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.  

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.

My Life, the Coloring Book

I have 35 coloring books lined up on a shelf. I refer to them in polite company as memories.  Sometimes I take them down and flip through them.  I’d like to say I colored them in all by myself, but I didn’t.  I helped color them in by the things I did, people I chose to be around, and who I let hold crayons.

Who holds your crayons? When I was little my grandmother, my babysitter, kept the crayons on a high shelf in the pantry.  At the time, I hated that and resented having to ask for them when I wanted to use them.  Looking back, the ones we love hold the crayons in more than one way.  She helped color those early years in, and kept my crayons safe.  She helped choose people I would be around, and therefore she also chose who held the crayons to color in my first five coloring books.

When you get a little older you want to start making everything your own.  You use crayons to color outside the lines to test your limits.  You use colors you’ve never used before, and they might become new favorites.  You start seeing friends, and not just family all over your coloring book pages.  It becomes even more beautiful when you flip back though them.

When you are a teenager pages might have equal dark and light on them.  Splashes of color that are vibrant are right beside colors of memories of middle school and high school trauma.  We take the good with the bad and hope that in the end our pages look prettier each day.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they don’t.

As an adult we choose who holds our crayons.  We shape our coloring books just as much as we shape our family’s and friend’s coloring books.  Loved ones get married.  Loved ones have babies.  We color the most vibrant colors of all.  Loved ones die.  Loved ones get divorced.  We color some of the darkest pages of all as adults.

What color of crayon are you holding over your family and friend’s coloring books?  Are you a bearer of light?  Are you shading in rich, bold colors?  Are you warming the pages with your presence?

Some pages are meant to be dark.  Some beautiful things come out of darkness.  If someone scribbles all over your pages with ugly colors, the pages that follow can be some of the most beautiful.  After a rainstorm can come a beautiful rainbow.  You can’t choose the colors when you let people color in your coloring book.  You just get to choose the crayon holder.