To Breathe Once More

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| This is the 335th story of Our Life Logs |


As a young girl, my purpose was as fickle as the wind, but my hope was firm. I wanted to be as loved and as encouraging as I knew my dad to be. In my muddled world, my dad’s heart was simple and clear. I had no intention of ever living without it, without him.

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I was born in the 1980s in Alexandria, Kentucky, the same small town my dad grew up in. I was really into gymnastics as a kid, and since my mom worked weekends as a NICU nurse, my dad typically accompanied me to meets. I hated the balance beam, but I’ll never forget the meet when I did a perfect round off on the beam followed by a perfect dismount. I looked up at the crowd and saw my dad punch the air as if to say, “Yes! That’s my girl.” I was as proud as he was.

It wasn’t just me whom he made feel special. It was everyone he met. He treated kids as if they were his own. He worked as a mason, but on the side, he also coached little league football, umpired for high school baseball, and taught at Campbell County vocational school for a year. How could I not look up to him?

His active support was so important during my childhood and well into my teenage years. Each time I needed to commiserate or dream or cry about my future, he was right there. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life. Like most high school graduates, I wasn’t really sure who I was as a person, either.

After high school, I enrolled in beauty school but dropped out with only 200 hours left, despite my mom’s pleading to finish. I enrolled locally at Northern Kentucky University. My dad was as supportive as always, telling me to do what makes me happy.

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I had decided that I wanted to become a dental hygienist and I felt compelled to begin the pre-requisite courses as soon as possible. There was a microbiology class I needed to take, but it was full. I went to the instructor’s office and essentially begged her to let me in until she agreed.

During the course, I met the teaching assistant, Nick. Though our first impression wasn’t great (I got mad at him for telling the professor I had put my equipment away incorrectly), we soon became good friends and eventually fell in love. Life wasn’t so directionless with him.

Two years later, when I was 23 years old, Nick was accepted to dental school in Louisville, Kentucky, an hour and a half away. I was still on the waitlist for the hygiene program in Cincinnati, so I decided to go with him.

It was hard to leave my family, especially my dad. But at the time I left, it seemed like he would be fine without me. My parents were perfectly healthy and happy, still volunteering within the community. I remember shifting and loading furniture in the U-Haul with Dad on the morning I would leave the nest. Though sentimental, his eyes said, “That’s my girl.” I still remember that look.

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In 2008, about a year after Nick and I had moved, my dad noticed a lump in his neck while shaving. He didn’t think much of it, but it never went away. Then he began to have pain while chewing and swallowing. He had had a tooth pulled and figured this was the cause. Looking back on it, I want to scream at myself: The answer is right in front of your face! But as a new student in dental hygiene school at the time, I didn’t give it much thought.

For the next few months, my dad saw different doctors at different hospitals, but no one knew exactly what was wrong with him. They thought it was an infection of some sort.

I remember his birthday fell on Thanksgiving that year. We were all eating dinner around the table as he kept putting his fork down, holding his jaw and neck in pain. He spent the following month in the hospital on IV antibiotics. Finally, my mom insisted on a biopsy.

He came home on Christmas Eve with a cancer diagnosis. No one understood the severity yet. They said, “Your father has oral cancer,” and we said, “Okay, what do we need to do?” It wasn’t even a question in our minds that he wouldn’t beat it.

A new video game for the Wii had just come out on one of the first nights that Dad was back home, so we went to the store at midnight to buy it. Our whole family sat up for hours playing. It was so much fun, but there was a strange haze hanging around us. Cancer. The diagnosis seemed tacked on to every quiet moment.

Within a couple of months, my dad began to look like a lopsided skeleton. Cancer of the minor salivary gland is uncommon, and treatment was a guessing game. The cancer seemed to grow up his face, taking one of his shoulders with it. Fluid would gather in places around his cheek and neck. When he started radiation, his teeth began to crumble. My dad had always loved to sing. My childhood was filled with him belting out songs from Journey, The Who, Kansas, and Aerosmith. But the cancer stole his voice along with other pieces of him.

I remember the first time I realized that my dad may not get any stronger. My aunt bought a giant wooden swing set for my youngest sister. My dad said, “I’ll put it together,” and got to work. A while later, he returned inside. He wasn’t strong enough. He put his head in his hands and cried.

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Being in Louisville was difficult. Nick and I were both in school. It was clear at this point that my dad was dying. We decided to get married earlier than planned so that he could be there for it. Nick and I loved each other very much, and I’m so grateful for him and our lives together, but our relationship was not an easy one at the time.

My dad, Elwood “Woody” Johnson, passed away on March 31, 2010. At first, I saw him everywhere. There were little signs that I was sure were from him, and they helped get me through the worst of it. But, to my distress, they stopped after a while. My life returned to what was supposed to be “normal,” but instead was just a really deep, day-in and day-out sense of sadness.

Nick and I finished school, moved home, and found jobs. I had not come to terms with losing my dad. I was angry, which leaked into my marriage. I had so much resentment welled up inside me over the past. I felt as though it was impossible for me to let go of anything that had ever caused me pain.

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After I turned 30, I had one of those “I’ve just hit a milestone” conversations with a friend at work. We were talking about the mark we wanted to leave on the world. For a while, I had thought that perhaps my life purpose was to be a hygienist in the hopes of helping people detect oral cancer that had killed my dad, but…it didn’t feel right. I had a pull to do something different. I just didn’t know yet what that something might be.

Around this same time, I took my first hot yoga class. It was the Fourth of July, and the only gym-like place open was a yoga studio in a nearby town. I showed up, sweated through a flow in hundred-degree heat, and was hooked. I began practicing four to five times per week.

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Me, practicing.

Though my intentions were initially grounded in the physical benefits of yoga, something began to unwind inside me. The more I came to my mat, the more I felt like all the dark clouds in my life were lifting. I learned to breathe and connect with my mind and body. I began to let go of everything. Insecurities. Resentments. Anger. Grief. I discovered a sense of clarity and confidence that helped transform my relationship with my husband and myself. I found peace and acceptance with the past, especially with the death of my dad.

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Yoga saved my life. It shaped me into the person I was always meant to be. A few years later, I realized my life’s purpose.

I opened Yoga Studio 43 in March of 2017 in my small community of Alexandria, Kentucky. The name comes from my dad’s retired high school football jersey (lucky number 43), and it hangs in the lobby. I can feel his presence there. The studio is like my church, my place of healing, and I strive to provide a welcoming space for people to come for whatever it is they need: to reach their fitness goals, get through a tough time, find peace within themselves.

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My dad’s retired football jersey and photo hang in the studio.

I never imagined my life would look like this. I truly believe that if my dad wouldn’t have died, this would never have been my path. When things get hard, he’s what drives me to power through. My dad has been gone for a little over nine years now, but I can still feel the warmth of his heart. I can still hear his voice saying, “This is what you need to do.” I can feel him guiding me.

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This is the story of Nikki Taylor

Nikki lost her dad to oral cancer less than a decade ago. This is the story of the love he left behind for family and community, and how Nikki continued that legacy by opening Yoga Studio 43 in their hometown of Alexandria, Kentucky. Yoga Studio 43 has a Cancer Care Program which offers free membership to anyone going through active cancer treatment. The studio also partners with the community to teach yoga and raise money for various charities and causes and has been selected as a 2019 Best of NKY finalist in the Yoga Studio category. Nikki lives in Northern Kentucky with her husband and running partner Nick.

Check out Studio 43 at: http://www.evolationyogastudio43.com

Facebook: @yogastudio43

Instagram: @yogastudio43

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Nikki, in front of her yoga studio.

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This story first touched our hearts on May 16, 2019.

| Writer: Natalie Mucker | Editor: Colleen Walker |

 

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