A Tremendous Thing

This picture hangs in my classroom in the corner. It was a gift from my friend, Chad. I never knew the mammoth weight of what it held and what it would mean to me in the days to come.

“The deepest form of pain comes out as silence.”

Holly Goldberg Sloan, Counting By 7s

April 28th , 2021- It has been nearly 5 months since then. Words still fail me. Words still haunt me. The last words I typed to him were “I’m praying for you. Just FYI.” He never read them.

He was such a fighter, the day before he claimed to be “doing okay.” He wasn’t. His tolerance for pain was immense. Nothing would be okay for him again.

Grief makes you feel empty and incredibly overfull simultaneously. A moment can seem normal, and it takes one second to remember that normal is no longer an option.

 Grief can turn the mundane into tragedy, or it can take the tragic and make it hilarious.

All of the things your brain thought it knew no longer apply. A major interstate inside your brain was deleted, but you still need to get from point A to point B– as if that is still a possibility. 

Silence becomes a language. Food becomes an enemy. Sleep becomes restless. Simple becomes complex.

The person I grieve already knew all of this on a deeper level than I did. The loss of a child isn’t something I can fathom, nor is it something he would have wished on his worst enemy. He spent all of his days pouring into people to combat grief, guilt, time, and loss. I was one of those lucky people to call him friend. He wasn’t just a friend. He was practically psychic when it came to understanding people. I had known him 34 years. We shared a loss date. The date I lost my dad happened to be the same day his daughter was born. His daughter had a traumatic birth that resulted in a lifetime of just 10, fraught with a fight for her life. He never got to even hear her speak or see her walk. He lost her 12 years before he joined her.

One day he was telling me how I was going to set up an editing service, and I was telling him how incredibly busy I was wrapping up the longest school year ever due to a pandemic. So busy, in fact, that I didn’t seem to notice when he fell ill. I did notice. I just honestly thought he was dealing with his own dragons. He was. This time they were physical dragons and not the kind you keep at bay with reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

One day he was leaving me a hilarious message on my voicemail about how he was trying to find something delicious to have as a treat since he was struggling with food. He dropped 7 glass bottles on the floor, threw towels on it, and headed to bed after leaving me the message. The next he stopped reading texts. He had never gone longer than a few hours without reading texts. I didn’t hesitate to contact his mother and sister to see if they would check on him. He would have not been happy if I stopped by with anything since I asked him the day before and he strongly declined. Now, I wish I hadn’t listened. His mother informed me there was, as I suspected, rootbeer all over the kitchen floor from the previous evening.

Time was of the essence, and he didn’t want to go to the hospital. He thought he had Covid. He couldn’t taste anything. It wasn’t Covid. His heart needed a life saving pacemaker, and he ignored doctor’s orders while telling his family and close friends he was all better. He likely thought he would handle it after the worst of the pandemic was over. He didn’t get the chance.

My friend, the one who sent my children dozens of baby hands they would wear on their fingers just to be weird, a rubber chicken that screamed when you threw it, plushies until I threatened to mail them back to him, things that made loud annoying noises, and glow sticks for snowman eyes was gone. I am surrounded by things daily that he sent over to my house without asking if I needed them. He just… knew I did. The man who would cook a tired teacher dinner and leave it on the porch before she got home when she was working 3 jobs and trying to hold grief and hope in the same hand. He was the giver of perfect gifts from signed copies of books, to templates for post it notes, to tiny books that I had shelved on Goodreads throughout the years. He compiled quotes as he read books that I suggested to share with me, and he even typed them up and bound them. Words were special to him. He also realized early in our friendship that words were as important to me as water or food. The saint who cared for everyone almost left earth with no one by his side, but he would never admit it. He will never know this, but if that had happened, I would never have forgiven myself.

Hours after the phone call where I said goodbye while he was sedated in a hospital bed, not knowing fully that his departure was imminent, I was in his apartment. It used to be my apartment. So here I was, going home, but walking straight into the kind of emptiness I dwelt in when I was living there following my divorce. His mother pointed to the bookshelves and explained he wanted me to have the books. All of the books were mine to take. I left her the Bible he got when he was saved at age 7. I left his doctoral dissertation that made him so proud. Personally, it gave me a headache reading the title. He would have laughed if I had told him that.

Words. He left me a legacy of words. He wrote books, and I have copies. He had a blog, and I have his thoughts about the world, his family, and even our friendship. I have copies of his first edition Potoks. I have classics, new fiction, old scifi, textbooks from his teaching, and self-help books. I have the words. For the first time I almost understood why the prophet Jeremiah ate a book. Grief makes you want to swim in the words. You wish you could pour them out of a cereal box and pretend you are in a children’s ball pit. (I feel my friend would feel obligated to point out that it would be a ball pit minus any substances children typically lose at the bottom of normal ball pits. Trust me on that one.)

Daily I had memes about academic topics, he helped my child pass chemistry and pre-calculus while we struggled with at-home learning options, and he never failed to send Christmas cards to my family. He played my mother in Words with Friends. He read every book I labeled a 5 star book on Goodreads. He called his mother each evening. He loved his cat even though she knocked his water glass off his table once a week. He knew details about his siblings that they probably didn’t know he noticed. He was fiercely loyal. He was a fantastic professor. He was an unmatched mentor. He loved biscuits from Hardees even though he knew it would come back to haunt him. He had a cat that was named after Emily Dickinson. He loves Macs and hated Windows machines. He felt like everyone needed their own soundproof personal bathroom they didn’t have to share with anyone.

He used to say I was Jacob, and he was Esau. He said one day I would see how special I was. He told me some people just are. When someone spends so much time speaking life into you, you can’t help but start believing them. I still hear his voice encouraging me and telling me things he said 100 times a week.

He loved his Jeep, reading, writing, editing, helping, laughing, making other people laugh, ALMOST irreverent memes, finding new pens and notebooks, planning, researching things, cooking fancy meals, taking care of his parents, a good burger, The Fifth Element, his friends, and… redheads. Wherever he is now, I hope he earned a redhead companion.

“Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation.”

-Counting by 7s

Rest peacefully, Chad. You were truly one-of-a kind. You were an amazing friend. I will take great care of the words.

Watershed Moment

Nineteen years ago today my father died at the top of one of his favorite waterfalls. This morning I found myself back in the forest near the spot, and while sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream, I thought back to how much my life has changed. Watershed moments are turning points. They are the dividing point in our lives that are often seen in hindsight, and it didn’t take me that long to figure out that life with my dad and life without my dad were going to be completely different.

On this day when the loss was new, I would dig out pictures of all the things I had done with my dad. I would go through memories diligently, and seek to remember all of the good to somehow erase the bad that today had become.

My father was lots of things before the day he died. My father was funny. He loved to make voices like Donald Duck and the Swedish Chef. He was kind. He would always drive friends of ours places and fill in on the soundboard at church anytime when asked. Dad was thoughtful. He was always plotting Christmas, even months ahead of time. My dad was caring. He loved taking care of us when we were sick. My dad was a great cook. His fudge was the best around the holidays. Dad was hardworking. He was often found working around the house hours after he came home from work.  Dad was so so many things that are way too numerous to list here. Then he died on March 9, 2001.

Things tend to shift when someone dies. If they die tragically, it seems even more so. The focus is taken off all the things they were when they were alive, and we tend to wrap up their existence into the day they died. As if that is the only day they lived… that is their life. It just isn’t so.

Even nineteen years later it seems like I can reach back in my brain to yesterday to something he said. I could sit beside him on the couch. I remember so plainly playing Super Nintendo and watching him beat levels as though it was a mere 48 hours ago. I remember him scrambling to bail water when I didn’t realize our dishwasher only used certain kinds of soap. I remember the day he threw the dryer off the back porch when I almost died in it. I remember so much in detail. Our brain plays tricks on us. Our brain does not want to admit what our heart so plainly knows. He is gone, and has been.

Now, instead of thinking of all the pictures I have of Dad, I think of all the pictures he belongs in that he is not. I find myself thinking of how much he would love the 5 grandkids he never got to meet. I think of how proud he would be of my brothers and their accomplishments. I consider myself lucky for the 21 years I had him, but there was so much more life left to live that he wasn’t a part of at all.

I sometimes wonder if he knew the implications for me when he chose the place to leave this earth. I wonder if he understood I’d spend my whole life chasing waterfalls on the outside chance I would get just one more minute with the greatest dad ever by sharing an experience he loved. I will always miss my dad, and today it cuts a little more than usual. He was truly wonderful, and I wish he could have seen himself through my eyes. He would have seen the life he gave me growing up, and I think he would have been proud of what he had accomplished. So, today I chased the small waterfalls to try and chase a moment long gone. I’m sad I didn’t know how to chase the small moments I’d one day miss years later.

 So, today I spend the day knowing it’s been another whole year since I’ve seen him, hugged him, or exasperated him with my talking. I miss you, Dad. It’s still not the same without you.  

Light

“Let there be light.”

You don’t get past the third verse in the Bible before those words are spoken. In order for the rest of the world to find meaning, we had to have light. What good is something if you can’t see it? What happened next? God, the Most Supreme Being of All, saw it and declared it good. No one will argue light is important, and no one knows this more acutely than those who have lived in the dark.

I’ve always been a generally happy person. In the past years I’ve laughed, gone on adventures, and I’ve chased the waterfalls of life. Something was missing. I had light, but as it turns out, I’d been living in the shadows. A shadow marks the existence of light; it is the very reason that a shadow exists, but a shadow forms when something gets in the way blocking the light. A shadow is nothing more than the shape of things cast on the surface because the light is on them. I was living in the shadows of a few things.

I was living in the shadows of who I used to be. Living in the shadows of what I expected my life to be. Living in the shadows of my hopes and dreams. The shadows those things cast are just like the real thing, only, they lack LIGHT. You see a shape; you don’t see a reality. If you chase shadows, you are sure to be disappointed when you catch them.

Recently I met someone who won’t allow me to be a shadow dweller any longer. He came into my life and immediately built a fire, setting my shadowy world into light again. It’s a funny thing, light. When there is an abundance of it, things start growing clearer. Things start growing. I see me. I see the world in a different light. I’m so grateful that every day seems like Thanksgiving, and I’ve been thinking. Maybe, just maybe, I should apologize to Emily Dickinson. Maybe hope is a thing with feathers. There is one thing for sure. Hope is a lot easier to see when the shadows roll back, the sky opens up, and a new day is born.

Let there be light.

Forest Fire

I made a great campfire just as a steady rain started falling. Thunder rumbled and the skies opened, and still I was shocked to find the fire was still going. At last, embers were left. I poked them with a stick, and suddenly flames were everywhere again.

I realized sometimes a fire can be reluctant to die. Rain can come, but if a fire wants to burn, it burns.

Legacy of a Mountain Climber

She was a girl with a mountain to climb.

-Markus Zusak

 

My daddy taught me to climb mountains. I was born in Texas while Dad was in the Army, but as soon as his time was served, he headed straight back for the mountains. I really can’t blame him. He was raised in Detroit, moved to the mountains when he was 10, and then he found himself in the desert for years. Once his time in the desert was finished, it was logical to go back to the mountains. It’s even biblical. There are a lot of verses in the Bible talking about fleeing to the mountains. Growing up I thought of the mountains as comfort, like the topographical macaroni and cheese. This week my daddy, the mountain climber, would have been 61.

When I went to visit my grandparents, and it didn’t matter which ones, we headed for the mountains. One lived nearby in the heart of a region that is known for sweeping rivers, wildflowers, and fly-fishing. There I learned to pick the sassafras leaves off the tree and smell them, and I ran through the sprinkler while the train whistled as it came around the mountain down the bend in the road. I learned about snakes and owls. My granddaddy would play the guitar as my granny rocked me to sleep. My dad’s parents were a state away. Our extended family settled in the mountains so high I got car sick each time we traveled there. In those mountains I learned to dance in the rain, caught my first fish, learned to snap green beans, and climbed the crab apple trees. Mountains were my friends.

My family could always see the mountains in the distance. We could visit the mountain and live in the valley in the shadow of the mountains. My father took us on afternoon drives for most of my childhood right up until the day mountains started having a completely different meaning to me. I always loved the part of the mountains where we reached the end of a wall of mountains on each side and the blue sky opened up. We spent our weekends on walking trails hiking to waterfalls with various friends, seeing creatures in the woods, and being taught to leave nature where it was. Flowers were there for everyone. There, the rocks were made for skipping. Life was tangibly more abundant there in the mountains.

The day my father ended his life it was at the top of one of his beloved mountains. That was the first day I thought of mountains as something huge to get over. My playground was now a graveyard. I had to find a way to sort all the wonderful memories I had in those mountains that were now mingled with the pain on the worst day of my life. I swore I’d never drive past that place again. Then I moved to the mountains. I had to drive past that mountain each time I came home for the holidays. When your mountain is visible, it makes for a much harder journey to get around it.

When you are raised climbing mountains, it makes it harder to identify mountains that are problems. If you like challenges, you might not notice your mountain until it starts to feel like a desert. Once I lived through losing my father, all other mountains seemed like hills. I eventually came upon a time in my life it was clear I was in the desert. This was a totally different kind of mountain. Desert air sucks the life out of you. It demands your attention. It gives no mercy. Deserts are not known for their mercy to life. Deserts are…well, deserts.

You never really consider life in the desert. Everyone knows cacti live there, but if someone had told me to name desert animals I’d likely have said, “tumbleweed?” I started understanding why a cactus is prickly. I was pretty prickly myself. I started to feel forgotten by the God that I knew made all my beloved mountains. I started praying that God would move a very specific mountain. I was working three jobs while battling this mountain, and one day I was sitting praying watching the front door of a retail establishment, and it hit me. The store I worked had “mountain outfitters” in the name. God had somehow placed me smack in the middle of the biggest clue that sometimes He moves the mountain, but some mountains are meant to be climbed.

While in my metaphorical desert, I did a little research. There is a rain shadow effect that happens in some areas that cause little water to get to an area because of…you guessed it, a MOUNTAIN. In the rain shadow effect, water comes up with wind up one side of the mountain, and moist air rises. By the time it gets to the top, the moisture is gone. The other side of the mountain has a rain shadow effect that causes desert like conditions.

     Something I never considered was even though the rain was not reaching my desert, I was being sheltered from the wind by being on the other side of the mountain. But things still grow in the desert, and I was no different. In a rain shadow effect, it still rains, and when it does, the desert the next day is abloom. The plants there have just enough rain to live until the next rain. Sometimes that is how we live in the desert. We just have to get the rain when we can, and somehow it is enough until the next rainfall.

Even though I no longer am in my “desert”, I still have a few mountains. I have decided that some of them will not be moving, and one day I will be prepared for the hike to get to the top of them. I am grateful for the legacy of mountains my father left to me. I don’t have to hike the mountains alone. Just like God provides rain to a desert in need, He has not failed to provide exactly whatever and whomever I need in my life through each mountain, valley, and even desert. Mountains are inevitable. I’m glad my daddy knew the way to the top.

Giving Way to Happiness

Every little beat that I feel in my heart
Seems to repeat what I felt at the start
Each little sign tells me that I adore you
Louise

-Dean Martin

“Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”

-Winnie the Pooh

Once in a while we make a really big decision, one that can have the ability to break our heart. Five years ago I made such a decision, but five years ago this decision didn’t feel like it could break my heart. It felt like one I needed to make. Tonight I realized that for me, the decision felt inevitable. I think it always will to me.

Sometimes a line is a straight line to someone. Sometimes a line can be a straight line away from someone. Sometimes you have to hope your line is a circle or at least a triangle.

Life sometimes has a way to reveal things to you, only to have them covered back over with none other than life itself. I keep telling myself that you shouldn’t doubt in the dark what you saw clearly in the light. I keep telling myself that if you give up something amazing, clearly there is something else out there that will at least be equally amazing. I keep telling myself it was real. I keep telling myself the stories I have written weren’t just deleted like they didn’t matter. I keep telling myself a lot of things.

Growing up I thought once you made a friend, they stay your friend. No one ever tells you how life will put 1,394 things in your path so the friends drift away. No one ever tells you that you will go through life changing triumphs and tragedies that make friends be able to exist without you where once that would have been inconceivable. No one tells you a lot of things about being a friend. You have to find out by being one.

I do know this. I miss my friend.

Learning to live without a friend is like learning to live without a piece of your heart. I’m not sure you ever learn how. You just live because there isn’t an alternative. You learn how to be okay by practicing being okay.

I used to write things because I had reasons to write things. Now, I have reasons to stay quiet. It’s easier. When you open yourself up to tell someone how you feel, it can appear to them as though you are fighting. As it turns out, sometimes you just care so much you can’t be rational. Love is irrational. I will stand by that statement as long as I’m alive.

When a person says, “I don’t want to fight,” I have discovered they generally can’t have the conversation at the moment, or they don’t want to be wrong. I’ve heard it a few times from a few friends. Well, sometimes it is okay to fight. When someone wants to fight for you, maybe learning to listen is part of being a human.

The greatest gift you can give someone is listening. Unless, you can’t.

Then, I guess, that’s okay too. It won’t really change anything.

Probably.

Reflections of Love on Father’s Day

My dad always walked a little fast. He always apologized for it, but I never minded. I had no trouble keeping up with him. (He also went a little fast on the interstate, but that’s another whole story better left untold.) If we went somewhere, he usually knew exactly where we were going, or so I thought. Looking back I think the child in me just thought he must know where he was going or he wouldn’t be leading me there as well. Now that I’m an adult and a mom, I know the real truth. Even when we think we know where we are going, we rarely do.

He liked to ruin the end of television shows if he knew it was past my bedtime. He probably felt like I deserved it. I laugh now, but at the time it didn’t seem so funny. He would walk into the living room and take one look at the screen and say, “Oh yeah, this is the one where the UPS man made it look like it was the husband.” Then he’d walk back out knowing I would just turn the television off exasperatedly and go to bed. I’m older now and possibly wiser. I’m now considering the possibility that MAYBE the UPS man didn’t do it. MAYBE Dad just wanted me to go to bed.

My dad would stay up until I got home even when I was an adult. If I rolled in at 10 p.m., he would turn off the television and head to bed. If I walked in the door at midnight, the same thing happened. He wanted to make sure I was safe. I thought he was being ridiculous. He likely went through a lot of Pepsi and ice cream waiting on me. My child will be able to drive soon, and I have to say I have reversed my position on this being ridiculous.

He served in church as whatever was needed. I have seen him take up offering, drive his whole family to Christmas play practice without grumbling, be a children’s pastor with my mother, or run the sound board at a lady’s ministry conference. He was equally gifted with puppets and being Joseph in a Christmas play with no prior notice (and didn’t laugh when Big Bird ended up being Baby Jesus when the real Baby Jesus had enough). He drove me to the gas station to get snacks during church when my blood sugar was low. When I decided I had to go to youth group the day I got my wisdom teeth out, he carried me back to the car and took me home when the meds kicked in.

I made him mad a few times, and dad was a redhead. He had a temper. Once, I made a fort out of every railroad tie that was being used for landscaping. My brother and I were seated inside our life-size Lincoln Log cabin chilling out playing some D.C. Talk on the portable cassette player when he asked us what in the world we thought we were doing. Playing, Dad. Duh. On a different occasion I did a logical thing by placing dish soap in the dishwasher when we ran out of dishwasher soap. I flooded the basement. When I was in elementary school, I got a Cricket doll. I played a song outside his door on Saturday mornings so he’d wake up. I couldn’t wait to see him. He would have liked for me to wait until 8 a.m. at least. Oops.

He taught me a lot. In my 21 years with him I patched sheetrock, mixed concrete, painted, raked, mowed the grass (almost ran him over), planted flowers, planted trees, and trimmed hedges. He taught me to drive by yelling the word “mailbox” at the top of his lungs when he felt like I was too close. He taught me to fish, although, that ended up being a fiasco with a pregnant catfish. Because of him I know how to put up a tent, and the one we put up lived on my top bunk for at least a year after that.

He picked me up off a floor heater when I was a baby and made me feel safe, even though I felt like the world was ending. He was with me at the hospital when they used the biggest needle I had ever seen. He stopped by to check on me during the day when I had the World’s Worst Stomach Bug when I was 7. He carried me when I had mono. He bought me a jacket when I sunburned myself at the beach. He offered me Alka Seltzer for what ailed me, but knew I’d never take it because that stuff makes me puke.

His thoughtfulness knew no bounds. He was always fixing VCRs or DVD players for our relatives. He has put down his fork at dinner and driven across town when his mother-in-law forgot how to use her remote control. He took a church member to the food bank regularly. Dad remembered when I mentioned I wanted flannel sheets, and I got them for Christmas. On my 21st birthday he made me my favorite kind of cake and let me cut it while it was warm and uniced. That is still my favorite birthday memory.

Once you leave home, you spend your whole life trying to figure out how to get back there. It’s impossible; trust me. My dad was special. So incredibly special. I’m so sad my kids never got to meet him. I’m sad I can’t call him up and wish him a Happy Father’s Day. I know I’ll see him again one day when we get where we are going.

He just always walked a little faster than most people.

Demonstration

Demons struggle

Pushing down 

Pulling up, but 

Make no sound.

Demons struggle 

Thought long gone 

Keep coming back 

With breaking dawn.

Demons grabbing,

Slashing, tearing

What was there 

Is what I’m bearing. 

Silent demons, 

But angels before.

I let them out.

They bar the door.

Former angels 

Fill my mind.

All the halls 

Have demons lined.

Remnant demons from 

Life lived well 

Have turned on me

And made my hell. 

With Apologies To Emily Dickinson

img_0822Hope is a thing with feathers, “ she said,

However, I am not so sure

I carry my hope piggyback style

And the weight’s a chore to endure.

 

My hungry hope eats everything

It’s the least picky eater I know

So carrying it around all day

It has nothing to do but grow.

 

Sometimes it gets too heavy for me

And I drag it by the feet

At times I rest with my head on its chest

Other times, I’ll admit my defeat

 

While carrying Hope around all day

It burns a hole and sears

It scratches at your sanity

And it preys on your worst fears

 

Hope’s words are dipped in poison

On every inch there is a thorn

But if you swallow every word of Hope’s

Your passion is reborn

 

Hope is not a thing with feathers.

Dickinson was wrong

I’ve waited

and waited

and waited

I’ve waited for so long.