Saying Thank You

I was 26 when my then fiancé called off our wedding five days prior to the big day. In the immediate aftermath, my thoughts were a numbed haze, disbelief serving as a kind of thick bubble wrap that initially insulated me from the pain I would befriend in coming months.

What did puncture my cocoon of shock that week were flashes of shame for how many cancellations had to be made by people who loved me. The venue, the catering, the flowers, the everything. Friends had booked their hotels, purchased their flights, made their arrangements. I had already unwrapped dozens of gifts sent ahead by these friends, seeking out the perfect place in our new little duplex for each item—

The knives from Paul and Maureen in Seattle.

The cream and sugar set from Dannon and Kendall in Colorado.

The popcorn bowl and welcome mat from Chris and Lory in Texas.

Even the absurdly expensive Anthropologie mirror I had registered for in order to get the bridal discount for myself and then received unexpectedly from Lauren and Pete.

Each item gifted with friends’ love and anticipation now sat in a depressing pile in my parents’ basement. Looking at those gifts, I felt like I had projectile vomited my innards onto all of my nearest and dearest. I felt like a mess and a burden. Not that that made a whole lot of sense, but when does shame ever make great sense?

The bottom line is that as a woman who is most comfortable planning my own birthday parties, I was not handling my current neediness and the way I saw it impacting my friends very well. 

With my face buried in a pillow and zapped of all motivation, I formed a vague plan to thank everyone for their generosity and then apologize to them all for buying plane tickets. I planned to handwrite approximately 65 cards to friends and family in order to tend to their inconvenience. And I decided I was going to ship every gift back or send store credit.

Yes, I would figure out how to do all of that… just as soon as I found a way out of the fetal position.

It was around that time that a small corrugated cardboard box arrived in the mail from a college friend and his wife. I opened Dan’s box, filled with desire for someone to slacken the ache within me. Inside, wrapped intentionally in tissue paper, was a home-roasted bag of coffee and a note penned on a simple card:

Dear Katy,
We had already selected the beans for your wedding gift when we heard the news of your broken engagement. I’m so sorry for the loss and the heartbreak. My hope is that the beans we chose for celebration may now be brewed for comfort and healing. There will be another day when you will celebrate love fulfilled. When that day comes, we will send another gift. For today, I pray you breathe deeply and savor goodness.

With love,

There it was—the invitation from a friend to be exactly where I was, feeling exactly what I felt, even though I wished it wasn’t true.

I held the bag close to my nose and breathed it in. The beans carried floral notes, bright and aromatic—the kind of coffee I like to drink early in the afternoon after a bolder roast has already done its work. Those freshly roasted beans would not keep until I was in a different season of my life. They had to be ground, brewed, and enjoyed now.

So I brewed them, and I drank the gift they gave. And between the cups of coffee I drank that week, I decided to believe that every person who had lovingly chosen a gift for my wedding was like Dan. They knew I felt overwhelmed. They wanted me to feel comfort and blessing for this new journey I was set to embark upon. And they wanted me to have some tools and comfort for an unwanted fresh beginning. Perhaps these friends and family members also would want my nagging sense of duty to float away. So I kept all of the gifts. And I didn’t write a single thank you note. I decided to believe I was loved enough to receive gifts that I could not find words for or repay.

These artifacts of friendship remain tucked and treasured throughout my home to this day. I think about Michelle every Thanksgiving when I break out her Waterford linen napkins to set our long Thanksgiving table. I think of Jennifer and Mike each time I pull out my Calphalon stock pot to prepare my mom’s homemade spaghetti sauce with oregano and red wine.

For many years I even kept the horrible Hobby Lobby wall sign from an older friend of my parents that was painted with watercolors and stamped with a typewriter font to read, “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.” In the aftermath of the broken engagement, I wanted to burn that sign in a fire, but I kept it nonetheless.

Those not-wedding gifts felt holy to me—outward and visible signs of inward and deeply felt grace. Those gifts reminded me that I was good, I was beloved, and I could keep becoming.

And though I did not have the capacity eight years ago to write each thank you note, I have whispered gratitude hundreds of times in the years since for the love I have felt—Thank you, dear friends.

Katy and mother, Tracy Johnson, chat more about this story in Season 1, Episode 1 of the Red Tent Living podcast. You can tune in and subscribe to hear their conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

Katy (Johnson) Stafford dreams, writes, and occasionally podcasts in the messy middle of life. Newly married, Katy is spending her 30s embracing hope, longing, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called In Love, a memoir about loving your life beyond white picket fences. Katy shares more of her thoughts here, where she cultivates a community for writers and creatives.