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.

I used to write Christmas letters

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

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

“Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

Trying my best to deal with his birthday and Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

angel2
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.

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.