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.

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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.

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.

Facing the holidays

Like a 19th-century American pioneer who has traversed the Great Plains and is now into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with the skies threatening a blizzard, I now face the roughest terrain on my journey of grief: the dreaded holidays. My main concern is that I do not cast a pallor on the holidays for those others who are still living in a grief-free world.

shepherdsOne thing I have realized is that when your child dies you no longer live in the same reality you used to live in. You have entered a parallel universe, slightly askew from the old one. However, you find that in your new reality you have lots of company. You realize that people have been suffering this grief the whole time you have been alive but you have been oblivious, dressing your children in their feet jammies and hanging stockings and anticipating their faces on Christmas morning and assuming you would be enjoying their presence for the rest of your earthly life. I have been reading other blogs written by mothers who have lost children and have been to my first meeting of Compassionate friends.

imageJesse was the most magical of children and seeing his bright face full of reverent wonder on a Christmas Eve was heaven on earth to me. No child fully lived that Christmas magic more than he did and no one expressed more joy on Christmas morning and no child (except Aaron) looked cuter in feet jammies. Now all those memories and pictures feel like a dagger in my heart. I don’t fully understand why. That child was long gone before he died. But the young adult Jesse was his continuation, the one who embodied the memories. His adult self was a satisfying replacement for the child who used to be. But now that embodiment is gone.

christmas3Well it is what it is and was what it was, and I am learning to live in the present. When I can let go of the past and live in the present, I can feel Jesse’s presence and can begin to appreciate his new kind of life and to look forward to being with him in that new life soon enough. We are doing some good things to help us get through the rough terrain of the December. We are going to celebrate his birthday on December 10th with a small gathering of family and friends – a potluck and cake and a slide show and maybe a candlelight trip to his grave, but I am really having second thoughts about the trip to the grave. I don’t think I want to do that. We are going to go away for Christmas to my sister’s house in the mountains – a big change in the way we have always celebrated Christmas. We are going to start a new tradition at home: an angel tree in Jesse’s memory and also to remember all the loved ones we have lost. Tom’s mother used to an angel tree and I always loved the idea.

christmas-with-aaron

This is my prayer for help during the holidays:

Dear Lord Jesus,

Out of all the millions of egg and sperm cells in his parents’ bodies You created wonderful one-of-a-kind Jesse, a beautiful child. His flame burned bright but short-lived on this earth and we are left broken-hearted, but not in despair as if we believed him gone forever. We live in the happy knowledge that he is alive and that the light he lit here on earth continues to shine and grow in the next stage of his existence.

I would like to stop looking back and what is lost and stop grieving for the kind of future that will never be. I ask Your help in living now in the new reality l, that You will help me to know and feel and experience the love and joy of what is now, and to be able to know and feel and talk to Jesse just as he is now. Tell him how much I love him. Amen.