Silence

It’s the silence that kills me.

Since you’ve been gone, I think about you, if not continuously, then frequently. Nearly everything makes me think of you: a picture I bought on a trip together; a favorite recipe of yours that’s now a favorite of mine; meaningless news I’d have called and shared with you, knowing you’d understand. Instead, the universe returns only deafening silence. No more calls to or from you. No more reminiscing. No more commiserating. No more celebrating victories, big or small. Only memories…in complete, utter silence.

It’s still a jolt, triggered memories which mercilessly remind me—over and over—that you’re gone. My mind is still processing the unthinkable…it’s not supposed to be this way. So while my brain factually approaches the unimaginable, my heart keeps ripping in two—again and again.

In complete silence.

People who know say it will get easier with time, and they’re already right. I have energy again and the fog is slowly receding. Sometimes my memories of you make me smile instead of cry. But those same knowing souls also tell me that it won’t ever not suck. And I already know they’re right about that, too.

It’s a shitty path I get to walk in your silence, but I don’t have much choice. I haven’t yet made meaning out of your departure, but I will. Your time here was too short, but it mattered. You mattered. When I’m ready, when I’ve figured out how, I will make a tsunami of noise so loud that everyone around me will hear you.

“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.” —Winnie the Pooh


Dr. Robert Jastrow

Robert Jastrow was born in New York City in 1925, graduating with a PhD in physics from Columbia University at the age of 23. Ten years later he joined newly formed NASA as head of its theoretical division, becoming founding director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies three years later, a role he held until retiring from NASA twenty years later to teach and contribute to public policy. Wikipedia describes Dr. Jastrow as an astronomer, physicist, author, and futurist, as well as a prominent climate change denier. The New York Times headline when he died in 2009 called him “the man who made space understandable.” To this teenager growing up in a small Kansas farm town, he was my inspiration.

I now realize how tiny my high school library was in our town of 1,300 souls, but at the time it was a treasure trove. I’m sure I’d consumed one quarter of its contents by the time I graduated from six years of junior high and high school. Period romances, classics, science fiction, biographies…I was a voracious reader. At some point I stumbled onto Dr. Jastrow’s The Enchanted Loom. In it, he described how the human brain evolved and works in simple layman terms that an ordinary 14-year old girl from Kansas could easily understand. It was a revelation: I instantly recognized that his singular gift was not from being a literal rocket scientist, but instead was his ability to explain complex concepts in a way that made them accessible to the masses. I was transfixed. I quickly devoured his only other book in the library, Red Giants and White Dwarves, describing the nature of the universe, then begrudgingly went back to more ordinary fodder. While I then largely forgot about Dr. Jastrow as I went on with my life, a critical seed had been planted, creating a deep admiration for the ability to make the complex understandable. That seed would change my life.

Twenty years later I was struck with what can only be described as divine inspiration for what became my first book, The Best Possible World. I was a busy career woman and mother – I didn’t have time to write a book. But the seed planted so long ago in that tiny library by a stranger couldn’t be shaken, and so I gave in. It turned into one heck of a faith journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything, plus two additional books, one of which gave me a new “family.” Though our paths never crossed, a NASA physicist changed my life.

Through his work on the Mercury and Apollo space programs, his work in public policy, and the legacy he left in his books and television appearances, Dr. Jastrow left a mark on history. And yet, he was married only once briefly and had no children. I could find no biography written of the man’s work or life. He’s not known for any specific discovery which has landed him in history books. His direct impact, like most of our destinies, is slowly fading as those who knew him decrease in number every year. But I still remember him. Not a man who I never met, but a man whose incredible talent made an impact on a teenage girl in a small prairie town…proof positive that we can never know the ripple effect of one life on another in this vast universe.

“Astronomers now find that they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds to every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.

“For a scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” —Dr. Robert Jastrow


Help

I’m not good at accepting help; I never have been. I’m an independent type, the product of industrious German Mennonites who did for themselves. It’s in my blood to suck it up and muscle through whatever comes along. Until I find my limit, like I did last month.

I gave up the board chair position of the non-profit I loved, and I scaled back at work. I took time for self-care and indulged in activities I enjoyed. It wasn’t enough. I needed help.

A friend had connected me to another mother six years further down my path. Another connected me to his pastor who’s also sadly familiar with this journey. I sat on both names for a long time…so long that one of the friends sent me regular, nudging reminders. I finally reached out, partly because I knew I needed the help, and partly because I couldn’t keep avoiding his gentle nudges. We’ll see what happens.

I’ve written before about another friend’s long ago lesson that you give the gift of giving when you allow yourself to receive. I’ve been on both sides of that equation many times since, but I’m only really comfortable with one of those roles. I do know by now that it’s ok to do both. In this season of my life, I’ll ask for and accept help, so I can heal and recover and be ready to pay it forward when it’s someone else’s turn to give me the gift of giving.

“Ask for help, not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.” —Les Brown


Purpose

When bad things happen, some people say that it’s God’s purpose. While I understand the appeal of trying to find meaning in suffering, I think that’s a load of crap. The Bible describes God as our Father who loves us. No father who loves their child would have any purpose in making their child suffer.

I think, instead, that God can create a meaningful purpose out of any suffering. This is a subtle but critical difference. Espousing that God sends us hardships is cruel and inconsistent with what the Bible tells us about Him. It makes complete sense, however, that by trusting and turning our suffering over to Him, we can find solace and peace and Love. When life delivers a sucker punch, we can either harden our hearts to protect against the next hurt, or we can soften our hearts and work to find the strength and motivation to walk beside others who are suffering on a painfully familiar path. We can be candles, shining His Light in a dark and dreary world.

I once read that there are two types of people: those who say, “Because I’ve suffered, so should you,” and those who say, “Because I’ve suffered, you should not.” Let me turn my sorrows into a purpose that God can use to provide comfort to the next soul destined to walk a similar path.

“You can do the impossible, because you have been through the unimaginable.” —Christina Rasmussen


Stigma

TW: Suicide

My son died by suicide.

I’ve practiced saying that until I can say it without flinching. Expressing it this way was the request of another mother whose son died by suicide. She wondered why we blame suicide victims for their last act by saying they “committed suicide.” Why is there still a stigma associated with suicide, anyway? Well, fuck stigma. My son died of an illness just the same as if he’d died from heart disease, cancer, or COVID. It was the mental illness of depression, but it was an illness nonetheless.

In some ways, his death was a shock; I truly didn’t see it coming. That said, in hindsight the clues were all there. I’ve had the normal “what if” thoughts, but I know in my heart there was nothing I could have done—he was determined for it to be successful. But still, I wish…

The grief has been new territory: the best comparison I can make is a concussion from a blow to the head. Though I’ve never had one, I imagine it to include the same fog and reduced mental capacity and occasional stopping dead in my tracks unable to function. Except for when it’s like a hard punch to the gut, without the physical blow.

The only consolation is the huge gift my son’s life was, though it was too short. He was one of the three true loves of my life. He was laughter when I was down. He was help when I needed it. He was a light in many lives. Though I miss him like crazy, I have peace that he’s no longer hurting and a deep faith that I’ll see him again. Until then, Bryan, “I love you a Brazilian.”

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.” —Dr. Seuss


The Good

I’m on my first solo vacation, a solitary sabbatical to a quaint cottage near the beach in Charleston, six hours from home. I planned it in less than a day, atypical for me. But what else was I supposed to do at the end of a six year period that saw:

• My daughter’s successful fight for her life, only to discover that the chemo which saved it destroyed her health; followed quickly by,

• The spectacular car crash ending to my 30 year marriage, a victim of alcoholism; then,

• A layoff, requiring a cross-country move 1,100 miles away from my entire support system, just when I needed them most; capped off last month with,

• The tragic loss of my only son to an intentional overdose.

You’d run away, too.

I wasn’t sure what I would do or why I was going…I only knew that if I stayed home I would spend the week getting my car’s oil changed and replacing our broken microwave and cleaning my disaster of a garage. I knew deep down that I needed to spend the week doing nothing useful, if my week off was to be useful at all in my recovery.

So I packed books and snacks and music and allowed myself to be moved along like the debris washing up on the beach where I spent the first day. (I remembered to apply sunscreen everywhere except my chest, which now constantly itches like mad against my collar. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there, but I’ve so far failed to discern it.) I walked Charleston’s Battery and French Quarter and sought out peanut butter pie, which is happily plentiful here. I toured a WWII aircraft carrier, marveling at the complex and massive engineering feat accomplished before modern computers. I paid homage to a 500-year old oak tree and toured Antebellum mansions and read the book, Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. (Ladies – if you’re even thinking that you might need to read this book, then I can just about guarantee that you do.) And then I read Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things and found a new hero.

It all served to fulfill my hope for this trip: to rest and sob and reflect and figure out how to move forward. Because when the horrible things happen—and they can and do at any time—we really only have two choices: to move forward or not. To recognize that insanely tragic shit happens, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it except remember that good and love and beauty happen, too. During the times when it’s nearly impossible to see them, we can remember they exist and cling to their memory until the scales fall from our eyes and we‘re able to see them again.

So I’m returning home in better shape than when I arrived…mission accomplished. I’m bringing with me a Bigfoot yard statue. I just need to determine where to strategically place him for maximum effect. Jenny Lawson would understand.

“Because you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing—rather than running from—the utter absurdity of life.” —Jenny Lawson


How are you really?

That’s what a friend messaged me this week. A lot of people have kindly asked how I’m doing, but I answered this friend honestly. I knew she’d see through a lie.

I told her week two has been harder than the busyness of week one, though the shock has worn off. She said she understood…that the world moved on, but mine had stopped. It’s reminded me of an article I read early in the pandemic explaining that our collective exhaustion stems from the disruption of the autopilot routines that conserve our energy. Except I was additionally dealing with profound, sucker-punching grief.

In the short span since my loss, I’ve already seen others join this shitty club. We’re in a pandemic, after all. We just observed the 500,000th American death from COVID, a tragic milestone. We’ve “graduated” from early in the pandemic asking each other if we know anyone who’s had the virus, to most of us now knowing at least one person who’s died from it. 2020 was a year of collective disruption and exhaustion. 2021 will be a year of collective grief. The impact on our society will be permanent and profound.

Crying releases stress hormones. Connection is healing. We know what to do: practice good self-care, check in on others. And allow yourself to grieve. We’re grieving loved ones, and we’re grieving a way of life. Don’t hesitate to ask—and honestly answer—how are you doing…really?

“Grief never ends. But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor lack of faith. It’s the price of love.” —Unknown


Lifetime

Yesterday is when I learned that I’ll live the rest of my earthly life without my sweet boy, and the girls without their brother. Being a parent is the most vulnerable thing a human being can do, to create another human whose life means literally more than your own. You’re suddenly and permanently exposed to the most horrific possible loss. You see others go through it and wonder how you would possibly get through it. I guess I’ll find out.

A friend has already given me the priceless gift of perspective in all the time I had with Bryan these last few years. Though he’d moved to Florida a decade ago and considered it home, he came to stay with me when he got laid off. I was sad for him but thrilled for the time with him. He hung out with us more on than off these last three years. He was a godsend. He helped me settle into the new house and cooked gourmet meals for us. We shared our sorrows and disappointments and cried and laughed – Lord how we all laughed. That’s what everyone remembers most about him was his laughter. Our family practices dark humor…really dark humor. It’s one of our most valued coping mechanisms, along with each other’s company. We even took the trip of a lifetime last year, to unforgettable Chernobyl and Spain. A lifetime of memories, crammed into three, way-too-short years.

After only the gifts of my children and Megan’s remission, these last three years with all three of my kids has been the best gift of all. God knew Bryan wouldn’t be here long but gave me the gift of a lifetime of memories anyway. He is so very good. Bryan’s life may have been short, but his light burned bright. And oh, that laugh…

“You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” –Two of Us, The Beatles


Ancestors

“Behind me are all my ancestors giving me strength. Life passed through them until it reached me. And in honor of them, I will live it fully.” —Bert Hellinger

I love this sentiment…that I’m the inheritor of a continuous stream of life coursing through countless others, a force which ultimately connects us all, if we only go back far enough.

Who were the humans before me from whom I inherited my very existence? I don’t know them, yet I still know something about them.

I know that they were people of deep faith, fleeing their Germanic homeland from persecution as Mennonite conscientious objectors, first to Russia and then to America. They were hard-working, introducing hard red winter wheat to the American prairie, transforming it into the bread basket of the world.

They were optimistic, trusting all of their hope and limited resources to a months-long voyage toward a new life in a new land, knowing they would never again see their families or birthplaces left behind in England and Ireland.

They were risk-takers, bundling my great-grandfather—then a newborn infant—into their wagon as they raced to stake a claim in Oklahoma’s Great Land Rush in 1889.

They were fun-loving, as evidenced by my Great-Grandpa “Red” Kelley’s ability to dance an Irish jig and his children’s love of laughter. Many of his great-great-great grandchildren also share his red hair.

They were all obviously resilient. Simply surviving this hard life and raising children to adulthood is evidence of that.

What do I owe them? I owe them survival, just as they managed. I owe them protection of the life I inherited from them in the form of raising my children. And I honor them by displaying the same traits they demonstrated which allowed me to exist at all. I will, indeed, live my life fully.


Broken

This two inch tall figurine is one of my most treasured possessions. She’s part of a miniature nativity made by my late grandmother during a relatively brief ceramics phase in retirement. As you can see, she’s seen better days. About 25 years ago, I was placing her on my mantle, and somehow she slipped, shattering as she crashed onto the tile floor below. There were so many pieces that my immediate thought was my nativity would be Mary-less for the rest of my life.

But I’m stubborn, and my grandmother was one of my dearest friends as I grew into adulthood, so I painstakingly retrieved each piece I could find, no matter how small. I spent more than an hour reconstructing a tiny 3D puzzle. I was beyond blessed that the Madonna’s face was untouched. I glued the pieces of her shattered body together best I could, and she has graced her place of honor next to her Savior for decades since. Unless you take her in your hand and study her in the light, you’d never know looking at the traditional scene that she’d been broken.

Her metaphor couldn’t be clearer: an innocent girl allowing her body and her life to be broken in an act of utter faith. Her path wasn’t easy, from the beginning to its tragic and triumphant end. Yet she endured.

I can’t understand her life or her struggles, but I can feel hope from her humanness and her sacrifice. Her obedience to a larger Cause gave birth to a beacon of Love and Hope that shines brightly two millennia later. Life may be hard and short, but she gave us reason to believe that perhaps our brokenness can be a purpose unto itself.

“For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” —Luke 1:48