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.

The three-week mark

I woke up early this morning with a sodden heart and shaky limbs. My entire body, every nerve, every bone, every cell, feels the jolt of the loss, like a sort of whole body amputation. I drove to work feeling the same way, trying to pray – with some success, but never enough. My chest especially aches with frequent stabs of pain. I am always on the verge of tears and they often spill over.

Much much lower on the scale of importance I am worried about the money – paying the nearly 10,000 bucks for the funeral. I have never been rich and 10K is an extravagant sum for me. I would have paid every cent I would ever earn to give my son a beautiful funeral, but my last car cost less than $10,000. I just do not generally operate in five-digit sums. We actually have two life insurance policies for Jesse, either of which would be just enough to cover the funeral expenses. However, Jesse’s death certificate says “pending” and the insurance companies want the exact cause of death before they will pay. I suppose they are hoping for a loophole so they don’t have to pay.

The medical examiner has told us nothing. We can only assume they were not able to find an obvious cause, but we really do not know what they did or did not find. all I have is a deceased young son and a death certificate with a check mark next to Pending. It is okay that they don’t know. I only with they’d send us a note saying so. Like “We found no obvious cause for your son’s death in the initial autopsy. We will be doing further analysis on his blood. You will receive our final results in xx weeks. We are sorry for your loss.” Or something like that. But from the office of the medical examiner we have received only silence so far.

I know the medical examiner’s office is part of a busy bureaucracy. The cop told Tom there were several shootings in Portsmouth the weekend Jesse died and I’m suspect there have been more tragic deaths since. I haven’t been following the news. But to live in a world system that simply has no time to be humane is in itself an evil thing. That is why the world system will eventually and probably suddenly go the way of the dinosaur. God intends humanity to live according to love, brotherhood, and in the spirit of truth rather than the spirit of expediency and material gain and I know perfectly well that God’s intention must triumph in the end. As sad as I am right not, at least I know without a doubt that my sadness will someday come to an end.


The most comforting things

As I said in my last post, I find comfort in prayer and meditation. I am not quite ready to describe what I experience when I go there. It is so precious and sacred and it would hurt if someone said or even thought it was “magical thinking” or  some “well if it makes you feel better that’s good….” sort of thing. The entire comfort of it is its reality. I would not be comforted by pretense and I do not have imaginary friends. I will just say that the experience involves assurance that my son is with Jesus and is happy and involved in his new life.

But I am still in my body and cannot be in meditation all the time. Nor should I. I have to work, I have to go to the grocery store, I have to interact with family and friends, I have to move my body from place to place. I have to live this world where Jesse no longer lives. I must endure the stabs in the heart every time I think of some little thing I will never again see him do: walk through the front door, pet the dog talking in a high-pitched doggy voice, give that little chuckle so uniquely his, show us some cool new technology thing on the computer, pick up his laundry, open his annual Christmas pajamas and socks….. The rest of my life stretches before me — a Jesse-less desert. My love for him is rooted so deeply in my heart and its tendrils are interwoven throughout my being, but the growing flowering plant is ripped away.

Then the voice of reason or the voice of Jesus whispers, “Do not look ahead like that. You may be agonizing over a desert you will never need to cross. Even if you must walk those miles you will not walk them alone. Sorrow hurts but you don’t need to swell the pain to more than it needs to be.” I was in my car this morning when this thought came to me, on my way to the grocery store. I then took my iPhone and turned on an audio book I am listening to for a second time. It is a collection of sermons by the 19th-century itinerant preacher and prolific writer George MacDonald.

getting to know jesusI have known for many years that George MacDonald had a huge influence on some of my favorite 20th century writers including  C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, but until this summer I had not read any of his writings except The Princess and the Goblin, probably his best known children’s book. Then this past July, right in the middle of my summer project to catch up on my political philosophy reading, I suddenly had a strong desire to read MacDonald. I don’t know where the idea came from but it was persistent and irresistible. I found myself searching my Hoopla app for what was available on audio. I found the sermon collection, which is called Getting to Know Jesus, and also downloaded The Princess and Curdie, proving its never to late to read the sequel.

The sermons impressed and inspired me, the sincere and compassionate words shining new light on the teachings of Jesus, clearing away many musty old misconceptions. There is fresh spirit of truth and joy in these writings that filled me and made me thirst for more of the same. I had listened to three quarters of The Princess and Curdie by the day Jesse died. I finished that book about 10 days after. Everything is now before Jesse died (BJD) and after Jesse died (AJD). Today is 20 days AJD.

So the past couple of days I have been re-listening to Getting to Know Jesus and today on the way to the grocery store the sermon called “Sorrow – The Pledge of Joy” came on. It is a talk on Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” How much more alive did this sermon sound today than the first time I heard it. I hung on every word. This piece is the most encouraging comforting thing on mourning the dead I have ever heard. In the first paragraph MacDonald writes, “Grief is an ill-favored thing, but she is Love’s own child, and her mother loves her.”

You can read the entire sermon here but I will share a couple of passages that mean so much to me right now….

First this:

Much of what goes by the name of comfort, is merely worthless; and such as could be comforted by it, I should not care to comfort. Let time do what it may to bring the ease of oblivion; let change of scene do what in it lies to lead thought away from the vanished; let new loves bury grief in the grave of the old love: consolation of such sort could never have crossed the mind of Jesus. Would The Truth call a man blessed because his pain would sooner or later depart, leaving him at best no better than before, and certainly poorer–not only the beloved gone, but the sorrow for him too, and with the sorrow the love that had caused the sorrow? Blessed of God because restored to an absence of sorrow? Such a God were fitly adored only where not one heart worshipped in spirit and in truth.

“The Lord means of course,” some one may say, “that the comfort of the mourners will be the restoration of that which they have lost.” He means, “Blessed are ye although ye mourn, for your sorrow will be turned into joy.”

Yes, the only real comfort in the death of a loved one is that the dead one lives again and we will one day be reunited in even greater joy than before. At least for me there is no comfort in statements like “he lives on in our memories.” Memories are nice things, but I want him to live on as himself.

The next passage perfectly captures the feelings of a mother grieving a child. She does not want to hear that time will lessen the pain. She hardly cares about her pain. Her concern is that her child is okay and that she will see him again.

Assuredly they who mourn for their sins will be gloriously comforted, but certainly such also as are bowed down with any grief. The Lord would have us know that sorrow is not a part of life; that it is but a wind blowing throughout it, to winnow and cleanse. Where shall the woman go whose child is at the point of death, or whom the husband of her youth has forsaken, but to her Father in heaven? Must she keep away until she knows herself sorry for her sins? How should that woman care to be delivered from her sins, how could she accept any comfort, who believed the child of her bosom lost to her for ever? Would the Lord have such a one be of good cheer, of merry heart, because her sins were forgiven her? Would such a mother be a woman of whom the saviour of men might have been born? If a woman forget the child she has borne and nourished, how shall she remember the father from whom she has herself come? The Lord came to heal the broken-hearted; therefore he said, ‘Blessed are the mourners.’ Hope in God, mother, for the deadest of thy children, even for him who died in his sins. Thou mayest have long to wait for him–but he will be found. It may be, thou thyself wilt one day be sent to seek him and find him. Rest thy hope on no excuse thy love would make for him, neither upon any quibble theological or sacerdotal; hope on in him who created him, and who loves him more than thou. God will excuse him better than thou, and his uncovenanted mercy is larger than that of his ministers. Shall not the Father do his best to find his prodigal? the good shepherd to find his lost sheep? The angels in his presence know the Father, and watch for the prodigal. Thou shalt be comforted.

This passage talks about losing a child “who died in his sin,” a horrible thought. I know Jesse wasn’t perfect. None of us is. I am so grateful to have the assurance that he is not suffering. But I can imagine how much hope this would give grieving parents who are worried about that.

jesse universe
Jesse often envisioned the universe in his art. Perhaps now he is seeing things even he never imagined!