Photographs

I was flipping through a stack of old black-and-white photographs this weekend at a local scrap store, when this photo stopped me cold. All of the other photos were of architectural landmarks, obviously in Europe. All were clearly taken by the same person with the same camera and the same good eye for detail. None had any identifying marks of any kind. But this building looked familiar.

If you hadn’t seen this building before, you’d think it was unremarkable. Its purpose is unclear—it looks like any outbuilding might on any old estate in Europe. It even vaguely resembles a horse stable. Until you see the chimney. At first I thought I was mistaken at my recognition, until I saw the next photo.

This photo was unmistakable. If you look behind the three poles, you can see the cement marker numbering 21. That long rectangular plot of ground was where barracks number 21 once stood in the Dachau concentration camp. There were 31 other barracks just like it, each designed to hold 200 prisoners. One of the four remaining guard towers still stands in the photo, silently testifying as to what happened there. The barracks may be gone, but the past lingers here. The museum exhibits tell the story of the people and the inhumanity that occurred at the camp. The prison cells feel evil. The crematorium seems small for the outsized task it executed.

The photographer also captured the Catholic and Protestant memorials erected at the camp. If they photographed the Jewish memorial, that photo has been lost to time.

Dachau opened to the public in 1965, the Protestant memorial was consecrated in 1967 (the Catholic one in 1960), and color photography became widely available in the 1970s, so it seems likely the unknown photographer visited the camp in the late 1960s. There were no people in the other dozens of photos I left behind, so their origin will remain a mystery. While I took my own photos of the camp, it didn’t seem right to leave these photos unknown and unmarked in a shoebox in a secondhand store, so I brought them home for 45 cents apiece. I have no idea what I’ll do with them. I don’t think they should be displayed. But at least they’re no longer abandoned and forgotten. We must never forget what happened there, and we must vow, “Never again.”

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” —Elie Wiesel


No Big Deal

A fellow mom gave me a profound lesson today. She’d written about her son coming out to her, news that she treated as no big deal.

Because it should be no big deal.

After all, straight people don’t have to come out. We don’t explain who we date or fall in love with. We don’t live with the fear that sharing our relationships will subject us to judgment or worse. Because it’s no big deal.

I can worship (or not) my God as I see fit. It’s no big deal.

I can color my hair orange or purple. It’s no big deal.

I can have a physical or mental disability. It’s no big deal.

I can wear outlandish or non-matching clothes. It’s no big deal.

I can have Jewish or slave or mixed ancestry. It’s no big deal.

I can vote for who my values most align with. It’s no big deal.

I can marry or not, and have kids or not. It’s no big deal.

Let’s make coming out unnecessary for all LGBTQ people.

It’s no big deal.

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” —Wayne Dyer


Faith

I almost named this ‘Doubt’. Doubt is the flip side of faith, and doubt is what another bereaved mother was struggling with after losing her son. Her pointed question about how God could allow the death of a child pierced me, but not because my own son’s death has me questioning my own faith. Instead, I was struck with overwhelming gratitude that my faith has been the only thing that has kept me from seeking a very dark place after Bryan died. But why was I granted that gift of faith, when it’s not only understandable, but perhaps even expected to question God over the loss of a child?

The answer is that I don’t know, and it’s not fair. I can talk about my book journey or Megan surviving cancer or the grace I received through the car crash ending of my decides-long marriage. All of those experiences built and deepened my faith. It’s possible those things happened exactly so I could be ready to survive the unthinkable, or at least as ready as anyone can ever be. But nothing can explain why I was blessed with that faith and not some of the other mothers in this shitty club.

I do know that I’m not alone: I’ve been supported and comforted by the moms who’ve gone before me who’ve found a way to make some sense out of our shared nightmare. One works in schools and speaks to teenagers about depression and suicide. Another started a blog and Facebook site where the question about doubt was posted. Me…I’m still adjusting to my grief.

But I’ve known since soon after I lost my true love that I had to create meaning from his loss, like the other moms who inspire me with the paths they’re carving from their grief. I still don’t know what my path…Bryan’s path…will be, but I know it will be as unique and special as he was. I have faith that that’s the ultimate purpose of my faith.

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” —Paul Tillich


Surprise

I went to my first tulip farm this month, another checkmark on my bucket list. Waves of stunning color comprised of countless blossoms—each a gem in its own right, whose destiny is to be treasured as a drop in an ocean. It was breathtaking.

Here and there we found the occasional stray…a bloom out of place, given away by its color. They made me think of The Ugly Duckling, beautiful though they were different. I almost mislabeled them, but my friend corrected me before I could make the error. She pointed out the surprise, recasting what my brain would have mistakenly called an accident.

The English language is rich in nuanced synonyms: there’s a distinct difference between a surprise and an accident. An accident is rarely positive unless you’re painting with Bob Ross. Surprises, however, are often good: surprise parties, pregnancies, and gifts are welcomed.

So is a single red tulip in a sea of daffodils. “Stand tall, stand proud. Know that you are unique and magnificent. You do not need the approval of others.” Jonathan Lockwood Huie


Kyiv

St. Sophia

The oldest cathedral in Kiev is 1,000 years old. The foundations of St. Sophia were laid in either 1011 or 1037; records from the Middle Ages aren’t exact. Though much of the structure is centuries newer, ancient foundations and walls and naves were left exposed in later restorations. It was humbling to stand where 300 generations have worshipped.

St. Andrews

We had a free day in Kiev, having arrived the night before and giving ourselves time to recover from our jet lag before our Chernobyl tour the following day. We knew we wanted to tour the Chernobyl Museum but had no other plans. On the 2.5 mile walk to the museum in the cool spring weather, we passed (and frequented) souvenir stands full of treasures. We found a Ferris wheel and statues and monuments. But what we hadn’t expected were so many gorgeous cathedrals. Pastels and onion domes and gold cupolas and lavish icons were prolific. We saw half a dozen churches in the city center and missed half a dozen more.

St. Volodymyr

As I watch today’s horrific footage, as I see the maps where missiles have hit, I think of the people we passed on our walk that day: ordinary people heading to work and to the market and home to their families. And I think of the treasures we saw which have survived centuries of war and politics and neglect. Just because they’ve survived until now is no assurance they will survive today. Ukraine has received no such assurance from the world. Nor do we have assurance that our own peace and democracy will survive without a fight. I pray for us all.

St. Michael’s

“Wars don’t bring lasting peace, only lasting death.” —Janet Morris


Exclusion Zone

I wondered if they would, and they did: after what Al Jazeera described as a “major gun battle”, Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl nuclear plant on day one of their invasion of Ukraine. The site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is now in the hands of a cruel dictator who controls the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Chernobyl was a particularly dangerous place before falling into unfriendly hands. The Exclusion Zone surrounding the plant is 1,000 square miles. You enter it through a gated checkpoint 20 miles away, with a mandatory pass through a radiation detector, an approved guide, and your name on a pre-cleared list approved weeks in advance. The list of rules is long once you enter: no eating or drinking. No touching the ground with any part of your body besides the soles of your shoes. Stay with your guide. Do NOT pet or feed the numerous stray dogs descended from the family pets left behind in the mass evacuations in the spring of 1986, no matter how cute they are (“you don’t know where they slept last night”). Once through the checkpoint, the last 30 minute drive to the plant is otherworldly…modern roads with no traffic. Entire villages, now abandoned ghost towns. Eeriest of all, the occasional farmer out working his land, clearly having decided that the invisible enemy he can’t see a lesser evil than abandoning his heritage.

The biggest shock upon arriving at the plant is how much it resembles any other factory anywhere else in the world. Cars and trucks and workers—1,500 of them—buzz around as if it weren’t one of the most unique places on earth. Of course, those workers don’t live nearby and have to be bussed in every day. Of course, Geiger counters are mandatory, as is passing through multiple radiation detectors a day. Of course, they all undergo routine safety drills to the evacuation bunker in the case of a “radiation event.” What looks on the surface like an ordinary, sprawling factory is, of course, instead a massive cleanup underway for nearly 40 years which will continue for at least another 40.

When I heard this morning that the bombs had begun to fall, I thought about those 1,500 workers. I wondered if they’d be able to get into the plant to do their jobs, and I wondered if they’d be able to leave. I wondered if a stray missile landing in just the wrong spot would endanger millions. I wondered if Putin wanted to control the plant to prevent it from being used against his forces, or if he wanted it as a terrible deterrent against interference, or both. He may be evil, but he’s not dumb.

We will learn more in the coming weeks about Putin’s intentions. We will see how the world reacts. In the meantime, I’m praying for the Ukrainian people, including the 1,500 workers who save the world every day that they go to work.

“If wars can be started by lies, they can be stopped by truth.” —Julian Assange


Moment

A new friend is teaching me to live in the moment. I’d fooled myself into thinking I’d gotten better at this because I’d gotten better at being spontaneous. But looking into my friend’s gentle mirror, I’m realizing that just because I’d given up trying in vain to control my life by planning every detail doesn’t mean that I’d learned to live in the moment.

That may sound obvious, but human capacity to delude ourselves is high. Quietly observing my new role model has me realizing how much time I spend in the past and, in my case especially, in the future. For years I’ve worked at balancing my almost obsessive drive to “go”, long realizing the cost of that obsession on my well-being. What I hadn’t realized is what it’s cost me in daily joy. By always planning for the next thing, I miss the chance to fully sit with today. That’s criminal. I’ve been a thief, stealing from myself.

So yesterday, on a day which in particular could have easily been stolen by the past or by a future-which-could-have-been, my new role model and I ate a lazy breakfast and then walked five miles by the gorgeous James River, experiencing history and children and nature and dogs and architecture with all five of our senses. We ate at a Plan B restaurant, which became a new Plan A, and sat for awhile near a bird feeder watching spring arrive. It was a perfect day. I can’t wait to allow more perfect days to happen, perfectly unplanned and unexpected.

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” —Omar Khayyam


Anniversary

What a year. This week, as I approach the first anniversary of the worst day of my life, I can’t help but reflect and sob and hurt. I have no poignant analogies left, just rawness and numbness, both at the same time. It’s impossible to describe to anyone who Doesn’t Know. This year, I’ve met too many other parents who do Know, part of an underground group of wildflowers struggling to bloom in the sewer. Not all of them make it.

I’ve learned the hard way that we lose a lot of people in our lives, in a variety of ways. Some losses are bittersweet; some are merely sad; some feel like an attack of violence. Some losses leave scars from that violence, while others leave behind a sweet glow of nostalgia. All leave a mark.

But I’ve also learned that with the losses come gains. I’ve lost my grandparents, but I gained my children, nieces and nephews, and in-laws who are just as much my family as those I share DNA with. While none of the holes can exactly be filled by the newcomers, I’m beyond grateful for the consolation which comes with the entries in the plus column.

This perpetual circle of life is quietly playing out as I approach this horrific anniversary: I’ve added someone to my circle. While it’s early, I’m hopeful that his addition will be permanent. And there’s the key word: hope. Our losses are truly tragic if they make us lose our hope or our faith, if they make us close ourselves off so we’re not open and vulnerable to new people to love. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 I love you and miss you Bryan. Until we meet again.


“Will my baby go to heaven?“

TW: child loss

This is the gut-wrenching text I got this afternoon. A young trans person I provide remote text support to via Mama Bears had gotten unexpectedly pregnant. A week ago, their text was full of fear. Days later, their fear has changed to grief.

This young person has not had an easy life. While I know little about them, I know they’re back with their mostly unaccepting family after years in foster care. I know that in addition to being trans, they’re also on the autism spectrum: estimates vary widely, but studies find that 15-35% of people on the autism spectrum without a severe disability identify as LGBTQ. In spite of anxiety, depression, and lack of support, this young person is enrolled in state college. They are trying to break free from the circumstances of their birth. Now this.

How am I supposed to answer their heartbreaking question? There’s obviously only one right response, and I even believe my answer with my whole heart. But the question behind their question is “why?.” That’s the question I don’t have an answer to. Why should this young person have to suffer a lifetime of pain and loss in 18 short years? Getting that six word text broke me. Of course your baby will go to heaven. Of course you are destined to join them in due time sweetie. I just wish for you a much gentler life. In the meantime, I will sit with you. It’s all I can do.


Motherhood

Motherhood is the biggest job I could ever do. It’s an incalculable responsibility, vulnerability and blessing, all at the same time. From the moment you’re entrusted with another life, you learn to live with both tremendous hope and fear. On any given day, one wins out over the other, but both are there until your last breath.

This Christmas, I have a new perspective on Mary’s journey. No one can fully understand how she felt at the birth of her Son, because the circumstances of His birth have not happened before or since, but I believe she must have had the same hopes and fears all mothers do. What she couldn’t know then is what we all know, and that’s how it would end. I’ve always felt great sympathy for her watching her Son die, but at this first Christmas since my own son died, her loss seems all the more poignant.

My challenge as a Christian is finding a way to celebrate the joys while dealing with the losses…we all have too many of those. It can be a challenge in the midst of grief to focus on moments of joy, but I’m blessed to have a strong enough faith to know where those joys come from. God is Love, which means He’s always with with us in those around us. And this time of year, we remember that He also came to us long ago…through the faith and love of a young mother.

“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.’

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’” —Luke 1:30-31, 38