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.  

Father’s Day Benediction

I recently told a dear friend of mine I hated Father’s Day because my dad passed away years ago. I soon realized I was preaching to the choir. You see, my friend had a child, an only child, and she too had passed away. His child was special for myriad reasons, but most importantly, she was special because she was HIS.

He didn’t get to choose her, but he would have. I feel pretty comfortable saying he’d do it all over again. His beautiful daughter had special needs and needed nursing care all of her 10 years she lit up his world. Now that she is gone, besides the gaping chasm left in his heart, she took with her his feeling of being a father. This led me to ask myself what a father really was.

I never met his daughter, but I can tell you about the gift she left us. She left us her DAD. Chad used to spend hours devoted to her care. Now, he cares for others ranging from lonely friends, to his parents, to students struggling (and I do mean STRUGGLING :)) with APA format. He shovels gravel with a smile, will make your universal remote behave with decorum, and read your favorite books just so he can talk about them with you. He will play board games with large amounts of instructions. He will watch movies adapted from books even if you warn him they are awful. He will drop off passion tea lemonade to a friend, and not JUST because that friend got him hooked on them. He will encourage small children, and he will encourage large children. Actually, he just encourages everyone.

Now, he’d be the first to try to deny all of this. For starters, he likes to argue just a little. He loves science and math and feelings are just not in any equation he likes to work. He prefers to be the behind the scenes type of person because that is who he is. He likes to pretend he’s a tough guy, and truth is he is a tough guy—a better tough guy than most tough guys are.

He’s the kind of tough guy that tells you to remember your umbrella when it is raining hours away from where you live. He’s the kind of tough guy that plays video games with a nephew and recommends books to his niece. He’s the kind of tough guy that will listen to your hurt and never hint of his own.

Being a good dad starts before the birth of a child. It extends far as far back as learning to be a good sibling. Being a good dad also reaches long after death, whether that is the death of the parent, or even when it is tragically the child’s. It’s the selfless nature, encouraging words, and raw love shown that proves a person is a real dad, even in the face of ultimate hurt when a child leaves the world her parent shares first.

So Chad, Happy Father’s Day to the best DAD I know. I’m so thankful you ARE a DADDY. It made you who you are, and the legacy of love you gave your daughter will live long after all of us in the quiet way you care for the people in your world. You don’t have to feel like a DAD to prove you are in the example you set for your family and friends. We know you are a dad because of the kind of love for others shown is the kind that lives on forever. I’m thankful for you every day.

 

Lies I Told Myself and the Truth That Set Me Free Kicking and Screaming

Have you ever told yourself a lie?  Did you keep it up for days? How about months?  I think I reached gold medal status because I told myself lies for years.  I’m not sure how I got away with it, but I do know why I did it.

I am an optimist.  I love smiling.  I love the feeling when all is right in the world around me.  I believe when I see a pile of poop, there has to be a pony in it, right?! But what if that pony made a pile of steaming mess and left? What if that pony is not there anymore?  At what point is optimism actually denial?  And, at what point does that denial turn you into someone you don’t really want to be?

The word denial can mean the refusal of something requested or desired.  It can also mean a condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real.  The first definition is very simple, but it can also lead to the second definition.  If someone is denied something they really want, they can be in denial about it.  Denial begets denial.  Because no one ever wants to believe something painful, it is easier to just lie to yourself.  The lies we tell ourselves are the ones you have the greatest belief in.  You are invested in those lies more than you are invested in the truth because, let’s face it, the truth freaking hurts.

The first lie I told myself is probably bordering on the limits of pitiful and possibly institution worthy. I told myself my father, after committing suicide, wasn’t actually dead.  That’s common enough, I know.  Lots of people tell themselves that lie when someone they love dies.  I didn’t stop there.  I had a dream about him living in a little cabin at the top of the mountain where he died.  He asked me to come in and told me all about how he just wanted to live up there forever, so he did.  He had handmade all his furniture.  It was a beautiful little dream, and I didn’t want to wake up.  I had to pass the place he died on the way to and from visiting my mom several times a year ,and each time I passed the location where he died I would whisper to him I loved him.  I would visualize him up there on the mountain ridge and not really gone.  Twelve years after I first hatched this lie, I took a walk with a friend of mine to the top of the mountain where my dad died.  It was an emotional walk, and while I knew I wouldn’t find anything at the top of the mountain except nature, I wanted to see for myself.  The truth was hard for me to accept, and I didn’t do it all at once.  It took twelve years for me to admit to myself that there had never been a cabin, and my father had not heard me whisper my love for him all those times I passed.  I knew it all along.  But in seeing it, I finally believed it.

I told the second lie to myself for almost the same length of time and during the same years as the first lie.  After getting married at age 21, I knew almost immediately it was going to take a lot of sacrificial love and patience on my part.  My second lie was that my husband loved me, he just didn’t know how to express it.  I told myself this almost daily.  I read books about love languages.  I took personality tests.  I explained to him with patience how I needed love shown to me, and he just let me know in no uncertain terms that it was not who he was, how he was raised, and what I was asking was impossible.  I knew I had made a choice, and we had kids.  I told myself over and over that love was there.  He just didn’t understand me.  He didn’t understand himself.  Then I picked up my Bible and read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  Now, you don’t have to agree with the Bible or believe in God to believe the definition of love in those words.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

My husband was not patient with me,  and he was unkind about my likes and dislikes.  He was jealous of my friends.  As I kept reading I felt so defeated by the truth.  If he loved me, wouldn’t these things be true?  If he loved me, wouldn’t he be exhibiting proof of the love?  The day I stopped telling myself this lie was the day I started breathing in my marriage again.  Now that I knew the truth, I could save it.  But, sadly, there wasn’t much left to save.  Maybe if I had just stopped believing the lie earlier,  I could have made a difference.  I will never know, and I don’t need to know.  The most important takeaway truth I have from this experience in what love is not, is finding out what love is from the people that do show me those things.   Few people in our lives show us REAL love.  A lot of love is conditional.  People are offering that everywhere.  But I found out just how many people I had that would show up for me to show me REAL love when I needed it most.  Those are the people you keep.  My friends that have shown me patience, kindness, and kept no records of my wrongs I count more valuable than anything I have.  This past year they protected me when I needed it, trusted me and let me trust them, shared my hopes, and held up my head when I just couldn’t persevere anymore.  Grateful will never cover it.  ALL I gained outweighs what I lost exponentially after I stopped lying to myself about what love was.

The third lie was the most difficult lie.  I told myself I can’t do this.  What “this” was differed from day to day.  I didn’t know if I had a job from month to month. I felt like I couldn’t do a lot this year.  Being lonely has been the hardest.  I’ve talked to a stuffed unicorn at times. (Don’t worry, he didn’t talk back.) Each time I told myself I couldn’t do something I knew deep down that it was a lie. I called my mom one night crying and told her I couldn’t do this anymore.  She reminded me that women giving birth will sometimes say they can’t do it just before the baby is born.  The beauty of that set up is they don’t really have a choice by then.  Transitional stage of labor is what happens just before you push.  There is no rest between the contractions.  The pain never subsides.  It’s a constant reminder of what you are there to accomplish.  It is the storm before the calm.  This is when most women will start doubting themselves and want medication and possible mallets to the side of the head.  You feel out of control and disoriented.  You just want this to be over. But you know what happens on the other side of the transition stage?  You get this perfect, new life.  No matter how much self doubt you are dealing with, there is a new life on the other side.  It’s that way with life too.  We can have hope in that nobody ever stays in the transitional stage.  Something new has to eventually be born.  You just have to hold the pushing until it’s time, and before you know it all the pain will be in the past and all you will see is the new. In letting go of this lie, night faded away and I started to see the sun again.

So, I told myself a few lies.  We all do it.  We tell ourselves lies because the truth is just too painful.  Grieving a loss is sometimes a lot more healthy than just living with the lie.  We survive failures.  We can move on from the corner of disbelief and stubborn and have something more substantial. Sometimes we just don’t get what we want.  We could tell ourselves we will get the thing we want until we resemble angry toddlers who think if they say it loud enough it will just happen, or we can just adjust to the truth.  Tucking dreams in for the night is hard.  Tucking them in for a dirt nap downright sucks.  Truth is truth.  It sets you free, but first it puts you in a choke hold, throws a few punches, and makes you want your mama.  I’ve learned the hard way the easiest way to tell the truth from a lie is silence.   When everything is silent, what you truly know comes to the top.  Truth doesn’t change, just like real love.  Both never fail.