Monday, February 29, 2016

Questions with out Answers

I know last week I wrote about this grief that lingers. Tomorrow is the day I said I would eat dessert first in honor of my late sister in law's birthday. Heck I might even just eat dessert for dinner, period, she totally would have done that. Something that I have noticed is that as my grief for one person lost is amplified, I will miss the rest more as well. As of late my dad has been on my mind, likely due to a less than pleasant conversation last week. Which left me like a venomous beast ready to pounce and destroy. Today in the mail arrived a white envelope I wasn't expecting, my uncle sent some pictures from when we were kids and when my dad was racing go karts.
My dad (24)  and his racing buddies.

Let me just say I think I found the original hipsters right here, look at those beards, the hair, the flannel, although the jeans probably aren't tight enough. OK not really pretty sure calling them hipsters would be a mortal offense, I mean look at them I wouldn't want to mess with them, move over Outsiders!  I fell instantly in love with this picture even though I only remember two of the people in it. It was taken long before my arrival on the scene. I walked over to my daughter and said, "This one is your pop (choke back tears) pop pop (voice crack) who is in heaven." "Was he at a car racing contest?" I told her all about her pop pop and his car racing and his motor cycle racing. She went on playing and I walked back into the kitchen.

I flipped through the other pictures a few with him in them but I kept coming back to this one. The way he is holding that helmet, he looks just like my little brother. That high forehead looks mighty familiar, I look at it every day in the mirror. And that don't mess with me face is like seeing myself, my brother, and my daughter all in one person... we all make that face. I wonder how much we would all be like him if he were here. I wonder what we would talk about.

Over the years I have wondered a lot about what life with my dad would have, could have, should have looked like. I have mused about him being there on my wedding day. I have imagined his relationship with my child. Today though I wondered something entirely different, I wondered if we would get along. When my dad got sick I was a wee little tot of just seven years old. He was my world, developmentally speaking he was still the perfect parent, the hero who I never became disillusioned with. He never became fully human and flawed for me as I developed. He remained for ever how I saw him when I was seven. Which logically I know at this point in adulthood isn't who he really was.

I have heard a lot about him from family and his friends. As I have gotten older I sometimes wonder how we would have gotten along. I get the sense that we may have had different ideas about many things. I can't really know, ever, because people evolve, we only remember what we want about people, and so forth. I know for sure he loved me, I know that when people engage in dialogue with their kids sometimes they fight and sometimes minds are changed. I wonder how that would have been for us to navigate. For example I know for sure he was deeply wounded by the church of his childhood upon his return from Vietnam and he pretty much disliked organized religion. Clearly we have different ideas, but then again had he not gotten sick, had he not died, I may not have been called to do what I do. It is a hard thing to think of how I never really knew him to his core, just little pieces of him. But I look at this picture and I see how much of him lives on in us and I am so very grateful.

My dad, my sister in law, they are single losses among quite a few significant losses in my life time. I am not old enough to have this many losses of significance, in my peer groups most still have their parents, some still have grandparents. It is at times challenging to say the least, it is like being advanced in the worst way possible. I won't ever have the answers to the questions of my father's personality, it is an impossibility, and so as I live with the space he left in my heart, I make peace with the questions.

Today I observed an odd thing before this picture came but the picture made it more apparent. This part isn't new, I often will not allow myself to get close to people because the instinctive defense mechanism is, they will leave, they will die, and it will hurt less if you don't like them. The new part was driving home from a visit, thinking about how attached I have become to a few of the folks I visit and many in church. Many of them are between 80-95 years old. The sheer irony, I have allowed myself to love these people deeply in just a year's time and I will preside at some of their funerals, curbing my own grief until later in the day.

As painful as it is, I am grateful for the journey thus far, all of it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Grief Lingers

My guess is if you have ever grieved for anyone or anything you know that grief lingers like that friend who just won't leave. Sometimes it is more like a creeper that follows you around and says SURPRISE look I am here too. Here have some feelings you would rather not have and a most inconvenient time because I don't care what time is good for you.

This is what has happened to me this morning in a coffee shop. I work here one morning a week in an attempt to be out in the community. I always bring work with me for slow days. Today is slow, so I was clearing out my email inboxes. There it was from Amazon, Birthday Reminder for Donna. My eyes began to sting with a wave of grief. Donna should be celebrating her birthday the beginning of next week, she wouldn't even be 50 yet! My sister in law who left us suddenly and tragically in 2012, asked me just weeks before she died where we would live next, when we would have more babies for her to hold and spoil. She didn't make it to my seminary graduation or ordination, she didn't get to see me installed in our new home. I didn't get to hear her ask the way only she could, why on Earth would you move THERE? I don't get texts around Halloween asking about Christmas.

Donna was my sister in law for over 20 years because of how spread out we are, my brother got married when I was around 8 years old. She helped me and my friends survive our teenage years, planned my wedding with me, rejoiced at L's birth. She was a friend, a confidant, a second mom, and this awesome bonus person I got to have in my life. We didn't always see eye to eye but we loved each other deeply which is how it goes with family. We even lived together for nearly five years.

This morning being reminded that we should be celebrating her birthday in a few days broke my heart. I suppose I could go turn off that reminder and the one that will buzz on my phone in a few days. I mean it would make sense to avoid this lingering grief every year but I can't bring myself to do it. Next Tuesday in her honor we eat dessert first. Sometimes these little grief filled reminders, remind me not just of grief but of how fleeting life is, it reminds me I am alive. That I should be living this life and not merely existing because in a moment we can be gone.

Today I am grateful for all the time I got with this woman who loved me through the hardest times in my life. I am grateful for my aching heart because it means we loved well and made memories together and that she lives on in me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Vulnerability and Compassion

Being vulnerable is not a strong point for me. I could go on and on about this and the reasons it is my current truth but frankly I need to cut to the chase because otherwise I might chicken out on being vulnerable in a new way on this blog. On January 5 while driving at dawn, I hit black ice on the high way, my vehicle spun out and rolled multiple times into a ditch, landing on the driver's side door. I was trapped inside for a few minutes before figuring out how to get my head out of the metal that was bent around it and my knee that was stuck between the door and the steering wheel. I have a fracture in my neck and in a rib. In the realm of neck fractures mine is mild, I had a few weeks in a soft brace. I am sore from time to time but mostly I am back to normal. Or I was until Friday morning.

Friday life required me to head an hour East to our closest big city. A drive I have done multiple times since the accident with out incident. I don't love doing it but I do. Friday was different for two reasons: my daughter was with me and there was blowing snow and a slippery road warning. The morning of my accident it was the wind that blew me onto the ice. As soon as I pulled out on to the highway I felt the wind blowing the car a bit. I immediately tensed up, I was already nervous about ice in the 10 degree temps and now wind and it snowed the day before. It was going to be a long drive, I had given myself three hours to make the typically 1 hour drive. (I made it in an hour and a half.)

Mostly because of my profession but partly because of my nature as a human being, I spend a lot of time compartmentalizing my own junk. An example: recently when I went to a nursing facility I saw one of my congregants struggling to eat, in a very similar way to my own father near the end. The tears welled up almost instantly as I walked up. Do you know what I had to do in that moment? I had to remind myself this is not about me and my junk. I can deal with my junk later (I had an ugly cry). I greeted the person and helped get them situated and advocated for the proper utensil. I walk with people and it is my call to show them compassion. Sometimes that means I cannot react how I would like to, it means I have to in a split second assess the conversation, hear what is said, what isn't said, what might be said with out words, and think about where that person is coming from. Sometimes I would like slap a person but I have to make this sort of assessment in an instant and respond with grace, love, and compassion. (I fall short, don't worry.) This spills over into all of my life, friendships, random encounters with strangers. It is a part of who I am.

From time to time I find I am really frustrated when people do not return this sort of understanding, even though I know it isn't typical. Friday morning was one of these times. As I pulled on to the highway and my new car wobbled in the wind and the snow began to blow I drove painfully slow. I am talking that annoying car that does 20 mph under the speed limit, which is 80 here. I am pretty sure every car I encountered was passing me, some getting blown toward me. The semi trucks were the worst because of how the wind effects them. Now listen I don't expect everyone to stay behind me... I just found myself wanting to scream, I was you, the person passing the slow cars five weeks ago, you don't know what happened. Car after car passed me. I had both hands on the wheel, squeezing so tight I had to stop at the half way point to rub my hands, they were hurting from my death grip. All the while trying to play it cool as to not freak out my kid.

Here is what I am asking you, the next time you fly past that slow moving car and get all frustrated think about who might be driving that car and what they may have faced recently. Maybe it is an older woman who never really drove but was recently widowed whose life has been turned upside down and she is trying to cope and find her new normal. Or maybe it is someone who got the worst phone call of their lives and they are in a daze as they try to drive to their loved ones.  Maybe they are just a jerk hell bent on ruining your day.

Or they could be me. A woman who is doing something really hard and really brave albeit slowly. I drove my hands clenched, my jaw set, my heart racing, all while trying to keep a calm demeanor for the sake of my child. As I got with in 20 miles of the scene of my accident it was almost impossible for me to keep driving. Maybe that jerk you are passing, has hands that ache from the gripping the steering wheel so tight because a few weeks ago she was stuck in a ditch. Maybe she is quietly sobbing as the snow blows across the road and feels her vehicle wiggle in the wind. Maybe she can't let out all the emotion because her six year old is in the back seat and she doesn't want her to fear car trips. Maybe she knows if said six year old had been with her on the morning of her accident, her skull would have been crushed between the ceiling and the door. She knows this because the car seat was wedged there, she had to rip it out to prop a door open. Maybe she sees things she has never noticed before like how there are two story drops off the side of the road in certain places. Maybe she is highly aware of all the tire tracks going off the road. Maybe thanks to the frozen ground five weeks later she can still pick out her own tire tracks as she passes them. Maybe she is scared and full of anxiety but she is also strong and brave, everyday getting back behind the wheel even when she would rather not because she is only 35 and can't hang up her driving keys yet. Maybe she needs more time to process a very real traumatic event. Maybe she is worried about some upcoming long drives and how she is going to make them. Maybe she just wants to feel normal but as her anxiety ramps up her muscles tighten and she can feel the fracture in her neck. Maybe that person you are flying past is me, maybe I am doing OK, but I am not great.

After an accident on stairs that left my daughter's arm broken and needing surgery I started to have anxiety attacks, like really bad anxiety attacks that sent me to the ER three times in two weeks. They came again when we faced being with out a home last year. Since moving I have only had one, until the accident. These attacks range from feeling like I am dying to draining me of all ability to be productive. I often have to lay down and focus on breathing to make it through. My whole drive on Friday I was breathing through and fighting off this kind of paralyzing anxiety. I haven't told many people about this struggle but it feels like it is time. Friday morning sucked a lot! The drive home was much better because the wind had died down.

I say all of this to beg you the next time you encounter someone like me you might have compassion rather than rage. Maybe you could pray for that person instead of facebooking about how people shouldn't drive in bad weather if they can't handle it. Maybe the person who needs your compassion isn't driving but in your way somewhere else. Take a step back, take a breath, and for a moment try to understand where they might be coming from.

Today I am grateful for the people who I have been able to share this journey with so far even the hard, ugly, embarrassing parts.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Dust to Dust & Truth Telling

It used to be that Protestants did away with such things as Ash Wednesday but that is no longer the case. We will worship tonight to repent and to be reminded that we are all dying. From the moment of our first breath to our last we are in a continual state of dying. This will be new for my current congregation but it won't be new for me. Each person will come forward and I will mark them with burnt palm ashes saying, "you came from dust and to dust you will return". We will repent and prepare our hearts for the season of Lent before us, a season of fasting. I live with this truth everyday, I serve an older congregation and that means we are no strangers to death. The truth is though that being "old" (however you define it) is not a prerequisite for death. This a deeply meaningful practice for me. A reminder of what is at hand and what it is that might really matter in the world, in life, and even in death. I have known for a long time my days are numbered with a number I do not yet know. Most of us know this and we distract ourselves from this common everyday truth, we are mortal.

Tonight though, I will (if she so desires) impose the ashes on my own daughter with the solemn reminder of her return to dust. Chances are she won't understand it fully, no one ever does. It seems a cruel twist of the preacher's fate to have to remind their child they are mortal. A truth I pray I will only have to remember out loud once a year. The very idea of one's child being dead is enough to make even the most stoic among us shed a tear. But for me it is just an abstract. A thought. An idea. that doesn't sit well with me.

What about for my loved ones who have lost a child. Their truth is different, more tangible than my abstract idea of loss. I am left to wonder how this day is for them. Then I wonder for the rest of us how we might live differently if we had to see on a regular basis that our children out living us is not a given. That no matter how cute, how smart, how compassionate, no matter how much they changed you, made you better, made you yell... they too will one day be nothing more than the dust from which they were created.

To you as we stand in these moments of repentance and preparation for fasting, you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Today I am grateful even for the unpleasant reminders that help us remember we are human.