In this time of COVID, grief has been all around us. In some ways, I feel like the whole world is catching a glimpse of the range of emotions I’ve felt in the years since losing my family: pain, loss, anger, fear, lack of control. The pandemic has been a strangely equalizing force. We are in a collective season of loss. A few weeks ago, my husband went over to his parents’ house to watch the football game. This would have been a normal occurrence in normal times, but he had not been over there since the start of the pandemic. He came downstairs in our house the next morning after a terrible night of sleep, and I asked him what was wrong. He went on to talk about how everything had just gotten so real all of a sudden. That being with his parents made him realize how much we were missing out on each other’s lives. How they were missing out on seeing our kids grow up. How sad he was about the whole situation. Instead of the sympathy he was expecting and deserved, I bore my teeth and lashed out in anger. “At least you’ll get to see them again when this is over!” I raged. “Do you know how it feels to know you will never see your family ever again?”
Whoever coined the phrase ‘time heals all wounds’ could not possibly have lost someone they loved. Time alone does not ease the pain of loss, which I can attest to 14 years later. Carrying this weight of grief reminds me a little of Frodo bearing the ring in The Lord of the Rings, which we have been watching this holiday season. (Confession: I have not read the books, I have only watched the movies, and I will probably butcher all quotes but hope to get the point across just the same.) Sometimes I feel like Frodo (beyond my need for second breakfast, and occasionally elevensies). I feel that I have been called to live my life without my parents or my sister. No one can live this life for me, I certainly didn’t choose it, but it is my calling alone. At times, I am filled with rage. I look around and see so many others with families intact–appropriately aging parents, siblings, stories, memories–and I feel such deep loss. Why me?! Often this is hardest and most pronounced around the holidays. I acknowledge that many who still have intact families of origin don’t feel fondly toward them, which is a different burden to bear. But I loved my family deeply and was deeply loved by them. I have incredible in-laws and extended family, which sometimes makes it even more painful. The stories that are told around the dinner table will never be my stories. There is no love that can replace the family that raised me.
The end of the last Lord of the Rings movie is filled with so much rich metaphor (well, the whole trilogy is, really). Having completed his task, Frodo is called to move on to the next world. His time as a hobbit in the Shire had come to an end, his task had been accomplished. But he still had trouble leaving. He stood with his little beloved Hobbit friends, and felt the pain of leaving them, never to return to this life again. Then his best friend Sam, the one who carried him up the mountain to Mordor, speaks these words to Frodo, “You cannot always be torn in two. Your part of the story will go on.”
This is the part I want to live into. Was it not for all of the comparing I do to the lives of others, I think I could feel more at peace with the hand I’ve been dealt. I have a beautiful family and a supportive community of friends. I have a loving husband and two incredible boys. So why does my heart still feel torn in two? I want to turn to Gandalf with the words of Pippen, “I didn’t think it would end this way”. But Gandalf wisely turns to the little hobbit and says, “Death is just another path,” as if it were really no big deal at all.
We hold so tightly to the past of what is known that we have trouble reaching out into the future that is unknown. We long for safety, it’s innate, it’s in our biology. But what is safe can change over time. We really can find a new normal. Although time has not healed the wounds that loss has delivered me, it has transformed me. So that is the hope I want to offer you–you whose dad is missing from your table for the first time this year, you who are far from your family in space and time because you moved across the country and Christmas no longer exists as it once did, you whose marriage has hit a rough patch, you who can’t be with your loved ones because of COVID—allow this grief to transform you. Allow yourself to feel torn in two. And also know that your part of the story will go on.
My favorite scene in the whole movie is when Pippen secretly crawls up to light the beacon as a call to arms, a cry for help. And one by one, across the lands, the beacons roar into flames. Warriors are called into action (including that bad-ass woman warrior who kills that big creepy black thing to avenge her uncle). Help is on the way. You are not alone. So, this is me, lighting my beacon of hope. I am giving you permission to light yours. To be real with how hard this Christmas may be for you, and to have hope that this season will not be the end, but only a new beginning.
A couple of years ago, I read Station Eleven, a heart-wrenching, beautiful novel by Emily St. John Mandel, in which 99% of the world population gets wiped out by a flu (a waaaay worse flu than COVID-19, but probably don’t read this book right now). The plot centers around a Shakespearean troupe that forms out of the rubble, and tours around like a band of gypsies entertaining people living in enclaves and newly developing settlements. Each survivor bears their own tale of loss and their past life, rarely spoken of and never again to be the same. For most of the book, the characters are searching for two members of the orchestra, a couple in love, who had stopped along the way to have a baby and then become displaced from the group. Near the end, they are found in a far-off place, reunited with their band. This is the line that really got me: “There was music that night.” There was such beautiful relief in that moment. What was severed had been repaired. The lost were found. The band was back together. All of the pain, all of the loss, all of the heartache had been erased with that one line.
I remember wanting to feel this resolution so badly in my own story of loss. But my band would never be reunited.
With a cathartic exhale, I closed the book, Station Eleven, and set it down on the coffee table next to my empty wine glass. I sat back on the couch, hugged my knees into my chest and looked up at the ceiling as tears trickled down from the corners my eyes. Kevin looked up from his phone.
How could I explain this? “This book…” I paused, shaking my head. “This story…” I trailed off. “It’s really the closest I have felt to being understood.” I chose words carefully, knowing my emotions were high coupled with the buzz of wine.
“I just want there to be music again,” my voice cracked, as I relayed the plot to Kevin. I knew he wouldn’t understand. I hadn’t let him into any of my grief. I had barely let myself into my grief.
“What do you mean?” He furrowed his brow and set his phone down.
“Well, it’s a book about an apocalypse,” I clarified, picking up the book again. “A story about people who have lost all of their people.”
He looked back at me, nonplussed, waiting for the punchline.
“Kevin. All of my people are DEAD. Dead! Gone.” I waved the book wildly for emphasis. “They are not coming back!” I said, volume rising, trying to maintain composure. “I have lost my people. I had to watch them die!” I slouched back onto the couch and slapped the book back down on the table.
“Yeah, I know, Nic. I know,” he said feebly.
“But you don’t! You don’t know. That’s the problem. We are so different.” I had set the playing field, and he didn’t know the rules. “We have this life together, but we experience things so differently. You still have all of your people. I don’t have my people. We are different”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” he seemed to be struggling to console me.
“But it is, Kevin. It just is.”
Sitting next to him on our couch, the distance I felt from my husband had never felt so expansive.
One of the most difficult things about my experience of grief is feeling so alone. Alone in life because my family of origin has died, but also alone in my emotions, alone in understanding, alone in feeling misunderstood. I suppose the difference between my situation and the Station Eleven apocalypse is that in the book, everyone had survived the same trauma. And they knew it. The survivors had all lost most of the people they loved. The playing field was level. At 28 years old, no one else I knew had lost even one parent, much less both and a sister to boot. Mostly, it seemed easier to just pretend the trauma hadn’t happened than to try to explain it to someone who didn’t know how to respond. My wounds were invisible (for a while anyway), and I didn’t want to be a downer. The rest of the world still had their music.
And now, in the late winter of 2020, I find myself in the midst of a global pandemic, feeling more understood and more at ease in the world than ever before. Even when I think of missing my family, or even the fear of something happening to the family I have now, I feel it differently. I don’t feel like I am alone in the fear of being without something. We are all, right now, experiencing such great fear of the unknown. Which, really, at its heart, is what grief is: “How will my life go on in this different world?”
Yesterday, I blew up at my neighbor for asking me very politely if I could trim back a shrub that was blocking her view. The conversation got so heated that she turned and walked away without resolution. This neighbor is a dear friend, and this has never happened before. We have had plenty of disagreements, but they have always been civil and ended in mutual respect. This argument was not about the shrub, it was about the lack of control that both of us are feeling. We are both operating at a heightened emotional level. When that happens, things come out sideways. Less than an hour passed before we recognized this and apologized profusely to one another, hugging (against government orders) and crying and recognizing that we were under unusual stress and the shrub suddenly became unimportant.
This is what happens when a whole community experiences trauma together. We have a mutual understanding of the circumstances. We have the same baseline. And shared trauma often results in a strengthening of relationships in the end, because we help each other through.
When I was in my deepest pit of grief, I would lash out (mostly at my husband, because he was obligated to still hang out with me afterwards), because I was feeling such deep fear and uncertainly that no one else around me was feeling. Over time, I started to develop a keen awareness of that look in someone’s eye that they were having a different experience of life than was happening on the surface, that feeling that life is happening as normal for everyone else but you. Your life, as you know it, has stopped, but no one else can see that.
The punchline is this: grief is easier when shared. I am the first to admit that sharing grief can be so hard. Understanding the grief of another is impossible. But the most profound moments of healing I have felt in this traumatic journey of loss have been when someone came along side me and simply said, “I see you”. The grace in that moment allows space for grief to exist in real time.
So, in this really confusing, unsettling time, be glad that we can share this burden with one another. None of us are facing this alone. But we all have our different trigger points. For me, it was my precious shrubs. For you, it might be your family who is far away from you or wondering how you will pay your next round of bills. Whatever that grief is, make space for it and make grace for it in your heart. For you and for your neighbors. And by all means, keep making music.
Nearly two months have passed since the day we said goodbye to our beloved dog, Zion. To say he was more than ‘just a dog’ to me is a total understatement. Early in our marriage, Kevin asked me if I had to choose between him and Zion, who would I choose? I told him he probably shouldn’t ask me that question.
The morning of Zion’s last day seemed a morning not unlike the others before it. Zion had been in slow decline for a few months, recently not putting any weight on his back, right leg. He was 15 and a half and counting, and I knew his end was on the horizon.
I came home from my morning yoga class and one of the boys met me at the door.
“Zion’s leg is swollen!” he blurted out with great concern. “And we cleaned out all of his eye goobers,” he added with a certain amount of pride, wanting me to know Zion was being well tended.
I turned to Kevin for clarification and knew by the look on his face that this was serious. I walked over to where Zion lay on the ancient rag-rug I had rescued from the junk pile when my Grandma moved out of her big house in South Dakota. His back knee joint was swollen almost to the size of a baseball, and I could see the skin beneath his fur was bright red.
“The joint is really hot and hard,” Kevin said as I pet Zion’s ears and examined the leg.
My sweet Zion had gotten so frail, though I had not wanted to notice. Months had gone by, maybe even a year since he had chased a stick or a ball or anything, which had defined his whole life purpose.
“Oh Schmoops,” I uttered affectionately. That was a nickname that had emerged somewhere down the line, likely from Kevin, who comes from a family where to be loved means to have a nickname.
“I can take him in,” Kevin offered, knowing I had an appointment that morning to drop off artwork at a brewpub for an upcoming show. And, also, because it would be so very hard for me to handle the news that we both knew was coming.
“Ok, I’ll call the vet,” I said.
I got Zion at a time when my life was bursting with the potential of youth, but totally at loose ends because my parents were dying. I was in my second year of graduate school in Seattle. I had wanted a dog for years already, and had been looking on Craigslist, and Petfinder, and visited every pet shelter that crossed my path. I even had a near miss when I stopped at the animal shelter driving back from visiting my sick parents. I stopped late in the day and found a beautiful litter of freshly hatched chow-mix puppies. They still had that skunky, musky smell that some puppies have right after they are born. I fell in love with one sweet little girl (I was sure I would get a girl dog), but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I got back into my car (which actually had a note on it with the phone number of a handsome stranger—that’s another story) and drove a little way down the road. I couldn’t stop thinking about that little puppy, so I pulled over and found a payphone to call my dad.
“Absolutely not!” was his response. “You’re in school and it’s a puppy! You don’t have time for that. It sheds, it poops, it eats. How are you going to take care of all that?”
But I was lonely, scared, and a little defiant, so I drove back to the shelter to adopt that little fluffball. When I got there, she had already been spoken for.
Not long after, I found a listing on Craigslist for a six-month-old, fully-trained, Aussie-Border Collie Mix. This seemed perfect. Fully trained! I liked the sound of that. I emailed the owner, and we set up a meeting near school. It was love at first sight. His name was Ryan, and he was such a beautiful boy. I shook Eileen’s hand and the dog sat obediently at her feet. We sat on a bench outside a café and chatted. In my mind I was thinking, What’s wrong with this dog that she wants to get rid of him? She explained that she already had a high-energy dog that took a lot of her time. She seemed to like me but wanted the dog to be neutered before I took him home, so I would have to wait a week. She worked at a vet clinic, so she would take care of it. I drove to Shoreline, (where they lived) to visit him one more time at the beach. As we walked from the road toward the water she said, “He loves the beach. He’ll go crazy the minute his feet feel the sand.” And it was true. He and her other border-collie-mix, Jack, tore up and down the foaming surf line, taking turns chasing one another.
About a week later, Eileen brought him to my house with a crate, and dog bowl, and a bag of food.
“Can I pay you for any of this?” I asked, hoping she would say no based on my meager grad school salary.
“No. I just want him to have a good life.” That was the last time I saw her. And I promptly changed his name to Zion.
Kevin helped me load all of my artwork into our van, and then we walked back to the house to get Zion. Kevin picked him up as gently as he could around his middle, careful to avoid the bulging leg. I walked ahead of him, opening and closing doors, and Kevin laid him gently across the back seat. I pushed back the fur beside both of his eyes with my hands and kissed him on the head. He stared back at me with nothing but calm stoicism. I closed the door and turned into Kevin’s arms with a deep sob.
“Call me the minute you know anything, ok?” I said.
“I will,” he said, releasing me.
I paused for a moment and watched the car drive away, then busied myself with delivering the art. I left the kids in the care of our visiting friends and headed out. I had just pulled up to the brewpub when my phone rang. I took a deep breath and answered.
“Hi Nic.” I could tell by the sound of Kevin’s voice that it was not good news. “The doc saw him right away. She said she couldn’t diagnose it just by looking at it, but it could be some kind of infection that they could treat with antibiotics, or it could be something like cancer. They can take an x-ray or do a biopsy to try to see more…”
We had already made the decision that we were not going to treat anything major. He was more than elderly. He was not living his best life. But still, I couldn’t let him go without a fight.
“Can you have them do an x-ray. Just to see?” I choked back tears.
“Yeah, of course. I’ll have them do that,” Kevin said.
I hung up the phone and tried to collect myself. I knocked on the brew pub door and was let in by a 20-something dude in a trucker hat. Trailing just behind him was his caramel-colored dog he called ‘Bevvy’. I felt an instant pang in my heart. I managed to hold it together enough to make the delivery with few words.
I got back in the car and texted my dear friend, Lindsay. “We might have to say goodbye to Zion today. Kevin’s at the vet with him now.”
I set the phone down and started the car. I flashed back to all of the other hard messages I’ve had to send in my lifetime. “My dad is sick.” “My dad is dying.” “My mom is dead.”
As I pulled back into our driveway, my phone rang. I didn’t want to answer, but it was Lindsay. I parked the car and put the phone to my ear.
“Hi,” I squeaked out.
“Oh Nic,” Lindsay said. “Tell me what’s happening.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but there were no words. I just cried.
Lindsay had been one I had dragged to pet shelters with me when I was desperately searching for a companion. She had known Zion almost from the very beginning. She knew how much his companionship had meant to me. She knew this would be a hard day.
I took a deep breath and regained composure. I explained to her what I knew from the vet.
“Do you need anything? Do you want me to come over? I am off today,” she offered.
“No, I’m ok. I’ll let you know,” I said.
“Ok. Ask me if you need anything. No matter how small or silly it seems. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Linds.”
I hung up the phone and walked to the house. The boys were occupied upstairs and our friend Yvonne sat at the table. I got a glass of water and sat next to her to relay the latest news. I was interrupted by my phone ringing. I saw it was Kevin and answered.
“Hello?” There was a pause. I braced my heart.
“Hi Nic,” Kevin managed to say before his voice broke into sobs. I could hear him apologize to someone on the other end. He composed himself and continued. “The x-ray showed that he has a broken leg…” he choked back another sob, “and that there’s cancer in the bone.”
My heart sank. Tears rolled down my cheeks in unending swells. I was not surprised, but I was devastated.
“Should I come there? I need to see him again. I need to be with him.” My mind was racing. I wanted this to somehow be a happy ending.
“No, no. I will bring him home. They are really busy right now, so we have to wait a couple of hours for…” he trailed off, careful not to say the actual words of what we needed to do.
“Ok, yes, bring him home. We are here.” I hung up the phone, and the boys tumbled down the stairs. One look at my face told them everything. I invited them to come sit with me on the couch so I could fill in the details.
“Is Zion ok, Mama?” Leo asked, his eyes piercing blue, the same blue as my mother’s.
“No, honey. Zion has a broken leg,” I started. How was I going to say this?
They both sat so still next to me. “There is cancer in the bone, so the bone isn’t able to heal itself.”
“Is Zion going to die?” Jude asked, his forehead wrinkled.
I had to say it out loud. “Yes, honey,” I was crying again, “they will give him a shot to –” I paused, struggling for the words, “make him fall asleep.”
“Forever, right?” Jude said, as if clarifying for his younger brother.
“Yes, forever,” I said.
Leo moved away with a frown and settled into the corner of our sectional couch, as Jude and I hugged and cried together.
“Papa is going to bring him home for a while so we can be with him,” I said, pulling away from Jude’s hair. I wanted to make this meaningful for them. “Let’s make a bed on the floor for him.”
The boys busied themselves collecting Zion’s dog bed and blankets and pillows from all regions of the house. Meanwhile, I texted Lindsay, “Can you come over?”
She texted right back, “Just checking out at Home Depot. I’ll be there shortly.”
Kevin reappeared in the window with Zion dangling from his arms. I rushed over to open the door.
“We made Zion a bed!” Jude said with mustered enthusiasm.
Kevin set Zion down on the massive pile of pads and pillows and quilts. Unaccustomed to so much attention, Zion looked around and hobbled up from the bed as if to remove himself from the center. He apparently still had work to do. With a broken leg.
“Did they give him something for the pain?” I asked Kevin, cringing every time I caught sight of the bulging joint.
“They sent me home with a pill,” Kevin said, producing a large, white tablet from his pocket. “Should I wrap it in a piece of meat and give it to him?”
I shook my head. “Give it to me.” I had seen him spit out far too many pills. He was wise to our antics. I gently parted his jaws, dropped the pill down the hatch, and softly held his muzzle closed until he swallowed. He knew I would take care of him.
Zion continued to pace around the room on three legs, wondering what all the commotion was for.
“Would you like to give him some treats, boys?” I asked, retrieving a bag of chicken jerky from the pantry.
We took turns breaking off pieces and handing them to him one by one. We could not spoil this dog enough for all of the goodness he brought to us.
“I know!” I exclaimed. “Let’s give him his own bowl of ice cream!”
Years ago, Kevin had established a habit of letting Zion lick out his ice cream bowl when he was finished. I rarely joined in and pretended to be disgusted by this unsophisticated behavior. No dog of mine would eat from the table! But today I would deny him no pleasure. Leo put the bowl down in front of Zion with glee. Zion lapped happily, looking up at regular intervals as if he was getting away with something.
Not long after, the pill seemed to kick in, and Zion laid down again on his prepared bed of softness. I stretched out next to him on my side and stroked his head. I suddenly wanted to memorize everything about him—every spot, every angle, every toenail. Then I realized I already had. I knew that amber spot in his otherwise ice blue eyes. I knew the tear drop marking that streaked out from the corner of his right eye. I knew the smell of his paws, the feel of his fur, the exact place to scratch to make his leg kick. This dog had been by my side for 15 years, the most difficult years of my life. He was my person. He was a piece of my heart.
“Can we watch a movie, Mama?” Leo asked earnestly from his corner of the couch.
“What movie do you have in mind?” I asked, rolling over and drying my eyes again.
“Hotel for Dogs,” he said.
Jude butted in, “Noooo! That will be too sad.”
I thought for a moment. Leo needed a distraction to be able to be present. Jude was wailing, but Leo was feeling deeply in his own quiet way.
“We can watch it, Leo. Jude, you don’t have to watch. I’ll put it on.”
Lindsay had arrived somewhere in the middle of it all. We were all just trying to be as present with the moment as we could. Zion was lazy for the first time in his whole life. I could tell it was hard for him. The alertness never left his eyes.
We watched the clock tick closer to the time we had scheduled to take Zion back to the vet, taking turns lying beside him on the floor bed, letting the movie be the soundtrack instead of needing words. When a funny story came to mind about Zion, we would share it—like the time he puked all over Kevin’s face in the car and I got mad at Kevin for being grossed out because I was about to have our first baby and babies were gross, or the time Kevin took Zion running out in the county and Zion got spooked and ran back to town and hunkered down at the co-op until Kevin found him there. And then there were pauses and so many tears.
The movie ended, and I asked the boys to come close to Zion.
“Lindsay, will you offer a blessing?”
We all put our hands on Zion and on each other. I don’t remember much of what she said except that the prayer felt perfect and beautiful and ended with something like, “May the sun always be in your fur…”
I thought of all of the adventures Zion and I had shared, all the ground we had covered, the family we had become, the tears I had cried into that fur. This dog had been one of my life’s greatest gifts.
Lindsay said the “Amen”, and we breathed a collective sigh. I wished for time to stop.
“Ok, boys,” I said through tears. “You can say goodbye to Zion now.”
Leo retreated quietly to his warm corner of the couch. I rubbed Jude’s back as he sobbed over Zion’s body. “I know, honey, I know.” I tried to console what could not be consoled. “Dogs just don’t live forever.” Although somehow in my heart, I believed maybe he would. Maybe this would be the way the Universe could balance out all of the losses I had seen in my life. Maybe I would have the everlasting dog.
“It’s time,” Kevin spoke gently.
“Ok, I know,” I said, feeling some panic, “Just give me one more minute.”
I lay there on my side facing Zion as he looked deeply into my eyes as he always did. He had such knowing eyes. I remembered the day I brought him home, how he ate shrimp shells at a party the first weekend and I was sure he was going to die. I remembered bringing him home to meet my parents, and how my dad always wanted him to be more friendly, luring him in with a frisbee to get a pet in. I remembered how much he loved when Kevin came into our life, because Kevin meant that fun things were about to happen. I remembered the trip we took to Moab after my parent’s died, Zion sitting at the base of desert towers as we climbed. I remembered him pacing wildly as I screamed in childbirth at our house in Portland, finally settling beside the birthing pool as a labored with Jude. I remembered him dropping a tiny stick on day-old Jude’s lap as he sat swaddled in his baby seat. I remembered him riding in the broke-down car that had died on the top of Steven’s Pass as we all rode in the tow-truck. I remembered him allowing Leo to snuggle up to him in his older years, letting go of his impulsive nature to work every minute.
There was nothing more I could wish for this precious creature. He had lived his absolute best doggie life. And I was there to witness nearly every minute.
Kevin lifted him slowly off the makeshift bed. Jude sat next to Leo on the couch and Kevin brought him over for one last pet. Lindsay joined the boys on the couch as I walked Kevin to the car, opening and closing doors. Kevin laid him gently on the backseat as the tears continued to roll down my face. I leaned in and took his scruff in both hands.
“You have been the best boy ever,” I spoke with my lips on his head. “I love you so, so much.”
I moved away to let Kevin back out. I watched the car disappear down the road with a little piece of my heart I knew would never return.
Now, a month later, I still catch a glimpse of something grayish brown on the floor out of the corner of my eye, and for a second in my unconscious mind think it is Zion. I have thought much since his passing, how natural his death felt, how explicable, how acceptable. And how different that feels from the other losses I have had to bear.
I don’t think I am afraid of dying. We all die. We all know that, deep in our bones. I am afraid of dying without fully living.
Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
We can’t wait to begin living fully until we reach ‘someday’, some goal, some fulfillment of a prophecy. We can’t live as if we will live forever or even one more year. We must live this moment. Nothing is worth more than this day.
This past Sunday, I was asked to share a little bit about my journey with gratitude and healing with our church family. Let me say that blatant vulnerability does not come easily for me (though much of my writing might suggest the opposite), but more and more, I am convinced it is required for healing. And so is community. Whether you go to church, or wouldn’t ever go to church, I still think we need to bear one another’s burdens, to be human together, help each other. I don’t think Jesus would want his kingdom, or “kindom” (I’m liking the new iteration of this word, even if spellcheck isn’t), to be limited to church walls. Quite the opposite. The kindom of God can come near wherever the Spirit is at work in Creation. Healing is often found in unlikely places.
Peace to you in this season of gratitude and togetherness, as we mourn those who aren’t at the table in body, and celebrate with those who are.
Gratitude. If you asked me for one word to describe my spiritual journey over the last decade, gratitude would not be that word. Resentment. Fear. Grief. Anxiety. Sadness. Confusion. Those words are closer to the truth.
In 2006, my dad died of liver cancer. He was my biggest fan. Six weeks later, my mom died after a struggling with MS my entire life. She was my second biggest fan, to the best of her ability. Many years earlier, I had lost my only sister to Leukemia. I wouldn’t really call her a fan (we were sisters, after all), but we did love each other. At 28 years old, I was an orphan.
I had met my husband, Kevin, just a couple of months before my parents died. We were both PKs (pastor’s kids) and everyone around me who loved me and my parents, were absolutely thrilled that I was going to be married and rescued by this handsome prince. I was determined to be just fine. I would be strong. Death and grief would not define me.
And so, we were married and had two sweet boys, and for years, I tried to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if losing my family had no impact on me. After all, my family was ‘in heaven’ which was something I was supposed to be happy about. I could have peace knowing that. Right?
But I didn’t have peace. I missed my family desperately. I resented all of the people who still had their families. I grew terrified that I was going to die and leave my own children behind without a mother. I couldn’t understand why God had allowed this to happen to me. I had done everything right. I knew all of the answers, I memorized all of the verses, but God was not at all giving me the desires of my heart. Without realizing it, I had grown very angry with God. This was not how life was supposed to go. I thought that getting married and starting my own family would somehow ease the grief, that time would heal this wound. But the wound was so big, it couldn’t close on its own, and I had kept it hidden for so long that only those closest to me even had an inkling that it existed. I felt very alone.
Grief is a strange beast. And one that tends to grow like a disease when left unattended. Stuffing my feelings for so many years began to take a toll on my body. I was seeing counselors on and off over the years, but nothing seemed to relieve the anxiety that was building inside. I needed help so badly but was so utterly afraid of looking weak or incapable. I had been told all of my life that I was ‘the strong one’ and I didn’t know how to not be in that role. I was the helper. I was the perfect Christian. Surely God was going to deliver me.
I reached a point where my anxiety became so crippling that I couldn’t even do normal things that were enjoyable. I’d walk into a restaurant and my heart would start pounding for no apparent reason. I’d be in a conversation, and feel my mind go blank mid-sentence. I felt like I was going insane. One of my worst panic attacks happened right here at church. Kevin was teaching Sunday School that week, and I walked into the sanctuary alone with my boys. I felt the buzz of the music meet me at the door, and not in a friendly way. The sound bore through me like it was echoing through an empty vessel. Everyone was standing, but I had to sit down, because I was afraid I was going to pass out. I whispered to the boys that I needed to go downstairs, and they should come with me. Kara met me at the bottom of the stairs and asked if I was alright. I told her I was feeling a little off, and she took the boys hands and led them away. I snuck into Kerrie’s office and laid down on the cold floor to see if I could stop my heart from racing and my skin from crawling. I was sure that I was dying. I eventually grabbed a sweater off of the back of her door and headed outside. Kara stopped me and asked if she could join me. I was embarrassed by my flustered state, but I said she could. Kerrie saw us and told me she would see if there was a doctor anywhere, and she would go get Kevin from his Sunday School class. Kara put her arm around me, and we walked outside into the chilly air. She listened intently as I told her my sorrows. I cried on her shoulder. Sobbed, actually. We went inside, and she sat beside me as Dr. Andrew took my pulse and Mary Lynn got a stethoscope from her purse. I was immediately surrounded by care and concern. The kingdom of God had come near to me.
As you might have guessed: I didn’t die. And even better, I was not shunned or shamed for my weakness. I was, instead, met with a safe place to land. The corners of the safety net were stretched tight by the hands of the people of God. I began to realize that healing is not a luxury, it is not selfish, it is necessary so that I can eventually be available to hold that safety net for the next person, and to console others with the consolation I have received.
The apostle Paul speaks of his own grievance in 2 Corinthians 12, the “thorn in his side” as the translation reads. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away from him. How many times did I plead with God to take away my grief? And what was God’s response? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Had I not been forced to show my weakness, I would not have been able to feel the overwhelming strength and comfort available in this community, and to move in the powerful direction of healing.
In his essay entitled “The Body and the Earth”, Wendell Berry writes: “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality (or I would say Community) is healing. To be healed, we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
My grief felt too big, too unique, and I suppose in a way, too precious, to be shared with other people. I had convinced myself that no one could possibly understand what I was going through. In fact, I used it as a way to distance myself from other people. But what I have come to realize is that there is no human on Earth who can exactly understand the human experience of any other human. And the only way we come close is by sharing little bits of our experiences with one another. Look at the power of the #metoo movement! We find comfort and solidarity in being able to say that to and to hear that from one another.
I recently had opportunity to hear Trudy from Whatcom Dream speak about poverty and class differences. The whole talk was incredibly profound, and the one thing that really stuck with me was this: “We tend to compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides”. We walk around believing everyone else (for the most part) has it figured out, while we are drowning in our own existential crises or whatever we are dealing with at that moment.
Here is my invitation and my challenge to you: Meet me at the table, at the feast of creation. Take off your outer garments of shame or fear or false certainty, and feel free to say things like “I’m sad. I’m a little bit afraid of dying. And also, I’m really grateful to be alive, and to be a member of the human race and the kingdom of heaven.”
I didn’t know that two things could be true at once, that I could be really sad about losing my family, but also really grateful for all of the other good things in my life. I didn’t know how to hold those things side by side. I thought it was my grief that kept me connected to my lost family. But, in fact, it is love that connects me to my family, and it is my grief that I carry forward into my life without them. Without grief, there is no need for hope.
I Thessalonians 4:13 reminds us that “we do not grieve like the rest of humanity who has no hope.” But we grieve with the hope that we will be restored to wholeness as a member of the kingdom of God, feasting with all of Creation.
I watched a dance performance last week that impacted me very deeply. Pam Kuntz and Co. put on fabulous show called “Spokes” at the Firehouse Café here in Bellingham. The storyline centers on a woman who dies in a bike crash, a detail we know from the start, and the important relationships she forms during her lifetime (her parents, sister, friends, husband, daughter) and how those individuals are impacted by her death. There was no dialogue between the characters, but the dance movements conveyed so powerfully exactly what was going on. My friend, Anni, informed me that this is because of ‘mirror neurons’, pathways in our brain that allow us to mirror inside ourselves what is being felt by a person, based on what we perceive. Let me tell you, my mirror neurons were firing. I felt everything.
And I needed it. I needed it so badly.
Just days before, a couple of conversations with insightful friends revealed to me how much anger I hold inside. How mad I (still) am that my family is dead. I realized that I often feel my grief in the form of resentment, directed at people who have what I don’t. Basically, I hate everyone who still has their family of origin. Ok, well, not actively, all of the time. But my grief instincts are most triggered at times when I am reminded of my family’s absence. For instance, Kevin’s parents are at my sons’ birthdays, but my parents are not. So, they become an indirect target for my anger. My neighbor’s sister— who is so much like my neighbor, looks like her, talks like her, walks like her, laughs like her— visits from out of town, and suddenly I resent them both for being such beautiful sisters. Not that I am actually outwardly mean to these people, but it creates an anger response in me that’s reflected on them. Let me be clear: I love my in-laws and my neighbor. What I’m saying is: grief can make you crazy—do crazy things, think crazy things, feel crazy things. It’s madness.
At some point since the death of my sister and my parents, I became more able to be mad than sad about my losses. Anger seemed a stronger, more appropriate reaction, one that I could better manage. Sadness seemed to generally be perceived as weakness, and something I couldn’t control. And who likes feeling sad, anyway? I was avoiding it as long as possible.
So, this dance performance just undid me. I could hardly get out of my seat at the end, and could have sat there and bawled all night (I actually left and sat in my car and bawled for a bit more before driving home). But here’s the magical thing: there was no target for my grief to manifest itself as anger, no trigger. I was just sad, in the purest sense.
I watched a couple fall in love before my eyes and was reminded that my own parents had a beautiful love story, full of letters and visits and regular old-fashioned courtship. Before their lives were ravaged by disease and death, they fell in love, got married, and had two daughters they loved.
I watched sisters become sisters in all of the wonderful, competitive, and forgiving ways sisters do. I was transported back to my childhood, making up dance routines to Sandi Patty songs with my sister, Jeni, on the merry-go-round at school. She was always the boss, a trait I despised and envied.
I watched a young woman bring her husband home and go through the delicate dance of teaching him the culture of her family. This is a dance Kevin never had opportunity to learn, and one I still struggle to teach, with so many missing pieces. When he entered my life, Kevin was seen as my savior. There was no gauntlet to run, no time to run tests. The torch was passed, few questions asked. I, on the other hand, had to try to learn the dance of his family, while so desperately longing for my own.
I watched a daughter be born and be instantly loved and cherished and delighted in by her parents. My parents were always so proud of me. There is no love like a parent’s love.
I watched all of these characters lose this beloved woman. I was the sister, I was the daughter, and I could feel the grief of every character on that stage.
All of this, right before my eyes. It wasn’t real, but it was very real at the same time.
I’m not sure I would have given myself permission to feel all of these things, had I been sitting there alone. But I was surrounded by the sweet family of the girl who played the daughter on stage. Relatives had flown in from all over to be there for opening night, friends of mine. Twice during the performance my friend Kate, sitting two seats away, reached over and squeezed my shoulder, as if to say, “I feel you. I’m here.”
Grief can be such a lonely place. And bold is the hand that reaches out to say, “I feel you. I’m here.” More and more, I am convinced healing can only happen in community. I have cried a lot of tears in private. A lot. But it is the times that others have met me in my sorrow, that I have felt truly seen and known and healed just a little bit.
In Christian culture, we’re taught that the dead go “to a better place”, but that doesn’t make it easier to deal with as the person left behind. It doesn’t bring me joy like people say it should. If Jesus thought that life after death was better than life, why did he raise Lazarus from the dead? Maybe he just missed his friend.
I just miss my people.
I do not hope to one day wake up and be happy my sister died young, or somehow feel like my mom’s illness was justified and that her early death was a gift, or to not miss my dad like I lost my right arm. But that is what our culture preaches. Get over it. Move on. Quit being sad. Everything happens for a reason. Be transformed. Look beyond.
My grief is too sacred to be put down, set aside, overlooked, gotten over. Somedays I don’t want to feel transformed. I just want to feel sad. Without feeling mad. I sent a message to the director of the dance, telling her how much I was moved. I told her I hoped they would have another run, and if they did, I would invite everyone I know to see it. I would go again too, maybe twice, with a giant box of tissues. In the meantime, feel free to send me sad movie recommendations. Better yet, come cry with me.
P.S. I found this picture of my parents a couple of days ago. They are in one of their happy places, Kelowna, BC, waving to family out in the boat. I didn’t take the picture, and I wasn’t in the boat, but I’m pretty sure that was the case. There were other people in the picture, but I blew up this part and put in on my fridge. I like to think they are waving to me, to us, from wherever they are in this universe.
At times, my aloneness feels unbearable. The illusion of isolation looms like a hidden disease. The loss of my parents and sister out of natural sequence has left me feeling like the lone survivor of an apocalypse. I look around at others asking, “do you ever feel this alone?” Is this feeling because of my losses, or because I’m just a human waking up to the fact that I’m a human? We each only have our own one life as a gauge, this one experience to guide us, this one life to live. But that’s not totally true, is it? We all also have each other. We have a whole history of human stories. And the more we share our stories, the less alone we feel.
This time a year ago, I was just starting to think about writing my story. Still knee-deep in leather goods, I signed up for a 4-class series on memoir writing through our local bookstore and community college (note: this is going on again RIGHT NOW! If you have any inkling to write your story, I HIGHLY recommend this series.). Through these classes I found Cami Ostman and The Narrative Project, which I was a part of for most of this past year. I knew that this program was right for me when, in her first class, Cami shared the Maya Angelou quote:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
My untold story was eating me alive.
I thought it would come out of me, surging, like a flood, that the dam holding back my story would break with one whack and fill up the pages until I was empty. But it hasn’t happened that way, exactly. The process for me has been more of an ebb and flow. Somedays the story is so clear in my mind and flows out into thoughts. Other days the dam seals up again. But if I wait until the story all comes out and makes sense, none of the words will ever see the light of day.
So, here’s a little piece of the story that piggy backs on a quote I read the other day that reflects so much of my grief these days:
“When someone you love dies, you don’t just lose them in the present or in the past. You lose the future you should have had, and might have had, with them. They are missing from all the life that was left to be.” –Megan Devine
If you knew my dad, I hope this makes you smile.
Late July, 2006
The beautiful distraction of new love kept me afloat during the darkening days. My dad had been sick with liver cancer for nearly two years; my mom’s MS was worsening with the stress. Experts probably would have cautioned against beginning a relationship under the circumstances, but I was in desperate search for an anchor. When Kevin and I started dating, my dad was just weeks from his death. Part of me didn’t even want Kevin to meet my dad in this state. He was a fading shadow of his former self, on so much morphine there were days he thought he was a truck driver (he was a pastor). But he was alert and chipper the day I brought Kevin home.
“Hi Papa,” I called as I came through the door, my dog, Zion, pushing past me to secure the area.
“Hi Hon!” my dad called from his usual spot in his recliner.
I noticed the nurse’s clipboard hanging on a nail by the door. “Are you alone?”
“Yeah. The nurse just left. I took a shower so I could be all fresh and clean for my baby girl.”
Kevin followed me into the living room, and I crossed over to give my dad a hug.
“Oh, you do smell good!” I could smell the Irish Spring soap he had used all of his life. I moved aside so Kevin was in full view.
“And you must be Kevin!” my dad stuck out his hand. “I’m Bob. I’d get up, but, well, you know.”
Kevin grabbed his yellowing hand with both of his. “I’m so happy to meet you.”
My eyes immediately filled with tears, and I made and excuse to leave the room. “I’ll just get some water. We had a long border wait.” I couldn’t bear the thought that this was how Kevin would remember my dad. They would never watch football games together, or shoot hoops, or fawn over our future babies, or gang up against me. He could not possibly tell Kevin all of the stories he needed to hear. My dad would never be a father-in-law. This, this right here today, these hours, would be the extent of their relationship.
I regained my composure and listened from the kitchen as my dad repeated all of the facts I had told him about Kevin. “So, Nicki tells me…” Kevin added things here and there, my dad asked a few questions. Looking back, this was the one time these huge pieces of my heart were sharing space and time.
“Hey, Nic!” my dad yelled. Being mostly confined to his chair, he had taken to yelling from room to room, something that I was never allowed to do growing up. “There’s a whole tree full of golden plums in the back. Why don’t you make some plum-blackberry jam? The blackberries are ripe, too, and big as your thumb.”
That was what he always said, ‘they’re as big as your thumb’. My dad and I had the same thick thumbs. “Ok, dad, just give us a minute to settle in.” I walked back into the living room and handed them both a glass of ice water.
“No ice. It makes my tongue weird. You drink it.” My dad’s speech had been affected by the metastasized tumors pressing on his nerves. He was finally forced to quit preaching when he developed a severe lisp.
“How’s Mom?” I asked. Kevin and I sat together on the loveseat facing my dad.
“She still hates it.” She had been moved to a care facility shortly after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. “The nurses say she is losing weight because she chokes on so much of her food, which she’s kinda proud of, losing weight, that is. She always wanted to be skinny again.” This was true. She was always warning me to watch what I ate. “And she can’t come home as much because I need so much help, too.” There was distance in his voice, like he was talking about people we didn’t know.
“Dad, I’ll move home. You just say the word,” I offered, as I had every time I was home.
“Absolutely not. You need to live your life. We’ll figure things out up here,” my dad said. He leaned his head back against the soft brown upholstery of the chair and closed his eyes. “I need to rest. You guys go pick some berries. And don’t forget the plums.”
Nothing about this situation was easy, and none of it was going to get better. In fact, it was most certainly getting worse.
We grabbed buckets and headed across the road down the ravine to the railroad tracks where the blackberries sprawled out along the waterfront. You could look across the water and see the United States on the other side. I had been here with my dad many times to pick berries or to walk our dogs. My dad would never come down here again.
I stopped when we got to the bottom of the ravine, the view of the water spreading out before us. I closed my eyes and shook my head, breathing in deeply. “It feels like life is just one long series of ‘lasts’ right now,” I couldn’t hold in the tears. “And one of these visits is going to be the last time I see my dad alive.”
“I’m so sorry, Nic, I can’t even imagine how you must feel,” Kevin pulled me into a hug, inadvertantly hitting me in the head with his bucket.
“Ouch!” I rubbed the spot.
“I just wanted to distract you for a minute,” he said sheepishly. He kissed me on the head.
There was a whole world of emotion I was unwilling and unable to let Kevin enter into. I had only known him a few months, but I felt sure that he was the man I would marry. As much as our pasts had in common on the outside, loss and codependence in my family had given me a very different emotional landscape. There was so much he needed to know, so much I couldn’t possibly put into words. Maybe a day would come. That day was not today.
We picked berries in silence, me glancing at Kevin’s bucket every now and then to make sure he was only picking the ripest berries.
“Quality control!” I said. “We don’t want sour jam!”
We returned to the house, to find my dad resting quietly and a bucket of golden plums overflowing on the counter.
“Dad! Did you pick these?!” I shouted.
“Well, you guys were taking too long. Somebody had to do it,” he said with a shrug.
“I see where she gets her stubbornness, Bob,” Kevin said.
“Yeah, you watch out. She’s even worse than I am!” my dad smiled. “Ok, well there’s work to do. Get busy.”
My dad barked instructions to us from his chair, and we made ourselves one hell of a batch of jam.
That is the last clear, happy memory I have of my dad. I was 28. He was 56. I was with him many more times after that, but he was never again as lucid as he was that day. There was something about meeting Kevin that allowed him to let go. He saw Kevin as someone who would take care of me, someone who I could love. My dad never spoke about having fear of leaving me alone. Perhaps he couldn’t handle that reality any more than I could. Sometimes not saying things out loud makes you believe they won’t actually happen. Or, perhaps, he knew I was going to be okay.
[This post is just a little bit of fun. My husband, Kevin, is always talking about Type 2 fun. The kind of fun you have that is more fun after the actual event, like a slog of a climb, or a grueling bike ride, or an adventure race. Type 1 fun is the kind of thing that is enjoyable while you are actually doing it. Things like, playing music, watching a movie, eating a good meal. I’d like to propose Type 3 fun, which is something that seems very traumatic when it happens, but later becomes something you can laugh at. Hope this makes you laugh.]
November 14, 2005
Dear Miss Lang,
I would prefer not to be writing this note, but I feel it is necessary for the sake of impressionable students. Your students are embarrassed; are talking about; and are getting grossed out by the marks (assumed to be hickeys) on your neck. After the first incident, I didn’t say anything; since you used a scarf to cover up, and I hoped it wouldn’t happen again, but the students are wise to the cover up and have complained that it has been happening again. The students have expressed that they like you as a teacher and that you are a good teacher, but that they wish the hickeys would stop or that, at the very least, you would use cover-up. I as a parent would like you to be a good example to our students and refrain from showing up in class with hickeys. I and some of the other parents have been encouraging our children to wait until marriage before any sexual relations, and thus evidence otherwise from a teacher they respect undermines what we are trying to teach our children.
This not is not meant to embarrass you, but to make you aware of the uncomfortable feeling that are being stirred up, and to respectfully request that you help the parents encourage our children to remain pure, by being a good example.
[a concerned parent whose name I begrudgingly withhold]
This is, word for word (including gross misuse of semicolons), a letter I received just two months into my first job teaching at a Christian school, a job I had taken to be closer to my parents when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and my mom had to be put in a care home. I didn’t have a teaching credential but managed to talk myself into the position by waving my newly minted Master’s Degree in Forestry and having my dying father’s best friend Craig, (who happened to be the president of the Spokane Valley School Board) write me an irresistible letter of recommendation. Which is why Craig was the first person I called after school the day I received this letter. I was not expecting, nor appreciative, of his response on the other end: howling laughter.
“Craig! This is not funny!” I scolded.
“Well, it’s kind of funny,” he paused. I was silent. “Ok, it’s not funny. I’m sorry. This must feel terrible for you.” I could practically hear him still grinning on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what the mother said to me when the principal called her to demand an apology: ‘I’m sorry it made you feel that way’—what kind of apology is that?!” I was furious, at her and at Craig for not taking this more seriously. My reputation was crumbling.
“Well, were they?” Craig asked.
“Were they what?” I snapped.
“Hickeys! Did you show up to class with hickeys?”
“NO! I didn’t! Gross! Are hickeys even a thing anymore?”
Craig laughed again, “Well, I’ve never had one.”
“The only hickey I’ve ever had was when I was like 6 and sucked on my arm during church because I was bored.”
“So why did she think you had hickeys? Was she even in your classroom?”
“No! That’s the thing. This whole account is based on the testimony of a 12-year-old,” I fumed, “and how did that 12-year old know what a hickey looks like? Did the mom think to ask that?”
“Yeah. Good point.” Craig tried to sound like he was taking this seriously. “So, what are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to show up with a real hickey. Or a condom stuck to my shoe. That would get me fired. But it might be worth it.”
This was not the only time during my teaching tenure that my commitment to righteous faith had been called into question. Being a science teacher in a conservative Christian school is really a delicate art, a dance. The textbook chapters on evolution were crossed out in the teaching manual I had inherited. I once had the audacity to suggest there were scientists that believed that Noah’s ark was not a scientific account. I didn’t even say I was one of them (I am), but it was enough to create quite a ripple through the parent pool. Then when I got married and chose not to change my name (because I had recently become the last living member of my family), I was pegged a feminist (yes!), and reading John Muir quotes for inspiration at the beginning of the day made me a communist. Was John Muir a communist? News to me. I got phone calls on my home number from a father who wanted to drill me on whether I believed in 7-day creation and demanded to know how I could call myself a Bible-believing Christian if I didn’t believe that every single species on the planet sprang into being in 7 literal days. I corrected him, and said technically it was only 6 days, because God rested on the seventh. He hung up on me.
I knew this job was not the best fit for me, theologically speaking. I got the job because I knew all of the ‘right’ answers, even though I was finding myself asking very different questions. But I was here, gainfully employed, and I was close to my parents, and that’s what really mattered to me at this moment. And I really did love teaching. Because I love science, and I love kids. And there were a handful of redeeming parents who appreciated my more scientific approach to science. They may even be democrats.
One of the best things about teaching at the Christian school was the staff. They became an incredible community of support during my parents’ decline and eventual deaths. I would find notes in my staff mailbox with gift cards for gas to cover all the trips I was making back and forth across the Canadian border to see my parents. And I would come back from such trips to find my unruly lawn mowed and the hedges trimmed. Days after my dad’s funeral, one teacher friend drove across the border and showed up at my mom’s care home with coffee and pastries, just because she knew there were a lot of people hanging around and wanted to do something useful. These are people that know how to show up. To this day, they still show up for me.
Meeting my husband, Kevin, was also a result of my affiliation with the Christian school. I first met Kevin’s brother Tim, as he was helping me start a garden at the school (or vice versa). Tim worked for a farmer whose wife taught home-ec at the school and had 3 boys who attended the school. One of the boys, Mark, was in several of my classes over my 3-year teaching career. At one point, in the middle of class, I heard a cell phone ringing from the back of the room. As the back row was Mark’s usual place to sit, and he was a teensy bit prone to distraction, I was not surprised to walk back and find his phone ringing. School policy was that any phone discovered at school was turned into the office for parent pick up.
“Hand it over, Mark,” I put my hand out.
“Aww, Miss Lang,” he began his sweet talk. “I’ll just turn it off and we can forget this ever happened.”
“Nice try. Hand it over.”
He pulled it out of his backpack and looked at the front screen of the flip phone. “Oh! It’s Tim!”
“Tim, like Tim Terpstra, Tim?” I said. “Let me answer that.” I grabbed the phone and flipped it open.
“Hi Tim,” I said flatly into the receiver to my brother-in-law. “Mark can’t come to the phone now because we are in the middle of class.”
“Oh—uh, sorry! I didn’t know Mark had this phone. It’s his dad’s number.”
Mark looked at me and shrugged.
Mark was also in the class where I resorted to bribery to get the kids to do their pre-algebra homework during class-time (instead of goofing around and having to do it at home later). I told them that if they all finished their assigned problems with 5 minutes to spare, I would tell them the story of the worst thing I had ever done.
The motivation this generated was unprecedented. Apparently, word had gotten around about the scandalous hickeys and they knew there was more dirt where that came from. I had never seen a more focused group. They kept shushing each other so they could maintain concentration. Unknowns had never been more passionately solved for.
When the last pencil was down, the students sat in rapt attention. I went to the front of the room and perched on my stool next to the overhead projector. I proceeded to tell them the story of my home-ec class in the 7thgrade, when I decided my squeaky-clean pastor’s daughter image needed some tarnishing. Jason and Brian were my class partners the day we made sugar cookies. I wish I could blame them for inspiring this brief lapse in judgement. I somehow got the idea that it would be really deviously funny to put a bunch of salt into the sugar to ruin everyone else’s recipes. I didn’t really think through the problem that would arise when our cookies were the only batch that tasted as they should.
“I still remember the tongue lashing I got from Mrs. Snider about ‘sabotaging her sugar,’” I recalled to the class.
They all stared back at me, waiting for the punchline.
“That’s it?” Derrick yelled from the back. “Miss Lang, that’s the lamest story I’ve ever heard!”
“Well, I didn’t even tell you the worst part!” I said, drawing out their torture. “She gave me a B+ in the class! Can you believe it!? A B+! And, I had to buy extra sugar to replace the stuff I ruined! WITH MY OWN MONEY!”
I could practically hear the eyerolling. What they couldn’t believe is that I had succeeded in tricking them into doing their homework. The bell rang and they packed up their things, groaning and laughing as they left.
The truth is, I have always had an incredibly strong, God-fearing inclination to do what is expected of me, the ‘right’ thing, what is best for the greater good. Are goodie-goodies born or made? And, importantly, can we be cured?
I saved that letter for over a decade. Here is the response I composed in my head but would never send. So, I will publish it here, for all the world to see.
Dear [a concerned parent whose name I begrudgingly withhold],
I am so very sorry to hear that my severe allergy to wool caused such alarm to break out amongst the impressionable students in my classroom! Because I am a poorly paid, first year, private school teacher, I have to move from classroom to classroom to teach one of the 6 different subjects I have to prep for every. single. night. Although I am allergic to wool, I am a fashion-conscious sentimental sap and wear a hand-knitted wool scarf when I walk outside across school campus. Because there are a mere 4 minutes between classes, sometimes I run, particularly if I am detained by students requesting academic help or prayer (both of which I am very happy to offer) which means sometimes I arrive out of breath and slightly red in the face (and apparently, neck, no doubt further exacerbated by previously discussed allergy). I do hope you assured these delicate flowers (for the benefit of my reputation) that you were certain there was some other explanation for the marks on my neck. Perhaps I was in a climbing accident and the rope rubbed my neck; perhaps I was in an abusive relationship and exposing my hickeys was a cry for help, not a sign of my ‘sexual’ indiscretions (also, could you provide a list of ‘sexual relations’ I am to avoid?). I’m sure you asked the students what the hickeys looked like. But then again, how would those pure little souls know? Easy mistake to make.
Perhaps you were far too busy policing the rest of the Christian world to actually visit my classroom in person to evaluate the evidence for yourself. I might caution you that young girls can be very susceptible to the vices of gossip and slander. I’d hate to set an example of jumping to conclusions based on false testimony or talking behind someone else’s back.
Nicki (only coincidentally rhymes with “hickey”)
P.S. You know my parents are both terminal, right? Just checking. Thanks for your encouragement!
First, I’d like to express deep gratitude to all of you who read my first trio of blog posts. I was so honored to receive so many comments and messages. Already, I feel less alone in this journey, and was reminded of the vast community that exists out there that I can rely on. Thank you.
Secondly, I got the feeling that a few of you are worried about my soul. So, let’s talk about that. Because, honestly, that’s been on my mind, too.
It has never been a secret that I am a Christian. In a family like mine, how could I not be? From an early age, I was committed to a very biblical centered faith without wavering and was willing to go to the nth degree to defend it (I owe a few apologies because of that). The Bible gave me a safe place to be, a comfort in time of need, a rule book to follow.
And so, I grew up repeating all of the ‘right’ answers, making these answers the backbone of my being. I knew who was going to heaven or hell and why, and that I was personally responsible either way. There was a very ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. At the tender age of seven, I recall having a very serious conversation with my Methodist friend Patricia in our second grade classroom.
“Sarah goes to the Catholic Church, doesn’t she?” Patricia whispered, out of earshot from Sarah.
“Yeah, they don’t believe like we do,” I whispered back with deep sorrow. We shook our heads and pursed our lips.
The Baptists were going to heaven for sure (because we had accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior). Probably the Methodists and Nazarenes (if they had prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’). There were some non-denominational Bible-believing congregations that had most of it right and were probably going to get past the pearly gates. Lutherans and Catholics were in the same camp: probably going to hell (the Catholics for sure because of the whole worshipping Mary bit). We didn’t even talk about Presbyterians (too hard to spell). Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were certainly going to hell, and Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus were so far off the charts we talked about them in more of a scientific comparative sort of sense (also, there weren’t many where I lived in North Dakota). We had a whole Sunday school class on satanic signs and how to avoid them. I was not allowed to wear things with a peace symbol on it because it represented a broken cross. The ‘New Age Movement’ seemed to be especially dangerous, as it was so ‘spiritual’ in nature. Clear lines were drawn between the sacred and the secular. We needed to steer clear of anyone and anything that might make us stray from the Truth. I once wished my dad “Happy Solstice!” and he replied, “I don’t believe in that.”
There was such comfort in knowing all of the answers. Even knowing that we could expect to be persecuted for knowing all of the answers brought security. Our Truth was foolishness to those who were perishing. We had God totally figured out. What was our purpose in life and in death? To worship God and glorify him forever. When something bad happened, it meant God was testing us, or that it was to work out for eventual good. When we didn’t get what we wanted, it was because we hadn’t prayed enough, or that our will was not aligned with God’s will and we needed to pray for that. When someone was sick, or dying, it was to show God’s power in healing or that their service to God was over and they were ready to go to heaven. And we would find all the comfort we needed in knowing that they were in heaven, the place where we spend eternity praising God around His throne. These things were not to be questioned, and if they were, we would pray for your soul to repent of your doubt.
When my parents died, and I was faced with real hard truths about life and death, everything shifted. Saying I believed in heaven and hell took on a whole new meaning when the most important people who had taught me about those very things were on the other side. I couldn’t grasp it. I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t access the joy and peace that I was supposed to feel knowing they were there. The real pain of being human and the reality of human bodies having a shelf life was unbearable. My family had received their ‘heavenly reward’ but I was left behind to make sense of the pieces.
I grappled endlessly with a God whose purpose for us was to tell others about Him so that they could go on to eternal life. It sounded like a pyramid scheme. That was the purpose of an almighty, all-knowing, all loving and gracious God? To be worshipped? To be put on a throne? And because we would actually never measure up, that he had to become a man (the Son, Jesus) to die on our behalf so that we could live eternally? This was just not making sense for me. I would lie awake in bed for hours trying to make this make sense, but in the end, I would spiral into fear and panic, feeling like I had been brainwashed, that this was all a hoax that had been created to control people. All of the unconditional love I thought I had been feeling from God, died when my parents died. I was alone in the world and felt like there was no one who could understand my plight. I became afraid to be alive if being alive just meant following all of the rules until you died. And I was afraid to die, because I was unconvinced that there was anything after. No amount of praying, by myself or others on my behalf, seemed to be able to pull me from the mire. I needed new answers. I needed God to be bigger.
I continued to go through the motions of church, pretending that I believed for the sake of my children, but living with so much fear and dread every day. I kept repeating pat answers to my kids about life and death, heaven and hell, not knowing what else to say. “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” felt like answers that would leave them feeling as afraid as I was.
And then it finally hit me: I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know, and that’s what faith is actually all about. When I finally cracked open to the possibility that we as Christians and as humans don’t actually know everything, I realized the true meaning of faith. I was trapped in a delusion that there was an answer in the Bible for everything. I had been convinced that being a Christian robot slave to heavy-handed God was going to provide my best results for existence.
I needed more, and I sensed there was more. But I had so many voices from my past warning me to beware of false teachers, the subtle evils of the world, the half-truths and near truths and watered-down truths. I didn’t know where to begin. In my bones, I knew I would always believe in God. That was the one thing I was totally sure about. But I wasn’t totally sure that this was the God of the Bible. And I had to be willing to let that go for a minute to really continue on this journey.
Another thing that I had to let go of was the feeling that God needed me in order to do God’s work. I knew that God was big enough to accomplish his goals without my help. I took a step back and looked at the whole of humanity and suddenly felt so small. I put myself in place with the human race, one small human having one of billions of human experiences, no two exactly alike. I thought back to early humans and what their faith journeys would have looked like. They didn’t have the Bible or the accounts of Jesus coming to be human. How did they find God?
I began to sink into this more. What was God’s true purpose for humanity? The Jesus factor is a piece that continues to bring me back to the Christian faith. The logical side of me likes that Jesus is actually a historically documented figure. I feel like I have the heart of a mystic, and the brain of a scientist. Ok, so here was a starting point for my logic loving brain. So, I started to think about Jesus. I had “asked him into my heart” officially when I was 5, and ‘believed’ in him from the moment my parents told me the stories. So, where did that leave me?
I decided I needed an outside opinion. I had met a woman, Deb, who was the teacher of a grief group I participated in, and a pastor who does spiritual direction. I booked an appointment to see her, and at one point she asked me, “What do you say when you pray to Jesus?”.
I was stunned to hear my own answer, “I’ve never prayed to Jesus.” I pray ‘in Jesus’ name’, I pray to God, I summon the Holy Spirit, but I had never had a conversation with Jesus.
“Ok, well, there’s your homework,” Deb said. “I want you to talk to Jesus. And make time to listen, too.”
Homework, good. I knew how to do homework.
I thought a lot about this in the days that followed. Jesus had been the thing that kept bringing me back to faith. When I would start to doubt all of the rules and theology that had been passed down for countless generations, I would remind myself of the life of Jesus. That he came to earth to teach us the way to live and to ease our fears of death. He healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead. He was a friend to the outcast, a prophet to the lost and a rebel against mainstream Jewish thought. He was killed by those he came to help, but then, amazingly, three days later he came back to life. The scientist in me has trouble with that last part, but the mystic in me desperately wants to believe it.
But what if there was more? What if actually knowing Jesus was a totally different thing? All my life I have said I believe in Jesus. “Even the demons believe and tremble,” says the Bible, somewhere. Was just believing in Jesus what it was all about? Those seemed to be the magic words that got you into heaven. There had to be more. God had to be more creative than that.
A couple of weeks went by, and the challenge to talk to Jesus kept echoing in my head. It’s amazing how easy it is to avoid making time to just sit and listen. Maybe there was part of me that was afraid I wouldn’t hear anything, or even worse: that I would hear something and wouldn’t like what I heard. That it would be the same old thing: “try harder, do better, love more”.
On this particular morning, I woke hardly having slept the night before. The wind and rain sounded like artillery fire against our south facing window. The precious minutes of sleep I did have were courtesy of the pillow over my head. But I had a really important job to do on this day: I was going to Ikea.
There was a time in life when 2 hours in the car sounded like torture. But at this point, this point when I was the manager of a busy household and a small creative business, it was near bliss. I could listen to whatever music I want, or not. I could listen to a podcast, I could listen to the news. Or just be quiet, the hum of the road my companion.
I started the trip with Christmas music (‘twas the season), got a little bored. Turned on a podcast cued up on my phone that I had turned off the day before. Nope, still annoying. Nothing worse than people pretending to be wise. So, I settled on the quiet.
Then my mind drifted to that last conversation I had with Deb. I could almost hear Jesus saying, “How about now?”
I wasn’t ready to be alone in my head. I fiddled with my phone to get to a familiar playlist. Singing would feel good on my lungs. But I couldn’t get it to play. An unfamiliar screen came up on our car’s info center: “Phone call in progress”.
What did that mean? I was not on the phone. Had it not hung up from my last call? I hadn’t even made a call that day. I hit the phone app to see if I had inadvertently called someone, but there was no one there. I was feeling a little panicky. Even the annoying podcast would be better than the awkwardness of listening to the thoughts in my own head. But it was no use. My phone was locked.
“Ok. You win, Jesus,” I said out loud. “Talk to me.”
And as if I was talking back to myself, I felt a voice in my head say, “No, you talk. I want YOU just to talk to me.”
“You want me to just talk to you. Like, out loud. Like a crazy person. Ok, yeah. I can actually do that. I will talk out loud,” and suddenly, I was laughing. I was laughing out loud and in my head, wait, or was that Jesus laughing in my head?
“Ok, well, I’m just going to go with this, Jesus. I’m just going to talk out loud and give you some time to talk back to me.” I paused. It was like the pause in any conversation with someone you don’t know very well when you evaluate if it be more awkward to have silence or to fill the space with inane words.
I had been reading some parables lately. That would give us some common ground for discussion. “So, I read the parable about the pearl of great price. You know, the one where the merchant finds a pearl that is so beautiful beyond anything he had ever seen, that he sells everything he owns to buy the pearl.”
“Yep. I know that one.”
“So, really? Everything we own? Is it possible that YOU, that this spiritual life could be so great that we just wouldn’t want anything else? I mean, it just feels impossible to me. I want to want it that badly, but it’s just really hard to imagine.”
“Yep. And Yep.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d say that. But what’s the secret? How can I tap into that?”
I felt like the answer to this question would make or break this whole conversation, that if some kind of new inspiration came, that I might believe that I wasn’t, indeed, just talking to myself.
“You need to connect to the Source.”
“The source, you mean God?”
“Yes, but not the God you’re used to.”
I heard what he was saying. I was having all kinds of struggles trying to figure out what I really believed about God, who he or SHE is, if he/she was the great judge or the great love or both and everything and nothing (and then my mind starts to spin…).
“You need to connect to the land. You are part of creation and you need to find your place in creation and you will find the Source.”
Immediately, I flashed back to being on Lopez Island an early morning a few weeks previous. I had felt more peace and connection sitting on that rocky ledge, watching otters and seals play, then I had ever felt in a church building.
“Yeah, I get it. You’re right. There’s something about being outside in the world that makes me understand God.”
“It’s not just you.”
“Oh, you’re right! So much of the destruction of the Earth is happening because people aren’t connected to the things that are giving their bodies life. They live in their heads, not their bodies. Ah, yes, this is me. This is my big disconnect. Wow, thanks, Jesus.”
“Glad to help.”
“Ok, well, I really need to turn on the GPS pretty soon, so anything else you want to tell me before I’m completely distracted again?”
I felt him roll his eyes. Yes, Jesus rolled his eyes at me.
“It’s been really nice to be with you. I’m always here, just hanging around, so feel free to drop in anytime. But I know it might be awhile, so I want to tell you this one important thing: you can just be who you are.”
“Ha! That’s it? That’s the important thing?” I laughed.
But then it started to sink in. I had been trying so hard my whole life to win the approval of everyone around me. Including God. My life was about striving. I had never trusted that I had inside of me what it took to be a whole and happy person. My therapist had just told me the same thing: you are trying so hard to make everything right, to figure everything out. Perhaps everything was right as it was, and I just had to quit trying so hard make it better, and then it would somehow all make sense.
I pulled into the Ikea parking lot, and the urge to buy anything but the pearl of great price had suddenly dissipated.
I realized that if I believed that Jesus was, indeed, alive, then I needed to believe that he was an evolving, relational being. That he was not stuck in Bible times, but that he was current, and present, and could meet me where I was.
This blew my mind wide open. My view of the purpose of Jesus also started to shift. The idea of Jesus being a ‘sacrifice’ so that we could live just never rang true to me. I started to explore the notion that God actually became a human to showus how to be human. He actually said, ‘I have come to give life, and to give it more abundantly’. He didn’t say, ‘I’ve come to shackle you with the job of converting everyone else to serving me.’ He came to give us peace that being a human is a beautiful thing. He made the outcasts and marginalized feel seen, and loved and valued, he went to parties, he turned water into wine. He had close friendships with people. And Pharisees watched with disdain while he broke all the rules.
I have begun to see Jesus as a rebel, a revolutionary, a radical. He loved people in unexpected ways. And he met them where they were at. He did not demand that they change their ways. But people’s ways were changed by his love.
I look back on my upbringing, and how I was taught that the most important thing about being a Christian was telling other people about Jesus. And I did, dutifully, for a long time. Until I realized that I was not a true evangelist. I was a false teacher. I was making claims I had no right to make. Jesus had not changed my life. The rules of the church had governed my life. I didn’t even know Jesus. I knew every answer there was to know about the Jesus of the Bible, but I didn’t know him personally. I believed in him, but I didn’t know how to have a relationship with him. I didn’t even know what that would look like.
So, I feel like I am in a new phase of seeking God, Christ, and church in really new and different ways. I am looking for cues from the mystics and the old testament for how to seek God. I feel like the modern Christian church has put God in an ill-fitting box– a very male, domineering, punishment-oriented box. I want to seek a God who is gracious and loving, a nurturing mother, a father who disciplines in love, a God who sees me and wants me to be who he/she created me to be. I am searching for Christ in the world, because I believe that is where the essence of Christ dwells—among us and within us. And I am looking at church as a place of community. Where messy humans gather to try to make sense of their messes, helping one another along. To pretend that any of us have it all figured out is a joke and only builds walls that divide community.
As far as how the Bible fits into all of this, I love the Bible. The stories about Jesus are, by far, my favorite parts. And the Psalms. The rest of it, I take with a grain of salt (because salt is biblical). The Bible is an account of one group of human’s pursuit of God. It was written by men who were devoted to faith in the creator God. Many were stories passed down for generations, used to help scores of humans try to make sense of existence. The biblical canon was assembled by humans (men, to be specific), with much prayer and guidance by the Holy Spirit, but these were still just people. I’m so curious why the church basically doesn’t ever talk about any of the writing that was left out of the canon. Why is there special magic in the books that were chosen? As it is, there are certainly a number of verses that are elevated in ‘importance’ in modern churches, and others we brush to the side.
I am also very interested in the concept of the Word, as in “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1). To me the Word of God is alive, creative, expressive. I love to think of the Bible as a record of human experiences of connecting with God. But why should that stop? Why should ancient experiences be any more meaningful or sacred than our own? I was taught more about how others experienced God, and less about how to actually do that on my own.
So where does that leave me? Well, mostly: I don’t know. But, I’m feeling better and better about not knowing. I’m choosing to embrace the mystery. I can sleep at night (mostly). The solid truth is that we don’t know, and that’s part of the beauty of it all. I leave you with the words of Mary Oliver—(is it too late to include her in the biblical canon?)
Well, I went. I couldn’t stay away. When Kevin called and asked if he and the boys could stay longer at family camp to watch a taped replay of the women’s World Cup Soccer Final instead of coming home to watch it with me, I swallowed hard, told him that was fine, and then immediately started trying to figure out how I could get there to be with them. Warm Beach Camp is less than an hour from Bellingham, so if I found a car and left right after church, I could make it for the delayed kick-off. Also, surprises are so great.
Because I have the best neighborhood on the planet, I knew that SOMEONE would be willing to let me borrow a car. “You know where to find the key,” Chris said when I asked (which is true, it’s in the gas flap in case anyone else needs to borrow a car). This is the neighbor from whose table our dog, Lupine, had eaten 14 chicken thighs just before a big dinner party last summer. If you haven’t heard that story: stay tuned.
As I got onto the highway, I started picturing my arrival at camp. Would my in-laws be upset that I hadn’t come out sooner? Would they be happy to see me? Would I get the cold shoulder? Should I just turn around and go home and watch the game with the dogs? There was heavy traffic through Mount Vernon, for no apparent reason, and I was starting to worry that I was going to miss the game entirely. But it cleared and I was there in just under and hour. I turned down the gravel road to the camp, parked the car and took a deep breath. I was happy to be there.
I headed for the chapel where they were showing the game. I got to the doorway, and the very first person I saw was my Mother-in law, Cheryl. She smiled kindly, like she does at everyone, and then did a double take and pulled me into a big hug. She told me the boys were mini-golfing with their grandpa, and Kevin was up in the front row by his brother watching the game. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she said.
I passed Kevin’s sister, Sara, and her husband Dave as I walked to the front, getting big hugs from both of them. Both of my 3-year-old nieces were on stage in the front wearing baby carriers and their dolls, performing a dance to their very ‘attentive’ audience. I snuck in and sat down slyly next to Kevin and put my hand on his knee. He turned his gaze from the game in confusion, and when he realized it was me (and not some Dutch creeper putting their hand on his knee) he smiled big and gave me a hug.
“I couldn’t stay away!” I said.
“The boys will be so excited to see you,” Kevin said.
I sighed and settled in against his ribs, his arm around me. I wasn’t sorry that I had missed most of the weekend, but I was happy I had decided to make the trip for the last day. There was something poignant in the fact that the US was playing the Dutch team. It was a win-win game for most people in the room. We had watched other games in the tournament, and I found it interesting how so many different national teams look so ethnically distinct. The Swedes were all blonde, for instance. The French just look, well: French. But that’s not the case with the US team. Or the US crowd. Americans don’t really have a ‘look’. We are a melting pot. But this amazing, powerful team of US women (I mean, total bad-asses, can I get an ‘amen’?) comes together on the field and they play their game. They are a team. They have chosen to be a team. And they do it with such grace.
I looked at those sweet little girls and their baby dolls up on the stage, and I thought, “I want to be on your team.” They call me ‘Auntie Nicki’ just like they would if I was blood. And it’s only me who is missing out if I choose not to love them like they are my kin. I have spent so much time lamenting what I don’t have, that I have missed the beauty of what I have. I’ve allowed the sadness of what I have lost completely overshadow what I have gained.
As far as in-laws go, I pretty much hit the jackpot. Kevin has lovely, kind, generous parents and 3 really great siblings (two with amazing Dutch spouses) who I would want to be friends with even if I wasn’t married to their brother. But, because they are not MY family, there has always been a bubble of protection around my heart keeping them at arm’s length. There is a certain confidence that you have, being part of a family, and I lost that when my family died. You are no longer known in the same way. Your rear guard has been knocked out. Kevin’s family gathers often and repeats the same wonderful stories about one another, time after time. But I have no one to tell my stories, so I feel that loss, and I build another wall.
At half-time, I walked over to the mini-golf course to find the boys. Along the way, I passed a few faces I recognized from years past. They actually said hello like they knew who I was. Why was a so surprised? I had deemed myself a stranger here, a German wandering in the land of the Dutch, but they didn’t know that. Hell, I could probably pass for being Dutch if I really tried. Several times while she was still alive, Kevin’s Grandma Terpstra asked me, “Now, are you Dutch?”. “Nope, Grandma T, I’m still not Dutch.” We had a different history. But then it hit me: history starts NOW. History is in the making. We are living history. Later that day, one of Kevin’s friends said within ear shot of me, “Hey, I saw that your wife showed up.” And I smiled, feeling like I had been recognized, and like I maybe even belonged.
After a round of mini golf with my oldest son, Jude, in which he beat me soundly (I didn’t even have to go easy on him), my younger son, Leo, wanted to go to the pool to show me his recently perfected cannon ball. I was packing a whole weekend of missed opportunities into a few hours, so, of course, I went. The pool was jammed with tiny swimmers and a handful of adults. I vaguely recognized a couple of faces, but not enough to say more than a friendly hello. Leo dunked and splashed and flailed and I watched dutifully because I have intense fears about my children and water. Then I saw her. I saw a dear, sweet, young woman, maybe just twenty years old now, whose family I knew when I was teaching school more than a decade ago. And my throat closed. Her young, beautiful, kind, boisterous, loving mother had recently died of a terrible cancer. I had thought I would probably see at least part of this family if I made the trip. I thought maybe I could avoid it if I really tried, but there she was, inches away from me in the pool. I hadn’t seen any of the family since the death. I wanted to go to the funeral but used the excuse that I didn’t really know her that well. Really, I was afraid of my own emotions. And I was afraid of them again in this moment. My mind raced, thinking of the ‘best’ thing to say. We were in a pool playing with kids, so it really didn’t feel like the place to go deep. (Although, if you’re going to cry in public, a pool is probably one of best places.) She was within arm’s reach with her back to me, so I reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hi!” I said, possibly with more enthusiasm than I intended.
“Oh, hi!” she said, in a way that made me feel like she had noticed me already and was waiting for me to say hello.
My instinct was to next say, ‘How are you?’ but I managed to stop myself. “It’s really good to see you,” I managed, still choking on a huge ball of sadness.
She smiled, a small boy in her arms. “Have you seen my brother’s yet?” she asked.
“No, I actually just got here. Is this one of Michael’s little guys?”
“No, it’s my cousin.” She had so much family all around her. “But the rest of them are here, too.”
“I’ll look for them. Tell them hello from me.” I said.
The little boy squirmed and swam out of her arms. “I’d better go after him.”
“Yep. Bye!” I turned back to Leo, unwinding the long list of things I really wanted to say to her. I was so, so sorry to hear about your mom. It is impossibly hard to watch your parent die. You are so lucky to have your family around you. Talk to them. Or call me and talk to me. Talk about your mom as much as you can stand it. And most importantly: You are going to be okay.
We came back from the pool, and everyone was just hanging out, waiting for dinner time. I helped Kevin pack the car to go home and then wandered next door to the neighboring cabin where my in-laws were staying. My sweet little niece, Tess, was rolling around on the bed next to Kevin’s mom and sister, Sara. I sat down on the bed and Tess rolled in my direction. I gave her chubby belly a little tickle, and she snuggled even closer, her blond hair looking just like pictures of my sister as a child. “White as milk,” my grandpa would say. She was holding a giant punching bag balloon that was deflated. I took it out of her hand and pretended to swallow it and then cough it up again. She scrunched up her nose and giggled hysterically, “Do it again!” she squealed. So, I indulged her, and she laughed and laughed, and I would tickle her in between. “Again, again!” she said, giggling. I was the funniest person in the planet at that moment. I was loving it. I loved the ease of being a safe, and loving person for this little peanut. And to think I could have missed it by letting my resentment get in the way.
Sara is an oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. I told her that I had just gotten Jeni’s medical record and that she might find it interesting to read to compare to the treatment patients are getting 25 years later.
“Who knows, you might even recognize some of the names on the reports,” I said.
“Whenever a veteran nurse is on my floor who has had transplant kids, I always ask if they remember a ‘Jeni Lang’,” Sara said.
I was floored. I wanted to bawl. Sara was trying to connect to my sister, and I had no idea. And I would have had no idea if I hadn’t been willing to say these things out loud.
When Kevin asked me to marry him, he gave me a beautiful necklace with a little gold plate inscribed with this Goethe* quote: Nothing is worth more than this day. Kind of a funny sentiment to build on going into a marriage, but, whatever, I said ‘yes’ anyway. I proceeded to lose the necklace a couple of years after we were married, and was devasted, but never forgot the quote. In the years since, I’ve looked for a replica to replace it, without success. This year for my birthday, Kevin gave me a new necklace, bearing the same quote. I think he had it made by someone on Etsy. “Nothing is worth more than this day.” I believe it more now than I ever have. In fact: Nothing is worth more than this moment. Live this moment, friends. Good or bad. Because it’s all we’ve got.
Welcome to Lang Family Camp. We went to family camp once, remember? Green Bay Bible Camp. I remember very little other than we had really nice cabin mates, and that there was a boy named David in our kids group who told us dirty jokes. They were so dirty we didn’t even know what they meant.
Recently, your friend Susan sent me a message with a picture of your grave on Memorial Day. She takes her sweet family up there every year with flowers. I was so touched and told her I was glad she still remembered you. She proceeded to tell me that she did more than just remember you, but that she went up there often just to talk to you. At important moments in her life—good or bad—she would go up and chat with you. I was shocked. I was a little mind-blown. And most of all, I felt envious. You were still so alive to her. Maybe I can blame that on her living closer to your grave, or that she was a better friend to you in life than I had been. But it made me want to bring you back into my life.
How do I do that? 26 years is a long time to go without speaking. So, here we are. At my kitchen table. I have a pile of old letters that our dear friend Jodi from South Dakota sent me that she saved all these years that you and I had written to her when we were all kids. These are very embarrassing and beautiful to read, containing a detailed account of all of the crushes we had in middle school and how we needed to convert them, and also what we bought on our most recent shopping trip. I was also just granted access to your medical file. I wrote to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance a few weeks ago to see if I could get it. After a little bit of run around, tracking down death certificates, power of attorney statements and all that, they finally believed that I had a legal right to it (“How is it possible that your whole family died?” they wondered. Yep, I know, but it’s true). I printed it off last week and flipped through it, not knowing really what I expected to gain from reading over all of the charts and medical language. But tonight, I looked at every page (well, I skipped over some of the blood count reports. You had a lot of blood count reports.). And there it all was. A detailed account of people desperately working to save your life.
“16-year old Caucasian girl with acute lymphoblastic leukemia currently in third remission… she was entirely well until April 1984, when, at the age of 8, she developed bony pain in her right leg… She was treated in Fargo, North Dakota and achieved a complete remission by day 14 and remained in remission for 5 years, until May 1989. At the point, she developed low back pain and was treated in Minneapolis, Minnesota… She and her family then moved to Spokane and she did well until September 1992, when she developed her second bone marrow relapse…”
And the rest is history, so they say. Most of the reading was pretty scientific. I guess I wanted something more like bedside notes from your nurses, “Jeni prefers luke-warm apple juice to chilled orange juice.” Or like a guest book of everyone who visited you, or all of the names of your stuffed animals. The only really personal information I found was this: “Problem #17- Emotional [this particular report had a large number of ‘problems’. Usually they were less than 10 and didn’t get personal.] The patient’s coping skills are poor, and the patient has a tendency towards whining… Jennifer [they spelled your name wrong almost every time] likes to know what treatment is planned and required sedation for invasive procedures. Despite a lack of maturity [you were 15!], Jenny is very courteous and cooperative and provides excellent self-care…Her father is the main care provider as her mother is quite debilitated from multiple sclerosis.”
Oh, Jeni. I laughed hysterically until I was sobbing. I just wanted to reach across space and time and shake them. Shake them hard, and say, “She was a CHILD! A child in plastic bubble solitary confinement, pumped full of poison, bleeding inside, sores in her mouth, FOR THE THIRD TIME!” They had the audacity to say you were prone to whining, and how dare you want to know what treatment is planned or want SEDATION for INVASIVE PROCEDURES? Oh, and by the way, she also has a sick mom. “Lack of maturity”? What did they expect?
All of the paperwork was also there for tracking down your bone marrow donor. I wasn’t a match, we actually aren’t even the same blood type. They found an unrelated donor. She was listed in the files only as a number. I remembered her name (which they couldn’t legally give us until after you had died) and looked her up on Facebook. There she was: still alive. She’s still alive. There’s a picture on her page with 4 generations of women from her family. I thought about sending her a friend request, explaining who I was, wondering if she remembered our family. But I don’t know what purpose it would serve.
There are just pages and pages of lists of medications and tests and scans and pokes and prods and counts and measurements and speculations and diagnoses. Shit, Jeni, I’d be whiny, too.
I’m so sorry that your life was this. That any normalcy disappeared the second you had that pain in your leg. The other personal note I found among all of the data was in the notes from a consultation before your transplant: “The patient and her father did not want us to go into great detail as far as the probability and percentages of complications and survival are concerned…” We were not prepared for you to die. We didn’t want to know. We couldn’t believe the odds. This treatment was our only hope.
And it didn’t work. And we lost you.
As I sit here conjuring your presence, the thing I miss most (and can sense ever so slightly with my imagination) is the feeling that you understand me. Of all the people I’ve known in my life, you are the only one who can even come close. You were there from my beginning. I looked up to you from the moment I could look up. You sat through all of the same church services I had to sit through. You were the one who pleaded with dad not to spank me because I didn’t really mean to do whatever I did (later you probably pleaded with dad to spank me for something I didn’t actually do.). We were so sad together when our dog, Popcorn, died. We made up dance routines to Sandi Patti songs on the merry-go-round. We watched our mom get sicker, and we couldn’t do anything about it. I wish I would have treasured that kinship when I had it. I wish I would have understood that no matter how complicated our relationship was, the significance and the closeness could never be replicated.
And so now, I am missing you, for all of those days that I just tried to forget that I loved you. I did. I loved you. And I love you still. Because that’s what sisters do. Twenty-six years is a lot of time to make up. But I’m still alive, and I want you to be alive in me.
I love you, Jen. I hope there’s another side to this life, and I hope you are whole and happy there. If there is, I’ll see you later.