The best way to describe Rachael Yaeger is: always with a smile on her face, hardworking, kind. These are the same words used to describe her father at his funeral, after he passed away from cancer in mid-2015. After spending some time away, Rachael has returned to New York City and is finding new normalcy, focusing on her business Human NYC and projects such as The Working Pair. She’s navigating life at a gentler pace, but with the guts and grin one can only get from their dad.
“My dad was a crazy cowboy. He was intelligent and warm, hardworking, happy and wild. Growing up, I wanted to be around him all the time. He was my hero. When he first got sick, I took a hard look at my life and said, ‘I am going to have to survive this. When that moment hits, I need to figure out how to be OK.’ I tried to set myself up with things that would keep me moving forward—I made sure that I was actively working on a bunch of different projects. Now, I need to keep those things in place to fall back on, whereas before I would run around like a headless chicken with nothing to lose. Right now I’m focusing on growing my business, Human NYC—a web development shop for thoughtful design. I also run The Working Pair, an online editorial for creative couples. It’s funny—the more effort I make to be strong and independent professionally, the more personally relaxed I am. Perhaps because it gives me something to focus my energy on.
Every morning I choose to be excited about what the day might bring, instead of tapping into the fact that things are fucking hard.
I don’t know if that choice makes things harder or easier. I’m a lot more conscious about creating a life that’s sustainable, and am more cautious than I’ve ever been before. With my relationships and friendships, there are times when I feel like I’m closed off because I’m preserving so much inside. I hope that the people I love understand why I need to do that. I worry about not being the bubbly person that I think a lot of people have met me as. But if that doesn’t feel natural, I’m not going to try and live up to it, because I physically can’t. I do feel pressure to be energetic and happy for my family at times, every day that’s a hard decision to make. But I figure if I can make that choice, it will be easier for them to make it as well. But I’m trying to be gentle with myself—saying, you’re not supposed to have it all figured out. You’re doing the best you can and that’s OK. On the days when my brain is tangled up in something, I meet myself there, take a breath, and untie that knot later in the day. Acknowledging that I’m not a superhuman allows me to become hyper-aware of what I’m feeling, and punch those feelings in the face if they don’t feel good.
I’ve always put other people first, so to prioritize myself has been a tough transition. But I’ve been really proud of myself—from the little things like not texting back straight away, or not diving into work as mindlessly as I might have before. As someone who’s growing a small business, I want to show my clients I’m there for them, and giving is my way of bonding with them and communicating that I’m on the same level. But that doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. I used to be under the impression that you can give and love endlessly—that it was a bottomless well. Now I understand that it is not endless, and it will exhaust me if I’m not careful. I used to say yes to every opportunity, and now I’m more open to looking at what I need to do to take care of myself before taking new things on. Anything I say no to will come back around if it’s meant to be, or I’ll go after it when I have the time.
I’m working on actively saying, ‘This isn’t serving me. I have to cut this off.’
I think that has been one of the greatest things I’ve learned this year.
I haven’t really looked into grief, and sometimes I wonder if I’m feeling how I’m supposed to be feeling. But I think you just do the best that you can and roll with it. I never know how much my dad’s passing is affecting me—I’m not always sure where my emotions are coming from. Is this my period? Is this my dad’s passing? Is this a client driving me crazy? It’s easy to shut down, but I choose to make the best of it. What you’re feeling is no one else’s fault, and you have a responsibility to continue to try and be the best version of yourself. Active choice is really hard. It means owning a ton of little moments in the day—every interaction, every conversation. If you don’t like how you spent the last hour, don’t repeat it. That takes a lot of energy and I’m trying to be courageous in those moments. I cringe a little when I hear people complaining about why they can’t do something or why they feel shitty. Some things are out of our control, but be accountable for the things you do have control over.
You can control a lot more than you think, simply by accepting the fact that you have a choice.
When my dad died, I had so much strength and love come out of nowhere. I had no choice but to get out of bed. I’m closest to my dad when I’m laughing my ass off, if I’m having a beer, if I’m really letting loose and being my truest self. That’s when I feel him most, so I’m trying to get to that place more often. If I’m leaning into being sad, I think—this is not who we were. He wasn’t built like that, so in a way, I don’t want him to see me like that. I have an overwhelming love for him since his death. I’m so much more aware of what he gave me, and see how lucky I am because of it. One of my biggest worries was that I wasn’t going to have him around anymore. I wasn’t going to have my resource of funny stories, anecdotes and answers. And then all of that fear went away, because I realized I was so much like him. I said to him one day, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, because mom is so different from you. You’re my person.’ He said,
‘You have it all already. You know how life is supposed to be. You’re going to be fine.’
Joan Didion says it in The Year of Magical Thinking when she loses her husband: Everything will be OK because it has to be. I look at myself and know that I will be OK because I am him.”
Photographed by Amy Woodside
As told to Amy Woodside, October 2015