This week used to be one of the happiest of my life.
The children would be at summer camp, and Greg and I would, to use Grandma Williams’s term, gallivant.
It was all her husband’s fault.
Grandpa Williams, who was a translator and reporter in World War II, didn’t talk much about his life or the things that had happened to him. He did, however, make pronouncements. We grandchildren knew what he valued and what he believed to be true. Grandpa thought you should turn out the light when you left the room. He dismissed watching TV reruns as utter foolishness (“You’ve already seen it once.”). He believed if key lime pie was on the menu, you should always order it.
His primary tenet–aside from his unshakable faith in Christ–was that two things were always worth spending money on: education and travel.
Grandpa said no one could ever take them away–no matter where you were, you would always have the memories of what you learned and what you saw.
And so, every summer, when the girls were at camp, Greg and I traveled. We couldn’t really afford it, but with his long illness, what else was there to do–”sit home and look at [medical] receipts?”
So we would find the least expensive hotel rooms (often a family timeshare), activities we could do for free, nature parks and wilderness areas. While the girls were at camp, we would try to approximate our pre-cancer selves.
My Facebook and Google Photo memories for the past two weeks have been as full as these weeks were. Greg and I on birding trails in Orlando. In Las Vegas at Cirque du Soleil. At Cedar Point. At the Grand Canyon. In Sky Valley.
We went places. We did things.
We had some laughs.
(My mom and dad always placed great value on “having some laughs.” After a dinner date–or after an hour-long phone chat post-divorce–one of them would always say with (sometimes wistful) satisfied happiness: “We had some laughs.”)
A soul-draining, marriage-challenging long illness gnarls your thoughts. You, your spouse, your children–everyone can forget that you had some laughs.
A few weeks ago, I asked Abby if she remembered her Barbie with the color-changing hair. She didn’t. I told her how Greg was always in charge of the bathtime routine. How carefully he would pick out the toys, check the water temp, and get the hooded towels. Greg would sometimes get the toddler stacking cups, readying them before the bath–a cup of hot water, a cup of cold, cold water, a cup of hot water, a cup of tepid water. Then he would grab the Barbie whose hair changed colors depending upon the water temperature. And my husband and our daughters would dump water on the Barbie’s hair, changing it from pink to blue to green, and they would laugh. The girls with delight, their father, at their happiness.
The girls have no memory of this. Of all that laughter, that sunshine in our house.
Greg has been gone for six months today.
It is an impossible sadness.
The peculiar, brutal horror of his hospitalization and death has stolen our sleep, and the void he leaves shatters us daily.
And the fifteen months–the in-between of separation and reconciliation–the time that we practiced living without him, tripping along in broken shoes–that time, that container of pain, is unrelenting acid on ulcers.
There is no sleep, no comfort.
But then the Greg of twelve years ago appears in my Facebook memories, holding a pink balloon poodle.
I marvel and remember: there was a time when my husband and I wandered in mountains and canyons, suppered on shrimp, crab legs, and key lime pie, and watched clowns shape balloon animals amid the happy clamor of the boardwalk, as we ignored the quickly setting sun.
Last night, I called my younger daughter, who is 1,001 miles away at college. She said that she was in the common room with her suitemates, and they were bonding, and I was glad because I think, in general, common rooms should be used more than they are.
Somehow, they got to talking about abortion and babies and whether you would keep a baby who you knew was destined to die. Abby had to tell her new friends that, actually, that happened to her family–that we lived that two years ago.
Until Abby wrote about Stephanie Grace’s death for English 120, I didn’t how much it destroyed her. Of course, I knew April was heartbroken, lost, and bereaved, and I knew of my own helplessness, but I did not know how deeply everything–comforting her sister, shoring up her mom, all while still keeping perfect grades–had impacted Abby.
That’s the thing, the stunning thing: some of us carry tragic loads that seem too heavy to lift even once–and yet we must carry them evermore.
I am in a group of women, anencephaly mothers and grandmothers, hundreds upon hundreds of them who have lost these precious babies, who are lifting their precious loads, and who are walking on in pain.
Before Christmas, I didn’t think I could walk on any longer.
It all seems so unfair. We should have a two-year-old granddaughter romping through this house. We should be worried about keeping fragile Christmas ornaments out of reach, and instead, there’s no baby–even her mother is gone. There’s just sadness, resignation, and anger.
With losses like those we have accrued, it does not matter if you can pick yourself up–because everyone must emerge from despair. If one person remains in the pit, then the other family members find themselves staying near the edge–there is, after all, an intrinsic moral imperative: you tend to the hurt. You try to carry them out–and, if you can’t, you remain nearby. In a family, there is no TRUE moving on unless everyone is ready to walk.
I cannot believe how long my little family has lived with rage, for rage is–in some ways–the absence of love. But rage has within it an angry love–a love that says, “None of this should have happened, and it happened while you were with me, and you dared to stand beside me and endure hell and hard things. You stayed there with me, you propped me up, and I am mad that we had to endure this hell–but every singletime I see you, I think of the hell.“
That’s what’s no one’s really honest about. That’s what no one says: if your husband holds your hand through two miscarriages, and if he’s there during two failed adoptions, and if you’re there during his three cancer battles, and if you’re both there during your granddaughter’s devastating death, then it will not matter how many roses one of you someday summons the energy to buy. It will not matter how many candlelit dinners you eat together. It will not matter how many times you reach for his hand in the car.
The sad anger is always there.
I understand that God can do a work. What I am even more fully aware of is that God has not yet done a work, unless you consider the marvel that we are both in this house, that he is sitting beside me on the sofa as I write this. There is still a resilience despite the losses stacked like cordwood.
In this edge-of-despair, often angry world, sometimes I feel far from God. I know I feel far from my indoctrination–I joke with friends that I need reindoctrination, I need to go back to those early days of adulthood, days where anticipation was great, when there was joy in keeping a house and fulfillment in the suppertime smiles of my husband and children.
What you must never, ever say, the thought you must fight with ferocity–the one that you must always keep captive is this: I can’t believe this is my life.
When I got married, I intended to be a frugal homeschooling quiverfull mom with six children–everyone on one pew at church. Instead, it sometimes feels like the only true harvest I have is sorrow–buckets and buckets of sorrow, and it just seems like God has forgotten us.
But I know that, despite everything I feel, God is there because Mr. Chalk told me so. As did Lou Turk. And Mrs. Mullis. I know that at the bottom of the ocean, He is there. On the top of the highest mountain, He is there–and so He has to be in my sad and angry house, but I can’t find Him here.
And so I get tired, And I want to raze the house.
Rationally, I want to destroy the house. To give up, take a cat and dog and flee–because there’s no way that God could have built this. Rationally, there’s no way the “tapestry” they talk about these Christian memes and movies can actually be something that works for me.
All I see is ugliness.
All I see is destruction.
All I know is the silence of the joyless house that I sit in for eight hours a day.
It is only natural to think, how can this be God???
I don’t know because I’m not a theologian, but I think it can be God because I think that God, in the hard times, can teach us the meaning of the word sustain.
He can teach us what it means to be propped when there’s just no more energy for propping. When there is absolutely nothing left that we can do for ourselves, that is where God shows up–in our weakness, in our frailty, when we can be neither kind nor patient, when we cannot be anything positive at all.
But we hear ourselves at work or the grocery store, saying, “Good morning, Sarah, that’s a pretty shirt.” “Hi, Whitney, how are you today?” starting the day’s cycle of kindness, the process of reaching out, of being God to others–in this gentle patching, we lose a little bit of the pain. A little bit of that rage. We can forget the hurt temporarily and see, instead, God–I see Him in the student giving me the candy craft he has made–marshmallows on a stick–embarrassed at 15, but still reaching out, being Jesus to a sad, tired teacher.
Ultimately, no matter the emotional shape of our house, no matter how close we are to the edge of the pit, we are all still together.
August 10, 2021, our 30th anniversary
Since that day in May–the day of Greg’s brain bleed, the day of the strokes, the day the woosh of the pit was the only sound I heard, when we were all, once again, engulfed in it–I have told myself, On August 10th, I am going to pull in his driveway and say, “Let’s go be glad you’re alive.”
I thought, really, it wouldn’t happen after thirteen months of living apart.
I thought it would be too big, remembering the land of before. That land is a place we no longer know–and it’s a place few people here have ever seen us be. We have spent two decades in a land of burst and wasted balloons with little and faint music; we have only remnants of ribbon.
Tonight, my younger daughter and I were in her bathroom–she was twirling in a little black sundress and her favorite cardigan, twisting her hair into mini buns, a preparatory post-pandemic collegiate dress-up. We were prepping for one last trip to her favorite Goodwill, forty miles away. “Let’s take Dad,” she proclaimed.
Abby had collected stories for the car–the eight-year-old she tutors who hates “baby TV” (Paw Patrol), her roommate’s cactus scandal (the cleaning service threw away $250 worth of his plants), vegan adventures (recipe plans involving artificial eggs). She was opinionated and funny, just like we’d raised her, and we were already missing her, although she was right there.
On the way home, we went to Burger King–I got a real Whopper; Abby, an Impossible Whopper, and Greg, cheese sticks.
Abby’s vegan Whopper was a little burnt, and I rolled down the windows while Greg made Dad jokes: “It’d be impossible for me to eat that Whopper.” Abby ignored us, munching happily, saying, “It makes me feel included.”
We whizzed down the highway, the sun setting pink in the distance, the sky cloudless through the pine trees.
Abby, her mouth full, mumbled something about deer.
“Deer?” I asked.
“Did you see all the deer in that field? There were like a ton of deer. Like twelve. There were mothers and babies. So many deer.”
We hadn’t seen them. Not even one.
We told her the story together, one of the foundational stories of us, of our family in the land before the pit:
On the night we got engaged, while driving home, I saw two deer standing in the dark at the roadside.
April, when she came to us in foster care, had the last name of her legal father: Roe–meaning deer.
And when we found out we were pregnant with you–when I was desperately afraid–we drove the next day to the fertility doctor in Woodstock, in Town Center, and as we left the parking lot, there stood a deer in the parking lot, looking at us, then leaping away.
“Abby, it was near a highway like the one in Jacksonville. Near a mall. Lots of stores. There shouldn’t have been a deer,” Greg said.
And we marveled as we rode in silence, remembering the deer.
For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.
And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.
I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.
And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.
And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.
It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.
To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.
That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?
I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.
And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.
And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.
There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.
I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties.
When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.
We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.
We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”
You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.“
But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.
On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church.
But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.
In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.
We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God.
There is only God.
He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured.
So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.
I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high.
An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.”
I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia.
Even as a small child, I was suffering.
My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have.
And I am without much.
I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God.
All I find is God.
Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate.
In the natural, it makes no sense.
As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.
But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.
Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.
You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.
And it’s nottrusting the process; it’s nottime heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.
He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.
The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.
I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.
We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.
That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.
I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.
But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”
There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come.
And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.
This is a Facebook status from October 27, 2019. I am posting it on my blog because I think it is an important part of my father’s suicide narrative.
Things God has done for me in the past five days, in order:
Every part of this testimony hinges on this very first thing: I was in town on the day my father died by suicide. I was supposed to drive my husband to Jacksonville on Wednesday–he had a doctor’s appointment to find out if he needed a second surgery. He called me at work on Monday and announced that he was going to drive himself. My first block heard us squabble about it–I didn’t want him to drive with his eyes so bad, but I also have no sick days– and when I hung up, I told the kids, “Something’s going to happen on Wednesday.” I even added, “By Thursday, we will know if this semester is just in the toilet.”
Wednesday morning, one of my students told me that her brother, a favorite student and long-time classmate of Abby’s, was in surgery having an emergency appendectomy. It sounds bizarre just say that this might have been used by God, but, like I told his mother, it kept 10% of my brain occupied most of the day–there was a thought I could go to when everything else was too much, another place for emotion to go.
I did not answer my brother’s phone call. I looked at the caller ID for at least 15 seconds and really considered it, told myself, no, and went on with class. I learned that my father was dead via text–it sounds like the worst way possible, but it was 100% my merciful and loving Father watching out for me. If I had heard my brother’s anguish, I would have become hysterical, and my students would have endured that–and my daughters would have as well. Instead, I calmly said something along the lines of, “Guys, that text said my father just died . . .” and I stepped out into the hall.
My administrators did not reach me. They were coming to break the news–and, honestly, the team was impressively made–and when I saw them coming down the hall, my heart was just so grateful that they had not made it to me. If they had, the high school would have become a place of trauma, and my friends/co-workers would have become part of that trauma, and what it is to me (a place of contentment) would have been forever destroyed.
My childhood choir director, who is like family to me, was nearby. The administration firmly told me that I was not going to be driving myself anywhere, and I was adamant that I was not getting in a car with anyone whom they offered me. (By now, I like to orchestrate the details of Terrible Days of My Life.) We were able to locate her, and she swooped in and got me.
My daughters are strong. My brothers certainly got gold medals in parenting for the ways they told their children, but I just broke my girls’ hearts with one sentence from 1,000 miles away. April was with her fiance, while Abigail was totally alone, leaving class–but I knew social media was going to get to them before I could if I wasn’t both quick and forthright.
People offered to buy plane tickets for my daughters, and they got at least one of them to me. I cannot imagine going to that funeral without Abigail. (Greg’s heart rate and blood pressure have been elevated since my father died, and we felt that he could not safely go to the funeral.) I was so grateful to have my baby girl there. I am also grateful that April is strong enough to miss the funeral–it takes a special kind of fortitude to make that kind of decision, and she has it.
I say a good good-bye. Teaching Julius Caesar for thirteen years taught me the value of “a parting well-made.” My co-workers will say I am better at good-bye than hello. Former students will tell you that my Friday and holiday good-byes are thorough (since weekends/holidays can be dangerous). One Friday, as I started my good-bye speech, a new kid asked, “Is something special going on this weekend?” and a long-timer said, “No, it’s just Friday, and she does this.” I’m so glad I do. My good-bye with my dad on Friday, the 18th, was loving and warm, and that gives me some peace.
God allowed me to discover the song “There Was Jesus” and use it to get myself in a place of stability before this tragedy. A former student’s death the week prior to my Dad’s–stacked on the top of everything else, all the other losses–left me desperately sad, and I listened to that song on repeat for hours.
My inner circle showed up (and every outer circle did, too). Four adults watched me slowly eat a sandwich, and the house filled with people who wanted to see my face, and I needed that solicitude.
God has allowed me to read about suicide for more than twenty years. I understand things that I am certain many people do not, and there is so much grace in that. (See the previous post on my wall with blog links–the subtitle of the blog is “Why you should just shut up” because, truly, you should.) There is a peace in knowing that there is nothing any of us could have done. (There is also a world of pain.)
Finally, I have full confidence in the mercy of a loving Father who sees Jesus when He looks at me and when He looks at my dad. I know my father is with Him.
Standing in my classroom last Wednesday, what it came down to was this: my faith is either real or it’s not. He’s either who He says He is or He is not. And I think God did an affirming work in me right then, and He spared me more dark sorrow, more anguish, more wailing and despair. And I am so very grateful.
This blog was begun on December 19, 2019, and finished December 31.
In early October, you couldn’t have told me that it could be like this. You couldn’t have told me that there was another realm of suffering: that past holding my lifeless stillborn granddaughter, past all the other suffering my little family has endured, there was an even deeper grief. You couldn’t have told me there was more.
But today, I was wild-eyed in Ganas Pecans–the decision between pecan pieces and pecan halves too much for me. I can barely order eggs at Cracker Barrel or choose an exercise band at the YMCA. I cannot decide anything.
Instead, my body wants to flee. I have been bathed in adrenaline for weeks now, a pure, steady flow that made me grateful to catch a virus, for two weeks of respiratory weakness to tamp this constant fight or flight.
I can feel the hollows in my forearms, empty spaces yearning for movement. My head aches constantly behind my left eye–my neck and shoulders tight and immobile, jaw clenched, my facial muscles now individually known to me. My nose has muscles, I know this, too–suicide has brought them to me. Even just sitting in a chair demands my entire concentration. (It’s so amazing, really fascinating, how much sitting in a chair requires of those deep in grief.)
I didn’t know how fragmented attention could be. That I could forget to make a phone call–remind myself, then forget again–a dozen times in one afternoon. That I could open Facebook messages to send a note, forgetting to whom and for what in that brief second.
I did not know that a fifty-year-old woman could cry the despairing wails of the four-year-old. (I also did not know that, when the fifty-year-old cried, no one would come.)
There is so much I did not know.
There have been so many times in my life that words have been useless to me. (In the early blog’s about Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly, I did not use English in the titles because there were no words that fit.) But here, at this time, when my father has abandoned us, left abruptly, firmly closed the door, well, there are truly no words at all.
We are not people drowning in grief, occasionally coming up for air and seeing sunlight. There is no screaming of hopeful words over cresting waves. There are no motivating life preservers flung just out of reach–not is there a distant, but reachable, shoreline.
We are crushed like acorns. We are small, and we are broken into tiny pieces. We are stomped-upon and powerless. There is no possibility of reassembly.
Our lives will never be the same. There will be no return to baseline, no new normal. The word “normal” will never be used to describe us again. We are a grocery-store spectacle, the gossips’ pitiful feast.
We are “those poor, poor people.”
But we are not only pitiful–we are mad, too. There is anger that we can tap on the days when we refuse tears.
It is an anger unlike any other I have felt. It is not rage–because rage takes an object, and my father is gone.
It is not annoyance, that mild daily anger at long lines and stubborn traffic lights. It is certainly not the helpless anger so familiar to those of us who watch our loved ones self-destruct.
Neither is it the perpetual, disappointed I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life anger known to those of us who got the wrong LaLa Land ending, though that is the anger it is closest to.
The anger is something akin to “what’s the point” or “why even try”–and it’s both cosmic and earthly–both with the universe and with my father.
In my carport and my sitting room, there are Rubbermaid containers filled with memorabilia–forty-year-old amusement park photos, elementary school report cards, “World’s Greatest Dad” trophies, letters from summer camp, tiny plastic Cracker Jack toys, greeting cards that all say, over and over and over again, “We love you. We appreciate you. You are wonderful.” And I look at that–all that written attestation, all that Crayola-ed love, and I think, “It wasn’t enough.”
That’s the source of the anger, really–the fact that none of us will ever truly know one another, that sometimes, there is no way to reach past the pain. Our ultimate impotence makes it seem pointless to even attempt to reach across the chasm–but love demands that we try.
On the last day of 2019, Abby and I took a five-hour road trip. The two-lane roads were littered with dead animals–I don’t understand how, sometimes, there are so many. Amid the dead possums and raccoons, there was also a dead Yorkie and a tabby cat.
In Milledgeville, we were driving in a pack of about six cars when one ran over the carcass of a dead hawk, and matter splattered on my windshield.
(Note: This is not to step on toes. This is to help me survive the grocery store. And any tragedy survivor’s inner circle should always ask–multiple times a day.)
Five weeks ago, after Greg’s open-heart surgery, when he was housebound and didn’t really feel well, I would pick him up after work and we would go sit at Ruby Tuesday’s and share an appetizer. It worked to fight cabin fever, and sometimes, sitting across the table from each other, I could feel the trauma start to slip away, could glimpse the people we once were.
One day, on the way back to the house, when I thought he had also briefly remembered, “Oh, I used to like her,” I said, “I think it would take more than a month on an island together to recover. More than a month. I’d need two weeks of just pure silence.”
And he agreed.
Of course, we did not get that. My father died by suicide days later, leaving us–once again–completely unmoored.
(If you have joined this blog for the suicide segment, but have missed the preceding anencephaly and cancer segments, you need to know this: the members of my little family are all too fatigued/wounded/calloused to comfort one another.)
Beyond encouraging one another to eat and suggesting, “Perhaps a hot shower would help?” we have little to offer in the way of assistance.
We can offer you little as well.
My father’s death has me exhausted by the simplest of questions: “How are you?“ I am asked this a hundred times a day by the kindest of people. It is, after all, the all-purpose American greeting.
It seems rude, then, to suggest this, but I believe that perhaps after tragedies that question should remain unasked for a while. These days, I can feel “fine” and five minutes later be weeping in my car. Everything is confusing; my emotions are ajumble–do I want to go eat with a friend, or do I want to lie in bed with my cat? Right now, I can’t decide between Mr. Pibb and Coke without crying–so I certainly can’t tell you how I am.
Saying “fine” after a tragedy is easy, but it’s a lie. Not only have I lost my father, but I’m watching my daughters and brothers struggle from hours (upon hours) away.
Saying “awful,” while more honest, necessitates a conversation that neither of us may really want to have–and it’s not entirely true because there are still bits of joy in each day.
Saying “sad” might make you pat me on the shoulder, and then, depending on the depth of affection we share, I might collapse crying in your arms at school or at Walmart.
And you know all this: you know I’m not fine. You know I am awful. You know I am sad. So, maybe just take a break from asking for a while.
Just say, “I’m glad to see you.” Then–maybe–smile.
In the days right after a tragedy, just be glad that the survivors are coming through the door at work or are seated next to you at church. Acknowledge their presence, but don’t question it. It’s one less answer they’ll have to search for, and they will be grateful.
It is crazy that I would even think about blogging again, that I would return to my laptop and try to make sense of this latest tragedy, attempt to put it to good use. But, if you read this blog regularly, that’s what it is about, in a sense: putting sorrow to use. Putting pain to work, for good. Because, to me, good must come from hurt.
And so, in the face of my father’s death by suicide, hidden in the neat “died suddenly in his office,” the mask of words that the media offers the bereaved, I will struggle here, again, in words, just as I did with the death of my granddaughter, sweet Stephanie Grace.
And today, driving home from work and its busy solace, I thought of her and that and all we went through, and I was just so grateful because it taught me so much. That little baby who never took a breath on earth, well, she helped me survive this.
I just thought what it would have been like, had I not lost her–had I not endured so much else. Had things been easier, had I not struggled for days and weeks and years to gain purchase and find my footing, had I not learned to measure my breaths and seek glimpses of good, how, how, how would I have survived this??? Where would I have been?
Today, a week after my father’s death, I stood in my classroom and taught. I have been there all week, grading papers and making copies and hugging kids in the hall, and I have been there because God taught me to stand.
Our losses hang around us like torn wallpaper–things we tried to create are now gone. There are so many losses–even beyond those awful and known. Children, babies, promised adoptions, health, finances, a normal marriage, a home, friendships–all have been stripped away, food for locusts.
But what remains is bedrock. Beneath the gloom is this: I now know that God is for me, I know now the power of despite.
Despite the death of my granddaughter. Despite the health battles. Despite the debt and the unending bills. Despite the lack of joy in my home. Despite the 1,000 miles between my daughters and me. Despite these things, God is still here, trusted and real.
He knows I am broken.
I know I may not be restored.
There is, somewhere, a blog about the day that I gave up. I had been clinging to the idea of better. That things could become better: my husband cheered and physically well, our finances restored to normalcy, a life of stable predictability could still be ours. And then, with the crashes of this summer–the lying doctor and the heartbreak of another mortal health crisis–I just gave up.
We think of surrender as something that involves soft music, altar calls, and weeping–or anger and rage at the unfairness of our fate. But there is also another kind of surrender–a quiet relinquishment, a realization of the futility of fighting, a final letting go. That’s what I did on that summer day: I realized that this may well be my lot, that my ministry may be one of suffering and surviving, of going on.
My testimony may just be getting out of bed. That may be what in me speaks most of God.
I understand, very much, the weight of the pain of this life. There are blogs I do not write because they are “too much”–public school teachers shouldn’t speak too freely of despair. A month ago, I told a friend I was going to write a blog entitled “25 ways to stay alive one more day” (among them: looking at bumblebees on lantana; listening to the Rolling Stones; driving down the highway until you can really see the stars), and we shared a laugh–too grim for South Georgia.
Then, two weeks ago, a former student from my favorite class died. It was unbearable–having already lost my favorite student from that class, I had no other place to put that pain. I cried for days–not only at Carl’s death but at the cost of it all, the cost of this life, the price of our pain. I cried aloud, for the first time in my life, for mercy. I clung to the foot of my bed and cried out for mercy.
The mercy I received is not the mercy I sought.
My father died by suicide the next Wednesday. In his office. Alone.
When I found out, I was in my classroom–with eighteen teenagers. I got a text. (God knew that was what I needed.) And I can’t say I heard a voice or felt a presence, but there was a definite impression: It’s either real, or it’s not.
My faith is either real or it’s not. God is either real or He’s not. My father is with God in heaven or he is not.
And in all my pain, I have seen the constancy of God–every loss has again revealed His presence.
And there has been so much pain that there has also been so much Presence.
So, on that day in my classroom, all I could feel was that truth, filling the room: It’s either real, or it’s not.
And I am assured of this: it is real.
Years ago, on a happy summer night, God told me that everything was about to go, and I did not run. I knew even then that there was no sense in it, that the voice was firm.
And even now, there are some who say God would not have told me that, would not have said that things were going to be laid waste, that our table would be empty and unhappy–but isn’t there so much mercy in saying so, in His proclaiming loss?
He said I wouldn’t have that again–He didn’t say I would have nothing.
He took. He gave.
And if He continues to take, He will continue to give.
This blog was originally a Facebook note on September 19, 2009. (Today I found myself writing part two, so I thought I would post this, part one, tonight.)
This has been a hard weekend. A teacher from Center Elementary, Delilah Thornton, passed away suddenly—and although I did not know her, I do know Suzanne Bokor, who now has lost her best friend. Who writes on her Facebook page, “I can’t sleep or stop crying . . . I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her . . . Delilah, you will ALWAYS be with me . . . My heart is broken. I love you, Delilah.” And I know the land that Suzanne is walking into, because it is one that I have been walking for almost two years, since the death of my dearest adult friend, Stephanie Saussy.
When you are a kid, friendships are almost prescribed: your seatmate on the bus, your softball teammates, your mother’s best friend’s kid. It doesn’t matter whether you like these people or not, because you are stuck: they are going to be on that bus, at that game, on that porch, playing Monopoly under duress while your reprieved, happy mothers giggle in the next room. Make friends; make do, take what you’ve got.
Adult friendships are different; they are based more on a choice: I like this person. A lot is at stake in the buy-in—as an adult, you’ve made mistakes bigger than dropping your lunch tray, you’ve got more water under more bridges, and you think really carefully about who you are going to show those long-buried skeletons to. Then there’s the time investment—something laundry and carpooling leave too little of. For mothers, especially, I think friendships carry an added cost: you know that your daughters are going to idolize your friends, just as you did Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Fesperman in your childhood world. So, you hope to pick someone worthy of the time and the tiaras—and in Steph, largely, I had both.
I didn’t move back to Waycross happily—we were broke, Greg was sick–I didn’t know or care who my neighbors were. Sure, I knew that behind us was the Saussy’s house, but I didn’t know a Saussy was living there. It took about three months for Abby and C——- to discover one another through the backyard bushes, and, truly, I spent the first sixth months of our friendship apologizing for my family’s intrusion. I was a teenager again—the uncool kid, the fat chick on the periphery, star-struck by the cheerleader with the great husband, the easy pregnancy, the monogram-wearing kid, and the perfect smile. She was and had everything I would never be or have, and why on earth was I now in her kitchen?
I know now that God put me in that kitchen, that He lined up our lives—that my time in Cancer Land, complete with a 7 month-old infant, uncannily paralleled hers. Greg and I had lived it: we had counted the minutes until the next Kytril pill; we had shaved his head, worrying about what our children would think; we had struggled through the stupid marriage stuff (“Why can’t you put the milk up?”), while simultaneously struggling through the deep stuff (“All Mommy can tell you is, I really don’t think Daddy is going to die.”)
And so, Steph and I had common ground on which we based an uncommon friendship: the teetotaler and the gal who enjoyed the glass of good merlot, the mother whose kids were bedraggled and barefoot and the mom whose kids wore matching Crocs with their every outfit. I exasperated her with my total cluelessness about the feminine world of makeup and hair: “You send that child over HERE before that dance recital. Don’t you TOUCH her hair.” Steph was my girls’ biggest fan, and the stars in their eyes were certainly those that I expected.
Now, I am left, holding that friendship—she is gone. One of the ways in which the loss of an adult friend differs from the loss of a childhood buddy is you know so much more. You can count the cost. You know the tradition of coming over “just before lunch on Christmas” is over. That there won’t be anyone else that you can lie in bed with on a rainy afternoon and watch “The Waltons.” That it will be years before another friend, a replacement, looks you in the eye and says, “I haven’t ever told anyone this.” You know your daughters will hold onto the bracelet that’s broken, the T-shirt that’s stained, and you will not be able to fight their insistent “Miss Stephanie gave this to me.”
There’s no more giving—you’ve gotten all you will get. And the instant you realize that, your heart is broken.
The heartbreak that follows the death of your friend is totally misunderstood. You have not lost a relative. You have not lost a child. You have not gotten a divorce. You have just lost a friend. You will go to work, not missing a day. You will be kind to the busybodies who stop you at Kroger, prattling about “her tragic death,” oblivious to the fact that part of you is now, forever, gone. You will cry at night alone, after your understanding husband gives up on understanding. You will wear her earrings her family gave you, touching them just to get through the day.
You will get through an amazing number of days, you and your broken heart. You will see a sunset, hear a song, smell her perfume—even, sometimes, hear her laugh like she’s in the room. You’ll even see her in your dreams: That is the best of all.
And you’ll realize that an adult friendship is the best of all—it’s the hard stuff: marriage, kids, sickness, bills; the fun stuff—first birthdays, drinks in the backyard on a perfect summer night; the forever stuff: listening to music in the dark on a drive, looking at the stars, knowing all is right in the world, at least at that exact instant. You appreciate that someone with one true friend is rich indeed, even if that friend leaves for Heaven early.
You know this, because you’ve grown up.
Today, I spent silent hours in the car with Greg–we were going, again, to the doctor. We don’t even pretend anymore; this morning, we didn’t want to be in the car, didn’t want to be spending our day in waiting rooms. We did not buy Chick-fil-a biscuits on the way out of town, didn’t discuss going to the arboretum after the appointments–there was no attempt to make this into a fun trip.
He got into the backseat of the car–he can’t ride in the front seat near A/C with his dry eyes. He played Dig It for ninety minutes while I listened to Jason Aldean on Pandora.
We were alone, together, absolutely silent, so weary of it all.
The drive home was slightly better–he’d gotten bad news about his heart, but good news about his eyes, and, besides, the Braves were on WTBS.
Distraction is good in a crisis, and October medical setbacks are splendid, really–there’s always baseball to watch, to pretend to care about. (Faking interest in every round of Wimbledon is much more difficult, but we managed to in 2001.)
When we got home, we continued watching, and I idly scrolled through Instagram–cats and triplets cheer me up when nothing else will. And, there, mixed in with the jumble of cheerful pics, there was a wedding picture of Juli Wilson, pastor Jarrid Wilson’s young widow. Her husband died by suicide a month ago–it was national news.
As I looked at the sweet, hopeful wedding picture, with its 37,000 likes–pictures taken just twelve weeks ago had only 527–and I thought, “This woman didn’t want this ministry.”
Just weeks ago, she was posting pics of her young sons on the ball field, silly shots with her husband at a barbeque, the whole family piled in the pool. Thirty days later, not only has her whole world changed, but she also has 161,000 followers.
She didn’t want them. That.
She wanted something else entirely.
That’s the whole problem, really: what we wanted is so far from what we got.
That sounds so simple that it’s almost moronic, but think about how far what you have right now is from what you wanted.
I wanted to be a stay at home wife, a homeschool mom, to have scads of children who had my eyes; I wanted to quilt and create. I cannot even confess all of the things that I wanted that I do not have because doing so gets me lost in a world of sorrow and lack.
Balancing the loss of what we wanted and the reality of what we have–and finding a bearable place to put all that pain–seems, at times, to be the bulk of adulthood’s mental work. There’s still a part of each of us that stands and screams, “This is not what I wanted!” and we have to try to silence the shouting, have to try to convince ourselves that this–though unwanted–is good.
Three weeks ago, when Greg was having his mitral valve replacement, we were told multiple times that he could die on the table, that–due to the calcification on his annulus– his heart could break in half.
My father, my brother, and friends in our inner circle offered to sit with me in the waiting room. I told them all no.
I wanted no one near.
I can’t help but think of my own desire for solitude and space when I consider Juli Wilson.
I cannot imagine my husband’s death making national news, my reeling family in the media spotlight, TV commentators dissecting his final hours, YouTube pastors and laypeople pontificating on his ultimate destiny–heaven or hell? And lost is the fact that Jarrid Wilson was a person, that there are people whom he is known to whose hearts are breaking.
And faced with this–the reality that she knew her husband, his heart, and their mission, Juli has decided to publicly walk forward on a path she did not choose. To accept the mantle she did not want, could not have dreamed of.
And that’s what we as Christians do–it’s what we must do to make sense out of this messy and chaotic earthly life.
We must hold up our broken pots, show them to each other, say, “This is what I have over here, and this is what I have learned so far.”
The beauty of our brokenness is that we don’t even have to create one perfect clay pot. We don’t have to have one single part of our lives together–not one single part–because we are covered by God’s grace, and people can see that light inside of us.
On Facebook this morning, after our long post about Greg’s rapid AFib and expensive eye medicine and weariness, there was a comment from an old friend: “It’s very brave for you to share your lives with us. At the risk of sounding trite and cliche “your tests are testimonies” to everyone.”
Greg and I are surprised by messages like these. We know we are deeper in the mire than we have ever been Despite this, God is using our walk.
Isn’t that amazing?
Greg and I cannot fathom how this will all end, or if it will end, ever. We are honest when we say this to each other.
Today, I told him, “What I miss most is having hope.”
And he reminded me that there is still, deep within me, light. “Aren’t you the one who says it will all work out, that it will be okay?”
“Oh, that?” I replied, “That’s faith. I have plenty of faith.”
Faith is my one clay pot, over in the corner, a little chipped but still unbroken.
I suppose Juli Wilson has a pot like mine–one she can’t put down, won’t give up, even if too many people are watching her carry it right now, even if she wants to rest.
Because once almost all of your pots are broken–once you have given up forever on finances and family and ease–you see the beauty in the few pots you still possess, and you want to show them, to share them, to say, “I can count the things I still care about, the things I am still sure of, on three fingers. But let me show you this beautiful pot that God gave me.”
On the day that my daughter April found out that the baby she was carrying had anencephaly, we weren’t terrified. We didn’t know enough to be. Even the baby’s gender was still unknown. We weren’t given sonogram pictures to obsess over, and we certainly didn’t know anyone else whose baby suffered from it.
Our friends, likewise, had never heard of anencephaly, and several googled it–and saw things they wished they hadn’t. More than one friend said, “You should have told us not to look that up.”
On the day of her birth, for just an instant after delivery, life felt like Ripley’s Believe It orNot. It was not until we saw her that we learned Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly was brought about by a severe case of Amniotic Band Syndrome, in which bits of the amniotic sac’s lining somehow tangle around the baby.
Our world had shifted once on diagnosis day; on her birthday, those amputations and alterations we did not know could even be–horrors so great no one talked about them–changed our world again.
But the wholly-engulfing terror and loss lasted only a moment–a millisecond where the roller coaster plummets, the stomach goes–and then everything settles, the breath returns. The terror is gone.
In 2016, on those early-summer afternoons when I stared at the Drake elm in my backyard, I was lost. We all were. And people were scared to try to reach across our chasmed grief, since, as a cousin in New York confided, “They don’t make greeting cards for this.”
I’m not easily soothed. I can’t soothe, either. From the outset each school year, I tell my students that I will not pat them. They will not get daily compliments from me; praise will not be flung like confetti. I stand there and say some sweet things, “Honey, I love your jacket” or “Your hair is lovely,” and even though they do not know me yet, they agree: it sounds fake.
Then I talk about alcoholism, privilege, and pain. I talk to them about self-doubt and pregnancy and wild parties–things on teenagers’ plates. I tell them that I know that a teacher is just another problem in their lives; I know they pay their parents’ water bills, and Mom sometimes does crack before school. I acknowledge their pain.
I sound real.
It was not until four months after Stephanie Grace’s birth that we found the Facebook support groups Anencephaly Info and Anencephaly Hope. April, by then, was a thousand miles away living with her birth family, and I suppose my initial thought was that Facebook could provide her connection–a virtual peer group.
My initial Messenger exchange with Info’s founder was twenty-three words. It hardly seemed life-changing.
In those days, I listened to Shane & Shane’s “Though You Slay Me” on a loop during my planning period. Over and over I listened to John Piper declare, “Of course you can’t see what [your affliction] is doing . . . It’s not meaningless . . . do not lose heart. But take these truths and focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning . . . until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.”
I saw no meaning in my granddaughter’s horrific death or my daughter’s anguish.
To even consider the possibility of a singing heart was absurd.
But on a quiet Spring morning, on the day of what should have been a sad stillbirth, my family instead had witnessed the hand of God. In that little hospital room, we felt the splitting of time, we glimpsed the eternal, we lived a Truth that most do not. And I will say it always, testify forever: I didn’t know Time could freeze like that, that Solitude could descend, that Love and God could wholly fill a space.
I shake my head as I type those words. I marvel still.
I imagine God chuckled, looking down at me that day–broken, willful, and impulsive on my best days–and said to Himself, “She is going to tell everyone what she sees Me do,” as He wooshed into that room.
Because that’s what you cannot fathom on the dark diagnosis day: you cannot fathom that anything good will come; you cannot see any option other than pure pain. You see loss, loss, only loss. Such an abundance of loss.
And there is no room for joy in the words “incompatible with life, ” because, for parents, their children’s lives are their joy–the cuddling in the bed on Saturday mornings, everyone warm under the covers, safe and together; the first walk in the muddy backyard in the pouring rain, reveling in the toddler’s joyous splashing of his rubber frog boots; the simple pleasure of looking at cows.
On diagnosis day and in the shell-shocked weeks that follow, when so much is newly ruined, to imagine any possibility of redemption is almost impossible. To suggest it is nonsense.
But that’s what comes. After the funeral home, with the tiny Moses basket; the coffin so small a mother can carry it; the urn smaller than a child’s fist. After the months spent in the dark on the sofa–or in the rocker on the patio staring at silent trees. After the memory garden is planted and the headstone with its tiny angel wings arrives. After the first Christmas is survived, the Mother’s Day endured. After all those tears.
After all that, redemption slowly comes.
When I was younger, at church youth group, we had testimony time. We would stand in front of everyone, the microphone tightly gripped, and tell each other: this is what I’ve seen God do. This is what I know for sure. And there would be applause.
Truthfully, at that point in our lives, most of us had endured very little.
But I am thankful for that seed, for the understanding that it is important to say to others: I have done this hard thing, and I am standing here–because your standing implies that if they, too, have to walk that route, then they, too, will also stand.
That’s how I spend several hours a week now: testifying into a Google phone, talking to women in England and New Mexico and Belgium. Telling them how terrified we all were, how April didn’t think she could bear her sorrow, how I wanted to run from the room, how we all thought we would collapse, but instead, we saw God.
I reassure them their babies are going to be beautiful, that their lives’ best worst day is coming. I tell them to try and believe me, despite the pictures on Google. I ask that they instead look, really look, at the anencephaly family pictures posted in our Facebook group–the bonneted babies held by truly proud parents, their tiny fingernails painted like their mothers’, their footprints pressed into the family Bible, their beaming siblings bedecked in “Big Brother” and “Big Sister” shirts.
I tell them of the Love in the room.
Last week, two moms had their sweet babies. Born alive. Miracles, both.
And their moms’ first report was, as I promised them it would be, of all that Love.