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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Looking at a new year without my son in it

I have always loved starting a new year. I love a new beginning, a fresh slate, and was always a resolution maker, even an enthusiastic resolution maker. This new year feels different. I am not so enthusiastic about making resolutions, at least in the old sense. I will try to explain that shortly. This year, 2017, is the first year in 24 years that has not had Jesse in it. He was born December 10th 1992 but was very much present with me the preceding nine months. I had a book called A Child is Born by Lennart Nillson that showed beautiful pictures of how a fetus looks at each stage of development and I studied those pictures, imagining the child within me. I felt enveloped in a bubble of magic throughout my whole pregnancy. Jesse was already there.

Before he was born I spent my whole life with a sense of not really being connected to the world. I felt like a free radical floating around, not clicked in to any culture or system. I got along okay, but felt like an alien trying to pass for a natural inhabitant of the earth. When Jesse was born I lost that sensation for the first time in my life. I was the mother of a child on this earth. I clicked in to the world and worked hard to help my son grow up as a healthy happy member of the human race. I had the underlying fear that he would inherit my alien tendencies and didn’t want him to feel that horrible sense of disconnection and not belonging.

I think maybe he did inherit some of my tendencies, but he was very intelligent and able to find coping mechanisms and was smart about adjusting to his circumstances. When he was young I worked with him on social skills and he was a willing student. I had a sense of what he had to work at and what came naturally to him. What came naturally was sharp intelligence, wonder, the desire to learn and experiment, and a wild urge to build and create. What did not come naturally was complying with arbitrary societal rules and interacting with others just to fit in. But he was willing to work at those things and became quite a friendly helpful person, finding much humor in the human race, and developed a real capacity to care for the wellbeing of others. He was never arrogant. He seemed to have a desire to be pleasing and did not like to stand out in a crowd.

When Jesse died, in a real sense I died too: the “me” who was invested in this earthly life died just as surely as my son died physically. The future I imagined I had in that life was swept away like a sand castle in the surf. How can I say that I am dead to this world, I ask myself, when I have my other beloved son and my husband still living? I know why. It is because Jesse’s death laid bare the truth that we will all die, that this life is a vapor, just as that verse in the Bible says. (“…For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” James 4:14 (NKJV))

I see now that I was floating in an infinite ocean on a twig, thinking the twig was the whole world and building castles and making complicated plans, all balanced on that twig. Jesse was one of my established anchors around which I built the plans and castles, and then one day that anchor got swept into the vastness of the universe, and my soul followed, looking for him, calling for him, reaching every sinew of mind toward him. Where was he now? What was he now?
swallow
Through prayer and meditation messages came to my mind and I experienced the blessing of knowing that God’s angels had taken him safely to his new home. I am still floating on that old twig, but now I see it for what it is. I cannot build castles on it anymore. All that I build from now on must be for that other place where Jesse is and where the rest of us are destined to join him. But I am shaky and uncertain as to how to do go about it. I suppose that whatever I build must still be built on the twig with the materials available on its tiny surface, yet knowing that it must also somehow prepare me for my departure from the twig. It is the puzzle of being in the kingdom of God and yet still operating in this world, perhaps what is meant by “in the world but not of the world.” Actually I cannot find those words in the Bible but I think John 2:15-17 (NKJV) captures the idea:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

I think this is why I am having so much trouble writing. I believe that writing is what I am called to do – but I have to redirect my purpose and focus. I am feeling my way to working in this new paradigm, this awareness that I am not working for anything in this world but for the promised world where my son has gone ahead of me. So my new year’s resolutions must be different this year. I still might have earthly goals, but they look insignificant in the new perspective of the vast universe I see myself in.

I cannot build my new life around getting my body in shape or publishing a story. Even if I want to publish a story or improve my health, the goal must somehow relate to the bigger picture. How does it bring me closer to God and His truth? How does it serve His purpose for me and those with whom I share my life? How does it glorify God and reflect his love? How does it bring his kingdom to earth as it is in Heaven? So far my only resolution this year is to contemplate how to live and write in such a way. For all I know that may be all I do for the rest of my earthly life, and unless the Spirit directs me to “do” something more, that is good enough for me.

Almost four months later: Some thank you’s are in order

It’s a banner day in our post-Jesse life. Today we paid the remaining 8500 bucks for the funeral. Many thanks to our families who helps us foot the pre-insurance payment costs and many thanks to my mother who had the prudence to take out a Gerber life insurance policies for each of her grandchildren when they came into the world. There is nothing worse than the loss of a child except maybe losing a child then not being able to afford the funeral and burial costs.

Thanks to my wonderful mother, who I am sure is now spending lots of quality time with her oldest grandson, we were at least spared the pain of going into debt to pay for the funeral. Gerber Life Insurance, by the way, is ultra cheap – a few bucks a month, and when it came to filing a claim, they were compassionate and responsive. And most importantly, they paid it.

I’d also like to say that R.W. Baker Funeral Home in downtown Suffolk was the best it could be under the horrible circumstances. Our funeral director Blake was compassionate, professional, and patient. He knew how to smooth every rough spot that was in his power to smooth. His suggestions were timely, wise, and not pushy. He dealt with the cemetery and medical examiner so that we did not have to make difficult phone calls. He directed complicated traffic at a very crowded funeral full of people who had never gone to a funeral before and somehow got the cars in line for the burial afterwards. The funeral home staff took pictures of all the flowers and cards and sent everything home to us in a nice package. Finally they were patient and understanding about collecting payment for services, even though we had delays due to autopsy results and insurance payment. I have never before fully appreciated the value of a skilled funeral director. I am not anxious to employ their services any time soon, but I would not choose anyone else if it ever, God forbid, became necessary.

While I am thanking people, I should say how much we appreciated the presence and compassion of our pastor at large, Skip Irby. His visits, along with his wife Chris, were bright spots during a dark time and the funeral service he led was beautiful. The beauty of the service was largely due to the music played by our friend and organist extraordinaire, Dean Kershaw. The ladies of West End put together a lovely reception after the burial, something that would have been entirely out of my power to do, in the state I was in that week.

The magnitude of the Jesse’s loss was at least partly put into balance by the beautiful send-off we were able to give him, which was made possible by friends, family, wonderful professionals, West End Baptist Church, and my Mom – still helping us five years after her own passing. I have heard Jesse’s voice in my heart saying that he watched the funeral and was amazed. He said it was really nice.

the-day-after-funeral
I don’t have a single photo the day of the funeral. However, the day after, August 14th, all my travelling family members went out to breakfast at Egg Bistro and then to a nearby park were Aaron took this photo. How can we look so happy? Well even in the saddest of occasions it’s good to see family that rarely gets together. The worst time for me came the following week.

I should also confess that out of all the flowers and the piles of cards we received, I have only sent a few thank you notes. I intended thank everybody and I hope to still do that. Hopefully I have not missed the deadline. It’s just that every card I write is an emotionally intense experience and more than I could handle in the past months. My heart is calming  down – trying to get used to the intolerable idea of my son being dead. I had been wearing a Fitbit when Jesse died so I could see that my heart rate shot up ten or 12 beats per minute that day and didn’t come back down. The Fitbit broke so I have not checked it in the last week or so.

I am working on getting to an island of peace based on the faith I have and the assurance I have received that Jesse really is in a joyful exciting place with Our Savior, and not just sitting on a puffy cloud playing a harp. Jesse would be miserable if he had to play a harp for an hour let alone eternity.

Besides all the cards and flowers there were a few blessed friends and neighbors who really went the extra mile to call, visit, and pray with us. My wonderful neighbor up the street Tamra Van Dorn was getting ready for another busy school year at Suffolk Christian School where she is the head administrator and also getting her youngest daughter ready to leave home for college. And yet she found time to come and just sit and talk several times. There is a special place in heaven for friends who go the extra mile in the hardest times.

Something I have learned through loss

I have learned a lot through the experience of losing my son: mostly good, spiritually hopeful things. But good and hopeful or not, I would just as soon lived my entire life without learning a single thing if only I could have lived it with Jesse here with me.

One thing I have learned is what Hell is. Hell is separation from who you love. Okay I was sort of told that way back in Catholic School. They taught that Hell was the misery of being separated eternally from God who is Love personified. Those in Hell understand what that love is and are forever condemned to long and hunger for it with no chance of satisfaction. How a God who is pure love can allow people to suffer eternally I can never understand; but losing Jesse proved to me that separation from love is indeed the definition of Hell.

How, someone might ask, is learning about Hell a good and hopeful thing? Because for one thing, learning anything true is good because it advances you on the path toward what is good and eternal. By feeling the pain of separation, you gain a deeper understanding of what love is, and in my opinion, learning what love is and how to truly do it, is the whole reason we are here.

Love is eternal. You can’t get rid of it. To be separated from one you love by such a gulf as death is to taste Hell. I somehow know the love of God would swallow up my love for Jesse like the ocean swallows a dew drop or the full sun outshines a sequin. And if that is so, then the love of God must be a mighty thing indeed! Because my love for Jesse drowns my mind and burns my heart as much as my body and soul can take. To to be separated form him is as much misery as I can handle and yet live.

At times I wonder that I do not just drop dead from the pain. Then my little Hell would end and I would not, presumably, end up in Big Hell because, though I am far from perfect, I have thrown myself at the feet of Christ and told him I repent of anything he thinks is sinful. If I know something I did, said, or thought is sinful I having no problem with confessing it; but often I really don’t know if something is an actual sin. What about feeling resentful toward petty bureaucrats who seem to exist for the sole purpose of adding petty miseries to people’s already difficult lives? Is that kind of resentment a sin? Yeah probably. I am willing to err on the side of caution.

I have tasted a slice Hell and do not want to experience the real thing. Maybe the real thing does not exist or maybe it does exist but is not as we picture it. Some theology says that as God is eternal love all souls must eventually be saved. However since Jesus seems to indicate in the Gospels that there is a place of outer darkness where there is crying and gnashing of teeth, I am just going to go ahead and take His word for it. I don’t want to incur the slightest risk of eternal separation from God or Jesse or anyone else I am connected to by the golden thread of love.

The golden thread cannot be snapped but it can be painfully stretched and left gasping for breath. The oxygen of love is the face and presence of the loved one. Victor Hugo, one of my favorites who I hope to meet in the next life, wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I always thought that quote was beautiful but once I didn’t really understand how that worked. I understand it better now.

img_2732
Separated and yet moving toward reunion. Blue Ridge sunset.