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.
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.
Six weeks ago, I joked with a friend that I wanted to write a blog on 25 ways to survive a bad day. We agreed that it was “too morbid” for South Georgia–small towns being what they are, no one should ever admit that, sometimes, simply enduring is difficult. Now, of course, with my father’s death by suicide, people can think what they will.
I am happy that I now have a “toolbox” of things that I know will work to help me find my way out of a funk. It took me a long time–and a lot of research–to get to this point.
These tips do not depend upon my family members–they have been enduring the same traumas, and they cannot throw me life preservers. This fact used to make me sad, but now I see it as part of the traumas themselves.
None of these may work for you–just know what does work for you and take the time to do those things without feeling guilty. (This includes getting medication if you and your doctor agree you need it. Not you and your spouse. Not you and your great-aunt. Not you and your pastor. You and your doctor.)
This is my list:
Getting outdoors and getting quiet. I decide where to look, what will help me most. If the wind is strong, the pecan tree will be the most beautiful part of the yard; if the bees are in the wildflower patch, the patio may be where I want to be. If the sky is blue and cloud-dotted, I will flop on my quilt and make myself look at the clouds float by. And long-time readers will know that the drake elm is, of course, always healing. (Looking at trees is research-based, by the way.)
Taking a bath is a good thing, always. (Sylvia Plath famously said, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”) One of the first things my husband does when we move in a house is defeat the tub’s overflow valve so that I can fill it to the brim. (And, truth be told, the hot water heater is also set a little higher than it should be.)
Making the bed. For me, clean sheets are a front-loaded reward for an anticipated bad day. I will wash sheets and make the bed before a hard day of long drives and doctor’s appointments. Homecoming is that much more wonderful.
Getting on Facebook chat. There is always someone just a click away, and I take advantage of that. Whether it’s a new anencephaly mom or a former student, someone is usually up for small talk. (Wednesday morning, Abby and I Facebook videochatted with a friend from Arkansas for 38 minutes. Today, a friend from Nashville and I traded recipes.) Seeing a smiling face is often all the antidote I need.
Vegging out–Instagram triplets, pregnancy reveals, and cat videos will get my mind out of a loop every time.
Listening to “Hallelujah Chorus.” (On one particularly bad diagnosis day, I sat in the darkened den and listened to it while eating tres leches cake, and those ten minutes diluted some of the horror of the previous eight hours.)
Watching familiar movies. Grease if I’m sick. Notting Hill if I’m sad. Silver Linings Playbook or Lala Land if I’m nostalgic (but never if I’m sad). Manchester by the Sea if I’m feeling honest. (Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, confesses of his pain, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.” It might be the most honest moment ever in a movie.)
Inviting myself over. I have several friends who have an open-door policy for me. I’m allowed to come over in my pajamas and sit on their sofas and watch the Braves or pull up in their driveways for a pep talk. And, on bad days, I do.
Listening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and singing along, loudly.
Looking through my “treasure box.” I only do this about once every four years; I save it for the worst days. In my nightstand, there is a purple striped box filled with comic strips, notes, and mementos, generally of my life before All of This. Younger Me is, of course, gone, but there is still power in visiting who I was. There are both comfort and validation in remembrance.
Reading poetry. Poets have an ability to perceive things that others miss, so on sad days, seeing through their eyes can be reassuring. (Carrie Fountain has helped Abby and I survive entire years.)
Going to the YMCA. I started going this summer simply because I was emotionally unable to sit in my sad house any longer. I gave myself absolutely no choice, and almost every entry in my Under Armour Map My Walk journal is dismal. Initially, had an awful attitude and hated every step–now, I have new friends, go to classes. and can carry a 42-inch screen TV alone. (Also, the gym is a societally authorized place to be, especially since I am overweight–everyone is always glad I am exercising; no one can tell me that I shouldn’t be, and so I can go as often as I’d like.)
Visiting the nursing home. Everyone there is always happy to see me; I can sit and do a word search or a jigsaw puzzle with a content companion; I always leave grateful for my home, my mobility, and my pets.
Taking the dogs on a road trip. If I’m posting pictures of the sunset from Swamp Road, it’s a sure sign I had a terrible day that I’m redeeming the best way that I know how. Good music, happy canines, a sunset, and some Bubble Yum will keep me from hitting rock bottom every time.
Listing to music on Alexa–buying an echo dot for $22 and getting Amazon Music Unlimited has been more life-changing than I care to confess. I am not technologically inclined, and being able to say, “Alexa, play Zach Williams’ “Rescue Story,” and then say, “Repeat that,” without ever having to make a playlist has been wonderful. (This also works with Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”)
Reaching out helps–whether I make a coworker some banana bread or write a little note to a far-away friend, I usually feel better. (This is based on research as well.)
Petting a cat or dog. We have three indoor cats, three outdoor cats, and two dogs, all of whom found us, and these animals bring us more daily comfort than anyone can know. Abby jokes that Edgar and I might as well be “surgically attached,” and Baby is rarely out of Greg’s reach. Pets have health benefits for their owners, and I know that they improve our lives daily.
Accepting social requests and attending community events–even if the rest of the family stays home. Getting out of the house does me good, even if I sometimes have to force myself. If I’m invited to supper or a former student’s kid’s birthday party, I will go. If we haven’t ever talked but once in the grocery store, I will still meet someone at Rodeo with a smile. I have never regretted saying yes to an invitation.
Watching a church sermon I missed. My pastor always challenges distorted thinking and reminds us of the goodness of God, and his sermons are only a Facebook click away.
Doing yoga. I like Amazon Prime’s “Beginner Yoga: Morning Stretch and Flow.” Drinie Aguilar is not too perky, and the first routine is better than any chiropractic session I have ever had. In her spiel, she says something like, “Good for you, starting your morning doing something to help your body,” and I always think, “Yeah, Drinie, good for me.”
Talking to a friend who is going through something worse or more interesting–listening to someone else unload will often stop my spiraling. Several of my friends will say, “But why am I telling YOU this??? You have it worse!” without ever knowing how helpful they are being in sharing their own stories.
Meditating with the free app called Headspace. I don’t do it enough, but that app has calmed me down quickly several times–it is so soothing.
Crying. One of the kindest things Greg ever did for me was read research about crying aloud to me for the last thirty minutes of a long drive. It is so beneficial biochemically that I no longer try to stop myself. The benefits of a “good cry” are felt for weeks afterward. (And yes, there’s tons of research. I am only linking one.)
Remembering that “His mercies are new every morning.” This verse from Lamentations 3 has been true in every trauma. Every morning is better. Every morning He is there, with me. And that assurance continues to comfort me through these dark nights.
All artwork by Tori Press @revelatori. Used with permission.
(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.”
When 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.