I used to write Christmas letters

I used to write those letters every year, summing up the life of the Apple family in the past 12 months. I remember the joyful one I wrote in 1996, the year Aaron was born. I remember bits of several them: “This year the boys started kindergarten and third grade” or “This year the boys were in fifth and eighth grade” or “This year Jesse started high school…” or “Aaron pitched for Pony League this year and Jesse ran cross-country and track” or “We enjoyed a fun bicycle trip to Lancaster….”

I haven’t written one of these letters in the past few years. I got off track. I had a few Christmases in which I lacked Christmas spirit. Shame on me. It seems so silly now not to appreciate all the blessings I had each and every year. What would I write in a year like this one?

“Dear Friends,

It started out as a fantastic year. We were feeling hopeful with the guys busy embarking on their exciting careers. Things changed the day Jesse died in August. The last four months of 2106 were a blur of grief. My life fell off a spiritual cliff but fortunately I was caught in the arms of the Lord Jesus before I hit bottom. The rest of my life must be a matter of trusting Him to lift me up and eventually reunite me with my son. If I fail to trust him I will crash and burn in the pit of grief; therefore, if I want to experience any more light and hope in my existence I have no choice but to trust him.”

That’s about it. I have made my choice. Between light and hope and crashing and burning, I guess I choose light and hope. Sadness is heavy like lead and there is nothing on this earth that can really lighten the weight. Only God in the person of his son Jesus Christ has the strength and the promise and the ability  to relieve the sadness and redeem the fact of death. I used to think the idea of dying – as in ceasing to exist – was intolerable and therefore I sought to believe the one who said he came to overcome death. But if I thought my cessation would be intolerable, the idea that my child could cease to exist was 1000 times more so. If I believed Jesse had ceased to exist I would want to cease to exist myself just stop the agony of that thought. In that direction lies the abyss, annihilation, and darkness. I don’t want those things especially because I believe in my heart they are lies. The truth is an existence of love and everlasting life. The truth is light as in not heavy and also light as in not dark.

I could wish that it were more generally accepted that our loved ones live on, that we are conscious spirits who do not die when our physical bodies die, that we simply transition to a new level of existence. Everybody says they believe that and yet they feel sorry for me that I lost my son. I appreciate the love and sympathy because losing a child is hard and the death of the body and the end of the life as we knew it is horrible. All death is horrible. But I wish we all really believed that our loved ones are absolutely as alive as we are, far more so. I wish we all accepted that as established fact.

That way when I run into someone in the grocery store they could talk about their Johnny in college and I could matter-of-factly talk about my Jesse in heaven and no one would feel awkward or sad, once the initial shock of the great transition had passed. It is also sad to say good-bye to your kids when they go away to college or into the military too. It’s just that it may be a little longer before I get to see my son again. But even that is not certain.

Trying my best to deal with his birthday and Christmas

Well it’s Jesse’s birthday and Christmas season and everyone is celebrating. We are having a little get-together this Saturday to celebrate what would have been his 24th birthday. I have bought table cloths and am planning the deli tray and have ordered a cake: carrot with cream cheese icing, his favorite. I had them write on it “Jesse Forever.” I have even bought party favors: colorful pencils from Oriental Traders with “IMO Jesse: Hardknocksent.com” printed on them – the working name of the charity we are trying to start in his memory.

image
Jesse loved birthdays. He had a party every year from age one to age 12. At 13 he decided he only wanted family parties.

And I am having trouble not wanting to lay down and die. I don’t have the spirit to fake cheerfulness anymore. I don’t want to bring people down and try hard not to do that. But this blog is the one place I have to be perfectly honest and no one is under any obligation to read it. The truth is my heart feels like a block of lead in my chest cavity. In past years I have had Christmas music in my heart at this time of year. Now there is nothing in there but silence and the occasional dull thud. But I keep getting out of bed in the morning and trying. Rationally I know it is not yet my time. I have not yet reached my threescore and ten. Threescore and ten, by the way, is exactly how much time my Mom got. It feels so far away ….. it’s hard to see how I am going to make it to that finish line.

I am getting things done – things that in another context might feel like exciting accomplishments but in the current context just make me sad. I created a page on Fine Art America to sell Jesse’s art on all kinds of products. Aaron did an excellent job of creating super high-quality scans, so Jesse’s designs look good even blown up to the size of a shower curtain, one of the products we offer. I have put links on Facebook telling people that his artwork is available as prints, cards, tee-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. and I told them that that any profits go to starting the charity.

So far the page has  gotten almost 500 visits but no one has bought a single item. I really believe I have some kind of sales-repelling vibe. I have never been able to get anyone to buy anything. But Jesse’s designs are so beautiful and we have tons of things that would make great gifts and it is Christmas shopping season and it’s for a good cause. And yet our sales add up to exactly $0.00. Maybe people don’t like Jesse’s art as much as they say they do. Maybe the products are too expensive. We don’t get much of the total cost. If something on the site costs $20.00, we might get $2.00. We don’t have the money to front the printing costs right now, so this is the only way we can afford to do it.

I do not know how to cheer myself up. I don’t know how to think about my life anymore. I have spent the last four months trying to find some positive hopeful redeeming way to think about Jesse death, something that will make if possible for me to keep living some kind of meaningful life. I have found strengthened faith in the promises and reality of Jesus Christ. There is much hope there. But it doesn’t seem to help much with my remaining years here on earth. It just makes me want to go where Jesse is.

Doing distracting things like social events doesn’t help at all. Parties and festivities only make me feel worse. What does help a little is people who tell me good things about what Jesse meant to them, and time alone with God gives me more comfort than anything else. I am going through the Psalms right now, one per day. This morning Psalm 30 gave me about as much comfort as anything has since Jesse’s died.

Psalm 30

I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up,
And have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried out to You,
And You healed me.
O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.a]”>[a]

Sing praise to the Lord, you saints of His,
And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.b]”>[b]
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.

Now in my prosperity I said,
“I shall never be moved.”
Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;
You hid Your face, and I was troubled.

I cried out to You, O Lord;
And to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth?
10 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”

11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

Almost four months later: Some thank you’s are in order

It’s a banner day in our post-Jesse life. Today we paid the remaining 8500 bucks for the funeral. Many thanks to our families who helps us foot the pre-insurance payment costs and many thanks to my mother who had the prudence to take out a Gerber life insurance policies for each of her grandchildren when they came into the world. There is nothing worse than the loss of a child except maybe losing a child then not being able to afford the funeral and burial costs.

Thanks to my wonderful mother, who I am sure is now spending lots of quality time with her oldest grandson, we were at least spared the pain of going into debt to pay for the funeral. Gerber Life Insurance, by the way, is ultra cheap – a few bucks a month, and when it came to filing a claim, they were compassionate and responsive. And most importantly, they paid it.

I’d also like to say that R.W. Baker Funeral Home in downtown Suffolk was the best it could be under the horrible circumstances. Our funeral director Blake was compassionate, professional, and patient. He knew how to smooth every rough spot that was in his power to smooth. His suggestions were timely, wise, and not pushy. He dealt with the cemetery and medical examiner so that we did not have to make difficult phone calls. He directed complicated traffic at a very crowded funeral full of people who had never gone to a funeral before and somehow got the cars in line for the burial afterwards. The funeral home staff took pictures of all the flowers and cards and sent everything home to us in a nice package. Finally they were patient and understanding about collecting payment for services, even though we had delays due to autopsy results and insurance payment. I have never before fully appreciated the value of a skilled funeral director. I am not anxious to employ their services any time soon, but I would not choose anyone else if it ever, God forbid, became necessary.

While I am thanking people, I should say how much we appreciated the presence and compassion of our pastor at large, Skip Irby. His visits, along with his wife Chris, were bright spots during a dark time and the funeral service he led was beautiful. The beauty of the service was largely due to the music played by our friend and organist extraordinaire, Dean Kershaw. The ladies of West End put together a lovely reception after the burial, something that would have been entirely out of my power to do, in the state I was in that week.

The magnitude of the Jesse’s loss was at least partly put into balance by the beautiful send-off we were able to give him, which was made possible by friends, family, wonderful professionals, West End Baptist Church, and my Mom – still helping us five years after her own passing. I have heard Jesse’s voice in my heart saying that he watched the funeral and was amazed. He said it was really nice.

the-day-after-funeral
I don’t have a single photo the day of the funeral. However, the day after, August 14th, all my travelling family members went out to breakfast at Egg Bistro and then to a nearby park were Aaron took this photo. How can we look so happy? Well even in the saddest of occasions it’s good to see family that rarely gets together. The worst time for me came the following week.

I should also confess that out of all the flowers and the piles of cards we received, I have only sent a few thank you notes. I intended thank everybody and I hope to still do that. Hopefully I have not missed the deadline. It’s just that every card I write is an emotionally intense experience and more than I could handle in the past months. My heart is calming  down – trying to get used to the intolerable idea of my son being dead. I had been wearing a Fitbit when Jesse died so I could see that my heart rate shot up ten or 12 beats per minute that day and didn’t come back down. The Fitbit broke so I have not checked it in the last week or so.

I am working on getting to an island of peace based on the faith I have and the assurance I have received that Jesse really is in a joyful exciting place with Our Savior, and not just sitting on a puffy cloud playing a harp. Jesse would be miserable if he had to play a harp for an hour let alone eternity.

Besides all the cards and flowers there were a few blessed friends and neighbors who really went the extra mile to call, visit, and pray with us. My wonderful neighbor up the street Tamra Van Dorn was getting ready for another busy school year at Suffolk Christian School where she is the head administrator and also getting her youngest daughter ready to leave home for college. And yet she found time to come and just sit and talk several times. There is a special place in heaven for friends who go the extra mile in the hardest times.