10 Months Later: Sorrow and Joy

Jesse’s passing has been an intense spiritual journey for me. All my life I have considered myself to be on a spiritual journey, but the death of my son dramatically deepened and accelerated it. The grief is still always there but sometimes lifts a bit and sometimes crashes down like a ton of bricks.

Yesterday my heart felt sodden with sorrow all day, the floods ever threatening to spill out of my eyes. I was a little confused. Just when I have become more sure than ever that this life is a mere blip in our eternal existence, only a threshold – and as either C.S. Lewis or another guy says, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience – instead of being freed up to feel the joy of this truth, I am once more cast into to hard grip of sucking sadness.

But now the sadness has taken on a different quality than it had in the weeks and months immediately after that horrible day. Rather being focused on the loss of Jesse, it is a more diffused sort of sorrow for the plight of humanity – all the ugliness, coldness, violence, fear, and suffering in a world that God made to be a human paradise. Why is this beautiful world of sea, sky, mountains, and trees not a paradise? The earth is made to provide humans with all we need to live and be happy and yet we choose to fight, kill, grasp at possessions, and do harm to each other.

I believe that “Your will be done, Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” means pretty much what it says: that one day earth will be restored to its original glory. I believe this fully and deeply and I feel assurance in my spirit that Jesse exists in that other dimension where he is safe from all harm, and a part of my soul is able to rejoice. And yet what I feel most intensely and pervasively is utter sorrow.

 

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Sunset on the road to Pulaski. Makes me think of sorrow and joy.

I take great comfort from the verse that says I will be comforted: “Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.” I believe this comfort will be more joy than I can possibly now imagine. It will be a complete healing. It will involve a reunion with Jesse but much more. I take great comfort in the whole fifth chapter of Matthew. Another favorite is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” To me this is Jesse’s verse. Few people knew his heart as much as I did and I know his young heart yearned to make things right in the world, or at least better. I believe he is now working with the Lord to make it happen.

I am sure some people will think these thoughts are the crazy imaginings of a grieving mother. So be it. I believe my thoughts are the feeble stumbling imaginings of a mind that cannot begin to conceive the beauty and joy that await all who seek God and His truth.

 

 

It is well with my soul

It has been a while since I wrote something here on my Jesse blog. I am pretty sure I have been going through the depression stage of grief and for me this means that when I sit down to write the spirit to do it is absent. I wish I could write. I have things I want to say. But I cannot seem to do it. I find would rather lay down on my bed and watch apocalyptic conspiracy theories on YouTube.

I had the intention, sometime after starting this blog, that I would scan the hundreds of pictures I have of Jesse and honor his life by writing about the wonderful memories. But right now it is difficult for me to deal with the photos. I am trying to clean the junk out of house, get rid of all that is unnecessary, and in my cleaning I keep running across photos – and report cards and certificates and t-shirts, all kinds of mementoes of the 23 years he lived as my son. I just sigh and put the photos and things aside. There has been a Shiny Computers t-shirt in my laundry basket since before his death and I have not been able to bring myself to remove it. I am trying to get functional and am trying to avoid falling into these caverns of loss.

I have to breath deeply and remind myself of the basic facts:

  • This world is not all there is. It is a speck in the ocean of eternity.
  • Jesse lives in eternity. He now lives in the presence of our Father in Heaven and His son Jesus Christ.
  • Jesse was not perfect – none of us are – but he was saved from damnation by the death and resurrection of our Savior. So he is alive now, fully himself as created by God.
  • I am still here on this speck. I have to try to live the rest of my life as well as I can, which means I must give each moment to God and do each thing as to the Lord.
  • Soon enough I also will be in Heaven where I will be reunited with Jesse, as well as my parents, in-laws, and many others.

I was not a perfect mother. I did many things wrong, sometimes out of flawed understanding, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of selfishness. I am most devastated by this last thing. But as I will discuss in a moment “….my sins are nailed to the cross and I bear them no more.”

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Horatio Gates Spafford, from Wikipedia

These words come from an old hymn that I heard this morning on my way to work: “It is Well with My Soul.” Of course I’ve known this song for many years and used to sing it with choirs, but it touched me this morning even more deeply than it usually does. The hymn was written in 1873 by Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford wrote the hymn on a ship bound from New York to England where he was travelling to meet his wife after she had survived a horrible shipwreck. Their four daughters however – Annie, 11, Maggie, 9, Bessie, 5, and Tanetta, 2 – had all drowned.  Two years earlier the Spaffords had also lost a 4-year-old son to scarlet fever. Interestingly, Jesse also came down with scarlet fever at the age of four, the only serious childhood illness he had. What happened to the Spafford child is a reminder that many of us get to live longer lives due to the blessing of modern antibiotics.

The part of the hymn that touched me the most today was the third stanza about his sin being nailed to the cross and bearing it no more. This is because when you lose a child you tend to dwell minutely on every mistake or possible mistake you made as a parent. This self-blame makes a heavy burden even more tortuous. He was the one who had sent his family ahead of him to England on that ship. He could have unreasonably dwelt on that fact, searching for fault in himself as to why he did that, but instead he chose to dwell on the fact that all sins, all errors, are truly washed away by the blood of Christ.

It is Well With My Soul

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Refrain:
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Looking at a new year without my son in it

I have always loved starting a new year. I love a new beginning, a fresh slate, and was always a resolution maker, even an enthusiastic resolution maker. This new year feels different. I am not so enthusiastic about making resolutions, at least in the old sense. I will try to explain that shortly. This year, 2017, is the first year in 24 years that has not had Jesse in it. He was born December 10th 1992 but was very much present with me the preceding nine months. I had a book called A Child is Born by Lennart Nillson that showed beautiful pictures of how a fetus looks at each stage of development and I studied those pictures, imagining the child within me. I felt enveloped in a bubble of magic throughout my whole pregnancy. Jesse was already there.

Before he was born I spent my whole life with a sense of not really being connected to the world. I felt like a free radical floating around, not clicked in to any culture or system. I got along okay, but felt like an alien trying to pass for a natural inhabitant of the earth. When Jesse was born I lost that sensation for the first time in my life. I was the mother of a child on this earth. I clicked in to the world and worked hard to help my son grow up as a healthy happy member of the human race. I had the underlying fear that he would inherit my alien tendencies and didn’t want him to feel that horrible sense of disconnection and not belonging.

I think maybe he did inherit some of my tendencies, but he was very intelligent and able to find coping mechanisms and was smart about adjusting to his circumstances. When he was young I worked with him on social skills and he was a willing student. I had a sense of what he had to work at and what came naturally to him. What came naturally was sharp intelligence, wonder, the desire to learn and experiment, and a wild urge to build and create. What did not come naturally was complying with arbitrary societal rules and interacting with others just to fit in. But he was willing to work at those things and became quite a friendly helpful person, finding much humor in the human race, and developed a real capacity to care for the wellbeing of others. He was never arrogant. He seemed to have a desire to be pleasing and did not like to stand out in a crowd.

When Jesse died, in a real sense I died too: the “me” who was invested in this earthly life died just as surely as my son died physically. The future I imagined I had in that life was swept away like a sand castle in the surf. How can I say that I am dead to this world, I ask myself, when I have my other beloved son and my husband still living? I know why. It is because Jesse’s death laid bare the truth that we will all die, that this life is a vapor, just as that verse in the Bible says. (“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” James 4:14 (NKJV))

I see now that I was floating in an infinite ocean on a twig, thinking the twig was the whole world and building castles and making complicated plans, all balanced on that twig. Jesse was one of my established anchors around which I built the plans and castles, and then one day that anchor got swept into the vastness of the universe, and my soul followed, looking for him, calling for him, reaching every sinew of mind toward him. Where was he now? What was he now?
swallow
Through prayer and meditation messages came to my mind and I experienced the blessing of knowing that God’s angels had taken him safely to his new home. I am still floating on that old twig, but now I see it for what it is. I cannot build castles on it anymore. All that I build from now on must be for that other place where Jesse is and where the rest of us are destined to join him. But I am shaky and uncertain as to how to do go about it. I suppose that whatever I build must still be built on the twig with the materials available on its tiny surface, yet knowing that it must also somehow prepare me for my departure from the twig. It is the puzzle of being in the kingdom of God and yet still operating in this world, perhaps what is meant by “in the world but not of the world.” Actually I cannot find those words in the Bible but I think John 2:15-17 (NKJV) captures the idea:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

I think this is why I am having so much trouble writing. I believe that writing is what I am called to do – but I have to redirect my purpose and focus. I am feeling my way to working in this new paradigm, this awareness that I am not working for anything in this world but for the promised world where my son has gone ahead of me. So my new year’s resolutions must be different this year. I still might have earthly goals, but they look insignificant in the new perspective of the vast universe I see myself in.

I cannot build my new life around getting my body in shape or publishing a story. Even if I want to publish a story or improve my health, the goal must somehow relate to the bigger picture. How does it bring me closer to God and His truth? How does it serve His purpose for me and those with whom I share my life? How does it glorify God and reflect his love? How does it bring his kingdom to earth as it is in Heaven? So far my only resolution this year is to contemplate how to live and write in such a way. For all I know that may be all I do for the rest of my earthly life, and unless the Spirit directs me to “do” something more, that is good enough for me.

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.

Something I have learned through loss

I have learned a lot through the experience of losing my son: mostly good, spiritually hopeful things. But good and hopeful or not, I would just as soon lived my entire life without learning a single thing if only I could have lived it with Jesse here with me.

One thing I have learned is what Hell is. Hell is separation from who you love. Okay I was sort of told that way back in Catholic School. They taught that Hell was the misery of being separated eternally from God who is Love personified. Those in Hell understand what that love is and are forever condemned to long and hunger for it with no chance of satisfaction. How a God who is pure love can allow people to suffer eternally I can never understand; but losing Jesse proved to me that separation from love is indeed the definition of Hell.

How, someone might ask, is learning about Hell a good and hopeful thing? Because for one thing, learning anything true is good because it advances you on the path toward what is good and eternal. By feeling the pain of separation, you gain a deeper understanding of what love is, and in my opinion, learning what love is and how to truly do it, is the whole reason we are here.

Love is eternal. You can’t get rid of it. To be separated from one you love by such a gulf as death is to taste Hell. I somehow know the love of God would swallow up my love for Jesse like the ocean swallows a dew drop or the full sun outshines a sequin. And if that is so, then the love of God must be a mighty thing indeed! Because my love for Jesse drowns my mind and burns my heart as much as my body and soul can take. To to be separated form him is as much misery as I can handle and yet live.

At times I wonder that I do not just drop dead from the pain. Then my little Hell would end and I would not, presumably, end up in Big Hell because, though I am far from perfect, I have thrown myself at the feet of Christ and told him I repent of anything he thinks is sinful. If I know something I did, said, or thought is sinful I having no problem with confessing it; but often I really don’t know if something is an actual sin. What about feeling resentful toward petty bureaucrats who seem to exist for the sole purpose of adding petty miseries to people’s already difficult lives? Is that kind of resentment a sin? Yeah probably. I am willing to err on the side of caution.

I have tasted a slice Hell and do not want to experience the real thing. Maybe the real thing does not exist or maybe it does exist but is not as we picture it. Some theology says that as God is eternal love all souls must eventually be saved. However since Jesus seems to indicate in the Gospels that there is a place of outer darkness where there is crying and gnashing of teeth, I am just going to go ahead and take His word for it. I don’t want to incur the slightest risk of eternal separation from God or Jesse or anyone else I am connected to by the golden thread of love.

The golden thread cannot be snapped but it can be painfully stretched and left gasping for breath. The oxygen of love is the face and presence of the loved one. Victor Hugo, one of my favorites who I hope to meet in the next life, wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I always thought that quote was beautiful but once I didn’t really understand how that worked. I understand it better now.

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Separated and yet moving toward reunion. Blue Ridge sunset.

No ribbons or pins for those who die of unknown causes

I have a friend, a former co-worker, who is a breast cancer survivor. She made a wonderful video talking about the experience, how she determined not to let cancer be the boss, and trusted in God throughout the treatment process. She also talked about all the wonderful support she has received – people to support her and rewards for making it through treatments. I am happy for her and glad people with breast cancer have such a vibrant and helpful support system around them.

But I also had another thought: I am going through something worse than breast cancer. I would have chosen cancer over the death of my son any day. I would have chosen my own death over his. It’s not that I want cancer – I most certainly do not. I dislike suffering of any kind. But given the choice between what occurred and cancer, I would have chosen cancer without hesitation. I can’t imagine the suffering would be greater, although it is suffering of a different kind. I would take physical suffering over spiritual and emotional suffering any day.

There are no bumper stickers for parents who have lost a child, no 5K fundraisers, no colored ribbons or necklaces or cute enamel pins. Actually, I think there are ribbons and support groups for people who have children with cancer – which is good. There are groups for people who lost children through drunk driving and probably for suicide victims. If these kinds of groups are helpful then that is a very good thing. People who have lost a child for any reason need all the help, love, and support they can get. But if you have lost a child for no apparent reason, if your child has just slipped away, fallen through the cracks, didn’t have a well-known disease or any disease that you know of, if your problem is just plain death and loss, you are mostly on your own.

I don’t say this to complain and I so appreciate the friends and family who have been truly loving and supportive. I have hardly been entirely on my own. And it’s not that colored ribbons or buttons or 5K runs would make me feel a bit better about Jesse dying. You can’t really collect money to cure deaths that happen for no known reason. It’s just a thought I had and this blog is to get these thoughts out of my head.  I know there is a group called Compassionate Friends for people who have lost a child, and if I can find a group that meets when I can go, I might try it.

It makes me think, “Well then, what would make me feel better?” Jesse coming back to me, that’s what. Or getting to go where he is and see him, maybe just to visit. Or getting to stay there. And I do have hope and belief that I will get to go where he is and stay there soon enough. Also, if I knew for sure that God had a really good reason for Jesse’s early death and is somehow using it for a good purpose, a purpose so good that it was worth the life of my son. That might help a little.