The Strangest Things Trigger Memories

For the past two days, a song has been playing continuously in my head – you know how sometimes you can’t get a tune to stop. “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Yeah — the one who lives by the sea and frolics in the autumn mist on a land called Honah Lee. I’m not exactly sure what sparked this ear worm but it might have started when I saw Beautiful: The Carole King Musical a couple weeks ago. That experience sent me on a musical odyssey down memory lane for the next several days, researching the music and artists of the 1960s. But Puff did not come up in that research even though it was a Peter, Paul & Mary hit in 1963. By the time Puff showed up in my head I had left the ‘60s behind and returned to my regular classical listening habit.

Wait a sec … last week I re-read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for the umpteenth time, a book that refers several times to dragons and also references fairy tales in general  (because fairy tales provided GKC with the foundational template for his belief system). So maybe music from the 1960s combined with G.K. Chesterton and percolated under the surface of my consciousness until the ingredients burst forth in the form of Puff the Magic Dragon.

9144621B-8D4F-42CA-89D1-F504CA2DAF53But I think what kept the song going, the energy that fueled it, is the line, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.” It made me think of Jesse. Not that there is ever a moment that Jesse is not on my mind on some level, but this was a whole new way of thinking about him, set to music. I looked up the lyrics. I figured as long as the song insisted on repeating itself in my head I might as well remember all the verses. The lyrics mention how Puff’s little friend Jackie Paper played pirates and liked to bring him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff, reminding me even more acutely of how Jesse was as a little boy and how intensely, madly even, I loved him. I loved to get him toys – plastic swords from Dollar Tree, pirate ships with little guys, John Smith action figures (from Disney Pocahontas) – and watch how he joyfully embraced every new thing. He liked his toys but even more he loved playing with simple things like string and Scotch tape.

There was only one play thing he ever rejected. I once tried giving him a coloring book. He looked at it and then said with disdain, “I can draw my own pictures.” I think he was three. I never bought him a coloring book again but he went through reams of blank paper.

How can I bear losing that child of my heart and soul? He was so like me, so in me, woven into every fiber of my being. Today it is 20 months since he died but it seems like yesterday. It’s funny that such a silly song should bring the memories so vividly to the surface. Jess didn’t like music all that much, except for the occasional Mozart or Pink Floyd. He would certainly not have liked a jingle like “Puff.” He preferred silence, probably because he was trying so hard to organize and navigate the noise and information flooding his mind.

Better, right now, not to open cans of worms about the difficulty of finding good mental health care. Best to look forward with hope, knowing in my heart he has moved on to a different and better life and I will join him soon enough. All things will, eventually, be rectified, forgiven, resolved, and healed in the light of our Creator’s love. Best to learn as well as I can the painful lessons this life has to teach. And believe.√

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Beginning a new year and a some thoughts about happiness

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.

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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.

 

A year without Jesse: Marking the day

Today is one year since the day we found out Jesse had transitioned to the next world. I do not like to say “died” because the word has so many connotations I do not believe: finality, lack of life, ugly things. He, what he is in truth and spirit, did not die. He transitioned, the same as all of us humans have done or will do. If there is one thing that has become more clear than ever this past year, it is that we are not our bodies.

None of this is to say that I am okay with Jesse’s early departure. I don’t know which state of grieving I am in — I wander back and forth in and out of all of those rooms — except the one labeled “acceptance.” I have not gone into that one. Not ready. And although I know Jesse is still the essence of Jesse, I am not okay that his body lies in a grave at Holly Lawn Cemetery next to the Farm Fresh grocery store. I would give my very life to see him walk and talk in that beloved body one more time.

Yesterday, August 7th, the date I believe he really departed, I visited that grave for the first time since the funeral. I just have not been able to go. I had to walk in the park adjacent to the cemetery for several days before I could bring myself to go. Closer and closer every day for a week. When I went I brought a bouquet of bright yellow daisies. I cleaned up some old flowers someone had brought and felt very little that I didn’t already feel. He was not there. Today Tom and I went again with more flowers. We talked about getting a nice head stone, what we want it to say. This is a conversation I never wanted to have and still don’t want to have. But his memorial is important and needs attention.

I remember 20 years ago when we were having our house built in Suffolk and I’d drive out from Norfolk and drive around and dream of raising our little boys in this town, discovering the places to go — how long would it take to get from our new house to Farm Fresh. I didn’t notice Holly Lawn cemetery next door to it. If I had noticed it I never would have dreamed that the little boy, whose every reaction to every new thing in his life I cherished, would lie in a grave in that cemetery by 2017. His body that is….

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August 1997: Moving into the new house
I remember the day we moved into our brand new empty house and four-year-old Jesse ran up and down the stairs and in circles around the family room with his toddler brother and said with wonder in his sweet voice, “Are we going to live here forever?” He did live there all the years of his life on earth except the last one, but lives forever in a place I hope to join him soon enough. Then it will be my turn to run around in joy and be amazed at where we will live forever.

Remembering conversations with Jesse on an important anniversary

Today I found out one of my close co-workers, a man I worked with for eight years, passed away this past Friday. I should say I officially found out. I already sort of knew. Fred was in the ICU Friday morning and was being removed from life support. As I worked on the computer in my living room on Friday afternoon, I suddenly felt that buzz in the air that I have learned to recognize as a visit from the recently departed, perhaps saying good-bye. I felt that buzz the day Jesse died but I did not know at the time he had died and did not recognize the phenomenon for what it was. I wonder – has anyone else had this experience?

I wanted to be sure to write something today because today is the one-year anniversary of the last time I saw Jesse on this earth, July 31, 2016. It was a rainy Sunday with the kind of torrential summer downpours we often get around here, and he was supposed to have come for dinner but had overslept and I had been having a horrible premonitions all day and was worried sick about him and then he came over around 10 pm and we had a long and lovely conversation.

Talking with Jesse was always a delight to me. It was sometimes hard to get him started but once he started talking he always surprised you with the depth and originality of his thoughts and his unique perspective on things. He always knew more about the subject than you realized he knew. And he was so dry and funny! How I miss our conversations and wish I could hear his take on all the crazy current events. It hardly matters what his take would be — the joy would be to hear his voice expressing his unique opinion. The only thing about his opinion I ever cared about was that it was his opinion.

The year Jesse was four years old I kept a journal and then typed all the journal entries into a little homemade book called “Being Four.” I found that journal a couple months after he died. Here are a couple of conversations recorded that year. The first one devastated me when I first found it. It occurred around January 14, 1997. The second one is dated January 31st.

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Consciousness and body: Thoughts and memories

What is this life anyway? Suddenly out of nowhere, as young children, we become cognizant that that we exist. Is there one moment that this happens, like a bolt of lightning, or is it a gradual process? I guess I should not refer to my own experience as “we” because it’s too much to assume that my experience is the same as that of other people.

I remember when I was three years old, watching my Mom ironing, and being acutely aware of existing as a self or consciousness. I wondered if other people were like me – looking at the world from the inside, like looking out of a window – but I don’t remember the exact moment I became aware like this. I have always been aware of myself as a consciousness that interacts through my body but which is a separate entity from the body, dependent on the body to interact with the world but not dependent on the body for existence. There have been times in my life when I was so insanely busy with the activities of life, such as when my kids were in school and sports, that I forgot for years at a time that my self and my body were not one and same thing. But whenever I have slowed down enough to contemplate, I remember and get that awareness again.

I’ve always assumed that other people have the same sense of essential self but now I am wondering if this is an incorrect assumption. For example, I have come across quite a number of people who proudly claim to be pure materialistic atheists. They say they believe this material world is all there is. So then ….. I guess they must not perceive themselves as a consciousness separate from their material body. Otherwise, how could they believe there is nothing other that the world of matter?

I suppose there must be a variety of ways to perceive our own existence, but the only one I can experience directly is my own. Reading and writing fiction – or acting – are ways we can imagine experiencing the consciousness of another person, but we still have to draw upon our own consciousness to even imagine. Since Jesse died I have done a lot of reading on the nature of consciousness and especially near death experiences. From my reading I gather that when some people leave their bodies they can then experience the consciousness of other beings.

For example, in Heaven is Beautiful by Peter Baldwin Panagore, the author tells the story of nearly freezing to death during an ice climbing expedition at the age of 21. During his NDE he experienced all the times he had hurt another person – either intentionally or unintentionally – from the point of view of the other person. So I suppose he was able to experience the consciousness of other people.

 

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Jesse – About 17 months old
When Jesse was born he was like all healthy infants: he could suck and cry and sleep and not much else. Very soon he could smile and gurgle and grasp my little finger. I wondered about his perceptions – whether he was already looking out of his own window – and was excited about seeing this newborn transform into a person with his own thoughts, personality, and memories. I did not have to wait long. I thought about how he would always remember me as his mother and pictured him as an old man remembering his childhood. I felt determined to do what I could to make those memories sweet ones. I never pictured myself remembering him after he was gone.

 

I do believe he remembers me now and I look forward to the time when he and I can remember those sweet childhood days together and together solve the mysteries of consciousness. I am sure of one thing: there is plenty more to find out.

 

We know so little about heaven, earth, and each other

What can I say about Jesse that hasn’t already been said? I can say that I am sure he has experienced more wonderful things since he left this life than he did between birth and that day 10 months ago when he left the earthly plane.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Corinthians 2:9 (New King James Version)

As long as I can sustain that belief, I can achieve some measure of peace and happiness, but the minute I let unbelief slip through a crack in the door of my heart, it sinks like a ball of lead.

I guess I knew my son as well as anybody, but I also know he was an iceberg, the kind of person who has massive depths but shows only a tiny portion of himself to the world. That is why he was able to continually surprise us. Just seven days before he died he showed me a new website for his campaign for mayor of Portsmouth. This was very surprising and I worried a little. He was only 23 and had no political experience and as far as I knew. In fact he had always been the most non-political person I had ever known – in the sense that he never played anyone to get what he wanted. If he wanted anything he stated his desire directly, and only after he had thoroughly thought it out. His yes was yes and his no was no.

Somewhere on that “Jesse Apple for Mayor” website he wrote a little post. I can’t find it now – much to my dismay – so I will try to remember it: “I know I am young and my chances of being elected are slim. But I want to run anyway. I have lived or worked in Portsmouth since the age of fifteen and have studied politics since long before that.”

Until I saw that post I did not know he had been studying politics since childhood. How I wish I could talk and laugh about the politics going on now. We talked and laughed about the crazy election last summer and then he didn’t live until election day. I know his observations would have been priceless.

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Abstract thought. By Jesse Apple.

Christmas is coming: Preparations and precautions

Well I guess I better get one more blog post in before November gets away from me. It is going on four months now since we lost  Jesse and I have still not fully comprehended the magnitude of the loss. It’s still hard to believe he is gone and we buried his body that horrible day in August and yet it is the first thing I remember every morning when I awake from a restless sleep of fragmented dreams, usually about him. Right before the recent U.S. presidential election I dreamed Jesse had been sentenced to death for accidentally emailing one classified document and I woke up saying over and over, “There must be something we can do!” Then I remembered he had already received the death penalty for an even more innocent accident: taking the wrong two prescription drugs too close together. At least based on the autopsy reports that is our best guess.

As the holiday approaches I have taken several proactive actions to help me live through the season. I often feel like all my routines and proactive actions are braces to keep my ragged body from collapsing to messy puddle of grief on the floor. One of my proactive actions is to drive to the mountains. We have taken a couple of trips westward: one for Thanksgiving with my sister and her husband and one to the Blue Ridge Parkway just for the hell of it, and are planning another trip for Christmas.

I am looking forward to Christmas with family and have already done way more frantic shopping than I usually do this far before the 25th. Christmas shopping is something that props me up – gathering pretty new things for other people. I am simple that way. But I nearly lost it at Kohl’s when I had to choose just one set of flannel pajamas instead of two. It was always a tradition of mine to get my sons new jammies for Christmas, whether they wanted them or not.

As I mentioned we are going away for Christmas, something we have never done. I guess I thought it might be a little less painful that way. I could not face putting up the big real Christmas tree and seeing all those ornaments I bought over the years at craft shows with Jesse’s name on them: the four teddy bears, the four stockings, the elves. And then there are all those “Jesse’s First Christmas” baby ones. My hands tremble at the very thought of touching those.

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I used to like to  design Christmas cards. Have not been able to do this so far this year.

We have decided to put up a small tree instead this year, to start a new “angel tree” tradition in Jesse’s memory. Even that will be hard, but I still love Christmas and want to celebrate it as well as we can. Over the years I have gone through many different Christmas stages: loving it more than anything else in the world, dreading it, getting stressed out over it, having a love/hate relationship with it, wanting to love it more than I did, and many times, trying to simplify it and make it less materialistic and commercial. But this year more than ever, pagan origins or not, it is the celebration of the incarnation of the my only source of true comfort. There are many things that give me temporary relief from the pain of grief – shopping, work, writing, reading, going to lunch with friends – but these are like calamine lotion on raging poison ivy. The relief is superficial and brief.

Only when I turn to the Lord Jesus in concentrated prayer to do I begin to detect anything deeper that the most superficial relief of the pain. This is why I believe: because He is true and Real with a capital “R.” When you suffer the loss of a child you know what is Real and what is not. Only He can relieve the pain and solve the problem of death. Only in His promise of eternal life is there hope of a permanent solution to the problem: resurrection and the eventual reunion with the beloved.