In the year and nine months since Jesse died I have focused primarily on where and what he is now — or I have remembered him as he was when he was with us, with much scouring of the past to understand what had happened. I prayed, I meditated, I developed a close relationship with the spiritual world. I even (recently) visited a spiritual medium and had a profound experience that leaves no doubt in my mind that Jesse lives and is in a good and happy place. Perhaps I will write about that at some point.
But there is another aspect of Jesse’s death that has been even harder to deal with: the aspect that began with the funeral and ended with the burial, a blur in my memory, a day I can hardly bear to think of, one of many days I spent feeling exactly like there was a dagger in my heart. At the same time, I am aware that the love shown by friends and family that day was a great light in the darkness. I will be forever grateful for all of those who showed up, called, sent cards, spent time talking, and prayed or us. No one could have made it less sad, but many people made the funeral a loving and beautiful testimony to Jesse’s life. Now his body, the body I gave birth to, lies in a grave at Holly Lawn Cemetery, a fact I have had a very difficult time coming to terms with.
To tell this difficult story, I turned to poetry. (Please don’t expect Shakespearean or Emily Dickinsonesque literary talent here. This is mere therapy.)
The first year, I didn’t go at all,
traumatized to oblivion by the horror
of burying my son, his grave stoneless,
a patch of scraggly earth with a sad plastic sign
his faded picture the only identification.
When a year had passed I went to the
florist, bought three grave vases and bouquets
of carnations and each time I returned
the flowers had died. It was hard to bear
that the grave was still unmarked.
“Please Lord,” I prayed, “Send money
to buy a tomb stone.”
And the money came – an unexpected bonus.
The bill came to the exact amount.
When the grave was 18 months old
they installed the stone engraved
with the date of joy andthe date of grief.
I put live flowers there now. Only
a small pot will fit the marble vase
so I must water them daily.
I could not bear to find them dead.
The first, a pot of purple impatiens,
wilted and nearly died. I took it
home, watered and coaxed it
like an intensive care nurse.
It now flourishes and resides
in my garden where I call it the
Each week I visit the garden store across from
the cemetery. I buy a new potted flower.
The previous one I take home and give it a
place of honor in my garden because
through dark nights and scorching days
it has bravely stood beauty guard
at my son’s grave,
These days I walk along that row of graves,
along a gravel treeless lane,
avenue of early death, where families
had no time to plan the family plot.
They have become family to each other.
Some I have read about in the news —
the toddler who drowned in the pool,
the 22-year old honor student who
died of opioids,
the young man shot downtown.
Almost two years it has taken me
to emerge from the prison of my tragedy
and see the others.
Every time I hear of an overdose,
a suicide, a car accident, a shooting, a drowning,
cancer, or war, that line of graves extends
on and on until the marble stones fade into the horizon.
As the candle wick of 2017 burns down to its last ember, I contemplate the past year. It is Friday, December 29th. A few hours ago Tom and I sat in a the small office of a Mom & Pop outfit called Suffolk Monument Works filling out the paperwork and writing the check for a tombstone for Jesse’s grave. It will take two to three months to get delivered (!) but will be a beautiful rose marble stone with a matching vase for flowers. It will say:
Jesse Thomas Apple
Beloved Son and Brother
December 10, 1992 – August 8, 2016
Artist ~ Scientist
And it will have the Christian fish symbol (or ichthys) that he had tattooed on his chest on his 18th birthday.
I feel a bit out of sorts from the experience of purchasing a tombstone for my child; yet I think, all in all, 2017 was a good year — at least as good as my first full year since 1992 without Jesse in it can be. I can’t feel unambiguously good about anything in this world. Goodness in this present world is never pure light; it’s more like a flashlight in the darkness, but I am grateful for that little light nonetheless. This sense of light in darkness is really only a clearer understanding of something I have felt all my life.
As long as I can remember I have had this thought at the back of my mind, that happiness is not quite real, and if it is real, then it is sort of heartless. Worldly happiness is like being temporarily absorbed by or acting in a movie or a play. I might be at a festival or laughing at a dinner table full of friends and family or I might be dancing at a Christmas party and an image will flash in my mind of shivering people lined up in front of a gas chamber. “That happened,” I think, “to humans just like me — and people are suffering right now.”
I have always felt that happiness is like a bubble, more or less insulated by walls of willful ignorance or forgetfulness or simply disguise. And yet I entered that bubble quite willingly. I wanted to be happy. I think we are meant to desire happiness. Perhaps these mental bubbles are part of God’s provision — as essential to human existence in this world as air and water. Or skin.
There is an allegory by C.S. Lewis I read long ago called The Pilgrim’s Regress, a play on the John Bunyan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the story, the hero encounters a community of miserable people huddled in dark caves. They can see each other’s insides and are full of despair and disgust by the “truth” about what our bodies actually are. The hero is almost sucked in by their reason of despair when he realizes that, in fact, we have skin. The fact is we do not generally need to view or even think about the ugliness of our insides because God has made us with beautiful and pleasing exteriors. What we see and experience with the capacity of our ordinary human senses — that is the level of truth in which we are made to live and thrive.
And yet humans cannot seem to stop at the natural and ordinary. We have this tendency to take a good thing too far, to take honest human pleasure and expand it until the truth fibers are so stretched and distorted that its inherent ability to provide pleasure is destroyed. A glass of wine is nice but when you expand the glass of wine into full-blown alcoholism the simple pleasure evaporates, replaced by despair. We are allowed and encouraged to be happy but we let it go too far. We turn happiness into a refusal to acknowledge that suffering has anything to do with us, to actively avoid thinking or caring about anything outside our bubble, to allow ourselves to become callous and functionally heartless.
I am not sure how we are supposed to draw the lines, when we open and shut the doors of our hearts, when to cast our pearls and when to preserve them. I suspect that coming to terms with decisions like these is a huge part of growing as human souls. If we find that sweet narrow path to the kingdom, that perfect balance, we grow and thrive. A little to one side and our hearts freeze and die; a little to the other and we drown in the world’s heartbreak and sorrow. However, to drown in heartbreak is better than to die with a cold calcified heart. So if we must err, we kind of know in which direction to lean. Hint: The right choice is almost always the more difficult one.
The day Jesse died my bubble burst completely and in those first months I stood uninsulated in the raw wind and fire of suffering. Perhaps some people would have sought drugs to help with the emotional pain. I knew in my heart that would be a mistake for me. There was a point in the week after the funeral when I fully understood what hell feels like. My body was in great pain and suddenly burst into the feeling of being on fire, and I don’t mean in any sort of romantic or metaphorical sense. No — this was intensely painful, like being on fire but not physically burning.
Fortunately I thought to call out to the Lord Jesus and He came quickly and tamped down the flames. Then He comforted me with a vision of Jesse with Him in a garden. In that vision Jesse looked a bit contrite, but safe and protected and I had the sense he was okay. Later I received knowledge in visions that he had adjusted to his new life and is happy.
So all through 2017 I have slowly, carefully built a fragile new membrane of happiness. The walls of my new bubble will always be thin. I wouldn’t have them any other way. They are no longer built to block out suffering but rather to stay close to the spiritual world where Jesse lives so that I can better prepare to enter there when my turn comes. I have a sharper awareness that this life is fleeting and then we continue our soul’s journey in a different kind of existence, in a world where the light of happiness is full and permanent.
After Jesse died, I told God I was finished and He could take me home now. He said “Not quite.” The message I “hear” is that I should think, learn, and write and then think, learn, and write some more. By doing this with an attitude of patience, love and forgiveness, I am supposed to develop into a better human soul. God does not seem to expect much from me, but what He expects, He really expects.
With these small things in mind I resolve to write more regularly in 2018, starting with my neglected blogs. This piece is here on Jesse’s blog because it has so much to do with him and because he is so much on my mind. This year I want to write much more for my current events/politics/philosophy blog, which is called “isaythiswithlove.wordpress.com”. And I have an idea for anew “epistolary” blog to promote the lost art of letter writing. Who knows. It may turn out to be the last attempt to promote letter writing in human history.
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.
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.
Feeling freaked out and scared and tired of trying to be positive and strong. We have not yet received a final death certificate and both insurance companies are “following up” and asking why I have not “provided the documentation they requested” and the funeral home is asking if we can pay more out of pocket since it is taking so long to get the insurance payment. The funeral home did a wonderful job and they deserve to get paid. It was quite an event. I was really hoping the next hugely expensive event in our lives would be a wedding, perhaps Jesse’s wedding, and not a funeral, but it is what it is and people need to be paid for their services. I really became aware of how needed the services of a professional funeral home are when the time comes.
But Jesse Jesse – why did this happen? Just a clue from the medical examiner would be so helpful. Maybe even a hint as to why it is taking so long to get results. All our guesses are just guesses, some of them wild guesses. It could be something really bad like someone slipped him so bad opium the night before or it could be something else really bad like his prescription medication mixed lethally with something else almost as bad like a brain aneurism or a heart defect or an infection that got to his heart. All of these things are nightmares that I would have done anything to prevent happening to my son, but I want to know which nightmare it was. I see these guesses as a deck of cards that I have to keep shuffling and drawing in my mind. If I knew the cause I would have deal with only one card and throw the rest of the wretched deck in the trash. It might be they can’t determine the cause. I think I could find peace with that card. I would just see it as the card that says God decided it was time to bring him home.
Also I am feeling the stress of the holidays coming on. I am usually stressed at holidays but now even the thought of Christmas brings me to tears. What will I do when they start playing Christmas music in all the stores? I guess I should be happy Jesse is spending this Christmas in Heaven with the one whose birth we celebrate, and I will try to be happy about that, but my throat is as tight as a bowstring as I write this and my face feels like it is going to explode with grief. And I just miss Jesse and wish he were here and I was getting ready to buy him Christmas and birthday presents and paying college tuition instead of funeral expenses.
For Jesse’s birthday, December 10th, I am thinking of having some kind of gathering for friends and family – a dinner, a potluck maybe, and then go out the grave with some candles with whoever wants to come and say a few words and perhaps lay a Christmas wreath on the grave. My appointment with the psychotherapist last week was cancelled due to the flood and has not been rescheduled. I may still go through with trying to meet with her but have doubts that it will do a bit of good. Christmas will still come and Jesse will not be here for it. I don’t think anyone but God can help me with that.
One day this past week I could not stop thinking “I should have known. Something must have been wrong. I should have seen.” Which day was that? It doesn’t matter because I have this same day again and again. I have other kinds of days too. The “Jesse would want me to be happy” kind of day is one of the better ones. But every so often the “I should have known” day rolls around. What should I have known? I don’t know exactly but my mind says, “I should have been quicker or more observant. There must have been signs and I was not quick enough or observant enough to see them.”
Just for the record, it is now two months after the event and we still do not have a cause of death. We have lots of maddening conjectures and theories but we really don’t know anything except that my son went to bed one night and did not wake up. He had some prescription medications. No other drugs were found in his room.
The previous Sunday, July 31st, I experienced a very intense and horrible premonition. I have gone over that day in my mind a hundred times, and I have told the story to several people who, bless their hearts, have listened sympathetically. But I need to write it down. Maybe that way I will begin to get it out of my system. I feel like there is a clue in that day that I am missing. Here’s what happened Sunday July 31st, one week before Jesse died:
He always came over for Sunday dinner because Sunday was his only day off from work. He also was in the habit of sleeping most of the day Sunday, “to catch up.” All his life, literally from birth, Jesse had sleep problems – problems getting to sleep and problems waking up. I talked to his pediatrician about it when he was little. I got lot of advice. One suggestion was when all else fails, there’s always Benadryl. I may have resorted to that once or twice, but did not like to depend of drugs to get him to sleep. As he got older he developed coping mechanisms to deal with his sleep issues, but it was always a struggle, especially school mornings. With 20/20 hindsight I now wish I had thought to have a sleep study done.
That Sunday morning I texted Jesse about dinner plans, as I always did. I didn’t get a response. Later I called, but he didn’t answer the phone. I tried texting and calling periodically throughout the day, becoming increasingly concerned. By the time he was supposed to be at our house for dinner I felt panic rising, an ominous feeling that things were not right. Just before 7 pm, I decided to drive to his apartment at Churchland Square, about 20 minutes from our house, thinking I might even pass him on the way. When I got to the apartment I saw his car in the parking lot. It was pouring rain that night, one of those Biblical deluges we keep getting around here. I banged on his apartment door.
He lived on the second floor and the outer door opened to a staircase leading to the inner door, so I don’t know how he would ever hear anyone knocking on that door. No one knocks anymore anyway. You just text that you are at the door. But I had already done that and called too and had gotten no answer. All my texts and phones calls seemed to be getting swallowed by black hole of silence. Then I sat in my car for 30 minutes in tears. “Dear Lord,” I prayed, “I just want to know that he’s okay. Just let me see that he’s okay. That’s all I ask.” I had never felt such a sense of fear before and had never prayed so hard and so directly in my life. Tom called and said I should just come home. Dinner was getting cold and anyway Jesse’s roommate would be home soon and he said he would check on him and call us.
A few minutes later Jesse’s roommate Kyle called Aaron, who was on a camping trip, and Aaron called Tom to tell him Kyle said Jesse was sleeping. It seemed a long chain to go through to get information, and I still didn’t feel sure all was well. Around 8:00 Jesse finally called. He said he was sorry, he just overslept. He would be over shortly. I collapsed into a chair in utter relief. “Thank you God!” I said. Everything was fine. I was just crazy. Thank God it was just me being crazy.
A little while later Jesse came over and when I saw him standing in the doorway I felt that same gush of grateful desperate relief I had been feeling all year every time I saw him, except this time more so. I told him I had been worried but didn’t tell him how worried. After all, my worry, I thought, was an unreasonable overreaction. Jesse was a healthy young adult after all. He had just had a thorough checkup in July.
“Jesse,” I said, “Did you take any substance that might have made you sleep extra hard?” “All I took was half a five-milligram melatonin,” he said. “I always sleep hard and I turn my phone off when I’m sleeping.” I felt relieved all over again and let myself be reassured. Then he sat down and we had a long pleasant conversation about this and that – work, his plans for taking online classes, his new campaign for Portsmouth mayor (a little shocking), and things going on in downtown Portsmouth. He showed us the mayor website his friend at work had just created. He seemed happy and enjoying his life.
Before he left he asked to borrow $100. Since moving out on his own a little more than a year ago, he had never asked to borrow money before and seemed a little uncomfortable about it. His rent, he said, was higher than usual for some reason, maybe because they had gone on a month-to-month lease recently. I gave him $150 and he said he’d pay it back on payday. I said we always help each other when we can and suggested he consider moving back home for a few months to save some money, especially if he was going back to school. He got a strange look in his eye – surprised and, I think, kind of pleased. “I’ll think about that,” he said. Tom said if he ever got short on money not to skimp on food because he could always come to us for help if he needed it. “You’re looking a little thin,” he said.
I spent that week doing the usual things, feeling good about life. A couple times I drove by Shiny Computers on my home from work and saw his car in the parking lot. All was well. Thursday, August 4th, I texted him that we were planning a trip to see his aunt and uncle in the mountains the weekend of the 26th if he wanted to come. He texted back that he’d see if he could get off work that weekend. That was the last time I heard from my son on this earth.
Sunday morning, August 7th, I texted him about dinner plans and did not get a reply. I texted and called several times throughout the day. “We’re having a repeat of last week,” I thought. But every time I started to feel the panic rising I would take a breath and calm myself, remembering how last week I had gotten myself all in a tizzy for nothing.
Tom grilled burgers and he, Aaron, and I sat down for dinner. Jesse didn’t show up. “Should I go over there?” I thought. “No,” I decided. He is an adult. He overslept again. But by the next morning I had not heard from him, and I knew in my heart something was wrong. Later that morning, while I was at work, I called Shiny Computers. The guy who answered said, “Jesse’s around here somewhere. I’ll have him call ya.” Then I “heard” the words – the silent but clear voice that seemed to come from my chest. “Carol,” said the voice. “It was time for him to go home.” The tone was compassionate but firm. My body reacted by melting into a quivering gelatinous mess. My mind went numb to the words.
I called Tom but didn’t tell him about the voice. “I’m going over to Shiny Computers right now,” I said. “I have not heard from Jesse and I need to see him.” Tom said he was heading that way anyway so he would go there and call me as soon as he got there. Thirty minutes later he called. “Jesse never showed up for work today,” he said. “I’m heading over to his apartment.” I was shaking. My body already knew what my mind was denying. A few minutes later the phone rang again and I got the news. That was the single most awful moment of my life. It plays over and over in my head. “Carol (ragged breath), Jesse is dead….” How does one take that in? I had heard that voice – “Carol it was time for him to go home” and this was the confirmation.
It is now two months later and I know it is not fair to Aaron to have a miserable mother. Aaron fills my heart with joy, just like Jesse always did, and I am so grateful for him. He is a wonderful, compassionate, resourceful, talented young man. But we are all sad. I feel the loss of Jesse as a crushing weight. I am quite functional, going about my life, working, writing, cooking, cleaning, only with a leaden weight in my chest that frequently swells and sends stabbing pains all over my body. I have read several books and blogs on grieving and losing a child but I can’t read them long. The gist seems to be that people do not recover from this kind of loss. Five, fifteen, twenty years later they are still sad and a lot of times their lives and families are impacted negatively.
These books are depressing. Most of them will say, rather weakly, that there can be some recovery, a “new normal”, a new way to live with some sense of happiness. One book (Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies by Ronald J. Knapp, PhD) says that the death of a child is much like a diagnosis of terminal illness. Well that’s a cheery thought. Most experts define a “child” as a young person into the early twenties, but I imagine the trauma is the same for parents who outlive a child of any age. I have about decided that these books are just not helpful to me.
On the hopeful side, I have an appointment with a psychotherapist/grief counselor on Monday and will see where that goes. I owe it to Aaron, Tom, and the rest of the world to do anything I can to live a productive life for whatever time I have left. Tom and I met with our wonderful accountant yesterday about setting up a charitable foundation in Jesse’s name and honor. That gives me a tiny glimmer of joy. I’ll have more information about that soon.
I have been through the severest emotional wringer and I know I have not yet emerged from the other side; however something must have loosened up last night because this morning I feel something different from the usual leaden lump of sadness. It is like a wider more philosophical view of life has opened up, a sort of heightened awareness of being part of something more vast than the little life I lived before August 8th 2016, that life as the mother of two sons I expected would both live long happy lives in 21st century middle-class America.
I can see that life now from a bit of a distance and realize how much I identified with that narrative. I don’t say that was wrong. I think we are supposed to live the time and culture we live in. We are supposed to – some of us – get married and raise children and do all the things parents in our culture think we need to do for our children’s welfare.
This is all fine and good, but if God or circumstances happens to rip a jagged hole in that narrative, then we find ourselves forced into new insight – the insight that the life we knew was only a bubble in a universe of possibilities, a beautiful and blessed bubble, but a bubble all the same. God’s plan for each of us goes far beyond our life in a bubble. For those of us who have lost a child, the departure of that soul has seared a gaping hole in the sweet membrane and those of us who remain cannot just stitch up the hole and continue living inside as if nothing devastating had happened. Well maybe we could stitch it up and try to go on living just as before – but what a diminished life that would be, missing one of the stars of the story in a poorly patched bubble.
I need to tear that old bubble down. It is a totaled car, a condemned building. It has undergone a storm from which its flimsy walls cannot recover. I need to build a much bigger bubble that can encompass the massive size of our loss. The loss is so huge that it seems to take up more emotional space than the life of my son occupied in the old bubble. I know that sounds odd. What I mean is that the life of that child has now extended into eternity and my mind must expand to reach him there. The new narrative has to be spacious enough to include a child in Heaven. It must have enough space to accommodate the oceans of love needed to heal the hurt, disappointment, and lost dreams that his loss has left in its vast wake.
My bubble metaphor is inadequate, but all metaphors are flawed. Metaphors are only tools to help us get some kind of a grasp on the eternal realities that buffet our hearts and lives. Bubbles. How else can I describe those little lives that we protect with the sheer energy of our minds and beliefs? How else do we gain any sense of safety and control? Anyone who reads history or watches the world news knows that, rationally speaking, this life is fragile. Yet we are able to create a sanguine reality for our families. And God protects our bubbles of safety, holding them gently in his hands, knowing they are precious and as real as He allows them to be. He loves our narratives and wants us to live happy life stories.
Yet He does not remove the possibility and eventuality of death. Sure, it does not seem natural when it is a child or young adult who dies. But it happens quite often. I know I will never again read or hear about the death of a young person without thinking of the parents with empathy and saying an earnest prayer for the future that awaits them.
Today I am grateful for the lovely story I got to live from the moment of Jesse’s birth to the day of his death when our story abruptly changed. I am still adjusting to this exquisitely painful change, but I am beginning to accept that it is what it is. I choose to trust that God is in control, that He has Jesse in his capable and loving hand, and also holds the rest of us. I am still here in this body but am more acutely aware of the temporary nature of this earth life. As for what exactly happens after death I trust the details to God. I know we have a glorious ultimate purpose and I’m pretty sure it has to do with learning the true nature of love, but I trust God to show me the way, moment by moment. He knows that’s all I can handle right now.
Kind people often ask me how I am doing. I have settled on a standard answer: “Okay.” It is almost true. I am not doing horribly. I am going about my life and can still find pleasure in a cup of coffee or a conversation with a friend. Though it surprises me to be able to say this, seven weeks after the death of my son, I am still a functioning human unit. But even say, though I will tell people I am “okay” I am forever changed and perhaps my outward life will soon reflect that.
One thing I keep reminding myself it that millions of people die every day, many of them with living parents. Death is a natural part of life, blah blah blah….I knew that before this happened. I try to understand why it is so different when the person who has passed on is my child. But the fact is it is different. Very different. It is like a stab to my own personal heart, worse than my own death, because it is a living death. When your body dies you live again in a new form. When someone who is a part of you dies, you have to keep living with death dragging you down inside. Maybe this is the hardest part of it.
How can you purge yourself of your child’s presence? Also how to incorporate the knowledge that your most sacred charge on earth –to keep him alive — has failed? Rationally I do not know what I could have done to prevent Jesse’s death, but there is that persistent instinct that I have failed in what I thought was my life’s highest purpose and all my sub-purposes are tainted and stripped of light and joy.
And yet I am doing sort of okay. On some level I know I did okay in my job as Jesse’s Mom. I might even get a B+ on my final report card in the subject of Parenthood. It’s just that the Jesse part of the job is over. Jesse finished his purpose in life earlier than I expected, and I have not yet finished mine. Therefore, my purpose or mission is not done. Obviously not, since I have another son who needs me. But I sense that parenthood is not my only reason for being here. I never really thought it was, except that when Jesse died, I realized the extent to which I had identified as his mother. I mean, it’s not that I didn’t realize it was important while he was alive. I poured everything I had into the job. It’s just that, I never realized the extent to which he had become intertwined with my identity.
So what am I to do now? I used to like doing things — like art and writing and had ideas about a direction to go with those things. But now somehow I have little enthusiasm about those ideas. I can barely remember what those ideas were. Sometimes I pray to the Lord to send me a scripture to give me a clue about what I ought to do. This morning Psalm 42 flashed in my head. It is the one that starts “As the deer pants for water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.” I did see two deer yesterday in a field near my house.
I read the psalm and it did speak to me. It is all about the psalmist’s spirit being cast down and needing to find comfort through hope in God. Well in this time of my life where else can I find hope or comfort? When your child has left the earth there is nowhere else to go except despair or amnesia, and neither of those options appeal to me. Because of that circle of hope shining through the dark shadow of death, I can still find mild pleasure in a cup of coffee or good music or conversation with a friend.
Psalm 42 (NKJV)
1 As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
4 When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.[c]
6 O my God,[d] my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
7 Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
8 The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
9 I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.