Times with Jesse in past year seem to have extra significance

It seems sad and funny that I should be making such a big deal of Jesse now that he is gone from this life. It’s not just me. Lots of people suddenly remember what they loved about him. He was the sort of person who was always present with you, but in such a subtle way you only realize the value of that presence when it is gone. It is probably that way with most of our relationships.

I guess while Jesse was with me I thought of him as a work in progress. I was pleased with the way his life was developing, and I told him so (thank you God!) and I also thought of him as on his way to greater things, such as greater maturity and perhaps someday being a married man, father of children, and uncle to his brother’s children. I took it for granted that we would have many future occasions with a growing family. Now that he’s gone his precious 23 years and eight months are the entirety of his life on earth.

Yes, I know he continues to live in Heaven, and I know as a Christian I have the expectation that he will someday be resurrected in body just as Jesus was. I admit that until now I never thought so much about the promised general resurrection. But it is in the Bible that at least for a time we will all live right here on a new-made earth with Jesus Christ himself in charge of humanity. I believe that, but my  human mind is limited and my faith is weak.  It has always seemed such a far-out fantastic scenario. However a month ago my son dying would have seemed like a far-out scenario. Now that his death has happened, I find myself more receptive to ideas that in my previous life seemed far-out.

I keep going over the past year or so in my mind, seeing significance in things that I did not quite catch while they were happening. It may be a normal thing after a loved one dies, and then again the special significance may have been just that: significant. Jesse moved out of the parental home in late May 2015. He and his roommate had paid their deposit and paid rent for May, but he took his time moving out.

I talked to him about whether he really felt ready. I wanted to make sure he knew he was welcome to stay at our house for as long as he wanted and until he really felt ready to leave. He said he felt ready. I remember I was anxious and uncomfortable about him moving out, which my culture would tell me was unreasonable because he was 22, an adult, and “should” be living on his own. But I worried about how he was easily distracted and I knew that he had sleeping and focus issues.

But he seemed to really want to be independent, and it did seem reasonable that it was time. He was doing well in his job, he was intelligent and thoughtful, and his behavior had been perfectly responsible for a long time. He certainly had more life skills than I did when I was first on my own. Our family arranged a plan that we would have a family dinner every Sunday night and Jesse would come. That worked out beautifully and with only a few exceptions we had dinner together every Sunday night from the week he moved out until two weeks before he died. I will tell the story of those last two weeks in another post.

The dinners and other occasions that I got together with Jesse soothed my mind a little, but looking back, the whole year and two months had a peculiar feeling about it. Every time I saw Jesse drive up or walk through the door or meet me somewhere a rush of relief would flood my body – a sort of desperate gratefulness – and often I’d mouth a little prayer of thanksgiving such as “Thank you Lord that he’s okay.” If I thought about my strange feeling at all I chalked it up to some aspect of empty nest or crazy mother syndrome. Don’t all parents worry about their kids? But for some reason I seemed to put extreme value on every moment I spent with Jesse for the past year. I tried not act it out though. I didn’t want him to feel like I was breathing down his neck. I wanted to give him space – show him I trusted him and respected his adult independent status.

One Sunday this past June Tom was out-of-town for several days and I planned to get some take-out Indian food from Rajput for dinner with the boys. At lunchtime I stopped at Panera and when I came out of the restaurant my car would not start. Dead. Not even a click when I turned the ignition. There had been no warning signs. Aaron was at work so after a moment of thought I called Jesse. It was only a couple of miles from where he lived and it was his only day off from work. He came right over, tools in hand. He jump-started the car, tested something and said it was not the alternator, and I drove it Auto Zone assuming it was the battery. At Auto Zone I found out it was not the battery but probably the starter, and they couldn’t get it jump started again. I called Jesse again and he came and drove me home. We’d have it towed in the morning and get the starter fixed. Since I had to meet the tow truck early in the morning, Jesse thought I should have some pepper spray and gave me his. Later he, Aaron, and I went to a pizza place for dinner.

I thought that car situation was a huge crisis at the time, a highly undesirable occurrence. Now it seems to me part of the preparation. That my car died suddenly in a place and at a time when Jesse was nearby and the only family member available to help. For one thing, it gave me extra time with him. For another, it gave Jesse an opportunity to do something good for his mother before he went before the Lord. He was patient, cheerful, and helpful that day. He gave up his afternoon plans without the slightest complaint. He got to be my hero.


Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has been a great joy lately

Portrait of Ludwig von Beethoven by Joseph Karl Steiler, 1820
Since the day after Jesse died I have been finding great comfort in “Ode to Joy.” I have in fact become sort of obsessed with the whole Beethoven’s 9th symphony, especially that fourth movement. I have no idea why but I find a strange comfort in the music. My only theory is that it lifts my soul a little nearer to where Jesse is. It is so profoundly touching and sad that Beethoven wrote beautiful masterpiece without being able to hear it.

I have watched to several documentaries on the ninth symphony and keep listening to different concerts on YouTube including a wonderful flash mob performance that happened in Spain. Also I found a really good PBS video, part documentary, part concert on Amazon Video called (surprise surprise) Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphany No. 9.

My obsession with the 9th is expanding to other classical music. In the past I always enjoyed classical music in a lackadaisical kind of way. I haven’t really studied it. Jesse’s death seems to have sparked a new fascination with it, causing me to really listen to a symphony as if I were listening to a story, hanging on every word. Tom and I recently discovered the TV series Mozart in the Jungle which piques my interest even more. It’s a dramedy about the New York Symphony with both quirky characters and great music – a dream of a series. Sometimes you just need a temporary distraction from the grinding pain of loss. I can’t watch anything ugly or violent. This series is not all sweetness but it is humane and the music is good.

The Ode to Joy has a chorale part that is generally sung in German. The PBS video included a translation of the words and I was stunned by their beauty. Here is the English translation:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.

* * * * * *

It is no wonder I have been loving this music. It is about the closest thing to heaven than exists on earth – and to see it performed over and over again by hundreds of people gives me hope for humanity.

The three-week mark

I woke up early this morning with a sodden heart and shaky limbs. My entire body, every nerve, every bone, every cell, feels the jolt of the loss, like a sort of whole body amputation. I drove to work feeling the same way, trying to pray – with some success, but never enough. My chest especially aches with frequent stabs of pain. I am always on the verge of tears and they often spill over.

Much much lower on the scale of importance I am worried about the money – paying the nearly 10,000 bucks for the funeral. I have never been rich and 10K is an extravagant sum for me. I would have paid every cent I would ever earn to give my son a beautiful funeral, but my last car cost less than $10,000. I just do not generally operate in five-digit sums. We actually have two life insurance policies for Jesse, either of which would be just enough to cover the funeral expenses. However, Jesse’s death certificate says “pending” and the insurance companies want the exact cause of death before they will pay. I suppose they are hoping for a loophole so they don’t have to pay.

The medical examiner has told us nothing. We can only assume they were not able to find an obvious cause, but we really do not know what they did or did not find. all I have is a deceased young son and a death certificate with a check mark next to Pending. It is okay that they don’t know. I only with they’d send us a note saying so. Like “We found no obvious cause for your son’s death in the initial autopsy. We will be doing further analysis on his blood. You will receive our final results in xx weeks. We are sorry for your loss.” Or something like that. But from the office of the medical examiner we have received only silence so far.

I know the medical examiner’s office is part of a busy bureaucracy. The cop told Tom there were several shootings in Portsmouth the weekend Jesse died and I’m suspect there have been more tragic deaths since. I haven’t been following the news. But to live in a world system that simply has no time to be humane is in itself an evil thing. That is why the world system will eventually and probably suddenly go the way of the dinosaur. God intends humanity to live according to love, brotherhood, and in the spirit of truth rather than the spirit of expediency and material gain and I know perfectly well that God’s intention must triumph in the end. As sad as I am right not, at least I know without a doubt that my sadness will someday come to an end.


The most comforting things

As I said in my last post, I find comfort in prayer and meditation. I am not quite ready to describe what I experience when I go there. It is so precious and sacred and it would hurt if someone said or even thought it was “magical thinking” or  some “well if it makes you feel better that’s good….” sort of thing. The entire comfort of it is its reality. I would not be comforted by pretense and I do not have imaginary friends. I will just say that the experience involves assurance that my son is with Jesus and is happy and involved in his new life.

But I am still in my body and cannot be in meditation all the time. Nor should I. I have to work, I have to go to the grocery store, I have to interact with family and friends, I have to move my body from place to place. I have to live this world where Jesse no longer lives. I must endure the stabs in the heart every time I think of some little thing I will never again see him do: walk through the front door, pet the dog talking in a high-pitched doggy voice, give that little chuckle so uniquely his, show us some cool new technology thing on the computer, pick up his laundry, open his annual Christmas pajamas and socks….. The rest of my life stretches before me — a Jesse-less desert. My love for him is rooted so deeply in my heart and its tendrils are interwoven throughout my being, but the growing flowering plant is ripped away.

Then the voice of reason or the voice of Jesus whispers, “Do not look ahead like that. You may be agonizing over a desert you will never need to cross. Even if you must walk those miles you will not walk them alone. Sorrow hurts but you don’t need to swell the pain to more than it needs to be.” I was in my car this morning when this thought came to me, on my way to the grocery store. I then took my iPhone and turned on an audio book I am listening to for a second time. It is a collection of sermons by the 19th-century itinerant preacher and prolific writer George MacDonald.

getting to know jesusI have known for many years that George MacDonald had a huge influence on some of my favorite 20th century writers including  C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, but until this summer I had not read any of his writings except The Princess and the Goblin, probably his best known children’s book. Then this past July, right in the middle of my summer project to catch up on my political philosophy reading, I suddenly had a strong desire to read MacDonald. I don’t know where the idea came from but it was persistent and irresistible. I found myself searching my Hoopla app for what was available on audio. I found the sermon collection, which is called Getting to Know Jesus, and also downloaded The Princess and Curdie, proving its never to late to read the sequel.

The sermons impressed and inspired me, the sincere and compassionate words shining new light on the teachings of Jesus, clearing away many musty old misconceptions. There is fresh spirit of truth and joy in these writings that filled me and made me thirst for more of the same. I had listened to three quarters of The Princess and Curdie by the day Jesse died. I finished that book about 10 days after. Everything is now before Jesse died (BJD) and after Jesse died (AJD). Today is 20 days AJD.

So the past couple of days I have been re-listening to Getting to Know Jesus and today on the way to the grocery store the sermon called “Sorrow – The Pledge of Joy” came on. It is a talk on Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” How much more alive did this sermon sound today than the first time I heard it. I hung on every word. This piece is the most encouraging comforting thing on mourning the dead I have ever heard. In the first paragraph MacDonald writes, “Grief is an ill-favored thing, but she is Love’s own child, and her mother loves her.”

You can read the entire sermon here but I will share a couple of passages that mean so much to me right now….

First this:

Much of what goes by the name of comfort, is merely worthless; and such as could be comforted by it, I should not care to comfort. Let time do what it may to bring the ease of oblivion; let change of scene do what in it lies to lead thought away from the vanished; let new loves bury grief in the grave of the old love: consolation of such sort could never have crossed the mind of Jesus. Would The Truth call a man blessed because his pain would sooner or later depart, leaving him at best no better than before, and certainly poorer–not only the beloved gone, but the sorrow for him too, and with the sorrow the love that had caused the sorrow? Blessed of God because restored to an absence of sorrow? Such a God were fitly adored only where not one heart worshipped in spirit and in truth.

“The Lord means of course,” some one may say, “that the comfort of the mourners will be the restoration of that which they have lost.” He means, “Blessed are ye although ye mourn, for your sorrow will be turned into joy.”

Yes, the only real comfort in the death of a loved one is that the dead one lives again and we will one day be reunited in even greater joy than before. At least for me there is no comfort in statements like “he lives on in our memories.” Memories are nice things, but I want him to live on as himself.

The next passage perfectly captures the feelings of a mother grieving a child. She does not want to hear that time will lessen the pain. She hardly cares about her pain. Her concern is that her child is okay and that she will see him again.

Assuredly they who mourn for their sins will be gloriously comforted, but certainly such also as are bowed down with any grief. The Lord would have us know that sorrow is not a part of life; that it is but a wind blowing throughout it, to winnow and cleanse. Where shall the woman go whose child is at the point of death, or whom the husband of her youth has forsaken, but to her Father in heaven? Must she keep away until she knows herself sorry for her sins? How should that woman care to be delivered from her sins, how could she accept any comfort, who believed the child of her bosom lost to her for ever? Would the Lord have such a one be of good cheer, of merry heart, because her sins were forgiven her? Would such a mother be a woman of whom the saviour of men might have been born? If a woman forget the child she has borne and nourished, how shall she remember the father from whom she has herself come? The Lord came to heal the broken-hearted; therefore he said, ‘Blessed are the mourners.’ Hope in God, mother, for the deadest of thy children, even for him who died in his sins. Thou mayest have long to wait for him–but he will be found. It may be, thou thyself wilt one day be sent to seek him and find him. Rest thy hope on no excuse thy love would make for him, neither upon any quibble theological or sacerdotal; hope on in him who created him, and who loves him more than thou. God will excuse him better than thou, and his uncovenanted mercy is larger than that of his ministers. Shall not the Father do his best to find his prodigal? the good shepherd to find his lost sheep? The angels in his presence know the Father, and watch for the prodigal. Thou shalt be comforted.

This passage talks about losing a child “who died in his sin,” a horrible thought. I know Jesse wasn’t perfect. None of us is. I am so grateful to have the assurance that he is not suffering. But I can imagine how much hope this would give grieving parents who are worried about that.

jesse universe
Jesse often envisioned the universe in his art. Perhaps now he is seeing things even he never imagined!

After the nightmare: Continuing on with a new kind of life

I have written most of it by hand: the story of the day we found out Jesse had died in his sleep, the moments before, the day before, and the week before, Sunday July 31st, when I had the last long conversation I would ever have with my son in this life. I wrote about the strange things that happened — my premonitions and such. But I have not been able to re-type that story. It makes my breath stop now. A few days ago I was able to write it out and it helped a little. Today I am not even able to read it.

Eventually perhaps I will share the story here, maybe in bits and pieces. You don’t have to read it. It is mostly for me and perhaps the few people who want or need to know how it all happened. I still have trouble getting my mind around the fact –the fact that my worst nightmare has really happened. And yet my worst nightmare could have been worse. He died in his sleep, as surprised by the event as we were.

I believe it was a gentle death. I have to believe that. It seems as if he just sort of slipped away. I have to believe, and do in fact believe, the experience was exponentially more positive for him than it was for us. He experienced love and joy beyond what I can now imagine, though eventually I will try to imagine it, and we only loss and horror.

The horror of it is what struck me today. Though I firmly believe in life after death, that the essence of a human being lives on and that we do not lose who we truly are, the death of the body is a horror and is of evil. Even Jesus wept when Lazarus died and even he sweat blood in anticipation of his own horrific death. And Jesus knew more surely than anyone about the life of the soul and the eventual resurrection of the body. Death is not right and it should not happen. Heaven is the reality where things are right and as they should be. Therefore there can be no death in heaven and there must be correction of all things that are evil, especially the ultimate evil, death. I believed this before my son died but now the belief is absolutely essential to my ability to continue living.

To “continue living” means something different to me now than it did prior to August 8th. I have always loved the verse that says “Seek first the kingdom of God….” but wasn’t clear on all it meant. It was a lovely thought but mostly theoretical. Now seeking the kingdom of heaven is my lifeline to….life. The only life is the real life, the kind Jesus talked about when he offered the living water to the Samaritan woman at the well. Life can no longer refer merely to the physical one that is supposed to end when you are “threescore and ten and if by reason of strength fourscore.” Not when my son’s physical life was onescore and three. True life for me has to mean the life Jesse now continues to live.

I find my only refuge from the pain is in deep prayer and meditation. There I do find comfort. But I am still only just learning to do this effectively. When I get “there”, though I do find great comfort, I have the sense that I have only dipped my toe into the living water – that there is much more life to be had. Sometime I will try to write about that too, for those who might be interested.

After death: Dealing with the details

There are many things you have to deal with when someone close to you dies. Jesse’s life was short and included but little baggage, and yet there is still aftermath. For example the Portsmouth cops took Jesse’s computer and cell phone and won’t give them back, at least not so far. The detective says they have to finish the “investigation.” Even though we nor he have any reason to think there was a crime committed. It seems to be part of the procedure when a young person is found dead for no obvious reason. I sent the detective an email this morning to check on the status:

Hello Detective Clinton,

I hope your investigations are going well. If the FBI is somehow able to crack into my son Jesse’s computer please tell them there is some artwork on there we would like to retrieve. He did a lot of amazing digital art, and I am told by his friends that some of it should be on that computer. Whatever they do, please tell them not to destroy or damage any files.

We are going to be starting a foundation that sells prints of Jesse’s art to raise money to help the working poor of Portsmouth and Suffolk. We have lots of physical artwork, but he did even more digital art.

Let us know when we can come pick up the items you took.

Thank you,

Carol Apple

The day I wrote my son’s obituary

Just before 1:00 pm on August 8th I found out my 23-year old son was dead. The next day my husband and I met with a funeral director and planned his funeral. I then went home, sat in a chair for hours and eventually wrote this obituary. Today is two weeks and two days after I wrote that obituary and I am still shell shocked. On this blog I will write the story of my son and how it is that his life ended four months before he would have been 24. I will do this because I am a writer and because my son was a good person who deserves to be honored and remembered. I will also do it because I need to find some way to face the rest of my life without Jesse.

I have some notions about how the rest of my life might be worth something, and all of my ideas begin in the realm of the spiritual. I cannot break the spiritual connection with my child, so I have no choice but to go where he is. Though I still walk around for the time in my material body, part of each day my mind goes to the realm of God, where my son is in the presence of Jesus Christ. I know of no other way to go on living on earth as more than an empty shell. Some people might cope with the death of their child in different ways, but I can only tell you about my way.