A Poem about Dealing with the Dreaded Cemetery

In the year and nine months since Jesse died I have focused primarily on where and what he is now — or I have remembered him as he was when he was with us, with much scouring of the past to understand what had happened. I prayed, I meditated, I developed a close relationship with the spiritual world. I even (recently) visited a spiritual medium and had a profound experience that leaves no doubt in my mind that Jesse lives and is in a good and happy place. Perhaps I will write about that at some point.

But there is another aspect of Jesse’s death that has been even harder to deal with: the aspect that began with the funeral and ended with the burial, a blur in my memory, a day I can hardly bear to think of, one of many days I spent feeling exactly like there was a dagger in my heart. At the same time, I am aware that the love shown by friends and family that day was a great light in the darkness. I will be forever grateful for all of those who showed up, called, sent cards, spent time talking, and prayed or us. No one could have made it less sad, but many people made the funeral a loving and beautiful testimony to Jesse’s life. Now his body, the body I gave birth to, lies in a grave at Holly Lawn Cemetery, a fact I have had a very difficult time coming to terms with.

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

Cemetery

The first year, I didn’t go at all,

traumatized to oblivion by the horror

of burying my son, his grave stoneless,

a patch of scraggly earth with a sad plastic sign

his faded picture the only identification.

 

When a year had passed I went to the

florist, bought three grave vases and bouquets

of carnations and each time I returned 

the flowers had died. It was hard to bear

that the grave was still unmarked.

“Please Lord,” I prayed, “Send money 

to buy a tomb stone.”

And the money came – an unexpected bonus.

The bill came to the exact amount.

When the grave was 18 months old

they installed the stone engraved

with the date of joy and the date of grief.

 

I put live flowers there now. Only

a small pot will fit the marble vase

so I must water them daily.

I could not bear to find them dead.

The first, a pot of purple impatiens,

wilted and nearly died. I took it

home, watered and coaxed it

like an intensive care nurse. 

It now flourishes and resides

in my garden where I call it the

Resurrection flower.

 

Each week I visit the garden store across from

the cemetery. I buy a new potted flower.

The previous one I take home and give it a

place of honor in my garden because

through dark nights and scorching days

it has bravely stood beauty guard

at my son’s grave, 

 

These days I walk along that row of graves,

along a gravel treeless lane,

avenue of early death, where families

had no time to plan the family plot.

They have become family to each other.

Some I have read about in the news —

the toddler who drowned in the pool,

the 22-year old honor student who

died of opioids,

the young man shot downtown.

Almost two years it has taken me

to emerge from the prison of my tragedy

and see the others.

Every time I hear of an overdose,

a suicide, a car accident, a shooting, a drowning, 

cancer, or war, that line of graves extends

on and on until the marble stones fade into the horizon.

Desolate picture, the vibrant spirits gone.

 

Why do I put sweet flowers through the trial?

Why can’t I trust the birds to do it?

They are not trapped in a narrow pot.

Perhaps they do come by to check.

But why the flowers?

 

Because I am still in the flesh and

the year without going there was a shame.

Though his spirit is in joy now,

his life in that dear body

must be remembered as long as I am here. 

Cut flowers wither too soon and 

live flowers must be watered.

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The Strangest Things Trigger Memories

For the past two days, a song has been playing continuously in my head – you know how sometimes you can’t get a tune to stop. “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Yeah — the one who lives by the sea and frolics in the autumn mist on a land called Honah Lee. I’m not exactly sure what sparked this ear worm but it might have started when I saw Beautiful: The Carole King Musical a couple weeks ago. That experience sent me on a musical odyssey down memory lane for the next several days, researching the music and artists of the 1960s. But Puff did not come up in that research even though it was a Peter, Paul & Mary hit in 1963. By the time Puff showed up in my head I had left the ‘60s behind and returned to my regular classical listening habit.

Wait a sec … last week I re-read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for the umpteenth time, a book that refers several times to dragons and also references fairy tales in general  (because fairy tales provided GKC with the foundational template for his belief system). So maybe music from the 1960s combined with G.K. Chesterton and percolated under the surface of my consciousness until the ingredients burst forth in the form of Puff the Magic Dragon.

9144621B-8D4F-42CA-89D1-F504CA2DAF53But I think what kept the song going, the energy that fueled it, is the line, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.” It made me think of Jesse. Not that there is ever a moment that Jesse is not on my mind on some level, but this was a whole new way of thinking about him, set to music. I looked up the lyrics. I figured as long as the song insisted on repeating itself in my head I might as well remember all the verses. The lyrics mention how Puff’s little friend Jackie Paper played pirates and liked to bring him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff, reminding me even more acutely of how Jesse was as a little boy and how intensely, madly even, I loved him. I loved to get him toys – plastic swords from Dollar Tree, pirate ships with little guys, John Smith action figures (from Disney Pocahontas) – and watch how he joyfully embraced every new thing. He liked his toys but even more he loved playing with simple things like string and Scotch tape.

There was only one play thing he ever rejected. I once tried giving him a coloring book. He looked at it and then said with disdain, “I can draw my own pictures.” I think he was three. I never bought him a coloring book again but he went through reams of blank paper.

How can I bear losing that child of my heart and soul? He was so like me, so in me, woven into every fiber of my being. Today it is 20 months since he died but it seems like yesterday. It’s funny that such a silly song should bring the memories so vividly to the surface. Jess didn’t like music all that much, except for the occasional Mozart or Pink Floyd. He would certainly not have liked a jingle like “Puff.” He preferred silence, probably because he was trying so hard to organize and navigate the noise and information flooding his mind.

Better, right now, not to open cans of worms about the difficulty of finding good mental health care. Best to look forward with hope, knowing in my heart he has moved on to a different and better life and I will join him soon enough. All things will, eventually, be rectified, forgiven, resolved, and healed in the light of our Creator’s love. Best to learn as well as I can the painful lessons this life has to teach. And believe.√

Letter to my son on the 14-month anniversary of his death

October 7, 2017

Dear Jesse,

I ask the Lord to convey this letter to you and I believe in my spirit He will. It is 14 months since you left this earthly plane, and although the initial shock of losing you has softened a bit, I miss you more every day. I long to see your face and hear your voice. As time passes I realize more and more, in thousands of ways, the magnitude of our loss. I cling to the promises of Jesus and believe that joy will one day wash over my present grief like the ocean washes over a sand castle.

I am not sure that you follow events here on earth since you departed, but I suspect you do, with great interest. In fact, I have a strong feeling you are preparing to participate in events yet to come. I hesitate to write the things I perceive about you, because I plan to share this letter, and people might think I am crazy, meaning they will think my mind has become detached from reality, though in this post-modern era, few us fully grasp what “reality” is.

We say we are living in the post-modern era, which means various things — haha. The spirit of post-modernism says that nothing means the same thing to everyone. We can’t agree on what is true about anything, even what the term post-modern means. I think a big part of what we are experiencing is that the very nature of our world is changing because humanity is slowly losing its strict identification with the material world. I think this current iteration of the world, this ho-hum matter-oriented version of reality, is merely a phase.

This world began with the thought of God, pure Spirit, and gradually, over ages and ages, solidified to the kind of material density in which you lived your 23 years and 8 months. I sense deep within my spirit, that the world is slowly beginning to lose its grip on that density — the atoms or particles or whatever binds matter in place are beginning to loosen. And humanity will soon be entering a new era with new forms and new modes of thought and systems of operation. I imagine you have more information than I do about what is going on in the cosmic sense.

People will probably say I am experiencing “wishful” or “magical” thinking. I hate those kind of terms – because they seem like attempts to minimize the small stretches of our minds toward spiritual growth. Even when I did not experience so many spiritual perceptions I could never understand why so many people scoff at the very idea a world beyond mere matter. Perhaps they are afraid of being deceived so they equate a lowest-common denominator material existence with freedom from deception. If that is the case, their attempts at avoiding deception might be leading them straight into the greatest deception of all: that we are nothing but matter and this is all there is.

It’s sort of like John 12:25: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Maybe this means something like if you love your life only on the material level without longing for the spiritual dimension, you will not only lose the material level, you will lose the spiritual as well. But if you seek spiritual truth, you will not only gain spiritual life, but you will also not lose the material life. Or as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:

“Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

I have so far to go to even begin to grasp these things. I only have a sense that this seeking of the right things and not grasping after the treasures of the material world has a direct connection with the resurrection of the dead.

Anyway, about what I have seen concerning you Jesse – the images I cannot shake – are that shortly after you went to Heaven you were given a beautiful white horse. You named him Tesla. I have seen you walking around a big ring, training with your horse. Pippin is running around the ring at your feet. Later you are riding the horse; now you are dressed in a shining white tunic, white pants, and boots. Your hair is golden brown, long and curly, like it was when you were 18 — but maybe I see you that way because I so loved that hair. Next you are galloping through a forest of tall trees. Later still you are among a huge army of riders, all on white horses.

When I think of you Jesse I almost always see one of these images. As Aaron points out, you didn’t even like horses, and certainly never had any interest in them. I guess I like horses well enough but have never had any sort of strong interest in them. I never gave horses much thought, even though as a child my Dad used to take me to the horse races. If that did not awaken an interest in horses, I don’t suppose there was much of an interest to be awakened.

Could I have made these images up? It just doesn’t seem like I did. It seems to me they just come into my mind and I cannot change them to something else. My rational mind comes along and says, “No this is wrong. Jesse would not be riding a horse named Tesla. He would be driving a shiny beautiful Tesla car.” I try to imagine that but the car image will not stick. I cannot sustain the thought. It is just my own idea and does not attach to any deeper reality, like seeds sown and blown away by the wind. You on the white horse come galloping back into my mind in glory, and the image seems rooted in the soil of truth.

Love you forever,

Mom

 

 

 

 

A year without Jesse: Marking the day

Today is one year since the day we found out Jesse had transitioned to the next world. I do not like to say “died” because the word has so many connotations I do not believe: finality, lack of life, ugly things. He, what he is in truth and spirit, did not die. He transitioned, the same as all of us humans have done or will do. If there is one thing that has become more clear than ever this past year, it is that we are not our bodies.

None of this is to say that I am okay with Jesse’s early departure. I don’t know which state of grieving I am in — I wander back and forth in and out of all of those rooms — except the one labeled “acceptance.” I have not gone into that one. Not ready. And although I know Jesse is still the essence of Jesse, I am not okay that his body lies in a grave at Holly Lawn Cemetery next to the Farm Fresh grocery store. I would give my very life to see him walk and talk in that beloved body one more time.

Yesterday, August 7th, the date I believe he really departed, I visited that grave for the first time since the funeral. I just have not been able to go. I had to walk in the park adjacent to the cemetery for several days before I could bring myself to go. Closer and closer every day for a week. When I went I brought a bouquet of bright yellow daisies. I cleaned up some old flowers someone had brought and felt very little that I didn’t already feel. He was not there. Today Tom and I went again with more flowers. We talked about getting a nice head stone, what we want it to say. This is a conversation I never wanted to have and still don’t want to have. But his memorial is important and needs attention.

I remember 20 years ago when we were having our house built in Suffolk and I’d drive out from Norfolk and drive around and dream of raising our little boys in this town, discovering the places to go — how long would it take to get from our new house to Farm Fresh. I didn’t notice Holly Lawn cemetery next door to it. If I had noticed it I never would have dreamed that the little boy, whose every reaction to every new thing in his life I cherished, would lie in a grave in that cemetery by 2017. His body that is….

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August 1997: Moving into the new house
I remember the day we moved into our brand new empty house and four-year-old Jesse ran up and down the stairs and in circles around the family room with his toddler brother and said with wonder in his sweet voice, “Are we going to live here forever?” He did live there all the years of his life on earth except the last one, but lives forever in a place I hope to join him soon enough. Then it will be my turn to run around in joy and be amazed at where we will live forever.

Grief is the ocean and hope is the sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

We know so little about heaven, earth, and each other

What can I say about Jesse that hasn’t already been said? I can say that I am sure he has experienced more wonderful things since he left this life than he did between birth and that day 10 months ago when he left the earthly plane.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Corinthians 2:9 (New King James Version)

As long as I can sustain that belief, I can achieve some measure of peace and happiness, but the minute I let unbelief slip through a crack in the door of my heart, it sinks like a ball of lead.

I guess I knew my son as well as anybody, but I also know he was an iceberg, the kind of person who has massive depths but shows only a tiny portion of himself to the world. That is why he was able to continually surprise us. Just seven days before he died he showed me a new website for his campaign for mayor of Portsmouth. This was very surprising and I worried a little. He was only 23 and had no political experience and as far as I knew. In fact he had always been the most non-political person I had ever known – in the sense that he never played anyone to get what he wanted. If he wanted anything he stated his desire directly, and only after he had thoroughly thought it out. His yes was yes and his no was no.

Somewhere on that “Jesse Apple for Mayor” website he wrote a little post. I can’t find it now – much to my dismay – so I will try to remember it: “I know I am young and my chances of being elected are slim. But I want to run anyway. I have lived or worked in Portsmouth since the age of fifteen and have studied politics since long before that.”

Until I saw that post I did not know he had been studying politics since childhood. How I wish I could talk and laugh about the politics going on now. We talked and laughed about the crazy election last summer and then he didn’t live until election day. I know his observations would have been priceless.

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Abstract thought. By Jesse Apple.

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.