And also, she damn sure didn’t think she would die. At least not yet.

I know this because as she was in the ICU, struggling to breathe, she rolled her eyes in the way that only Cheryl could and said “when I thought about dying young I always pictured something much more glamorous. If you would have asked me if I thought I would go this way,” she gestured to the machines of the hospital, “or get attacked by a pack of wild dogs, I definitely would have said the wild dogs.”

My life has been such that I’ve watched a fair number of people die. Close up and personal. It makes me a great party guest. And although it’s infrequent that a dying person’s last words are Lifetime TV worthy (seems to be me it’s always something like to be “cheese is the new pig” or something else nonsensical addled by medication and pain) I have to say that almost everyone I’ve been with has echoed this feeling of mild surprise.

I’m aware this is a little heavy handed (not to mention meta) for a New Year’s piece,  but I’m gonna fuck with the surprise for you. SURPRISE! You are going to die. Probably not this year. Maybe not this decade. There’s a very good chance it won’t be from a weird reaction to bad medicine that’s supposed to save your life. But you are definitely definitely without a doubt I can guarantee you, going to die.

And when you die, and when I die, every reason we had for not hitting send, for not putting our most authentic work out there in the world, all our fear of rejection, all our fear of being misunderstood, all that legitimate stuff, is going to be bullshit. And even if you have great friends like Cheryl had, and they manage to hit send for you, guess what, you’re still going to miss your own book release party on account of being dead.

It’s absurd that I’m slipping into lecturing mode here, since I’ve been living with the “hit send before you die reality” for a few years now but still in the last few months needed outside encouragement to practicing what I’m preaching.

I am an almost middle-aged stand up comic who has lost two partners in five years to cancer, both at age 38, both after horrible suffering. I also have been very involved in Haiti earthquake recovery, both in Haiti after the quake, and with old family friends who now live here but lost a ton of family members, and a fair amount of limbs on January 12, 2010. Musing about death, dying and trauma is like making small talk for me.

So this is what my comedy is about. Not completely, but substantially. And when I finished my last CD, Why Is The Fat One Always Angry, which includes some really hilarious pieces like “Fun and Games at Widow Camp” and “I’m Here, I’m Queer, the Tubal Ligation Didn’t Work” I found all sorts of reasons to not hit send. The files weren’t good enough quality. It had been too much time between recording and the release. Something in there might hurt one of my dead girlfriend’s feelings. But the truth was, I was afraid to hit send. I was afraid of what would come back to me. People become comics because they want (or maybe even need) to make people laugh. I was worried the CD was too tragic to be comic.

Some friends encouraged me to put the CD up as a pay what you can download on my website. I thought it would helpful, at least, for a few people. Instead, the feedback I’ve gotten from multiple sources has been incredible. One local comic who suffered a devastating loss when his best comedy buddy of many years died this past summer said he downloaded the CD, listened to it in the dark and laughed and cried until he felt like he could get up and face the world again.

As an artist, that’s almost a cliché. I’d have to be an asshole to complain about great feedback like that.

So that’s my New Year’s slogan, I guess. Polish that shit up, make it the best I can, and just hit send.

Because when my friends are scattering my ashes in front of the stone lion on the 42nd Street New York Public Library and trying to figure out whether anyone really wants my collection of black tee shirts or whether they should probably just recycle them for scrap, my fears of being the funny person obsessed with serious things won’t matter.

What will matter is if I hit send.

Kelli Dunham’s fifth book Freak of Nurture, will be published this Spring by Topside Signature, an imprint of Topside Press.

Read Chapter One from My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B, or buy the book at http://store.topsidepress.com

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Squires January 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Damn, you got me. I’ve put the send button so far out of reach, I don’t know if I’ll be able to hit it before I die. There’s some thinking I need to do about this. Thanks for giving me “head work” to last for a long while.

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Kyle January 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm

“But the truth was, I was afraid to hit send. I was afraid of what would come back to me. People become comics because they want (or maybe even need) to make people laugh. I was worried the CD was too tragic to be comic.”

This reminds me of some of the things Sassafras Lowrey has said about hir trepidation over how Roving Pack would be received. Ze expected a lot of negative backlash. Instead, review after review and personal email after personal email say much the same thing “Thank you so much for telling the truth, I can see myself in it and I’ve never seen myself in a book before”

Thank you for this post and thank you for hitting send. May your 2013 be amazing.

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Sharon January 1, 2013 at 3:19 pm

So glad you are hitting send, Kelli. What you write always
moves me and, ironically, makes me feel more alive.

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Jen January 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Thanks for this beautiful and inspiring read. I am also a palliative nurse/nursing professor and poet/writer. Thanks for hitting send at just the right time :-)

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Stacy Bias January 2, 2013 at 3:43 am

You do such good work in the world, my friend. Love you.

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Sharon Grimley January 2, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for the pep talk – hitting send NOW… :-)

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Francesca Bongiorno Fortunato January 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Thank you. I’ve seen a fair (or, more accurately, unfair) number of people die during this half-over (that’s optimistic; I’m 50) life. You’re speaking truth without jest in this piece and I’m taking it to heart. I actually have been “hitting send” more often during the last couple of years (because, “holy shit; my life is half over!”) but I know I could be doing even more of it. And I will! Again. thank you!

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Wolf January 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Thank you these words! Because of this post, I started putting my writing out into the world again, so thank you and may you always hit send.


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Avery Casell January 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm

This is timely for me; I’ve been working on my memoir, a clusterfuck of misadventures and craziness. I need to hear this message over and over…thank you. And am buying Cheryl’s book.

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Ellen January 15, 2013 at 9:38 am

Kelli, by the time I was halfway through this post, I literally said–out loud–”where have you been all my life?” (Hell, by the second paragraph, I knew you are a writer I much more of.)

I’m sorry about your huge losses, and inspired by your strength and wisdom.

Blessings to you. And oh yes, I need to hit Send much, much more than I have been.

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Sarah June 3, 2013 at 9:20 pm

I relate to so much of this. I think this applies to more than sending your work out into the world, though. It’s about daring yourself to do the stuff that scares you. I’m so glad you wrote this. Thank you.

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nilat44 October 17, 2013 at 6:31 am

Well now, Ms. Julie, we both know that my blog cannot quite be debircsed as blogilicious, per se. But I’m working on it! I agree that you are technically gifted. I’m still trying to figure out what all of the stats mean over on my blog. For me, it’s sort of just an outlet. It’s hardly even anything now, but maybe if it becomes something, I’ll have the opportunity to actually create something out of it. Until then, I’ll keep visiting and being inspired by whatever you’re doing over here. =) BTW love the new look! And the purple!

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