Ordinary memories, so precious now

Tom left this morning for his annual trip to Yokosuka, Japan. Every year he teaches a class there for work. I had lost track of how many years he’s been doing these trips to Japan until I saw this picture of Jesse at about age two wearing the tiny kimono Daddy brought him. This might have been the first trip.

Jesse in kimono Daddy brought from Japan

Every year Tom would bring back gifts –just little things like jewelry (for me), small toys, key chains, plum wine, hot sauce and marinades, rubbery green candy, and t-shirts, lots of t-shirts. Happy memories, those returns from Japan. Every little memory like that gives me a sharp pang now, those precious ordinary things that we took for granted.

There were a couple of years, when Jesse was in his late teens, that he walked around looking like a ragamuffin.  Finances were tight during that time and he just would not ask us for money for clothes and didn’t care much about clothes anyway. He was homeschooling so he wasn’t worried about fashion. He had his job at Zero’s but he spent all his money on gadgets, tools, used computer parts, refurbished smart phones, and Raspberry Pi, these mini-computer kits that he thought were the coolest thing ever. So Tom would bring him six or eight new t-shirts from Japan where he got some great bargains. Jesse rarely asked for anything, at least after the age of 12 or so, but he always seemed delighted with whatever we, or anyone, gave him.

He did love t-shirts. After getting his first phone repair job, feeling a little more flush with funds, he spiffed up his wardrobe a bit. He loved a website called 6DOLLARSHIRTS.com. All t-shirts are six bucks or you can order ten for $50.00, which Jesse did on several occasions. The nerdier the better. Some of his favorites said ‘Merica, Totally Koalafied (with a picture of a koala), It’s Not Rocket Surgery, and various ones featuring Tesla. I wish I could remember more of them.


A gift when I needed it most

Today it is one month and eight days since I last saw and spoke to my son. Sunday July 31st is forever marked as “The Last Conversation” or “Jesse’s Last Supper at Our House.” He overslept and came very late for dinner. It is an interesting story with a bit of mystery about it, but I will write more about that another time. Because today it is one month since the day I got that phone call that told me I would never again see my son alive in this life. I am working to overwrite the memory of that phone call that  haunts me and pierces my heart every time I let myself think of it.One replacement for that memory is the vision that Jesus has given me of Jesse standing with Him in a beautiful garden. The vision is a gift, my lifeline to hope, and I am grateful of it. Without this image the pain would be so much worse.

I first received this vision the Wednesday after the funeral, August 17th. The guests had all departed and I had attempted to go back to work the day before, the Tuesday. But I found it too hard to be in the office. I was so raw with sadness. So I had been able to arrange to work at home for a while. No matter the grief, the illness, or the personal catastrophe, the bills still keep coming. The mortgage company will still take your house and the IRS will still come after you. That’s the condemning feature of the world system: that it serves mammon not only before but instead of God. Mammon is the god of the world system and as much as I’d like to thumb my nose at it, I just don’t want to be homeless.

So I went back to work at my dining room table, my sweet dog at my feet, and tears periodically streaming down my face. I was not even a fraction ready to go back to work. The aftershocks of the earthquake were still strong and frequent. By later afternoon the storm clouds of grief had so so gathered that my inner sky turned pitch black and the pressure of sadness so heavy that I lay on the floor and curled up to shield myself from the violent winds. But I could not protect my heart from the pain that so intensified that it felt like it was in flames. I was sobbing, “But I love him so much” and then I realized I was in something like Hell, if not Hell itself: the darkness, the fire, the suffering because of separation from love, and perhaps worst of all, the sense that the pain would never end…..and then a sort of miracle happened.

I had the sense that I was being told to breath in cool air and then gently guided to the easy chair which seemed to symbolize a neutral plateau, a place where I could become still and become aware of the presence of God. I closed my eyes and felt myself walking on cool grass that led to a white garden gate. Jesus, tall and wearing rich robes, opened the gate and beckoned me in. He held me to him and told me He loved me. Then He moved aside a bit and there stood Jesse, wearing a brown leather jacket and jeans, looking a little bit younger than he was. “Hi Mom.” I hugged him and he said he was okay but sorry I was so sad. Jesus said, “See? He is with me. Any time you want to visit Jesse, you can come back to this garden and we will be here.”

Some may say this happened only in my imagination, but I do not think so. Some people would not believe a miracle if it happened to themselves and will always dismiss the inner experiences of others. But one thing I am learning more every day is not to credit the naysayers of truth. I know that within minutes I went from a state of very intense pain to state of peace and almost well-being. The intense searing fire in my heart and the panic of entrapment in Hell had transformed to a calmness and a mild ache. I don’t think my imagination has the power to do that. I believe I did expereience a small sampling of what it means that God is able to bring peace that surpasses understanding.

I don’t want to give you the idea that the grief was suddenly cured. That particular gift of peace lasted only a little while. The ache in my heart has never entirely gone way since that moment I found out he was dead. Perhaps I don’t want it to go away. It is the only thing physical I have left of him.

Thoughts about the paradox of life and death

There is nothing like the death of your child to open the floodgates of philosophical thought. I was prone to philosophical thought before this personal earthquake, but the explosion has split open veins of thought in my mind that were sealed tight before. Not a painless process. Now that I’ve said that I realize that nothing I will write today is going to be original — no one has travelled my exact path but many have travelled similar debris-strewn trails. The earmarks of war are the same, whatever the country.

When he was five.

So I’ve been thinking mostly about him, my Jesse, and how he was never really “mine” and how much of my pain comes from my assumption that he was. He was only mine to care for and to guide and to love for a time. The love gets to stay forever but the being part of my day-to-day life is over, torn away like skin or a limb. I think a lot about where he is now. Part of me knows that if my mind were right I would be happy that he is in a place where there is no anxiety about tomorrow or whether someone loves you, where there is no suffering, and where he is out of danger of all the horrors that can happen in this world, and how, having passed through the gate of death he is beyond its lurking reach, immunized – the ultimate paradox.

He is in the place where death meets life and life wins, because Jesus came a couple thousand years and fixed the human death problem. It could have been and perhaps it once was that when life met death, death would win. But a good God, a God who creates and loves existence, could not let such nihilism have its way. If I believe in meaning at all over nonsense, order over chaos, even something over nothing, then it is simply logical to believe that life wins over death.

Logically and rationally I do know Jesse lives and is beyond the reach of death and suffering, living in joy in a place permeated with love and creativity. I have read a lot of near death experiences and many of them say how it is difficult and depressing to come back from there. Unfortunately I am not an entirely rational being. Emotionally I am wired to desire the physical presence of my son. I just plain miss him and mourn for the many years I think I should have had to spend with him, to see him develop into the man he would have been.

The hardest thing is that he was so with me, so interwoven into my being, my heart, my soul, such a fixture in my life — yet not just a fixture but a being who absorbed all that I am since before he was born. We had a special way of speaking to each other, special words, special inflections that were only between us. So much of me was poured into him and now that he’s gone somewhere else, he has taken all that “me” energy with him. I am somehow still alive, but it’s as if I have lost half my blood. Eventually perhaps I will reconstitute.

But I don’t see how. It’s not the same as blood either. What has gone missing is not a generic substance that can be replaced by more of the same. The life energy I gave was produced and customized specifically for Jesse. Of course he had grown into his own unique person. He had grown up in ways that surprised and delighted me because he was so much different from myself. It is sort of like you plant a tree and expect it to produce a certain kind of fruit based on the nourishment you give it. But the tree takes your nourishment and uses it in unique ways, producing an entirely new and unexpected but incredibly delicious fruit. Yet you can still trace how it came from that tree.

I am sorry my metaphors are strained. I am struggling to understand what has happened and all its implications. I have never gone through anything so wrenching before and I pray I never will again. To seek understanding I have to let my thoughts go where they will even if it means they turn into strained, painfully stretched, misshapen metaphors. Perhaps someday something of beauty will form — the right words, the perfect analogy. But as with so many things, I am not there yet.


Running into a stranger who knew him

Lately I have been, let us say, hesitant to be among people. I am not in control of my emotions and may cry at the slightest provocation. I know this is perfectly normal under the circumstances, but I don’t want to make people uncomfortable and I don’t want to have to explain myself. I find myself making choices about which store to go in based on the likelihood of running into someone I know. I have valued my conversations with friends and family and co-workers but I just don’t want to keep running into acquaintances unprepared, when I am just trying to pick up something for dinner or do an errand.

This morning I went into my local Walgreens, hoping as usual not to see anyone who knows me. I needed to pick up some prescriptions. I didn’t seen anyone I knew, but the lady at the prescription counter said, “Are you Jesse’s mother?” She had of course seen the name on my FlexPay card. Her voice was as kind as any I have ever heard and my heart melted a little. “Did you know Jesse?” I asked. She said that she also works at another Walgreens where Jesse picked up his prescriptions.

“Did you find out from the paper?” I asked. No – a young woman who works at the other Walgreens is a friend of Jesse’s. The sweet lady told me what a wonderful personality Jesse had and how he had always been so polite and charming. She told me how sorry she was and I thanked her.

I had run into someone I didn’t even know but who remembered Jesse in so positive a light. That felt good — in a sad sort of way of course. More and more I am finding out how many ripples in the community my son made in his short life. When children are born, their parents are the only connection they have to the world at large. When Jesse was young I introduced him to the friends he had. In the school years I encouraged him to invite friends over and gave birthday parties and other gatherings. It seemed to me he tended to be a loner and I wanted to gently help him develop his social skills.

It is long since that he took responsibility for his own social connections and grew his little community far beyond the one I created for him. It amazes me to see how far his network went and how many people have told me they considered Jesse a friend. It pleases me that he was making a positive impact on his world, even if the impact was only being friendly to the lady at the prescription counter or serving his customers well at Shiny Computers or helping out a friend going through a difficult time. I don’t think that while he lived on earth he had any idea how much he meant to so many people. I hope he knows now.

True joys emerge through the wreckage of false assumptions

This morning I found this quote by C.S. Lewis. It’s from his book The Problem with Pain:

“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

The quote rings true in a couple of ways. First, it addresses one source of my current pain: the shattering of the assumption I had of settled happiness: seeing my son’s life unfold and the security that he’d always be there. This carpet of ideas has been ripped from under my feet and I can no longer take for granted the presence of the other people I love. That tomorrow is not guaranteed is no longer a remote theory but a hard fact from which there is no escape. Second, when Lewis talks about the scattered moments of happiness he mentions, of all things, a symphony! I wrote just a couple of days ago about how Beethoven’s 9th has been such a comfort to me. I listened to it again last night.

Lewis also lists landscape as one the scattered joys, and it happens that this weekend we will be travelling to the Virginia mountains for just that joy. I am looking forward to our first road trip since Jesse’s death. I know we will all be remembering how he was with us on so many of our trips to the mountains and that will be painful, but it cannot be avoided. But I think the pain will have a good portion of sweetness in it. All of our mountain trip memories are happy ones.

pulaski scene 2
Mountains near Pulaski Virginia. Photo by Aaron Apple, August 2015.

Times with Jesse in past year seem to have extra significance

It seems sad and funny that I should be making such a big deal of Jesse now that he is gone from this life. It’s not just me. Lots of people suddenly remember what they loved about him. He was the sort of person who was always present with you, but in such a subtle way you only realize the value of that presence when it is gone. It is probably that way with most of our relationships.

I guess while Jesse was with me I thought of him as a work in progress. I was pleased with the way his life was developing, and I told him so (thank you God!) and I also thought of him as on his way to greater things, such as greater maturity and perhaps someday being a married man, father of children, and uncle to his brother’s children. I took it for granted that we would have many future occasions with a growing family. Now that he’s gone his precious 23 years and eight months are the entirety of his life on earth.

Yes, I know he continues to live in Heaven, and I know as a Christian I have the expectation that he will someday be resurrected in body just as Jesus was. I admit that until now I never thought so much about the promised general resurrection. But it is in the Bible that at least for a time we will all live right here on a new-made earth with Jesus Christ himself in charge of humanity. I believe that, but my  human mind is limited and my faith is weak.  It has always seemed such a far-out fantastic scenario. However a month ago my son dying would have seemed like a far-out scenario. Now that his death has happened, I find myself more receptive to ideas that in my previous life seemed far-out.

I keep going over the past year or so in my mind, seeing significance in things that I did not quite catch while they were happening. It may be a normal thing after a loved one dies, and then again the special significance may have been just that: significant. Jesse moved out of the parental home in late May 2015. He and his roommate had paid their deposit and paid rent for May, but he took his time moving out.

I talked to him about whether he really felt ready. I wanted to make sure he knew he was welcome to stay at our house for as long as he wanted and until he really felt ready to leave. He said he felt ready. I remember I was anxious and uncomfortable about him moving out, which my culture would tell me was unreasonable because he was 22, an adult, and “should” be living on his own. But I worried about how he was easily distracted and I knew that he had sleeping and focus issues.

But he seemed to really want to be independent, and it did seem reasonable that it was time. He was doing well in his job, he was intelligent and thoughtful, and his behavior had been perfectly responsible for a long time. He certainly had more life skills than I did when I was first on my own. Our family arranged a plan that we would have a family dinner every Sunday night and Jesse would come. That worked out beautifully and with only a few exceptions we had dinner together every Sunday night from the week he moved out until two weeks before he died. I will tell the story of those last two weeks in another post.

The dinners and other occasions that I got together with Jesse soothed my mind a little, but looking back, the whole year and two months had a peculiar feeling about it. Every time I saw Jesse drive up or walk through the door or meet me somewhere a rush of relief would flood my body – a sort of desperate gratefulness – and often I’d mouth a little prayer of thanksgiving such as “Thank you Lord that he’s okay.” If I thought about my strange feeling at all I chalked it up to some aspect of empty nest or crazy mother syndrome. Don’t all parents worry about their kids? But for some reason I seemed to put extreme value on every moment I spent with Jesse for the past year. I tried not act it out though. I didn’t want him to feel like I was breathing down his neck. I wanted to give him space – show him I trusted him and respected his adult independent status.

One Sunday this past June Tom was out-of-town for several days and I planned to get some take-out Indian food from Rajput for dinner with the boys. At lunchtime I stopped at Panera and when I came out of the restaurant my car would not start. Dead. Not even a click when I turned the ignition. There had been no warning signs. Aaron was at work so after a moment of thought I called Jesse. It was only a couple of miles from where he lived and it was his only day off from work. He came right over, tools in hand. He jump-started the car, tested something and said it was not the alternator, and I drove it Auto Zone assuming it was the battery. At Auto Zone I found out it was not the battery but probably the starter, and they couldn’t get it jump started again. I called Jesse again and he came and drove me home. We’d have it towed in the morning and get the starter fixed. Since I had to meet the tow truck early in the morning, Jesse thought I should have some pepper spray and gave me his. Later he, Aaron, and I went to a pizza place for dinner.

I thought that car situation was a huge crisis at the time, a highly undesirable occurrence. Now it seems to me part of the preparation. That my car died suddenly in a place and at a time when Jesse was nearby and the only family member available to help. For one thing, it gave me extra time with him. For another, it gave Jesse an opportunity to do something good for his mother before he went before the Lord. He was patient, cheerful, and helpful that day. He gave up his afternoon plans without the slightest complaint. He got to be my hero.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has been a great joy lately

Portrait of Ludwig von Beethoven by Joseph Karl Steiler, 1820
Since the day after Jesse died I have been finding great comfort in “Ode to Joy.” I have in fact become sort of obsessed with the whole Beethoven’s 9th symphony, especially that fourth movement. I have no idea why but I find a strange comfort in the music. My only theory is that it lifts my soul a little nearer to where Jesse is. It is so profoundly touching and sad that Beethoven wrote beautiful masterpiece without being able to hear it.

I have watched to several documentaries on the ninth symphony and keep listening to different concerts on YouTube including a wonderful flash mob performance that happened in Spain. Also I found a really good PBS video, part documentary, part concert on Amazon Video called (surprise surprise) Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphany No. 9.

My obsession with the 9th is expanding to other classical music. In the past I always enjoyed classical music in a lackadaisical kind of way. I haven’t really studied it. Jesse’s death seems to have sparked a new fascination with it, causing me to really listen to a symphony as if I were listening to a story, hanging on every word. Tom and I recently discovered the TV series Mozart in the Jungle which piques my interest even more. It’s a dramedy about the New York Symphony with both quirky characters and great music – a dream of a series. Sometimes you just need a temporary distraction from the grinding pain of loss. I can’t watch anything ugly or violent. This series is not all sweetness but it is humane and the music is good.

The Ode to Joy has a chorale part that is generally sung in German. The PBS video included a translation of the words and I was stunned by their beauty. Here is the English translation:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.

* * * * * *

It is no wonder I have been loving this music. It is about the closest thing to heaven than exists on earth – and to see it performed over and over again by hundreds of people gives me hope for humanity.