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.

0D2630C6-8A13-4A90-84D8-5293A04D4D09

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.

AC41DA08-7760-4EFA-A7B9-D0EE6544D9A7
Enter a caption
Advertisements

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.√

Beginning a new year and a some thoughts about happiness

As the candle wick of 2017 burns down to its last ember, I contemplate the past year. It is Friday, December 29th. A few hours ago Tom and I sat in a the small office of a Mom & Pop outfit called Suffolk Monument Works filling out the paperwork and writing the check for a tombstone for Jesse’s grave. It will take two to three months to get delivered (!) but will be a beautiful rose marble stone with a matching vase for flowers. It will say:

Jesse Thomas Apple
Beloved Son and Brother
December 10, 1992 – August 8, 2016
Artist ~ Scientist

And it will have the Christian fish symbol (or ichthys) that he had tattooed on his chest on his 18th birthday.

4B0E416E-8446-428F-A521-B2FF3D2FBEDC

I feel a bit out of sorts from the experience of purchasing a tombstone for my child; yet I think, all in all, 2017 was a good year — at least as good as my first full year since 1992 without Jesse in it can be. I can’t feel unambiguously good about anything in this world. Goodness in this present world is never pure light; it’s more like a flashlight in the darkness, but I am grateful for that little light nonetheless. This sense of light in darkness is really only a clearer understanding of something I have felt all my life.

As long as I can remember I have had this thought at the back of my mind, that happiness is not quite real, and if it is real, then it is sort of heartless. Worldly happiness is like being temporarily absorbed by or acting in a movie or a play. I might be at a festival or laughing at a dinner table full of friends and family or I might be dancing at a Christmas party and an image will flash in my mind of shivering people lined up in front of a gas chamber. “That happened,” I think, “to humans just like me — and people are suffering right now.”

I have always felt that happiness is like a bubble, more or less insulated by walls of willful ignorance or forgetfulness or simply disguise. And yet I entered that bubble quite willingly. I wanted to be happy. I think we are meant to desire happiness. Perhaps these mental bubbles are part of God’s provision — as essential to human existence in this world as air and water. Or skin.

There is an allegory by C.S. Lewis I read long ago called The Pilgrim’s Regress, a play on the John Bunyan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the story, the hero encounters a community of miserable people huddled in dark caves. They can see each other’s insides and are full of despair and disgust by the “truth” about what our bodies actually are. The hero is almost sucked in by their reason of despair when he realizes that, in fact, we have skin. The fact is we do not generally need to view or even think about the ugliness of our insides because God has made us with beautiful and pleasing exteriors. What we see and experience with the capacity of our ordinary human senses — that is the level of truth in which we are made to live and thrive.

And yet humans cannot seem to stop at the natural and ordinary. We have this tendency to take a good thing too far, to take honest human pleasure and expand it until the truth fibers are so stretched and distorted that its inherent ability to provide pleasure is destroyed. A glass of wine is nice but when you expand the glass of wine into full-blown alcoholism the simple pleasure evaporates, replaced by despair. We are allowed and encouraged to be happy but we let it go too far. We turn happiness into a refusal to acknowledge that suffering has anything to do with us, to actively avoid thinking or caring about anything outside our bubble, to allow ourselves to become callous and functionally heartless.

I am not sure how we are supposed to draw the lines, when we open and shut the doors of our hearts, when to cast our pearls and when to preserve them. I suspect that coming to terms with decisions like these is a huge part of growing as human souls. If we find that sweet narrow path to the kingdom, that perfect balance, we grow and thrive. A little to one side and our hearts freeze and die; a little to the other and we drown in the world’s heartbreak and sorrow. However, to drown in heartbreak is better than to die with a cold calcified heart. So if we must err, we kind of know in which direction to lean. Hint: The right choice is almost always the more difficult one.

The day Jesse died my bubble burst completely and in those first months I stood uninsulated in the raw wind and fire of suffering. Perhaps some people would have sought drugs to help with the emotional pain. I knew in my heart that would be a mistake for me. There was a point in the week after the funeral when I fully understood what hell feels like. My body was in great pain and suddenly burst into the feeling of being on fire, and I don’t mean in any sort of romantic or metaphorical sense. No — this was intensely painful, like being on fire but not physically burning.

Fortunately I thought to call out to the Lord Jesus and He came quickly and tamped down the flames. Then He comforted me with a vision of Jesse with Him in a garden. In that vision Jesse looked a bit contrite, but safe and protected and I had the sense he was okay. Later I received knowledge in visions that he had adjusted to his new life and is happy.

So all through 2017 I have slowly, carefully built a fragile new membrane of happiness. The walls of my new bubble will always be thin. I wouldn’t have them any other way. They are no longer built to block out suffering but rather to stay close to the spiritual world where Jesse lives so that I can better prepare to enter there when my turn comes. I have a sharper awareness that this life is fleeting and then we continue our soul’s journey in a different kind of existence, in a world where the light of happiness is full and permanent.

After Jesse died, I told God I was finished and He could take me home now. He said “Not quite.” The message I “hear” is that I should think, learn, and write and then think, learn, and write some more. By doing this with an attitude of patience, love and forgiveness, I am supposed to develop into a better human soul. God does not seem to expect much from me, but what He expects, He really expects.

With these small things in mind I resolve to write more regularly in 2018, starting with my neglected blogs. This piece is here on Jesse’s blog because it has so much to do with him and because he is so much on my mind. This year I want to write much more for my current events/politics/philosophy blog, which is called “isaythiswithlove.wordpress.com”. And I have an idea for anew “epistolary” blog to promote the lost art of letter writing. Who knows. It may turn out to be the last attempt to promote letter writing in human history.

 

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….

IMG_2430
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.

Remembering conversations with Jesse on an important anniversary

Today I found out one of my close co-workers, a man I worked with for eight years, passed away this past Friday. I should say I officially found out. I already sort of knew. Fred was in the ICU Friday morning and was being removed from life support. As I worked on the computer in my living room on Friday afternoon, I suddenly felt that buzz in the air that I have learned to recognize as a visit from the recently departed, perhaps saying good-bye. I felt that buzz the day Jesse died but I did not know at the time he had died and did not recognize the phenomenon for what it was. I wonder – has anyone else had this experience?

I wanted to be sure to write something today because today is the one-year anniversary of the last time I saw Jesse on this earth, July 31, 2016. It was a rainy Sunday with the kind of torrential summer downpours we often get around here, and he was supposed to have come for dinner but had overslept and I had been having a horrible premonitions all day and was worried sick about him and then he came over around 10 pm and we had a long and lovely conversation.

Talking with Jesse was always a delight to me. It was sometimes hard to get him started but once he started talking he always surprised you with the depth and originality of his thoughts and his unique perspective on things. He always knew more about the subject than you realized he knew. And he was so dry and funny! How I miss our conversations and wish I could hear his take on all the crazy current events. It hardly matters what his take would be — the joy would be to hear his voice expressing his unique opinion. The only thing about his opinion I ever cared about was that it was his opinion.

The year Jesse was four years old I kept a journal and then typed all the journal entries into a little homemade book called “Being Four.” I found that journal a couple months after he died. Here are a couple of conversations recorded that year. The first one devastated me when I first found it. It occurred around January 14, 1997. The second one is dated January 31st.

IMG_2351

IMG_2350

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.

clouds
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.

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.