Category Archives: sorrow

The Land of Before: The Thirtieth Year of Marriage

December 2, 2018

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 single time 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 held up.

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.

 

Thankful for the Good (I wouldn’t even tell me what would happen to me)

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 not trusting the process; it’s not time 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 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.

Photos by Magen Lindstrom

A 2020 Resolution: To Lose (my) Hope

82141398_2039554759523830_1921538234739851264_nMe, to Abby: “How would you start a blog about hope?”

Abby [crocheting]: “I guess I would get some hope first . . . I’m funny, huh?”

We are a family who knows what we have and what we do not–and we are not afraid to name those things. Right now, we most lack hope, patience, and energy.

It is not as if we are particularly concerned about lacking these things, either. We have been without them before, and we can do without them now. I was crying in the car one day and Abby turned to me and said simply, “I am sorry you are distressed, and I wish I could help you.” We are honest in our recognition of our powerlessness.


This morning at church, the greeters gave everyone two index cards. During the sermon, our pastor asked us to write one thing we wanted to see happen in 2020 on one card; on the other, he said to write something about 2019 that we wanted to leave behind, to forget about forever.

And the thing I wanted to forget about, to put entirely behind me, to give up on, the thing that I wrote on the card was HOPE. 

I showed the card to my seatmates with a wry grin, and they didn’t even bother to admonish me.


I hadn’t been to church in a few weeks. We didn’t go to Christmas Eve service anywhere;  we didn’t load in the car to look at holiday lights; Greg didn’t read us the nativity story–he just went to bed; at 11:00 PM, Abby came home with her boyfriend and demanded, “Am I going to open one present and an ornament, or have we given up entirely this year?” so she and I at least did that.

But I decided that church is going to be optionless in 2020–it is going to become a “thing I do,” like grading papers or going to the YMCA. There’s not going to be any choice. On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights, I will be there. (On most Wednesday nights, I will be at the YMCA doing yoga.) I will grit my teeth and go alone and be among people and listen to the music and hear the Word, not because I want to, but because, to survive, I know that I must.

Today, I took a cookbook with me. I suppose it’s rationally indefensible, but I guess I grabbed it because my brain cannot be allowed to idle–though, really, it will not idle, since October 23, it is always thinking at least three things simultaneously, one at a low hum: “myfatherisdeadhekilledhimselfhediedalone.” I cannot allow my brain to shout that truth, because then it may also shout the others:

mygrandadughterwasbornwithoutherskullsheneversawtheskyorfeltakittensfur

mydaughtersbothlive1000milesaway

myhusbandhashadcancercancercancerheartsurgeryheartsurgery

weareallsosad

It is not denial that keeps me tamping these truths. These are too much right now–if they are stacked near my father’s death, if Stephanie Grace’s death touches his, well, that is an edge of sorrow that I choose to avoid.

I will not think about my father’s solitude in his office. I will not think about my sweet granddaughter’s footprint. I will look at pictures of chicken instead. I will carefully consider the ingredients of “whoop whoop soup.”


82130887_527182108007295_5360198105432064000_nAfter I wrote “hope” on the index card and my friends and I chuckled, I crossed it out, and I started thinking–why was that my instinct? Why not write “my father’s death” or “our financial and marital struggles” or “the doctor’s mistakes”? Why not start fresh in one of those areas?

There are, I think, two reasons.

The first is this: I believe that our losses count. That they are valuable. That our testimonies of loss and restoration build others’ faith. And, so, if I forget the pain of my father’s death, if I forget what it felt like to see my granddaughter lying lifelessly on that hospital chuck, I cannot look into your brokenhearted eyes and say, “God will get you through your sorrow.” Therefore, I cannot put these things behind me–but neither can they be always in front of me.

The other is this: it may really be time to give up on my hope. My hope may not be His hope. My hopes–for a happy home, financial stability, a healthy husband, a pain-free body–may hinder His plans.


I sat in church and thought: what if I am only whole enough to persevere? What if that is all hope looks like in my life?

What if I don’t get better? What if I only get stronger?

Is there value in my testimony if it is only one of the valleys? If I never again see a mountaintop?

I do not understand this seven-year season–but I trust Him. The Bible tells me that His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways; that His thoughts are much higher than mine; that now I see through a glass darkly; that now I see in part, but I shall someday see in full. (Isaiah 55:8; 1 Cor 13:12)

God is with me–and my family. He is so very close to us in our distress. We know this. We know we are not abandoned. We know we are not abandoned.

And we believe we will someday see. In full.

The Grocery-Store Spectacle: Grieving my Father’s Death by Suicide

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.

82068945_477541166456581_5676904703166775296_nIn 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.

I just wailed. Just wailed and wailed.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

Please: Don’t Ask How I Am (When You Know)

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(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.

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Suicide and Sustaining Love (It’s Real or It’s Not)

73320660_595813497894505_6486648047261450240_nIt 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. 74465171_419648325366611_6010560414377574400_nThere 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.

In that assurance, I am sustained.

In that assurance, I take my rest.

It is real.

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Photos by Dalton Gillis

 

Time and Tiaras: On the Death of my Best Friend

222888_1018767942182_6886_nThis 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: 224303_1018767902181_5896_nthe 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.

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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.

Your Broken Pots: His Glory

71021017_2747127791987277_3629301193945120768_nToday, 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.”

Your remaining faith: His eternal glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emptiness (is a) Testimony

70603464_431735304402275_6081406836227964928_n.pngWhen I was younger, there wasn’t anything I hated more than blow-drying my hair, and in the hot summers of South Georgia, I saw no reason to do so before bed. This distressed my grandmother with whom I lived, who was a true saint. Each night, she would beg me to dry my hair. And when Greg and I were dating, she would still continue her bath-drawing lecture.

One night, Greg heard her say, “Rachel, if you blow-dry your hair, I will give you extra money for the trip.” Something about that rubbed him wrong at the time, but it didn’t bother me, and it doesn’t bother me now. She was trying to get what she wanted, a granddaughter with dry hair, and I was trying to get what I wanted–and have wanted since the age of five–away from the blow dryer.


I was fully confident in my grandmother’s love. I knew her well, I knew the sacrifices she had made for me since my birth. I had always been told that she loved me from the moment my mother told her I existed, and I know that to be true. When I was a very ill toddler, hospitalized for hydrocephalus in Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Grandma would drive all over Atlanta hunting for Gerber Blueberry Buckle, the only food I would eat.

She loved me with that desperate love with which you love a child who might die.

I loved her equally. But Greg, who was an outsider, viewed our interactions with a different eye, and he thought that in offering me an incentive, she was actually offering me her love.

This was not the truth, but it was the truth as he saw it.


I’ve had a lot of time lately to think about the tit-for-tat economy and the conditional nature of most daily love. Everyday love. Our earthly relationships are meant to mirror Christ and the church, the Heavenly Father and His children, but what they often mirror are Walmart transactions: you give me this and I will give you that–and if you do not give me this, I might give you something, but it’s not necessarily going to be what you want or need.

We become very accustomed to these conditional reciprocal interactions, engaging in them over and over until suddenly, one day, they have lost their appeal.

Doing something just to get something seems, finally, wrong.

It may take years, but work-based worth-proving loses all of its appeal. We simply don’t care about getting anything anymore from those people. If we have to play baseball to win our parents’ love, and we start to hate baseball, we start to hate our parents. If children have to make A’s for Grandpa to be happy, when chemistry class gets really difficult, and then geometry does too, and they’re doing the best they can but have B’s, they begin to dislike school–and feel differently about Grandpa.

I don’t know what it is about us, but we get tired of the if.

We just want love.


Most of the C.S. Lewis that I have read comes from short tweets, inspirational art, and quick glances at underlinings in my grandmother’s books. but I know that one thing he says over and over is that if we yearn for something else, then something else better must exist. And I think that if we yearn for a love that is not conditional, we are in some ways proving the existence of heaven. A loving God would not create us with such a deep desire to experience true love if it were not possible. And in giving us Jesus and freeing us from the “works mentality,” He still did not erase the longing for love.

You may, after a good day–one with blue herons and sunny lakes and icy lemonade and happy children–feel awakened and relieved. For that moment, you may feel all your burdens lift. But eventually, they will settle back upon you, and your heart will once again be weighted and grayed–and you will again feel fear and tremble.

It is in this time that the promise of heavenly love is so powerful. To know that God loves us even if we leave dishes in the sink. Even if we get every orifice pierced. Despite our tattoos, despite our sin, despite the horrifically poor decisions that we made when we were fourteen or thirty-eight. In the face of all this, His love is unchanging. To live, then, with the changing love, of our parents, partners, and children, is particularly distressing.

We want heaven, but we’re here. We want full souls and spirits, but we are here.


That longing for more, those jostles in our souls that remain even after the best of earthly days, is, then, a reassurance, a heavenly reminder that if you cannot be filled here, there must be a there. 

And so the feeling of emptiness, of disconnect, can become a glorious reminder that elsewhere, there is more.

In this way, emptiness becomes hope.

And because we know this, because we understand that knowing our emptiness means knowing His fullness, we can go forth. Without earthly understanding. Without earthly love. Without any single thing our soul thinks we need, we can go forth–even on the days we dread.

In our lack, there is His abundance.

Glory.

Competitive Holiness

15271229_10210168976913615_145613507_oEarly Friday morning I went into the garage, climbed the ladder, and retrieved the Christmas decorations. I have mixed emotions about this different, loss-tinged Christmas, and my husband, knowing this, surprised me this week with cheery holiday sofa pillows. A needed nudge.

Since Thanksgiving was a good day, I thought maybe I could manage to deck the halls as usual. Ours is not a festive family, so once a decade there are carols and everyone is involved, but most of the time it’s just me, Kid Rock, and Dr. Pepper.

The first box I brought into the kitchen contained a centerpiece and three nativities. As I unwrapped the chipped cows and broken angels, I suddenly thought, “You don’t feel reverent enough about this nativity. About baby Jesus.”

I had spent the previous evening thinking I wasn’t “thankful enough”–and hearing the echoing accompaniment,  “and you’re thankful for the wrong things.” This latest revelation was just too much.

I caught myself judging my spirituality, my whole walk with God, by the fact that I wasn’t grateful enough for a cheap china statuette painted by workers in a  windowless factory half a world away.

Once more, I had taken out my unfair yardstick–the one that fully measures my negatives.

This yardstick ignores things like these: a cheering Sephora shopping trip with a distressed daughter; comforting two friends after the deaths of their mothers; broccoli casserole made gluten-free upon request; a visit to a widower in a nursing home; care packages full of lip gloss and Hershey’s bars sent to New York; coffee cake cooked at dawn for my hungry husband; a catnap in a recliner while “waiting up.” Of my week’s activities that showed Christ’s love, none mattered because I didn’t fall on my face at the sight of a Dollar Tree baby Jesus. 

Somehow, we now live a world where a correctly captioned Facebook photo of baby Jesus can deceive everyone, fooling the photographer and the viewers into ascribing holiness where there may, in fact, not be any.

We can see light where there is darkness, and, even worse, sometimes we aspire to be That Holy.

15271257_10210168975113570_7311176_oWhat is the true purpose of the misty-morning patio Instagram shot of a coffee mug, a Bible, and an open notebook with a spunky #meandJesus ? Is it crying look at me or look at Him? Could our time be better spent direct-messaging people whom we know are hurting and reminding them of Christ’s strengthening love? Could we not invite a friend for coffee and put down our cameras long enough to hold their hands in prayer?

We internalize all this, after all. It becomes the approved Christian way to do things.

Last week, I saw a Lincoln Navigator decorated like a reindeer, and immediately my brain thought, “Well, they aren’t Christians.” Christians wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins and make birthday cakes for Jesus and participate in Operation Christmas Child and sometimes even have their own in-home Advent wreaths. (If you just thought, “Hey, we could do an in-home Advent wreath!“, I apologize. Don’t join the competition.)

My family has done those things. When the girls were small,  we placed Baby Jesus in April’s bedroom and daily marched him closer to Bethlehem: the nativity. In the den. In South Georgia.

We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and never, ever made cookies for Santa, gaining holiness through baked good selection, oblivious to the fact that, either way, we would be the ones eating them.

We bought surface over substance. Feeling holy over being holy. It’s so easy.

In the church, we continue to value feeling over reality. We pat ourselves on the back for our refusal to allow our kids to participate in Elf on the Shelf when we are blind, absolutely blind, to the needs of others in our community. In our church families.

15183952_10210168975793587_2123366880_oIf there’s one thing 2016 has taught me, it is how filthy my rags are. And how abundant. And how my value of them was influenced by a culture which considers the visible to be the valuable.

This year, visitors to our home will see snowmen and Santas; on our scorecard, there will be more tally marks in the secular Christmas column, as our angels are far outnumbered. 

But this year, to quote my younger daughter, “The angels matter more than ever.”

This year, it is real to me: the fact that Christ came, that God sent Him at all, that God saw how much Nothing there was here, how little chance we all had apart from Him, apart from salvation–and at that thought, I can fall on my face.

My nativity may not move me. I may have the “wrong” attitude about Elves and Santa. But more importantly, so much more importantly, this year I know: my rags of righteousness are far filthier than anything that was in that Bethlehem stable.

This year, I know my need.

Christ in me, the only hope of Glory.

Oh: Emmanuel.