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Afraid of a Different Darkness

Somewhere, somebody thought it was a good idea to write a prayer service for night. What I never understood until now is that it wasn’t just the literal darkness that occupied their most urgent words for God.

I’m sitting here trying to remember when I was first aware that I was afraid of the dark.

I’m not afraid of the dark anymore, of course, at least, not in any kind of paralyzing way. Occasionally I’ll be downstairs in our house, with all the lights off, and I’ll scoot up the steps with an extra boost of adrenaline with the notion that someone–something–was lurking in the shadows, waiting for me.

I know it’s silly. But such a feeling gave me a well of empathy for our daughter when she went through a spell demanding we leave her closet light on through the nighttime. And while we can at least extinguish that bulb these days, she still sleeps with a nightlight. A few, actually. Most nights, we say a little prayer that she sleeps through the night without bad dreams.

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WCU's Jan O'Brien

Looking for Jan O’Brien




A journey to say goodbye to a campus legend–before it’s too late.

UPDATE, DECEMBER 5, 2016: Western Carolina University announced today that Jan O’Brien had passed away. It’s important to note this story is about the summer of 2014, when Jan’s passing was erroneously reported.

Jan will always be a cherished part of my college years, and I am deeply saddened to hear she’s passed away. I will always be grateful, however, of the chance I got to tell her how important she was to so many of us before it was too late.  –jdh


THIS STORY BEGINS SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, the fall of 1998, when I was a high school senior visiting my college sophomore girlfriend at Western Carolina. We were kids, so we were drawn like moths to the flame by the on-campus Chick-fil-a, where fried chicken sandwiches wrapped in foil bags sat under heat lamps, waiting for us to collect them and pay for them with a mysterious and seemingly inexhaustible supply of declining balance points.

We’d gathered our meals and headed for check-out, and that’s the first time I met Jan O’Brien, the infamous register attendant in the University Center food court. She was an older lady, short but strong stature, white, curly hair, and a vibrant smile, which she flashed warmly to me. “Hello, sweetheart!” she said.

“Hi, Jan!” Kelly said back to her.

I grinned. “What, no ‘sweetheart’ for me?”

She laughed, and then she called me sweetheart. We chatted, and then we checked out, and we ate, and the next year I came back to Western Carolina as a freshman. Jan was still there, and she called me sweetheart. She called me that for the next four years.

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Sundays | My Uncle Ken



My Uncle Ken, holding our daughter, Julia, in July 2011.


There’s no small irony about what happened to my uncle, who spent his life as an automobile insurance claims adjuster.

When I told people that my Uncle Ken had been seriously injured in a car accident, invariably there would come a time when someone would ask how old he was. “Eighty-one,” I’d respond. “But that’s not entirely accurate.”

Ken was 81, but he was one of the most vibrant octogenarians I’d ever known. Scratch that. He was the most. He went to work every day. He shoveled snow. He took his dog all across Monmouth County–on schedule, even: Saturday mornings were bank mornings; the tellers eventually began stocking treats for Ken’s dog instead of lollipops. He made the world’s best stuffing on Thanksgiving.

Physically, he was the human being equivalent of a ’75 Mercury Marquis: big. Strong. Able to sustain the grave injuries delivered in the near head-on collision less than a mile from his home and still have the wherewithal to call my aunt and ask that she come quickly.

But I am speaking all of this in the past tense. Ken’s heart ultimately wore out last week, and he passed away.

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