Over a decade ago, quite ironically, I naively dismissed AFI’s song “Strength Through Wounding” as being too melodramatic: “Through our Bleeding – We are One!” bellows the chorus. (It’s practically the entire song.) But I understand it now. In fact, I’ve played it over and over and over.
We all want to know we’re not alone – especially in our pain…which often isolates us, banishing us from the land of laughter and casual conversation to a subterranean commune…where the people we find solace with are those who understand us…those who know why we prefer moonlight over sunlight. Dirges over hymns. I know, in recent years, that I have experienced a cathartic solidarity from others who have shared their pain. And that gives me cause to write…
The last four years, without exception, have been soul sifting – bringing my wife Heather and I to wrestle with feelings we’ve never experienced before. At the heart of it: Death.
Uncle Roy. Granny Lovelace. Uncle Bud. These branches of my family tree had withered away throughout the course of my young life…but I was too far removed – only knowing of them by face and name. Roy was a hermit. Granny was cranky and I had only met Bud once. Sad to admit – they were here and gone and I didn’t notice. Then there were the funerals my parents took me to… for friends of theirs and friends of their parents – but it was all so disconnected from my every day life. I went because I had to. Death was only a rumor.
It looked me in the eyes for the first time when I was in the second grade (about 7-8 years old):
It was my turn for Show-and-Tell and I was going to bring my dog Whitney in. She was a super friendly, white German Shepherd. The day before I was supposed to introduce my teacher and classmates to the 6th member of my family, my parents took her to the vet to put her to sleep. She was old and had been bleeding internally, suffering, whimpering. I remember (vividly) crawling under the sturdy sofa side-table in the living room that night, bundling myself into the fetal position and weeping – wanting nothing but to be left alone – my mom extending her hand to comfort me, apologizing – her face wet with tears. Whitney’s loss engulfed my little world with darkness…the finality of her absence was real. The next morning, Show-and-Tell went on as planned but instead, I told my class about the decision my parents, out of mercy, had to make.
Countless goldfish, hamsters, three cats (Chip, Chuck and Bo), a bird, an iguana (Iggy…original…right?), and a dog (Lucy) later….I am well acquainted with animal death.
In 1998, my friend’s 16 year old brother mysteriously died. His heart just stopped. The autopsy revealed no cause. It impacted me enough that I wrote a College English paper about him, reflecting on the brevity of life and the impact his death had on me (especially in light of his memorial services – one private; one public). For the first time, eternity was on my radar. Heaven? Hell? Were they real? Does consciousness continue beyond the grave? Or is that it? There have been others since then, persisting into the present – suicides, accidents, casualties of war, overdoses, disease…each one emotionally connecting with me on some level, slowing me down, sending me to heartache and prayer for the families and friends they left behind, but all within two, three, four degrees of separation. Friends of friends. Siblings of friends. Parents of friends. Never blood.
In 2005, blood was drawn. While I was at work, my mom sent me a text notifying me that my Nana had been found dead in bed by my grandpa who had returned home from his morning laps at the Olympic swimming pool. Though grandparents are supposed to die, I didn’t expect it to happen. Life as I knew it, was in spring…not winter. Strangely, I never cried. Saddened? Absolutely. But not shocked. Sure, my chest sank and life slowed down, memories flooded in, gratitude and sadness intermingled but my world wasn’t shaken. My lack of emotion surprised me. Maybe I had become jaded? By this time, like I said, I had been to my fair share of funerals and had been acquainted with people who died tragic deaths. Solemn, still…yes, but empathetic wounds, not amputations. At 22, my Nana was my first amputation.
Five years later, in 2010, Heather’s fun-loving, fiddle playing grandpa had a heart attack and passed away on the way to the hospital. One month later, my quiet but gregarious model-train and Dodgers loving Grandpa followed, dying quietly in my uncle’s spare room, finishing the hole my Nana started cutting years earlier. Both were Navy veterans who survived War. Both succumbed to entropy. I sat in the empty houses of both men, listening to the stories their homes told – their meticulous yards, their vintage furniture, original appliances and the black and white pictures that adorned their walls. I listened to their families, who loved them dearly, share warm memories through laughter and tears. Death, through storytelling and reflection, its malevolence living not just ‘out-there’ anymore, was now living inside of me for the very first time. The dark void leaped from the page into the living room. People I had walked with, talked with, laughed with, vacationed with…who I had hugged and shook hands with…were gone. Forever. Birthdays, Thanksgivings and Christmases were a little quieter. When my Grandpa went, Long Beach, in a sense, went with him…Wilson High School, Buster’s Beach House, Yankee Doodle’s, the Pier, 2nd Street…once warm – now tinged with melancholy.
For the next few months, if I wasn’t with Heather, I was alone..in the dark…absent from church, from play… soul searching and sifting through the philosophical and theological quandaries their empty bodies had posed. That my friend’s brother’s death had posed a decade earlier. Immersed in books, documentaries, lectures, debates and conversations, I opened myself up for worldview surgery. I had asked questions before, but this time I was ready to abandon everything I knew to be true if I was, in fact, clinging to a cultural myth, a hand-me-down and nothing more. From my cave, I – unbeknownst even to myself – emerged with an unsinkable faith and new questions…faith which was about to be rocked by another oncoming storm…
These Last Four Years
After 4 years of trying to have children, Heather finally conceived. Several pregnancy tests with + signs and persisting ‘morning sickness’ confirmed it. Up until that point, we had been praying fervently about it. And we weren’t treating God like a vending machine or a magic genie, but seeking His timing and His will. We definitely appealed to the parable of the persistent widow and Jesus’ teaching to ask, seek, knock. We weren’t asking for a car. Or a house. Or money. We were asking for a life we could give to the world. A life we knowingly would have to lay our lives down for. (Something human beings are made to do). Right after she told me she was pregnant, my heart leaped. I never knew what being a father was like until then. (Man…this is painful to write. My face is wet again.) Upon that news, I had a taste. I imagined holding him (yes, him: Brody Dean). Cuddling. Telling stories. Talking. Playing. Laughing. Sharing the world with him. Letting him share the world, as he experienced it, with us and guiding him as he found his way in it. Watching Heather love on him and he love on her. We wanted his life to be a light in an often dark world. And from my perspective, the timing was right because I wanted to make my dad, who has prostate cancer, a grandfather, while he was still relatively well. And I wanted Brody to have the chance to know his grandpa.
As the days waned on, I was anticipating sharing the news with my parents. But Heather, meanwhile, was reluctant because she had been spotting. (By this time, she was in dialogue with her parents about it). When I asked her if we could go to my parents house (who lived right down the street), she obliged. Because of the bleeding…she allowed me to share the news with them – albeit with trepidation. I, on the other hand, had hope and joy and those overshadowed any doubts. (After all, we had our 4 years worth of prayers to show for it and up until then,we had never been close to getting pregnant…so to me, this was going to happen. It had to.) Light, not darkness, filled me. We went home, went about our business and slept on it. At work the next day, thoughts started running errands in my brain – (crunching numbers, furnishing his room, planning FMLA time at work, etc.) I was preparing myself to be a father. This is why we bought a two bedroom house. That second bedroom was finally going to serve its purpose. (Holy crap.)
As soon as I get home from work…the next thing I know, Heather is in my arms, crying, telling me she miscarried while visiting her parents. She was a month into her pregnancy. Though it was just approaching dusk, we crawled into bed and wept. And in our emotional exhaustion and grief, had an honest conversation with God. Frustrated? Confused? Angry? Hurt? Absolutely. But we also have a deep understanding that we are mere mortals bound by time and space, myopic in our perspectives – and as such, left room for the mystery and deferred to His sovereignty and wisdom. After taking some time to ourselves, with a heavy heart, I shared the heartbreaking news with my parents. While I was driving around town that day, I saw a father pushing his baby son in a stroller – the little dude was wearing a Superman T-shirt (a shirt I wore as a kid while my dad played with me…I loved Superman). What would have been rad on any other day was cruel to me. My raw emotions turned someone else’s blessing into my curse. The verse playing over and over in my mind was “In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage–I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) We were promised suffering. But that doesn’t take it away. We haven’t come close to getting pregnant since….
Two years later, my wife’s dad, Doug, checked himself into the hospital where he was treated for pneumonia. When I got the text at work, I shrugged my shoulders and thought “No big deal. He’ll be in and out”. (Heather told me the man had never been to the hospital a day in his life). We went to visit him in the hospital that weekend, not knowing that it would become Heather’s new home for the next three months…
At the age of 64, on his 41st wedding anniversary – the day he set the goal to stand up and give my mother-in-law a big hug, he died of an infection in the ICU in the full presence of his loving family. As I stood next to his wife and children, he took his last gargled breath. With snot and tears, I hugged his cold, lifeless body goodbye. What was a beautiful sunny summer weekend in Newport Beach for everyone else, was a cold, solemn, midnight drive home through the Valley of the Shadow of Death for us. Three months of trusting, hoping, crying, fearing, praying…met with the door shut in our face. Brutal. Today, my Mother-in-Law is still suffering from her best-friend’s amputation and my wife, her brothers and sister are without their dad.
Meanwhile….while Doug was in the hospital, both my grandma and grandpa, who my family and I had traveled an hour and a half down the 5 fwy to visit in Escondido (San Diego) every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas for 33 years of my life, died weeks apart from each other. I inherited the love for roasted turkey (smothered in cranberries), stuffing – summer sausage, cheese and cracker platters (always waiting for us on the coffee table), poetry (our birthday and Christmas cards from Grandma were always written in rhyme) , golf (they lived on a golf course), Thanksgiving Football and the San Diego Chargers from them (even though Grandma loved John Elway). Within months, their house was sold. And just like that, San Diego was gone.
Within that same timeframe, my co-worker Rich was shot and killed at a backyard BBQ. For a good year and a half, I had interacted with him on a daily basis. After I got moved out of his department, our interactions became weekly. We had a couple arguments here and there but they blew over. Eventually we were on the same page, stoked to greet each other with our routine “What’s up (Rich!) (Boozie!)” as we passed each other in the warehouse, asking how one another was doing – how things were going at work. When I first found out about his death, as anyone would be, I was absolutely shocked. I found it difficult to work and would even pause in the middle of working to cry and pray. When I’m cruising around the warehouse, I still picture him passing by…
In November, the day after Thanksgiving (which we celebrated at my parents’ home for the first time), my dad’s PSA level spiked, sending him to the hospital for a week. It prompted his siblings and my brother and sister to fly out to say goodbye (just in case)… but he eventually got back on his feet and regained his strength…
…but in May, while Heather, my mom and I were away for the weekend in Ventura for my cousin’s wedding, my dad had been experiencing pretty terrible stomach cramps. On the night of our return, I went home to check on him. Seeing how much pain he was in made me immediately think of Doug and led me to persuade my mom to take him to the ER. Sitting with him in the ER that night was the last real time I would ever spend with him. He spent the next week in the hospital only to be released, by his own choice, into the care of Hospice. (His internal organs were overrun by infection and were shutting down. Surgery was not an option.) Going home was the absolute last thing he wanted to do….he had fought cancer for 18 years….to agree to go home was to tap out. He wasn’t ready…but he knew… After all, he had been planning his memorial service for months now. But still…he wanted to live for the sake of his wife and children. Heather and I wanted so badly to make him a grandpa and he wanted to be one. (He would have been awesome). Before he slipped off into unconsciousness (due to the drugs he was given to make him comfortable), I told him I loved him. With as much strength as he could muster, he exhaled “I ruv you too”. A couple days later, Heather and I were at his bedside with my mom, brother and sister, aunt and uncles when he took his last breath. He died in the comfort of his living room – the room he had built and the room my mom had allowed him to turn into his ‘Man Cave’. He, just like Doug, also died in the full presence of his loving family. And just as I had done with my father-in-law, I hugged his cold, lifeless body goodbye. Even while we waited for his empty body to be picked up, knowing he wasn’t there, I continued to talk to him as if he was – hugging him, stroking his hair, telling him I was thankful for him…for his sacrificial love and generosity. That he was a wonderful father…that I loved him. (The mad things we do when we’re hurting).
Not even a month later, my brother and sister-in-law, who had been pregnant and thriving, were forced into an emergency c-section to save their baby boy, Aiden (meaning “little fire”). When Heather and I went back to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) to visit them, the gravity of life and its frailty humbled me. He had perfect little hands and toes and a perfect little head…so small….but completely dependent on his incubator and the machines he was connected to. He spent the next few weeks fighting to stay alive. I don’t remember ever feeling so much love for someone I didn’t know. And I don’t remember ever praying with so much exhaustion and heaviness, pleading for this little dude to make it. Only to be denied again. In the three short weeks he was here, Aiden lived up to his name and now his body lives just down the hill from his Papa Doug. And though I still grieve his loss (his picture is framed in our bedroom), he wasn’t my child. I can’t fathom the pain of separation his parents are having to endure. I can tell you though…that I have never seen so much effortless sacrifice…so much fierce compassion and perseverance that they showed him. For those three weeks, they were the best parents in the world. For those three weeks, I was taken deeper into my understanding of love.
2015 (Present day)
With our family bond strengthened under the weight of all the loss we’ve had to endure, my wife and I decided to sell our home to move close to her family living in a neighboring city (mother, brothers, sisters, nieces). We now live within walking distance of her mom and sister and a five minute drive of everyone else. We don’t want to be anywhere else.
After my dad died, Heather and I tried to convince my mom to downsize from her single family home to a condo and to consider moving closer to us. Perhaps even to our neighborhood… “No way!” was her answer. She had “lived in her home for 38 years” and it was “going to be the house she was going to die in” and she was going to “pass it on to her children”. Yeah…she lives right across the street from us now. And my childhood home is now in the safe hands of another family raising children.
But before my mom parted with it, I had to walk through it one last time. As I strolled from bedroom to bedroom, from bathroom to bathroom, warm memories flooded in.
The morning my brother Mikey and I held our new baby sister after we had anxiously awaited her arrival – sitting freshly dressed with combed hair on the couch by the front door. My mom telling us bedtime stories (Byron the bear), praying with us before we went to sleep. The ‘ghost’ in the hallway. Boxing with my brother. Wrestling. Summers filled with sports, movies, swimming and best of all…video games (Atari, Nintendo, Genesis and PlayStation). Playing computer games and watching TV with dad. Family game nights. My brother peeing on me while I took a bath (and that was High School). Whitney, Dexter, Lucy (all our dogs) Chip, Chuck and Bo (our cats), Buster (my hamster). Birthdays, Pumpkin carving parties, Christmases and New Years. Football games and Super Bowls…the Angels winning the World Series. Playing with the neighborhood kids. All the screaming and yelling and fights; all the hugs, laughs and tears in equal measure. And most recently, listening to Patsy Cline’s “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” in the darkness of the living room as I sat on the couch with my dad, my head resting on his chest (as I had always done with him) – his head tilted back and eyes closed. Little did we know that’s where he would die. In that living room…with his head tilted back and eyes closed.
When I said goodbye to the house, I didn’t say goodbye to wood and iron…to concrete and vegetation. I said goodbye to my childhood. To everyone I lost along the way…especially my dad. It’s where he lived and died. And now a new chapter has begun…without him. If he went looking for us, he wouldn’t find us. It’s almost prophetic…that concrete imprint of our hands (backyard patio). Everyone represented…except for my dad. Parting with this home is as much a part of my grief as everything else. And this grief doesn’t go away. It persists. Like a camera lens filter, it changes the way you see the world. Everything moves a little slower…everything’s a little heavier…things that once seemed fragmented and isolated now feel more connected….
And finally…the reason I started writing…
Just last week, Heather and I were told by her Fertility Specialist, that despite her successful surgery (which she had a few months ago to remove her endometriosis), we can’t have children naturally. Our only option is IVF (In vitro fertilization). And that’s not even guaranteed. But, considering all the variables (the financial, philosophical and deeply personal), we are not going to pursue it. We would adopt before taking that route. We still have faith that if God wants to plant a little dude or dudette in our garden, it will happen. For now, it’s day by day…
It’s easy to say in as many words but behind this news is a different grief – a grief not of loss but of what could have been, but can’t be…
I’m reticent to share this but it’s the blood I bleed in silence. I can’t tell you how extremely difficult, after 7 years of trying and waiting and praying and crying and researching and testing and trying again…it is to bear the burden of not being able to produce life…of not being able to give to the world what we have received. How painful it is to see your best friends raise children of their own…sharing with you the funny things they say or do and feeling the void of not being able to experience that for yourself. Of getting well-intended but hurtful advice handed to us as if we hadn’t been down that road before. And in this…there’s an inescapable real separation of both experience and social identity. Besides the obvious that we don’t have kids and parents’ do…on a deeper level, we don’t know what it’s like to be parents and our friends and family members who have kids don’t know what it’s like to want to be parents but can’t. We feel, to our shame…something of a Scarlet Letter in light of the socio-cultural reality of people gravitating toward people of like kind. We see this in the programmed structures of church community – College kids are paired with College kids. Singles with singles. Young Marrieds with Young Marrieds, etc. We don’t fit in anywhere. Parents hang out with parents because their kids unite them – they talk about them, their kids play together and they have war stories to trade. We’re on the outside looking in – no kids to talk about…no kids to play with other kids…no war stories. Not by choice, but by social stratum – segregated by broken physiology and dispositions of the heart.
Heather and I are in continuous dialogue to check ourselves – concluding that despite the pain, to revel in how blessed we are to have each other and to have people in our lives that we can love…people whose lives we can be apart of…this is what we desire…this is the answer – Thankfulness… Gratefulness…not bitterness, envy or despair. God calls us to get outside of ourselves…to lose ourselves…to be content in His provision and this is our cross at the moment. Our hearts are on a journey toward shedding this old skin and living in the blessings of the present…we do love our friends’ kids, our nieces, nephews and cousins…and His grace, in this gift…is sufficient.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from these last four years – it’s the meaning of empathy. There is a chasm between the living and the dead and love rended is a lifelong affliction that cannot be comforted with even the kindest of words from the most well-intentioned hearts. Empathy doesn’t offer a fix or hand you a book with the answers in it, offering platitudes from afar. No. It enters your world to suffer with you…to respond as needed, offering consolation with a burdened heart, open arms and a tempered tongue, willing to sacrifice…willing to listen. Heather and I experienced an outpouring of this from our family and friends during this dark period. People entered our world and bore our burden. Presence, not mere words, consoled. I follow Jesus because I trust that He is God’s demonstrative empathy toward me…and an unempathetic God would be one I would join the atheists in blotting from my brain…
“Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Having gone through tragedy after tragedy, we can say without having endured these losses, our understanding of love would have remained simple and shallow. In the ocean, yes…but only playing in the waves. Because of this, Heather and I are now able to understand (in part) the grief of others. Perfectly? Absolutely not. Everyone’s experience is different. Some are going through way heavier things than us. But we share the same valley, understanding what it feels like to be exhausted, incomplete and left wanting answers. But we hurt because we risked to love. And we want to continue taking that risk. This is Jesus’ call. Not to isolate ourselves in our pain…to escape. But to enter. To love well those we have been given. And to trust in spite of the darkness…to never give up. We are imperfect, self-absorbed creatures like everyone else. But His Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our darkened path. And the Word was led to the cross. And the Word was raised from the dead.
There’s a difference between textbook and experience. Theory and reality. Between water and wet. I wonder if that’s why Jesus instituted baptism? To move us from theory to reality? From water to wet…
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