Our stories begin before we do.
Teenagers in Caldwell County in love, or who thought they were, give birth to a little boy.
A couple who can’t have children receive a call one night that a baby girl has been born in Conway, South Carolina who is up for adoption.
The little boy bounces around to different homes and different family members after the teenagers split up. Eventually the boy is adopted by his aunt and uncle who serve as his parents.
The little girl grows up with a teacher mother who impresses upon her the importance of giving back, of mentorship, of family. A father who equally believes in service. Her parents divorce, marry others, and her family grows.
Both the boy and the girl fall in love with UNC-Chapel Hill when they visit the campus. The girl enrolls in 2002. The boy in 2004.
Their paths likely cross along the quads of Chapel Hill. They might have bumped into one another as the leaves fell in October, passed one another under the lights on the way to different parties.
The boy went to see John Edwards speak in 2005 and the girl, who is now a woman about to graduate, introduces him. Her mom is on the same row as the boy who falls in love with politics that day.
The woman, Jamie Kirk, goes on to work in politics. The boy volunteers on the campaign, then interns, then staffs.
I grew up in that campaign. I fell in love — the first real love of my adult life. Jamie took a little longer to feel the same.
One cold February night, we finally kissed.
Two weeks later, we go on a date to eat Chinese. We rent a movie in Blockbuster, and she is consistently on the verge of saying something. We stop by Cookout for a milkshake after we rent a particularly corny romantic comedy.
A few minutes later, on the same red couch that today I am spread out on writing this column, Jamie looked at me and said, “I’m not sure exactly what this means — but I love you.”
Four months later, I work up the courage to ask Jamie to marry me.
Ten months after that, we marry on a beautiful April afternoon in her hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Over the course of the following four years and four days, we built a life together. Two dogs, one from the pound. Two cats, one from a stray litter. A two-story home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood. A church community we came to call home. An array of friends, family that we love, and causes we believe in.
Jamie built a business, but also a practice of giving back. She fell in love with cooking — at first, with plenty of butter and sauce. Twenty pounds later for us both, she decides to focus on nutrition. Ultimately, she launches a blog she calls Healthy Ever After.
We both care deeply about poverty and hunger throughout our lives together. In February, 2013 we attend the No Kid Hungry conference in Chapel Hill and consider how we can address the problems facing our state around childhood hunger.
Jamie begins also to consider nutrition, food systems, and urban agriculture. She whiteboards plans for a program aimed at implementing healthier food in traditional backpack buddy programs.
My birthday and our anniversary are on back-to-back days. We travel to Emerald Isle and celebrate both. I still recall being on the porch of a friend’s home in Emerald Isle, a warm breeze blowing through, and Jamie bringing out a huge tray of “peel and eat” shrimp with a delicious made-from-scratch remoulade.
A few days later, we return home and our lives are shattered when Jamie was murdered. The commonplace warmth of our days disappears. And for the last thirty months I’ve thought of what C.S. Lewis wrote following the loss of his wife: “I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the argument, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace.”
My friends, family, and our community surround us with love and hold us, her people, up. And we started a nonprofit named after Jamie to carry forward her work.
In time, I’ve found some purpose to my days — which includes the work here at EdNC.org. I’ve inexplicably survived the unsurvivable.
As my favorite writer Anne Lamott wrote: ”I have seen many people survive unsurvivable losses, and seen them experience happiness again. How is this possible? Love flowed to them from their closest people, and from their community, surrounded them, sat with them, held them, fed them, swept their floors. Time passes. In most cases, their pain evolved slowly into help for others. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, ‘I slept and dreamt that life was joy / I awoke and saw that life was service / I acted and behold, service was joy.’”
Today, I work on the issues that we both cared about as we grew up, as we lived, as we loved. I work for those issues, because I believe that service is, as one writer said, “the rent we pay for living.”
I work on the issues that we both cared about because nothing is more important to the future of North Carolina than education, alleviating poverty, and addressing hunger throughout our state. This work is helping me understand that our issues have to be addressed across party lines, but also across all kinds of lines — urban and rural, rich and poor, old and young, all races and ethnicities.
My story is wrapped up in my past, but recently I’ve discovered that a future exists as well. It is possible to move forward without moving on. It is possible to live, perhaps even possible to love, and ultimately life can be wonderful — even in the broken, fractured reality of today.
This weekend, we will celebrate the work of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, remember Jamie, and recognize the hard work of our Jamie Kirk Hahn Fellows who are dedicated to transforming our state.
I also want to express my profound thanks to the board, staff, donors, and community of EdNC for allowing me to share this story — and the stories of others in our state who are doing incredible work that benefits us all. I know that is something Jamie would be proud of.