A Poem about Dealing with the Dreaded Cemetery

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.

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To tell this difficult story, I turned to poetry. (Please don’t expect Shakespearean or Emily Dickinsonesque literary talent here. This is mere therapy.)

Cemetery

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 and the 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

Resurrection flower.

 

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.

Desolate picture, the vibrant spirits gone.

 

Why do I put sweet flowers through the trial?

Why can’t I trust the birds to do it?

They are not trapped in a narrow pot.

Perhaps they do come by to check.

But why the flowers?

 

Because I am still in the flesh and

the year without going there was a shame.

Though his spirit is in joy now,

his life in that dear body

must be remembered as long as I am here. 

Cut flowers wither too soon and 

live flowers must be watered.

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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.

 

Grief is the ocean and hope is the sky

I have become acutely aware of the universality of grief in this world. Since the death of my son, I have naturally become aware of the number of other people whose children have died from miscarriages, SIDS, freak accidents, cancer and other illnesses, suicide, drug accidents, and murder. I feel each death that comes to my attention like a stab and say a prayer for the family and for the soul of the departed one.

Millions of us are aware of how grief swells and subsides like the ocean and never goes away. Perhaps the ocean with its vast area on this earth is the physical symbol of grief, the constant companion of the human race. Maybe that’s why our tears are salty. Only God knows how all the pieces of the human story fit together, but I believe our personal histories – how each fits perfectly into the story of humanity will become clear, probably sooner than later.

This past weekend, Saturday really, my grief swelled to tidal wave proportions. For a while, perhaps a month or so, I had been able to keep the grief at bay, keeping busy with my new projects and trying to “move on” – but there is only so long such a roiling ocean can be kept quiet. I can either let it vent a little each day or I can dam it up for a while and then drown when it forces its release for a day.

By Sunday the storm had died down a bit. But Saturday I could do nothing but let myself be drenched in pure wordless grief. I could not write or work on my Etsy store or read a book or clean house. I could not image any immediate future – only that distant one, beautiful but shrouded in mists. The sky that day was stunning – with giant thunderhead clouds as far as the eye could see in different shades from brilliant silver to blue-grey to nearly black against a deep blue sky. The clouds were so varied and so layered that they looked like vast landscapes of mountains and lakes, only more beautiful than even the most scenic on the earth. I was only able to stare at the sky and wonder at God’s glory, how He designed this exact sky with its ever-changing configurations of clouds and heavenly objects specifically to speak to His human creatures.

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I failed to take a picture of the sky that day. This picture, taken in the mountains about a year ago by Aaron Apple, is nearly as beautiful.
But was it saying? The sky speaks to me of things that are beyond human language. On that day of grief I did not try to reason with God or make sense of Jesse’s early death. I did not seek “growth opportunities” or try to comfort myself with thoughts of eternity. I am clear that the eternal is real and Jesse is still Jesse and I will see him again. All that. But the ocean of grief is what I was experiencing in the present. I just let it wash over me. I had no choice. I could do nothing else.

Whatever human beings are in the eternal realm, God made us in this life and in this world to know each other in these bodily forms, and the bodily form I gave birth to and cherished for 23 years and eight months is gone. There is nothing that can reason away the grief of that. You have to go through the storm and though eventually you will come out on the other side, you will not emerge unchanged. The grief will have permeated every molecule of your being. God tells us through scripture that grief will be turned to joy. That is the blessed hope but it is not the current experience. If the joy to come is in proportion to the grief of the present, then many of us have something magnificent in our futures.

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.

 

sunset on road to pulaski
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?
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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.