I haven’t been writing much here, but I have definitely been writing.
What I’m working on has turned into a fantasy series with (likely?) 4-5 installments. I’ve finished the first book (although… I’m already thinking a prequel to that book would be nice to write later on) and I’m approaching the climax of the second book.
I’ve been slowly chiseling away at this monster of a second book on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 2-7 a.m. (Yeah, you read that right.) I’m not very exciting on Friday and Saturday nights, but the benefit is that I’m rarely, if ever, interrupted early Saturday and Sunday morning. Everyone is asleep. Because everyone else is sane.
I understand this.
It’s a price that I’m willing to pay to bring this story to light. It’s a story that just won’t go away.
Some themes that are central to this series of books:
How humanity understands and interacts with the Divine
The relationship between pain, growth, healing, and death
Healing that causes harm and harm that causes healing
The cyclical nature of creation and destruction: Creation as destruction and destruction as creation
Some questions that the series explores:
Who deserves to be saved or healed? Does everyone deserve a second chance?
When should healers withdraw their healing and leave a person to their pain/fate?
When should the needs of the group take precedence over the needs of the individual?
Where is the line between pain leading to growth and pain crushing someone’s soul?
How do the dead continue to influence the living?
I’ve been inspired by When God was a Woman, a book about the transition in human history from primarily polytheistic worship of a female goddess of creation to a monotheistic worship of a male god of creation. If that sounds interesting, please check out my previous post, “God, the Mother.” I’m also combining bits of history and mythology from Turkey and Serbia.
I’m not going to lie: Writing this second book has been a slog.
In April, I had a few very bad weeks and almost abandoned the book completely. I was in that “murkey middle” part of the book and things were just getting very unwieldy. I struggled to keep in mind what the motivations for my characters were and what they would want to do in certain situations. It’s very hard to write alone, in the dark, sitting on a pile of words that no one else reads, for weeks at a time.
What got me through this part was sharing parts of what I was working with others. Just getting some general feedback of, “I like this character” or “I want to know more about that” gave me the motivation to keep going.
Some people say that quitting is easy.
It has never been easy for me to quit.
Once I start something that I believe is worth the effort of my creativity and persistence, I will nurture whatever I’m doing until it grows into what I think it can become.
So the next time you’re up at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, drink a cup for me.
Stay with me as I take you through some things that I’ve been thinking about.
It has been seven years since I saw that message from Mom.
Call me as soon as you can.
And I just knew. Before I pressed Call, I knew that at the end of the conversation, I would know that you were gone. I remember looking at that button on my phone thinking, Just one more moment before I know for sure. I need one more moment of not knowing. Just one more moment before I know and I can never not know again. I need just one more moment.
This is not happening.
But it is.
I sat at the top of the stairs and I pressed, Call.
I heard the words and they rattled inside my mind like marbles in a jar. Away. Passed. Unable. Last night. Nurses. Dad.Breathing. They were all words that I knew and understood, individually, until they were forced to be in the same sentence. I had the context to expect these words. You had not been doing well for weeks after you fell. I was expecting this.
My mind understood. But my heart did not.
The reality of losing someone who has seen your hand grow from the clenched fist of a newborn to the open palm of an adult. Someone whose memory populates the entire landscape of your childhood and teenage years.
It should not be possible to lose someone as important as you were to me.
And yet it does.
All the time.
The first time that Felicity asked seriously about death was shortly after the pandemic broke out, no doubt fueled by the never-ending news updates about the virus. She was six years old. We were watching Hook, specifically the scene when Rufio dies. When the movie ended, she was sobbing.
I had never seen her cry like this before. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “What happened to Rufio?”
“Well, he died,” I said.
“But what happened to him? Where did he go?”
I could feel my heart seizing in my chest. This was an important moment and I literally had no words. I almost wished that I was still 19 years old, certain of the destination of souls depending on who was right and who was wrong.
So I did what all smart parents do.
I stalled. And then I put the question back to her.
“Where do you think he went?”
“I don’t know!” she sobbed harder.
I panicked. Like I said, I had never seen her like this before. This moment was crushing her and she was seeking out my comfort and certainty.
Say something! I chided myself.
“No one knows for sure what happens when we die,” I began. “But I think that we go to be with God.”
She sobbed even harder.
And I instantly knew that it was the wrong thing to say.
“I don’t want to be with God! I want to be with you and Daddy!”
“You’re not going to die, Kermit. You’re going to be fine. This virus mostly hurts people who are older.”
“But what if it does?”
I swallowed the growing knot in my throat, pushing it deep into my stomach and straightened myself. She wasn’t saying it–but I knew what she was getting at.
“Is that what you’re afraid of? That me and Daddy will die?”
“YES!” she continued to sob.
At this point, three-year-old Henry walked into the room and saw Felicity crying. He walked over to her and put his arms around his sister and said, “S’ok, Ficity.” She hugged him back.
And in that moment, my three-year-old had given more comfort to her than I had.
Of course telling her that she would “go to be with God” was a terrifying concept. Who was God to her? Some large, unknowable entity who lived up in the clouds. Although she had learned in church that “God is Love,” her six-year-old brain understood love as a packed lunch, a hug when you’re sad, and the voice that says “good night” before the light goes out.
I pulled her into my arms and held her while she sobbed.
And then I told her the truth.
“You will never be alone. Daddy and I have surrounded you with friends and family so that this will never happen. Even if you lose me and Daddy, there will be someone to take care of you. You don’t ever have to worry about who will take care of you and Henry.”
“Who will take care of me?”
And then we spent the next five minutes listing, in order, the people that would take care of her. I started with those we had designated as her legal guardians should such a situation arise. Then, I kept going. I named every friend that we had incorporated into our lives, one by one, holding a finger up for each person who loved her and cared about her. When I ran out of fingers, I made her hold one of her fingers up for the names that I was still listing.
When we got to twenty names, we looked at our fingers and then I held her hands in mine.
“You will never, ever be left alone. Ever.”
The day after you died, I got a bouquet of flowers from my friends.
Our friendships are special.
I understand this more now that I’m approaching 40. To continue to share weekly dinners and breakfasts with a group of friends throughout your 20s and 30s is not typical. We’ve taken vacations together, both long and short. We’ve stayed after parties and helped each other clean up. We’ve made each meals when we were sick. We’ve supported each other through the stuff that we don’t talk about with just anyone. We’ve come together to support each other as we’ve lost parents. Six times over now.
And when the pandemic came, we moved our dinners to Zoom and suffered through the constant, Wait, what did you say? Go ahead. Wait, me?, just so we could stay connected.
After 15 months of separation, we had our first in-person dinner a few weeks ago. When I hugged my friend, Ben, I said, “I’m not letting go first.”
He said, “Okay.”
And we just stayed like that for a full minute.
What is a word stronger than “grateful”? If there is one, that’s how I feel toward my friends.
I wish you had a friend group like this when you were alive.
Does time make it easier?
It’s not so hard when I’m remembering the things about you that make me laugh and smile. All the ways that you were completely unique and unforgettable. Whenever I see someone dressed oddly, I remember that one time we were at the gas station together. I took stock of what you were wearing on a hot July afternoon through the driver’s side window of your sedan. You were so tall that all I could see was your belly, covered by a blue and maroon striped dress shirt, tucked into teal and black swimming trunks. When you got back in the car, I laughed at your bare feet, shoved into brown loafers. You grabbed a McDonald’s napkin from your glove compartment and mopped at the sweat underneath your baseball cap.
It’s also not so hard when I’m remembering things you used to say. Whenever situational context pulls something you would say out of the depths of my memory, it makes me smile. You lack motivation, but not know-how, you used to say our border collie, Gator. Down at the Old Country Buffer, you would say to talk about the restaurant, Old Country Buffet. It’s the Boss! You know they call him the Boss?, you would ask me every time Bruce Springsteen came on the radio in the car.
But then sometimes, no, time does not make losing you easier.
It hasn’t been easy to hear How Great Thou Art or Amazing Grace. I miss the way you would lower your head and mutter the words. Not sing. You weren’t a huge singer. But mutter, yes. You were a soulful mutterer. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.
It’s not easy when Felicity reads a story to Henry, cover and to cover, and he asks her what the difference is between a My Little Pony storybook and a My Little Pony comic, and she comes up with a perfect child-appropriate answer. You never got to see them like this. I wish you had.
And the squeezing of my heart when I look at Henry’s school pictures and I think, He has my eyes. Which means he has Dad’s eyes.
Those are the times when it is not easier.
After seven years of life without you, I understand a few things better now than I did in the immediate days after you passed.
First, the times when I’ve felt your loss the most were the times when I built the walls high and kept everyone at arm’s length.
These were times when I was perpetually stressed by the endless juggling of work and care-taking when the kids were small(er). To be honest, I was afraid of running out. Running out of what? Everything. Energy. Time. Love. Everyone wanted something from me and so I gave and gave and gave–almost as if I were trying to beat life to the punch. Ha-ha. You can’t take away when I’m readily giving and giving and giving. And that’s what I did.
Until I had nothing left except numbness.
And in that quiet numbness, the feeling of loss would rear its ugly head at surprising and unpredictable times. And I was shocked by it. I thought I was fine. I had been getting everything done for everyone else, hadn’t I? But in all that business, my heart called out for me to acknowledge what I had lost.
Dwell on it? No. But acknowledge? Yes.
I don’t fully understand why the acknowledgment matters so much. But something within the human heart calls out for remembrance. It’s why we have namesakes and statues and days of remembrance. Perhaps we sense on a primal level that the worst horror of death is in the Forgetting.
Maybe it’s why no matter how far I meander here and there throughout the year and throughout my writing, my steps and my words always bring me back to this sacred space of remembering you around this time of year.
Second, after seven years of life without you, I can say for sure that the one thing that has helped the most is this:
My commitment to keep my heart open to Love.
To welcome new friends into my life.
To share my house and food, conversation and laughter.
To sacrifice for those I love, even when I’m not sure of the outcome.
To listen and believe and comfort.
To give and hold.
Every act of love and care that I’ve given someone else in the time since your death has healed me.
Because every act of love proves I have not surrendered to the pain of loss.
Because every act of love is an act of Courage.
People who have lost understand this more acutely than those who have not. Because after someone you love dies, you have the evidence that the act of loving can feel like a painful, reckless act.
Because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.
And so to continue to love after you have lost proves, once and for all, your tremendous bravery.
You understand this, Dad, especially because of your experience as a father. That first child that enters your arms opens a giant hole to your heart that remains exposed forevermore. The more children you have, the more vulnerable you are to the ways they can hurt you.
And you were a father of five.
To love deeply is the definition of courage. So much can go wrong. But it is the act of loving that gives us the greatest joy, the greatest reason to not only live, but thrive.
When I want to remember you the clearest, I always find myself in the passenger seat, you in the driver seat, hand on the wheel. I don’t know why, but we are headed south on route 127, going toward Oxford, back to Miami for classes. We pull over for Croissan’wiches–sausage, egg, and cheese–and coffee from Burger King and we eat from fast food wrappers in the front seat. We talk past each other over and over again because the space of our common ground is shrinking now that I’m building my own life, replete with different interests and concerns. We both feel it, crumbling on all sides of us, accelerating now that the time we spend together is limited to school breaks and summers. It pushes us closer together for the moment even as the edge approaches fast.
But I couldn’t see that.
I was looking somewhere else.
Somewhere off into the distance.
Somewhere where you were not.
I was falling in love, making new friends, traveling, taking class after class after class, and redefining my beliefs. I was growing up, reaching out, moving on.
And you were standing there.
Is this the terrible pain of parenthood that they don’t tell you about?
That as you are standing there, the circle where you stand with your kids gradually and imperceptibly shrinks over the years? Until you realize that everything around you has changed and your shared common ground has dwindled to only your shared moments from the past?
Maybe it is.
And maybe your wisdom to me now would be to say,
Stop looking off into the distance. Stop looking for the approaching edge. It will get here soon enough. Just stand with me. For now.
For one more moment.
Just one more moment before everything changes.
Just one more moment.
Love this moment.
Write it on your heart.
And when it’s time to let go, remember that they can be loved by others, just as much as they were loved by you.
Find comfort in that. Because I know it’s true for you.
I remember staring out the window at the laughing children, sliding around on the giant 80′ Slip N’ Slide that my husband had constructed for Felicity’s sixth birthday. Blue skies, white fluffy clouds, 85 degrees, the smell of a freshly cut lawn, the sound of laughter, and a tub of beers and soda, already half gone.
I was holding back tears.
Not thirty minutes earlier, my mother was telling me in her it’s-not-a-big-deal voice that her cancer was back.
And it had spread.
And it was not good.
I stopped cutting the corn cobs, afraid the knife would go straight through my hand. When I looked at her, she was on the verge of tears.
My mom does not cry easily. And almost never in front of her kids.
It’s nothing to worry about. Don’t even give it a second thought.
These are things she has said over and over again since the first diagnosis in 1998. It was a blood cancer, something that would circulate in her blood, basically forevermore, emerging in locations like her intestines and her liver.
Neverthless, It’s nothing to worry about and Don’t even give it a second thought, were how she lived her life. Even when we didn’t believe her.
But shockingly, that advice has held up for time. Even after my father passed away, she kept on swimming. And if she felt sadness of anxiety, she never let it show.
And so to see her eyes filled with tears like that… That shook me.
I could hear “Young Blood” playing over the outdoor speakers as my husband pulled a long rope, held by a dozen tiny hands as they squealed in delight. I envisioned cancerous cells circulating in my mother’s blood and taking residence wherever they damn well pleased.
And all I could think was, There is never enough time, and I’m not ready, and but how much time do we have? and maybe we can start visiting every weekend, and Will there even be one more summer for Felicity to spend with her?
Through the window, I could see my two-and-a-half-year-old son, toddling through the giant bubbles of Dawn detergent until he fell backwards with glee. Tiny legs and arms sliding down the river of bubbles and water.
My sister came in through the back door and I fought my feelings with every shield that I had. Nothing’s wrong. Just don’t look at her. Talk about it later. You can’t talk about it right now. You have thirty people at your house. This is a fun event. It’s Felicity’s birthday. Don’t talk about it.
But when something this massive moves into your life, there isn’t enough armor to save you from feeling the full force of its crushing weight.
Our eyes met. And then we just walked toward each other, tears streaming down both of our faces.
And all I could say was,
There is never enough time.
But what I prayed was,
Please, God, don’t keep her here for me.
Keep her here for my kids.
That was August 2019.
We managed to get in two visits before my mother’s radiation treatments started. They lasted six months, so she would finish by February 2020. When we passed that milestone, I breathed a slow sigh of relief. At least that was done. We wouldn’t know how effective the treatments had been for perhaps another year, but at least the treatments were over.
And then March 2020 came, and with it, a new reason to panic.
My mom was still like, Well, what are you gonna do?
In October 2020, she got COVID and was hospitalized.
And when that news came, I felt that familiar sinking feeling of, There is never enough time and I’m not ready. I prepared myself again for what might be coming. If a truck is going to hit me, I’m the kind of person that would prefer to see it as it approaches, even if it doesn’t change the outcome. I just want to know. I want a few moments to think, “So this is how it happens.” I want to be alone with my thoughts for just a moment to say, “Okay, I’m ready.”
And then she recovered.
And after she got vaccinated, she was making plans to have my daughter stay at her farm for two weeks this summer.
I was sitting at my desk, working, when I received the text from my mother.
The malignant tumors are gone.
The long-standing, stubborn tumors remain. The ones she has lived with for over ten years.
I read the text from my mother with the news over and over again, shock keeping the emotion at bay.
But as I started talking about it with my husband that night, the dam burst. I turned into a slow stream of disbelieving, but grateful tears.
She’s going to live. For now. For how long? Will it come back? Probably. But not now. Do I deserve this? No, I don’t. But Mom does. I don’t want to go through this again. But we probably will. But she’s here for now. And that was my prayer. That she would be here for the kids. As long as it’s possible.
I couldn’t say any of these thoughts. They were too heavy for an already-heavy moment. But my mind drifted back to that moment in the living room, my sister and I holding each other as we cried.
We’re only young and naive still We require certain skills The mood it changes like the wind Hard to control when it begins
The bittersweet between my teeth Trying to find the in-between Fall back in love eventually
We’d probably be arguing about whether or not fears of the COVID pandemic are warranted.
I would plead with him to either wear a mask, (I’m not wearing a mask, he would practically hiss) or to stop going to Wal-Mart altogether. (You know, they got a deal on russet potatoes this week? Five pounds for $2!)
He would blame the spread of the disease on protesters, (That’s what you get for protesting! No one is making them do it!) and we’d go back and forth about the right to protest, perhaps a whole two turns, before he’d digress into something like, You know, this country was also full of protests during Vietnam. To which I would say, Exactly! And he’d say, Lot of good that did them. And I would face palm myself. And then he’d say, It doesn’t even concern you. It’s right there in the phrase: Black Lives Matter.
At this point in the conversation, it would be time to turn our attention elsewhere–because neither of us was going to change each other’s mind.
We’d talk about the weather, the kids, my work, Doug’s work, and house repairs. If we veered too much into local and state pandemic policies, I’d guide it back to a good book that I’d read, and he’d remind me for the thousandth time that he really loved Louis L’Amour’s westerns. Have you ever read any of those?
At some point, we would eat something that Doug had cooked: fried chicken or steak with billowy garlic mashed potatoes and blanched green beans. Dad would say a murmured prayer that no one could hear, head bowed low, and then silently eat his whole meal before wiping his mouth and pronouncing, “Well, you done good, Sharon.”
And we would laugh.
If my dad were alive today, we would be having some tough conversations. I know that. For sure.
But I also know that I’d rather have him alive to talk about them than to not have him at all.
Weeks 1-2 were a mix of denial and anger, all set to rhythms of Survival Mode, acquiring food and necessities, making sense of pandemic life, and figuring out how to rearrange the landscape of life in a way that we can all live with in this house.
Weeks 3-4 have been, so far, my low point. Replete with the constant wishing things were different, feelings of helplessness, and depression.
Week 5 was my Saturation Point of News. Since then, I’ve only been able to stomach 20 minutes of NPR while I’m making dinner. It’s just enough for me to think, Yep, things are still awful and No, we still don’t have a handle on this.
By Week 6, the depression started to lift as we were faced with the news that we’d been expecting for weeks: Sorry, no more school for your kids this academic year.
And our President thought it would be a good idea to look into using disinfectant to “clean out the lungs.”
This week, Week 7, I feel mostly resigned to living life like this through the summer and well into fall. In my mind, I overestimate (I hope) that we’ll be doing this same type of life through Christmas.
In Week 7, I was able to see my mom in person, though from six feet away and with masks.
In Week 7, I learned that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease–it affects the whole body through blood clotting. And I read this ICU nurse’s account of the inconceivable situations and grief that she and other healthcare workers are facing right now.
In all this darkness, I want to make plenty of room for the things that are still bringing me light.
My partner–My rationality, my burden-bearer, my chef and gardener, accountant and engineer. The person I still love to watch TV with (although we rarely have time to do that anymore).
Running. Sweet, sweet exercise. Early in the morning. Nothing but feet on the pavement and music in my ears.
Watching my kids grow closer together–This is both unexpected and welcome. They (generally) love being around each other. My daughter tucks my son in at night and tells hawks to “Stay away from her little brother.”
Working with co-workers via Zoom. Sharing our little victories in helping faculty teach online.
Attending church services via YouTube. I was surprised by how much my nerves are calmed every week by just hearing familiar songs and the liturgy. When so much is changing, my mind craves the unchanging, the stable.
Re-watching the entire American Pie series. And then all of the Austin Powers movies. (Apparently, this is the extent of problem-solving and just the right level of dumb that I need in my life to balance out all the soul-crushing news.)
It is freeing if we learn to accept that our lives are on loan and we are meant to give our lives over to others. That is the kind of lesson we are taught when we are young, though it often remains on the level of a noble idea that we may opt into or out of depending on our mood. What all the many sufferings of adult life show us is that this idea is actually the high and unbending rule, and it governs our bodies and our relationships and everything else, without exception.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo
There will be no return to “normal” because we are all forced to face our own vulnerabilities now. And so the question put to us now is, How will we react to this vulnerability? What will we do?
9. Listening to Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces.” But first, grab a box of tissues. You’ll need it.
Her poem hits all the right notes for this moment in time.
The uncertainty, the desperation, the frustration, and the sadness.
When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.
Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.
The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.
It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.
It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.
There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.
No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.
Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.
Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.
By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.
And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.
It’s a dream, right?
Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”
“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.
“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.
“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”
“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.
Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.
“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.
“It’s not about you,” he repeats.
He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.
“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.
“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.
“What?” he says.
I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.
But I don’t have the words anymore.
All I have is the grief of his loss.
The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.
And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)
My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.
I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.
And he starts weeping.
He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.
He just weeps with me.
We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.
Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.
And I don’t have to be okay with that.
I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.
No, the anger is gone.
Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.
Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.
But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.
But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.
The only way to Peace is through the Pain.
I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.
It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.
It felt like a space to catch my breath.
A moment to hold on with all I have.
A moment to decide to let it all go.
It felt like my chance to say good-bye.
When you are far away I dream on the horizon And words fail, and, Yes, I know that you are with me; you, my moon, are here with me, my sun, you are here with me, with me, with me, with me.
Time to say goodbye To countries I never Saw and shared with you, now, yes, I shall experience them. I’ll go with you On ships across seas which, I know, no, no, exist no longer.
with you I shall experience them again. I’ll go with you
“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli
We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.
True warriors, right?
But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.
Here is my favorite one.
In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.
Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.
While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.
You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.
I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.
The best thing about being a woman Is the prerogative to have a little fun and Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh, Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh, Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare Oh-OH-oh-oh I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel Man! I feel like a woman!
Young. Wild. Free.
I think that is how I will remember you best.
Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.
Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.
Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.
Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:
The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.
In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.
Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?
Hard to think of one.
You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…
You kept rising.
For that is the true Measure of a Life.
It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.
It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.
And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.
That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.
You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:
That line haunts me.
We are almost there.
How could any of us have seen this coming?
How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?
Here one minute. Gone the next.
Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).
Yes. It truly is.
Even to live 80 years. A vapor.
In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.
And yet, what we do matters.
How we live our lives matters.
And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.
Every damn moment of it mattered.
But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.
The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.
It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.
And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.
When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.
When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.
When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.
And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.
Love is the whole point.
It’s all that has ever mattered.
A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.
One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.
We went canoeing.
And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.
With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.
Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.
I’ve got peace, like a river
I’ve got peace, like a river
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…
He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?
But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.
You sang with him.
I’ve got love like an ocean.
I’ve got love like an ocean.
I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…
Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.
To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.
I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.
But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.
And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.
May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.
Young. Wild. Free.
If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.
I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.
You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”
“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”
“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”
I smiled. You rocked.
“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”
We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.
“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”
Norma and Felicity: October 2013
After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:
I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.
I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.
I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.
When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…
I hope I got the answers right.
I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.
I hope I don’t let you down.
I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.
You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.
You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”
A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.
“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”
For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.
For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.
It was always about the journey.
I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.
It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.
I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.
But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?
And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.
So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.
Because, after all, what was worse than failing?
I was young. I was insecure.
After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.
You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!
You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.
This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.
But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.
Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.
Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).
I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.
I was so, so full of joy.
And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.
What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.
I had been there before. Many times.
And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.
But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?
It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.
It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.
It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…
That made coming home so joyful.
What happens when we die?
I used to be so certain of the answer to that.
I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.
But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.
And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.
What happens when we die?
During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.
If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?
I thought a lot as I ran.
And then clarity hit me.
I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.
I was wondering.
I was in wonder.
I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.
Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?
To wonder? To think?
To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.
Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.
Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.
Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.
Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.
But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.
And all I saw was,
It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.
If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.
He particularly loved it as sung by our small church’s music minister, Darrell Sproles.
Lily of the Valley,
Let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me
How to grow in beauty in God’s sight
Fairest of ten thousand
Make me a reflection of your light
Daystar shine down on me
Let your love shine through me in the night
When it was sung at his funeral in June 2014, it meant a lot to me that my name was in the first few lines.
If I could talk to him now, what would I say?
After I’m sorry for ever causing you pain and I love you,
I probably would tell him that his grandchildren would have loved to have known him.
He always had a very tender way with kids aged 2-5.