Loss

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This is a piece of a story I wrote in 1999.  I never went back and finished it, but as I was reading it tonight (looking through old writing, thinking about how to talk with my Bible class about prayer tomorrow), I was surprised.  This summarizes how I describe it still.

 

“Does it get better?”

“What?”

“Fuck you! You know what I’m talking about! Does it get better?”

His black eyes narrowed to slits. He looked ready to jump over the table and assault me if I tried to stall again. Does it get better? Of course it gets better; it has to get better. But I could not lie to him that directly. Sure, I could two-step around the truth and leave things unsaid, but…

“It doesn’t get better. You get different.”

“What?” The fire dimmed in his eyes. He would not punch me for being confusing.  Progress.

“You’re asking me if the pain goes away, if, after x number of weeks or months–”

“Years.”

“–Or years, whether the ache stops aching. That’s your question, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, the answer is not ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ This pain just doesn’t work like that. Break your arm, the pain goes away, the bone mends, the cast comes off. Get pneumonia, your lungs heal, but they’re never as strong again. Sever a limb, and you can wear a prosthesis, but that new arm can’t be explained with, ‘yes, the pain went away.’ Oh, the pain’s gone, but only after they removed everything from the shoulder joint down.”

The anger had gone, replaced by fear.

“You still feel like a cripple? After eight years.”

I smiled, but not really. My face failed me.

“And six months. And thirteen days.”

“Shit,” he breathed. “You still count.”

“No. One day, in the first year, I spent a day that I felt like dying counting from every day of the calendar. It’s not tough math, and once you’ve run through it in your head, you never forget. Two-four-ninety-one. Simple subtraction in three columns.”

Damn! Why did I tell him that one? Helping. Focus on helping.

He nodded. I decided to take the lead before he asked another question for which he would not want the answer.

“Do you find it helps you more to talk about her or not talk about her?”

“’Helps?'” he repeated, “What does ‘helps’ mean in that sentence?”

“I guess ‘let you deal with your grief.’”

“No.” His eyes had gone lifeless, a salmon on display in

the market.

“I know, nothing helps in the sense of ‘makes better.’ I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about…well, when Rae died, I wanted to pin her picture to the front of my shirt, and set it on the table every time I sat down to talk with someone. That way, they would understand that she was part of every conscious moment, that my mind never left her.  People thought they were being polite, asking ‘do you want to talk about it,’ but that question pissed me off the most, as if I can’t handle having it brought up, as if I’m not thinking about her every waking moment of every pointless day.”

Pete nodded.

“So talking about her with others did not help much. I found that trips to the cemetery helped the most. Sitting in the grass, or walking aimlessly, reading the dates of birth and death. Being in cemeteries was the only time that my internal and external realities matched. Everywhere else, I felt dissonance.”

Pete nodded again. His eyes flooded, but he tried a wry smile.  I think it was supposed to be a smile.

“That’s why I like talking with you,” he said.

 

Until We Die

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What’s with all this dying?

I’m watching the internet explode with posts about David Bowie and Alan Rickman (and chipping in a few of my own).  I thought this article about losing our theologians was brilliant.  It captured for me why I’m grieving over artists whom I never met or even saw live.

There’s been a fair amount written about death, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to add to the collective wisdom here.  But an unusual combination of things are swirling around in my head and I’m trying to figure out how they all fit together.

David Bowie was a brilliant artist, a true musical genius.  I’ve never listed him among my personal favorites, but I respect his accomplishments and enjoy a lot of his music.  But then there’s this:

“David Bowie was an incredible musician who inspired generations. He also participated in a culture where children were sexually exploited and raped. This is as much a part of his legacy as his music.”

Two nights ago, I watched the movie Spotlight with my daughter.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it and believe it has a decent chance of winning the Academy Award for best picture–TRIGGER WARNING, though, it’s about the Boston Globe breaking the story of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church.  Challenged by a college friend, I’ve been doing research since and finding out how horrifically prevalent sexual abuse is within the Protestant church and missions.  Today I spent time with the director of our school, discussing the dangers and committing my help to identifying and preventing such abuse at our school.  If you are part of a church, mission or Christian school and aren’t already well-informed on this issue, I urge you to read this entire article.  I know it is says some negative things about certain organizations, but turning away from what we don’t want to know helps create an environment in which abusers can carry out their abuse.

Jesus always sided with the abused.  He always stood with the persecuted.  Many of the stories of healing speak not just of his miraculous power, but of his willingness to stand against abuse, hatred, and shunning of the weak, the victim, or the shunned.  When he stopped the crowd rushing to Jairus’s daughter to speak with the women who had hemorrhaged for twelve years, he did more than restore her dignity.  He challenged a system that turned suffering people into outcasts.  He stood for the victim of abuse.  She was considered “unclean” and had no business in that crowd, much less touching a rabbi.  Jesus credited her courage to touch him and believe in his power and compassion as bringing about her own healing:  “Go in peace; your faith has made you well.”   The woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman by the well, the lepers he touched, those possessed, all of them were despised and considered outcasts because their suffering was considered their fault.  They must have sinned.  They brought this upon themselves. Continue reading

My Friend’s Baby

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Yesterday, I watched a little girl in a box get covered with dirt.  She was two days old.  We tried to understand what happened to her, how she died, because we want to make some sense of what happened, to make our own evaluation of whether someone could have prevented her death.  Did she get good care?  Was there justice?  But we don’t know the answers to that.  We don’t know the answers to anything.

Our friends buried their baby and we stood with them and watched, because that was the only thing left we could do for them.   The grandfather of the child told us that she is not in that box; she is in God’s arms in heaven.  I believe that.  I believe our son is in heaven and their daughter is in heaven.  I can’t prove that to you.  You can believe that my belief is wishful thinking.

It’s a huge cemetery, much bigger than we realized.  It went on and on.  It’s simple and cluttered and crowded, mostly with wooden markers.  I read many children’s markers on the way to her grave.  It isn’t manicured, it isn’t laid out pristine in precision rows.  No one spent thousands of dollars to reserve a spot, to buy a casket, nor to chisel granite or marble as a reminder.

We surrounded the open grave.  They opened the top part of her tiny box so we could her face, embalmed and still.

Her father gives his kindness to everyone.  He always, I mean literally always offers his smile to me when I see him, and his smile is beautiful.  His smile is kindness and encouragement.  He used to work at our school but he changed schools, so I don’t see him every day like I did before.  He has been married for five years, and for five years they have hoped to have a child.  Then they learned she was pregnant, and carried that hope for nine months.  And then we were watching dirt cover the box.

I had never told my friend that our son died, because you don’t just bring that up in conversation.  But I told him as we walked back through the cemetery.  I don’t imagine it helped, because “help” is not a word that makes sense there.  Nothing makes it better.  There are no “right” words.  No words change anything.  But I wanted him to know I was with him, and that our friendship and our shared grief were why I stood out with there with him at noon on a Sunday, with his family, and his community.  Because there’s nothing you can do, but you still do what you can.

Somewhere out there, where I don’t and can never live, I have an 18-year-old son who plays with my 8-year-old boy.  He’s following his older sister, one year ahead, who’s in college already, figuring out where he wants to go, what he wants to do next year.  Though his little brother is blonde, he has brown hair like me.  Does he love to read and play ultimate?  Does he ignore us and roll his eyes and stay out late and drive us insane?  Is he going to use his passion and brilliance to make the world a better place, or just to make a lot of money?

In this world I live in, I still have the ashes of a baby boy in a tiny little box.  We’ve never felt like it was the right place to bury them.  The baby boy is in heaven, of course, and all my hope is there with him, but I still have the box.

That life and this life are what I recount to myself as I watch them shovel the dirt over that box and it disappears, as I watch the life here of that tiny girl disappear from her parents’ eyes, and all they will ever see of her here are reflections when they see children whose age she would have been, when they ask themselves “Would she have looked like that?” or “Is that how she would have laughed?”  I pray to God that my friends will have a child, a brother or sister to their little girl.  I pray that’s not the only time they will hold their own child here.

And I pray for the time when we will hold all our children again.

 

Fighting for Hope: Fear, Naive Faith, and Trusting God Even When…

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Let’s be honest.  Not honest but self-protective.  Let’s just actually say it.

I don’t know if it’s going to work.

Pick which “it” I mean.  Raising my children so that they live peaceably in their own skin.  Having kids I can be proud I had a hand in parenting.  Looking back at their years of living in my house and knowing I did well by them.

Am I going to do something with my life?  Not just pass through.  Live.  Suck the marrow, blow every speck of gunpowder, make a contribution, leave something worth claiming?

Will it matter that I was here?

We’re afraid and we try to cushion against that fear with comfort.  Comfort foods and comfortable habits, routines that protect us from looking at our naked selves.  Distractions and entertainments.  Not bad in themselves, but when we use them as anesthesia…

There are darker questions, too.  My dad was chronically ill for the last twenty-five years of his life…which means it started when he was younger than I am now.  What if the mental illness…?  Some people live in the “knowledge” that only other people’s children get sick, or get in accidents, or die.  They would never say this out loud, but they live that way.  I’ve had that illusion shattered, and the pieces never went back together.

“But,” some might ask, “what about your faith?  Don’t you trust God?”

I’m giving that question the big smile, the one I set on my face in lieu of ripping tonsils out.

I trust God.  I’ve chosen a life that, in some significant and tangible ways, relies on God’s faithfulness or else.  Or else we’re not okay.  I’m not boasting.  I’m just distinguishing between what I trust God to do (and protect against) and the rest. Continue reading

Fred

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I sat by his bed because there was nothing else left to do. He lay fetal, curled up tight into himself against the hospital bed railing. He looked like a caricature of himself. “Moon face” had taken over all his features and then worked its way down his body, bloating and distorting the man who had ridden his bike 3,500 miles from Alaska, who ran in 24-hour-races and called his friends derogatory names impugning their manhood if they couldn’t keep up with him at work.

He slept almost peacefully. He would moan and rub his face or brush at his I.V., but he never knocked it out. The morphine kept pouring into him, keeping him from agony and consciousness. His wife and her mother and his mother and I stayed by him in turns and recited stories about him. Half of them I heard for the first time there. He was crazy, certainly. His pain tolerance exceeded that of mere mortals. He had never turned away from anything, it seemed now, in his entire life, but rather grabbed everything by the throat and conquered it. But you can’t really grab death by the throat.

He had done the closest thing, I think. He had refused to blink, refused to wince or cringe or ever, even once that I witnessed, feel sorry for himself. In the last months he had swung from wanting to stay so he could raise his 3-month-old baby girl to wanting to die so he could be with God fully. Two months earlier he told me that he no longer “tried” to hear God’s voice; God now spoke to him direct and clear. “Just like I’m talking to you. Except he says better things.”

One of the things God said was to try the snake venom. His mother had heard about a clinical trial that treated brain cancer with snake venom by shooting it directly into the tumors. Reports from the first study were positive but the second study had sounded overwhelmingly successful. You always wanted to use the “M” word. At first, he had said no. “If God is going to heal me, I don’t want people to be giving credit to snake venom!” But a week later he said, “God told me, ‘Hey, Stupid. You need to do that!’”

Does God address you as “Hey, Stupid?” No, me neither. But I’m thinking now, after it all, that this doesn’t disprove either God’s existence or Fred’s hearing. Certainly God deals with each person differently, uniquely. I mean, if he really does know everything then of course he would.

But Fred needed to live one more month to make the next clinical trial. That’s what we all prayed for. Technically, he did. But he also needed to be strong enough to undergo the treatment. Instead, he was laying there waiting for his body to release him. The four of us prayed together, crying, laughing, reminding one another what he would say. We asked God to let him die quickly. After four months or nine months or nine years of praying for his healing, we asked God to…kill him. We call it “take him” or “release him” or even passively “let him die.” I’m not sure I can explain the difference now, not with God. I know the difference between my letting him die on his own and killing him, because I don’t hold life in my hands. One of the Psalms says, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”

Ten years ago, I screamed and prayed and watched while my infant son died. God did not heal him from his heart failing, shunting blood so that he suffocated while on one hundred percent oxygen. So many stupid things people told me about God, about my faith, how God trusted me and I should be happy and thank Him; it took me three years to recover faith and understand that God had not betrayed me and that most of my anger was at people who spoke untruth about God, not at God himself. But I still can’t explain the difference between God letting a baby die and causing a baby to die. And so with Fred. If God can heal and does not, God allows death. But if each of us lives because God sustains our lives, then when our lives cease… Yet this path has pitfalls. A man shoots another man through the heart: God does not pull the trigger, God does not end the life, other than choosing not to suspend the natural laws to stop the bullet or restore the heart. Fred had a malignant growth in his head that invaded and sowed destruction and finally… God didn’t stop this bullet, this tumor, and God did not restore Fred’s brain. Did he?

Nine years ago, Fred first discovered he had cancer. The doctors did not know how long it had grown there, because Fred had been suffering migraines and, eventually, blackouts, for how long? Fred wasn’t sure. They operated immediately. He lived five years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. He lived two years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. It came back six months later. They told him that operating again would kill him, that he had no more options, and that he would likely die in two weeks…with his daughter’s birth due in three.

We all prayed in a frenzy then. I am not consistent with my prayers—I am not consistent with anything—but I thought of Fred fifty to a hundred times a day and tried to pray every time, seconds at a time. What did it mean? Was God nudging me to pray, reminding me again and again? Why does God remind me to ask Him to do what He could do without me? I don’t know. I have less than no answers. But I know this: Fred lived four months. He watched his wife give birth to their daughter. He held up his daughter in front of the congregation and dedicated her to God. Fred and Naomi named her “Eva,” which means “life.”

Then we prayed and watched and waited for a miracle. For the first month, Fred worked. He didn’t have his previous energy, but he could still work on his house. I would come to check on him and find him laying hardwood or installing tile. Fred had bought a huge, run-down two-story house when he and Naomi got married, then gutted it. They lived that way for a year, until Naomi said, “Enough!” Then they fixed up a back cottage on their property and lived there while Fred continued to restore their home. He worked as a contractor, so he built other people’s homes eight, ten, twelve hours a day and then came home to work on his own. In his spare time, he did construction for non-profits and people who couldn’t afford to pay. I am writing this while sitting on the deck he built for us: he raised the money for materials, organized the work party, and put it together in two weekends. We worked alongside him but didn’t pay a dime (other than feeding the workers).

Fred could no longer keep that pace, but he still looked for ways to help. One of Naomi’s stories: the last walk around the block Fred took, the day before they hospitalized him, three days before he… Fred saw two homeless people who had taken up residence in an alley there. He knew them. He stopped to talk with them and told them to come by so he could get them warm coats. By the time they came, Fred had lost consciousness.

“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I “knew” that verse but Fred taught me what it means. He did not fear death for one moment. He knew, beyond hoping or thinking or even believing, simply knew that death meant He could finally be with God. All he wanted in his last months was to take care of his wife, be with his daughter, and tell people God wanted them. He hoped to be healed so that people could see God and have to deal with the miracle. Did he get a miracle? Was it less obvious than we hoped—Fred living another fifty years and raising a family—but a miracle nonetheless? He wanted to live so that he could do more work, because, he told me, “Once you’re dead, you’re done here.” But he wanted to die because the cancer was slowly taking away what he could do and he had endured so much pain—more than any of us comprehended, I’m now sure. His pain tolerance was ridiculous. But he didn’t want to die merely to escape the pain, but because it kept him from being who he was.

I miss him. He taught me more than anyone else has about true belief. I am a pastor and a father and I try to live my life fully in God’s presence and as part of Jesus’ Kingdom. But I do not have the faith Fred had, and walking beside him through his life, dying, and death showed me how much I say but do not yet believe.

Fred slept for hours while we stayed with him. Finally, first Naomi’s mom and then Naomi left to take a rest. I stayed with Fred’s mom and we talked more. Then Fred woke up. He groaned and mumbled and we finally understood that he needed to use the bathroom. The nurse came and he kept saying, “Just two minutes. I just need to go. Two minutes.” But his arm had an IV and his balance was no longer reliable to get to the bathroom. So she and I helped him stand and use a “urinal,” the equivalent of a bedpan. He laid back down and started swatting at his IV and said a few incoherent sentences. His mother asked the nurse to increase his morphine and the nurse did.

Fred asked for some food and managed a few bites of pudding before he started to drift off. I walked over to his bedside and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Fred.” He opened one eye. Then he saw me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re a good man.”

I caught my breath and started crying (again). When I could speak, I leaned in close to his face and said, “You’re a great man.”

He held my eye, and he smirked, and it was a true Fred smirk, my friend really there again for a moment, as if saying, “Yeah, right.”

Then he closed his eyes.

He died at 6:30 the next morning.